MORE than half of all the schools in England will get the freedom to set teachers' pay and conditions and vary the curriculum, the Government announced this week.
Nearly 12,000 schools will be able to apply to opt out of national arrangements from next year. Minister Baroness Ashton said this week that the new education Bill would allow 60 per cent of primaries and 30 per cent of secondaries to opt out. Ministers hope all of these will eventually qualify.
The announcement is a concession to opposition parties who had been concerned that not enough schools would benefit. It paves the way for thousands of schools to be liberated from the constraints of the national curriculum.
But the move has sparked fears of a two-tier system as those schools that qualify are seen as superior.
The concession averted a possible defeat for the Government as the Bill went through its report stage in the House of Lords. Ministers had been insisting that only the most successful 10 per cent of schools would get the new freedoms. They relented after Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - who have the numbers to win in the Lords - threatened to join forces and call for all non-failing schools to get them.
Opposition parties and heads argued that focusing on top-performers excluded schools in tough areas which had most to gain.
Ministers are also sensitive to damaging charges that the Bill, which they claim deregulates the education system, will in fact centralise power. The announcement, one of a series of concessions, opens the way for well-led schools in tough areas to qualify, even if they have bad results. Inspection reports will be the deciding factor.
But heads say ministers have still not gone far enough, as many schools will not qualify. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "This move demonstrates the strength of our argument that the vast majority of schools should gain more curriculum freedoms. But why should not any school that is not in special measures, or with serious weaknesses, benefit?" He said schools that did not get freedom over pay and the timetable would feel like "second-class citizens."
Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, warned of the destruction of the national pay system.
But he added: "In reality, I think schools will not avail themselves of this poisoned chalice, because heads will not have the time, energy or inclination to get involved in detailed pay negotiations. It's a mish-mash of a policy which should be dropped."
Only four schools took up an offer by the Conservatives to opt out of national pay scales, including the London Oratory where the Prime Minister sends two of his sons. A recent TES survey revealed that only six of 54 secondary heads would consider doing so.