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Tories pledge to protect

A Bill defending teachers from malicious allegations within a year - the Opposition sets out its timetable. Michael Shaw reports

The Conservatives have pledged they would introduce a teacher protection Bill to defend staff against malicious allegations and give schools "immunity" from being sued by parents.

The promise was one of a handful of new education policies which the party unveiled this week at its conference in Bournemouth.

Tim Collins, Tory education spokesman, said the wide-ranging Bill would give teachers anonymity if they were accused of misconduct by pupils, unless they were convicted.

Parents would be unable to sue schools and teachers for minor accidents on school premises or on trips, he said, although teachers could still face prosecution if their actions had clearly been reckless. The Bill would also contain legislation to scrap independent exclusions appeals panels.

"Discipline is under attack," Mr Collins told the conference. "My priority is the rights of the 29 pupils who want to learn, not the one out of 30 who wants to disrupt."

Mr Collins pledged that the Conservatives would set out details of the Teacher Protection Bill on its first day in power and would implement the legislation within a year.

The emphasis on deadline dates was a standard feature of speeches at the conference, which carried the slogan "Timetable for Action".

Other new education announcements included that a Conservative government would halt closures of special schools.

Teachers' unions welcomed this pledge and the protection legislation.

However, union leaders clashed with Mr Collins over other policies in fringe meetings, particularly the party's plans to give parents greater choice in education.

It intends to fund 600,000 more surplus places and let schools use whatever admissions criteria they prefer, including academic selection.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned this risked a "free-for-all".

But Mr Collins said he believed that most schools would not use their powers to change admissions so there would not be a dramatic change.

Speaking at a National Union of Teachers' fringe meeting, he rejected the argument that parents simply wanted one good local school. "It's like saying you can only have one supermarket in every town and it's run by Gordon Brown," he said.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the NUT, replied that schools were not supermarkets. "Children are not tins of beans or packets of cornflakes," he said.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers was even more dismissive of the Conservative party's Right to Choose policy. Chris Keates, acting general secretary, described it as flawed, unworkable and "a recipe for chaos and confusion".

"When reflecting on the Conservatives' overall package of proposals for education it is difficult to shake off the chilling feeling of staring into the abyss," she said.

Even a handful of Conservative councillors were willing to criticise the party's emphasis on parental choice.

Paul Willis, a Derby city councillor, said: "There is no choice in education - it's a myth. We should be providing fair opportunities for every child."

CONSERVATIVES' ACTION PLAN

* A teacher protection Bill to help teachers facing malicious allegations and stop schools being sued by parents.

* Make every school grant-maintained.

* A Right to Choose Bill to give parents more choice in education and fund 600,000 more school places.

* End the closure of special schools.

* Allow schools to select pupils in whatever way they prefer.

* Scrap exclusions appeals panels.

* Fund pupils to attend independent schools which charge the same per student as state schools.

* Make two-thirds of Department for Education and Skills staff redundant.

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