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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 02:50 GMT
School reform plans under fire
A secondary school classroom
The plans could mean major school reform
The country's best teachers will lead the next stage of schools reform, Education Secretary Estelle Morris has said as she defended the changes outlined in a new Education Bill.

Opposition MPs say the bill, debated for the first time in the Commons on Tuesday, fails to tackle the critical shortage of teachers.

Schools are facing real problems with teacher shortages, falling standards of discipline and bureaucracy

Damian Green
Shadow minister
Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are attacking the reform plans, saying they will not help recruitment and will leave ministers with too much power.

In the bill's second reading debate, Ms Morris hit back at her critics, outlining what she called a "major package of reform that will affect every school and every child".

Freedom for innovation

With teachers now the most accountable of all public servants, the government was able to give schools new flexibility, she told MPs.

That freedom meant schools could be given flexibility to side-step national rules to try out new, innovative solutions.

Ms Morris continued: "The way to improve all our schools is to learn from the best teachers in our best schools."

Estelle Morris
Morris says schools will get more freedom to innovate
The bill would also give schools new flexibility in how they used staff, allowing them to share specialist teachers with other schools, for example.

While much had been achieved in the past four years, the education secretary acknowledged there was still a "considerable way" to go.

The bill proposes new ways of tackling failing schools, which could be taken over by private firms, voluntary organisations or clusters of good schools.

Other plans include:

  • Promoting diversity for secondary schools, including the creation of new specialist schools.

  • Making it easier for new faith schools to be established - a move that opposed by some Labour and Lib Dem MPs.

    Ms Morris was challenged by Tory MPs over why the bill did not tackle the key problems of teacher work load and falling discipline.

    She said many moves have already been taken to counter those problems, and she highlighted new incentives to attract new teachers.

    Standards under scrutiny

    MPs discussed the reform plans amid mixed messages over the success of government policies for education in the UK.

    A major international survey shows British pupils are above average in science, maths and literacy.

    But schools inspectors at Ofsted are worried improvement in maths and English in England's primary schools is in danger of stalling.

    While Ms Morris pointed to the report's comments about "substantial improvement", shadow education secretary Damian Green called the Ofsted report "damning".

    He told MPs most people in education viewed the bill with "disappointment and hostility"

    "Will it encourage a single extra teacher to stay in the profession?

    "Will it cut the red tape that is driving teachers out of the classroom?

    "Will it improve discipline in our schools?

    "The answer to all these questions is a very clear no."

    'Centralised power'

    The Tories see the bill as a wasted opportunity, saying it does nothing to deal with teacher shortages, falling standards of discipline and bureaucracy.

    Instead more power will be centralised in Whitehall, they say, adding more bureaucracy to the running of schools.

    Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis made similar criticisms, telling the Commons the bill had "all the hallmarks" of centralisation.

    It would give the education secretary "Kremlin-like powers over every single secondary school in the land", he said.

    'Increased division'

    There would be more selection by faith, specialism and post code and a two-tier, two-speed schools system, Mr Willis went on.

    And he warned that more faith schools would increase division and polarisation of communities.

    The Lib Dems say the bill lacks strategies for recruitment and retention of teachers, and an ambitious programme for investment in teachers, which should be at the heart of the bill.

    The bill was given a second reading by 323 votes to 188, majority 135.

    It covers schools in England, although some parts will also affect those in Wales once the details have been agreed with the Welsh executive.

  • Click for more on the education proposals


    Key plans & reaction



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