Ministers rush to save reforms

21st November 1997 at 00:00
The Government has been forced to make last-minute changes to its plans for education legislation in order to safeguard controversial measures, including the unpopular university tuition fees.

Ministers are expected to announce next week the decision to hive off parts of the Education Bill and introduce key clauses immediately in the House of Lords.

This further setback to a Bill that was intended to be the centrepiece of the Government's programme appears to have been caused by the complexity and sheer length of the legislation.

University tuition fees have to be approved by next summer if the Government is to be able to charge students for the 1998 academic year.

Changes may also have to be made to the plans to set up three new categories of school which ministers had previously insisted were unalterable.

The legislation has now been split into two Bills, the shorter of which will be debated first in the Lords, while the revised Schools Bill is due to start in the Commons.

The churches have already wrung major concessions from ministers. The Bishops threatened to use their voting power in the Lords against the Government unless the relationship between dioceses and their schools was protected.

The first reading of the shorter Bill is provisionally down for Thursday in the Lords and it will cover the introduction of student fees, measures to improve training for heads and the creation of a General Teaching Council.

The new legislative timetable is for a Schools Bill that will begin slightly later in the Commons. While much of that Bill is concerned with measures to raise standards, clauses dealing with the future of grant-maintained schools are proving troublesome.

Ministers have been considering abandoning the grand plan to allow all schools to choose between becoming community, foundation or church schools.

The final draft may limit choice of status to the existing 1,160 grant-maintained schools, two-thirds of which are likely to opt for foundation status as it is likely to give them a degree of independence from local authorities.

The White Paper envisaged all schools being given the opportunity to become foundation, and proposed ballots where parents did not agree with the decisions taken by governing bodies.

The Government's problems have been compounded by the pressure on Parliamentary time. In addition, plans to introduce tuition fees are unpopular; tactically it may be easier to allow extended debates in the Lords. The other factor is that the Lords have time at the beginning of the session to consider legislation.

For months, ministers have been attempting to dismiss opposition to their plans for changing school status by insisting that standards are more important than structures. However, chief education officers have been warning that involving schools in prolonged arguments about whether they become foundation or community will be time-consuming and distract from measures to raise standards.

School standards minister Stephen Byers insisted in a speech last month to the Association of Aided and Grant-maintained Schools that the Government was committed to three categories of school. Since then, he has agreed to changes requested by the churches.

Publication of the Bill was due this week, but the details of at least the Bill to be tabled in the Lords will be announced next week.

Concern over the length of the Education Bill surfaced last week and the problem of time was discussed by a Cabinet sub-committee.

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