Education Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner: I, too, am concerned about the nature of the proposals that the Secretary of State may or may not approve, for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell. Subsection (5) mentions guidance

    ''as to the matters which the Secretary of State ... may take into account''.

It applies not only to the possible outcomes or the regulatory changes or dispensations that the school is seeking but the very form of the proposals that the school brings forward.

I remind the Minister that proposals for changes to the character of schools before the School Standards and Framework Act 1998—I am not sure about the position subsequently—had to take a particular form, so that it was easy for those who were consulted and those who were making the decisions to ensure that every required element had been addressed. A checklist would be useful for schools that want to make proposals under the Bill. They would know that they have consulted a, b and c, who have to be consulted, and that they have gathered views from the governing body and parents, if the decision is not down to the head teacher only. The Secretary of State could usefully set that out in guidance without constraining the powers of governing bodies; indeed, that should happen.

Let us explore some possibilities. For example, let us consider a community school that is to become a faith school, with 85 per cent. of its pupils being Muslim. It has no desire to close, reopen and seek a foundation to support its application, but wishes to merge an existing foundation, perhaps a local religious group, with the existing school. Therefore, it needs approval from the Secretary of State to derogate from the existing powers, including school organisation committees and so on, to enable it to change the character of the existing school. However, under the present arrangements, there is some doubt whether the Secretary of State is willing even to contemplate such a move. Is it not reasonable that those who will devote so much time and energy to preparing the proposal should have some guidance from the Secretary of State, if not as to what she will accept then at least as to what she will not accept? That is the least that is reasonable.

Another example is a selective school in an area with a large number of selective schools that chooses to become non-selective. Will the Secretary of State accept such a proposal? Of course, the school could persuade the local education authority to go through hoops a, b and c, but the authority might be one that does not believe in such decisions being made by local schools. Most Conservative authorities do, but I am sure that the Minister can imagine one of the more antediluvian authorities, perhaps controlled by a party other than Conservative or Labour, saying, ''Hang on, what about the local democratic process? Is it right that the school should become non-selective when we, the councillors, believe that it should remain selective?'' Perhaps the school would prefer to apply to the Secretary of State to avoid the council's block on this highly progressive move—as some of them would see it—avoid the school reorganisation committee and

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go for a relaxation of existing legislation, perhaps to move over time to becoming a comprehensive school. It would not be a quick change from grammar school one day to comprehensive the next, which so many grammar schools suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. It would be a phased change that all staff, pupils and parents could accept as being in the long-term interest of the school. The change must not radically alter the school's character over night, but over a long time. Is the Secretary of State willing in principle to accept any such amendment?

Is the Minister is saying that the Government will contemplate an application from any school, no holds barred, even if it wants to become selective or non-selective, or single sex having being mixed, or dispense with all requirements to deal with pupils with special educational needs? If he is saying that, it is fine. However, if he is not, it is only fair to give schools guidance before they waste time, effort and a huge amount of energy, which, in the event of such controversial proposals, they would probably generate with the local community and media and with the Member of Parliament. Does not the Minister understand why they want guidance on what is acceptable, or is he simply saying ''carte blanche''?

Mr. Timms: I shall respond to both contributions. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is right that the Bill will provide for earned autonomy. However, it does not do so in the part of the Bill that we are discussing. It does so in chapter 2, which begins with clause 5. We are currently discussing chapter 1 and, as the Committee will have heard me say several times, its clauses do not deal with earned autonomy. Any school that believes that it has a proposal for raising educational standards can apply for the powers contained in chapter 1.

As I said, the Secretary of State will issue guidance. To comment on one point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, I would expect the guidance to set out the kinds of people who should be consulted. That is envisaged in clause 4(2), where it says that

    ''the qualifying body shall consult such persons as appears to the body to be appropriate, having regard to any guidance given from time to time by the Secretary of State''.

I would expect the procedural aspect to be set out in guidance.

However, I do not agree that the guidance should include a list of all the things that will be allowed. That is contrary to what we want. We are looking for schools to come forward with ideas and proposals that we may never have considered. Equally, I do not think that the guidance should include all the things that we will not allow. I return the hon. Member for Isle of Wight to a helpful analogy that he put to the Committee this morning. Are we treating schools as toddlers or adults? His call is to go back to the toddler model and tell them that they can do some things, but not go beyond a certain boundary. That is not our approach; we want to treat schools as adults. We want to give the professional judgment of teachers and head teachers freer rein than was previously available. We want to tell them to come forward with proposals that

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they believe will contribute to raising standards in their school and, if our assessment agrees, we will permit that innovation.

Mr. Willis: This has been an interesting debate on the amendment, and I will not press it to a Division. However, in not having an explanation of Government policy at the beginning of the Bill, or some indication on guidance and regulations, we are all thrashing about in the dark. The examples I have given may be somewhat extreme; nevertheless, the lack of clarification leads us down that road.

It is disingenuous for the Minister to ignore the remarks of the Secretary of State, and indeed the Prime Minister, about earned autonomy being at the heart of the Bill, and simply to say that it is for all. He knows that it is not for all.

Mr. Timms: It is in the next part of the Bill, over the page.

6.30 pm

Mr. Willis: I know that the Minister is growing extremely frustrated, but we are going to argue our case on these clauses.

Already the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Minister and the Prime Minister have made it clear in their overall consideration of the Bill—not a specific clause—that the concept of earned autonomy will be at the heart of it. That is not something for everyone. The quicker the Committee either accepts or rejects that, the better. In the debate on clause 1 we argued that we wanted autonomy for everyone, except in those cases vetoed by the Secretary of State. We even tried to give clear examples of where such permission should not be given. That was not acceptable, and we have moved on.

In terms of creating a vibrant framework for innovation, it is important that clear advice and guidance are given on crucial areas and that that does not lead schools or local authorities down unacceptable roads. I have a question for the Minister. In my constituency, which has very high-performing schools—the Minister kindly attended a prize-giving ceremony recently—not a single head teacher supports league tables. Can league tables be disapplied? If not, the Minister should say so immediately. Can SATs be disapplied so that children do not have to take them, let us say, at year seven? That is a reasonable request.

If the Department has said, ''We cannot possibly do those sort of things,'' at least let us know what they are so that schools have a clear idea of the broad parameters in which to work. The Minister has said that there will be guidance wherever necessary. I accept his word on that point.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 7, in page 3, line 1, leave out subsections (6) and (7).—[Mr. Brady.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

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Division No. 6]

AYES
Brady, Mr. Graham
Grayling, Chris
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Laws, Mr. David
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

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Variation or Revocation of Orders under Section 2

 
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