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Take initiative and back off

Absence of DFES minder allows standards head to speak out

THE new head of a key government unit charged with raising standards this week criticised civil servants for the way they bombard schools with an endless stream of initiatives.

Professor David Hopkins accused officials at the Department for Education and Skills of "throwing well-intended policies at schools in the most ignorant way".

The recently-appointed director of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit told a London conference on school improvement that he was only able to speak out because he was not with a DFES minder.

Professor Hopkins, who is in charge of 350 staff at the SEU, has been in the post for less than three months. The former professor of education at Nottingham University is responsible for school standards and improvement and for the Government's diversity agenda.

He told the Capita-organised conference: "Informed prescription is no longer acceptable in a mature profession. It seems now someone thinks of a policy and parachutes it into a school. We are only going to create better policies if we learn from the profession."

He urged a reduction in the stream of initiatives and said: "We need to try to cut the number of initiatives and go for a smaller number with greater leverage."

A senior DFESsource responded that cutting down on unnecessary bureaucracy and paperwork was already an important part of the Government's policy of lightening teachers' burden.

The Government's central control over education will also come under fire from peers. Opposition peers are threatening to inflict a series of embarrassing defeats on the Government over its education Bill because they believe it will give too much power to ministers and not enough freedom to schools.

An alliance of Conservative, Liberal Democrat and cross-bench peers is due to vote against controversial plans to allow schools to form companies and will attempt to weaken ministers' control over which schools will benefit from deregulation.

But Lib Dems and Labour opponents of faith schools have admitted defeat in their efforts to stop new church schools being created.

However, proposals to allow successful schools to set their own curriculum and teachers' pay and conditions are under threat because peers are concerned that only a minority will benefit.

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said: "We believe the Government can be defeated in several areas which are central to the Bill."

A source close to the Education Secretary Estelle Morris said the Government was "confident" that it would win peers' support when the Bill reaches the report stage in the Lords next month. There are signs, however, that it is preparing to make concessions.

Ministers have promised to look at whether more than one in 10 schools could be given so-called earned autonomy. If the Government is to avoid a series of damaging defeats it will need the support of a majority of cross-benchers.

This week, Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith launched a major policy offensive to convince voters that giving greater freedom to schools is the best way to tackle underachievement.

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