PM tells schools: get tough

New backing for teachers over unruly pupils
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John Major will today outline a plan to give teachers more classroom support in disciplining disruptive children as part of a 12-point education programme.

The Prime Minister's move will open up the prospect of a toughening of existing Department for Education and Employment guidelines on detentions and exclusions, pledging a willingness to consult with the teaching unions on how the rules could be changed.

The present guidelines are widely viewed by the profession as weighted too heavily "in favour" of disruptive children, and unco-operative parents. Sources said yesterday that Mr Major agreed with many teachers that a combination of departmental guidance and the overall legal and procedural framework governing disciplinary issues inhibited schools in their efforts to crack down on unruly behaviour.

The dozen or so announcements expected in the speech will also include giving the go-ahead for grant-maintained schools to borrow up to the value of their existing assets, currently worth about pounds 2bn, to allow them to expand to meet demand for places.

The proposed initiatives come at the conclusion of Mr Major's round-Britain tour to drum up support for the Tories, and ahead of Thursday's cabinet meeting at Chequers at which ministers will finalise further announcements for next month's Blackpool party conference.

Speaking in Gateshead last night, Mr Major acknowledged that his government was still failing to get its message across to the public. Citing developments in the fight against crime, such as national fingerprinting and DNA systems, he admitted: "I don't think by and large they have got across to the public although they are things of which the public approves."

Under a theme of quality, opportunity and choice, today's speech to opt- out school heads will go on to explore the concept of parent or teachers' groups creating new schools, subject to quality criteria, to "opt in" to the grant-maintained sector.

In an effort to trigger an expansion of the existing GM sector, the 1,070 schools that have already opted out would be given a new freedom to mortgage their buildings, each worth an average of about pounds 2m, to pay for extra classrooms, science and sports facilities.

The Prime Minister hopes that the new freedom will encourage the 3,000 schools that have chosen to remain under local authority control to go grant-maintained. Under present rules, LEA schools can borrow for capital projects but grant-maintained schools cannot.

The pledge of greater flexibility is bound to be denounced by Labour as a last-ditch move to preserve a "two-tier" system which had not expanded to the extent the Government had hoped.

In a highly controversial move, Mr Major will loosen the prohibition on opted-out schools selecting on academic ability but will make it clear that he is not seeking widespread growth in selective admissions. Instead he will seek to transfer some of the control over admissions from the local authorities to the schools themselves.

Drawing on the experience of New York, the Prime Minister is also attracted to the idea that new GM schools could be created in run-down inner city areas by popular demand of the communities themselves.

Mr Major will also throw his weight behind keeping A-levels and GSCEs as the "gold standards" of the educational system, and is expected to reinforce the role of Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, to raise standards through school inspections.

John Dunford, the new leader of the Secondary Heads Association and head of Durham Johnston School in Durham said yesterday that the Prime Minister "had not put a foot right in education" during his five years in office. But heads will support moves to tighten the rules on excluding troublesome pupils.

John Sutton, the association's general secretary, said he had already received calls from heads this term complaining that they were being forced to admit pupils who had already been excluded from two schools.

They would like parents of a child who has been excluded twice in two years to lose their right to choose a school. The child would become the responsibility of the local authority.

Goals for under-fives, page 3