Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Chris Grayling: The importance of the new clause was highlighted in today's Ofsted report, which says:

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the freedoms that the new clause would give heads and governing bodies may go some small way to providing the flexibility that would enable them to overcome the recruitment problems which are causing the difficulties highlighted by the chief inspector in the report?

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is right and I am grateful for the point that he makes.

To give Ministers credit, they have recognised that there is a severe problem of retention and recruitment in the teaching profession. They know that problems and difficulties are being caused for many schools, not just in the south-east, but in much of the country. They have responded by introducing provisions for earned autonomy—autonomy related to school performance, as they phrase it—but as is typical of their policies as a whole and as is endemic in the Bill they miss the point. They say, "Autonomy is a good thing, schools should be free to make more decisions for themselves—but only when we say so." They bring the whole thing back to the Secretary of State's office. Ministers decide when autonomy is a good thing and when it is not. That is not autonomy; it is central control. That is where the Government increasingly fall down, even when they have some inkling of the right direction in which they should be travelling.

The documents that the Minister gave to Committee members and has now given to other hon. Members to provide some detail of how the Government envisage allowing autonomy in certain circumstances raise more concerns than they settle. Many people have cast doubt on the validity of using free school meals to decide whether a school is performing well or not compared with other schools in its band. The use of the free school meals measure has been widely discredited. Normally Ministers would accept that, but they are so baffled as to how to measure plausibly which schools should be allowed autonomy and which not, that they have fallen back on the free school meals criteria.

Mr. Hoban: May I give my hon. Friend an example of the problem with using free school meals as an indicator of performance? I was talking to the head master of a

5 Feb 2002 : Column 815

local secondary school, who pointed out that the take-up rate for free school meals in his school was 6 per cent., but in feeder primary schools it was 9 per cent. Families do not suddenly become richer when their children move from primary to secondary school. The use of a crude school measure such as free school meals seems lamentable.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is right. I will be interested to hear what the Minister's justification is for the use of the free school meals criteria, because Ministers do not normally give credence to that measure of social need in regard to school performance.

The extent to which Ministers have sought to put flesh on the bones of the provision does not merely fail to answer questions, but raises many more issues that need to be settled. The Government have taken an odd approach whereby they claim to believe in autonomy for schools, but then attempt to row back from it and explain how they might interpret when autonomy is appropriate and when it is not. It is an extremely odd provision. New clause 10 would turn the Bill away from the plethora of ill-thought-out draft regulations that Ministers have in mind.

8.30 pm

Mr. Cameron: To be fair, my hon. Friend should put some flesh on the bones of new clause 10, which seeks to give all maintained schools freedom over pay and conditions but then states in subsection (2) that there may be circumstances in which a school will not be eligible for automatic exemption. Surely my hon. Friend should explain the circumstances in which his proposed regulations would apply.

Mr. Brady: Absolutely. I plead guilty and I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend identify an apparent irregularity in the expert drafting of new clause 10. I should point out that I was charitable when he sought to make similar points about the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I plead the same defence as I allowed the hon. Gentleman to use.

The Bill gives Ministers total control, discretion and freedom. They can do precisely as they wish. So whatever we attempt in new clauses—even if we allow Ministers reserve powers and trust them in a way in which they do not trust schools—in some circumstances it may be necessary to constrain autonomy or the freedom to innovate.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman has been generous in his comments. Our respective new clauses reiterate the same principle. We want the Government to set out in regulations, or in new legislation, the conditions in which schools would not get either earned autonomy or the power to innovate. That would be much healthier, as it would cut out a whole raft of bureaucracy involving schools having to apply and then being knocked back. We have all suffered from the whole business of bidding, which is something we want to avoid.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Transparency and clarity are crucial to schools that may want to take advantage of the earned autonomy provisions. If we do not have that transparency and

5 Feb 2002 : Column 816

clarity, schools will end up wasting more time—which they can ill afford to do—and more of their resources will be taken up with bids and projects which ultimately do not come to fruition, but which they have no earthly way of knowing will not find favour with Ministers.

New clause 10 would improve the Bill as it provides for regulations setting out the circumstances in which automatic exemption would not be appropriate. However there is a more important reason for accepting new clause 10: it would change the burden of proof. At present Ministers assume that schools are guilty until proved innocent. Ministers believe that schools are not capable of managing their own affairs and that it is not reasonable for them to have autonomy except in specific circumstances that Ministers have approved.

New clause 10—I accept that new clauses 5 and 6 take somewhat the same direction—seeks to shift the burden of proof and establish a different premise. If accepted, it would make it clear that we trust schools, head teachers, teachers—whether professional staff or the volunteers who do such important work in making schools function—and governors to do their job. The less Ministers interfere in what such people are doing, and the more freedom and discretion they are given, the better the job that they are likely to do.

Mr. George Osborne: I very much welcome the new clause that my hon. Friend is introducing. In Committee, did the Minister give some idea of take-up by estimating the number of schools or local education authorities that will apply under the unamended clauses? Without such an estimate we should surely err on the side of giving many schools freedom, which is what the new clause would provide.

Mr. Brady: As far as I am aware, the Minister did not estimate the number of schools that are likely to gain exemptions relating to innovation.

Mr. Timms indicated assent.

Mr. Brady: The Minister says that I am correct, but he did estimate the number of schools that might initially qualify for earned autonomy. He suggested that an initial figure of 10 per cent. would be expected gradually to increase, although—perhaps reasonably—he was not prepared to predict a timetable for how soon a given percentage would qualify.

Of course, that figure depends greatly on the criteria set out by Ministers in the draft regulations. It is impossible to predict exactly how many would qualify against such an arbitrary yardstick as the free school meal test, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) said, can differ from school to school, from area to area, and perhaps from year to year. In principle, under this measure Ministers might grant a school so-called earned autonomy in one year because it was in the top 25 per cent. of the free school meal band, but if the number of free school meals subsequently fell because a new factory or business opened nearby and brought new jobs to the area, the band would change and the school—without any change in its performance or the individuals educated there—might no longer qualify. I doubt whether Ministers intend to withdraw earned autonomy in such circumstances, but these rather odd provisions leave open that possibility.

5 Feb 2002 : Column 817

New clause 10 deals with a matter of principle—the extent to which we in this House are prepared to trust and respect schools, and give them dignity, by accepting that they are better at doing their own job than Ministers are. It would shift the emphasis away from the assumption of Ministers that—at the moment, at least—90 per cent. of schools are not capable of qualifying for earned autonomy, to the assumption that schools are capable of so qualifying, unless there is a reason why they should not.

I am not going to estimate the number of schools that might be expected to qualify for earned autonomy if the new clause were accepted, but if Ministers do not accept it they should reflect on the balance that they are seeking to enshrine in the Bill. Accepting new clause 10 would send the positive message to schools that we want them to have the freedom to flourish. Without new clause 10, the Bill will send the negative message that Ministers do not trust schools to perform, other than in the circumstances that Ministers prescribe.

I therefore commend new clause 10 to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page