Education Bill

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willis: I suggest, Mrs. Adams, that we are straying from my point.

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The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members to keep to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell asked a serious question about the difference between what we propose and the Bill as drafted. I want all schools to be able to innovate, not just those picked by the Secretary of State. I did not want grant-maintained schools to get additional resources and to innovate, as the Tory Govt proposed, but nor do I want a complete free for all, which is what the Conservative party is suggesting with their free schools. Conservative Members fail to acknowledge the fact that the £540 extra that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, during the last general election, he would give to every pupil was the £540 that local authorities retained for central services, which was ludicrous. Of course we want a framework and consultation; what happens to one school has an effect on another. It is important to work co-operatively rather than individually, and amendment No. 77 considers social exclusion. That issue and educational standards are one and the same; sometimes social exclusion must be dealt with before policies to raise standards can be developed.

We do not want a repeat of what happened when the Conservative Government introduced city technology colleges and CTC trusts, which were supposed to take students from the local catchment area, with a proper distribution of intake to reflect the locality. Dixon city technology college in Bradford has such an intake, as I am happy to report, having visited it recently. However, elsewhere, from Gateshead to Lewisham, CTCs have made fishing expeditions beyond their boundaries to attract children from outside the locality.

Mr. Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way.

Mr. Willis: Well—

Mr. Turner: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I apologise for taking advantage of his apparent indecision.

If the hon. Gentleman would stop perpetrating myths about what happened between 1988 and 1997, we would find it easier to rely on what he says about Liberal Democrat policy. In a previous debate, I described his hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) as an elephant on a tightrope, striving not to fall on the side of Conservative or Govt policy. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is slightly more elegant than the elephant, but he is still wandering all over the place, which is a dangerous thing to do when one is on a tightrope. It is almost impossible to tell which powers he thinks should remain with the local education authority and which should, as of right, be given to the school. Will the hon. Gentleman please clarify the matter?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman uses graphic language. He paints a vivid picture of an elephant on a tightrope; was it a toddler, or—

Mr. Turner: The hon. Member for Torbay.

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Mr. Willis: The amendments explore one of the Bill's core issues. Does the Minister accept that all schools, other than those subject to special measures or showing serious signs of weakness, should be given the powers? Should they be given on the same basis to local education authorities? I hope that would satisfy Conservative Members because it would cut out a huge amount of bureaucracy; there would be an assumption in favour of innovation rather than simply control by the Secretary of State. Will the Secretary of State include in the Bill or in regulation definitions of a successful or a failing school? Does he accept that innovation other than in terms of the curriculum and pay and conditions is what is needed to give schools and local authorities real powers to innovate?

12 noon

Mr. Brady: These important and challenging amendments, which have wide implications, are at the core of the clause, as the hon. Gentleman said. I want to comment briefly on his amendments before speaking to amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

Amendment No. 74, which would encourage the promotion of innovation, challenges the Government to probe the depth and reality of their commitment to innovation and to an explosion of new ideas and practices in schools in a drive to raise standards, and how far they merely mouth the words. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Amendment No. 40 echoes my amendment No. 9 to clause 5. It considers how far Ministers should be trusted to exercise their discretion. The present Minister and Secretary of State have huge integrity and great good will; we may often disagree with them about how to improve school standards, but we are also acutely aware that holders of the office of Secretary of State for Education and Skills change regularly. For the Bill to have a principal criterion that such an important decision is to be the opinion of whoever happens to be Secretary of State is a worrying power to leave with Ministers.

I have considerable sympathy with the first two amendments in the group. On amendments Nos. 75 to 77, 31, 78 and 32, there is an interesting difference of approach between two of the amendments and the rest. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough might enlighten the Committee as to his thinking in phrasing amendments Nos. 31 and 32 differently from the others. The other amendments begin with the word ''or'', which implies that, if they were included in the Bill, it would be a matter of choice as to whether the innovation in question would be to improve educational standards, child care provision, special education needs provision, social inclusion or the development of schools. It will not have escaped the attention of hon. Members, even those who are busy with their Christmas cards, that amendments Nos. 31 and 32 begin with the word ''and'', which implies that, were the amendments to be passed, it would be a requirement in England and in Wales that innovation should not only improve standards but promote equality of opportunity. I do not know

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whether the hon. Gentleman would care to enlighten me now or later, but that important question must be answered.

Mr. Willis: I would not have thought that any member of the Committee would require an explanation. It is a fundamental principle of our party and of education that we should promote equality of opportunity for all our citizens. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Brady: I wanted to establish whether the difference in phrasing was deliberate, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that it is. However, it has important implications. The importance that the hon. Gentleman ascribes to the subject matter of his other amendments is not as great as the importance of promoting equality of opportunity, which would place a requirement on the Secretary of State. The other amendments would simply set out parameters within which judgments could be taken.

It would be useful to explore the inclusion in amendments Nos. 31 and 32 of the requirement that any innovation should promote equality of opportunity. The hon. Gentleman says that it is a fundamental tenet of his party. I suspect that all hon. Members, regardless of the party of which they are a member, would share the view that equality of opportunity is vital. It is what drove many of us to become involved in politics and public life. I do not think that there will be a gap between hon. Members of any party on that question.

However, historically, there has been a huge void as to how it is best achieved. For instance, we shall consider the status of grammar schools and selection later on in our discussions. The hon. Gentleman and I have debated that in Committees on numerous occasions. The newspapers on Friday and this morning announced—before announcements were made in the House—that the Government have changed their approach to grammar schools. They now embrace them and see them as a way to spread best practice and bring special skills to other schools in the maintained sector. Those of us who have had the privilege of representing selective education systems have seen that in practice for many years. We perceive a difference of approach. The Conservative party has traditionally defended the remaining grammar schools, often under repeated attack from Labour Members. However, it is now joined by the Government in viewing grammar schools as promoting equality of opportunity. I know that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough takes a different view.

Mr. Willis: We have always exchanged views robustly on that subject. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in view of the Minister's statement last Friday—sadly, we did not hear it on Second Reading—clauses 104 to 109 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 now have to be removed? Clearly, it is impossible to marry the Minister's comments about extending the role of grammar

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schools with the flawed ballot system that purports to get rid of them, although the hon. Gentleman and I would disagree on that.

Mr. Brady: We have always agreed that the ballot system is flawed. I think that the threshold was set too low, whereas the hon. Gentleman thinks that it was set too high. It will be interesting to see if the Minister tables amendments to reflect the Government's new-found love of grammar schools. We will want to explore that, but I raise the point to illustrate the difference of approach. If we were to include a requirement to promote equality of opportunity in the Bill without defining that phrase, it would raise concern. I wait for the Minister's reassurance on how the Government will ensure that equality of opportunity is maintained.

To save time, I will speak to amendments Nos. 1 and 2 together. Their wording is the same. The only difference is that one applies to England, and the other to Wales. I am conscious that the question is sensitive because amendment No. 2 would circumscribe the freedom allowed to the National Assembly of Wales. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales may want to comment on that.

The amendments are designed to examine the Government's commitment to innovation. Is it akin to the Government's commitment to end selection, which—even if we have read the Minister's lips—may be reversed? Is it similar to their pledge to promote the establishment of faith schools to raise standards, which is quietly moved away from as time passes and controversy arises? Are the Government of the view that the best way to raise standards in schools is to release the energy of teachers, head teachers, governors and non-teaching staff in maintained schools? If the Government really believe that that is the best approach, the Minister knows that it is risky. It means that Ministers have to do what they are least inclined to do: stand back and let people get on with their jobs. Taking that risk means that the innovation will be more successful in some instances than in others. It is not a recipe for uniformity. Quite the contrary, it is potentially a recipe for huge diversity if Ministers are brave and bold enough to grasp the nettle and to see innovation springing up across the maintained schools system.

12.15 pm

This is a slightly difficult group of amendments to speak to because it also embraces amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, which in some ways seek to constrain the form or the type of innovation. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is looking a little concerned. He does not interpret it in that way. However, by specifying what types of innovation would be allowed rather than leaving it in its present fairly broad terms, he is in one sense seeking to constrain the application of the Bill. My amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are entirely permissive. They seek to further innovation, to remove restrictions and to prevent Ministers from exercising discretion in such a way as to prevent an innovative proposal when they do not have good reason to do so.

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Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 will really get to the heart of what Ministers perceive as being important in the freedom of innovation in part 1 of the Bill. Are they comfortable to be faced with a requirement to allow innovation unless there is an impediment? If they are, they will accept the amendment. If the Government promise to table their own amendment, perhaps on Report, to strengthen the presumption in favour of innovation, I would be prepared to withdraw mine. If they insist on opposing the amendments, it will cast real doubt over the strength of their commitment to and belief in innovation. We await the Minister's views with interest.

Finally, amendment No. 3. Even though I seek to add a little to the definition of ''innovation'', I do so in what I hope is a helpful and permissive manner. The amendment specifies that

    '''innovation' means any change from existing practice in a particular school, educational institution or part thereof.''

The purpose is first to draw out from the Minister how he sees the measure being used in practice. Does he have particular projects or types of projects that he feels that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would look upon favourably? Does he believe that there are limits to what is acceptable innovation? Does he believe that innovation must be something that has not been done or tried before?

My amendment would clearly allow a school to adopt practices that had been tried before and which perhaps had been found to be successful and worthwhile and had contributed to improving education standards in our schools in the past. Whole class teaching, phonics, and the way in which schools balance whole class and group techniques might be characterised as traditional teaching methods. A few years ago, those methods were highly contentious, but increasingly they are the stuff of consensus. The traditional approach to education has been taken to good effect in Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) repeatedly reminds me in discussions on education policy. In some schools, traditional teaching methods would be an innovation. In some areas, they may, sadly, be rare, but could raise educational standards for an enormous number of children. That is the core purpose of amendment No. 3.

I do not want to detain the Committee any longer, but stress that

    ''presumption in favour of innovation''

in amendment No. 1 goes to the heart of what the Government say that they are seeking to do. If they are not prepared to support a presumption in favour of innovation, my hon. Friends and I will have profound cause to doubt the sincerity of the Government's commitment to it. I invite the Minister to support the amendment or give robust assurances that the Government will amend the Bill to similar effect.

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