Education Bill

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Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 72, page 1, line 6, at beginning insert—

    'Subject to subsection (1A) below'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 73, page 1, line 11, at end insert—

    '(1A) The Secretary of State and the National Assembly of Wales shall, before making an order under section 2 or section 3 with respect to a particular maintained school, consult the local education authority.'.

Mr. Willis: I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Adams. I have not had the opportunity to work under your stewardship before, but I understand from my hon. Friends that you are a fair and generous Chairman. You are also a most appropriate Chairman for the Bill, because of your long involvement in education. As you represent a Scottish constituency, you are aware of the benefits of devolved power to not only the Scottish Parliament, but Scottish local authorities and schools, and I have no doubt that you will use your wisdom in that direction too.

I am delighted that you have come to the Committee with an understanding of local government and its uses, as you have served as a member of Paisley town council, Renfrew district council and on Strathclyde regional council—an education authority. When we discuss key issues involving local authorities and the Government's disgraceful attempts to strip them of more powers, I am sure that your ears will prick up and that you will be especially mindful of the arguments.

Clause 1 is an important first clause, and it would be difficult to find any other first clause that had such significance. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws)—he is not with us this morning as he is serving on a Select Committee—Conservative

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Members and I have tabled a range of amendments. The purpose of amendments Nos. 72 and 73 is to explore the future role of the local education authority under the Bill, which provides that a school can apply directly to the Secretary of State for exemption from any requirement of education legislation, such as, for example, from the curriculum, which otherwise is not provided for in part 1, chapter 2. Clause 4 does not even require the LEA to be consulted. We seek an assurance from the Minister, if not acceptance of the amendment, that LEAs should automatically be consulted about any school that varies its terms and conditions or the 1996 or 1998 legislation. We cannot understand why that will not be the case.

10.45 am

Under section 5 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, LEAs have a duty to raise standards. I think that some hon. Members present, including the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, served on the Committee that considered that Bill. It was the first time that such a duty had been imposed on LEAs in law. The 1998 Act was a significant piece of legislation at the time, yet there is a contradiction. The aim of this Bill is to raise standards and facilitate innovation. As I said, LEAs have a responsibility to do exactly that under section 5 of the 1998 Act, but at the same time they will not have control, or even a say, over those schools that have left their control to become grant-maintained—I should not use that term—or super-grants. I should not use that term either, but that is what the schools will be in effect under this legislation.

There is very much a feeling of deja vu about part 6, because so much of the legislation is from the former Government, whom we got rid of at the beginning of this Parliament. That part re-provides for a duty on LEAs to ensure that the national curriculum is taught in schools. Under part 1, however, a school can opt out of the national curriculum without asking the LEA for any advice. Indeed, the Secretary of State does not have to consult the LEA at all.

However, some of the greatest innovation in the British education system has taken place because of LEAs. I am sure that, from your experience, you can testify to that, Mrs. Adams. In fact, much of the innovation up to the early 1980s was due to the fact that LEAs were in charge of schools and school innovation. It is interesting that in the 35 years after the second world war, only 150 pieces of legislation affecting schools were passed. Since the early 1980s, the number has risen to more than 800. At local level, local authorities are being starved of resources and, indeed, powers to innovate.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that until the early 1980s, it was only narrowly accepted that the education system was failing? From then on, that began to be more widely accepted to the point where this Government have accepted that there are many problems for pupils and their parents. That is why the previous Government and this one have, to their credit, tried to improve the education system.

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Mr. Willis: I am delighted that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) immediately nails his colours to the mast by effectively saying that he does not want LEAs to have a role. Indeed, a previous Administration made exactly those claims. In the Tory party's manifesto at the last election, its express policy was to get rid of LEAs, make all schools free and have some 24,000 admissions authorities and organisations running around the country. The Tories are entitled to their vision, but I certainly do not share it, and I take issue with the hon. Gentleman and the assumption that the education system was failing.

The reality is that today, as 10 or even 30 years ago, parts of the system are delivering a sub-standard product. I can point to schools in my constituency that 10 or 20 years ago were as successful as they are today. In fact, one might even argue that some were more successful. We would find exactly the same situation in every hon. Member's constituency.

With the amendment, we are asking the Government about the the role of LEAs. Amendment No. 74 is also a probing amendment. Included in the amendment—

The Chairman: Order. We are discussing amendments Nos. 72 and 73.

Mr. Willis: I am sorry. I was getting very excited and moving on to the second group. We are asking the Government for their opinion about what role the LEA should play in being consulted on the clause.

Mr. Brady: I am delighted that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has tabled the amendments because they allow us to explore the Government's thinking on the role of the local education authority. It was slightly unfair of the hon. Gentleman to caricature the position of the Conservatives on education at the previous general election As all hon. Members of the Committee know, the free schools policy accepted that some residual roles would remain with local authorities, notably in special educational needs and school transport. It also set out an overarching requirement to provide an appropriate school place for every child.

It would be interesting and instructive to compare and contrast the Bill, particularly the clauses dealing with innovation and the suspension of education legislation as it applies to certain schools or groups of schools, with the vocal attacks that the Government made on the Conservatives' position on education at the time of the last election. Ministers can considerably circumscribe the powers of local education authorities and we should look at that.

If I had tabled the amendment, I would characterise it as a probing one. We must explore what the Government see as the appropriate role of the LEA. The document issued by the Department for Education and Skills, ''The role of the local education authority in school education'' states, at paragraph 11:

    ''good schools manage themselves; and that Authorities only intervene in schools' management in inverse proportion to those schools' success''

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We have heard that before in regard to the Government's proposed interventions in schools. They have not lived up to it, but we have heard the phrase. It goes on:

    ''there are a number of essential functions which cannot and should not be discharged by individual schools. Examples of this are planning the supply of school places for a given area, taking account of population trends and transport patterns across Authority boundaries -often involving contentious decisions about school closures or mergers; making sure that every child has access to a suitable school place, or has suitable provision made for him or her outside mainstream school; intervening in failing schools which have shown themselves incapable of putting their own house in order; and taking decisions in consultation with schools, about the distribution of the schools budget to take account of schools' differing needs.''

The document was published in 2000 and is, as far as we can establish, a statement of the Government's current policy and thinking. I would be most interested to hear how the Minister reconciles the statement that those functions cannot and should not be discharged by individual schools with clauses 1 and 2, which make provision for schools to operate in precisely the way that Ministers say they cannot and should not. If the Minister says that the document remains an accurate statement of Ministers' views and that schools cannot and should not discharge those functions, I assume that that means that he will accept the amendment. However, if he refuses to place any restraint on Ministers' powers to allow schools to innovate and to operate without the framework of the local education authority and without the frameworks within which schools today operate, Members on both sides of the Committee will have serious questions about whether the Government really stand by the role of the local education authority, or whether they do so only sometimes.

Does the Minister stand by the phrase:

    ''there are a number of essential functions which cannot and should not be discharged by individual schools''?

If they cannot be carried out by individual schools, they cannot be carried out by any individual school. Does the Minister stand by that position, or does he believe that, in some cases where innovation may be restrained by a local education authority, those functions could and should be discharged by individual schools?

 
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