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New deal for education moves one step closer

Tony Blair said that education lay at the heart of his Government. Now, as two new pieces of legislation begin their journeys through Parliament, it is time to see what will come of his vision.

The School Standards and Framework Bill establishes a new relationship between central and local government in the raising of standards in schools. It abolishes grant-maintained schools and sets up the new categories of foundation, community and voluntary school. Education authorities are given a duty to promote high standards in schools, to cut class sizes for infants and provide nursery education.

The Secretary of State can suspend the powers of local authorities if he is not satisfied with their performance and he can close failing schools, re-opening them under the Fresh Start scheme.

The Bill establishes education action zones in deprived areas where innovation will be encouraged, the national curriculum can be suspended and teachers will be eligible for more money.

It sets up the mechanism for parental ballots to abolish grammar schools,allows partial selection - where it exists - to remain and allows specialist schools to select up to 10 per cent of pupils by aptitude.

The Teaching and Higher Education Bill is a slimmer volume. It establishes a general teaching council, a probationary year for new teachers and a compulsory qualification for heads. It gives the Office of Standards in Education the power to inspect teacher-training institutions and gives young people the right to paid time off work to study or train.

More controversially, the Bill introduces tuition fees in higher education and a new student loan scheme and prevents universities charging students top-up fees.

Both Bills are essentially enabling and it will be the regulation s set down by David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, that will establish the details. However, they represent a far-reaching reform of the education system.

Stephen Dorrell, Conservative education spokesman and Don Foster, Liberal Democrat spokesman, criticised the increase in centralisation and the extent to which the Secretary of State can intervene.

But Estelle Morris, education minister, said: "Schools doing well should be left alone, but while a local education authority will need to encourage heads and governors to do even better, it will expect to focus its attentions on schools running into difficulties."

The teacher unions have given the Bills a guarded welcome, fearing the new measures will increase bureaucracy and workload for teachers. They are concerned about the removal of national pay and conditions in education action zones. There is also opposition to the new categories of school.

"The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers holds its head in despair at further structural reforms to the education service," said Nigel de Gruchy, its general secretary.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, sees scope for tension between LEAs and all schools, not just the former GM sector.

The School Standards and Framework Bill receives its second reading in the House of Commons on December 22 and both will be in committee during the new year.

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