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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Education Bill

Education Bill

Column Number: 77

Standing Committee G

Tuesday 11 December 2001


Part II

Mrs. Irene Adams

Education Bill

[Continuation from column 76]

8 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Willis: They now have to earn autonomy. To refresh hon. Members' minds, I was saying that schools have delivered on what the Government have asked. They have produced outstanding responses to a whole host of initiatives, some of which they were not keen to participate in. The idea that they now have to earn autonomy is rather sad.

However, if that is to be the case, the amendment suggests that objective criteria should be applied. The Minister has made it clear, throughout the day, that he is prepared to set some objective criteria, and the Committee wants to hear them. I also have problems with the criteria. When the hon. Member for Isle of Wight spoke earlier, and cut to the chase, he started to talk about specific objective criteria. Earlier, I had raised the issue of how to judge whether a school is failing or successful. If one does that simply by narrow, national objective criteria, one can quickly fall foul of it. The comments that I made earlier about five A to Cs are an example of that. If the judgment is made on the basis of exclusions, levels of improvement, or any of those simple objective measures, one will not get to the heart of what the Government want from innovation, and what I hope Opposition parties also want. We must therefore be careful about what criteria we use.

I emphasise, however, that it is important that we have a chance to see what criteria the Government have in mind with regard to earned autonomy. If we do not have that opportunity, schools will be thrashing about in the dark, trying to find out what is in the Government's mind before they make the relevant applications. Although the amendments are slightly flawed, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West makes a good a point, and I trust that the Minister will respond accordingly.

Mr. Timms: We now reach the much anticipated part of the Bill that deals with earned autonomy, or, as the parliamentary draftsman has expressed it, exemptions related to school performance. It would be helpful to begin by clarifying the distinctions between the exemptions available here, and the innovation available under the part of the Bill that we have just finished discussing.

First, when the power to innovate, in chapter 1, is available on application to any school, the exemptions are only available to schools meeting specified performance criteria. Secondly, when the power to

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innovate can be used to relax any regulatory requirements in education law, the exemptions can only be applied to curriculum provisions or pay and conditions provisions. Thirdly, when the power to innovate, in chapter 1, will entail a judgment being made by the Secretary of State on whether the proposal will raise educational standards, the exemptions will usually apply, in effect, as of right, without the need for such a judgment to be made, although there may be exceptions to that, to which I shall come in a moment. Fourthly, when the power to innovate is being piloted, as we discussed previously, the exemptions can be of indefinite duration—although they can be removed under clause 8, they are not of fixed duration.

We want the process for schools to earn autonomy to be as clear as possible, as both hon. Members who have spoken have mentioned. Over time, we want to provide all schools with the opportunity to aim towards it, as standards continue to rise, and leadership continues to improve further. The criteria that are used to award autonomy to schools will be clear and consistent, and we will ensure—as far as is possible—that they are objective. However, with regard to amendment No. 9, the criteria will need to involve an element of judgment—it will be impossible for us entirely to dispense with that.

I offer an example to illustrate that point. The two key areas that I would expect the criteria to address are the school's performance and its Ofsted report. It is important to note that the performance data will be published, and that we will increasingly be able to refer to value added performance data. A school might meet the performance criteria, and its latest Ofsted report might suggest that it has strong leadership, in which case, on the objective criteria, it would qualify for the exemptions. However, I hope that Committee members will agree with me that, if the school's entire leadership team had changed since the Ofsted report was produced, the Secretary of State would need to exercise judgment with regard to deciding whether exemptions should be made available.

Mr. Willis: Does the Minister have in mind specific performance criteria, such as the five A to Cs criteria, which has been used—by the Prime Minister, the former Secretary of State and the current Secretary of State—to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful schools?

Mr. Timms: I would expect the performance data to include several types of information: absolute performance information, such as GCSE results, and key stage 3 results that take account of free school meal bands; improvement in performance; and value added data, which is increasingly becoming available. Those would constitute the parameters of our proposals, but we will consult on the precise criteria.

Mr. Brady: I hope that it will not sound churlish if I say that, for the first time today, the Minister is beginning to answer some of the concerns of Committee members who do not represent the Labour party. We want to be told of the details of the Government's intentions.

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Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to put a little more flesh on the bones by agreeing to set out, at least in draft form, what those criteria will be, before the House concludes its consideration of the Bill?

Mr. Timms: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's expression of appreciation. However, the reason I am answering questions about earned autonomy for the first time, is because this is the first time that we have addressed the subject.

The hon. Gentleman has made a reasonable request, and I hope that it will be possible to comply with it, although I cannot guarantee that at present. We would expect the criteria to include an assessment of the leadership of the school—which will probably be based on Ofsted's assessment—as well as performance data. We would also expect a consultation to take place with regard to those ideas.

Chris Grayling: One obvious circumstance in which a school could look to the Department for consent to take steps under the provisions would be if it were a failing school in which a new head teacher had been employed with a mandate to turn the school round. That should be reflected in the criteria that the Government set out.

Mr. Timms: If the school is failing, it is highly unlikely to meet the performance criteria. However, if such a school wished, it could apply under chapter 1 to use the powers to innovate. It would not qualify for the automatic exemptions under chapter 2.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the Minister extend that a little further? Are the prescribed criteria in subsection (1) a single set that relates to both curriculum provisions and pay and conditions provisions, or is the Secretary of State permitted to set two sets of criteria that relate to two different provisions? The latter may seem more appropriate because if a school was near to failing, it would be evident that that was the point at which one should encourage the recruitment of more and better teachers by, perhaps, offering better terms and conditions of service.

Mr. Timms: No, we envisage that the criteria will be the same for both. When performance criteria were met, the school would be entitled to take on the exemptions that are listed in clause 6.

I return to the issue raised by amendment No. 9 concerning the Secretary of State exercising his judgment. I hope that my examples have made it clear that there will be cases in which judgment must be applied. However, that would not usually be the case, and would be the exception rather than the rule. In the majority of cases, there would be no doubt about whether schools meet the criteria.

Mr. Willis: The Minister explained that, under chapter 1, all schools may apply to innovate. However, under clause 5, only schools that have earned autonomy may disapply the national curriculum and pay and conditions. Have I followed the Minister so

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far? Does that assume, under chapter 1, that a school cannot innovate about the curriculum unless it has satisfied earned autonomy under clause 5?

Mr. Timms: Let me draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to clause 2, which states:

    ''On the application of one or more qualifying bodies...the Secretary of State may . . . make provision . . . conferring on the applicant exemption from any requirement imposed by education legislation''.

A school may apply for an exemption from any requirement of education legislation under the powers to facilitate innovation. Those requirements include curriculum legislation.

Mr. Willis: The point that I make is that unless a school has earned autonomy, it cannot disapply the two key areas of the curriculum and pay and conditions. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Isle of Wight answers for the Minister, but I would prefer the Minister's response.

Mr. Timms: I did not hear the answer.

The difference is that when a school meets the performance criteria, it will—as of right, in most instances—be entitled to take advantage of the exemptions that are outlined in clause 6. However, it would be possible for another school to apply to take on similar flexibilities under the powers to innovate in chapter 1. It would not be barred from doing so because of the exemptions in chapter 2.

Mr. Willis: The specific difference is that earned autonomy gives someone the automatic right to do those things without asking anyone else. In Part 1, one has to go begging to the Secretary of State.


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Prepared 11 December 2001