Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: The amendments are significant, not least because under the clause an independent school that is not registered will be committing a criminal offence. Subsection (2) sets out the scale of penalties for a fairly serious offence that may carry not only a fine to level 5 on the standard scale, but imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or both those penalties. The clause places a heavy penalty on those who act in breach of its terms.

I leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight to move amendment No. 553. Amendments Nos. 554, 549 and new clause 9 seek to establish whether Ministers accept that the phrase in subsection (1)

    ''is guilty of an offence''

is too stark and too black and white where there may be shades of grey. New clause 9 in particular prompts the suggestion that it may be difficult for a new independent school to be registered before it is operational. To facilitate the establishment of a new independent school, the Minister may consider that it would be appropriate not to apply an immediate criminal offence during a limited period, while the establishment is under way. Given that the proprietor of the school must register, what would be the status of the school if that proprietor were to die? That question would arise particularly if it was a new proprietor who had not met any of the previous requirements.

These are probing amendments that seek some exposition from the Minister of the Government's thinking about whether, in all circumstances a criminal offence should be said to have been committed if a school ceases to be registered or when, perhaps for technical reasons, it was not possible for it to be registered. We are trying to stimulate a debate around some of the difficult and unusual circumstances that might arise. Does the Minister accept that there may be circumstances in which it is not appropriate for a school to be seen to have committed a criminal offence as soon as it operates when not registered?

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West for moving

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this group of amendments. If we are not careful, amendments Nos. 549 and 553 will become the Summerhill school memorial amendments. They demonstrate the significant difference in philosophy about the responsibility for education between the Government and many people outside this place—and perhaps some people inside this place as well.

The state is not responsible for education; parents are responsible for education. The state makes arrangements to ensure that parents are able to accept the responsibility to seek to achieve for their children what they would like them to achieve. That is a significant distinction, but one that I think has been accepted since Forster's Elementary Education Act 1870—the state is there to assist parents in exercising their responsibility for education. The state must accept that, from time to time, parents will take decisions with which the state is not entirely comfortable and happy.

One of the greatest objectives of a tyranny is to deny parents their rightful role in bringing up their families. One of the greatest tyrannies of the 20th century set out specifically to close schools that it did not like. Under the Nazis, Kurt Hahn had to close Salem school and move it to Gordonstoun in Scotland. Many people did not understand the philosophy of Kurt Hahn and are not entirely sympathetic to the philosophy of Gordonstoun. Having employed a secretary who was educated there, I must say that, although she was a wonderful girl in many respects, I am not convinced about the quality of education that was provided. [Interruption] I will not seek to comments on aspects of her personality.

The question is to what extent the state should control education. I take a fairly traditional view of what is the best way to achieve a successful education. I am aware that, although the overwhelming majority of people agree that it helps to have children in classrooms and to have a teacher at the front, or at least somewhere, assisting them in their learning, that is not a unanimous view throughout the country. There appears to be a prolonged history, in the Department and in Ofsted, of hostility to certain unusual practices in the education of children. I refer the Committee to the dispute between Summerhill school and the Department, which concluded in an agreement between the two in March 2000. As hon. Members will know, Summerhill operates a philosophy that is very different from that in most schools. It is the philosophy that children can take charge of their learning and do not have to sit in classrooms all day or be taught in a way in which I, probably the Minister and, I suspect, my hon. Friends would regard as normal.

Ofsted put Summerhill on a secret list of 61 independent schools and inspected it every year, with a team of inspectors who did not understand the school's democratic philosophy or consult its pupils,

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ex-pupils or parents. It insisted that the school should change to a process of compulsory lessons, knowing that that was contrary to the ethos under which the school was established. Summerhill went to court to challenge what it called the narrow and unimaginative thinking behind the recommendation. It produced evidence from two teams of education experts, for whom I would not normally have the time of day, and an army of distinguished ex-pupils. In short, it was agreed that Ofsted's recommendation was unacceptable, and three notices of complaint were annulled. Astonishingly, the Government agreed to contribute to the school's legal costs, which was virtually unheard of because the independent schools tribunal has no power to award costs.

I do not want to take up too much of the Committee's time on this important case, although I suspect that I may want to go on at this afternoon's sitting. It was the view of parents, the school's counsel, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, and eventually, the Secretary of State, that Summerhill had managed to devised a system that eliminated what were called the great evils of contemporary education—bullying, racism, sex abuse and drug abuse. It would not have been able to do so under the law as proposed by the Bill.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West pointed out, the Bill allows no scope for the creation of a new independent school. It is illegal to run a school until it has been approved, there is no way for it to be approved until there is something to inspect, and it cannot be run and be capable of inspection because that would be illegal. I see no way out of that paradox. Even if he cannot do so now, I hope that the Minister will have time before this afternoon's sitting to devise a way out, and I look forward to hearing about it. It does not exist in the Bill, and my hope is that it will be clear that there is no way of preventing people setting up new independent schools in good faith.

After the conclusion of the court case, the Secretary of State confirmed that there was no desire to have Summerhill struck off the register, compel children there either to attend lessons or to engage in formal self-supported study, or prevent the school from putting into effect the education philosophy of its founder. Those assurances were given under oath on behalf of the Secretary of State. References to clauses 153 to 164, with which the Minister kindly provided us before this sitting, fly in the face of those assurances, because they set out a mechanistic philosophy of education delivery that is incompatible with the form of education provided and accepted as appropriate by the Secretary of State at Summerhill school.

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Bailey, Mr.
Brady, Mr.
Coaker, Mr.
Flint, Caroline
Francis, Dr.
Grayling, Chris
Heppell, Mr.

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Kumar, Dr.
Laing, Mrs.
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Miliband, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Touhig, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr.

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