Education Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner: It is important to remember that the national curriculum was made for pupils, not pupils for the national curriculum. The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West would set a reasonable boundary on any amendments to the national curriculum that a head might seek. There are certainly schools that at present could not move into the maintained sector because of the national curriculum requirements currently in place, which are, none the less, highly effective schools, such as the Rudolph Steiner schools. I believe that consideration is currently being given to the Rudolph Steiner schools being admitted to the maintained sector.

It is important to realise that the idea of the national curriculum started as a basic entitlement. It was quickly translated by those implementing the law—not those who made the law—into an all-embracing, highly prescriptive and dangerous document that attempted to cram into a limited number of hours in a child's life a huge number of detailed requirements that neither schools, teachers, parents, nor my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher felt were appropriate when the provisions were enacted in the Education Reform Act 1988. It happened because of the way in which the national curriculum was constructed.

The curriculum was constructed by a range of different subject committees, each with many specialists all wanting to grab their own specialism within the subject and to ensure that that was properly laid out in the curriculum's requirements. Each of those committees, having worked not to the lowest common denominator but the other thing—I forget what it is called—then put everything into its bid for

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what should go into the national curriculum. Every subject was then allowed as much as possible of what it was seeking.

That was a highly damaging process. I declare a little history here because I was involved in the policy group that led to the 1987 Conservative election manifesto, and I have to say that there was no idea at the time that the national curriculum was anything but a basic entitlement. My considered belief is that the officials in the Minister's Department had a national curriculum document tucked away in their drawers which they then hauled out as the quid pro quo for what they saw as some rather dangerous proposals to allow freedom to schools, which they would never have considered in a hundred years if they were not to get something in return. The national curriculum was the balance for the freedom that we wanted to give schools through local management of schools and grant-maintained status. You may feel that I am veering too far into history, Mrs. Adams, but it is sometimes important to put such matters on the record.

Mr. Willis: We know who was to blame.

Mr. Turner: Yes, we know who was to blame. If I may say so, it was neither my noble Friend Lord Baker, nor my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, nor I.

The amendment brings the objectives of the national curriculum back to basics. It requires schools to observe those basics without being constrained by the highly artificial and dangerous superstructure that was erected on those few words. I confess that I would like schools to experiment just as widely with the curriculum that they offer as they do with teachers' pay and conditions and other aspects of legislation, in the interests of innovation and raising standards. They do not need to deliver the American west in year seven. They do not need to deliver the curriculum through IT, as long as they deliver a basic entitlement. At the moment, I understand that Rudolph Steiner schools are prevented from being absorbed into the maintained sector because they do not wish to deliver through IT at an early age, and they do not recognise that as necessary. The amendment sets out exactly the kind of provision to which pupils should be entitled, without restraining schools as they are currently restrained.

Mr. Timms: We have had an interesting debate on this group of amendments. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight has been especially informative, and one of the things that we discovered from his remarks was that whoever was in charge of the Department of Education and Science in 1987—as the Department for Education and Skills was called at the time—it certainly was not the Ministers. Of course, nobody would say that now.

May I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to clause 6, as he was suggesting that once a school has met the performance criteria it will have untrammelled freedom to do whatever it likes? That is not the case. As I said at the outset, the freedom that is available is tightly circumscribed—schools will be able to take advantage of designated exemptions and modifications under clause 6.

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Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 propose that schools cannot earn autonomy in respect of the general requirements of the curriculum. They refer, respectively, to clauses 74 and 75 for England, and clauses 95 and 96 for Wales. I am grateful to Opposition Members of both parties for tabling those two amendments, as they raise important points, and provide an opportunity for me to put some important responses on the record. I hope that I can persuade Opposition Members that the amendments are unnecessary. If Committee members turn to the relevant clauses, they will see that that part of the Bill—in part 6—comes under the heading

    ''General duties in respect of the curriculum''.

Clauses 74 and 75, to which the amendment refers, come under that heading. Only when we reach clause 77 does the heading

    ''The National Curriculum for England''

appear. The Welsh clauses are structured in the same way. Clause (5)(3) states:

    ''In this Chapter—

    ''curriculum provision'' means—

    (a) in relation to a maintained school maintained by a local education authority in England, any provision of the National Curriculum for England''.

In other words, subsection (3) relates to clause 77 and subsequent clauses in the case of England, and to clause 93 and subsequent clauses in the case of Wales.

Subsection (3) does not relate to clauses 74 and 75, which relate to England and are referred to in clause 29. Nor does the subsection relate to clauses 95 and 96, which relate to Wales and are referred to in amendment No. 30. Under the Bill, schools can earn autonomy only in respect of the national curriculum. The clauses referred to in this group of amendments do not deal with the national curriculum but are restricted to the general requirements of the curriculum.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised the question of religious education. Clause 76(1)(a) mentions

    ''provision for religious education for all registered pupils at the apply in relation to the school''.

That is also outside the scope of the variations identified in clause 5, so I reassure him on that point.

The two broad aims of the school curriculum are set out clearly in ''Curriculum 2000''. First, it should provide all pupils with the opportunity to learn and achieve. Secondly, the curriculum should promote spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life. We remain committed to those aims.

I hope that I have dealt with the concerns raised in amendments Nos. 29 and 30, but our discussions have ranged over more than just those amendments. When we discuss the amendments tabled to clause 6, we shall have a wide-ranging debate on the nature of the exemptions available under the provision. I shall be interested to hear the views expressed in that debate. We shall consult on those points in the coming weeks.

Amendments Nos. 69 and 70 would ensure that no school that earned autonomy under the Bill's provisions could earn autonomy from the provisions for charging for school activities, which are set out in

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sections 449 to 462 of the Education Act 1996. I reassure the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that no maintained school will be able to operate outside those charging provisions.

Sections 449 to 462 will remain in force for schools that have earned autonomy as well as those that have not. That is because ''curriculum provision'' is defined in subsection (3) as

    ''any provision of the National Curriculum''

for either England and Wales. That definition is contained in sections 353 to 369 of the 1996 Act, which will be replaced by clauses 77 to 92 for England and clauses 93 to 114 for Wales, and by orders and regulations made under those clauses. The Bill does not provide the power for the regulations to extend to sections 449 to 462 of the 1996 Act. I hope that that is clear.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister. The best that I can say is that the matter is as clear as it can be. Will he give an assurance that schools would not have the leeway to apply for exemption from education legislation under part 1? Would it be possible for schools that benefit from exemptions in connection with innovation to suspend the requirements of the Education Act 1996?

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Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman asked an interesting and important question. As I have repeatedly said, chapter 1 clearly enables the Secretary of State to make provision that would confer on the applicant exemption from any requirement imposed by education legislation. Theoretically, the hon. Gentleman's worry could be valid, but I assure him that we would not allow an innovation that would introduce charging or end the right to free education. That would not be raising standards as required under that part of the Bill.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been adequately reassured about the amendments. We now know that amendments Nos. 69 and 70 will not be pressed to a Division, but I hope that he is reassured about amendments Nos. 29 and 30.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister, not least for resisting the temptation to highlight drafting irregularities under amendments Nos. 69 and 70. I appreciate the openness with which he has dealt with the broad points that have been raised.

I shall deal first with amendments Nos. 69 and 70. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clear assurances that Ministers would not, in his words, ''ever seek to relax the relevant aspects of education legislation in order to allow charging''. However, he said earlier that he could speak only for the present Secretary of State. The Minister confirmed that, under part 1, the scope and breadth of the powers allowed for exemptions from education legislation in respect of innovation could be interpreted so broadly that it would be possible to end the principle of free education in the maintained sector. While that does not apply to clause 5 as it stands, I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is a cause for some concern. Members of the

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Committee must reflect on agreeing to primary legislation that could remain on the statute book for a considerable time.

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