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Friday, 23 November, 2001, 13:00 GMT
More freedom for secondary schools
Some secondary schools in England could be free to change the length of the school day and terms - and to vary the subjects taught.
The proposals are published in the government's Education Bill, which also includes plans for more specialist schools.
The Bill covers England and Wales, where separate proposals have been made by the Welsh Assembly education minister - without the specialist schools, and with a plan to scrap testing for seven-year-olds.
It seeks to remove legal obstacles to schools introducing imaginative schemes for raising standards - perhaps even setting up their own companies.
An experimental, entrepreneurial approach has been used at the highly successful Thomas Telford School in Shropshire, where pupils have a longer school day and year.
The head teacher Sir Kevin Satchwell says other schools should seize the opportunity to change the school day.
"In the case of our school, our teachers teach no more than four days a week.
"The other day is used for planning, preparation and marking.
As one of a handful of City Technology Colleges, Thomas Telford has freedoms other schools do not, and earns millions of pounds from its own online information technology course.
The Education Bill should pave the way for other schools to have the legal freedom to make similar changes.
Schools would be free to pay staff extra money to have a longer day or year.
They would also be free to abandon the full national curriculum to focus more on vocational subjects.
And partnerships could be set up among local schools who could share teachers - or even sell their own educational services.
Earlier discussion about changes to secondary schools had emphasised the expansion of faith schools.
But the riots in Bradford and other cities this summer and the events of September 11 have brought criticism of the idea of increasing the number of faith schools.
Ministers say they merely want to level the playing field so non-Christian religions have the same opportunity to open or run schools as the Christian and Jewish faiths have.
And officials are trying to ensure that new faith schools do not increase segregation.
Guidelines are to be issued to the school organisation committees, which consider changes to schools in a local authority area, requiring them to look at how any new school proposes to work in partnership with other schools.
But this does not satisfy the National Secular Society (NSS), which wants faith schools to be converted into ordinary state schools.
Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director of the NSS said: "The long term consequences of this misguided policy will be the splintering of most of the education system along religious and therefore racial lines.
"It may take twenty years to appear, but by then the damage will be irrevocable."
The government wants to boost the number of specialist schools - which emphasise certain areas of the curriculum such as sport, science, business or the arts.
The Local Government Association (LGA) says it supports specialist schools and the drive to raise standards, but believes that more innovation and less regulation is key to creating excellence.
Graham Lane, the chair of the LGA's education executive said: "If we want to build a first class education system for all children we must give councils the freedoms and flexibilities to innovate and to share the excellence of one school with all schools."
The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said the Bill would give schools the freedom they needed to "innovate in exciting new ways".
"Teachers and heads have achieved great successes in raising standards in our schools.
"We know that teachers already have many ideas to raise them further, and we want to ensure these are explored and, when successful, spread to other schools," said Ms Morris.
But general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, David Hart, said: "Greater autonomy for successful schools is all spin and no substance."
"The idea that heads have to prove success to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State is highly prescriptive and very bureaucratic," he said.
"As far as the NAHT is concerned all schools, other than those in special measures or serious weakness, should be school managed."
Unions representing classroom teachers have mixed opinions about the bill - but many have criticised plans for more links with the private sector, and to allow more schools to sell their own services to others.
Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women teachers said it was "more privatisation, tempered only by more central and bureaucratic control".
Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, gave the legislation a partial welcome.
He said Ms Morris had shown faith in teachers' abilities to identify practice which is good for their pupils, but he said it was "unnecessary" for schools to become commercial outfits.
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