Conservatives were accused of a U-turn on the latest education Bill, reports Frances Rafferty
As all good referees know, it helps to stamp one's authority on the 22 players early in the game.
Thus John McWilliam, the Labour chair of the standing committee seeing the School Standards and Framework Bill through the Commons, made it clear he will be quick to use the whistle.
For the benefit of the new members, Mr McWilliam said gentlemen, unlike the ladies, must ask before removing their jackets. Stalwarts Stephen Dorrell, shadow education secretary, and Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, looked suitably sheepish in their shirt-sleeved states.
The Bill (the Government's flagship legislation this session, according to school standards minister Stephen Byers), sets class sizes for infants, allows ballots to close grammar schools, provides new powers of intervention by local authorities and the Secretary of State, establishes education action zones, and abolishes grant-maintained schools, creating new categories of schools.
Mr Dorrell spoke to an amendment on class size. Although the Bill does not stipulate the maximum class size for infants, it is no secret the figure is 30. Mr Dorrell said both common sense and research showed that smaller class sizes were preferable.
He was immediately accused of reversing the previous Government's line. Mr Foster said Gillian Shephard, the Conservative education secretary, had denied such a link.
Mr Dorrell replied that class size was only one factor. His amendment said while local authorities should have a duty to offer parents an infant class of 30 or fewer, they should have the choice to put their child in larger classes if other factors were more important. Small village schools, he said, would have to find another teacher or an extra classroom otherwise parents would face long journeys to other schools that could take their children.
Mr Byers said schools would be able to bid for capital for building as part of the Pounds 1 billion new deal for schools. He said local authorities are to be given Pounds 125 million to provide comprehensive provision for four-year-olds. He said the money had been diverted from the Conservatives' "bureaucratic" nursery vouchers scheme. Councils with early-years plans showing quality of provision including private sector involvement will get the money.
Mr Dorrell said it may be a different method of distributing the money allocated for pre-school children, but it was not different money.
He said he was concerned the Bill left so much to the say-so of the Secretary of State by regulation or order - Mr Foster has counted 44 instances. Mr Byers agreed to bring forward written detail on school organisation committees and grammar school ballots.
The shadow education secretary said that while the heart of the Bill was about defining the powers of local education authorities and the Secretary of State, the committee would have no opportunity of debating the Government's proposed code of practice for councils. Mr Byers said there was no peg on the Bill to hang it, but an amendment could be laid to provide a hook.
Angela Browning, Conservative education spokesman, said it was highly irregular for the Government to invite bids for education action zones in September, in advance of Parliament agreeing them. Mr Byers replied that although he expected the Bill to be given Royal Assent by July, the first five zones would be voluntary and without statutory underpinning. This would allow them to suspend the national curriculum, but not teachers' pay and conditions.