More power to your elbow

17th March 2006 at 00:00

Been wondering what all the fuss is about? The proposed law is actually not a bad deal for new teachers. Michael Shaw wades through the hype to explain some of the more positive points

An irate mother confronts you in the playground to criticise you for confiscating her child's mobile phone and placing him in detention.

"You can't do that," she says, jabbing an accusatory finger. "I know my rights and I'm going to see a lawyer!"

Your reply is calm and polite: "Actually, I can do that; see the Education Act 2006".

The legal right to discipline students is one of the few useful bits for teachers tucked away in the Government's often-contradictory education reforms. Trying to understand the direct impact the plans will have on the classroom has been tricky after months of spin and confused squabbling by politicians.

The Education Bill that MPs are debating this term is based on a white paper the Department for Education and Skills published late last year. It contains only two chapters which have been warmly welcomed by the teachers'

unions, the first of which is to do with behaviour.

The behaviour proposals include giving teachers a "clear and unambiguous right" to discipline students and confiscate their possessions. The powers themselves are not new: teachers have been able to punish pupils for decades - the case law supporting teachers who confiscate pupils'

possessions, for instance, dates back to 1865. However, the legal backing for the powers is messy and open to challenge, so the new legislation should fend off litigious parents and quieten some pupils.

Other behaviour proposals include making it tougher for appeals panels to put expelled students back into schools if it is clear they have broken the law, guaranteeing students a full-time education within six days of being permanently excluded, and letting headteachers give families of misbehaving pupils orders forcing them to attend parenting classes.

The second chapter is on "personalised education" - a buzzword ministers have been using for two years which has now been adopted by school leaders, even though it remains a vague concept. To support it, the white paper promises one-to-one tuition and other help for pupils who need help catching up in literacy and numeracy.

It also proposes that schools should make better use of the detailed data they have that allows them to plot the performance of individual students, letting them assist those who are struggling and challenge those who are coasting.

Although broadly positive, there is a danger this could create more work for teachers and lead unscrupulous heads to use the data to criticise staff.

Apart from these sections, the impact that the Bill will have on teachers'

daily lives depends on where they teach. Those who work in schools with falling pupil numbers or poor results may be at a greater risk of losing their jobs as the Bill proposes shutting schools which underperform within a year.

It also proposes greater support for popular schools that wish to expand, help for parents who want to set up new schools and "choice advisors" who will work with disadvantaged parents. All of these reforms are likely to make unpopular schools lose pupils even faster.

The biggest political rows have been over the plans for self-governing "trust schools". These will have the same freedoms as existing foundation schools to manage their own admissions and set teachers' pay and conditions. The difference is that they will be overseen by a trust set up by community groups or business charities which can also manage a group of schools.

Hype from Downing Street and the prime minister about these creations - also called "independent state schools" - sparked panic among Labour traditionalists who feared they would lead to a return to the 11-plus, or at least more selection by the back door.

But the Bill should tighten rules stopping academic selection as it is expected to ban admissions interviews and force schools to act "in accordance" with national guidance. There is also a big question mark over whether many schools will bother opting for trust status and whether businesses have any appetite for it.

The Government's education plans were neutered before they were published, and do not herald the switch to a Swedish-style free market for schools that many politicians had wanted. However, they do mark a step away from schools managed by local authorities to schools that are part of business-backed education "brands".

Ambitious teachers may find themselves able to move between schools within a trust. Meanwhile, the very ambitious who rise to headship may be selected to become "national leaders of education", a new form of superteacher who will advise ministers and be guaranteed a place on Newsnight the next time the Government dreams up a bewildering set of education reforms.

A First Appointments guide to the new education bill

* Legal right for teachers to discipline pupils

* One-year deadline for failing schools to improve or be closed or replaced with academies

* Expansion of popular schools where possible

* Schools invited to join trusts which would oversee their management and be set up by parents, community groups or business charities

* Free bus journeys for disadvantaged pupils to their three nearest secondary schools

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