Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: Will my hon. Friend make the Minister aware that the amendment would protect head teachers, not dictate to them about their decisions, because different decisions would be taken in different places? Once heads had taken a decision, they would know what the framework would be.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has led me to my next point: the illuminating discussion on the Government's attitude towards exclusions of those possessing or dealing in illegal substances. That was an important debate, but it was not dealt with satisfactorily. The Minister did not take seriously some of our points.

Heads and governors have to deal with endless difficult decisions and perform balancing acts daily. They should have the maximum discretion to run schools as they deem appropriate, supported by their communities. There is a difference between what the Minister characterised as an attempt to constrain the freedom of heads and what we are seeking. We want to assist heads and governors by providing them with clear guidance on what is expected in a complicated area, which the House has not debated. Perhaps the Government do not have that in mind because it is not fashionable for the House to have a say in such matters. Ministers have initiated a debate on the treatment of illegal substances by criminal law, and that continued in the press. Heads and governors do not know where they are expected to draw the line on certain categories of illegal substance.

It is a matter of fairness to heads and governors to give them guidance, not an attempt to restrict their freedom. The Minister should note that the legislation and guidance would have a strange effect. A head teacher could decide permanently to exclude a pupil in one set of circumstances, whereas at a neighbouring school, in the same circumstances, the head may arrive at a different conclusion. The Government's guidance would perpetuate an imbalance, because it says only that it would be inappropriate to reinstate a permanently excluded pupil. If the Minister would really like to see discretion and flexibility, it seems odd

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that he is happy to have, in one instance, the decision of a head set in stone, yet in the same circumstances his guidance would not prevent reinstatement.

Ministers have considerable thinking to do, and I hope that they do it quickly on a matter that is important to schools throughout the country. Schools are looking for guidance, and if Ministers refuse to give it, they will be left to drift and struggle with this difficult problem.

As I said at the outset, heads and governors want greater clarity in regulations about what is expected of them. In that context, I shall have to divide the Committee on amendment No. 341.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Minister for his reassurances on amendment No. 117. Without actually seeing the regulations—I am glad that we will see them—it is difficult to decide whether they are comprehensive or appropriate enough to meet the particular circumstances. I am prepared to wait, and I urge the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West not to press the amendment until we have had a further opportunity to debate the matter on Report.

The National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association are relatively happy with the Bill. They do not, however, want to be straitjacketed. They want clarity in regulations and in the process of fixed exclusions, and I am pleased that Government have provided some reassurance on that.

Chris Grayling: I want to make a few brief points following on from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. The Government have decided not to use regulations, but guidance. Amendment No.341 is designed to give the Government the power to use regulation if they want to. It would ensure that when a head teacher takes the difficult decision to exclude—the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, as a former head, will recognise that it is difficult—he can be sure that a clear statutory framework will be followed and that he will not be confronted with subjective decisions, based only on guidance. The reversal of a decision makes a significant impact on a school, so we want to provide for the power to deliver a statutory framework.

Mr. Willis: With respect, clause 49(6) clearly states: ''Regulations shall make provision'', which meets the hon. Gentleman's objections, but it is for the Government rather than me to respond.

The Chairman: Before I call Mr. Turner, let me make it clear that he is replying to the debate on amendment No. 145, which is the only amendment moved at this stage. Depending on what happens in the next few minutes, we can dispose of that amendment. Amendment No. 340 will be called. If Mr. Brady then wishes formally to move amendment No. 341, he can do so, but no further debate on it is allowed.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful, Mr. Pike, for the clarification that we are debating amendment No. 145, but I would like to make some comments on the amendments grouped with it.

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The Minister is at least right about being consistent. Previous legislation provided a skeleton and regulations put the flesh on it. With much of this Bill, we have removed most of the skeleton's bones and are left with a backbone in statute. The bones are the regulations and I am not sure where the flesh comes in—perhaps it does not come in at all. I sometimes get the impression that the Bill is sponsored by the Law Society, because it enables Ministers to change the law certainly every year and perhaps more frequently.

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I realise that we tend to have an Education Act every year, but thankfully not all the Acts are as long as this measure. They are certainly not all as long as the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The law that relates to exclusions has been in place, unamended, since well before that year, because the 1998 Act largely repeated law that was already in place.

When Ministers have the power to fiddle, the danger is that they will fiddle. They will change a word in the regulations here and another word in the guidance there. I am sure that they think that that is terribly important and achieves a major objective, because that is what they are there for, but the consequence will be litigation and uncertainty.

That is why I said that the Bill seems to be sponsored by the Law Society. Lawyers have an interest in finding out the absolute meaning of every fresh word that is introduced into legislation, whereas head teachers, governors, pupils and particularly parents have an interest in knowing where they stand and in legislation not changing as a result of constantly shifting interpretation because of the constant addition of a new word here and there.

Unlike last time, I have read the policy statement that the Minister kindly supplied. There are a few differences from what is going on at the moment, but I cannot see why it is necessary to make this shift in the way in which the legislation is implemented. However, that is the Government's wish. I shall not waste the Committee's time by pressing the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 340, in page 32, line 35, at end insert—

    '(2A)No penalty shall be applied to the budget of a school as a consequence of a decision to exclude a pupil or pupils.'.

I shall be brief. This probing amendment is intended to elicit comments from Ministers on the question whether and to what extent decisions taken by head teachers to exclude pupils for whatever period should feed through to a financial implication for the school. Ministers will be aware of the financial penalties policy that was applied by the previous Secretary of State, now the Home Secretary, to schools that failed to meet exclusion targets that he had set rather arbitrarily.

The Government have chosen to row back from that policy and rightly so, because it had a damaging effect on schools, which felt that they could not exclude

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pupils who rightly and reasonably should have been excluded. The fact that the Government chose to change tack, albeit rather belatedly, was welcome.

In the policy statement on the exclusion of pupils, which was helpfully circulated to Committee members, there is no comment on that aspect of the Government's desires and policy. This is a useful opportunity to ask Ministers to comment on how they see policy in that regard developing, whether they remain convinced that it was right to end their previous policy, and whether they will make a commitment that the current regime will continue. I said that I would be brief. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's remarks, and then I shall conclude.

Chris Grayling: I, too, will be brief. As the Minister probably will have gathered, governors and head teachers regularly beat a path to my door to raise issues with me. Feelings on the issue run high among governors and head teachers. The impact of an exclusion decision, especially on a smaller school, can be to remove £3,000, £4,000 or £5,000 from its budget, which has a practical impact on a head teacher's disposable income after fixed costs have been taken into account. There is therefore a need to ensure that a school that takes the decision to reduce its roll by removing a pupil who has caused significant disruption does not end up financially disadvantaging other pupils during the rest of their time at that school.

The Government must ensure that a decision to exclude can be taken entirely on the facts of each case, and that the financial factors do not and cannot affect the decision or the school after a decision has been taken. I hope that if the Minister will not consider the amendment, he will seriously consider the principle of ensuring that exclusion decisions can be taken free from financial constraints or consequences.

 
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