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New Bill accused of being 'Stalinist'

Attacked for 'centralising tendencies', the education reforms face a tough ride in the Lords. Warwick Mansell reports

THE Education Bill returns to the House of Lords next week with ministers facing accusations that it gives "Stalinist" powers to the Government.

Labour's plans to encourage more faith-based schools dominated argument during the Bill's two-month passage through the Commons. But the debates in the Lords, which begin on Monday, promise to be more wide-ranging and will focus on opposition concerns about the legislation's centralising powers.

The Bill aims to give more freedoms to schools. Controversially, all will be able to apply to opt out of any piece of education legislation. About 10 per cent will also be given extra freedoms in two specific areas: pay and conditions and the curriculum. However, in both cases, the Secretary of State will decide who benefits.

Other provisions in the Bill include allowing schools to set up their own companies and form federations under one governing body. It also proposes reserve powers to allow ministers to set councils' education budgets.

Baroness Sharp, the Liberal Democrats' education spokeswoman in the Lords, this week said the developments left the Department for Education and Skills open to comparisons with Gosplan, the Soviet planning ministry.

"Why should it be left to the Secretary of State to decide who can be allowed to innovate and who should not be?" she said. The problem here is the same one that they had in the Soviet Union, when Gosplan told you that you must innovate. People will be less inclined to innovate if they feel they have to go to the Secretary of State for permission first."

The criticisms are the latest in a series of attacks on the perceived centralising tendencies of the Bill.

During debate in the Commons, the Conservatives said it gave future education secretaries the freedom to introduce any policy they chose, including charging for state education.

Teacher unions have been equally scathing. The National Association of Head Teachers claimed that freedom to innovate was no "freedom at all" if it was up to ministers to decide who has that freedom.

Meanwhile, former Labour deputy leader Lord Hattersley is to attack the plans for more faith schools and criticise the Bill as a covert abandonment of comprehensive education.

The Commons debates saw a row over the lack of time for the Bill, with opposition parties claiming that the Government had sped through large areas of the legislation without any detailed scrutiny in committee.

This may prove to be less of a problem in the Lords, where the committee stage, which is likely to begin after Easter, runs until all the clauses have been debated.

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