Let's set schools free

Shadow education secretary Theresa May on the Conservatives' vision of self-governing schools in control of their own budgets and admissions policy

BENJAMIN Disraeli's words, spoken in the House of Commons in 1874, that "upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends" continue to ring true today. As we face the challenge of an increasingly knowledge-based society, our future depends on ensuring that all children have the education that is right for them and are able to develop their full potential. Achieving that requires high expectations and raised aspirations for all.

The New Labour Government was elected in 1997 promising "things can only get better". Yet bureaucracy has increased and with it stress on teachers to the point where they are now leaving the profession in droves, where heads are desperate to find people to fill their vacancies and where more than 50 per cent of teachers expect to leave over the next 10 years.

It is New Labour that abolished grant-maintained status, a system which enabled schools to raise standards by choosing how to spend their budget rather than being dictated to by the local authority. It is New Labour that has led the attack on grammar schools, which over the years have offered opportunity irrespective of family means or background. It is New Labour that abolished the Assisted Places Scheme. And it is New Labour that is forcing schools to keep disruptive pupils in class at risk of a fine and regardless of the impact on the teachers or other pupils.

All this amounts to an attack on excellence dressed up as an attack on elitism and social exclusion.

Far from working for the many not the few, the Government's targets on reducing exclusions provide a good example of the education of the many being disrupted by the behaviour of the few. What is most noticeable in the Government's policies is the way they have centralised, interfered in what goes on in schools and introduced more and more bureaucracy and red tape.

We see this so well in the Standards Fund set up by Education Secretary David Blunkett. Each year, more money has been held back in Whitehall to be distributed according to the Government's priorities, not schools' priorities.

Underlying this centralisation and interference is their reluctance to trust the professionals. In contrast our Conservative policies for schools are based on the need to trust teachers and set schools free. We have developed these policies after listening to teachers, parents and pupils. On a recent visit to a school in Northamptonshire it was not only the staff who complained about the problems surrounding the Government's policy to reuce exclusions but also pupils, who told me they were fed up with having their lessons disrupted by other pupils.

Last week, William Hague and I launched a set of policies aimed at addressing the very real problems faced by teachers in today's classrooms. As well as abolishing targets for cutting exclusions, we will also abolish the absurd financial penalties that schools face when they exclude a pupil.

Heads will have the power to exclude and set up progress centres which will be specialist high-quality centres which will crucially be outside schools. These centres will enable children at risk of exclusion to participate in a structured programme with full involvement from parents, teachers and support staff who will work with children who have been excluded to provide an education suited to their needs.

Having listened to teachers' representatives we know that one of the problems that must be addressed is the issue of appeal panels which have the ability to force schools to take excluded pupils back. The appeal panel system is adding to the pressures already faced by teachers and we are committed to getting rid of it.

We will also give heads and teachers the ability to decide how to spend all their budget in the best interests of their pupils. We will make every school a self-governing free school. Such schools will get all of their budget direct. They will have the power to make decisions that benefit the school and its pupils rather than having to wait for lengthy procedures and spend time putting together bids for money.

Free schools will control their own destiny. They will be free to decide their admissions policy, to develop their own ethos or specialism and will have greater freedom over the curriculum outside a core national curriculum. This will encourage greater diversity and individuality and means parents can trust the teachers and the headteacher to deliver their child's education, without Whitehall interference.

We will also get rid of much of the bureaucracy that bedevils schools today. Teachers will be free to get on with the job of teaching and exercise their professional judgment. This will help to boost the morale of a profession fed up with constant interference. Teachers are a school's most important resource. Free schools will be free to reward good teachers as they think fit, and not be constrained by a bureaucratic system imposed by Whitehall.

We need to set the schools free, give heads the freedom to manage and lead, trust the teachers and let them get on with teaching and by doing this I believe we will raise standards in education and truly develop the potential of all children.

Leader, 18

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