Dorothy Lepkowska reports from the Professional Association of Teachers' conference.
ESTELLE Morris, the new school standards minister, revelled in her promotion with a 65-minute speech to teachers on her first public outing since her change of jobs.
Addressing the annual conference of the Professional Association of Teachers in Cheltenham, Ms Morris announced tough policies to reduce truancy and exclusions and revised inspection arrangements for independent schools.
The minister unveiled a complete list of exclusions by local authorities. Hammersmith and Fulham and Portsmouth emerged as the worst performers with more than four pupils per thousand being expelled last year.
Overall, some 12,700 pupils were permanently excluded, a rise of 200 on previous figures. The figures will now be used to set targets for each LEA, to reduce the learning time lost to exclusion and truancy by a third by 2002.
Ms Morris said parents must fulfil their responsibility to ensure their children attend school. "All of us must work together to tackle this problem. The Government is introducing new measures through the Crime and Disorder Bill to reinforce parental responsibility," she told delegates.
"New parenting orders will apply in the case of parents convicted of school attendance offences and the courts will be able to set specific conditions such as a requirement to escort a child to schools. Parents who need help with parenting will get it."
She said LEA targets would be announced in the autumn. "I think that once some authorities see where they are in the list they will be quite ashamed about it, and they will want to take action. If they do not, we will want to know why."
Ms Morris also announced a tightening of inspections for private schools. Under the arrangements, to be introduced in the next academic year, independent schools will be inspected every six years with reports and action plans published, using OFSTED criteria.
The minister said the changes reflected a new spirit of partnership between the Government and the private sector. "These important changes will give parents and the public better information and assurance about standards in independent schools. They will help to safeguard pupils and raise levels of achievement."
Currently, there are two inspection systems being used within the five independent associations covering 1,300 schools. These will now be merged. Alistair Cooke, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, described the changes as a "one of historic significance both for the schools within the ISC and for the hundreds of thousands of families who use those schools.
"The new inspectorate will have a framework which will promote objectivity and independence and will provide evidence acceptable to Government and available to parents," he said.