Trials of delayed start to the day

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Queen's Speech announces measures to cut school run traffic and big hikes in university fees. Michael Shaw reports

Plans to stagger some school opening times and give teachers a bigger role in child protection were heralded in this week's Queen's Speech.

At the annual opening of Parliament, the Government reaffirmed its commitment to education, stating that its main priority remained delivering "a world-class education system that enables individuals to achieve their full potential".

As predicted, the Queen announced plans for a Bill that will enable local authorities to pilot schemes to reduce road congestion caused by the school run.

These initiatives, which will be trialled in 20 local authorities in England over three years, will include staggering school opening and closing times and tougher parking controls.

Councils will also be able to charge families to use school buses if they live three miles or more from school and can afford it. Pupils eligible for free school meals will not have to pay. Money raised from fares must be spent on improving public transport.

But unions attacked the bus charges saying they undermined the concept of free education and would be an "own goal" as they would encourage car use.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said parents might choose not to send children to school at all.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women warned that staggering opening hours would also cause havoc for parents and teachers.

One of the most controversial announcements was legislation to allow universities to treble tuition fees to pound;3,000 a year. Under the plans, students will repay fees once they have graduated and are earning more than pound;15,000 a year, instead of paying them upfront.

A new watchdog, the Office for Fair Access (which has been nicknamed "Oftoff"), will also be established to ensure that universities attract more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Queen said the reforms would enable more young people to enter higher education and would place universities on a "sound financial footing".

But the moves to introduce "top-up" fees have met tough resistance from students, opposition parties and backbench Labour MPs. Up to 100 Labour MPs were expected to put down a Commons motion yesterday opposing the plan.

Other legislation that will affect schools includes a child protection Bill, which follows the Children at Risk Green Paper published in the summer. Ministers aim to appoint an independent Children's Commissioner for England and give every child a unique identification number that will make it easier for agencies to track vulnerable youngsters.

The National Union of Teachers this week criticised suggestions in the Green Paper that teachers should be the ones to raise concerns about a child's welfare with parents if they had better links to the family than a social worker.

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