Selection sacrificed to rescue Bill

21st March 1997 at 00:00
The Government lost no time this week in attempting to make political capital out of the emasculation of the Education Bill.

The deal struck with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to get the Bill through before Parliament is prorogued today means that all the clauses that would have extended selection and lifted restrictions on the expansion of opted-out schools - the political heart of the Bill - have been lost.

But it also means that selection will remain a live issue throughout the election campaign, allowing the Tories to resurrect the rows over Labour "hypocrisy" yet again.

On Wednesday, the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, claimed that in refusing to allow the selection clauses through, Labour had shown themselves to be opposed to diversity and ignored the wishes of the voters who, she said, want selection. Increasing selection will now form part of the Conservative manifesto to be published in a couple of weeks.

Labour accused the Government of ineptitude in failing to ensure that there was enough Parliamentary time for the Bill, and welcomed the abandonment of those parts of it which, it said, nobody wanted.

The rest of the Bill, which includes provisions for the inspection of local education authorities by OFSTED, school discipline, home-school contracts, baseline assessments for all five-year-olds, targets for all schools and the regulation of supply teachers, will become law.

The only apparently awkward concession made by Labour was to allow through the clause extending the scope of the Assisted Places Scheme to prep schools. Labour is committed to abolishing the scheme to provide money to reduce class sizes. Labour has already admitted that the scheme will be phased out gradually to avoid disrupting children's education, but the recruiting of additional, younger children into the scheme this autumn would mean that it could take longer to phase out and take longer to recoup the money.

The provisions on home school contracts allow county or voluntary aided schools to insist that parents sign a home-school contract, laying out the responsibilities of the school and the parent before the child can be admitted. Labour would wish to extend this to all schools.

The Bill confers new powers to the Chief Inspector to arrange for the inspection of local education authorities, with associated rights of access to premises and documents. It does not, however, include any provisions for the takeover of local authorities deemed to be failing. Labour would have no problems with lea inspection because it was originally proposed in a 1995 Labour policy document. A spokesman said that Labour would want to ensure that the Audit Commission, which has obviously developed expertise on the workings of local authorities, was involved in all inspections - the Bill only states that the Commission can get involved when invited to by the chief inspector.

Nor would Labour have any difficulty with compulsory baseline assessment of all children as they enter primary schools, or the requirement that all schools set annual targets for pupils performance in exams, since both these measures are policy.

Other provisions require schools to develop careers education for 14 to 16-year-olds and ask schools and colleges to co-operate with careers advisers, and requires LEAs to establish management committees for pupil referral units.

On discipline, the Bill also makes it possible for schools to exclude pupils for a fixed term of up to 45 days a year (rather than 15); to keep unruly children in after school without the parent's consent, and to refuse to admit a child who has already been excluded from two or more other schools.

Schools will have to set annual targets for pupils' performance exams and tests, and to publish their targets and results.

The Bill also establishes the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The absence of ministers from Westminster is likely to mean controversial decisions still pending on whether the first Muslim school is to get state-fundi ng will be postponed until the new administration. Islamia school in London and John Loughborough, a Seventh Day Adventist secondary, are waiting to hear whether they are to be given grant-maintained status.

The DFEE intends to press ahead with the consultation on revision of the teachers' pension scheme because of the urgency in reaching agreement.

Labour will not alter the arrangements for secondaries that have taken advantage of changes in rules governing admissions that allow schools to select up to 15 per cent on the basis of particular aptitudes such as music. Where there is partial academic selection - a number of schools have used the 15 per cent rule to set exams for a proportion of the intake - Labour will look at each case. A party spokesman said Labour would not be opposed to admission procedures intended to ensure schools had a balanced intake.

Schools do not have to notify the DFEE before introducing selection for 15 per cent of the intake, but around 60 schools, mainly grant-maintained, are thought to have introduced a degree of selection from September.

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