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School of thought
Local Government Chronicle Summit Supplement – 15 September 2006

The Education & Inspections Bill was written with an eye on inner cities, but will it work in practice? Mark Smulian reports

Proof that one can indeed have too much of a good thing has been provided by the odyssey of the Education & Inspections Bill.

It has also afforded proof that the law of unintended consequences is alive and well. When the original Bill was published last autumn, government spin doctors presented it as the hammer with which local authority "interference" in education would be smashed.

It was spun as parent-power, and emphasised the opportunities for charities, religious bodies and others to run schools.

The spinning worked too well for its own good, and the backbench Labour rebellion was such as to endanger the Bill and its main progenitor, prime minister Tony Blair.

A series of concessions have since addressed many of the concerns aired by councils.

The result, unexpectedly, is a Bill that education and children's services directors guardedly welcome in some respects.

Fears remain that the Bill was written with an eye on specific problems with inner-London schools, and that these solutions have been inappropriately foisted on rest of the country.

There also remains concern that it meshes poorly with Every child matters, the government programme to tie education and child social services more closely together. But with almost all its legislative stages complete, the time for rows is past and council directors must try to make the Bill work. How they do that will inevitably involve some trial and error as new arrangements bed down.

Peter Traves, corporate director for children and lifelong learning at Staffordshire CC, says: "The Bill is much better than it was. The initial hype was misguided and suggested they were going to leave very little to local authorities. They were trying to impress the Daily Mail that they were hammering councils."

Among the fall-out from this piecemeal legislative process, admissions, school relations, transport and links with Every child matters stand out as key issues.

Admissions policies

This was particularly contentious, as the Bill originally envisaged that independent trust schools would set their own admissions policies.

Schools will now be obliged to follow policies laid down by the local admissions forum, in effect, the council, and supply an annual report on admissions. One senior figure says: "The annual report will show which type of kids go where. It will identify any imbalances and which schools operate covert selection policies by, say, charging a fortune for uniforms or trips."

Compliance with local admissions codes he says "gives us stronger teeth to make sure things are done properly", although he expects that councils "do not want to go around being policemen".

He hopes that admission will become self-policing, as other schools 'shop' those that try covert selection to, perhaps, pick only the most academically gifted pupils.

Religious schools are allowed to select pupils from the faith concerned but "that could just be production of a baptismal certificate for a church school, not a letter from a priest who knows the chair of governors, or whoever," he says.

Staffordshire's Peter Traves says the tools are there to tackle covert selection, but warns that education departments will need to ensure they have the resources to use these powers effectively. "It is a matter of capacity to be able to follow up what is going on in 400-odd schools," he says.

Brighton & Hove City Council's director of children's services, David Hawker, says: "It is very important not just to rely on legislation, but to make sure the admissions forum is working effectively.

"If you have 'x' number of schools unevenly distributed, as we have, it is essential that you have an admissions system that ensures people can, within reason, have access to a school close to them and do not have to travel all over the city," he says.

"I think the blocks against covert selection are reasonably strong, though by its nature it is hard to prove."

Mr Hawker also hopes that schools will want to blow the whistle on those that "play the system".

Every Child Matters

One concern when the Bill first appeared was that government policy was divergent, while Every child matters called for close links between education and social services, the Bill suggested weaker links between schools and councils.

Amendments have dealt with the worst contradictions, says Mr Hawker. "I don't think the Bill is contrary to Every child matters. The criticism was that it was not tied to it as closely as it could have been and while we have not quite got it right now, it is not now undermining it."

He points out that Bill puts councils' responsibility to provide a youth service on a statutory footing, which will be "very much a part of Every child matters".

Mr Traves still fears tension between schools that opt for trust status and councils' ability to make the programme workable.

"We will have a greater potential power to make sure schools co-operate with each other and other bodies, but this depends on schools taking a wider view," he says.

Another lever for influence over wayward schools is that councils will have to produce a children's and young persons' plan. Schools must act in accord with this, rather than just have regard to it.

Jill Tomlinson, strategic director of education and children's services, Slough BC, says she has a real concern about how Every child matters fits, but particularly with what happens to disadvantaged children.

"If every school is to be its own admissions authority they will lose out, and I am preparing for a situation where we get lumbered with the children who do not fit in anywhere."

Chris Waterman, executive director of the Confederation of Children's Services Managers, says: "The Bill has to work with Every child matters, and we are working to secure further concessions to make that happen."

Relations with schools

The days of direct control over schools by councils are long past, though some directors sourly note that the local management of schools system appeared to have passed unnoticed by government ministers.

Although great play was made of trust status initially, Mr Hawker feels that the incentives for adopting this are now so limited that few schools will bother. Some no doubt will, and councils still must deal with all types of schools in their area.

Mr Waterman says: "All schools should be on a level playing field in terms of duties and responsibilities to the community, whether they are academies, city technology colleges, foundation or trust schools."

Making sure that all local schools perform well will be a further test of capacity, rather than powers, Mr Traves fears. He explains: "If we are unhappy with a school we need to intervene quickly, not wait for data to be collected to show a fall in standards.

"For example, if you have a three-teacher school where all the teachers are good you have a good school, but if one leaves and cannot be replaced with someone good enough that can overnight become a school at risk, and we will not pick that up by waiting for data returns."

Transport links

The Bill calls on councils to promote sustainable schools transport. such as walking, cycling and use of public transport. in a bid to reduce the notorious traffic congestion caused by school run cars in morning peak hours.

But councils are also required to provide transport for pupils who live more than three miles from their school, which lays them open to disputes over subsidies for pupils at faith schools, and those unable to attend their nearest school.

Despite Slough's small geographical area, strategic director Jill Tomlinson fears "transport will be a big issue". It already has many religious schools, an academy planned, and grammar schools inherited from the old Berkshire CC.

"If more schools become trusts there could be a real problem with people choosing schools that they need transport to reach," she says.

"Some parents will argue that if children who choose faith schools get free transport, then so should those who opt not to send children to a faith school. If there are trusts, and pupils opt for ones remote from their home, the transport bill will increase."

"Slough uses walking buses where supervised groups of children walk to school, but what happens if you are in a rural area?" Ms Tomlinson asks.

Mr Traves also fears high transport bills because parts of Staffordshire are among the most sparsely populated in England and "talking about parental choice [between schools] in a place like that is a bit of a nonsense".

Staffordshire hopes to cut its transport bill by combining its vehicles and those of contractors into a comprehensive transport pool to improve efficiency.