Standards focus on schools;Education Bill

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Local authorities are to be sidelined by the new legislation. Frances Rafferty reports

Local authorities briefly thought they would be at the heart of the Government's drive to raise standards, but as the legislation unfolds their supporters fear they will be education casualty departments.

Both sides of the divide recognise the standards axis has tilted towards schools. Pauline Latham, chairman of the Grant-Maintained Joint Monitoring Group, knew GM schools were finished when Labour swept to power. But now she says the Government has confounded her fears by not only listening to her lobby but by being prepared to extend the lessons of self-government to the new category of community school (former local authority schools).

"Community schools will have more freedoms than they did as local authority schools," she said. "And unless schools are left to do a good job, we will not get the improvements the Government wants." She is encouraged by the proposed code of practice for authorities which, she believes, will keep them at an arm's length from schools.

Don Foster, the Liberal Demo-crat education spokesman, has also followed the change in emphasis since the publication of the White Paper, Excellence in Schools. He said: "The LEAs had been given to believe they would have a significant role, but when you look at the constraints it is, frankly, difficult to see how they will be able to fulfil it."

The School Standards and Framework Bill, currently going through Parliament, gives authorities a statutory duty to promote high standards in schools. But their officers will not be allowed into non-failing schools unless invited by the governing body.

Last week's Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, said that all schools, apart from the 13 per cent where inspectors have found serious weakness, should be run autonomously. His comment seemed in tune with the Prime Minister's - that standards will not be raised by education authorities regaining control of schools.

Mr Foster said the dramatic shift away from local authorities has come about by an "unholy alliance" between standards minister Stephen Byers, Mr Woodhead and David Milliband who is in the Prime Minister's office.

Local authority officials say the Bill will undermine them in two ways - through the code of practice and the fact that more money will go directly to schools.

One spokesman said: "If councils no longer hold the purse strings and if their intervention in schools is curtailed then clearly their role is greatly reduced. The Government has agreed, with some arm twisting, literacy and numeracy targets for each authority, but we have no powers to get schools to agree to them."

Conservative MP Theresa May said: "There needs to be a proper public debate. I am a great believer that most power should be at the school level, but I also recognise that many schools get support from their authority. The Government should not be allowed to slip through such important changes through regulation."

Councils will also see their role in school planning watered down. Their representatives will now share the decision-making with others, including the churches and governors in a new layer of administration: the School Organisation Committee. The Education Secretary will appoint independent adjudicators to make rulings when agreement cannot be reached. They will also have the final say in admissions.

Stephen Dorrell, education shadow secretary, believes the Bill allows authorities to be interventionist despite rhetoric such as Mr Byers saying authorities did not have a God-given right to run education.

Mr Dorrell said local government should be responsible only for special needs services, excluded children and failing schools. "If we are to ratchet up performance say from 70 to 90 per cent, only schools themselves can do this," he said.

According to Mr Dorrell and Mr Foster the pledge to reduce infant classes to a maximum of 30 is fraught with difficulty.

The LibDems are horrified that the Bill allows partial selection , even extending it by allowing all schools with a specialism to select 10 per cent of pupils by aptitude.

Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association, says he is pleased with the Bill. "We have the duty to promote high standards, can appoint extra governors to schools, can withdraw a school's budget for more than just financial reasons and have a role in the short listing of headteachers. Now we are trying to get the code of practice right," he said.

WHAT'S IN THE SCHOOL STANDARDS AND FRAMEWORK BILL

* Class sizes for infants to be kept to 30 maximum.

* Education action zones to be run by local authorities and businesses to raise standards.

* Local authorities to draw up education development plans, approved by Secretary of State. LEAs have statutory duty to raise standards.

* Powers to take over failing local authorities.

* Powers for Secretary of State to shut failing schools and re-open them with new head, some new staff and new name.

* Code of practice defining duties and responsibilities of local authorities.

* Abolition of grant-maintained schools, establishment of new framework of community, foundation and voluntary schools.

* More parents on governing bodies and LEA committees.

* Ballots for local parents to abolish grammar schools * Adjudicator for admissions and schools reorganisation.

* Partial selection where it exists will be allowed to continue.

* Schools with a specialism to select 10 per cent by aptitude.

* Regulations to set nutritional standards for school lunches.

* Duty for local authorities to provide nursery education and to prepare an early-years development plan.

* Abolition of GM quango, the Funding Agency for Schools.

* Councils banned from setting up assisted places-type schemes.

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