This week’s copy, by Katie Michelon, examines key proposals of the new Children, Schools and Families Bill including new rules on accountability for schools, parental responsibility, curriculum, National Challenge schools, school report cards and home school guarantees

Following publication of the Children, Schools and Families Bill in November 2009, there has been much commentary surrounding the proposals for schools. In this edition of Legal Expertise, Katie Michelon examines some of the key proposals and considers the potential impact should the Bill become law.

What does the Children, Schools and Families Bill (the Bill) cover?
The Bill gives legislative effect to aspects of the white paper Your Child, Your School, Our Future: Building a 21st Century Schools System and implements recommendations for numerous independent reviews.

Part one of the Bill covers children and schools and proposes legislation on areas such as pupil and parent involvement, the curriculum, the powers of governing bodies, school improvement and school teachers’ qualifications. Parts two and three deal with family proceedings and miscellaneous provisions.

Does the Bill mean more accountability for schools?
Yes. The government has made it clear that parents and pupils must have ‘a clear set of expectations’ in relation to a school’s performance.

The Bill introduces 38 formal pupil and parent ‘guarantees’. The guarantees include pupils’ rights to ‘have their say about standards of behaviour in their school’, the right to receive one-to-one tuition if they are performing below national expectations and an entitlement to five hours of high-quality PE and sport per week. The parent guarantees include being issued with a school report card which gives clear information on the school’s performance; receiving written information about extra support to be provided should their child be gifted and talented; and access to services such as advice on parenting issues.

Local authorities will also be required to conduct annual parental satisfaction surveys and parents and pupils will be entitled to complain to the local government ombudsman where a school fails to comply with one or more of the guarantees.

Does the Bill place additional responsibility on parents as well as schools?
Parents will be provided with a home school agreement (‘agreement’) in which a parent’s responsibilities regarding their child’s conduct, well being and education will be listed. The agreement will include a ‘parental declaration’ in which parents must acknowledge their own responsibilities and the school’s values. Schools will have stronger powers to enforce the agreements when a parent is non-compliant. For example, Part three of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 (parental responsibilities) will be amended to allow a parenting contract, and also the courts, to take into account parents’ responsibilities under an agreement.

Does the Bill affect the curriculum?
Yes. It proposes a new primary curriculum to start in September 2010, as recommended by Sir Jim Rose and Sir Alasdair MacDonald in their independent reviews, both published earlier this year. The new curriculum includes more emphasis on children’s wellbeing including, controversially, making PSHE (personal, social and health education), which includes sex education, mandatory in primary schools.

What provision does the Bill make regarding National Challenge?
The Government’s National Challenge programme incorporates the aim for 30% of pupils in all secondary schools to achieve 5 A-C grades at GCSE (including English and Maths) by 2011. The Bill sees the Government pushing hard for results. It has written letters to local authorities in those areas where results are still low and where structural intervention plans are inadequate or have not been put in place. Vernon Coaker, the schools minister, has stated that ‘definite and radical’ solutions are required.

The Bill will enable the secretary of state to direct a local authority to issue a warning notice if standards in a school are unacceptably low. In terms of school closure, at present, the secretary of state may only close a school where it falls within the Ofsted category of requiring special measures. However, the proposed legislation gives the secretary of state the power to close a school if it fails to comply with a warning notice given for performance standards and safety or if it falls into the Ofsted category of requiring significant improvement.

What has been the reaction to the Bill?
The government says that the Bill will make the vision for a 21st century school system a reality. It encourages parental engagement and responsibility, allows increased school freedoms and strengthens the powers of local authorities and the secretary of state to intervene as necessary to transform state schools. However, the Conservatives argue that the vague guarantees set out in the Bill will not improve standards.

Other critics have remarked that the parent and pupil guarantees are ‘unworkable’ and that the Bill will only serve to benefit lawyers, not pupils. Some believe that this element of the Bill risks reintroducing ‘failure to educate’ litigation, albeit in a new guise.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 2009

About the author: Katie Michelon is a lawyer at Browne Jacobson. To find out more about the legal services Browne Jacobson provides in the education sector and to visit their website, please follow this link