Education Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I should like to finish, because time is short and I have strayed off piste.

In conclusion, the point before us is important and worth spending some time on.

Mr. Timms: We have had an interesting and valuable debate. The Bill provides for schools that have earned their autonomy to be trusted to take responsible decisions in partnership with their stakeholders over pay and conditions and the national curriculum, and our discussion has focused on the national curriculum. We do not think it appropriate at this stage to legislate for areas beyond those two. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked me a direct question about that. It may well be that, in due course, as a result of people taking up the power to innovate, we will come up with examples of successful innovations that we might want to apply more widely through the earned autonomy powers. If that were the case, we should want to look at the possibility of legislating further to include those freedoms within earned autonomy. The reassurance that the hon. Gentleman wanted from me was that if we were to do that we would have to come back with fresh primary legislation. I can give him that

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assurance. Without any more primary legislation, the ability to exercise earned autonomy will be just in the two areas set out in the Bill.

Mr. Brady: Could I ask the Minister to revisit the point that he made in responding to an earlier amendment that, on the expiry of exemptions under part 1, one of the mechanisms that might be employed to extend innovation for a further period would be to extend the earned autonomy regulations? Before he concludes, will he elaborate on which aspects of the earned autonomy provisions could be extended in that way in order to fulfil that objective?

Mr. Timms: It would involve expanding the list in clause 6(1)(a) to (d) and saying that we could designate some other provisions as well. Those would be available for exercise either as of right or on a discretionary basis under the terms of that part of clause 6.

Mr. Brady: I remind the Minister that he said to me in response to an earlier amendment that there were three different approaches that could be taken. The first was to use primary legislation, the second was an extension of the earned autonomy provisions and the third was a deregulatory order. Is he now saying that it could only be done through primary legislation extending the earned autonomy provisions, or could earned autonomy standing in its own right fulfil the objective that he described?

Mr. Timms: I am not sure whether it is ''no'' or ''yes'', but the position is that to extend earned autonomy—the second of the options that the hon. Gentleman identifies—would require primary legislation. The regulatory reform order route would not, but extending earned autonomy would.

We want the process for schools to earn autonomy to be as simple and as unbureaucratic as possible. Wherever possible we should like to make those flexibilities available automatically. However, we have retained in clause 6 the ability to make both automatic and discretionary areas of exemption in the regulations, and the ability to respond to experience. We currently expect to make proposals for regulations under clause 6(1)(a), that is, exemptions as of right, not under clause 6(1)(b), the discretionary exemptions, nor under clause 6(1)(c), and to consult as to whether we want discretionary exemptions under clause 6(1)(d). I hope that that explains why it is appropriate to leave the word ''may'' in the first line of clause 6, rather than replacing it by ''shall''—that allows some flexibility about which of the four is implemented.

As far as possible, we would like the exemptions to be available as of right to schools that meet the criteria and therefore to minimise the discretionary elements of the list.

Mr. Andrew Turner: It would appear that the earned autonomy is a reward for performance, whereas the unearned autonomy is meant to raise standards. I say that because clause 1(1) mentions the objective of

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raising standards, but only with reference to chapter 1. Does the Minister agree that the raising of standards is not one of the objectives of clause 6?

9.45 pm

Mr. Timms: No, I do not agree. Raising standards is an objective of the entire Bill, but because the discretionary aspect does not apply to earned autonomy, it is not necessary to specify that as a criterion. Schools that meet the criteria will be able to take advantage of the exemptions, but the purpose of their doing so will be the raising of standards. That theme runs through the Bill.

We had an interesting discussion of the national curriculum. That has been a feature of the landscape since 1988 and we heard something about its genesis in an interesting contribution. It is well understood by parents and pupils, and everyone associated with schools lives in the climate of entitlement that it has led to, and the common understanding that children need, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, a broad and balanced curriculum if they are to rise to the opportunities of the 21st century.

Earlier I read the aims of the national curriculum—about which an exchange took place on the Opposition Benches—as we set them out in curriculum 2000. We remain committed to the two broad aims that we set out there. We would not want to return to the days when pupils and parents had no idea what would be taught in schools. The hon. Gentleman's point about mobility is important in connection with that. However, we want to give successful schools greater freedom to provide a broad, balanced curriculum that suits them and their pupils.

We firmly believe in the place of the core subjects as set out later in the Bill: English, maths and science. They should remain the core curriculum. However, we need serious debate about what else might be considered part of the core curriculum for pupils in successful schools. We propose to consult on that issue. The hon. Gentleman asked whether I envisaged that the core as set out later for key stages 1 to 3 would continue to be the core. The answer is yes. However, we think that there is scope for variation in the other, foundation, subjects.

I should have responded earlier to the hon. Gentleman's point about the distinction between key stages 1 to 3 and key stage 4. He will see that a distinction is made in the Bill; clause 80 deals with key stages 1 to 3 and clause 81 deals with key stage 4. That reflects the distinction that he has drawn and the need for us to be open to the idea of further flexibility with respect to key stage 4—for just the reasons that he and other hon. Members have given.

We heard an interesting debate between the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I found the point of view of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight the more persuasive of the two. We are interested in the debate on freedoms in the present context, and will be consulting on it in coming weeks. I can give an assurance that we shall produce a

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document setting out the options, as a basis for consultation, before the Bill leaves the House. I hope that that will help members of the Committee.

Chris Grayling: I welcome some of the reassurances that the Minister has given, but in many ways he has highlighted my greatest concern about the Bill—the extent to which the Government's word has to be taken on trust. So many of the provisions are indeterminate. They relate to matters on which the Government will consult, publish papers and create new guidelines. The legislation seems terribly imperfect, so I should welcome the Minister's comments on why it is necessary to leave so many important issues open. Why can such important legislation not to be more detailed and less of a wish list?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman is relatively new to the House. As he takes part in more proceedings such as ours in the years ahead, he will find that what he describes is a common characteristic of them. Members of the Committee need to take a view on whether they think it right for the provisions to be in primary legislation. Beyond that, I am suggesting how we intend to use the powers set out. We will be able to spell out how we will do so in more detail before the Bill leaves the House of Commons. I hope that what I have said is enough to show hon. Members that the measures will help to bring about the needed changes, on which there is wide agreement across the Committee.

My final point returns to some of the flexibility for which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough expressed an aspiration. I agreed with much of what he said, especially about the need to engage a large number of young people who cannot see the point of what they are asked to do in school. It might be possible to do so by disapplying programmes of study rather than subjects themselves. That is one option on which we shall want to consult in coming weeks.

Mr. Brady: The Minister has not dealt with amendment No. 66, which relates to inspection and publication of performance information. I should be grateful if he would do so.

Mr. Timms: Amendment No. 66 was on the tip of my tongue. We do not want to dilute accountability through our inspection arrangements or performance tables. We do not believe that any exemptions given under earned autonomy will require statutory changes to the inspection system or to performance tables. When account needs to be taken of developments under earned autonomy, Ofsted can do so by issuing guidance to inspectors. We continually review the operation of performance tables to ensure that they accurately reflect the wide range of high-quality qualifications available. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Miliband: One thing that has troubled me about the last hour or so of debate is that the concept of earned autonomy has been treated as though schools either have it or do not. My understanding is that

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schools will progressively achieve greater freedom across a range of issues as they become more successful. The Minister mentioned inspection. Am I wrong to think that the more successful a school is, the less regular the inspection cycle and the less intrusive the inspection regime will be? Should we not think of earned autonomy as a gradient rather than a switch that is turned on and off?

 
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