Education Bill

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Mr. Willis: In one of our earlier sittings, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) raised a question with the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West about faith schools such as fundamentalist Muslim schools. The latter said that as a key element such a school would be required to conform to the national curriculum. That seems in exact contradiction to the amendment. Are we saying that all schools in the independent sector should have the proposed powers? Would they cover existing public schools such as Eton or Winchester, if they wished to apply but did not follow the national curriculum? The hon. Gentleman is trying to run two horses in opposite directions at the same time.

6.45 pm

Mr. Lewis: The difficulty with the amendment is that it makes no reference to school organisation committees, or to the need to comply with the school organisation committee requirements, criteria or application process. Clearly, if a new school wants to come into the maintained sector, it would be required to go through those processes. It also makes no reference to a requirement to apply to the Secretary of State for any disapplication or variance of the national curriculum. That is its weakness.

If hon. Members can envisage a hypothetical set of circumstances, it would be possible for a school that is outside the maintained sector to come into it. However, that would have to be done through the usual agreed processes, and it would have to receive the approval of the school organisation committee. Having gone through that process, the school would have the opportunity to request disapplication, as would any maintained school.

However, on what basis would a school outside the maintained sector come into it? Such a school would have to meet a certain set of requirements through the school organisation committee before being accepted as a maintained school. Having been accepted as a new maintained school, it would have the opportunity, like any other new maintained school, either through the

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power to innovate or other mechanisms that are available, to apply to the Secretary of State, as the amendment suggests, for a disapplication of the curriculum. As part of its application, it would have to demonstrate its reasons for doing so. Having been an independent school, it would have to demonstrate that it was not simply because it did not want to put into practice the national curriculum. It would have to give much better reasons than that to obtain the Secretary of State's approval.

The existing framework allows a school to come from the non-maintained sector into the maintained sector through the school organisation committee. Having become a school in the maintained sector, it would have the right, like any other school in that sector, to use the available legislative mechanisms to request that part or all of the curriculum should be suspended. In considering any such application, the Secretary of State would look at whether there was a clear attempt to abuse or exploit the system—whether the school had simply used a backdoor route to enter the state system and obtain state funding, and, then, not to apply the national curriculum. Its request would be judged on the same basis, in that context, as other maintained schools.

Mr. Turner: The key point that emerges from the Minister's comments is that there is a sequence—first, apply to the maintained sector, and, then, apply for disapplication. I am sure that he will understand that the problem is that some schools would be able to serve pupils in the area better were they in the maintained sector, but do not wish to join the maintained sector if it means that they cannot keep their existing organisation and curriculum.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I shall demonstrate that I am talking about neither Eton and Winchester nor other and better reputed public schools. Rudolph Steiner schools, for example, do not believe that they deliver education best by using technology at an early age. They also believe that the outcomes from their schools are considerably better than those from other maintained schools that deliver the national curriculum. I am sure that many of their proprietors would like the benefits of Rudolph Steiner education to be more widely enjoyed, but they do not wish to place one of their schools into the maintained sector in the sequential way that the Minister described. Even if the amendment were not accepted, it would be useful for the Minister to consider admitting a school to the maintained sector on the basis that derogation from the national curriculum would follow.

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to a specific category of school: the Steiner schools. The Government support a pilot initiative for three Steiner schools to show that we are willing to consider and examine such an arrangement in certain circumstances. We will examine how the scheme works

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within constraints that have been laid out and an agreement between the Steiner schools and the Government.

The Government would be reluctant to open the floodgates in the manner suggested by the amendment without the operation of the usual channels. The key to the school organisation committee is the support of the local community. There must be a demonstrable groundswell of support among parents, the family of schools and the community to show that admitting a new school into the maintained sector would be positive, would add value to the school, would give options to parents, and would make the school an asset and a legitimate part of the family of schools.

Our main worry about the amendment is that it does not put such a safeguard in place. It would apply a blanket view of the matter to all schools that are outside the maintained sector. The Government have been willing to enter discussions with Steiner schools. Most members of the Committee would agree that Steiner schools have something to offer and that many parents choose the Steiner model. We have been willing to support the scheme on a limited, pilot, three-school basis. The schools will come into the maintained sector in the manner suggested by the amendment. However, the Government could not support a situation that allowed that basis to be applied as the norm. There is a long way to go before we would be comfortable or happy to accept that.

We have had an interesting and useful debate but, on the basis that I outlined, I ask for the amendment to be withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: The debate has been useful and interesting. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough accused me of running two horses in opposite directions. It may be in order for me to apologise for trespassing on his turf, if that is what I have been doing. In fact, there are real distinctions between this debate and our debate on faith schools. The hon. Gentleman is slightly mischievous because this debate is worth while.

Mr. Willis: Yes, it is.

Mr. Brady: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman accepts that.

The Minister's principal objection to the amendment appeared to be procedural and that the amendment contained no reference to the school organisation committee—the usual channels, as he termed it—or a requirement for the Secretary of State to approve admission into the maintained sector. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight pointed out, impediments lie in the usual channels that may restrict the sensible development of experimentation on this matter. The Minister may wish to consider that, although I do not press him to take a particular procedural approach to this issue.

The Minister must accept that schools that cannot follow the national curriculum face a prima facie difficulty in applying for admission to the maintained sector, as ordinarily it might be expected that they would apply the national curriculum as one of the

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requirements of acceptance. He was concerned that this might become a back door route to state funding, as he put it. I am keen to signpost the way to the front door. There could be an entirely open and clear procedure that showed schools in that position how to proceed. I am grateful that the Minister was more positive in dealing with the substance of the argument, rather than with the procedural aspects of the amendments.

I have no desire to press the matter to a Division. I ask the Minister to reflect on whether there may be a way of improving the route for schools that do not follow the national curriculum that may make it easier for them to apply and to gain admission to the maintained sector, very much in the spirit of what clause 86 already seeks to do for schools within the maintained sector. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 86 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Timms: On a point of order, Mr. Pike. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) referred earlier to the intention to continue our discussions into the evening. May I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that there is a letter on the Table for each hon. Member containing information that they may find helpful in preparing for our resumed sitting later on.

The Chairman: That was not really a point of order for the Chair, but I am sure that hon. Members have taken note of what the Minister said.

Mr. Turner: Further to that point of order, Mr. Pike. As I understand it, the knife falls at seven o'clock this evening.

The Chairman: The knife falls at seven o'clock, and at that stage certain business has to be disposed of. Morning sittings finish at exactly one o'clock once the business is disposed of. By order of the House, afternoon sittings can continue as long as the Committee is of that opinion. The Whip must move the motion to adjourn the Committee. As I understand it, we will break for dinner after we have disposed of the business at seven o'clock.

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