Leading article: The right instincts - but the devil is in the detail

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The Independent Online

We also welcome Ms Kelly's rhetoric on empowering parents. They should not be compelled to accept the mediocre state of much of the state secondary education sector. It is entirely right that disgruntled parents be given the right to establish their own schools. The squeals of protest from the teaching unions at the very prospect shows that this proposal is a good one. And it is sensible that popular schools should be given the right to expand or take over failing ones. These are the sort of initiatives that have been stifled for too long by protective local bureaucracies.

But we do harbour concerns about aspects of yesterday's white paper, specifically in relation to the detail. A particular worry is the mad dash to create a whole generation of self-governing "trust schools". These schools will be funded by local authorities, but backed by an external "partner" such as a not-for-profit-trust. We are told this could be anything from the Open University to the Peabody Trust or the Church of England. The idea is to instil a distinctive ethos in each school - and also to tap into the entrepreneurial instincts of the charitable sector.

There is nothing wrong with this in principle. But will enough schools come forward to volunteer for trust status? Many primary schools, for instance, may be happy to rely on local education authorities for governance. It should be remembered that all schools already have the option to become self-governing foundation schools, but not many have done so. And will enough schools find a benevolent external partner? The Schools Commissioner - who will be in charge of linking schools up with partners - may find himself, or herself, very busy.

The powers granted to parents also look excessive. The Bill states that when a trust school is created, a council of parents has to be established. School governing bodies must consult this on a regular basis. This is, naturally, welcome. Parental input is a sign of a healthy school. But parents are also accorded the power to trigger an Ofsted inspection if they consider the school to be underperforming. As a result of this process, the head teacher could end up being sacked. There is a danger that a small group of vocal, or aggrieved, parents could hound out a good head. The Bill is vague about what safeguards there are to prevent this happening.

And then there is the idea of so-called "schools councils" - advisory bodies with pupil representation. This is another idea that is perilously vague. It could mean pupils being put in the bizarre position of being able to veto the appointment of a new head teacher. Other questionable proposals remain in the White Paper too. The idea of bussing students from poor areas to successful schools survives, despite the apparent lack of demand for such a service. And we are no further towards understanding how the requirement that all schools take pupils of mixed abilities will be reconciled with the promise that they will have autonomy over their selection procedures.

The instincts of the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary that schools need to be set free are correct. But - as so often with this government - too little consideration has been given to the detail. This Bill will need much revising before it is fit to become law.

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