A Lesson in Freedom; Schools Will Be Allowed to Set Their Own Hours and Opt out of Parts of Curriculum

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Byline: LAURA CLARK

SCHOOLS could be free to opt out of parts of the National Curriculum under sweeping reforms unveiled by the Government yesterday.

Teachers would be given more opportunity to experiment with the range of subjects taught as well as the length of the school day and term times.

A long-awaited Education Bill paves the way for schools to effectively tailor the subjects taught to children's needs.

It will also give governors the power to form, or invest in, companies providing services such as supply staff, transport or meals.

Ministers promised the radical shake-up would give schools the 'freedom to innovate,' with government stepping in 'only when things go wrong'.

Critics claimed, though, that the laws would give Ministers even more control over the way schools are run.

The National Curriculum for England includes three 'core' subjects, maths, English and science, and eight 'foundation' ones up to the age of 14 - technology, PE, history, geography, art and design, music, a foreign language, and citizenship.

But with Education Secretary Estelle Morris's permission, schools would be allowed to temporarily set aside parts of the curriculum.

Secondaries would be able to release pupils as young as 11 for vocational training, introduce specialist lessons such as Latin or enter bright youngsters for public exams early in a move which could downgrade the GCSE.

Some schools could also opt to use trips to France to teach the language intensively instead of through regular lessons.

Primaries would be able to exempt struggling pupils from key subjects until they mastered the three Rs.

The Bill, which has more than 200 clauses, is intended to 'deregulate' state schools.

New powers will allow Ministers to exempt schools from existing legislation if this helps raise standards.

Applications, for example, to vary the school day and open as early as 6am, or tear up teachers' pay and conditions agreements, will be considered individually by Miss Morris.

Top-performing schools will be allowed to pay staff bonuses and cut holidays to lengthen the school year.

One of the more controversial measures gives private companies the right to apply to run all new secondary schools.

Other aspects of the Bill include a crackdown on schools believed to be in danger of failing in the future.

Currently the Government can only intervene in schools classified as failing by Ofsted inspectors.

The new measures mean Miss Morris will be able to appoint a new board of governors - with the power to hire and fire - and replace education authority officials suspected of not doing enough to help weak schools.

So-called 'faith' schools, attacked by critics for 'increasing racial segregation', will be able to appeal if they are refused entrance to the state sector. …