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Now Labour must win over heads

Ministers have a mountain to climb today as they try to get secondary leaders' backing for their latestreforms. Michael Shaw reports.

The Government may have won the first vote in Parliament on its controversial education Bill, but today it must win over the people who will make the reforms happen - headteachers.

Jacqui Smith, schools minister, will face tough questions today from headteachers at the Association of School and College Leaders annual conference in Birmingham.

ASCL members heckled Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, when she spoke to them last year after she had rejected Sir Mike Tomlinson's plans to streamline exams.

Since then ASCL, formerly the Secondary Heads Association, has been uncharacteristically critical of the Government's plans to reform education, particularly the Bill's proposals to shut failing schools within a year and set up self-governing trust schools.

Sue Kirkham, ASCL president, is due to say today that the Government "lacks a clear and consistent policy on education" and ask whether ministers have ever met 18-year-old students.

Mrs Kirkham will say the new Bill has made headteachers even more confused about whether they should be competing or collaborating with other schools, and whether they should be acting independently or working with local authorities.

"It reminds me of one of those annoying jigsaw puzzles which has two pictures and double-sided pieces," she said.

"The puzzle-solver can usually decide which picture to complete. The educational leader, on the other hand, has to keep changing from one picture to the other, wasting time and energy, according to the whim of policy direction."

Mrs Kirkham is also due to call for headteachers to have an "agreed holiday entitlement", a guaranteed period when they must take a break to stop them spending too many hours in school outside of term-time.

Her comments follow a book published this week by ASCL which recommends that headteachers should be granted an automatic right to a sabbatical after five years.

The book, Leadership that Lasts, was written by Robert Hill, a former private secretary to Tony Blair and special adviser to Charles Clarke, when he was education secretary.

Mr Hill also put forward a proposal which would satisfy Labour rebels and others who fear that the trust schools proposed in the education Bill will be detrimental to other schools.

He said that a legally-binding duty to collaborate with other schools should be written into trust schools' deeds. "Working with others should be part of their raison d'etre," he said.

A poll of 505 ASCL members has indicated strong opposition to much of the Bill except for its proposals to improve discipline.

Just 5 per cent of headteachers felt their schools would definitely join trusts, although 21 per cent said it was a possibility.

Nearly nine out of 10 felt it was unreasonable to give failing schools only a year to turn themselves around. Most thought the Bill would be unhelpful to admissions and would not increase parental involvement.

Bill Gould, head of Hellesdon high school in Norfolk, said: "It is yet another badly thought-out ragbag of media sound-bites that does nothing to address the real issues in education."

The Bill will be far from the only concern at the conference. Heads have been busy over the past two terms restructuring staff pay and conditions to take into account the new teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) points.

But they say that an even tougher challenge has been carrying out new self-evaluation in preparation for visits by Ofsted and by new school improvement partners - "critical friends", who are usually other headteachers.

Other speakers at this year's conference include Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, and Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leadership.

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