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Ministers fear Bill will hit the buffers

Moves to increase selection face delays, reports Frances Rafferty. Government ministers privately fear they will not be able to get the Education Bill planned for the autumn on the statute book before the general election.

In Bournemouth this week they were talking up plans set out in a recent White Paper to permit grant-maintained schools to select up to 50 per cent of their pupils. Under the proposals, specialist schools would be able to select up to 30 per cent of pupils and local authority schools up to 20 per cent.

The proposals would also allow GM schools to set up nurseries and sixth forms without Government approval. But in private ministers have expressed concern that the Opposition, which will fiercely oppose the increase in selection, could delay its passage even if the general election were left to its last possible date in May.

According to the first draft of the Bill, seen by The TES, the Government has already jettisoned parts of the White Paper, for example increasing delegation to local authority schools to 95 per cent which would include milk and meals and allow GM schools to take on home-to-school transport, to make its passage easier. The whips say if it has a smooth run there is time to get it through by Spring, but other players say the Bill, which is long and in parts controversial, could get bogged down.

In the event of it hitting the buffers just before an election, the party whips will do deals and agree to pass through the parts of the Bill where there is cross-party consensus. In theory an uncontested Bill could become an Act within 24 hours.

The Labour party, in principle, could support a large section of the Bill, for example its measures on discipline which include giving schools the power to give pupils detention without parents' consent, increasing the 15-day exclusion to 45 days, home-school contracts, introducing baseline assessments for five-year-olds, schools setting targets for improving performance, the merger of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and proposals to improve careers education.

However, the Labour party says it has no intention of co-operating with the Government and although Labour's education team may prefer to be ingratiating themselves with constituents or supporting colleagues in marginals, they will be prepared to do battle, clause by clause, in committee.

As the responses to the White Paper show, the last of which arrived at the Department for Education and Employment this week to meet the deadline, the main contentious issues are measures to increase selection and the extension of GM school powers.

Supporters of the GM movement are disappointed that the Bill does not go far enough. As one representative from Wolverhampton said in a fringe meeting to Lord Henley, who will be nursing the Bill through the House of Lords: "Lots of teachers and parents are anti-GM and local authorities have too much influence on the matter. The only way to succeed is to have a strong headmaster who will drive it through. It should be made compulsory."

Lord Henley was unable to oblige - he said he was certain that after the election (and a Tory victory) many more schools would join the 1,100 who had taken the plunge. According to Pauline Latham, chair of the Standing Advisory Committee for Grant Maintained Schools, who has an optimistic view on the passage of the Bill, many GM heads are geared to setting up nurseries and sixth forms and there is also enthusiasm for starting pupil referral units as proposed in the Bill.

She said: "The problem of discipline has been a major concern of many delegates here and schools are also concerned about exclusions. Many LEAs have failed to provide PRUs and if GM schools can set them up, these pupils can be properly catered for."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers in its response to the White Paper takes issue with the proposed measure to introduce "independent observers" to oversee GM ballots. "Implementation of the Government's proposal raises an important constitutional issue with dangerous implications which run far beyond the decision over whether any particular school should go GM or not," it says.

The ATL joins other teacher unions in opposing further extension of GM powers and claiming they would be destabilising.

"Consultation without reference to external arbitration is meaningless. Decision-making by a self-interested groups without regard to the wishes of the whole community is profoundly undemocratic," says the Secondary Heads Association's response. "SHA does not understand why deregulation should only be available to GM schools. If it is regarded as a good thing, then surely all should benefit from it."

The unions and local authority associations will also oppose the measures promoting new grammar schools, even the GM sector says there is little enthusiasm for increased selection. Many Conservatives fear the Bill will become a lame duck. They seem to be gloomily resigned to a Labour government reversing the changes.

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