Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: I was hoping that clause stand part would be taken formally, but the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) has

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repeated a couple of misunderstandings with which I thought we dealt earlier, so let me correct them on the record again.

I have not explained in detail what we mean by successful schools because there is no reference to successful schools in chapter 1 of the Bill. There is a reference to the performance of schools in chapter 2, which starts with clause 5, so we shall discuss performance under that clause. In case there is any confusion, I want to make it clear that any school, successful or not, will be able to apply for the power to innovate under the clause. I thought that the hon. Gentleman implied that that was not the case.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I note the Minister's comment that any school will be able to apply under clause 1 and therefore his suggestion that innovation will be favoured. However, we must consider his words in the context of the unfortunate attitude that the Government chose to take a moment ago toward constructive amendments tabled by the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats—amendments that would have shifted the balance in the clause to ensure that there was a presumption in favour of an innovative proposal and that would have removed the provision for the Secretary of State's wide discretion.

Most Members and most people outside the House would prefer a stronger reassurance from the Minister that there will be a presumption in favour of innovation. Even though he resisted the relevant amendment and the massed ranks of Government Members narrowly won the vote on it, he can use the Committee to stress on the record that the Government will exercise their discretion in favour of innovation whenever possible and unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. I should welcome his taking the opportunity to do so.

The Minister may feel on reflection that the wide-open approach under clause 1, with criteria yet to be fixed, is thoroughly inadequate. Again, I ask him to place on the record some meaningful indication of the criteria the Secretary of State will use when deciding whether an application should be granted. At the moment, members of the Committee and those who take an interest in our proceedings are completely in the dark as to the Government's intentions, and the Minister has done nothing to dispel that. I hope that he will take advantage of the opportunity to do so.

I have a couple of other points. My reading of the Bill is that clause 1 is not self-embracing and that it does not include provisions of the Education Bill because the aspects of education legislation that are covered by the clause are already listed in the Education Act 1996. An interested organisation outside the House would like the Minister to clarify and confirm that point. It would be a concern if the all-embracing power were to embrace the legislation that we are debating.

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On the role of local education authorities, the Minister said that intervention would take place in inverse proportion to success, which implies that there will be a degree of choice. He went on to say that there would be different relationships between LEAs and different schools and types of schools. Again, he leaves a contradiction hanging in the air: apparently the LEA will have the option to intervene in proportion to the success or otherwise of the school, but he has not made it clear that that will apply to all schools. I should welcome his doing so.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State stressed that the Government were seeking to achieve national consistency. There is an inherent contradiction between that aim and clause 1, which seeks to establish innovative solutions. How can those two aims be reconciled? The Minister was shameless in his defence of the Government's approach of taking power centrally and shifting from primary to delegated legislation. Surprisingly, he did not defend that course of action using the experience of the past four years, when there has been an annual education Act and therefore an opportunity for Ministers to ensure that the legislative provisions were up to date. Instead, he tried to justify the Government's determination to use more delegated legislation with express reference to events prior to 1997. That seems an absurd position for him to adopt.

The hon. Member for South Shields pointed out, rightly, that innovation covers a multitude of sins. That is precisely why the Committee, if it were taking its responsibilities as seriously as it should, should have agreed to put more detail on the face of the Bill and deal with some of the central contradictions. I will not divide the Committee on clause stand part, but I am disappointed. I think I speak for all Opposition Members in saying that we are disappointed that the Government have not taken the opportunity to clarify their position or put in the Bill some of the more important issues that have been debated. I am particularly disappointed that the Minister was so keen to resist the inclusion in the Bill of a presumption in favour of innovation, which leaves all hon. Members with grounds to doubt the seriousness of the Government's claim that they want to promote innovative solutions in education.

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman has tried to reopen debates that we have effectively concluded. On his point about the Government's willingness to grant innovation, I simply refer him to the clear statements that I made this morning: the record will show that I dealt with that matter fully. His other point, which was new, was what he described as the self-referential issue in the Bill. I refer him to clause 2(1)(a), which states that the applicant would have conferred exemption from any requirement imposed by education legislation including, of course, those elements of education legislation that are in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the debate.

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Clause 2

Power to suspend statutory requirements etc.

5 pm

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 41, in page 2, line 22, leave out ''may'', and insert ''shall''.

This simple amendment goes over some of the ground that we covered in clause 1, so I shall be as brief as possible. It puts the onus on the Secretary of State to say why schools and LEAs should not have the powers, instead of their having to satisfy rules that she might set. We have examined the legislation and the extent of disapplication and believe that the Secretary of State should simply assume that all schools and authorities should have the powers, subject to regulations that she might lay down about the disapplication of specific pieces of legislation. We fully accept that she may want to disapply all of a particular piece of legislation. Given those parameters, we believe that the principle should be that schools and authorities shall have the powers rather than that they may have them.

Mr. Timms: The purpose of the clause is to provide for innovative projects that would contribute to the improvement of educational standards and that, if successful, would be adopted more widely. I am a little perplexed by the hon. Gentleman's argument. In our discussion this morning, he was keen that local education authorities should be consulted as part of the process. If the LEA does not think that a particular innovation should be granted, presumably he would want the Secretary of State to have the discretion not to grant it. His amendment would require the Secretary of State to grant the innovation regardless of what the LEA or anyone else said on the subject. The amendment is contradictory to his argument this morning and I hope that the Committee will resist it.

Mr. Willis: I forget which hon. Member raised the issue this morning, but whether we like it or not, some conflicts between schools and their LEAs are inevitable. Of course, LEAs should be consultees: the Minister accepted that this morning and regulations in clauses 2 and 4 will be put into operation to ensure that they are.

All that is sought through the amendment is an assumption that dispensations should be given—whether applied for by an LEA or by a school—unless there is good reason not to give them. The Minister outlined some good reasons, for example, representations by the chief inspector. If Ofsted puts a school or local authority under special measures, that should be taken into consideration.

Mr. Timms: I understand the hon. Gentleman's proposal, but I put it to him that his amendment would not achieve it. It would change the legislation so that it stated that on the application of one or more qualifying bodies, the Secretary of State ''shall'' make provision conferring on the applicant exemption. In other words, it takes away from the Secretary of State the discretion to take account of representations from

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the LEA or anyone else. That is clearly not what the hon. Gentleman wants and on that basis, I invite him to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Willis: We have made our point, and the Minister has responded. We will review the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 34, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

    ''(2)An order under this section shall be subject to review after a period not exceeding three years; and following such a review an order may be renewed or amended.''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 7, in page 3, line 1, leave out subsections (6) and (7).

Amendment No. 39, in page 3, line 13, at end insert—

    ''(9)No order shall be made under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.''.

Mr. Brady: The amendments focus on the central contradiction of the Government's approach. The Government claim that it is their intention not only to allow and facilitate, but to promote innovation. The Minister says that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was otiose, because it is self-evident that the Government want to promote innovation. In response to earlier debates, the Minister has gone to some length to reassure us that the Secretary of State wants to grant schemes of innovation wherever practicable, that it will be open to all schools—regardless of success—to apply, and that they will be treated equally according to the merits of the case. Underlying that is the Government's ambition set out in the White Paper, ''Schools achieving success'', and a whole body of comment from Ministers stating that innovation and diversity are central to the task of improving school standards.

However, clause 2(2) makes an odd restriction on the powers in clause 1. We divided the Committee on an attempt to strengthen the powers in clause 1, so hon. Members will be aware that the Opposition broadly support innovation and want a far stronger presumption in favour of innovation than the Minister is prepared to accept. I believe that my credentials are sound when I point to subsection (2), which states,

    ''An order under this section shall have effect during a period specified in the order which, subject to section 3(2), must not exceed three years''.

If innovation is good, to be promoted and central to the Government's mission to raise standards in maintained schools—the Opposition hope that it is all those things; it certainly has our strong support—why does clause 2(2) limit its application to a period not exceeding three years? It does not make sense. If innovation is such a good thing, I shall be interested to hear the Minister's explanation of why the Government believe that it would be wrong to have too much of a good thing.

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Amendment No. 7 deals with the same central contradiction. Subsections (6) and (7) ensure that there can be no amending or revoking order made by virtue of clause 3,

    ''after the end of a period of four years''.

It defines a commencement date, following which the four-year period will start.

The Bill claims that innovation is important and right, yet there are important and significant restrictions: first, on the timetable for which that innovation can be allowed; and, secondly, on the period from implementation of the Bill during which the exemptions can be either applied or extended for a further period of three years. My amendments would give some backbone to the Government's stated intentions, because they would delete the restriction of innovation to a period not exceeding three years. Amendment No. 4 would require a review after a period not exceeding three years, instead of the exemption terminating at the end of the three-year period. As I said, I know that the Secretary of State and the Minister are people of good faith and are trying to do good things for our schools. Although I do not necessarily agree with their means, I am sure that their hearts are in the right place. I also believe that if they permit innovative schemes under clause 1, and if, as we all hope, those schemes raise standards for children in both good and bad schools, the Minister will have the good sense to identify, after a review, where such schemes have been successful. I hope that he will welcome the ability to amend or review the order, instead of allowing such schemes to be restricted by aspects of the Bill.

Amendment No. 7 would end the requirement that any such measure must be taken within a four-year period from commencement. By tabling that amendment, the Opposition accept the principle of innovation in schools. We accept that innovation should not just be with us for an experimental period of four years or just be this year's new educational initiative, but should add to educational debate and policy in the future.

That is why the amendments are vital, and I challenge the Minister to come up with a sensible and persuasive reason why, if innovation is to be promoted and facilitated, it should be allowed only for the next four years, and only in three-year chunks with a maximum total period of six years. If innovation works, why will the Minister not take the sensible power and allow it to continue to work in the future?

 
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