Education Bill

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Mr. Willis: I apologise for being slightly late. I wish a happy new year to all members of the Committee except for the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), whose team, Cardiff City, beat Leeds United on Sunday. I shall not speak civilly to Welshmen for a few days. Once the matter is out of my system, I will be okay. [Interruption.] I am determined that there will be no more Mr. Nice Guy in 2002.

I listened with interest to the comments made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. At the general election, it was Tory policy that there should be free schools and no local authority involvement. All resources, with exceptions for a few functions, would be devolved to schools. That would have meant that no school could provide community facilities unless those facilities were self-financed. I am deploying Government thinking and would like the Minister's comments.

11.15 am

Mr. Brady: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I will just finish my point. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to get too excited.

I agree with the Minister's comment about the need to make greater use of all our public facilities, and in particular our schools. It is sad to see young people hanging about—often with nowhere to go—when brilliant facilities are available for them. The previous Government set up a regime that made it clear that schools could not afford to open up their premises unless they could get an income from doing so. I had to cancel many youth facilities simply because I could not afford the costs of providing, for example, the premises and the staffing. Unless the youngsters could pay, we could not afford to do things. I urge the Government to take on board the fact that it is not good enough simply to give governing bodies the power to do things; we should also give them the matching resources that enable them to do those things.

I accept the Minister's comments about early-years education. My party is delighted that the Government have put into practice 1997 Liberal Democrat

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manifesto commitments: the Minister is laughing but that is what the Government have done. However, I also want them to give the Committee, and governing bodies, the assurance that resources will be allocated for community services—instead of charging having to be introduced to provide them.

Mr. Brady: I merely wish the hon. Gentleman to comment further, as he misunderstood the scope of the powers of a local authority—regardless of its position as a local education authority. I wish him to reflect on whether a local authority might have the power to expend funds to make community provision of, for example, leisure or sporting facilities through schools, regardless of whether they are maintained schools, free schools, foundation schools—or any other type of school.

The Government have tried, in a limited way, to open up the sometimes excellent facilities of independent schools by creating partnerships between them and schools in the maintained sector. That is a welcome initiative, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to be more open minded about the different ways in which facilities might be provided. Therefore, he might wish to reconsider some of his opening remarks.

The Chairman: Mr. Willis, do you wish to do that?

Mr. Willis: No. I am happy with the comments that I have made.

Mr. Ivan Lewis: Perhaps being more open minded is a reasonable new year's resolution to ask every hon. Member to adopt?

I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that we have a responsibility to ensure that resources are available to enable schools to be imaginative and innovative, to open their facilities and to engage with partners in the community, whoever they might be—voluntary and community organisations, for example, or NHS trusts, or private sector organisations, where appropriate. It is important to support such initiatives. A lot of money is being spent on study support, for example, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that that is already contributing towards a significant improvement in standards.

However, it is also important to ensure that existing resources are being used to best effect. For example, the provision of accessible health services within a community might be an issue, in which case it would be necessary to address where those services locate themselves, as well as if they are spending existing money inappropriately. If services are not as accessible as they could be, it is important to address that, as well as to ensure that the Government make money available—through local education authorities, for example—to stimulate and support the development of extended schools.

We are talking about a significant culture change in the way that we look at community involvement and participation, and about schools being at the heart of their communities. For example, we are already spending a considerable sum on providing adult, community and family learning. There is a whole

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range of existing funding available, including the children's fund, money for early-years development child-care partnerships and neighbourhood renewal. To be fair to governing bodies, one of the challenges that we face is to help them make sense of the range of funding schemes, which requires a different set of skills and experiences. I have experience of running a charity. The ability to tap into the available resources, knowing how to put applications together to hit the relevant criteria and ensure that one is working in partnership with other organisations that trigger resources is not necessarily a skill that people acquire without training, guidance and support. We must offer not only financial support specifically to target and stimulate service provision, but help governors and head teachers to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to maximise the opportunities to trigger resources and truly open up the opportunities presented by the Bill.

We must also examine how central Government allocate and distribute resources and introduce the mechanisms that incentivise partnership. We must support initiatives in which schools make a particular effort to be innovative and we must examine these matters throughout Departments, not only in the box marked Department for Education and Skills. Encouraging schools to take a wider role in community activities has a bearing on many of the difficulties experienced by our communities, such as crime and antisocial behaviour, which is a scourge in many communities, health issues such as teenage pregnancy or drug abuse and poor rates of adult literacy and numeracy. If we are sufficiently innovative, imaginative and streamlined in the way in which we allocate resources and inform people about how to access them, cause 25 can make a difference to the Government achieving their objectives in a range of policy areas.

I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough about the need to provide resources to ensure that concepts are transferred to reality. We will examine how to offer specific support to local education authorities to enable them to have some form of infrastructure, albeit minimalist, that would enable schools to go down this route. There will be Government financial commitment, but we will also be asking the statutory voluntary and private sectors in communities throughout the country to come together to ensure that they take maximum advantage of the new powers and opportunities provided by the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. This matter relates to preparation time for the discussion that we will have shortly on clause 28. Members of the Committee received a letter dated 19 December from the Minister providing draft regulations in relation to clause 41, which we do not come to until much later. In contrast to that, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale received only at 10.30 am today, an undated letter from the

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Minister, signed in his absence, concerning the documents in relation to clause 28. Today's letter also refers to clauses 42 and 43. My other hon. Friends have not received it at all and neither have I. I have also been informed that it has not been received by other Opposition Members. It is appropriate to contemplate whether there should be a suspension to allow for consideration of what the Minister believes is pertinent to the discussion on clause 28 in advance of reaching it.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): Further to that point of order, Mr. Griffiths. May I begin by welcoming you, Mr. Griffiths, to the Chair and by wishing every member of the Committee a happy new year?

We intend to provide as much information as possible to hon. Members about regulations. Such a concern has been expressed in earlier debates. Unfortunately, because of the Christmas break, it was not possible to get the information out as early as I would have liked. However, in anticipating this problem, we have copies of the information here for each member of the Committee. I am in your hands, Mr. Griffiths, about the mechanism to distribute the information. We intend to be as helpful as possible to all hon. Members.

Mr. Brady: Further to that point of order, Mr. Griffiths. We are grateful to the Minister when he distributes draft regulations in a genuine attempt to be helpful. We have pressed for that on many occasions. However, I suggest to the Minister that it is not helpful to the Committee, and is perhaps even unhelpful, when draft regulations are received in the internal post at 10.30 on the morning on which a particular clause is to be discussed—as happened this morning. Technically, the Minister will be able to claim that the information was available to Opposition Members before discussion in Committee. Practically, I have had no opportunity to read the letter that arrived this morning while the Committee was sitting and, because the Minister offered generously to distribute copies of the paper to all members of the Committee during the sitting, there is no proper opportunity for any member of the Committee to consider the detailed document.

I ask that consideration be given to a brief suspension to allow hon. Members to read the document, or to the reordering of the discussion of the clauses. If the papers are of value when considering clause 28, it is senseless for us to proceed with the discussion without reading them.

 
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