Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 3, line 29, leave out subsection (2).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 43, in page 3, line 30, leave out ''on one occasion only''.

Mr. Brady: I shall not detain the Committee. The amendment ties in with earlier amendments concerning flexibility in the innovation proposals. Earlier, the Minister unkindly suggested that the amendments were inconsistent. That is a demonstration of the huge prescience of Her Majesty's Opposition, who accurately predicted the Government's failure to support earlier amendments. They also predicted the Minister's argument that it was inappropriate to allow Ministers huge scope and flexibility because they could not be trusted to make decisions on innovation. Amendment No. 8 is an opportunity for the Minister to put those words into action. In his strong view, we need a better standard of parliamentary scrutiny of the provisions.

The amendment probes whether six years is the appropriate length of time for innovation to continue without parliamentary scrutiny, or whether three years would be more appropriate.

Chris Grayling: The provisions are extraordinarily vague. Will the Minister give us a detailed explanation, and some examples, of how the Government would use the provisions? One of my concerns is that the Bill does not clearly demonstrate how the Government will use their powers.

I hope that the amendment will tease out one aspect of the lack of information. I hope that the Minister will put into context how he has reached the conclusions in the clause, and how it will be used.

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Mr. Willis: The amendment has the same theme as amendment No. 43. We, too, find the clause difficult to understand. Why three years? Why one extension only? We look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Timms: As the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said, we have previously discussed this matter. At the time, the amendment he proposed was contrary to the current one, but I will not labour that point.

It is appropriate for an innovation pilot to run for three years, and it may be extended after that time for up to another three years. That decision takes into account a case where the change is put into primary legislation, but for some reason the Bill cannot proceed. A three-year extension would allow the innovation to continue, pending the legislative position being resolved. Opposition Members have accused us of adopting untrammelled powers in the measures; now they are urging us to ''untrammel'' them more.

We have struck the right balance. The mechanisms are appropriate for piloting, but inappropriate for making permanent changes to the law. There are other procedures in the House for making permanent changes, which I listed earlier. I hope that hon. Members will accept that we have the right balance of three years followed by a three-year extension.

Mr. Brady: I do not accept that the Government have got it right, but as I said when I moved the amendment, we have aired our concerns about the obvious inconsistency in the Government's approach in relation to earlier amendments, and I will not seek to press the matter to a Division.

Mr. Willis: Likewise, we are happy not to press our amendment. However, the Minister is unrealistic if he believes that we can, in a short time, disapply terms and conditions for staff, adopt the Government's policy—which they abandoned in their previous term—of appointing super heads with extraordinarily high salaries, and create new types of school, such as fresh start schools, which was also Government policy.

Mr. Brady: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

applications for orders under section 2

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

Mr. Timms: We have had some discussion about the first two subsections, which require schools or other qualifying bodies who propose to use the power to innovate to consult appropriate bodies. That is one of the checks and balances to ensure that all parties affected by the proposal have been consulted. We expect details and outcomes of consultation arrangements to be included in applications to the Secretary of State. Subsection (3) gives the Secretary of

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State or the National Assembly of Wales, with the consent of the applicant, the flexibility to make different provision in a section 2 order from the provision originally requested. Consultation must be part of the proposals for innovative change. People have the right to have their views heard, and I hope that the Committee will agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

The discussions today have been useful, although we have made limited progress. We amended the programme motion to allow for possible discussion beyond 7 pm, and it may be in the Committee's interests to reconvene at 8 pm. I seek your guidance, Mrs. Adams.

The Chairman: What time does the Minister propose to conclude proceedings?

Mr. Timms: I did not have a specific time in mind, although I imagine that we will want to continue for some time. Do we have to specify a time now?

The Chairman: It would be helpful to know how long the Committee proposes to sit, because that will determine how long I suspend the sitting for dinner.

Mr. Timms: I suggest that we continue until 10 pm.

The Chairman: With the agreement of the Committee, we shall rise at 7 pm and reconvene from 8 until 10 pm.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Interpretation of chapter 2

6.45 pm

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 67, in page 4, line 5, leave out 'prescribed criteria' and insert

    'criteria prescribed by the Secretary of State after consultation with such organisations or bodies as he considers appropriate and'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 9, in page 4, line 8, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Brady: Under amendment No. 67, I again seek to put a little flesh on the bones of the Bill. The amendment would substitute a slightly broader wording for the current phrase, and I had a clear purpose in tabling it. Under subsection (1), if a school is

    ''of a prescribed description which satisfies prescribed criteria relating to the performance of, or the quality of leadership in, the school'',

the rights of other interested bodies are not fully taken into account. If the amendment were incorporated into the Bill, there would be a small restriction on the Secretary of State's wide discretion to set out the prescribed criteria, which would be replaced by something a little more informed.

Under the clauses in chapter 2 on exemptions related to school performance, which the Minister would categorise as the earned autonomy measures, my hon. Friends and I shall be seeking a clearer idea of

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how autonomy will be earned, how it will work, how the Secretary of State will arrive at the prescribed criteria and what they will be.

Let me now deal with amendment No. 9. Subsection (2) states:

    ''The criteria prescribed for the purposes of subsection (1) may include criteria referring to the opinion of the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales.''

Sadly, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales is not here to enlighten the Committee about the exact procedure in the National Assembly and how it arrives at a corporate opinion in these matters.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brady: I will happily give way, because I am sure that I shall learn something.

Dr. Francis: The consultation document entitled ''The Learning Country'' was widely discussed in Wales, and the Bill is the fruit of that exercise.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman although I am not sure he has cleared up the confusion that may be felt by some Members from the English side of the border.

Given that we are dealing with primary legislation that creates new powers, a new procedure and new mechanism for earned autonomy, it is something that may relate not just to the current situation, following discussions and debates on ''The Learning Country'' but may carry on into the future, potentially without any limitation. In that case, at the appropriate time, when a school might be hoping that its success is taking it through the hoops of earned autonomy, it will need to know what those hoops will be. In the context of schools in Wales, the opinion of the National Assembly may, presumably, change from time to time as indeed may the opinion or the person of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in England

As currently drafted, the Bill, particularly clause 5(2), contains a remarkably wide power. It enshrines in legislation the importance of something that is merely opinion. It is not required in the terms of the Bill to be informed opinion, but is merely a power to include criteria that refer to the opinion of the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales.

Given that the criteria may include reference to the opinion of the Secretary of State, I think it is axiomatic that the criteria may include things that do not refer to the opinion of the Secretary of State. The decision will not, therefore, simply be made on the premise of what the Secretary of State happens to think is the right way to proceed; there will be other criteria.

Those other criteria may be entirely logical, practical and consistent. They may specify, for example, the outcome of a school's inspection, the opinion of the chief inspector or the opinion of the LEA. They may specify a certain level of improvement at the school whether it be progress through value-added league tables, dealing more effectively with

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special educational needs or in improving the education of children for whom English is not the first language.

All those things might be described as the rational criteria that may be set out under the terms of this Bill, and which any school may look at to assess its chances for increased autonomy. It may feel that it has a right to increased autonomy because—in the words used by Ministers—it has earned autonomy.

We come back, however, to the appalling subsection (2), which, as well as sensible, rational, properly measured and transparent criteria, allows criteria that relate to the opinion of the Secretary of State. That should concern hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, as it concerns those working in schools. One refrain that is heard increasingly from teachers and heads is that they want more control over what goes on in their school and how they educate their pupils. They want to be able to earn autonomy. Indeed some of them believe that they are already earning rather more autonomy than they are allowed as they are not granted that much anyway. They believe that the LEA and the Department for Education and Skills between them manage to interfere and pile on bureaucracy at every turn.

Here we have a way that Ministers could set out objective, transparent criteria with no reference to the opinion of the Secretary of State or indeed of the National Assembly for Wales. Instead they could set out a way in which a school, a head or a governing body, would know what had to be done to qualify. If a school's goal was to have more autonomy so that it could engage in more innovative practices, reduce levels of bureaucracy and perhaps tackle some of the problems of teacher workload, it could see where it had to get to achieve that. Instead, the Bill contains the most opaque terms possible.

There is not even a requirement on the Secretary of State to have formed an opinion on the basis of a rational process of consultation and discussion. The Secretary of State's opinion can rank as a criterion along with everything else. It does not matter if the school has met all the challenges that any rational person would want to see it meet. It could be a school that has improved dramatically over a period of years. It could be achieving the best exam results in its neighbourhood. It could be a school that was highly prized by the local community. Yet the wild card is thrown into the game: is it the Secretary of State of the opinion that that school has earned autonomy?

In these two amendments I am seeking to begin to set out the process whereby earned autonomy can be really that. Instead of it being autonomy on the whim of the Secretary of State, we can have a new approach to the regulation and control of our schools under which they know what the criteria are for earning autonomy. This is an entirely constructive pair of amendments and I hope that the Minister will accept that they would contribute something important to the Bill.

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