14th April 2000 at 01:00
THE EDUCATION ACT EXPLAINED. By Richard Gold. Stationery Office Books pound;25

The Education Reform Act of 1988 was Kenneth Baker's claim to fame. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 was David Blunkett's bid for immortality.

Kenneth Baker claimed that his Act, which introduced grant-maintained status, local management of schools and the national curriculum, was a revolutionary measure "whose fundamental and unifying principle is to lever up educational standards". It contained 238 sections and 13 schedules.

The 1998 SSFA is a mere 145 sections, but with 32 schedules David Blunkett reckoned that this Act, too, provides a framework for raising standards. Plus ca change.

In this book, Richard Gold points out that the 1998 Act itself is primarily an enabling Act. At its heart is the establishment of the new categories of schools and the abolition of GM schools, along with the requirement for local education authorities to promote high standards in schools. But we shall have to await the regulations and circulars for the detail required to implement the Government's intentions.

He notes, however, the increase in the use of codes of practice. The concept of codes of practice first appeared in the Education Act 1993 with the code of practice on special educational needs. The SSFA 1998 heralds two more, on admissions and LEAschool relationships.

There is also a substantial increase in the number of areas where all concerned in the implementing of the law will have to "have regard to" this or that. This phrase, Gold reminds us, virtually requies local authorities, governing bodies and heads to follow the guidance and only depart from it after due consideration.

This tight control is typical of both the Baker and Blunkett Acts. Both claimed that their legislation would give more power and responsibility locally, while both, paradoxically, "made sure that it is only appropriate for decisions to be made locally if those decisions correspond to good practice as viewed from the Department for Education and Employment".

Power is in fact very substantially in the hands of the Secretary of State, not just to establish the initial process but also to change it substantially without coming back to Parliament.

The present Secretary of State did not invent this, but he is carrying it to new lengths. Gold feels that there are good practical reasons for this: flexibility is important, particularly in novel and untried areas. It would not be appropriate for there to be a legislative straight-jacket.

Such fair and common-sensical comments are typical of Gold's approach to his task throughout the book. The Act is set out fully, each section is succinctly explained, and its implications noted. The commentary is easy to pick out in its grey shading.

Lawyers might have liked more comment on the changes to previous legislation, but the changes themselves are all there in Schedule 30. This is a sensible, practical handbook for an LEA officer's or head's library. And if time is short the commentary in grey is all you need.

Chris Lowe is legal consultant to the Secondary Heads Association

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