Leading article: Parent power within limits

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The Independent Online

The Government has unashamedly moved towards more "parent power" in schools with the proposal in the Queen's Speech to allow parents to instigate school inspections. Ministers have also beefed up the powers of Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, by giving it the final say over whether a school that is failing should be closed, taken over by a new provider, or the management removed. In effect, therefore, they are giving parents the power to fire ineffective heads.

The Government has unashamedly moved towards more "parent power" in schools with the proposal in the Queen's Speech to allow parents to instigate school inspections. Ministers have also beefed up the powers of Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, by giving it the final say over whether a school that is failing should be closed, taken over by a new provider, or the management removed. In effect, therefore, they are giving parents the power to fire ineffective heads.

Parents will also be among those encouraged to set up new schools in the state system - alongside church, other faith organisations and private companies.

There is nothing wrong with giving parents who are worried about their children's education the opportunity to do something more concrete to put matters right. However, safeguards need to be inserted in any legislation to avoid the risk of a group of unrepresentative parents waging war against a head whom they particularly dislike - and creating instability in the school. Schools could be destabilised where there are disagreements over the wearing of religious dress in schools, for example, or over a liberal multicultural approach to the curriculum, in the event of a far-right group gaining support locally.

On the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's intention to adopt a policy of zero tolerance towards indiscipline, we need to see more detail. It is important to know what her rhetoric means before we can decide whether the policy will work on the ground.

Head teachers are, of course, wary about conceding too much power to parents. As David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said at the conference earlier this month, heads are worried that giving too much power to parents might be like "putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar". Their worries are that too many parents display a lack of responsibility and, in particular, that assaults on head teachers are increasing as a result.

On this subject, it is good to see Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly talking about the need to restore some respect in today's society - though it will take a little more than suggesting that offenders wear a uniform or that hoodies be banned from all shopping centres to really make an impact.

Dons' victory

Tuesday's historic vote by Oxford's legislative body, Congregation, to oppose the new Vice-Chancellor's proposals to review academic performance shows just how difficult it is to get change at Britain's ancient universities. Cambridge dons fought change during the reign of Sir Alec Broers; Oxford's academics have now done the same. One can see why they are so fired up. Until now, they have been able to dictate the content and method of their research. John Hood wanted to bring them into line with other research-intensive universities to ensure that Oxford does as well as possible in the research-assessment exercise. Tuesday's result means that he has failed.

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