Leading article: Freedom for schools remains paramount

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The Independent Online

Today's revelation in the latest GCSE league tables that four of the Prime Minister's precious city academies are performing badly will inevitably be seized upon by the growing number of opponents of the forthcoming Schools Bill to argue that these disappointing results show how misguided the Government's proposed reforms are. The failure of these independently run school trusts to reach the Government's own GCSE performance targets will be cited as evidence that giving schools more freedom is not - despite what Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly say - the key to raising educational standards and morale in our schools.

But, in truth, today's tables prove little, one way or another. The oldest city academies have been in existence only for four years. And we must remember that they were established to replace some of the worst schools in the country. It was never realistic to expect all of the 14 city academies currently teaching up to GCSE level would suddenly perform brilliantly. What these results show is that some have done well, others less so. It will take a much longer period to evaluate their success. And there is certainly nothing in this latest report to suggest that the principle of granting schools a greater level of individual autonomy is now discredited.

Yet a vicious political battle over the Schools Bill next month is surely inevitable. The list of opponents to the Government's plans is growing all the time. Joining supporters of the status quo this week was the normally ultra-loyal Lord Kinnock. And a report by the Commons Select Committee on Education is likely to be critical of the Government's plans when it is published next week. Such is the scale of the opposition among backbench Labour MPs that some form of compromise is inevitable. There are two areas of the Bill where this is most likely: admissions policy and the procedure for the establishment of new schools. To appease the Bill's opponents, there is likely to be a legally binding admissions code to prevent superior schools operating a covert system of selection. There is also likely to be a clause in the Bill that will continue to allow local education authorities to establish new schools, something that would have been impossible under the original White Paper.

A statutory admissions code would be a regrettably centralist intervention. The purpose of the Bill, after all, is to set schools free, not impose more rigid guidelines on them. But it would not be disastrous. And allowing LEAs to retain the power to set up new schools is not the end of the world either. The most important aspect of the forthcoming Bill is its removal of the dead hand of inefficient LEAs. So long as these various compromises do not interfere with the right of schools to break free, or for proactive parents to establish new schools, they can be tolerated. If the present scandal over sex offenders in schools proves anything, it is that schools need more freedom. Why was it ever up to the Education Secretary to decide which teachers should be allowed to work in individual schools? It is this sort of centralism that has been holding schools back.

As for Ruth Kelly, her position looks weaker each day the sex offender scandal rumbles on. She is plainly not in control of her department. But calls for her to be sacked over her failure to reform a clumsy vetting system for sex offenders in schools are rather hysterical. If there is any case for her to resign, it should be because she has been an ineffective Education Secretary. Much will depend on how she defends her position in Parliament today. She can probably draw some comfort from the fact that it makes little sense for Mr Blair to parachute in a new education secretaryweeks before this Bill is due. But she should be in no doubt that if she survives only to mishandle the Bill, there will be no second chances.

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