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Standing Committee Debates
Education Bill

Education Bill

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Standing Committee G

Tuesday 11 December 2001

(Afternoon)

[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]

[Part I]
Education Bill

Clause 1

Purpose and Interpretation of Chapter One

Amendment moved this day: No. 74, in page 1, line 6, after ''to'', insert ''promote and''.—[Mr. Willis.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 40, in page 1, line 8, leave out

    'in the opinion of the Secretary of State,'.

No. 75, in page 1, line 9, after ''standards'', insert ''or childcare provision''.

No. 76, in page 1, line 9, after ''standards'', insert

    ''and the improvement of special educational provision''.

No. 77, in page 1, line 9, after ''standards'', insert

    ''and the improvement of social inclusion''.

No. 1, in page 1, line 9, after ''England'', insert

    ''; there shall be a presumption in favour of innovation except where the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to prevent it''.

No. 31, in page 1, line 9, after ''England'', insert

    ''and promoting equality of opportunity''.

No. 78, in page 1, line 9, after ''England'', insert

    ''or the development of schools in their communities''.

No. 2, in page 1, line 11, after ''Wales'', insert

    ''; there shall be a presumption in favour of innovation except where the National Assembly for Wales has reasonable grounds to prevent it''.

No. 32 in page 1, line 11, after ''Wales'', insert

    ''and promoting equality of opportunity''.

No. 3 in page 1, line 12, at end insert:

    ''(2A)In subsection (1) 'innovation' means any change from existing practice in a particular school, educational institution or part thereof.''

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Just before we adjourned I mentioned the Minister's suggestion that amendment No. 3 might be a charter for lawyers. I highlighted the exchange between the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and the Minister. A word such as ''innovation'' can have a panorama of meanings in the context of the Bill and the amendments.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): May I put to the hon. Gentleman the example of a former grant-maintained school in my constituency? The school is at the forefront of innovation, but like many successful schools that have been innovating for a long time, it

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does not want to build on that and lose further support. That would happen under the hon. Gentleman's amendment because it refers to

    ''any change from existing practice''.

Hayfield school attained beacon status for its teacher training. His amendment would negate any bid it might make for further innovation support.

Mr. O'Brien: That point highlights the difficulty of the word ''innovation''. I would sympathise with a school that is at the forefront of innovative practice, which would find it inappropriate and frustrating to have such an imposition placed on it. The word ''innovation'' is tried and tested, especially in company law. In the context of intellectual property, an improvement or a development would be something growing from existing practice, such as in the hon. Lady's example. An innovation is something wholly new, and would be the basis of an intellectual property application if subject to a patent.

The word ''innovation'' has a meaning in the lay world that we understand. All parties welcome innovation and best practice in schools, especially when successful. However, the word ''innovation'' demands clarification. My remarks had to be made in a stand-alone speech rather than an intervention. I am concerned about amendment No. 3 being a charter for lawyers. The boot is on the other foot, because without amendments Nos. 1, 2 and particularly 3, the potential for a charter for lawyers exists. That is partly because of existing practice in law concerning use of the word ''innovation''. Under part 1, all schools can apply and some will be disappointed, which could lead to a legal challenge. That would become a lawyers' charter. To have a cause of action before the appropriate court, judgment would have to be made about what had taken place in schools, at whose initiative, in what time period and whether it qualified as an innovation, an improvement or a development of existing practice. The hon. Lady was kind enough to highlight that in her example.

Our discussion shows that the Bill is not clear and that the amendments are needed. I fully support the work of my hon. Friends. The Minister's judgment about the amendment being the cause of a lawyers' charter cannot be supported. On the contrary, the current wording is more likely to be a lawyers' charter and, therefore, more likely to cause interruption and disappointment for those who want the Bill's aims to succeed.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I am delighted that you are back to look after us again this afternoon, Mrs. Adams, and I welcome you. It is becoming apparent that we may need to sit this evening. I do not know whether you will be able to continue in the Chair if we do, but I am delighted that you are here for the afternoon.

I am slightly puzzled by our discussion of the amendment, because looking through the clauses, the word ''innovation'' appears only in the title of chapter 1. The word ''innovative'' appears once, but the lengthy contribution about the word ''innovation'' may be somewhat superfluous. My hon. Friend the

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Member for Don Valley made an important point, which I shall develop. Amendment No. 3 would exclude proposals that are already being implemented but which have, if I can express this tactfully, a less than certain statutory basis. In other words, some things are happening that have an unclear statutory basis, but we want to encourage them with these measures. Under the amendment, they would not be defined as a ''change from existing practice'', and no hon. Members would wish to block them. I am also advised that the amendment would rule out several proposals that might not be directly related to classroom practice, as the word ''practice'' causes some problems. I urge the Committee not to accept the amendment.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): We have had a good debate on the amendments, with contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. I will deal with them specifically so that we can make some progress.

I thought that amendment No. 74 was not contentious and that the Government would welcome it. The Opposition were talking about trying to promote as well as facilitate, and we thought that promotion was at the heart of the Government's aims. It is worth investigating what the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions had to say this afternoon in his statement on local government. He said:

    ''I want to tackle the trend towards excessive central prescription and interference, which dominated central local relations in the 1980s and 90s. We are reversing that approach. The White Paper marks a pronounced step away from centralisation. It is about increased freedoms, better incentives, and a significant reduction in the number of controls, consent requirements, plans and over-elaborate guidance which have been all too characteristic of the top-down approach to local government.''

He went on to say that that was

    ''based on a belief that we don't need to control everything, and a recognition that local authorities are often in the best position to respond to local needs and aspirations.''

That is in direct contradiction with what is in the Bill, and represents what we are trying to do with the amendments. Amendment No. 74 is at the heart of that. If we cannot reach an agreement with the Government to include proposals to promote innovation by schools and local authorities, we have little hope of achieving anything in the Committee and the quicker we are out of here, the better. We shall ask for a separate vote on amendment No. 74.

The hon. Member for Don Valley was right to say that amendments Nos. 75, 76, 77 and 78 are probing amendments and I apologise for not making that clear. We are trying to discover the scope for innovation. I am happy with the Minister's response and with the way in which other members of the Committee interpreted the proposals, and I shall not push the amendments to a vote.

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Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 are also probing amendments about the principle of equality of opportunity. Many Liberal Democrat Members feel that it is most important to establish the principle of equality of opportunity in social legislation. However, sometimes that principle has to be moved aside in order to move pupils towards a particular status. Earlier, when we discussed grant-maintained schools, we talked about the fact that there was not equality of opportunity because some had more resources and opportunities than others. There is a feeling that the same principle is being established by this Government in respect of specialist schools. However, we shall not press those amendments to a Division.

Amendment No. 40 is the central principle of our proposals and we shall ask the Committee to divide on it. The Minister did not even attempt to clarify what the Government meant by successful schools. I hope that he will do so later because we shall return to this important principle again and again. The Secretary of State wants to control the process and act as a gatekeeper to innovations throughout the country and no hon. Member, in their heart of hearts, can accept such a situation.

The principle that all schools other than those with special measures or with serious weaknesses should have access to whatever powers are available should be enshrined in the Bill, as Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members agree. If the Secretary of State and the Minister want to encourage innovation, they should start from the principle that all can do so unless there is due cause.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who was right to say that innovation does not have to take place simply by removing legislation; that point was well made. There is much innovation in schools, but the hon. Gentleman will accept that since 1988, innovation in many areas has been limited because of legislation. Successive Governments have seen education legislation as a top priority in changing or driving up standards, or whatever is the mantra of the day. It is important to consider other areas of legislation that could be disapplied in order to free up schools and make them more innovative. I give one example that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions mentioned in his statement this afternoon of being able to borrow capital, which is often crucial if a particular school is actually to achieve something. The grant-maintained schools have that freedom because they have access to capital, although I accept that they cannot borrow it. That is what we wanted to consider in amendment No. 40.

Over the years, some amazingly innovative projects have been initiated in schools and between schools, local authorities and private sector organisations. If we really want to innovate, I hope that the amendment will be enshrined in the Bill.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Column Number: 47

Division No. 1]

AYES
Brady, Mr. Graham
Grayling, Chris
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Laws, Mr. David
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr. Phil

NOES
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Flint, Caroline
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Heppell, Mr. John
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Miliband, Mr. David
Purnell, James
Timms, Mr. Stephan
Touhig, Mr. Don

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 40, in page 1, line 8, leave out

    ''in the opinion of the Secretary of State,''.—[Mr. Willis.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 2]

AYES
Brady, Mr. Graham
Grayling, Chris
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Laws, Mr. David
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr. Phil

NOES
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Flint, Caroline
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Heppell, Mr. John
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Miliband, Mr. David
Purnell, James
Timms, Mr. Stephan
Touhig, Mr. Don

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 1, in page 1, line 9, after ''England'', insert

    ''; there shall be a presumption in favour of innovation except where the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to prevent it''.—[Mr. Brady.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 3]

AYES
Brady, Mr. Graham
Grayling, Chris
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Laws, Mr. David
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr. Phil

NOES
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Flint, Caroline
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Heppell, Mr. John
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Miliband, Mr. David
Purnell, James
Timms, Mr. Stephan
Touhig, Mr. Don

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

 
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Prepared 11 December 2001