Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: I gave the same assurance on that point as I gave this morning. It addresses that concern, and I hope that the Committee is satisfied.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The Minister described a partnership between a school and an LEA. A school may come to the Secretary of State for consent without the partnership of the LEA. The hon. Member for South Shields made that point this morning from a sedentary position. Surely, it would be a natural part of the process to require the Secretary of State to consult the LEA to understand its perspective? A school and an LEA may submit an application in tandem, but if that does not happen, the Secretary of State has apparently excluded a mechanism through which the Minister can consult the LEA.

Mr. Timms: I can help the hon. Gentleman on that. Clause 4(1), says that the application will need to contain

    ''such information, as may be required by the Secretary of State''.

That would include the response to consultation of the LEA obtained by the school.

Chris Grayling: One problem with the Bill is the recurrence of such phrases as

    ''may contain such guidance as the Secretary of State will offer''.

In reality, there is no clear guidance. It is at the Secretary of State's ad hoc discretion. It is of fundamental concern to the Opposition that the Bill appears to offer the Secretary of State untrammelled powers to do almost anything that he or she wishes to do. We want to amend it to provide more clarity, not only for the benefit of the schools who will ultimately apply for the new status, but to provide context for the Secretary of State's decisions.

Mr. Brady: We have had an interesting short debate. The hon. Member for South Shields rightly pointed that an LEA might itself propose an innovation. Both

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Government and Opposition Members accept that, but it is clear that other circumstances might prevail. As my hon. Friend for Epsom and Ewell said, there may be no partnership between the school and the local authority, possibly because bad relations exist. Alternatively, for whatever reason, the local authority consulted by a school may not agree with the proposal put forward. The innovation may none the less be very much in tune with the thinking of Ministers and with experience in other schools where innovation has been shown to work.

The Minister sought to fall back on the protection of clause 4 (2), which states:

    ''Before making such an application, the qualifying body shall consult such persons as appear to the body to be appropriate, having regard to any guidance given from time to time by the Secretary of State or, as the case may be, the National Assembly for Wales.''

That does not get us past the problem that a school may make an application that the LEA does not support and there may be all sorts of communication breakdowns between the school and the LEA.

The amendment would not be too onerous on the Secretary of State because it places no obligation on her. It would put the LEA on the same basis as the chief inspector among the statutory consultees. The Secretary of State would not have to consult it, but could do so where appropriate. It is odd that Ministers see fit to put one consultee into that category, while resisting inclusion of another body—the LEA. That is difficult to understand.

Mr. Willis: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that specifying somebody who is appointed by the Secretary of State but who is not democratically elected flies in the face of the White Paper that has just been produced?

Mr. Brady: That is very much the argument that the Minister advanced in challenging my previous amendment. Apparently, he does not think that it applies here.

At the outset I said that I intended the amendment as a probing amendment, but I am not satisfied with the Minister's response. The amendment is not prescriptive, but seeks merely to place the LEA on the same footing as the chief inspector as a body that may be consulted, if deemed appropriate, by the Secretary of State. I am confident that my drafting will stand scrutiny because I have copied its wording from something written by the parliamentary draftsmen and I invite the Minister and other Government Members to support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Division No. 5]

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

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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.

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 48, in page 2, line 42, leave out 'may', and insert 'shall'.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall be as brief as possible. Clause 2(5) contains a mish-mash. It states:

    ''The Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales may from time to time give guidance as to the matters which the Secretary of State or the Assembly will take into account in determining whether to grant applications''.

That seems to mean that there may be no guidance at all. The provision gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to do whatever she wants.

Mine is a probing amendment. Will the Government define, in guidance or elsewhere, the scope for innovation? What criteria will the Secretary of State use to judge whether a project is innovative and will raise standards? Until people try something innovative, they do not know whether it raises standards. That is the whole idea of innovation. Until an innovation has had time to work through the system and be evaluated, we do not know whether it raises standards.

The Committee has a right to know what the Government had in mind in framing the legislation and where its parameters lie. Using ''shall'' rather than ''may'' would not mean that the Secretary of State would give guidance on every innovation, but there would be an assumption that guidance would be given.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury talked earlier about a lawyers' charter. Various disputes could arise unless there is clarity of guidance. Let me give the example of the disapplication of teachers' pay and conditions, which is a hugely controversial aspect of the Bill. Unless we get it right and the Secretary of State gives clear guidance about the parameters for varying pay and conditions, we could get into an unholy row. I seek guidance from the Minister.

Mr. Timms: I can help the hon. Gentleman by giving a firm commitment that the Secretary of State will issue guidance as she is empowered to do.

I am reluctant to restrict the field of innovations because we want schools and LEAs themselves to come up with new ideas that they think will raise standards of achievement. We want to put the ball in the applicant's court. We want to give the schools free rein to use their creativity and imagination to come up with innovative proposals. The key test that the Secretary of State will use will not be whether a proposal is innovative enough, but whether it will raise the standards of achievement.

6.15 pm

Mr. Willis: That is the heart of my point. As a head teacher, I had brilliant ideas on many occasions, but until one starts to work them out on the ground, one cannot know whether they will work. They often do not work out as expected. That does not mean that the

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innovation is wrong. If there are four or five innovative projects and two or three work, that is a great success. I hope that that is what the Government are trying to achieve. I hope that we can avoid the safe territory and the current straitjacketing and have some real innovation, but how will the Secretary of State know which innovations will raise standards before they have taken place?

Mr. Timms: The Secretary of State will refer to experience elsewhere and will take the advice she needs to form a judgment. It may be an entirely new and untried proposal, and there will not therefore be any direct evidence. I am sure that that would have been one of the characteristics of the hon. Gentleman's innovations. The Secretary of State will then take a view on the basis of the best advice available about whether that will raise standards. That is the test that will be applied. She will not ask whether a proposal is innovative enough, but whether it will raise standards. If she concludes that it will, she will give her assent.

Part of the time the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough seems to be trying to put boundaries around that point, and that is precisely what we should not do. We should allow heads who are almost as creative and imaginative as he was to come forward with their own proposals. If they believe that those proposals will raise standards in their schools, we should encourage them to put them to the Secretary of State, and she will take a view about them.

Chris Grayling: I want to say a couple of words in support of the amendment. The Bill and the whole structure of the Government's proposals create an opaque cloud for those who are trying to work out how everything will develop. This morning the Minister referred to the fact that any school would be able to apply for exemptions under these provisions and hoped that many schools of vastly differing qualities and backgrounds would seek to do so. At the same time, the Secretary of State has made a number of public statements of aspiration about how the Bill will reward the best and that the exemptions will be directed towards those who have demonstrated a major contribution and have therefore earned the right to opt out of core provisions.

Given those slightly contradictory comments, I fear that many schools will seek to apply for an exemption that the Government may not be willing to give them. Surely it is a matter of duty for the Secretary of State to make clear the criteria against which applications will be judged. If that does not happen, there is a risk that schools, heads and governing bodies will put a lot of effort into applications that have no chance of success. The amendment makes a small contribution towards ensuring that there is much greater clarity for heads and governing bodies when they come to take the decision about whether the route offered by the Government is right for them. I hope that the Minister will consider that point.

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