Education Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner: Does the Minister accept that, certainly in the terms in which it was re-enacted in the 1996 Act, the national curriculum is one example of exactly what the Minister proposes? It is prescribed only in broad terms by the Act, but in detail by order of the Secretary of State. Section 356(2) of the 1996 Act states that the Secretary of State may, by order, specify the attainment targets, programmes of study and assessment arrangements that he considers appropriate. That is exactly the kind of clause that he proposes for the whole range of measures in the Bill. The national curriculum therefore seems a poor example for him to have drawn upon. The rest of the 1996 Act, on the whole, devolved specified powers to schools so that they knew where they were.

The Chairman: Order. Hon. Members are wandering a bit. There will be opportunities later to debate this matter. The Committee should stick to discussing local authorities at the moment.

Mr. Timms: Mindful of your point, Mrs. Adams, let me simply say that part 6 of the Bill sets out again the arrangements for the national curriculum, and part 7 does so for Wales. We shall certainly have a full discussion about those matters when we reach those parts of the Bill.

The amendments deal with the role of local education authorities. I am a former local authority leader. I have a background in local government, as do you, Mrs. Adams, and some Committee members, and I take a high view of the role of local authorities in education. The Government's view is the one set out in the documents that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West quoted. It is an important and significant role. It is not simply making arrangements around the periphery, as the Conservative party did, although I am not sure that it still wants to do that. It is a central role with a responsibility for school improvement.

We envisage a different role for local education authorities. In the past, LEAs delivered a wide range of activities, and did so exclusively. In the future, we see them facilitating and co-ordinating delivery by a number of partners as well as themselves. We have made it clear that we do not intend to change their central role in school improvement. Indeed, a few weeks ago I was with a group of LEA chief officers, who rightly pointed out that there is now a new consensus about the role of LEAs. We are not fighting boundary wars. The position is clear and the central focus is on responsibility for school improvement and a number of other matters that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West read out from the document.

The proposals in the Bill are certainly not intended to centralise power in the hands of the Secretary of State. Chapter 1 contains a power for the Secretary of State to respond to innovative proposals put forward by schools and LEAs. That important point has not

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been picked up in any of the contributions from Opposition Members. The LEA may itself be the applicant for those powers.

Mr. Brady: Before the Minister moves from the central question of the role of the LEA, particular in relation to school improvement but also in all the other areas that I enumerated, can he guarantee that the powers contained in part 1 of the Bill, when applied to a school and allowing it to innovate and be exempt from education legislation, will not interfere with the role of the LEA? Will the LEA have exactly the same powers and role in relation to a school that has been granted an arrangement of innovation under the Bill as it has in relation to other schools in the neighbourhood?

11.15 am

Mr. Timms: No, LEAs will not have exactly the same role in dealing with different schools. We made the point, which the hon. Gentleman repeated, that we believe in the principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success. I would expect the LEA to play a bigger role with schools that are struggling than with successful schools.

Mr. Brady rose—

Mr. Timms: Let me continue, as that brings me back to a point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier. The power would not give schools the duties of an LEA, such as ensuring the supply of a sufficient number of school places. That would have nothing to do with raising standards, which is clearly set out as the purpose of the clause. The relationship between LEAs and different schools will depend on their circumstances.

The Bill provides that applicants--it may be LEAs or schools--will make proposals following consultation, in accordance with guidance from the Secretary of State or the National Assembly. That is spelt out in clause 4, subsections (1) and (2) of which are particularly important, given our current debate. That is consistent with our approach of supporting innovation, generated at the grass roots and involving all the relevant parties. The Secretary of State will make an informed decision based on information provided by the applicant, which will include the outcome of consultation with local bodies.

Where a school, as opposed to an LEA, applies to the Secretary of State, we expect the consultation to include the LEA. The guidance issued under clause 4(2) will make that clear, which may help the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. The LEA itself could be the applicant, so the amendment does not entirely make sense, although I understand the point behind it.

Chris Grayling: I seek clarification. If a school was seeking to make an application to the Secretary of State, partly because its relations with the LEA were bad and it was unable to achieve what it wanted within the confines of the local LEA structure, would the fact

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that it was in conflict with its LEA and did not have its backing affect the nature of the Secretary of State's decision?

Mr. Timms: Clause 4(2) states that ''the qualifying body''—in that case the school—

    ''shall consult such persons as appear to the body to be appropriate, having regard to any guidance''.

As I said, under the terms of the guidance, consultation will include the LEA. The results of the consultation, including the LEA's comments, will be provided to the Secretary of State under clause 4(1). That information would be in front of the Secretary of State when she makes her decision.

Mr. Brady: I fear that the Minister is tying himself in knots to some extent. He said that the LEA would be consulted and that the Secretary of State would be under no obligation to follow the LEA's recommendations. In a sedentary intervention while my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was speaking, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said that that was the whole point. If the provisions enable a good school to escape from a bad LEA, I would remind him that he said that intervention would be in inverse proportion to success. That implies choice and discretion on the part of the LEA. If a school has applied for innovation status to escape from a failing LEA, will that LEA retain powers to intervene in the school's performance and activities?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman misrepresents the clause. Clearly, the purpose of clause 1(1) is to raise educational standards. Undoubtedly, schools will choose to make such applications in a variety of circumstances. In doing so, they will need to consult several bodies—including the LEA—and the result of that consultation will be available to the Secretary of State when she makes her decision. The hon. Gentleman is putting a rather different character on the clause. I urge him not to divert us from the clear focus of the Bill: raising educational standards.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The Minister speaks as if the Bill refers to only one jurisdiction. Although he can assure us on behalf of his right hon. Friend and her successors in the post of Secretary of State for Education, he can give no such assurances on behalf of the National Assembly for Wales. Is the Minister speaking for the Welsh Assembly in his assurances? If not, can the Assembly draft entirely different guidance that may forbid the consulting of LEAs or the involvement of diocesan authorities? That is my reading of clause 4(2).

Mr. Timms: That is an interesting line of discussion. I am sure that we will have similar discussions several times during the proceedings, which is why I am glad that the Under-Secretary for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), is on the Committee. The National Assembly for Wales will engage in extensive consultation with local authorities on all such matters, and it will undoubtedly want to do so in the manner set out by guidance. He should be reassured on that point.

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Mr. Turner: I really cannot see how the Minister can give any reassurances about the future political complexion or judgment of the National Assembly for Wales. He is holding the electors of Wales in contempt if he assumes that he can give assurances on their behalf.

Mr. Timms: I can draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the published statements and intentions of the National Assembly of Wales.

Mr. Turner: Current.

Mr. Timms: Yes, but similarly I can give assurances only on behalf of the current Secretary of State; I cannot bind future Secretaries of State.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said that, had he moved the amendment, it would have been as a probing amendment. I think that he has moved it: it is very similar to amendment No. 6, to which we shall come shortly.

Mr. Brady: That refers to a different clause.

Mr. Timms: It does, but its purpose is close to the current amendment. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell raise the subject of free schools. Government Members will be interested to understand the Conservative party's precise position on that subject. Not long ago, the Conservatives' only apparent schools policy was one in favour of free schools. In this context, ''free'' meant free from the shackles of local authority control, so it was startling to see the reference to democratic accountability of schools in the motion moved by Opposition Members on Second Reading.

 
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