Education Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner: I should like to probe the Government's motives a little further than my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. I shall try to illustrate the difficulty in which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough seems to find himself. It arises from the differences between those who want to treat schools as toddlers, those who want to treat schools as teenagers, and those who want to treat schools as grown-ups. The toddler approach adopted by the Liberal Democrats claims that everything in the garden was rosy until approximately 1986 and continues to be--or would have been, had no changes in education been made since then--provided that local education authorities constantly hold schools by the hand.

The Government's approach is much more progressive. They say, ''We will set a series of boundaries for the teenager: he must be in bed by 6.30

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pm or 10.30 pm—it obviously depends on the age of the teenager. We shall allow him to drink alcohol in closely-prescribed circumstances, but we, the parents of the teenager—or, in this case, the Secretary of State—know best''.

Our approach is that schools are grown-up. They have the right and responsibility to take the decisions that they believe are appropriate in the interests of their pupils' learning and advancement, and of the wider community. The toddler approach is totally out-of-date and discredited, but the Liberal Democrats like to propose it none the less. They suggest that, because so much innovation took place as a result of local authority involvement—I am talking, of course, about England and Wales, not Scotland, about which you, Mrs. Adams, will know much more than I—that innovation is now closed off. I see no evidence in my local education authority of innovation being closed off because of legislation passed since 1986. I see no reason why local education authorities should be given a role additional to that provided in the Education Reform Act 1988 in deciding the kind of innovation individual schools should attempt to introduce.

The Government's approach is more progressive because they understand that innovation in schools is necessary, but they want to constrain the boundaries heavily. They do not really trust schools, just as sometimes we do not really trust teenagers. They do not want them out on a motorbike late at night; they do not want schools taking decisions for themselves unless the Secretary of State is looking over their shoulder and keeping what they are doing closely in mind. That is the difference between the Government and the Liberal Democrats. The Government's approach is for teenagers, and the Liberal Democrats want to treat schools as toddlers. It is far more appropriate to treat schools as grown ups, with the reserve power of intervention for special cases where the adults cannot look after themselves.

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Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I just want to say a few words, further to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

The degree to which we entrust schools with greater responsibility for managing their own affairs is the fundamental heart of the debate and, for me, the question is how we achieve that. My anxiety about many elements of the Bill, which is replicated in some early provisions, is that we are once again asking head teachers and governing bodies to take on a raft of additional tasks to bring themselves to the point at which they can apply for the new status. Having spoken to teachers about the work load problem that they face, I am anxious that the Bill only makes that problem much worse. It was striking that on Second Reading, the Secretary of State had nothing to say about teachers' work load.

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I am anxious also about the implications of a process that requires schools to put together a substantial application, which involves a huge amount of work, and to approach the Secretary of State to seek a new status. If we were to overlay on to that the process suggested by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, which is for schools to go through that process with their local education authority as well, that would provide an unwanted and unnecessary burden of bureaucracy with which schools can ill-afford to cope. The benefit of the free schools approach taken in the Conservative general election manifesto is that it offers them the ability to take responsibility for their own affairs without making them jump through hoops. My big concern is that we expect schools to take on an enormous burden of work to enable them to reach the point at which the Secretary of State can make a decision. We should bear that in mind as we debate the clauses and amendments. It should be a given in Committee that, if a proposal means a raft of additional work for schools, we should think hard before accepting it.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does he agree that the approach taken by the Bill—giving wide enabling powers rather than specifying the criteria under which innovation will be permitted or promoted—adds to that burden? Schools will not be able to look at a clear objective set of criteria on which they will be granted the right to innovate. Instead, they will find themselves making a bid that will be awarded or rejected on the whim of the Secretary of State.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and schools are rightly concerned about the degree to which guidelines will evolve over time. One of the most persistent complaints from the education world is that nothing is ever given time to bed down. If the Secretary of State is given swingeing powers to decide the criteria to determine whether a school is allowed to be innovative, will we be certain that those criteria will not change after six, 12 or 18 months as the process develops?

I agree with my hon. Friend that more detail should be attached to the provisions. One of the most profoundly concerning aspects of the Bill is the vagueness of its stipulations. There is no detail. The Bill basically says that the Secretary of State will decide everything and we are just enabling her to do that. I am concerned about the Bill's potential for exacerbating the work load, and I am uncomfortable with the Liberal Democrat amendment because we are creating a process that over-engineers for schools and makes the lives of heads and teachers more difficult.

Mr. Timms: We have had an interesting discussion around the two amendments, including some diversity of views among Conservative Members, and between them and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

I shall respond to the matters raised and make a couple of general points at the outset. First, the Bill's clear focus is on raising standards of education, which reflects the Government's highest priority, expressed

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by the Prime Minister before the 1997 election, of education, education, education. During our debates, I shall encourage the Committee to resist attempts to shift that focus elsewhere and to keep tightly to raising standards.

Secondly, as a result of changes in the past three or four years, the education service is accountable. Targets have been set throughout the system, performance tables are published and there are Ofsted inspections. Everyone knows their schools' and local education authority's objectives. As a consequence, one of the great benefits is that we can give a much freer reign to the professional judgment of teachers and head teachers about precisely how to achieve their objectives and raise standards in their schools, in an adult way, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight colourfully suggested. The Bill will permit teachers to be the leaders in the next wave of education reform; it is about deregulation and devolution.

I make no bones about my third introductory point: we want more education measures to be passed through secondary legislation than has traditionally been the case. Education measures have been out of step with other legislation, and thus have been unnecessarily inflexible and unduly prescriptive. The Committee will discuss the many instances in which greater flexibility would help to meet the different circumstances of communities throughout the country and to support the different needs of schools.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that vital matter. I am most anxious about the drift—the Minister says that it is a deliberate policy— away from primary legislation, which is properly scrutinised and debated, to secondary legislation, which may go through the House without debate or in a Committee whose timetable is constrained. In justifying the policy, the Minister said that education legislation is always out of step, but education legislation was presented every year in his Government's first term.

I made my maiden speech in 1997 on the legislation introduced to abolish the assisted places scheme. In 1998, I served on the Committee on the School Standards and Framework Bill. The following year, there was a teaching and higher education Bill, and the year after that I sat on the Committee considering the Learning and Skills Bill. The Government have introduced legislation on education every year; how can it possibly be out of step?

Mr. Timms: I am referring to the period before that. A large chunk of our debate will be about the formulation for the national curriculum in the Bill, which is very different from that enacted by the previous Government. The tradition was for a large amount of detail in primary legislation, which means that changes could not be made except through new primary legislation. That was unnecessarily unhelpful and inflexible. I accept that there will be questions about how parliamentary scrutiny can be properly exercised; we shall no doubt spend a fair time in Committee reflecting on that matter, and it is right that

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we should do so. However, I make no apology for wanting to introduce more flexibility to the operation of education legislation than was available in the past.

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Prepared 11 December 2001