Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Timms: I say categorically, on behalf of my party, that under no circumstances would we do that. I hope that the h G would give the same reassurance on behalf of his party. Any future Government could repeal sections 449 to 462 of the Education Act 1996, and that would have that effect, but I think that we would both wish to give the assurances that our parties would not do that.

Mr. Brady: The Minister is almost repealing the relevant section of the Education Act 1996. The Bill provides the power to repeal its clauses. Should I occupy his seat in the future, I would have no intention of charging for places in maintained schools. Given the outbreak of consensus and unanimity on that matter, which might extend to the Liberal Democrat spokesman at the end of this Bench, would now be a good moment to restate the commitment of all political parties to the principle of free education?

Before moving to the other amendments to which I shall allude briefly, I want to ask the Minister to reflect on whether it may be possible for the Government to table their own amendment at a later stage and put into the Bill a restriction that members of the Committee have agreed would be welcome. It would prevent any future Secretary of State, without recourse to primary legislation, from moving in a direction that we would all want to avoid.

I come now to amendments Nos. 20 and 30. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight speculated about the policy-making process in the then Department of Education and Science. The Bill may have dropped off a cliff with many open-ended powers and little detail on how they will be used because of its origins in the Downing street policy unit before the architects moved on to other things in June. We may never know, but perhaps we will be enlightened as to how the policy-making process works in the Department for Education and Skills.

We had a useful debate on the question of a balanced and broad curriculum. I was not seeking to ascribe views to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, but I am grateful to him for clarifying one point. In considering the relaxation of the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds, we do not intend to depart from a broadly-based curriculum. We want genuine flexibility that could lead to a more appropriate form of education to interest 14 to 19-year olds who are not adequately engaged in the education process.

It may be appropriate to cite an example from my constituency. An excellent sports college, the Ashton-on-Mersey school, has a close relationship with Manchester United football club. I note that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is forming a crucifix with his fingers, and I am sure that he would want that on the record for the benefit of constituents who do not share his views. However, the benefit to the

Column Number: 92

school's prestige, the development of the sporting faculty and other curriculum areas is considerable. It also works effectively for the club to continue the broader education of some of its apprentices at the school. That is an interesting model of how the process can progress. I was encouraged by the hon. Gentleman's position on that and I endorse it.

The Minister pointed out the later clauses that protect a broad and balanced curriculum. Although I have reservations that protection does not remain for schools under part 1, I was satisfied by the Minister's helpful explanation of how it would remain for earned autonomy schools under clause 5. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Exemptions available to qualifying schools

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 4, line 25, leave out ''may'', and insert ''shall''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 68, in page 4, line 26, leave out ''any curriculum provision'' and insert—

    ''any of such curriculum provisions as shall be prescribed by order approved under the affirmative resolution procedure''.

No. 44, in page 4, line 26, after second ''provision'', insert—

    ''or such other areas as the Secretary of State may determine following representations from a qualifying body or qualifying school''.

No. 12, in page 4, line 28, leave out subsections (1)(b) and (c) and insert—

    ''(b) designate the modifications of any curriculum provision or pay and conditions provision as being available as of right, and

    may—

    (c) designate any curriculum provision or pay and conditions provisions as attracting discretionary exemption''.

No. 45, in page 4, line 28, after second ''provision'', insert—

    ''or such other areas as the Secretary of State may determine following representations from a qualifying body or qualifying school''.

No. 46, in page 4, line 31, after ''provision'', insert—

    ''or such other areas as the Secretary of State may determine following representations from a qualifying body or qualifying school''.

No. 47, in page 4, line 33, after ''provision'', insert—

    ''or such other areas as the Secretary of State may determine following representations from a qualifying body or qualifying school''.

No. 35, in page 4, line 33, at end insert—

    ''except insofar as every school must demonstrate that the curriculum it offers remains consistent with the objectives of the national curriculum.''

No. 66, in page 5, line 9, at end insert—

    ''(f) provide for the manner in which statutory provisions in relation to the inspection of schools, and the publication of information relating to school performance shall be applied in relation to a school in respect of which an order under subsection 2 is made''.

Column Number: 93

No. 13, in page 5, line 13, leave out ''(1)(c)'', and insert ''(1)(b)''.

No. 14, in page 5, line 24, leave out ''(1)(b)'', and insert ''(1)(c)''.

No. 81, in page 5, line 30, at end insert—

    ''(6) In so far as regulations made under this section relate to a curriculum provision they shall, in addition to providing for an exemption or modification, require persons responsible for the delivery of the curriculum in any school to have regard to the need to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum in that school.''

Mr. Brady: If the Minister were a charitable man, he would have spoken at length on clause stand part. However, I cannot expect quarter to be given if none is asked for.

The amendments would advance our key concern with the earned autonomy provisions: the exemptions related to school performance. In many respects, the phrase ''earned autonomy'' is not borne out by the Bill. We have rehearsed questions of ministerial discretion and the extent to which Ministers' opinions may be considered valid criteria. In clause 6, we see again that more discretion lies with Ministers than is appropriate or can readily be explained or justified, given their claims that they want an open and transparent process through which autonomy can genuinely be earned.

Amendment No. 11 deals with a specific aspect of ministerial discretion. In line 25 on page 4 of the Bill is the wonderfully open-ended word ''may''. The Minister says that autonomy will be earned through the fulfilment of appropriate, objective and transparent criteria. This evening, he has kindly undertaken to give the House before we complete our consideration of the Bill at least an inkling of what those criteria will be, for which I have thanked him.

However, even when we cross the initial threshold and achieve the criteria, and a school has seen whether it qualifies and whether its achievements will earn it autonomy, we reach another gateway in clause 6(1). It states:

    ''Regulations may for the purposes of this section...designate any curriculum provision''

and so on. Through the amendments, particularly amendments Nos. 11, 13 and 14, my hon. Friends and I seek to restructure the clause. They would rearrange subsection (1) to differentiate the two paragraphs that set out exemptions as of right and the two that set out discretionary exemptions.

If something is exempted as of right, there should not be ministerial discretion as to whether regulations are produced to allow that exemption to take place. Being a fair-minded man, I am prepared to accept that Ministers should have the discretion that exists in the Bill if they are openly saying that something should be available on a discretionary basis. That makes perfect sense. If something is available as of right, however, it does not make sense that the Minister can choose not to make regulations to allow that to happen.

In wishing to re-order subsections (1)(a) to (d), I am seeking to change the burden on Ministers accordingly in order to ensure that current subsections (1)(a) and (1)(c) are covered by a requirement that regulations shall designate as of right. For the two paragraphs (b) and (d), which provide for discretionary exemption,

Column Number: 94

the amendments leave the current wording that regulations may designate, which seems entirely sensible and appropriate.

9.15 pm

The aim is to create a process that brings into play a dynamic that will impose certain obligations on Ministers, if the criteria that they have set out are met, instead of the stop-start process whereby Ministers examine individual applications to determine whether someone qualifies or whether a school has genuinely earned autonomy. It would increase the degree of certainty for schools, so that they can know what will happen as they move through the process. The amendments are particularly relevant.

Amendment No. 68 deals with the question of parliamentary scrutiny. The Minister raised the issue—perhaps with a degree of irony—and said that it was important. The amendment would require that regulations are introduced under an affirmative resolution procedure, rather than moved by Ministers under a negative procedure. While it is my intention to make life easier for schools, when possible and appropriate, I do not have a similar concern for Members of Parliament, who should do their job of scrutinising legislation. My amendment would increase the burden on Members of the House, who would be expected to earn their living by scrutinising the regulations under clause 6(1).

By accepting the amendments, we would improve the transparency of the Bill and the dynamism of the process. We would make life easier for schools, as they claim what they rightly regard, in many cases, as their entitlement to greater autonomy based on their performance and achievements.

Amendment No. 66 would create a power under clause 6(2) to provide for inspection of schools and publication of performance information. It is entirely consistent with the Official Opposition's approach to raising standards in schools. I was pleased that the Secretary of State, when challenged by one of my hon. Friends on Second Reading, confirmed her admiration of and gratitude for the actions of the previous Conservative Government in setting out the agenda for publication of performance data and ensuring rigorous inspection of schools. It would be a retrograde step if, under the earned autonomy provisions, we were to lose some of the levers and tools that are available for assessing schools' performance, particularly given that, as the Minister has said, some of the performance indicators might at least in part be the basis on which autonomy would be earned. If schools with earned autonomy did not have to continue to submit performance data, we would have no way of finding out about the effectiveness of the earned autonomy. We would not know whether the school continued to qualify for it, or whether a problem had arisen, making it appropriate to review the situation.

I should be interested in the Minister's comments. My hon. Friends and I would want the matter of earned autonomy to be dealt with by way of an open, predictable process in which schools would know where they stood. However, we would want a quid pro

Column Number: 95

quo; the public, Parliament and Ministers should have a right to know what was going on in the school that had been granted autonomy and how it was working. My amendment would provide for a power to prescribe measures for inspection and publication of performance data. As far as I can see, there are no such measures in the Bill.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 December 2001