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MPs prepare to battle over moral high ground

Labour will be competing with the Government for the moral high ground during the passage of this autumn's Education Bill with amendments that toughen up measures intended to ensure parents accept greater responsibility for their children's behaviour.

The Bill gives schools new powers to refuse to admit pupils in cases where their parents refuse to sign an agreement setting out their acceptance of rules on issues such as homework and attendance. Labour is expected to table amendments requiring all schools to insist that parents sign such documents.

While both Labour and Conservatives view the imposition of home-school partnership agreements as a populist move, such documents are already being opposed by parents' groups. Local education authorities are sceptical about their effectiveness in dealing with troublesome pupils.

The measures on discipline are central to the Government's strategy for dealing with public concern over the spate of cases of schools being disrupted by teachers refusing to teach disruptive pupils. Labour is expected to accept much of the content of the Bill, but it will attempt to block moves to allow schools greater freedom to select pupils. At the second reading on Monday, Labour will make clear its opposition to clauses that give new powers to the Education and Employment Secretary to overrule local education authorities not prepared to allow a school to become a grammar.

Specialist schools are to be given the right to appeal to the Education Secretary where their local authorities oppose moves to introduce partial selection.

The Bill provides for grant-maintained schools to select up to 50 per cent of their intake without having to apply for central Government permission; specialist schools will be able to select up to 30 per cent. The bulk of comprehensives will be limited to 20 per cent selection and they will only be able to go ahead with the permission of their local education authorities.

However, all school governing bodies are to be required to consider annually introducing or extending selective admission arrangements and report their decisions in the annual report.

Local authorities are concerned at measures in the Bill that allow grant-maintained secondary schools to expand by up to 50 per cent without any requirement that they should be consulted. Grant-maintained schools which wish to open a nursery or sixth form will only be required to notify LEAs.

The Government's hopes for new grammar schools centre on the clause that allows the Funding Agency for Schools, which currently only has a remit in areas where there are grant-maintained schools, to establish new schools in any part of the country. In putting proposals to the Education Secretary, the funding agency will be required to have regard to "the desirability of increasing diversity and opportunities for choice in education."

Much of the Bill, however, is uncontentious. It brings together the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Other clauses introduce baseline assessment for five-year-olds in primary schools and allow the Education Secretary to require schools to set targets for improvement.

The last parliamentary session before the election is expected to be marked by exchanges aimed at influencing the electorate. At the committee stage of the Education Bill, due to start at the beginning of next month, Eric Forth, minister of state, will be ranged against Peter Kilfoyle, a senior member of Labour's education team.

Ministers are expected to take the opportunity to embarrass Labour over the choice by Harriet Harman of a grant-maintained grammar school for her son.

Pressure on time may mean the Bill's stages in the Lords are curtailed.

With the Government's majority slipping away, there may have to be an agreement early next year to limit the final legislation to the clauses accepted by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

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