Education Bill

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Mr. Touhig: It would not be proper for me to imagine the circumstances suggested by the hon. Gentleman. Each case will be taken on its merits. However, the Administration of the National Assembly support the Bill as a workable solution to the problems in the education service that we are trying to reform in England and Wales. So I resist going down the line that the hon. Gentleman suggests, however tempting it may be, and I urge my hon. Friends to resist both amendments.

2.45 pm

Mr. Turner: I am still puzzled. I recognise that it is not possible for me to speak to an amendment that has not been drafted, let alone moved, but when I drafted this amendment, I was conscious that a school in Wales faces the National Assembly for Wales and the Secretary of State when it attempts to achieve earned autonomy. The National Assembly has to jump through two hoops, as it has to determine the conditions under which autonomy can be earned, and the Secretary of State must approve them. In other words, it is a two-stage process. The Minister says that I sought to remove the wrong stage, but why must schools in Wales face a two-stage process, rather than the single-stage process that is faced by schools in England?

Mr. Touhig: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The same process will apply in Wales as in England, because the Secretary of State will have the powers provided under the Bill. Pay and conditions in Wales will be a matter for the Secretary of State. If we follow the line suggested by the hon. Gentleman and remove from subsection (5) the words

    ''without the consent of the Secretary of State''

the subsection would read:

    ''No regulations under subsection (1) which relate to pay and conditions provisions may be made by the National Assembly for Wales.''

It simply stops there.

Mr. Turner: I accept the Minister's comments on that point, but he has not answered my earlier point about why the National Assembly and the Secretary of State make decisions that relate to Wales, but only the Secretary of State makes decisions that relate to England, when he said that only the Secretary of State has standing in issues relating to teachers' pay and conditions.

Mr. Touhig: It is not a problem, because under our proposals, the National Assembly will have a role in all other educational matters that are devolved to it. The clause simply provides that pay and conditions are not devolved, but should remain reserved matters for the Parliament at Westminster, as was agreed in the devolution settlement. It is as simple as that. It is not a difficult process.

Mr. Turner: I am not entirely convinced but, if the Committee agrees, I will go away and think about it further. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I should like to speak to clause stand part.

The Chairman: I am going to rule that the long debate this morning was sufficiently broad to cover clause 6, so I will put the question on clause stand part forthwith.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Applications for orders under section 6(2)

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 5, line 37, at end insert—

    'with particular reference to the needs of children at the school with special needs'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 36, in page 5, line 37, at end insert—

    'and where a proposed change involves more than 15 per cent. of the total curriculum offered at the school, as measured by time allocated to lessons, secure a minimum response level of 33 per cent. of parents, with the majority supporting the changes.'.

Mrs. Laing: The amendment relates to children with special needs. We have submitted it mostly as a probing amendment. As I said in our debate on an earlier clause, the Bill has not yet dealt with the matter of special needs and does not mention it up front at the beginning. My main reason for moving the amendment is to give the Minister an opportunity to assure the Committee that he is giving special needs the priority that it deserves. We have considered before the fact that special needs children who are integrated into mainstream schools must be treated differently and with extra care and consideration. The amendment relates to clause 7(2)(a), which details how the governing body can apply to make changes to curriculum provision. The clause states, rightly, that any application should be made only after consulting the parents of registered pupils at the school. We thoroughly support that, but suggest that schools should consult particularly the parents of special needs children.

Dealing with those children within the general school system can be problematic because of the huge variety of special needs. It is not possible to categorise everyone who has a statement as being statistically a special needs pupil. The details must be broken down so that the school is aware, in drawing up the budget and curriculum, of the particular needs of particular children. As I said earlier, those with mild special needs, such as the need for extra tuition for mild dyslexia, can be taught in the mainstream system with few amendments to the curriculum. However, children with, for example, Asperger syndrome and other such extreme autistic conditions must have special tuition, which should be considered when changes to the curriculum are being debated.

When making such consideration, schools should always consult the parents, although this is not just a question of consulting parents. It is also a question of bringing in experts on the problems that special needs children have so that those who are responsible for designing the curriculum, or changes to it, can be properly advised. I shall not delay the Committee any further on the issue, because this is a probing amendment. We want to ensure that the Minister and his colleagues have considered special needs in relation to this particular aspect of potential school autonomy.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I want to return to a theme that I have touched on before. As the Committee is aware, I am a strong supporter of the principle of autonomy for schools and giving schools the ability to take decisions about many of their activities. However, I also believe that that freedom should be counterbalanced by a minimum curriculum framework that provides consistency to our education system. Most particularly, we need an identifiable framework so that parents can make informed judgments on the nature of their children's education.

The purpose behind the amendment is to give parents a check against a decision by a governing body that involves wholesale changes to the curriculum in the school. In particular circumstances, there may be good reason for making such decisions, but it is not right and proper that those changes should be sufficiently substantial that they divert completely from the framework provided by the national curriculum.

Parents should have a detailed right of reply to proposals from a governing body. Under the clause, the right of consultation enjoyed by parents is too vague. There is no clear statement about the rights of parents, or about the responsibilities of governing bodies to consult and to secure the backing of parents before they pursue a path that will have a radical effect on the education of the children in that school. The amendment would ensure that there was a bottom line for that consultation process. The governing body would need to demonstrate that it had reached out to a reasonable proportion of parents.

I recognise the difficulties faced by governing bodies when trying to engage parents in consultation exercises. Anyone who has ever managed a consultation exercise in the public sector knows how difficult it can be to generate responses. I attempted to be realistic when setting the figures in the amendment. There should be a minimum number of parents with which the governing body discusses proposals. It should be able to demonstrate that it has the support of parents when pursuing significant changes to the curriculum. Clearly, that does not apply to small changes, such as the introduction of an additional subject or minor modifications in the school's activities. However, if a school has a radical plan for change under the terms of the Bill, it should be able to demonstrate that it has the support of parents. The amendment would give parents the minimum guarantee that they will be consulted and that their views will be taken into account.

Mr. Willis: I am glad, Mr. Griffiths, that you have allowed me to speak to this small amendment. It was kind of you. I withdraw some of the comments that I made this morning.

The Chairman: We can have too much of a good thing.

Mr. Willis: That is what my wife says.

There is a good principle behind the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). The idea of change that involves the parent body is important. The Education Reform Act 1988 through to the Education Act 1996 placed a duty on schools to involve parents in annual meetings, for example. If members of the Committee have ever attended an annual parents' meeting at which 10 parents attended—if that—they will know how difficult it is for schools to involve parents. Although the principle of the amendment is worth considering, the proposal is unrealistic.

Secondly, when we prescribe levels for ballots—basically, the amendment refers to a ballot on a process—we run into major problems. The population of a school changes constantly. In some London boroughs, one in three secondary school children will move during the year, and that makes it almost impossible for a consensus to be reached, let alone meet the terms of the condition. In 11 to 16 or 11 to 18 schools, 20 per cent. of the school population of mandatory school age will leave during the year. To use those parents to vote on something that their children would never been involved in seems inherently wrong within the system.

My third point is that the Minister, for whom I have much respect, talked about work load. As a practising head, my greatest work load was the documentation and arrangements to fulfil the requirements for the annual parents' meeting. The proposal would heap a huge amount of bureaucracy on head teachers and school governors, who would give it to the head teacher to deal with, and work involved would be out of all proportion to anything that might be gained.

3 pm

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