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Ulster reforms fail to convince teachers

The Government's attempt to honour its manifesto commitment to education in Northern Ireland has received a muted reception.

There was a broad welcome for the proposals on discipline, baseline assessment in the first year of compulsory education and targets for pupil performance.

However, the draft legislation that parallels the education standards Bill currently going through Parliament, has been accused of losing sight of the Ulster perspective.

Quintin Oliver, director of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, complained that the programme to target social need (TSN) was supposed to be the backcloth to all decisions "There is no evidence of TSN in this draft Order. There is no requirement, for example, that the expansion of pre-school education should take social need into account."

In line with the Government's drive to abolish the grant-maintained sector, the draft legislation proposes that voluntary grammar schools are no longer funded directly by the Department of Education. Instead they should get their cash through the education and library boards - the equivalent of education authorities - in the same way as other schools.

Dr Bob Rodgers, chairman of the grammars' Governing Bodies Association, said that Tony Worthington, the Northern Ireland education minister, had assured them that the boards would merely allocate budgets and would have no administrative responsibility. "If this is true our concerns may not be justified, but we remain to be convinced," he said.

Gerry Kelly, chief executive of the Southern Board, welcomed bringing together funding for all schools, but said there should be representation for voluntary grammar and grant-maintained integrated schools on the boards. He said it would "mean a reduction of mutual misunderstanding and suspicion among different types of school".

Proposals to limit the size of infant classes and to expand pre-school education were welcomed.

But enthusiasm has been tempered by the absence of firm nursery targets. The Government has warned that "the rate of expansion of pre-school education will depend on the availability of funds".

Gordon Topping, chief executive of the North Eastern Board, said the draft legislation also avoided the issue of schools that under-performed or over-spent their budgets.

"Boards cannot intervene in under-achieving schools except on the invitation of the governors and the department is not keen on withdrawing budgets from schools that have got out of control financially. I would have liked to see this clarified," he said.

The proposal to set up a General Teaching Council was criticised by Frank Bunting of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation. "It is anodyne and barely worth the candle. We wanted it to take in further education and teacher education and to deal with matters of professional competence."

Tom McKee of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers was worried about the absence of union-backed GTC seats. The proliferation of registration councils in each part of the UK also concerns him as it might make it harder for teachers to get jobs elsewhere.

The proposals do not widen the duty of schools to consult their partners in education.

When setting performance targets, governors are not required to consult teachers, parents or the wider community and in producing school development plans, they need consult only the principal.

Mr McKee regretted the absence of a duty to consult teachers before setting targets. "We are extremely worried about targets because we are against 'naming and shaming'. We must tackle under-achievement but there is no easy solution. If teachers are consulted and have ownership of the targets, the school is more likely to reach them."

Draft education (NI) Order 1998:

* Places a duty on governors to ensure schools pursue policies to promote good behaviour and discipline;

* Allows school staff to restrain pupils physically to prevent them from causing injury or damage;

* Allows schools to detain pupils on disciplinary grounds without the consent of parents;

* Introduces baseline assessment of pupils in Year 1;

* Gives the Department of Education power to require boards of governors to set and publish annual performance targets;

* Requires boards of governors to prepare and revise school development plans;

* Empowers the department to appoint additional governors to a failing school;

* Empowers the department to set limits on class sizes in key stage 1; * Requires education and library boards to prepare development plans for 2 to 5-year-olds;

* Allows boards to pay grants to pre-school providers other than schools; * Voluntary grammar and grant-maintained integrated schools will be included in financial schemes administered by education and library boards in the same way as controlled and maintained schools;

* Gives school governors the power to recover examination fees from pupils who fail to take the examination without a reasonable excuse;

* Requires ELBs to make suitable education available for all pupils, including pupil-referral units.

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