The Queen's Speech: End of school fees aid to be first priority

Queen's Speech: Education
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Indy Politics
An education Bill abolishing the assisted places scheme will be one of the first pieces of new legislation to reach the statute book.

The scheme, which subsidises independent school fees for less well-off pupils, will be ended before the summer recess and the money saved will be used to help reduce infant class sizes to 30 and under.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, decided to introduce the emergency Bill to stop independent schools offering more places for September 1998. A second Bill to be introduced in the autumn will concentrate on raising standards and changing school structures.

There will be a series of measures which will give the Government a tighter grip over both schools and local authorities. Testing for five-year- olds, which the Conservatives supported but did not make statutory, will become mandatory.

Ministers will announce today that a new qualification for headteachers, which was to have been voluntary under the Conservatives, will become compulsory.

Local authorities will be required to set targets of achievement. Ministers and civil servants are discussing whether to make school targets statutory as part of their drive to achieve national literacy and numeracy targets announced earlier this week. The Conservatives wanted schools to set their own targets.

Local authorities will be required to publish education development plans and appoint parent representatives. They will also have to set up public/private partnerships to provide nursery education in place of the nursery voucher scheme, which will be scrapped.

Mr Blunkett will take new powers which will allow him to force local authorities to close failing schools and reopen them under new management.

Authorities said they wanted to work with ministers to improve standards but urged the Government to give them more powers to intervene earlier in failing schools. Last night they also asked Mr Blunkett to give them a statutory duty to raise standards. Graham Lane of the Local Government Association said: "You can't run 24,000 schools from the Department for Education."

Ministers want to emphasise they are more interested in raising standards in the classroom than in school structures. But pledges to abolish grant maintained status and to offer schools the choice of becoming foundation, community or aided will be honoured.

The Bill will also make provision for parental ballots on the future admissions policies of the remaining 161 grammar schools.

A General Teaching Council to promote and regulate the teaching profession will be set up. There will be an enabling clause to allow the Government to reform loans for students in higher education after the Dearing report is published in July.

Details of the changes will be published in a White Paper before the end of next month. Mr Blunkett has promised full consultation with both local authorities and grant maintained schools.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that heads would support much of the programme though the absence of extra money was "a glaring omission".

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said that redistributing assisted places money would be "virtually impossible with the present rigid formula under local management of schools". He added: "The neatest way forward would be to establish, step by step, a contractual entitlement for teachers not to have to teach classes above 30."

Local authorities, while emphasising that they were delighted with much of the speech, were concerned that the Government should not centralise too much power in Whitehall.

Mr Lane warned ministers not to set targets for authorities and schools nationally. "There would have to be different targets for different authorities and different schools, dependent on their circumstances."