Leading article: Reform and the need for a culture of freedom

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After months of being told that their grip on schools will be broken, few will have been more surprised by the latest government announcement than the heads of England's local councils. Draft guidance unveiled by the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, at the annual conference of the NASUWT teaching union yesterday gives local councils the power to take control of "mediocre" secondary schools. They will also get a new £30m budget to help them do so.

This touches on a genuine problem. Mediocrity in our secondary schools is too often tolerated. According to Ofsted, one in four schools in England are offering pupils nothing more than "satisfactory" teaching. The Government is quite right to point out that simply because a school is "satisfactory" it does not mean that it should not come under pressure to improve. But this way of going about it is utterly baffling.

Ms Kelly claimed yesterday that granting these new powers to councils ought to lay to rest fears that the new Education Bill, presently making its way through the Commons, will create a tier of "ghetto" schools. But she ignores the implications for the wider education reform agenda. The Government now finds itself facing in two different directions at once. On the one hand, the main thrust of the Bill encourages schools to be independent of local authorities. But, on the other, it is now proposing to give local authorities greater powers to intervene. This is dangerously contradictory.

We are left wondering what the real point of this is. If it is a ploy to woo Labour rebels and ease the Bill's passage through Parliament, it is misguided. The White Paper has already been watered down to appease internal Labour opposition. Watering it down even further risks destroying its very essence. It is also far from certain to work. There is a possibility that this concession will not only fail to win over enough rebels but also hand the Tories an excuse to block the Bill's progress. David Cameron will be able to claim that the Government has reneged on a promise to set schools free.

Let us be clear about what is wrong with the secondary education sector at the moment. Successful schools are too often obstructed by sclerotic local educational authorities. It is quite right that they should have more power to expand, decide their own admissions and control their own budgets. Lifting the dead hand of local councils by allowing schools to become independent is essential to bring this about.

There will be no revolution overnight if this Bill is passed. And, as so often, the Prime Minister is guilty of overselling when he claims that the entire secondary sector will soon be made up of trust schools and academies. Many will no doubt opt to remain in local authority control. But this is an important reform nonetheless, because it will help to create a culture of freedom in schools that simply does not exist at the moment.

Critics have tried to whip up panic by arguing that it will lead to a two-tier system. But the truth is that such an iniquitous system already exists. The middle classes move into the catchment areas of decent state schools. And the less well off have to accept what is left. This Bill is the best hope of driving standards up across the board.

The NASUWT conference yesterday spent more time discussing pay and conditions (despite the fact that more money is going into education than in many years) than raising educational standards. Such a blinkered view is, sadly, what we have come to expect from, the teaching unions. But the Government has a greater responsibility. It began with the right idea, yet has allowed itself to be blown off course. Unless it rapidly regains the initiative, this opportunity to improve our secondary schools could easily be squandered.