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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 October 2005, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
'Parent power' to change schools
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

children watch Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly arrive at their home
Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly promise "parent-friendly" schools
Parent power will be the driving force behind improving England's schools, says Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.

Presenting an education White Paper, Ms Kelly promised a more "parent-friendly" school system.

Parents dissatisfied with local schools will be encouraged to set up their own - and a network of advisers will provide them with information.

Shadow Education Secretary David Cameron said the plans would create "total confusion" over school places.

The National Union of Teachers said that "parents do not want to control schools" and attacked the proposals as "extraordinarily wrong-headed".

The White Paper sets out a radical overhaul of the school system - proposing ways of organising schools that will offer more choice to parents.

'Parents' voices'

"It's very important that parents' voices are not lost in the system," Ms Kelly said.

The underlying principle is simple - freedom for schools and power for parents
Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary

"We are concerned about those parents who feel their children are trapped in failing schools and who don't feel there are any options for them," she said.

Secondary schools in particular could be "difficult environments for parents, where they feel completely cut off - and we want to break down those barriers".

"The underlying principle is simple - freedom for schools and power for parents," said the education secretary.

Schools will be given greater independence, similar to city academies, under a "trust" status, which will be advised by a "parents' council".

Groups of parents concerned about underachieving schools can ask their local authorities or Ofsted inspectors to intervene - or else set out plans for the creation of their own school.

Microsoft academy

If local authorities reject parents' proposals, the parents can appeal for adjudication - which Ms Kelly says could lead to the government forcing local authorities to fund such new school projects.

David Cameron
This White Paper gives every impression of having been written by a deeply divided committee. I think we can call it a Cabinet
David Cameron, Shadow Education Secretary

Schools will also be required to provide termly information to parents about their children's progress and to make it easier to contact schools through e-mail and websites.

The newly-created trusts will run individual schools or else groups of schools, under the leadership of a successful school or an outside organisation, such as a university, business or faith group.

Among the organisations that have expressed an interest have been Microsoft, the Open University, the Church of England and the Peabody Trust.

Independent schools will be able to opt into the state sector, but then would no longer be able to charge fees or select by ability.

A "schools commissioner" will be appointed to help parents to set up their own schools and to match potential external backers with schools.

The proposals set out by the White Paper will not be compulsory for schools - which will not have to opt for the more independent trust status.

The pressure to adopt these measures will come from parents, says the education secretary.

School admissions

And even though the trust schools will become their own admissions authorities, they are explicitly not allowed to introduce selection by ability or 11-plus entrance tests.

The education secretary's picture of legions of parents knocking on the door to control schools is not based in reality
Steve Sinnott, National Union of Teachers

Schools would have fewer obstacles to using "banding" in school admissions, to get an intake with a range of abilities, but there would be no obligation or financial incentives, said Ms Kelly.

Pupils from low-income families would be given extra support with transport costs, with free school buses up to a distance of six miles.

And by 2008, every local authority would have a network of advisers able to assist parents with admissions and to offer guidance about the school system.

The Conservatives said the proposals revealed how little had been achieved by successive Labour administrations.

'Outlandish'

"Why has it taken three manifestos, nine acts of parliament, five green papers, four White Papers, two strategy documents and four education secretaries for the Prime Minister to do something about this vital issue?," said Mr Cameron.

Many business people will want to become involved in the proposed trust schools
Sir Digby Jones, CBI chief

And Mr Cameron pointed to the reports of internal divisions and re-writes over these widely-trailed proposals.

"This White Paper gives every impression of having been written by a deeply divided committee. I think we can call it a Cabinet," said Mr Cameron.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Ed Davey, attacked the plans, saying: "The priority should be children's literacy and not the prime minister's legacy".

And he asked what would happen "where parents won't or can't get involved?".

Steve Sinnott, leader of the National Union of Teachers, described the proposals as "outlandish".

"The education secretary's picture of legions of parents knocking on the door to control schools is not based in reality," said Mr Sinnott.

But the director-general of the CBI, Sir Digby Jones, said the proposals were "good news" and that "many business people will want to become involved in the proposed trust schools".


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