Lords attack Education Bill: Labour derides 'sinister, narrow, short-term' measure

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Indy Politics
JOHN PATTEN, Secretary of State for Education, has written to university vice-chancellors assuring them of their continued independence, the House of Lords was told yesterday as the Education Bill again came under attack as a highly centralising measure.

The university heads joined the clamour of alarm from educationalists and opposition parties when Mr Patten added to the Bill a new clause requiring him to 'promote education in England and Wales' and use his powers to improve standards and encourage diversity.

Though the wording of the clause is declaratory, it marks a fundamental change, ending the role allotted to local authorities as the providers of education under the 1944 Education Act as schools are encouraged to opt for grant-maintained status funded directly from Whitehall.

The 229-page Bill deals essentially with schools, but Mr Patten told the Commons earlier this month that his duty to act under the new clause 'covers the colleges of education, the Further Education Funding Council, Higher Education Funding Council and the universities'.

David Harrison, chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, wrote to Mr Patten expressing surprise and seeking clarification. Last year the CVCP was involved in a battle over academic freedom during the passage of the Further and Higher Education Act.

Opening yesterday's Second Reading debate, Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, said that concern about the impact of the so-called 'clause zero' - now clause 1 - was 'misplaced'. The Secretary of State's could only act to the extent of specific powers in the Bill or in existing legislation.

As for universities, the FHE Act 'fully secured' their continued independence and nothing in the clause or elsewhere in the Bill changed that situation. Mr Patten would be setting this out in a letter to the CVCP, she said.

The Bill carries forward the drive to get schools to opt out of council control. Lady Blatch said that there were now 503 approved grant-maintained schools. One in five secondary schools had balloted, many primary schools had done so and the number of applications was rising daily. But while Lady Blatch described the measure as 'the last great step in the devolution of power to schools', Lord Judd, Labour's education spokesman, said it marked the last stage in the destruction of the 1944 consensus on education. LEA's would be left with the tasks no-one else wanted - statementing children with special needs and enforcing school attendance were listed by the minister. As LEA's lost funding, nursery schooling and adult education would be endangered.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee, for the Liberal Democrats, said that the Bill had not addressed the real needs of schools, which were 'high quality teaching, small classes, adequate buildings and resources, and an early start'.

The Government made 331 amendments to the Bill and added 24 new clauses during its Commons passage, fuelling accusations that it was making legislation on the hoof.

Baroness Warnock, Mistress of Girton College Cambridge, said the Bill 'bears all the marks of haste and a determination to move headlong in a centralised direction'. Conservative Lord Skidelsky, a member of the Schools Examination and Assessment Council, shared the disquiet about clause 1.