A Bill to be welcomed

12th December 1997 at 00:00
So now we can see the shape of things to come; after those months of consultation, discussion, controversy and second thoughts, the Education Bills have been published. They make a somewhat uneasy duo, separated at the last minute so that any back-bench uprising on the question of tuition fees would not sabotage the clauses on raising standards in schools - those closest to David Blunkett's heart.

The School Standards and Framework Bill is, inevitably, a mixture of across-the-board policies and very targeted interventions - designed to focus on individual schools or local areas where children are getting a particularly raw deal.

The policy which most seems to have captured the public imagination is that of setting up education action zones, which will experiment with radical measures in disadvantaged areas. Heads and teachers could be paid at very different rates in order to attract the best, and the national curriculum could be suspended so that schools can concentrate on basic skills. Each zone will be run by a "forum", which could be drawn from local parents or business people, as well as education professionals.

System-wide changes are relatively few. There is nothing - thankfully - on the scale of the national curriculum or the standard assessment tests. Overall, the biggest changes will be felt in primary schools and local education authorities. By 2002, the Government promises, the under-eights will no longer be taught in classes of more than 30. This will have a very positive impact on the lives of thousands of infant teachers and, we hope, their young charges.

It will make the lives of local authorities, though, a great deal more complicated. They will have to draw up the plans to reduce class sizes, as well as three-year target-related education development plans, which will have to be approved by the Secretary of State. Quite rightly, they will have to develop a convincing framework for the under-fives in their area. And if, finally, they do not succeed in raising overall achievement levels, they risk losing some or all of their schools.

And, of course, they will have to plan for and administer the three new types of school: community, foundation and voluntary.

This structural shift is one which will probably make little difference to most schools - but a great deal to the 1,100 or so who went grant-maintained during the Conservative years. They and their local authorities will have to embark on the delicate business of learning to live together again.

Most parents probably don't take much notice of education legislation - though activists will be pleased to find that parent governors will in future sit on education committees.

However, some might find themselves affected by the clauses on class size - especially in areas where popular primary schools are overcrowded. No more classes of 30 plus means less parental choice. Along with all the emphasis on local planning, this policy shows the Government explicitly backing off from the unfettered market approach.

Overall, the impression is of a host of relatively small-scale policies, picking away at the problem of standards on several different fronts. In spite of the Government's efforts to promote a clear vision to bind it all together, this week the public messages are distinctly mixed. While the standards and effectiveness people prefer to play down the importance of poverty in underachievement (lest schools should be tempted to ease up on their efforts) Tony Blair launched his Social Exclusion Unit this week, hoping to demonstrate that the Government does recognise the corrosive social effect of poverty. At the same time, Harriet Harman over at Social Security has shocked a great many people with her plan to cut benefits for lone parents.

Overall, this is a Bill to be welcomed by schools. Well-handled, it should make teachers' jobs easier to do. But it still bears the stamp of early thinking not yet tested in practice. Time and rough treatment will be needed to knock these policies into a shape which will really benefit teachers and children alike.

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