Headlines: November 27th, 2001

Further light has been shed by the Government on what it means when it says it wants to offer schools ‘greater autonomy’.The phrase appeared in the recent White Paper on education, which promised a raft of improvements, mainly aimed at secondary schools, and to build on what is seen as the success of measures to drive up children’s performance at primary school level.

The Education Bill just published proposes to allow schools in England to apply to the Education Secretary to become exempt from specific education laws and reduce regulations which would encourage innovation whilst continuing to hold schools to account for their performance.

For example, a headteacher might want to make changes to the school day, and if this would raise standards and was acceptable to parents, it could be allowed.

Schools could also apply for a degree of flexibility around teachers’ pay and conditions, or to opt out of elements of the National Curriculum – but only if the case could be made that it would raise standards.

It appears that the new freedoms for individual schools build on the learning of the education action zones, where small clusters of schools in deprived areas were allowed limited new freedoms and more money to see what improvement might follow.

Greater autonomy now being proposed nationally suggests that the improvements may not be rolling in fast enough from these pilots. Some headteachers have also said it represents a recognition from Government that those on the ground are most likely to know what would most improve their own school performance.

However, the Local Government Association, for local education authorities, says the new bill actually allows the Education Secretary more power, not less. It is unhappy that some council functions are further eroded, such as in control over planning and delivering of new state schools.

Councillor Graham Lane, chair of the LGA’s education executive said: ‘This Bill enables the Secretary of State to take more powers for herself and I am concerned that such interventions could stifle the creativity and innovation we need. `