Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: The Minister is giving the Committee some interesting insights into the Government's thinking. If he expects that around 10 per cent. of schools will initially qualify for earned autonomy, how rapidly does he expect the figure to increase? Within how many years will we reach the 50 per cent. mark, or the 75 per cent. mark to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred?

Mr. Timms: It is hard to be too definitive about the rate at which schools will pass the thresholds that will be set, but I anticipate a steady increase in the number of schools benefiting from earned autonomy. I hope

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that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give details at this stage about how rapidly that will happen.

In principle, schools should have maximum flexibility. We intend to require that only a few matters remain core requirements; these will include the performance threshold, performance management and teachers' professional duties. We do not intend to require schools to retain national pay scales or working-time provisions if they do not wish to do so. All teachers at schools where changes are proposed will of course be fully consulted.

Amendments Nos. 30, 33 and 52 would be so limiting that in practice few changes would be introduced. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that such provisions have not been widely taken up, but the additional procedures that he wants to be set around them would make them even less likely to be taken up. I will explore later some of the reasons why they have not been taken up in the past. The hon. Gentleman's approach would not be the right one. If schools want to make broad changes, they should be allowed to do so without too much bureaucratic process being imposed on them.

Mr. Willis: This is an important matter. The Minister said that the threshold payment would be retained but national pay scales would not. How can one get to the threshold if one does not have national pay scales? What would be the mechanism for passing a threshold?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question. We will set that out in due course. I give members of the Committee the commitment, as I have given commitments earlier in our proceedings, that we will come forward with proposals on that before the Bill leaves the House. If schools want to make broad changes, they should be able to do so without having to go through too much bureaucratic process. They should also be permitted to make small changes if they prefer. Attempts to introduce such powers in the past have required setting aside the entire contract and renegotiating from scratch. That will not be required in this case. It will be possible to vary a minor detail of the contract, and that may often occur in practice. The Secretary of State does not intend to require approval of a school's proposals. Our best schools should be at the leading edge of change so that the whole system can learn from the experience of the best schools. The amendments would prevent that.

I can well understand concerns about the possible effect on teacher recruitment at a neighbouring school, but I emphasise that no extra funding will be provided to schools with earned autonomy for that purpose; such funding will come from existing resources. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that for the last couple of years schools have been permitted to pay an additional recruitment and retention bonus of up to £5,000 a year. That has not caused difficulties such as he envisaged. The recruitment and retention allowances can be made

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available not just to new teachers but to teachers already in post—that refers to the ''retention'' part of the title. It is for governing bodies to decide how best to apply those allowances. In our experience, that has not led to the problems that he described. The allowance can be up to £5,000 a year, which is quite a substantial sum. If we were going to run into the difficulties that he envisaged, we would have done so by now.

Mr. Willis: If the Minister has not done the research he should perhaps do it now. He will find that in a significant number of London schools where recruitment and retention bonuses are available, heads and governors have spread the money across the whole staff rather than give it to individual teachers. Does not that tell him something?

Mr. Timms: It tells me that governing bodies should have the freedom to make that change, which they would under these provisions. A school operating earned autonomy over elements of the curriculum, pay and conditions will not lose eligibility for funding for continuing professional development. There is no need for that requirement to be set out in the Bill as proposed in amendment No. 34. Professional development continues to be a key concern for us, as the hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledged, and it will become increasingly important.

On amendment No. 79, we have the firm intention of allowing schools to contemplate making changes with as few difficulties as possible. That is why we do not intend to require the Secretary of State's approval for change. As I said on Tuesday, we want the process to be simple and unbureaucratic. I think the Committee accepted that the Secretary of State should, in general, approve proposals under the innovation clauses, but that earned autonomy should mean just that. The amdt would clearly be a move in the opposite direction.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): Before the Minister wraps up his comments on the clause, could he say a little more about where he gets the estimate of 10 per cent. of schools initially having earned autonomy? What underlying assumptions does he have for that figure?

Mr. Timms: I am not saying that it will be precisely 10 per cent, but it will be nearer 10 per cent. than the 50 or 75 per cent. figure envisaged by his hon. Friend. That will be a function of the performance criteria that are set. We envisage consulting on proposals that are likely to lead to a proportion of schools being eligible that is closer to the figure I indicated than to those to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

We fully recognise the right of teachers at any school where such proposals are made to be fully consulted. After the governing body has made proposals— teachers are, of course, involved on governing bodies—consultation will be a statutory requirement. That is in clause 7. Amendment No. 79 would require a formal negotiating process around any changes, however small. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West made that point. That would slow the

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process down and make it much more burdensome for schools. In practice, it would prevent much of the innovation that we all want to make possible.

Once any change to a school's pay system is in place, teachers will have their general employment law rights in respect of subsequent periodic changes to their pay. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough acknowledged, no governing body will propose changes that will be detrimental to teachers. The last thing that schools will want is for teachers to vote with their feet. It is appropriate to use negotiation as an entirely permissible approach. It is a matter of how the exercise is conducted, but legally the governing body will need to have the final say.

Let me give a couple of examples of how earned autonomy might be applied. There are some examples in the White Paper. Schools will be able to retain the basic national framework, with its pay scales and annual pay awards. I suspect that most will choose to do so, because they will not want to renegotiate the whole contract, which was necessary when such flexibility was previously available. However, they will be able to make adjustments such as paying long-service or team bonuses or introducing flexitime working in return for a new pay allowance. I hope that with that explanation and reassurance, the Committee will feel able to reject the amendments.

10.45 am

Mr. Willis: This has been a most illuminating exchange, but at the end of it we are no clearer about the Government's position than we were at the beginning. I have never heard a less convincing argument from a Minister. We are debating one of the most crucial issues that will affect the English and Welsh teaching force, and all we heard was waffle. On Tuesday night, when we debated earned autonomy, the Minister gave the impression that vast swathes of schools would be able to get earned autonomy. We were then told that only 10 per cent. will get it, but the Minister does not know the criteria on which it will be awarded to that 10 per cent.; we will be told that later. The Minister made it clear that he has gone down exactly the same road as the Conservative Government. He is now proposing grant-maintained schools with knobs on.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I will in a moment, but I am just getting excited. [Interruption.] I get excited very easily; I have a sad life.

Every member of the Committee can tell the Minister which schools will be in that 10 per cent. They will be those with beacon status—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Epping Forest says from a sedentary position that they used to be grant-maintained schools. She is right; many of them were. They were good schools, and I do not demur from or criticise that fact. We were led in the White Paper and on Second Reading to believe that huge swathes of schools would get earned autonomy, but are now told that only 10 per cent. will get it. We know exactly which schools they

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will be—those that already have beacon or specialist status. How can a Minister tell those schools that they may have beacon status this week, but next week they will not be fit for earned autonomy? That is absolute nonsense.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I have calmed down.

 
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