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Heads to be freed to improve results

As standards in urban areas continue to rise, ministers are set to relax their grip on schools. Jon Slater reports

Schools need to be freed from central control if record improvements in inner-city education are to be sustained, David Miliband, schools standards minister said this week.

Greater trust should be placed in the professionalism of teachers who have ensured that for the first time standards in urban areas are rising faster than the national average, he told a conference in Birmingham.

Since 1997, the percentage of students aged 15 or 16 achieving five good grades at GCSE has risen by 8 percentage points nationally. This compares to rises of 11 per cent in London, 13 per cent in Manchester and 14 per cent in Birmingham.

Increasing schools' freedom will a key feature of the Department for Education and Skills' five-year plan to be published next month.

Mr Miliband was speaking on Wednesday, a day after he and chief inspector David Bell, launched a new relationship with schools.

A short notice, light-touch inspection regime will place a greater emphasis on schools' self- evaluation. Heads will no longer be bombarded with paperwork from ministers but will only be sent documents they order.

School improvement partners will help heads raise standards and act as a broker in their relationship with both the DfES and education authorities.

And, as The TES revealed last week, a single school improvement grant will cut the number of funding streams heads have to cope with. Mr Miliband promised the changes will rid schools of the "culture where many people are always looking upwards for permission to do things."

Previous initiatives such as the national literacy and numeracy strategies and to a lesser extent, the key stage 3 strategy, have set out what schools must do to raise standards. A change of tack to a less hands-on approach has been prompted by ministers' failure to maintain the improvement in 11-year-olds' test results and the fact that by their own admission more than half of school targets will not be met.

Many of the proposals announced this week have been developed in partnership with those unions signed up to the workforce agreement and the implementation review unit.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, described the announcement of the new relationship envisaged between schools and government as "a great day for schools".

While most teachers' organisations have welcomed the changes, the anti-workforce agreement National Union of Teachers argued that the reforms did not go far enough. There are also concerns about whether primary schools will reap the same benefits as their secondary neighbours.

David Hart, National Association of Head Teachers general secretary, questioned whether sufficient high-quality school improvement partners can be recruited to meet the needs of all 17,000 primaries. "We cannot afford to create first and second class citizens with primary as second class," he said.

Much will depend on how the changes are implemented.

Chris Nicholls, secondary head and chair of the review unit, said: "We could get it wrong. Each of these activities could end up leading to more workload."

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