Government to have its hand in every school

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The Government and local authorities will get unprecedented powers to drive out failure in schools under proposals in a White Paper aimed at levering up national educational standards.

Excellence in Schools, published yesterday under the banner of "zero tolerance of failure", paves the way for a school system in which tough improvement targets will be set at every level, from the Government through local authorities and schools down to individual teachers.

Where those targets are not met, the paper provides for a series of penalties intended to guarantee improvement. Sanctions include the rapid sacking of bad teachers, closure of failing schools and the suspension of powers of education authorities.

Parents will also play a role in the standards crusade, underpinned by compulsory home-school contracts which will set out the rights and responsibilities of schools, parents and pupils, including stipulations on homework.

Local authorities will play a far more significant role than they did under the Conservatives in monitoring standards in their schools and providing advice and support. LEAs will gain the power to take back control of funds or appoint extra governors if a weak school fails to heed "early warnings", without the need to wait for a "failure" verdict from inspectors.

However, authorities' "education development plans", drawn up in conjunction with schools, will be subject to approval by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The new proposals would also allow the Government for the first time to force an LEA to close a failing school.

The hand of government will stretch right inside the classroom, where schools will be required to set pupils by ability unless they can prove they use an effective alternative approach and, in the case of primaries, set aside an hour a day for teaching the three Rs. The stress on target- setting to raise standards, backed up by a combination of pressure and support, forms the heart of a White Paper which also sets out steps to increase parents' involvement in the standards crusade.

"Parents are a child's first and enduring teachers" who play a "crucial role in helping their children learn," says the paper, which will be distributed in simplified form in supermarkets. It proposes more family learning schemes, under which parents with poor literacy and numeracy are encouraged to improve their own skills to allow them to help their children.

All schools will also have to draw up a home-school contract to reflect the responsibilities of school, parents and pupils over issues such as standards, discipline, attendance and homework. Though the agreements will not be legally binding - a potential minefield for schools - they are intended to be "powerful statements of intent". The White Paper also makes clear the Government's concern that the present level of exclusions is too high, and outlines plans to consult on new guidance for schools.

Ministers were quick to stress that new responsibilities for authorities in monitoring and enforcing standards did not detract from the role of the schools watchdog, Ofsted, which will continue to inspect schools at least every six years and will begin inspecting LEAs.

However, a series of proposed reforms would see schools given just two terms' notice of inspection instead of five - saving time wasted on lengthy preparation, and introduce an appeals process for schools unhappy with their report.

Other measures unveiled in the White Paper include moves to improve training of teachers and heads, and the setting up of a General Teaching Council to regulate and promote the profession. =The paper also sets the seal on established government policies, including cutting infant class sizes to no more than 30 and abolishing grant maintained status in favour of a new framework encompassing community, aided and foundation schools.

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