Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Brady: The Minister has gone a considerable way towards reassuring me, and other Committee members will be reassured to know that my right hon. and noble Friend, Lord Baker, had a hand in the original legislation. That will give them great confidence and make them feel far happier.

The amendment under discussion is a probing amendment, but it has been useful. I have certainly found the debate about it informative, even if other Committee members have not. However, I wish to press the Minister a little further about one point. Given the current wording—whose provenance, I accept, may be in the 1986 Act—is it possible to construe that the power or responsibility to direct as the body principally responsible under the 1974 Act is exclusive? Is it possible for the school to avoid what one may regard as its natural responsibility because the primary responsibility of the employer and owner of the premises lies elsewhere? Would it be appropriate to examine whether that should lie alongside other obligations that could be properly put in legislation to place a duty on the head and governor to maintain a safe and healthy working environment—in the terms of the 1974 Act—while providing the power that is in the Bill for the local education authority to direct when appropriate? That would provide the power that the authority requires as the body that is ultimately responsible as owner and employer.

Mr. Timms: In practice, there is no problem. The hon. Gentleman is satisfied with the position under the 1974 Act that the local education authority bears primary responsibility. In practice, local arrangements will be made between the LEA and its schools to satisfy the LEA that its statutory obligations are met through what happens in each school. The mechanism has worked well.

Mr. Brady: I am satisfied by the Minister's response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Caroline Flint: I beg to move amendment No. 160, in page 17, line 13, at end insert—

    '(6) The governing body of a maintained school shall use their best endeavours to secure that—

Column Number: 288

    (a) reasonable steps are taken by the governing body, head teacher and staff to ascertain the views of pupils on matters which affect them, and

    (b) due weight is given to the expressed views of pupils on matters affecting them, having regard to the pupil's age and understanding.'.

I apologise to the Committee on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband) who, unfortunately, cannot be present.

I am delighted to move the amendment, which would allow the views of the people who will be most affected by the Bill and actions taken by schools to be aired; the pupils. I thank the Children's Consortium on Education and, especially, Save the Children for providing me with briefings about this issue.

There is no doubt—I am fully aware of this—that, since 1997, the Government have endeavoured to examine different, new and imaginative ways in which to allow pupils to participate in issues that affect them most in school. Those issues may be about learning, or about the way in which the school is run. In Doncaster, in schools, youth clubs and the Connexions service, we try to examine ways of engaging young people and allowing their voices to be heard on issues that affect them. When I hold children's surgeries, I am amazed—although I should not be—that children and young people raise many of the same worries as their parents, grandparents and other adults. Those worries may be about access to services, crime or the environment in which they live.

When I talk to young people, it comes across that even when schools endeavour to include young people and children in issues that the school is addressing—such as the curriculum or the way in which the school is run—young people and children who attend students' councils and participate do not feel part of the decision-making process. They are not encouraged to participate when considering issues that are of real interest to them. That often leads to apathy on students' councils or other school forums because, after a while, the kids think that their voices are not heard on the nitty-gritty issues. That does not mean that everything that they say should be agreed to. If one participates, one must accept that sometimes one's opinions will not be heard, as we know from this place.

The issue of relevance is important. From September this year, citizenship will be introduced in the curriculum, as will requirements in terms of citizen education within key stages three and four. I am voicing the concern—expressed by groups outside this place—that unless there is some kind of statutory and legal common standard of access to participation that acknowledges pupils, not enough tangible change will occur. A recent review of pupil democracy in Europe highlighted the fact that the UK is out of line with the rest of Europe. There is no legislation on pupil involvement or grievance procedures, no pupil ombudsman, and no system for consulting pupils on education policy.

Why would it be a good idea to include the amendment in the Bill? First, children and young people should have appropriate access to having a say in how important decisions affecting them are made

Column Number: 289

and in how and where they are educated. Clause 27(3) states:

    ''The governing body of a maintained school may require pupils in attendance at the school to attend at any place outside the school premises for the purposes of receiving any instruction or training included in the secular curriculum for the school.''

That raises the issue of where young people are educated, and in what sort of school environment they are educated. I am referring to wrap-around policies that affect the ethos of the school; the way in which it tackles bullying, the general built environment and facilities in the playground. When kids are told that, regardless of the weather, they must go out in the playground, problems are caused if there is not much for them to do there. Kids have said to me that litter is one of the reasons why they hate their school environment, because that kind of degeneration is not tackled. We all know that if the environment is not pleasant, they will not be motivated to learn or work well.

The amendment refers to reasonable steps being taken and due weight being given. It does not refer to free-for-all children's rights. I may be out of step with Save the Children and the consortium, but I do not believe in children's rights regardless. I am not an advocate of voting at 16, for example. However, I believe in looking at what are the appropriate stages in children's and young people's lives when they have something relevant to offer.

One example was given to me by a primary school teacher, who told me how teachers and the governing body had discussed how to get a grip on the way in which the playground operated, and how kids in the playground interacted. They devised a set of playground rules that were stuck up on nice coloured posters around the playground, only to have a seven-year-old telling them, within minutes of them going up, that there was a loophole in one of the rules. Kids have intelligence, and they can help us to avoid spending a lot of time and energy on things that they can find their way around blindfold.

Most of us who have worked with children or who are parents know that, when we try to communicate a rule or a point of view to young children, we can find ourselves at cross purposes unless we ask them to tell us what they understand by what we have said. That happens a lot. It may be because adults, like children, decide to switch off when the other is talking. That is an important part of the process in schools. If schools are to consider changes in the curriculum and the way in which young children want to learn—for example, if a governing body sits down and decides that it wants to change the format of the classes or classroom, or that it wants to introduce technology to help children learn—we must test those ideas out with the people whom we hope will benefit from such changes.

Unless we seek children's ideas to make sure—for want of a better phrase—that we are singing from the same song sheet and that we understand what is going on, enormous energy, effort and resources might go into things that, at the end of the day, do not necessarily prove their worth. Those are all good

Column Number: 290

reasons why formally acknowledging children and young people's involvement could benefit the Bill.

We already encourage participation and citizenship in schools. What better way to enhance that aspect of the curriculum than by applying it to real life? Many people find that when they are given hypothetical situations about which to theorize, the experience is not real. The citizenship agenda would not merely involve sitting in a classroom and examining case studies, but decision-making in the school environment. I hope that it would add excitement for children and young people.

12.45pm

In schools that have taken a positive approach to the agenda, research shows that there has been an impact in terms of behavioural policies and outcomes, and on educational achievement, attendance and so forth.

The Bill states that it is necessary to specify parents and employees as governors, but not pupils, and, while the Bill states that it is necessary to specify that the annual parents meeting should be open to parents and head teachers, it does not specify pupils. There is a concern that, despite all the guidelines and research about positively encouraging student involvement, we could still end up with a hit-and-miss affair. If one had to change schools for some reason, one could go from a culture of inclusion and participation in one school to another that was isolated and token in its approach.

I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister's comments. Pupil involvement in schools is an important stepping stone towards encouraging future participation in democratic society when, as adults, they have the opportunity to vote.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 8 January 2002