Reform not free of fears

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Not all the delegates at Bournemouth toed the party line on education. Sarah Cassidy reports.

THE Conservatives "free-school" policy received a mixed reception from its own members at a fringe meeting at this week's annual conference in Bournemouth.

Daphne Bagshawe, opposition education spokesman for East Sussex Council, received one of the strongest rounds of applause when she spoke of her fears that the policy would harm the education of children from the poorest backgrounds.

She told shadow education minister Theresa May, at the meeting organised by the National Union of Teachers, that plans to give every school complete control of its budget, bypassing local authorities, failed to recognise the good work done by many councils.

The policy would give headteachers total control of money and the freedom to set their own policies on admissions, discipline and teachers' pay.

Mrs Bagshawe said she was deeply concerned that the party's new policy assumed that all parents were well-informed and interested in their children's education. She said: "I know from experience that often you are lucky to get more than a handful of parents turning up at parents' evenings. The idea that parents will be able to call for OFSTED inspections because they have concerns about school management will not work in many schools.

"I am a member of a local authority panel on standards and we see our role as speaking up for children in the poorest circumstances. Who will speak for them under the free schools policy?"

However, other delegates called for the policy to go even further. Francis Lankaster, a literacy teacher from Birmingham and member of the party's manifesto working party, said: "We do not need a change in school structures we need a revolution."

But on the main floor of the conference, delegates were more on-message, applauding Mrs May as she outlined Tory education policy - and cheering when she said it would lead to more grammar schools and the resurrection of the Assisted Places Scheme.

She also won favour with the teachers' unions by saying a Tory government would give teachers facing allegations of abuse from children anonymity until they were charged by the police.

Mrs May told the conference about a teacher, with 27 years' experience, who had lost his job, his roleas a foster parent and his position as a scout master following false allegations.

She outlined proposals on teacher training that would mean students spending 80 per cent of time in schools and the rest in college. "I have heard too many stories of teachers not being trained to teach children to read.

"Teacher training is too theoretical. Why on earth should someone training to be a teacher have to study 'the politics of difference'?" she said.

The proposals for a new Assisted Places Scheme would put the average cost of a place at a state secondary towards the independent-school fees of an eligible child. It would be left up to the private school to find ways to fund the difference.

State education costs pound;3,100 per child per year. But a place at a top independent school can cost more than this each term. Westminster school in London charges up to pound;4,184 per term for a non-boarding place while St Paul's School in London charges pound;3,455.

Nigel de Gruchy, General Secretary of the NASUWT, said he welcomed many aspects of the speech: "But the dangerous part was about free schools. Letting schools set their own admissions policies will not work.

"Some schools will expand to breaking point; others will contract and become unworkable. At least Theresa May was honest today when she said that it would lead to more grammar schools. What she didn't say was that this would also leave 80 per cent of parents disappointed."


Guarantee teachers accused of abusing pupils

anonymity until police press charges.

Revive the Assisted Places Scheme.

Insist that trainee teachers spend 80 per cent of their time in schools and 20 per cent in college.

Fund schools directly from central government.

Allow "free schools" to keep their sixth forms and set admissions policy.

Allow councils to retain responsibility for education

welfare and control over statementing for special needs requirements.

Authorise OFSTED to conduct "on-the-spot" inspections with no warning to schools.

Give heads greater power to expel disruptive pupils.

"Progressively endow" universities with funds raised from sale of government assets.

Scrap the New Deal scheme and replace it with new system to teach practical skills to those looking for work.

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