Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: I expect that schools that earn their autonomy will use that wisely and continue to push up standards and improve the quality of leadership. If they do not do that and standards fall significantly, the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales must retain the right to act quickly and decisively.

The withdrawal would not occur automatically simply because the performance criteria were no longer met. A judgment would be made. In practice, any intervention would be a result of dialogue with the applicant body and, perhaps, other relevant bodies that were originally consulted. I am happy to confirm that we would expect to consult. However, there may be circumstances in which the need for speed would outweigh that. For example, there may be a school that no longer meets the conditions for earned autonomy and has serious problems, and its governing body could make a bizarre curriculum change. In that case, we would wish to step in quickly to protect the interests of the children at the school. However, that process will not be common.

Chris Grayling: I find it slightly strange that the Minister argued against parents being allowed to vote on a bizarre curriculum change, but he wants the Secretary of State to have that power.

Mr. Timms: I am simply suggesting that one can imagine circumstances in which it would be important to act quickly to protect the interests of children at the school. The clause allows that. Consultation would normally unfold within the process, but we must ensure that the legislation allows for rapid intervention if unusual circumstances require that.

Mr. Willis: That is a wholly unsatisfactory answer. The Minister is desperately trying to cover his back. The idea that action must be taken with great speed to overturn a bizarre curriculum decision, and that a school could implement that arrangement in 24 hours for all the kids and parents involved, is bizarre in itself. On reflection, the Minister may accept that.

I cannot envisage a situation that would require such speed that the governing body could not be consulted. After giving the governing body powers to determine many aspects ranging from the curriculum to pay and conditions, does the Minister say that if we reach an extreme situation in which the powers must be revoked for good reason—I am not questioning that—automatic consultation with the governing body, as the body with the school's legal powers, should not be provided for in the Bill? I find that surprising.

I trust that when the Minister returns to his little house, he will reconsider the matter and put it in the Bill. [Interruption.] It is a big house. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Determination of pay and conditions

during and after exemption

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 6, line 19, leave out 'do anything', and insert

    'take all reasonable action'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 37, in page 6, line 19, leave out 'do anything necessary' and insert

    'use its best endeavours'.

No. 71, in page 6, line 19, after 'necessary', insert—

    ', other than adjust the budget of a school,'.

Mr. Brady: These significant amendments probe the heart of the Government's apparent treatment of local authorities. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friends have tabled amendments that take slightly different approaches. That is part of my strategy to attract the next defector from the Labour Benches. When that person has become fed up with overbearing Whips, he or she can come to us because we allow proper discussion in Committee.

The clause features a remarkably open-ended requirement in subsection (1)(b) that local education authorities

    ''shall do anything necessary to give effect to the governing body's determination under paragraph (a)''.

Paragraph (a) details the determination of pay and conditions during and after exemption. That requirement might be appropriate if the local authority agrees with the proposed variation of pay and conditions, but to impose it is strange.

Amendment No. 16 would replace the phrase ''do anything'' with the less open-ended ''take all reasonable action''. Amendment No. 37 requires ''best endeavours'' to be used, and amendment No. 71 would insert

    '', other than adjust the budget of a school''.

All the amendments have the same aim. The clause empowers schools to vary pay and conditions for teachers. The Minister said that earned autonomy schools will not receive additional funds, but the clause seems to undercut that assurance. Should a governing body vary pay and conditions, possibly quite dramatically, the local education authority has a statutory duty to do ''anything necessary'' to provide for that. That duty might vary the school's budget, which is addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight in amendment No. 71.

The Minister suggested that bizarre changes to the curriculum might occur. Are bizarre changes to pay and conditions equally possible? They may be an attempt to void particular tax liabilities, or structure pay in a more attractive way. That is relevant when schools increasingly have to trawl for teaching staff overseas to fill vacancies. Pay and conditions requirements typical in other countries are not so here, and may place an unreasonable burden on the local education authority. The Minister must reassure the Committee and LEAs. Local education authorities' powers on school budgets may be seriously constrained and controlled by ministerial order.

The provision, which is very broad, places requirements on local education authorities that will have to be met using a small fraction of their current budgets. The larger portion of their budgets will be removed from their control and ring-fenced by Ministers. Local education authorities might have little discretion left with which to meet the requirements of subsection (1)(b). I am sure that the Minister will want to reassure the Committee on the matter.

If I am right to say that this is an open-ended clause, the Minister will want to make proposals to deal with it. Otherwise, he needs to reassure the Committee and those who follow its proceedings that the provision can be included elsewhere in the Bill and can be prevented from causing enormous damage to local authorities.

Chris Grayling: I support all three amendments, including those tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, who apologises because he has been called briefly out of the Room. He is committed on the matter and has tabled two amendments in order to encourage the Government to think again about this sweeping measure.

Mr. Brady: I take the opportunity to put it on record that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has been called away in connection with serious job losses in his constituency. Hon. Members of all parties will understand.

Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight raised the issue in the House this morning. Today's large job losses are extremely bad news for his constituency, and I am sure that the Committee would like to send its commiserations and condolences to his constituents.

As a new Member participating in my first substantial Standing Committee, I feel great anxiety about the response to amendments. Many of the Conservative amendments are measured, well thought out and designed to enhance the Bill. They do nothing to drive the Bill in a different direction. Conservative amendments were tabled in an attempt to improve law that is not as good as it should be.

It is distressing to learn how unwilling Labour Members are to take on board any constructive suggestions from Opposition Members. Committees are supposed to be constructive and thoughtful, and they should be about improving the quality of legislation. It is disappointing that not one amendment has so far received a positive response from the Minister.

Amendment No. 37 highlights some particularly poor drafting in the Bill. Let us consider the exact wording of subsection (1)(b):

    ''the local education authority shall do anything necessary to give effect to the governing body's determination under paragraph (a)''.

What does ''anything necessary'' mean? Does it mean closing another school or cutting jobs at the LEA in order to release financial resources? Does it mean restructuring or merging schools? Does it mean closing buildings? Does it mean taking money from other budgets or reorganising the structure of the council? That cannot be good law by any definition.

For precisely what does the Minister intend the provisions to be used? Why is it necessary to be so sweeping and dictatorial? If the legislation is not about instruction, mandate and centralisation, I should like to know what is. If ever there were an example of a declaration of instruction from central Government, surely this is it. The local education authority is required to ''do anything necessary'' to facilitate the legislation. I am sure that the Minister did not draft the clause, but he has the unhappy job of defending it. If ever there were a moment for him to step back and listen to the constructive comments of Opposition Members about elements of the legislation, this is it.

3.30 pm

As we consider the group of amendments, the Minister could say that he is happy for the provision to say ''take all reasonable action'', ''use its best endeavours'' or to include the caveat about adjustment to a school's budget. However, if this is to be a good, well-drafted piece of legislation, commensurate with the responsibilities of the House, surely he should accept at the very least that the clause's wording is not satisfactory, is not good law, does not add value to the Bill, will not improve the quality of our education system and will not lessen the work load of teachers, heads, LEAs or, indeed, Ministers. There is no reason whatever not to accept a minor redraft and say, ''Okay, we'll ask LEAs to do the best that they can, but we won't tell them to do absolutely anything.''

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001