News analysis - Education Bill fails first examination

29 Nov 01
A promising start, but must try harder: that is the message from education professionals to the secretary of state Estelle Morris after her government's long-awaited Education Bill was published last week.

30 November 2001

Depending on who you speak to, the Bill is either an attempt by the Department for Education and Skills to tighten its grip on schools and teachers, or else it will free good schools from the strictures of the state system and turn them into hotbeds of innovation.

Announcing the Bill on November 23, Morris claimed that it would give teachers 'the flexibility to build on the best of our comprehensive system'.

Head teachers needed the confidence to introduce innovative ideas into their schools and could be supported by 'increased investment in schools by a government that recognises the true value of education and the professional role of teachers', she said.

Needless to say, the teaching unions are not dancing with delight following the publication of the long-awaited legislation.

Union leaders have savaged the 'ragbag of proposals' which, they claim, singularly fail to address the two key issues for their members: teacher shortages and workloads.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says head teachers welcomed the idea of autonomy. But he warns: 'This is not the kind of autonomy that heads want.'

So what are Morris's plans for schools across England and Wales?

The main thrust of the 200-clause Bill is to give greater powers to schools to opt out of the national curriculum and implement their own ideas.

The country's most successful schools will be given greater flexibility on the curriculum and a bigger say in teachers' pay and conditions, while average schools will have to come up with ideas on how to improve standards, which will then be agreed with the secretary of state.

Schools will also be able to set up and invest in limited companies to provide education services, while failing schools will be partnered with successful ones to encourage better standards.

The Bill has been played up by the DfES as the next wave of education reform, seeing off restrictive and unworkable practices in schools to allow wholesale innovation across the education system.

However, the Bill is far from radical. Many of its critics have pointed to the sweeping powers handed to ministers with almost all innovation dependent on approval from Whitehall.

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says that greater autonomy for schools was 'merely spin'. He adds: 'The idea that heads have to prove success to the satisfaction of the secretary of state is highly prescriptive and over-bureaucratic.'

It is a view echoed by the Local Government Association, which welcomes the idea of innovation but says the DfES has failed to deliver it. Education chair Graham Lane says the Bill merely puts the power in the hands of civil servants.

'The DfES is full of micro-management officials who want to run everything. They are meddling. They want power to intervene in schools with weaknesses even though local government has been able to turn around these schools in record time. They also want to be able to appoint the chair and extra governors in failing schools but that should surely be left to local people who know the true situation?'

According to Lane, the department is simply unable to let go: 'The DfES wants to be at the cutting edge of radical reform but it hasn't been in the past and it doesn't look like anything has changed with this Bill.'

Even the reaction of New Labour's favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has been lukewarm.

The Bill was 'underwhelming', according to policy officer Joe Hallgarten, although he does welcome the idea of 'earned autonomy for schools'.

However, he dismisses the idea of Morris riding roughshod over schools with sweeping powers to intervene and interfere. 'This Bill does not have any new powers for the secretary of state that were not already available to her,' he says.

The government's plans to kick-start an education revolution has got off to a shaky start. In an area that has seen so much reform over recent years, it is almost impossible to garner any sense of excitement at the potential freedoms that may lie ahead.

Labour's own track record on innovation in education has failed to impress. Its previous attempt to encourage new ways of working in schools has been widely regarded as a failure.

For example, education action zones were heralded by the government as the perfect way to get schools and business to work together to improve standards. Schools in the zones were granted special freedom to opt out of traditional methods to try to improve educational attainment in deprived areas. But the zones were largely run by LEAs and failed to deliver the much-promised innovation.

Unfortunately, on present form, the prospects of this Education Bill delivering its targets seem just as unlikely.


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