Teachers to search and quangos to reign in 'hodge-podge' new bill, claim critics

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Complex learning legislation promoting pupil inspections and creating several new bodies draws furious criticism from opposition parties

Teachers will have greater powers to search pupils if they suspect them of carrying alcohol, drugs or stolen goods after the vast Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning (ASCL) Bill became law last week.

The legislation has finally been steered through Parliament, bringing with it swaths of new laws and organisations to a barrage of criticism from opposition parties.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, described the Bill as an "amorphous hodge-podge" of regulations. But the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) hailed it as a "landmark" piece of legislation.

Vernon Coaker, schools minister, said: "An education system must have the confidence of the public. This will rightly be seen as a landmark, with Ofqual established as the first ever independent regulator of qualifications and assessment.

"It means we can have a properly informed debate over exam standards, instead of critics deliberately handpicking individual questions to make sweeping generalisations about the whole education system.

"It also delivers a clear package of measures to build on teachers' and pupils' achievements - giving schools the powers to further drive up standards and makes sure that teachers get the support they need."

Among the most pertinent laws is the extension of powers granted to teachers to search pupils beyond the suspicion of carrying a weapon. Classroom staff will also be required to report "significant" incidents where they have to restrain pupils.

The DCSF is expected to hold a consultation in an attempt to define what constitutes "significant", and it is one that Lib Dem peer Baroness Joan Walmsley believes headteachers cannot afford to miss.

"It is vitally important that heads have their say," she said. "They must know where they stand."

The Act will ensure that Behaviour and Attendance Improvement Partnerships are statutory, despite 98 per cent of schools already being members of partnerships. Pupil Referral Units will be replaced, or at least renamed, and will now be recognised as "short-stay schools".

Local authorities will also be given the power to issue "compliance notices" to schools in conjunction with the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document, to reduce the pressure of growing workloads.

But it is the creation of a raft of new quangos that has attracted the most criticism. The new legislation formally recognises the exam regulator Ofqual, despite the organisation's existence since April 2008, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA).

Two weeks ago The TES reported that the Lib Dems had successfully intervened in the House of Lords to prevent the Schools Secretary having powers to "meddle" in the qualifications system. Opposition parties also raised concerns over whether Ofqual would genuinely act as an independent regulator, after it transpired that the Schools Secretary would be able to set minimum requirements for specific qualifications.

Pressed for parliamentary time in which to get the Bill passed, the Government was forced to concede, and the Schools Secretary's power to intervene has been curtailed.

However, the decision to split the Learning and Skills Council into two separate organisations, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA), has possibly attracted the most anger. The decision to tack day-to-day administration of over 200 academies on to the YPLA has been blasted by opposition parties and the wider education establishment.

The transferring of powers to the YPLA came after the DCSF realised that administering so many schools centrally from Whitehall was too great a task, and needed an organisation with the capacity to manage academies. At the time, Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, said it was "the wrong agency".

This week, Mr Gibb said: "Although this has some useful provisions, it is an amorphous beast of a Bill. It contains more than 270 clauses that will do little to raise standards and is steeped in bureaucracy, including replacing one discredited quango with three new ones."

Since then, sources within the Conservatives have made it clear that quangos such as the YPLA will have no future should they come to power next year, with one source saying the agency was "doomed".

Indeed, those close to Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, described the ASCL Bill as the "usual Byzantine horror story". It is understood that the Tories would repeal the "overwhelming majority" of it.

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "This Act is a continuation of many discrete items of legislation pulled together into an incoherent whole. It is a matter of politics to see what will remain after the general election, but we campaigned against many aspects."

ON THE ASCL Bill

- New powers to search pupils.

- Greater powers of restraint.

- An independent parents' complaints service for schools disputes.

- New requirements to report 'significant' incidents.

- Ofqual now the official regulator.

- Statutory Behaviour and Attendance Improvement Partnerships.

- The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

- The Skills Funding Agency and the Young People's Learning Agency.

- Strengthened compliance with the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document.

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