Nick Seaton: At last, a sense of direction over education

THOUSANDS of parents and others with a special interest in education will be delighted that this week's Queen's Speech, and the ensuing debate, are belatedly beginning to indicate a sense of direction. They will also be relieved that education has been given such high priority.

Within the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, the Conservative's plans, it seems, have largely remained intact. Another good sign: within hours of taking office, Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary, proclaimed his focus by changing the name of the Department for Children, Families and Schools to the Department for Education. Full marks for that!

Prior to the election, and assuming the Conservatives won, most people expected one over-arching Education Bill that would draw all the reforms together. Instead, we now know, there will be two Bills.

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First, the Academies Bill, which should become law before the summer recess. As already reported by the Yorkshire Post, this will allow primary and secondary schools to apply for academy status. Nationally, around 2,000 primary schools and 600 secondary schools already rated as "outstanding" by the inspectorate may apply for "pre-approval" to become academies by this September. In Yorkshire, there are 286 schools qualified to take this option.

Schools that become academies will receive their funding directly from central government instead of the money going first through their local authority. This means the cash previously "creamed off" by local authorities will now go directly to those with academy status. Academies will also be allowed to set their own curriculum and draw in private sponsors. In effect, they will be opting-out of local authority control.

How many will decide to remove themselves from the safety of their

local authority "mother ship" will be fascinating.

Conservative plans for new "free" state schools to be run by parents, teachers or charities also remain intact. "Free" schools will be funded by taxpayers but, theoretically, independent of the state. Hundreds of applications have already gone forward, four of which illustrate the need. Here in Yorkshire, the Birkenshaw, Birstall and Gomersal Parents' Alliance is well ahead with plans to open a new free school on the site of Birstall Middle School. Dismayed by Suffolk County Council's plans to close Clare Middle School, parents there have produced a 200-page proposal. Their plans will avoid the necessity for children to make a 20-mile round trip to and from school each day. It will also save taxpayers millions of pounds by expanding their present school instead of closing it down.

Another group of parents in Wandsworth, London, has earmarked the redundant Bolingbroke Hospital to set up their new school. In Ealing, journalist Toby Young and his supporters hope to set up the West London Free School to specialise in music and Latin.

A second Education Bill will be laid before Parliament within months. This will introduce a slimmed-down curriculum, reading tests for 11-year-olds and allow all schools to offer the rigorous International GCSE, which does not include coursework. As well as giving teachers more sanctions against bad behaviour, this Bill will also introduce the Lib Dems' key policy: a "pupil premium" of extra cash for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Is it all too good to be true? Could these reforms finally destroy the educational establishment's subversive influence? One thing seems certain. The teachers' unions, local authorities and many central and local government officials will do everything they can to undermine the reforms.

Meanwhile, some fundamental questions remain:

n Will Personal, Social, Health Education and citizenship lessons

remain in the curriculum as the state's instrument of social engineering?

n If the academy model has been so successful overall (and provided value for money), why does the education department refuse to release all the academies' exam results even when asked to do so under Freedom of Information requirements?

n As part of their academy status, how much pressure will be placed on successful schools to merge or surrender management time to under-performing schools?

n Why have new grammar schools been banned, when demand for places is rising exponentially?

Despite David Cameron's belated admission that he was wrong to attack the only type of state school capable of competing with the independent sector, is it his intention to destroy the remaining grammar schools by stealth by making them "federate" with other types of school? Where is the freedom in that?

Over recent years, too many pupils and too many good schools have been disrupted by the secretive activities of officials attached to the education department's Academies Division and its 55bn Building Schools for the Future programme; and two quangos, Partnerships for Schools and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Their funding and their powerbase stem from Whitehall. How soon will the axe fall there?

Nick Seaton, from York, is chairman of the Campaign for Real Education.