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The main elements of the Queen's Speech on May 14 were the two Education Bills.

The first will abolish the assisted places scheme and reduce class sizes. This bill is likely to be introduced before the summer recess, in order for it to achieve royal assent by the autumn.

The second bill is likely to be longer and will cover a wide range of issues. An Education White Paper is likely to be published in early June, with a bill published in November.

Assisted Places Scheme

The assisted places scheme started in 1981 to enable bright children from modest backgrounds, who might not otherwise be able to do so, benefit from education at independent schools.

Since 1981, an estimated 80,000 children have participated in the scheme, costing a total of just over 800 million. In 1981, 4,185 pupils gain assisted places. There are currently some 34,000 pupils and 355 schools in the scheme.

On some indicators the assisted places has been successful. Over 42% of pupils who gain places under the assisted places scheme come from families with annual incomes below 10,000. Pass rates at GCSE are marginally higher among assisted pupils than non-assisted pupils in independent and state schools.

The abolition of the scheme has been welcomed by most education groups - with the exception of those campaigning on behalf of independent schools - and has not been opposed by poverty lobby groups.

Class Sizes

Class sizes have steadily increased in recent years, due to education cuts and teacher shortages, as well as an increase in the number of pupils.

Despite the increases in class sizes, most pupils are already in classes of 30 or less pupils with one or more teacher. However, large classes are more common in primary schools.
Pressure on pupils to perform better

The cost of reducing class sizes will be dependent on local circumstances: the size of the problem, the ease with which admissions could be transferred to other schools and the need for additional teachers.

The Institute of Public Finance has estimated that if all infant classes with more than 30 pupils were abolished it would cost 65m annually, plus a capital outlay of 100m. The National Federation of Educational Research has estimated that cutting class sizes to 30 or under for five, six and seven year olds would cost 68 million.

Failing Schools

The second Education Bill focuses on improving school standards, partly by tackling the problem of failing schools.

The Government plans to set annual targets for schools and Local Education Authorities, send improvement teams into failing schools and close those that don't meet the new targets.

Although there is widespread acknowledgement that where schools are failing, the way in which schools are evaluated is the key contentious issue.

Nursery Education

The Government aims to scrap the nursery voucher scheme. It was launched by the Conservatives in April 1997, after an initial pilot scheme in several areas.

The voucher scheme has been heavily criticised for failing to stimulate new provision in the pilot areas, threatening the existing supply of playgroups, nursery schools and private nurseries.

The plan to guarantee places in nurseries for all four-year-olds is seen as a highly achievable goal. Most four-year-olds are already in state funded nursery and reception classes, or playgroups.

Far fewer 3-year-olds and only 2% of under-3s are in state funded places. The UK has the lowest level of state funded childcare in the European Union and one of the lowest levels of provision for 3-6 year olds.

Literacy And Numeracy

The Education Bill contains provisions to tackle the significant number of children and adults who have problems with basic skills. According to the Basic Skills Agency, as many as one in three secondary school children and one in six adults has difficulty mastering the basics in literacy and numeracy.

There has been little significant change in levels of basic skills attainments since the 1940s. Action to improve basic skills needs to be aimed at individuals of all ages.

Initiatives which have been found to be effective include family literacy schemes where parents and children learn literacy and numeracy skills together.

Pupil Achievement

Another key aim of the Labour Government is to improve pupil achievement. There has been improvement since the late 1980s in terms of qualifications obtained, staying on rates beyond 16 and entry to higher education.

Nevertheless, educational achievement still remains poor in certain areas, such as mathematics, in comparison to other developed countries.

Almost one in five seven-year-olds and two in five 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds fail to reach expected national curriculum standards in English. Similar standards have been found for mathematics and science.

Teaching Standards

There has been widespread support for a General Teaching Council (GTC) to improve standards of education. All three main political parties gave a commitment to either introducing or consulting on introducing a GTC in their manifestos.

There will be much interest in the details of the proposals for a GTC. It is unclear what powers will it have or who will be entitled to sit on it.

School Structures

The Government has outlined specific changes to school structures. Key changes include the increased representation of local education authorities and parents on school boards.

There will be much interest in the details of changes to admission policies, which will allow more parental preference. Some organisations are calling for a national admissions policy to ensure that a two-tier structure is not, in effect, maintained.

Education Spending

Labour has not made a specific commitment on increasing spending for education. At the 1996 party conference, Tony Blair said that a Labour government would increase the proportion of national income spent on education by the end of the first term.

Savings made through reductions in unemployment will be channelled into education. Total education spending for 1997/98 is predicted to be 38 billion.

The UK spends 5.1% of GDP on education compared to the 5.8% average for developed countries. The 1996 budget increased education spending by 875 million - of which 633 million is expected to come from local authorities. An additional 200 million is planned over 2 years for universities and colleges.

Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961-1997

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