Education Bill

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The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths.

I listened with interest to the brief speech made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and the longer one from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). When I read the new clause, I thought that the arrangement would be commended on the basis that it is similar to the one operating in the Netherlands. I recall an article on that subject written by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). However, it was not mentioned, so I shall not draw on the extensive research that I have undertaken only to refer to it in passing.

The scheme may based on the Dutch arrangement, under which parents are famously able to put forward proposals for a school, which under normal circumstances is supported out of state funds. If it is based on that arrangement, it is a somewhat watered down version, which would add little, if anything, to the arrangements that already prevail.

The objection made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that the Secretary of State would be able to make decisions was rather odd, as that is where the decision-making power would rest under the free schools proposal that the Opposition used to—and perhaps still—support. In the Dutch system, the decisions must be made by the Minister.

Mr. Brady: As the Minister may have been going on to admit, under the amendments and the new clause, the Secretary of State would retain the final decision-making capacity. We seek to raise the possibility through the amendments that the balance could be tipped procedurally so as to give the Secretary of State, to paraphrase my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, an ear closer to the ground. The Secretary of State would have the ear of parents, who are likely to be acutely and rapidly aware of the situations in their locality.

Mr. Timms: Okay, so the amendments are about tilting the balance. I would argue that the

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arrangements already in place work well in that respect. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight said that the aim was to ensure that the Secretary of State could have her attention drawn to people's needs. He generously paid tribute to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, which will please the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). He also paid tribute to the London borough of Southwark and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the way in which the arrangements worked well when a problem occurred in Bermondsey. I suggest that that shows that the arrangements already in place allow those matters to be addressed.

Anyone can put forward proposals for new foundation or voluntary schools, or enter into agreement with the Secretary of State to establish an academy. It is the duty of the local education authority to provide sufficient schools for their area. The Secretary of State has the powers to direct LEAs to put forward proposals for additional places if, in her view, the supply in the area is insufficient. Under the new clause, the LEA would be able to refuse to bring forward proposals and the Secretary of State could enter an agreement for an academy only in the circumstances prescribed.

The prescribed circumstances are drawn broadly, for understandable reasons, but it reflects the fact that the existing arrangements, which have been in place in their essentials since the Education Act 1944, are there for a good reason. Proper consideration should be given before proposals are brought forward, with all interested parties having the opportunity to make their points in consultation. The arrangements also allow longer term planning, with supply and demand being considered over a reasonable period.

I suggest to Opposition Members that if the provisions in their new clause were taken seriously, they would not act very differently from the present arrangements. If there were insufficient places of that type in the area, and enough parents had indicated support for a school to make it viable, it would stand a good chance of going ahead under the existing arrangements.

Clause 66 already establishes new arrangements for additional secondary schools, which we think will provide the necessary encouragement to new providers. We want to encourage them—that is a clear feature of the Bill. The system that the Bill supports and amends is sufficiently broad to enable all proposals to receive proper consideration. The new clause would not add much and I urge hon. Members not to press it to a vote. I accept that in the sense of tilting the balance, as was argued by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, the proposal is very modest, but I hope that on reflection he will agree that it does not really add significantly to the current arrangements.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister who has praised me for both modesty and brevity, which is not always his habit. The thrust of his argument against the amendments and the new clause appeared to be almost entirely that the existing system works perfectly

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well and, effectively, that it cannot be improved. It is unwise for any Minister to argue that no improvement is possible, particularly when the avowed objective of a proposal is a fairly modest, incremental change. We were keen to emphasise the importance of parents in this context and to attempt—in a way that was, perhaps, partly symbolic—to make it clear that parents must be in the driving seat.

Mr. Turner: I was astonished—and my hon. Friend has expressed his astonishment too—by the Minister's assumption that on the whole things are working perfectly well. Perhaps he did not say ''perfectly'', but he claimed that they were working fairly well. They are not working perfectly well.

In my constituency, where there is no Christian high school, and all the high schools are community schools, a group of parents has been working hard for three or four years to try to persuade the local education authority not that there should be a Christian high school but that there should be consultation on whether one is needed. The local education authority has consistently refused even to put the matter out to consultation. In its defence, it has a majority of Liberal Democrats, so it is not the fault of the officers, but there is total hostility to the idea of consulting parents about whether there should be a Christian high school.

What is proposed would require local authorities to take note of parents' views and, if there is reason, to use their best endeavours. I am sorry that the Minister did not appear to appreciate the problems that exist.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that interventions will be shorter in future.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, even if his enthusiasm drew it out a little more than he would have wished. He made an important point in a typically characteristic and even-handed way, demonstrating that he is prepared not only to praise the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey when it is appropriate, but to be the scourge of Liberal Democrats when they fail parents in his constituency. I expect that all hon. Members would endorse that stance.

My hon. Friend's intervention highlighted ministerial complacency. I shall try to be almost as even-handed as my hon. Friend in saying that for too long, education policy in this country has been characterised by too much complacency, for the reasons suggested by my hon. Friend. No one looking objectively at our education system, at the schools available across great swathes of the country and at the education available in inner city areas could say with confidence, hand on heart, that it works as well as could be expected. It does not. It is palpably not doing so, and the people being let down are the parents and children in the communities served by those schools—rather, in the communities not being served by those schools.

11 am

As the Minister observed, our amendments did not go so far as to replicate the Dutch system, although there may be some merit in it. In a more modest way,

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we sought to give more power, more authority and more weight to the views and concerns of parents—not only in inner London, the example given by my hon. Friend, but throughout the country. In my area, we have extremely good schools; but a large flow of children comes across the boundary from the Manchester local education authority area, where the schools typically are not so good. That happens throughout the country. The Under-Secretary, who represents a constituency on the other fringe of the Manchester conurbation, is nodding. He clearly accepts that there is a problem.

In opening this short debate, I made it clear that the amendments were probing and that I did not intend to press them to a Division. However, it is an important issue, and Ministers would do well to reflect on the complacency inherent in their saying that our system works perfectly well at the moment. If, later in the day, they sit in a quiet room later and reflect on the importance and thrust of that statement, they will come to the conclusion that the system does not work adequately, because it does not serve all parents and children nearly as well as it should. A change along the lines suggested in the amendment would take us a little way in the right direction. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 467, in page 42, line 18, at end insert—

    '(2) (a) An application may be made to the Secretary of State by the governing body of any maintained school seeking to become an academy.

    (b) The Secretary of State shall have powers by order to give effect to an application under subsection (2)(a).'.

Now for something slightly more challenging for the Under-Secretary. Ministers do not always find themselves in familiar territory when they encounter an Opposition who think through the issues, who are prepared to engage constructively with the Government and who, when they find areas of Government policy with which they have sympathy, are prepared to say so. When we see the Government seeking to develop an initiative such as the city academy—now to be the academies initiative—a policy that has much to offer, because we believe that schools converted to academy status and the new academies have a real contribution to make to the education of our children, we are prepared to say so. Not only are we prepared to say that we have some sympathy with the Government's policy, and to say that the establishment of academies and the expansion and development of the academy model may be beneficial whenever Ministers care to give weight and momentum to the academies policy; we are also prepared to be even more helpful.

In amendment No. 467, my hon. Friends and I seek to extend the Government's academy policy. We seek to assist Ministers—perhaps they have been slightly over-cautious, perhaps they were concerned that, even though they believe that their academies policy has been a huge and unmitigated success, they should not extend it too rapidly or should not risk others extending it too rapidly. We propose to insert in clause 62 a new subsection (2), which states that

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    ''An application may be made to the Secretary of State by the governing body of any maintained school seeking to become an academy.''

I will be most interested to hear the Minister's remarks in this regard, because I hope that he will share my enthusiasm for the academy policy. I hope that he will see that it has a great deal to offer, far beyond its current scope. I hope that the Minister will see an opportunity in amendment No. 467. By being slightly less timid and cautious than the Government—perhaps that is the privilege or prerogative of the Opposition—we are giving him an opportunity to embrace a far more radical policy.

I am sure that when the Minister responds he will immediately take us through the benefits and strengths of the academy model and what it has achieved in the situations in which it has been applied. I am quietly confident that the force of the Minister's argument will lead him inexorably in the same direction as the amendment. Ministers apparently believe that the academy model is fundamental to improving standards in failing schools, and in improving overall standards in areas where there are no good schools by injecting a new, good school into the local community. The amendment is intended to extend the values, opportunities and strengths in the academy model.

In speaking his mind about the great benefits of the policy, the Minister will surely recognise that the governing body of a school might see the model as an opportunity and decide that it would remove the shackles and difficulties of whatever sort that have held that school back in the past. The governors might decide that with academy status, their school could take great strides forward. Schools in areas where there are already other city academies might make such decisions. I remember discussing a potential danger with Ministers when the initiative was first proposed, in something like its current form, in the Committee on the Bill that became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998—is the Minister about to correct me on that?

 
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