'Give power back to schools'

Lib Dems call for Freedom Act that would devolve funding and put curriculum `in the shredder'

An "education Freedom Act" that would tear up most of the national curriculum, abolish national tests for 14-year-olds and "give power back to schools" was proposed by the Liberal Democrats this week.

David Laws, the party's education spokesman, told its conference in Bournemouth that schools had been "force-fed" 14 education bills since 1997. The only legislation now needed was an Act to deal with the "hideous over-centralisation of the English education system", he said.

But serious questions emerged over the party's "free schools" policy, aimed at allowing parents and other groups to set up their own independent state-funded schools, as it was revealed they would have to pay the building costs.

"We cannot run our schools system where you are simply giving a blank cheque for new capital for anyone who wants to open a school," Mr Laws told The TES. "That would be potty. If the local authority is not actually inviting tenders for a new school, then the provider would have to find the capital side of it themselves."

Asked if there were many parents' groups with enough money to buy or build a state school, Mr Laws said he thought some might want to step in where local schools were threatened with closure. But even then it should be up to a local authority to decide whether to provide a building, he said.

How "free schools" will differ from existing types of state-funded school in their freedom remains unclear. The party's education policy will not be finalised until next spring, but the push for more choice and diversity in schools is already causing internal division.

Nick Clegg, the party leader who has not ruled out sending his children to private school, says he wants to stop the middle classes deserting state schools. But Paul Holmes MP, a former teacher and member of the Commons' education select committee, told a fringe meeting that policies such as the "free schools" would mean more backdoor selection and social segregation. They were not appropriate for most of the country, he said.

He added: "It is based on London, London, London, and what the chattering classes and journalists are talking about."

Mr Clegg admitted the party's pupil premium, which would see an extra pound;2.5 billion pumped into state schools, would be hard to sell to the middle classes.

The cash would be attached to some one million pupils eligible for free school meals, and could double to pound;5bn to take in the 25 per cent most disadvantaged, Mr Laws said this week. It would mean they would be funded at nearly independent sector levels, giving state schools a big incentive to admit them.

Mr Laws said his Education Freedom Act would ensure that all state schools would have the same freedoms enjoyed by academies, which would remain independent but be overseen by local authorities.

Cash would be further devolved to town halls and then schools, and the 635 pages of the national curriculum would "go in the shredder" to be replaced by just 21.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "School leaders would welcome the greater autonomy, but this would have to be within the culture of collaboration."

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