Pre-school plan is the crowning glory

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Whenever a new Education Bill is announced, I recall talking to a Labour education adviser about 18 months after the party came to power.

"What should we do next?" he asked.

"Nothing," I said. "Ministers should make sure their initial reforms, the literacy hour, for example, become fully effective."

"But then," the adviser protested, "everybody would say we had lost the initiative."

Much of the Education Bill announced in the Queen's speech reflects that judgement. There is no obvious need for new legislation, but we must have a Bill so that ministers seem to be busy and Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, who made a weak start, can appear to be on top of her brief.

Some proposals seem perfectly sensible. It must be right for parents to have accessto details of their children's progress at any time, rather than relying on termly reports and parents' evenings. Research shows that parental involvement is vital to a child's success. But does it require legislation? Many schools already do it.

Other proposals look pointless. Why do we need a law to allow the Office for Standards in Education to call for the sacking of "ineffective heads"? Surely governors and local authorities can draw their own conclusions from Ofsted reports. The most controversial part of the Bill (city academies are excluded because they do not need further legislation) will allow private providers to start schools with state funding. Ministers' nervousness is betrayed by the long list of assurances from official sources: no charging, no selection, no damage to other local schools, no hope of acceptance without parental demand.

Muslims, who have only two state schools at present, are the most likely applicants. Labour MPs with Muslim constituents may be reluctant to deny them, but many will fear the growth of segregated schools. Others will fear a slow privatisation of state schooling. Business has always been reluctant to put up money for schools without operational control. The new Education Bill will presumably allow exactly that.

The best Queen's speech proposal is to require local authorities to ensure adequate pre-school provision, which should result in higher levels of social mobility. A decent pre-school system could be New Labour's enduring achievement. It is not clear whether this will be the subject of separate legislation or included in the Education Bill.

If the latter, we must hope that Labour MPs do not ditch it with the more contentious provisions. Or maybe that is why ministers are talking about a single Bill: if you sink "privatisation", they can tell MPs, you will also sink a new era for pre-schooling.

Peter Wilby is the former editor of the New Statesman magazine

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