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Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Given the comments of the Prime Minister in Washington yesterday, are the Government seeking to make a statement in the House about their plans to release all documentation relating to the prisoner transfer agreement between the UK Government and Libya? Will UK Ministers and, now, shadow Ministers, come to the House to explain why they signed a PTA deal with Colonel Gaddafi at the same time as an economic agreement was being signed with BP?
Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is an experienced enough parliamentarian to know extremely well that that was not a point of order, but the views that he has expressed and the concern that he has articulated will have been heard. The short answer to his question is that I have had no indication from a Foreign Office Minister of any intention to make a statement on that matter. Whether Ministers will seek to do so in light of what the hon. Gentleman has said remains to be seen, and he will require his usual patience.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand fully that any expenses system, including one involving home accommodation, must retain records of hon. Members' private home addresses, private telephone numbers and private bank details. But were you as disturbed as I was to read in The Times on 15 July that, owing to a glitch in the website, all such details became accessible to 1,300 hon. Members and their assistants, who are entitled to log on to their own part of the website? Such mistakes can always happen with online systems. Will you, Mr. Speaker, take up with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and, if necessary with the Information Commissioner's Office, the necessity to impress upon IPSA that such private details should not be held in any online system whatsoever, as there is absolutely no need for the information to be held in that vulnerable way?
Mr Speaker: I was as disturbed as the hon. Gentleman by this very unfortunate incident and breach of security. The Speaker's Committee on IPSA is now the appropriate forum through which concerns about matters of operation or policy can be transmitted to IPSA. I have regular meetings with representatives of IPSA. It will not be my normal practice to talk in this House about the detail of those exchanges, but the hon. Gentleman has raised a very serious point, and I am aware of other Members who have expressed similar concerns. Those concerns will be transmitted, and I will be happy to play my proper role in helping to transmit them.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab):
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have made it clear in the past that if a right hon. or hon. Member makes a statement in this House that is subsequently proved to be inaccurate, they should-at the earliest opportunity-make a correction to the House. On 22 June, we learned in Prime Minister's questions that the Deputy Prime Minister had made a statement about the directors of Sheffield Forgemasters not being prepared to dilute their shareholding. Subsequently, he wrote to the chief
executive saying that he recognised the inaccuracy of those comments, that he withdrew them and that he apologised. However, despite repeated opportunities at Prime Minister's questions today-I listened as carefully as I could-the Deputy Prime Minister did not apologise, accept that he had been wrong or withdraw or correct his comments. Do you, or the House in general, have any powers to ensure that the record of the House can be corrected in this instance?
Mr Speaker: I have several points to make in response to that point of order. First, I ruled on the matter yesterday and it would be unwise to add to or pick at an earlier ruling about the appropriateness of correcting in the House factually incorrect statements made in the House. Secondly, I know that the hon. Gentleman will not take umbrage if I suggest that he is as persistent a woodpecker in the House as there is to be found. He has raised this matter before and he knows perfectly well that it was raised at some considerable length with the Deputy Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions. I have a slight anxiety that the hon. Gentleman is now seeking to continue the debate, and that would not be right. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman need be patient for only a few hours because, unless I am mistaken, he has an Adjournment debate on the matter in which these and other points will probably be developed eloquently and at appropriate length.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last night we had a debate on the UK Youth Parliament and one Member spoke for an hour and 17 minutes. Is it correct, proper and appropriate-and is it in order-that a Member should speak for that length of time so that others who wish to make a contribution are denied the opportunity?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order and the answer to him is twofold. If something disorderly occurs, the Chair will ensure that it is stopped and that a Member does not continue in disorderly conduct. On the wider point about long speeches by some Members preventing others from contributing to a debate, it is true. However, it would be wrong for me to say to the hon. Gentleman, who is a new and committed Member, that a new precedent was somehow established last night. There have been occasions on which very long speeches by one Member have prevented other Members from contributing. It is a regrettable state of affairs and I know that the hon. Gentleman is often keen to catch the eye of the Chair. If he is persistent on other occasions, I am sure that he will get his fair share of opportunities. Account may also be taken by the Chair of occasions on which a Member has wished to speak and, because of long-windedness by someone else, has failed to do so.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose penalties on credit and debit card providers for the facilitation of the downloading of child pornography from the internet; and for connected purposes.
"Child pornography is one of the fastest growing businesses online".
Let us not forget that behind every image is a child who has been abused, tragically immortalised on the web. Until 2002, users simply submitted their credit and debit card details online to download images of abuse from the web. These days the new route for users is to hide their identity by using pre-paid credit cards to download images. These pre-paid cards are available to adults and children for £100 a time at service stations and high street retailers without the need to provide proof of identity.
These Visa, Mastercard and other cards are then used to download images of child abuse by simply clicking on spam links to enter a growing number of sites. The user simply exchanges the credit card number and its value for a password to enable downloading. If more credit is needed, it is just a matter of buying more £100 cards to pay for more and more abuse. The same cards are used by children to buy knives, alcohol and other items online. All the buyer has to do is put his name and address down as, say, Donald Duck at Buckingham Palace, and away he goes.
The simple fact is that, under current legislation, no proof of identity is required for card values below £100 or €150. So the existing controls, which were designed to target money laundering via the now abolished Financial Services Authority, do not work to protect children or to stop the growth of online child pornography. That is why Parliament should back the provisions in my Bill to make credit and debit card companies liable for penalties when their cards are used to download images of abuse.
The provisions will work. International evidence shows that the authorities can target payment systems to change behaviour. For example, in the USA, credit card companies were banned from being used for internet gambling transactions and face fines if they allow such use. But in addition to fines, my Bill would require proof of identity and address such as passports, birth certificates or utility bills to buy pre-paid credit cards.
We cannot just rely-as some think we can-on the credit card industry policing itself. During Operation Ore, in 2002 the police carried out a mass raid on those using conventional credit cards to download child pornography, and that led to 1,750 convictions and 700 cautions. Since then, the credit card companies, including Visa and Mastercard, have invested heavily to stop the use of conventional cards, but that particular horse had, of course, already bolted. Few abusers would now risk their identities becoming known, so now they use
pre-paid cards instead. Once more we find ourselves with growing credit card-driven child abuse on the web. The credit card companies are not taking pre-emptive action. There is lots of money involved and no appetite for voluntary industry action- [ Interruption. ] I thank hon. Members for their support for taking action rather than sitting back and letting the abuse go on. The more time that goes by, the more children are being abused. The more financial momentum these transactions cause, the more child abuse image users and addicts are created.
So Parliament must act and it is with no hesitation that I offer this Bill for the House to support. I am grateful for the blessing of hon. Members on both sides of the House and growing public interest-this is the BBC's second most watched online story today and, I am reliably informed, is No. 2 on Teletext. I hope that the Government will listen and adopt the provisions into mainstream legislation. Today, let the House speak with one voice and send a clear message to those who would have our children abused and those who allow it to happen that we will not stand idly by. We will use the powers at our disposal and we will put the protection of children first.
That Geraint Davies, Catherine McKinnell, Mr Edward Leigh, Jessica Morden, Greg Mulholland, Luciana Berger, Mr Peter Bone, Nia Griffith, Mr Ian Davidson, Rosie Cooper, Lindsay Roy and Mr Adam Holloway present the Bill.
That the draft National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 (Amendment) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 21 June, be approved.- (James Duddridge.)
That the draft Qualifying Oil Fields Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 23 June, be approved.- (James Duddridge.)
That the draft Child Trust Funds (Amendment No. 3) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 29 June, be approved. -(James Duddridge.)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I should announce to the House that the vote in the deferred Division will now resume, and the Lobby will stay open until 2.15 pm. Those Members who have not voted in the deferred Division may do so until then.
It is a great pleasure to be going through the various provisions of the Bill. Let me also take this opportunity to welcome the Government Front-Bench team to their roles. This is their first opportunity to take a Bill through the Commons. Normally today's proceedings would have happened upstairs but, without making a point, I can say that theirs is still a demanding role, but one that I know they will enjoy. It is also quite nice to be on this side of the Committee, from where I can ask the questions and not have to think what the answers are. Having said that, I would much rather be in power and have that responsibility.
Vernon Coaker: I will in a moment. The hon. Gentleman should let me get started. If he gives me just two minutes, I will say something and then he might want to intervene-unless, of course, he wants to intervene to welcome my welcome.
It is good to be here to debate the issues, but let me say one thing. I know that there will be serious differences of opinion in this discussion, but I also know that we are all motivated by a desire to improve educational standards. There are real differences between us on how we achieve that and what the best way forward for our state school system is. However, I accept that we are all motivated by a desire to try to do the best for the young people of this country, and I know that that is true among all Members, right across the House.
Mr Wilson: At the start of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, he said that this was an important debate-and indeed it is-but is he embarrassed by the number of Labour Back Benchers who have come along to support him this afternoon?
This is an important debate, but it is also the quality of debate that is important. Over the next few days-today, tomorrow and Monday-the quality of the debate from across the Committee will lead to a Bill that we will oppose, but which, being a good Opposition, we will try to improve, notwithstanding the fact that we do not agree with it.
It is important to say at the beginning that, whether we are talking about the current amendment-amendment 28, which concerns special schools-or any other amendment, at the heart of this debate is the fact that we have a different view of academies and academy education from that which is presented in the Bill. This Bill inverts the way in which the previous Government pursued the academy programme. We established academies in areas of poor educational performance and areas of social disadvantage. The Bill turns that on its head, allowing outstanding schools to fast-track to academy status and allowing primary schools for the first time to become academies, a provision that is the subject of a subsequent amendment, and also allowing special schools to become academies-the subject of amendment 28. Those are all things that we think could damage the provision of education, particularly with respect to special education needs in an area.
Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the recommendation in the previous Parliament of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, as it then was, that the freedoms available to academies under his Government should have been available to all schools? Does he have any objection to all schools having such freedoms?
Vernon Coaker: Of course we want freedoms extended to different schools where appropriate. However, if the hon. Gentleman reads the Children, Schools and Families Committee report, he will see that it talked about allowing the expansion of those freedoms within a managed context, not what is being proposed now, which is that these freedoms be extended to schools without any check on them or on how they use those freedoms. The proposals on the local authority role have caused huge disquiet across the country, and will have caused huge disquiet among the hon. Gentleman's Conservative and Liberal colleagues. That is why I am pointing out the difference.
The Chair of the Select Committee is no longer in his place, but it would be interesting to know whether his Committee would have reached the same conclusion about the extension of freedoms to all schools if it had known that it would happen in a context in which the Secretary of State-either through a funding agreement or a direct grant-determined whether a school was operating effectively and conducting itself in an appropriate way. This applies to special schools, as provided for in the amendment, and to any other schools. I believe that
the different context is crucial for understanding the conclusions that the Select Committee came to about how the academies programme was developing under the last Government in comparison with this Government's programme. In the light of that difference, the Select Committee might well have reached different conclusions.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why is it that extra freedom is good for a badly performing school, while a school that is performing well cannot be trusted with that extra freedom? That does not make any sense.
Vernon Coaker: Of course outstanding schools can be trusted, but such schools have demonstrated that they already have all the freedom they need to be outstanding. Schools in areas of social deprivation or those suffering from educational underperformance should be allowed to operate in a way that, we hope, will raise standards. Evidence on whether or not the hoped-for and expected higher standards have been achieved is not as clear cut as one would like to imagine. I shall come on to deal with impact assessments in more detail later, but for any type of school, the impact assessments are quite wary about the evidence is terms of how much progress has been made in academies. All I am saying to the right hon. Gentleman-to be fair, he operates by trying to make policy on the basis of evidence-is that the evidence is mixed, so to plunge headlong into a massive expansion of academy freedoms without due regard to the evidence is not the right course of action for special schools or others.
Mr Redwood: I am grateful. Is the hon. Gentleman now saying that Tony Blair's experiment was wrong for schools in the poorly performing areas and that they should not have been made academies? Is that his position?
Vernon Coaker: No, that is a totally different scenario. I was not saying that at all. I was saying that to target academy freedoms in the first instance to schools in areas of educational underperformance and social disadvantage was exactly the right thing to do. My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State agreed a large number of academies and it is clear that we would have gone on to establish more of them. What we are saying is that this model of academies is the right one. As for amendment 28-I want to stay in order, Mr Hoyle-extending the same model to special schools and primary schools without the evidence to back it up is a risk. A managed expansion would be fine, but this is a free-for-all. That is the difference. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman wants to improve educational achievement in an area, but our view is that this proposal creates an unnecessary risk. Allowing outstanding schools to expand through the academy system as the Bill sets out risks creating the two-tier education system that none of us wants.
Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman talks about a massive expansion, but surely the key point about this legislation is that it is permissive. Special schools and primary schools will become academies only if those schools themselves judge that they want to be academies. Does he not trust the judgment of those schools, their head teachers and their governing bodies?
Vernon Coaker: It is simply not the case that the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench team wants this to be a gentle expansion and not a big bang. The Secretary of State sees this as a flagship Bill. The idea is to try as hard as possible-notwithstanding the impact assessments-to expand the number of academies as quickly as possible. If we had been successful in the election and were still in government, we would have expanded the number of academies. Indeed, I had signed up to a number of them coming forward in September-some in the hon. Gentleman's constituency-and my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) would have expanded the academies programme, as I said.
The issue is the model for the expansion. That is the difference between us. We will argue our way all around the different clauses, but this goes to the very heart of the debate. Our view is that we should concentrate on schools in areas of social disadvantage and educational underperformance; this Government's view is to allow outstanding schools to fast-track to academy status with all the risks that that brings.
Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman will know that in London constituencies like mine, people in very disadvantaged circumstances often live right next door to fairly affluent areas. Why does he think that only poorly performing schools should try to improve? Why should satisfactory schools, good schools and outstanding schools not also try to raise their standards?
Vernon Coaker: That is a fair point. We want all schools to improve their standards. That is not my point. My point is that allowing only outstanding schools to let rip in this way is likely to cause problems. The hon. Gentleman needs to ask why the Bill does not specifically provide that outstanding schools should or must co-operate and reach an agreement with an underperforming school. As it stands, it is a permissive part of the Bill: it is a good thing to do; it would be nice if those outstanding schools did that. They should do so, but there is no "must" about it. I am not sure how this would work in respect of the programme motion, but the hon. Gentleman might like to consider tabling an amendment formally to require outstanding schools to partner other schools-special schools or whatever-that may be next door to them, but are not satisfactory and are not delivering the standard of education that they want. If he did that, I would look forward to considering whether we could support it.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab):
I am slightly concerned that words such as "freedom" are being used in this context. It is one of those concepts like "apple pie" and "mother's milk", which nobody can disagree with. Given that we have a personalised curriculum and given that much work has been done with head teachers to see what can be developed and offered at key stages 3
and 4, my concern is that we are effectively granting the freedom to disapply the curriculum from many vulnerable children and to restrict what is offered on the curricular diet to certain groups of children. I fear that head teachers will say, "There's no point in that child learning French; he can barely speak English. Sorry."
Vernon Coaker: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is a clear tension. We need to ensure that, where appropriate, schools are given the freedom to innovate and to pursue the important objectives they want, but that we do so in a way that does not disadvantage some children.
As I was saying, this goes to heart of the Bill and explains why we tabled amendment 28 to take special schools out of the Bill so that they cannot become academies. If we give those special schools that freedom, there is a potential for it to impact adversely on the entitlements of other children in an area.
It is no good giving one person or school freedom without considering how it will impact on the freedom of others. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) made that same point, particularly with respect to disadvantaged children, children with special needs and so forth. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) tabled amendments with a similar point in mind for the Liberal Democrats, so these concerns are not restricted to Labour Members.
"We need to make it easier for every school to acquire the drive and essential freedoms of Academies...We want every school to be able quickly and easily to become a self-governing independent state school...All schools will be able to have Academy-style freedoms"?
Vernon Coaker: I have seen that briefing. I have explained how we have moved on from that point. We are now debating the particular model that the Government are introducing. The context in which those remarks were made was therefore totally different. We are considering how to move from where we are to where we want to be in giving schools more freedom. Our view is different from the hon. Gentleman's and that of his Front Benchers. We believe that, if there is a free-for-all and the local authority's role is taken away, the process is open to danger. That is the point of difference. The hon. Gentleman may think that it is better that whether a school becomes an academy is determined not by the local authority and local people but by the Secretary of State. That is nonsensical. However, he will doubtless defend that position.
Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con):
There has been pressure on special schools in particular. Under
the previous Government, 186 special schools closed. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some special schools may welcome the greater security that a bit more independence would give them if they were allowed to become academies?
Vernon Coaker: One of the points behind the hon. Gentleman's question is to ensure that as many young people for whom it is appropriate are included in mainstream education. I would have thought that that was a point of agreement between us. Of course special schools need to be retained, and there is clearly a need for them to have high standards and deliver the quality of education that we all want for children with severe learning difficulties. I am not sure that their becoming academies in the way that the Bill envisages would make much difference. I pay tribute to special schools, which do a fantastic job.
Damian Collins: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, for parents, choice is at the heart of the matter when deciding whether a mainstream or a special school is most appropriate. Does he agree that such choice should be available to schools, so that a head teacher and a board of governors can decide whether academy status is best for them? They may decide one way or the other, but surely they should have the same choices and opportunities as other schools.
Vernon Coaker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to table an amendment to provide that schools choosing such a route must consult parents and the local community, and that any application for such status should depend on not only the head teacher and the governing body, but the broader community, particularly parents. I take his point that parents are always important in education, but that applies particularly to parents of pupils in special schools. They are especially dependent on not only the support that the schools give the young person, whom they have the responsibility of educating, but the emotional advice and support that they often give parents, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is important, why does not he amend the Bill to make it a requirement that schools taking the route that he suggests consult parents? It should not be a case of a whimsical, "It's good practice if you do that, it'll be in the funding agreement." Let us have a bit of clarity about what is expected from such a radical reform.
"Before a maintained school in England is converted into an Academy, the school's governing body must consult".
"must consult such persons as they think appropriate."
"The consultation may take place before"-
"or after an Academy order".
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) made a good point. If a school, particularly a special school, wants to follow the route that he proposed, one should not have a broad "consult people where appropriate" provision, but a list of people, including parents, who are exceptionally important, to consult. Why does subsection (3) say "before or after"? I am not a cynic, but the vast majority of our constituents will think that, if we provide for a school to consult after an academy order is made, such consultation is just a way of smoothing the process, rather than proper, legitimate consultation about whether it is the right thing to do. The constituents of the hon. Member for North Cornwall may be different from mine, but that is what my constituents would think.
Mr Rob Wilson: The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. The Avenue school in Reading is an outstanding special school, led by a brilliant head teacher, Sue Bourne. Why do the Opposition want to take away the right to become an academy from her and her school, when that is clearly what they want to do?
Vernon Coaker: If it is an outstanding school, it has become one under the existing arrangements. We are worried that one school's freedom could be detrimental to the wider school system. That goes to the heart of the matter. The hon. Gentleman disagrees, and it is a point of debate and discussion. He will have to argue with other special schools and other head teachers, whom I, and no doubt others, could cite, who greatly fear that fragmenting the system, with some schools following the academy route while others do not, means that the overall collective provision in an area for particularly vulnerable children is put at risk. That is even before we have reached the question, which the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) will have to answer, about funding, admissions, the area that a school serves and its relationship with other schools. We are obliged to take all those matters on trust.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I was very interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's concern about a lack of co-ordination for provision. Does he accept that some good work has been done in clause 2(6), which deals with low-incidence special educational needs? It provides for retaining the money for that provision under the control of the local education authority. The problem about which he is rightly worried will be largely avoided, and we can still have special resources and units for people with low-incidence special needs.
The hon. Gentleman is right. That provision is the result of an amendment in the House of Lords, and it makes a significant improvement to the
Bill. It would be stupid and churlish to deny that. The Government deserve credit for amending the measure and including that provision. They have made other amendments, which have improved the Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot about special needs, knows that the provision deals with low-incidence special needs whereas the amendment deals with special schools. When people talk about special needs, low-incidence special needs are often neglected. Like other hon. Members, I know from professionals that they often feel that provision can be made for someone with serious learning difficulties. Some people, however, have an unrecognised or low-incidence special need, and the fact that that is covered in the Bill is a big step forward. Of course, the devil will be in the detail when it comes to how the funding will work, and how it will be judged whether a school is meeting the requirements of young people with low-incidence special needs.
Special schools are a different matter, as I have been trying to explain to various Members. They contain young people with particularly profound learning difficulties, rather than young people with low-incidence special needs. I think that rushing into allowing those schools to become academies puts at risk the cohesion, planning and co-ordination of provision for the young people involved.
Vernon Coaker: It is my speech; I thank my hon. Friend-for he is my friend-the Minister of State. I will always give way to Members. However, I do not want to hear a point of order at 10 pm about how the Minister went on- [Interruption.] I mean the shadow Minister.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving way. He was a very effective schools Minister, and, along with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he presided over 200 academies. Did he find that those 200 academies were not involved in their communities, and did not participate in local plans to raise standards across the board? Were they the islands unto themselves that he now claims the new academies will be?
Vernon Coaker: The point is that the whole of that system was based on local consensus. Local authorities and local communities were involved, and difficult and tough decisions were sometimes made in the face of significant opposition. The academies programme was developed on the basis of local agreement, which meant the local community telling schools that they must take part in all the partnerships.
Those were secondary schools, but, as the Minister knows, the amendment deals with the possible extension of academy status to special schools and primary schools, which would involve a massive expansion. A managed
expansion is one thing, but, as both Ministers of State will probably point out, the Bill is permissive-permissive, that is, to the extent that it allows almost everything to be done by means of the funding agreement or the direct grant arrangements. Regardless of ideological differences, even Government Back Benchers draw attention to the lack of a statutory requirement for things to be done that people consider necessary, which I think is a serious weakness, particularly as a funding agreement, which is a contract, would ultimately have to be tested in the courts.
Let me say this to the Minister: in all honesty. I am not making a point about the Bill being rushed through; that was dealt with when we debated the programme motion. If I were in charge of the Bill, I would think that, notwithstanding some of the improvements made by the House of Lords-such as the provision for low-incidence special needs, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), and the application to academies of section 4 of the Education Act 1996-when it comes to exclusions, admissions and, in particular, special schools, it is no use talking about things that people "should" do. It is no use saying, "These are important matters on which parents should be consulted. These people should be consulted, and those people should be consulted." The Bill should lay down an absolute requirement, especially in relation to those with the most profound learning difficulties.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Schools in Brent are in a difficult position, given the proposal to redistribute special educational needs among schools. It is proposed that autism, learning difficulties and challenging behaviour be apportioned between Cardinal Hinsley high school, Queens Park community school, Alperton community school and Copland community school. All those schools have fallen victim to the Building Schools for the Future cuts, at the same time as the amalgamation of the two special schools, Hay Lane and Grove Park. In the circumstances, it would be incredible if an order were allowed for academy arrangements to be pursued with consultation taking place only afterwards. It would be absolutely preposterous.
Vernon Coaker: My hon. Friend underlines my point. I consider it ridiculous that the Bill allows consultation to take place after an order. There should be a requirement that, at the very least, it should take place beforehand, and those whom it is appropriate to consult should be listed. He is also right to draw attention to the problems caused by the Building Schools for the Future fiasco.
Pat Glass: Does my hon. Friend agree that the pattern of special educational needs in this country is changing fast, particularly at the more severe and complex end of the spectrum? The pattern of attendance at special schools is completely different from that of seven years ago. If we allow special schools to become academies and to remain almost the same for seven years, we shall risk creating a special school system that will be unable to cope with the changing pattern of need.
I was going to make the same point, but it has been very well made by my hon. Friend, who brings her own expertise, knowledge and experience to the debate. Her valuable point is now on the record, and
no doubt the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) will respond to it.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. He mentioned the insertion in the House of Lords of part 4 of the 1996 Act, which requires an academy to accept a child with special educational needs. His party could have introduced that measure, but did not do so. It is this Bill that is making the change in the law relating to children with special needs.
Vernon Coaker: Changes in policy always improve as they go through Parliament, particularly when, as was the case in the House of Lords, amendment is possible. Now a hugely important Bill is being dealt with on the Floor of the House of Commons, but unless something remarkable happens, no amendments will be made. Members, not only Labour Members but Members on the Government Benches, may well propose equally important amendments to the Bill as it stands, but it will not be possible for them to be accepted.
We have our ideological differences and our views about what is right and what is wrong about the academies programme, but-I know I am repeating myself-although four or five important points have been made about academies and consultation, unless Members wish to make problems for themselves, it will not be possible for the Bill in its current form to be amended. The Minister mentioned one amendment that was made in the House of Lords, and other good amendments were made there but, notwithstanding what we may feel about special schools becoming academies, no amendments can be made in this place to improve the position.
The ability of special schools to become academies is not only highly problematic, but very dangerous to their status as a whole local authority resource. At present, local authority-maintained special schools play a critical role in the provision of support for pupils whose circumstances mean that attendance at a mainstream school is not appropriate. In that respect, special schools are a key feature of a genuinely inclusive education system that seeks to provide additional support on the basis of objective assessments of pupils' needs, and of the settings in which those needs might best be met. We all accept that not all pupils can function effectively and access the most appropriate support in a mainstream setting. Maintained special schools are settings managed and administered directly by local authorities and they are in place for the benefit of all local pupils. In that respect, they demonstrate the value of a local authority-provided, commonly accessible educational resource upon which all settings can draw when necessary. The ability of local authorities to act in this way in respect of special schools means that additional support for pupils can be delivered on the basis of both a comprehensive and coherent assessment of local needs and best value for money. The Minister needs to address some of the concerns on this matter, and must explain to us how this coherence of provision will be maintained when special schools become academies.
Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op):
As a former director of a local authority research organisation before I was elected to my hon. Friend's neighbouring
constituency, I spent a lot of time looking at the Conservatives' plans for localism and decentralisation to local government. Does he agree that it is slightly contradictory that on the one hand the Conservatives claim to believe in such devolution and yet, on the other, fail to grasp that at the strategic level for certain key issues a local authority is the best placed point at which to make these key decisions? Does he also agree that there is a lack of attention to the important role that local democratic authorities can play here?
Vernon Coaker: I agree absolutely, and that point goes to the heart of both this amendment and a number of further amendments to other clauses throughout the Bill. I cannot believe that a significant number of Members on the Government Benches are not having serious concerns expressed to them by their local authorities about decisions on school provision and places, particularly in respect of pupils with special educational needs, being taken out of their hands and being determined instead by the Secretary of State. That is a serious flaw in the Bill, and we will try to amend it.
Given the clear advantages of the current system of provision in respect of special schools, it is not possible to identify any benefits to pupils, teachers, head teachers or members of the wider school work force that would be generated by allowing special schools to acquire academy status. In addition to the issues associated with academy status for all schools, allowing special schools to operate beyond the control of local authorities would mean that the ability of local authorities to incorporate them into their wider strategies for SEN provision would be undermined. A special school with academy status would not be under an obligation to have regard to the wider strategy in terms of the nature and scope of its provision and would be able to act in ways inconsistent with the strategy's key provisions. There are no provisions in the Bill that would prevent special schools from charging for placements at their school-I shall want to make a particular point about that with reference to a specific subsection. There is also no link with the other aspect of the coalition Government's proposals: to take the assessment of special needs away from local authorities and give it to an independent body.
Some local authorities have a mixture of provision, in both special schools and mainstream schools with specialist units co-located in the school or on the school site. What are the Government saying would happen to them? How would that work? There is no information in the Bill about the right of a local authority to withdraw such provision from a school if it seeks to become an academy. If there is specialist provision for special needs within a mainstream school and that is onsite-it is co-located-what will happen? Will they be treated separately? If a school were to submit an application on its own, would that be taken as meaning that the onsite provision would also convert to academy status? What would happen if the pupils concerned were incorporated into, and were working in, mainstream classes? All these issues need to be addressed. I think all Members agree that our special schools do an incredibly important job in our society and make a huge contribution to education for parents and families in some of the
most of difficult circumstances, but I also think that this move to allow special schools to take up academy status is part of a headlong rush.
I also ask the Minister: where is the evidence? As the explanatory notes to the Bill make clear, the benefits section of the impact assessment assumes that there will be 200 new academies each year but that they will all be secondaries. There is no evidence as to the potential impact on primary or special academies. We will come to primary academies when we deal with the next amendment, but how is it possible for Parliament to determine that allowing special schools to convert to academies is the right way forward when there is no evidence in the impact assessment? Even if it is flimsy evidence or evidence that we disagree with, would not the impact assessment usually address and deal with it? Why does the Government's own impact assessment not address the issue of primaries or special schools, and why does the limited evidence in the Government's own equalities impact assessment, which deals with SEN, state:
"It is not possible to say with certainty from table 6"-
"which group of schools serve SEN pupils better because by definition we cannot know their individual circumstances and challenges. However, the outcomes for pupils with SEN are at least in line with what we might expect when compared to similar schools"?
"at least in line with",
Why are we being asked to proceed in this manner? The Minister's Government talk about evidence-based policy making; her Government say we are entering a new politics, which is about not ideologically driven policy making, but policy making that is based on evidence. Where is the evidence, apart from some head teachers of some special schools saying, for perfectly understandable and laudable reasons, that they think it would be better if they were special school academies? Where is the evidence that this is the right policy? Where can I and other hon. Members find that evidence?
Can the Minister also explain why pupil referral units-or short-stay schools as they are now called-are not included in the Bill? I suspect there must have been a debate about whether they should have been included; otherwise it would have been a mistake. From what I know about her ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, it will not have been a mistake, so there has obviously been a debate about this. Why are not pupil referral units-or short-stay schools-included in the Bill? I guess that the reason is because there is so much potential for a disjointed system of provision that a little more work needs to be done. If so, why is that true for short-stay schools but not for special schools? What criteria have been used to determine that pupil referral units were inappropriate for inclusion in the Bill, but special schools should be included?
I have been speaking for a long time, but I took a lot of interventions. There are huge questions. How is the funding going to work? Where is the funding coming
from for those schools? What will the impact on special schools be if two or three special schools in a local authority opt out? What will the implications be for a local authority's special needs provision? What area will this cover? What will the requirements be in terms of schools liaising with other schools in the district? Will it be possible for parents in an area to set up a free school that is a special school academy? I do not know what the technical term for that might be; perhaps it would be called a special-school, free-school academy. Is that a possibility, or would different criteria be applied to that? What criteria would there be if parents in an area decided that they wished to set up a special school as an academy? How does that relate to the free school provisions in this Bill?
Lastly, will the Minister assure us on the arrangements for charging? She will know that clause 1(9) seeks to ensure that no charge is made by academies in respect of "admission" or "attendance". However, clause 1(9)(b) says that this also applies
"(subject to any exceptions specified in the terms)"-
" education provided at the school."
Can she reassure us about what will happen to the expertise, knowledge and information that many other schools access at the moment to support their own provision when a school becomes a special school academy? Will she categorically state that nothing in clause 1(9)(b) will allow a special school academy to start charging, in any sense, for any provision it makes for any other school within its area?
This is a hugely important point. To be fair, I do not think that the Minister would want to see such charging, but what will happen if a private company establishes a special school academy or if, two years down the road, a special school academy is providing teachers or support to a school? I am talking not about extras, but about what some special schools do. Their teachers go to work in other schools to help them, particularly in respect of some lower incidence special needs. These teachers use their expertise with children with profound difficulties to work with children with lower incidence special needs. Can she say whether it is absolutely the case that in no circumstances will any special school academy charge, in any way, for any service provided to another school that all of us would regard as mainstream provision?
I have begged the indulgence of the Committee because I have taken a lot of interventions. I hope that I have made it clear that I know that each and every one of us in this House supports special schools, and the fabulous work that teachers do in those schools and their fabulous co-operation and liaison with parents in those schools.
Chris Skidmore: The hon. Gentleman has rightly praised the work of special schools. If he is such a fan of them, why did 9,000 special school places and 160 special schools close under the previous Government? He and I are not special school teachers. We are not experts in this field, but if we were, I would hope that the Government would give us the freedom to set up schools and teach in a way that we know we are able to teach as professionals. I hope that he agrees with that statement.
Vernon Coaker: If I were going to make a party political point, I would go away now to find out how many special schools closed under the previous Conservative Government. May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that the policy objective, which I thought had cross-party support, was to include as many young people as possible in mainstream education? If that is a policy objective, clearly some special schools will close and some special school places will not be available because we will have decided that we can provide perfectly properly for those young people in a mainstream setting. As one of his colleagues said, the clear point is that this has to be a matter on which parents choose. However, the hon. Gentleman did not say that, did he? His question should have been whether I am certain that every parent has had the free choice that they should have had. It should not have been the party political point that he tried to make about the number of special school places that went.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that every parent should have a proper choice about what provision is best for their child-be it a special school or a mainstream school. Alongside that, it is a laudable and absolutely correct policy objective to ensure that as far as possible-if this provision can be made for them-young people, whatever their difficulty, should be provided for and educated in a mainstream school. There are examples of brilliant education provision in mainstream education for young people with some of the most difficult learning problems. Unfortunately, for some that provision cannot be made and provision is instead made for them in special schools. He has doubtless seen in his constituency, as I have seen in mine, the brilliance of the provision that is then made for them. I say to him again that the question is about parental choice; it is not about trying to make a party political point about the number of places.
Pat Glass: Does my hon. Friend agree that we are dealing with one of the educational myths? Special schools may have closed under the previous Government, but in fact the number of special school places increased. Where special schools did close it was because they were simply not good enough, and they were replaced with excellent special schools or excellent provision in mainstream education.
This has been an excellent debate. May I finish by saying that I think all Members from across the House would agree that when we debate special education, not just special educational needs, and the issue of special schools, we do not pay sufficient tribute to the work of the teachers in special schools? That is the case notwithstanding our difference about whether special schools should become academies. We profoundly disagree with that approach, for some of the reasons that I have set out. It is a leap in the dark and we have no idea where it will end up. However, at least we have had the opportunity to praise special schools, to examine their work and to try to understand this issue. No doubt, the Minister will try, in her response, to allay the Committee's fears a little more about what this will mean for special schools.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD):
Just to reinforce an earlier point, may I say that I closed 12 special schools as the relevant education portfolio holder and
that many of those schools were an abomination? However, the process also included much more inclusion in mainstream schools and the creation of six brand-new schools, co-located, which was a great positive. That could not have been done without taking a strategic approach across the whole district and that would not have been possible if there had been independent schools within that sector.
Vernon Coaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which relates to the one that I have made. Where is the strategic direction coming from, given the bypassing of the local authority? He will know that the Liberal Democrats' election manifesto showed that they understood very well that that was a real issue for them. That is why they tried to marry up the issue of the greater freedom for schools with ensuring that the strategic oversight of that was very much incorporated within the local authority framework and was not, in essence, delegated to the Secretary of State and centralised. That is a huge flaw in this model for academies.
Mr Buckland: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the shadow Minister, for saying some nice words about me, although I do not know whether I deserve them. I just happened to fall into this subject by being interested in it because of my family concern and, as a result of that interest, I perhaps have slightly more knowledge about it than most. However, I am not an expert; I am like any other parent who is interested in this subject and I am very passionate, as many parents become about the education of their children.
I must confess, however, to having been somewhat puzzled in the first instance, and then somewhat disappointed by this amendment. I had expected something more nuanced, given the debate that took place in the other place. I was crestfallen to see that the approach taken by Baroness Royall, which was that, in effect, special schools should be left out of the equation altogether, is being followed in this House. Some points have already been covered by my hon. Friends in interventions on the shadow Minister, so I shall not reiterate them in full. I simply ask: why exclude special schools from the opportunity that this Bill provides, given that other schools are to be given that choice? This is not mandatory-nobody is being forced to do anything; it is a matter for the individual school to choose.
Perhaps we should pause to remind ourselves of the process that families undergo when going through the statementing process and finding the right school for their child. We know a lot about that very important process, which is difficult for the parents, but which guarantees statutory protection for that child. There has been a lot of argument about how we assess a particular young person or child for the purposes of statementing, and there are many concerns about the obvious difficulty of the local education authority acting as both the assessor and funder of places. I have been very encouraged by my party's policy of divorcing and dividing the assessment and provision processes. It is vital that we follow through on that to ensure that there is full confidence in the assessment system.
What will happen then? It is not always the case that a child with a full statement will go to a local special school. Very often, a child with acute needs will have to go to a school-often a privately funded school and perhaps in another part of the country-that has extremely specialised provision for children with acute needs. We can all think of examples of schools such as Prior's Court, which is just off junction 13 of the M4. That private school was set up 10 years ago to deal with children with acute needs on the autism spectrum, including autism and Asperger's syndrome. However, some of the children and young people who go there, including a constituent of mine, do so thanks to LEA funding.
Many results arise from local authority funding and it is not always the case that children end up in a local special school. The issue is far more nuanced than that. I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that, given his experience as the Schools Minister. He understands that the amendment ignores all the subtleties and individual cases that result in a plethora of provision across the country for children and young people with SEN.
Had the clause reached the House unamended-I remind the House that the unamended clause concerned merely the varying needs of children-I would be happy to support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but we have moved on considerably from that. The argument that was advanced in the other place by his colleague Baroness Royall was rightly rejected by that House, and a far more considered set of amendments were debated and either accepted by the Government or voted on by that House. I was delighted to see such amendments to clauses 6 to 9.
The funding issue that was properly raised by Members of the other place has been addressed and we now have the all-important guarantee-the incorporation of part IV of the Education Act 1996-that will put children with SEN on exactly the same footing whether they are in a maintained school or in an academy. That was an important concern for many people on both sides of the House and outside it, and it has been addressed, but we would lose that gain if the amendment were accepted; indeed, we would lose the whole shooting match.
The amendment not only ignores the nuances of the situation, but takes a blunderbuss approach. I appreciate that Labour opposes the Bill in principle and I understand why-the reasons have been well elucidated by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues both on Second Reading and today. Putting that to one side, however, surely the function of tabling amendments is to try to make legislation better. I am afraid that the amendment fails that test spectacularly: its crude and generalist approach ignores all the points that I know the hon. Gentleman understands about the infinitesimal differences involved and the variety that exists in the provision of special education. It would exclude special schools from going down the academy route if they so wished.
Dr John Pugh (Southport) (LD):
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely thoughtful contribution and I am certainly impressed by it, but it is unfair to suggest that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) provided no argument for keeping special schools out of the equation. One such argument was that the elimination of special schools from the local authority network would have a more disruptive effect than the elimination
of an ordinary primary or secondary school because special schools are well integrated into the overall local authority provision and mission regarding special education.
Mr Buckland: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. We have dealt, in interventions, with low-incidence needs and I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman made about that. The key point is about funding and we all felt that the Bill's original draft did not deal with that properly, but it is now clearly set out.
A second concern of mine, which I expressed on Second Reading, is not so much about the process by which statements appear but about their enforcement. I made some observations in that debate about the need for more detail as to how that will be dealt with. How would a parent who was concerned that a statement was not being carried out or enforced by a school take their complaint further? I understand that complaints to the Secretary of State about the lack of enforcement of a statement in a special school will be dealt with by the Young People's Learning Agency. I welcome that, but I would want to be satisfied that the YPLA personnel who dealt with those complaints would have adequate training to understand the sometimes labyrinthine process involved in enforcing SEN statements. I would also want the processes to be very clear and to be spelt out to the parents of children with SEN at the outset. I am not going to stray off the point, Mr Chope, but I want briefly to mention amendment 72, which was proposed by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass)-
The Temporary Chair (Christopher Chope): Order. It is not in order to refer to amendments that have not been selected. Will the hon. Gentleman confine his remarks to this amendment? The issue before us is whether special educational needs should be included within academies or not.
Mr Buckland: I am grateful for that guidance, but what I was seeking to explain is that there are some concerns about the process of enforcing SEN statements, which is relevant to the debate about linking special schools to the current network in terms of how academies will work. There are concerns about academies not being part of the LEA system and framework, but those matters could be dealt with by way of a clarification of those processes. I am sure that the Government are listening to what we are saying.
My hon. Friend makes a good point regarding the structure of schools. There is a feeling that the most articulate or perhaps pushy parents are best able to get their child statemented in the first place and that they are also in the best position, if that statement is not properly enforced by the school, to put pressure on the school and the local authority. There is legitimate concern that the further away lies the authority that might be able to put pressure on the school, other
than direct pressure from the parent, the more likely it is that that inequality will be exacerbated. It is important that Ministers should reassure us that we will have an effective and equitable system that will ensure that children are treated equally and that their statements will be honoured.
Glenda Jackson: The hon. Gentleman talked about the local authority, but the special needs schools in my constituency have catchment areas for virtually the whole of London, so they are engaged with more than one local authority. We simply cannot discard the opinions of parents outside the local authority area in which the relevant special needs school is based.
Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman bases his argument on there being no change to special educational needs, but my fear is that if the Bill takes off, mainstream schools will be able simply to exclude special educational needs pupils, and there will be a knock-on effect for those special educational needs schools that prioritise those children.
Mr Buckland: The hon. Lady makes a number of interesting points. First, I agree about the wider community. Her well-made point about consultation reinforces my point about the complexity of provision, whereby a child in borough A will only be able to go to a school in borough B, which has the acute service-for want of a better phrase.
The Temporary Chair: Order. The hon. Gentleman should not be led astray by the hon. Lady. He should respond to the need to concentrate his remarks on the amendment, otherwise this debate will go on into the early hours of the morning.
I do not share the concern that, when it comes to children and young people in special education, the Bill will result in a "them and us" situation. In fact, to accept the amendment would be to create just such situation. If both Houses pass the Bill and we allow schools the opportunity to go down this exciting avenue, we must as a matter of principle allow all types of school to enjoy that potential opportunity, and it would be wholly wrong and discriminatory to exclude special schools from that process.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab):
For a number of years, I was the chair of the board of governors in a special school that dealt with the educational needs of
children who were then classified as having moderate learning difficulties. The classifications were of the time. As the chair, I had to go through a process whereby the local authority decided that it would be more appropriate to close the school, because the range of provision for the children was inappropriate for the time in which we were living. If each special school in an area becomes an academy and independent of local authority concern, is there not a danger that special school arrangements and special educational arrangements will be maintained in aspic for ever?
Mr Buckland: That is unfair. I acknowledge and bow to the hon. Gentleman's experience, but he underestimates where we are with special education. I am sure that he will agree that head teachers and staff in special schools always look at ways of improving their provision, and reinvent and adapt it to the new children who enter their schools year on year. I find special schools in the modern era very receptive to change. They want to understand and learn from their experiences, and they want to learn about new diagnoses, which is an area of constant change. In autism, for example, the huge increase in the number of diagnoses means that there is an increased demand for special education, so I do not share the hon. Gentleman's pessimism or his vision of special schools wanting to remain in a golden age and refusing to move with the times.
Damian Collins: My hon. Friend makes a very compelling case for maintaining the option of academy status for special schools. Does he agree that one will struggle to find a school that is more engaged with the parents and community that it serves than a special school? Highview special school in my constituency is one such example, but those schools often feel under pressure because of the policies that previous Governments pursued. Such schools have to justify how they offer something that a mainstream school cannot, so they are very engaged with the community that they serve, and they would go down the academy route only if they honestly believed that it was best for their children.
Mr Buckland: My hon. Friend makes a proper point. In the borough of Swindon, which I partially represent, we are lucky to be served by a number of excellent special schools, such as the Chalet school, and Uplands school in Brimble Hill. I shall not give out the entire list, but the schools that I have not mentioned know that I am thinking of them as well. As their Member of Parliament, I would not presume to say to their head teachers and governors, "Look, you must go down this route offered by the Academies Act." That would be utterly wrong and wholly out of kilter with the spirit of the legislation. It will be up to those schools, if they so choose, to take that route to academy status, and I make no apology for repeating the point that this legislation is all about giving schools that chance, rather than issuing some diktat from the centre, whereby schools have to follow a course, however unwillingly.
I am disappointed by the amendment, which I oppose. I do not mean this pejoratively against the hon. Member for Gedling, but it fails to respect the position of special schools, and it does not acknowledge their great potential
or the great opportunities that the Bill presents to schools-in my constituency and, indeed, his-to flourish and thrive in the years ahead. I am sure that the Government will address the many concerns that Members from all parts of the House share about the rights of parents, and we will all continue to look very carefully at the detail on the rights of aggrieved parents.
Vernon Coaker: The hon. Gentleman says, "I am sure that the Government will address the concerns expressed in this Committee." The Government should ensure that they address some concerns that are outlined in the Chamber, but does he not think that others are so fundamental that they need to be included in a Bill and given legislative force?
Mr Buckland: There is a fundamental point, and I shall not shy away from it. I would submit-sorry, the lawyer is coming out in me-that, when it comes to a timetable for the resolution of any disputes, the new model agreement on admissions should be clarified even further. I am sure that there is scope for looking at the detail, but it does not necessarily mean that such detail has to be in the Bill. If we are going to go down this road, let us ensure that the contract-the agreements-are as watertight, as accessible and as understandable as possible for parents. I have concerns that many Members share, but it does not mean that we need to include them in the Bill. In fact, to take the hon. Gentleman's logic to its conclusion, I note that his amendment seeks to make the Bill even less prescriptive. He might think it an artificial point, but on his logic I am entitled to make it, because, by seeking to sweep away particular clauses that have been included as a result of much deliberation, he is in effect negating his own argument. With that, I draw my remarks to a close.
I have a fundamental philosophical problem with the amendment. Earlier, when giving advice to Members, Mr Chope, you pointed out that the amendment was about whether special schools should be included in the academies programme. I oppose this reform because, unlike the previous system, which tried to address disadvantage and underperformance by taking money from outside the system and ensuring that it was targeted at underperforming schools and children who were not doing so well, and putting innovation into the system to see if that would make improvements, the Bill looks to take money from within the system, mainly from children who are disadvantaged, and give it to children who are, on the whole, better advantaged.
The amendment relates to special schools, which are specifically for children with greater disadvantage, so it goes against the thrust of why Labour Members oppose the Bill as a whole. I believe that there is tension among Labour Members that needs to be resolved. That can be done in the way that my hon. Friend the shadow Minister outlined in relation to the arrangements between special schools and local authorities. It goes to the heart of funding and co-ordination.
I outlined in an earlier intervention the very detailed and complex mesh of arrangements that have pertained in my borough between mainstream schools-not special
schools-that were part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, that were seeking, as part of that programme, to divide up, in a co-ordinated way between themselves, the different elements of special educational needs that needed to be addressed: autism at one school, learning difficulties at another, challenging behaviour at another. At the core of that was the amalgamation of Hay Lane and Grove Park schools, which were for children who simply could not be accommodated within the mainstream.
That is an incredibly complex set of arrangements between a number of schools, some of which might, under the provisions of this Bill, choose to become academies, and some of which, under the same provisions, would not be able to become academies because they are not, at present, outstanding schools. The local authority will be unable to co-ordinate the system as a special school goes off and becomes an academy, and the funding that is drawn off by the academies will reduce the capacity of the centre. I am reminded of the W. B. Yeats poem about the widening gyre-the centre will not be able to hold. We will lose the ability of central provision through the local authority to co-ordinate the needs of all children with special needs-those who need to be in mainstream schools and those who need to be in special schools. That is the fundamental problem. However, we should not look at our opposition to this clause about special educational needs in the same light as our opposition to the Bill as a whole because there is a fundamental philosophical difference between them.
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): It is a great pleasure to be taking part in the debate on this Bill from the Front Bench. As the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said, it is the first opportunity I have had to do so. I am grateful for his warm words at the outset. I recall the first Bill that I debated in opposition. I remember looking at the Minister struggling with her papers and thinking, my goodness, what an awful lot of things she needs to know. It does seem very different from this side of the Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman said that all parties in the House are united by a common desire to improve educational attainment. I welcome that. It is important to begin from that perspective and to recognise that our motives are common.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said in his opening speech, which covered many different areas and was almost a re-run of some of the issues that were covered on Second Reading. My understanding of the nub of his argument is that his tabling of the amendment relates to his general objection to the Bill rather than a specific objection to special schools. However, I will try to deal with the points that he raised on special schools in a moment.
It is not clear to me why this policy is any different from that followed by the hon. Gentleman's Government. If we believe it is a good thing to have freedom for schools, particularly for those that are struggling, it is not obvious to me why we would then deny those freedoms to other schools that are already doing well, particularly as the Secretary of State has made it clear that he expects outstanding schools that become academies to partner a weaker school and to share their expertise. That can offer an opportunity to provide the kind of partnership that I think the hon. Gentleman probably agrees with.
As the hon. Gentleman said, amendment 28 would prevent special schools from converting to academies. That was the previous Government's policy. We think it right that special schools should have access to the same opportunities and freedoms that we are giving to mainstream schools. Indeed, many special schools want that freedom: more than 50 have registered an interest in becoming an academy. [ Interruption. ] The shadow Minister can find that detail on the Department's website.
Barry Gardiner: Can the hon. Lady clarify that remark? She says that those schools have expressed an interest in becoming an academy. Is that strictly accurate, or have they rather expressed an interest in further information about the process of becoming an academy?
Vernon Coaker: This is an extremely important point; my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) got in just before I could. The Government are talking about expressions of interest from people clicking a button to obtain information. Frankly, if I were head of a school, I would have clicked the button as well to have a look at what this really means and what the Government are really saying. The Government are using the fact that schools have done that-whether it be special schools, primary schools, outstanding schools or any other schools-and saying that clicking a button is almost the same as expressing an interest in becoming an academy. In fact, people are actually looking to obtain information. There is a real difference. I am glad-
The Temporary Chair: Order. Let me stop the hon. Gentleman there. He has the right to reply to the debate, and if we are to bring it to a reasonably early conclusion, it is important that interventions are kept brief.
Dan Rogerson: I am struck by the fact that certain hon. Members, on Second Reading-I think we will hear this again during our deliberations in Committee-said that this is a fundamental and huge shift and that the Government are seeking to push all schools down a particular route. The Minister is now saying that perhaps many of them are not interested in this and just want to find out a bit more about it. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways-either it is a massive shift or it will be a case of a few schools exploring it at this point.
If we think that it is a good thing for special schools to have access to freedoms to run their school in the way that is best for the children in their care, I cannot see why we would say that they should not do that. A prime example is that academies will have flexibility around the school day and how they organise the school calendar. I have found that many parents of disabled children and people who work with disabled children say that the most difficult period of the year is the long summer holiday. If we can provide special schools with flexibility, they may or may not choose to rearrange their calendar so that they break up the terms and holidays in a different way and run the school day differently to lessen the pressures on parents. That seems a sensible thing to do.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Lady is making a good case, but I struggle to understand why schools should have to apply for those freedoms. Why cannot the Bill simply give them to all schools?
Sarah Teather: This is a permissive power and not all schools will choose that route. In response to the concerns of many of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues-I recognise that he was very much in favour of the academies programme when he was a Minister-I say that we are not forcing schools down that route.
Stephen Twigg: On a related point, I am unclear as to what the process will be for schools becoming academies under the new scheme. Say, for example, that 500 schools apply. The impact assessment seems to suggest that just 200 a year will be successful. On what basis will Ministers decide which schools become academies and which do not? Within that, will special schools have priority for the reasons that she has set out, or will they have a lower priority than secondary and primary schools?
Sarah Teather: I think one element of it was in order, and I shall respond to it because I am keen to respond as best I can despite this being my first Bill. The hon. Gentleman asked about the priority that will be given to special schools. I was about to say that we are treating special schools in a different way from others, which I hope will reassure some Members who have concerns. The process will be longer and slower, and we do not expect any special schools to convert to academies before 2011.
The hon. Member for Gedling asked a number of perfectly good questions, and I accept that more work needs to be done on the matter. That is precisely why the Secretary of State has set up an advisory group to work with head teachers from special schools and mainstream schools with special units, so that we can work through the details of the points that have been made.
The point about partnering is important. We would expect any school that gets academy status to partner with another school. That could provide an opportunity
to spread knowledge, particularly on special education. There are already many good examples of special schools that are doing that, but it is not always happening. We will strongly encourage special schools to use the training that their staff have, which is often lacking in mainstream settings, to ensure that we drive up standards for children with special educational needs. We expect partnering to provide that opportunity.
Mr Graham Stuart: The Minister talked about areas of detail that needed attention. One of the most critical of those to schools is, of course, the money involved. Can she give us any idea whether she expects special schools to see a bigger increase in their direct budget? Will local authorities spend a greater sum to support them than to support other schools? That takes us back to a point made by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner)-if the money at the centre is to be denuded, we would rather the most needy got their share first and the strongest and the best be the ones who have to struggle with the least money, not the other way around.
Sarah Teather: The point made by my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, and by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) is precisely why the advisory group has been set up. It will work through the details. That is why we do not expect any special school to convert into an academy until next year. I recognise that funding issues need to be considered, because we are talking about a place-based funding system, and that we need to work through the issue of how special schools interact with other schools. We want to work with those on the ground who have expertise but who want the programme to happen.
Whatever disagreements we have about the wording that has been used and whether special schools have just "expressed an interest" or really will become academies, we should recognise that there are special school head teachers who want their schools to become academies. They feel that that freedom will enable them to do some of the things that they have already been doing as outstanding schools, but also to work better with the community and have flexibility to change how their schools are run, so that they can better provide for children in their area.
Glenda Jackson: Will the specialised and more detailed approach to special schools be consulted upon on a much wider horizon than merely head teachers and teachers? I say "merely" not because I dismiss them-we all acknowledge their remarkable work-but the Minister must be aware that although many parents of pupils in special schools find changes in those schools easy to accommodate and understand, many do not for a variety of reasons. It would be quite wrong to make changes to special schools without ensuring that every parent had been properly consulted in the most detailed way on those changes, which may affect their children. She must know that for some parents, such changes are very hard to understand.
Sarah Teather: It does. I should probably be a bit firmer about completing a paragraph before taking interventions. I was going to say that the working group will also include local authority representatives. I will get the detail of who is to be on it. There are also special educational consortiums representing the interests of parents whose children have special educational needs. The point that the hon. Lady made, however, was about the process of consultation on conversion. We will have a separate discussion on that under a different group of amendments, so I will not respond to that point because it would be out of order in this debate.
The hon. Member for Gedling spoke about charging. I think he would recognise that maintained schools can already charge for certain services in some circumstances, particularly for adult education after hours. However, clause 1(9) specifically prohibits charging for daytime educational services. Other details will remain exactly as they are now.
The Chair of the Education Committee asked about statementing provisions. The local authority will remain responsible for ensuring that the provision set out in a statement is delivered, whether a child attends a maintained school or an academy. We will revise our guide for parents on special educational needs to set out the complaint mechanisms clearly. I should add that the Bill was amended in the other place to ensure that if a statement names an academy, the child will need to be placed in that academy. That is an improvement on the existing system.
The hon. Member for Gedling and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) asked about low-incidence special educational needs. Again, the Bill was amended during its progress through the other place. I want to put on the record that the Government are committed to ensuring that children with sensory impairments receive the services that they require in both maintained and academy schools. We will monitor the impact that changes in the number of academies will have and ensure that adjustments are made to the funding of academies to ensure that that provision is dealt with. The advisory group will take that up.
We were asked why short-stay schools are not included in the Bill. We are looking at the possibility of academies offering alternative provision equivalent to that provided by short-stay schools, but the current legislation gives local authorities statutory responsibility for those.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon asked wider questions on the statementing process. I remind him that we intend to introduce a Green Paper later in the year to deal with those, and I hope that he will be involved.
With those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Gedling is willing to withdraw the amendment. We do not expect special schools to become academies on the same time frame as other schools, and there is a process to deal with the concerns that he rightly raises, and we will work through it. I hope that that gives him the reassurance he needs.
I will be brief in responding to the Minister, who did not address one essential issue. Hon. Members will know the importance of the impact assessment and the equalities impact assessment, yet the Government have provided no evidence that special
school academy status will make any difference. Essentially, therefore, we are being asked to take a leap in the dark.
The Minister then tried to reassure the Committee by saying, "You're quite right that a lot of things are still to be worked out, there are some real problems, and the Government aren't really sure how we do this. Don't worry that we're not sure; we're going to set up an advisory committee, which will look at funding, admissions, co-ordination, working with other schools and so on. Don't worry. It's not a problem."
Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman's Government recognised that providing freedom to schools will drive up standards. If he still believes that, I cannot see why he is saying that that freedom should not be applied to special schools. Why would they be treated as totally different from any other school? I do not accept that premise.
Vernon Coaker: There are two things to say in response to that. First, the previous Government had a managed programme for allowing schools academy freedoms. Secondly, the difference between that and what the Government propose is that if they are not careful, there will be a free-for-all. Freedoms will be extended to schools when the Government have not worked out what that means in respect of co-ordination, funding and a whole range of things, as I said, yet we are supposed to say that that does not matter.
The Minister was kind enough to say that I asked perfectly reasonable questions, but we are now invited to pass legislation when she does not have an answer to them other than to say, "We have set up a body to look at how we answer those questions." If she were in opposition, as she was until a few weeks ago, and if I had said what she just said, she would have reacted as I am reacting now. Frankly, she should be able to answer those questions.
The Chair of the Education Committee was right to ask what it means if special schools get academy freedoms, how much funding they will get and what the consequences are for the local authority and other schools in the area, but the Minister has no answer, because she does not know. If she knew she would provide an answer, but she does not know so she cannot. That is a very serious weakness.
On the 50 schools that registered an interest in academy status, the Minister said that the Government had never used the words "applied for academy status." I shall look very carefully at what the Education Secretary said on that and at how expressions of interest relate to applications. The Government are in a bit of a mess on that and on what they are using that to justify their measures.
Barry Gardiner: Does my hon. Friend agree that many schools will ask for further information because they feel that they have an obligation to present their boards of governors with the fullest information possible before taking a decision? It would be an abrogation of that duty were a head teacher not to push that button.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The other weakness in the Minister's response is that it is very unclear what role, if any, the local authority will have in all this, and what the consequences will be for
the overall co-ordination in an area. With respect to the Minister and to the Committee, I should like to test the opinion of the Committee on this amendment. I shall therefore not withdraw amendment 28.
The Temporary Chair (Mr Christopher Chope): Before we move to the next group of amendments, I must announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day on the question relating to Use of the Chamber (United Kingdom Youth Parliament). The Ayes were 499, and the Noes were 21, so the Ayes have it.
( ) The Secretary of State may by order amend this section to allow the governing body of a federation to apply, or the governing bodies of a number of schools to apply jointly, for an Academy order provided the total of primary-aged registered pupils in the federation, or group of schools, is five hundred or more.".'.
Vernon Coaker: It is good to come to the second group of amendments. May I formally welcome the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), to his post, as I welcomed his fellow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather)? This is the first Bill that he is taking through the House as Minister with responsibility for schools, a post that I held. He and I have held each other's posts. In all seriousness and sincerity, I wish him well in his role. I think he has found in the past 24 hours, and will continue to find out in the next 24 hours, as his fellow Minister has done, that tabling amendments is one thing, but having all the answers is quite another. It is good to welcome others too.
We had a good and interesting debate on special schools and we come now to primary schools. I want to start by making a few general points and then move on to some specifics, which is the reverse of my approach in the previous debate. The amendment seeks to raise some of the key concerns felt by many, not just Opposition Members-I note amendment 48 in the name of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)-about the rapid and precipitate conversion of hundreds of primary schools to academy status.
Will the Minister tell us, as the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Brent Central, did with regard to special schools, the up-to-date number of primary schools that have expressed an interest in academy status and how many they expect to apply? Special schools are expected to convert to academy status by September 2011, and perhaps the Minister will say how many primary schools are expected to convert. It is not clear from the impact assessment exactly what that figure is. There is a figure of 200, but it is not clear how that breaks down into secondary schools and primary schools, or indeed others, with respect to 2010.
I will try to demonstrate that people's concerns are born, as we have already discussed, not necessarily out of any ideological objection to granting primary schools the kinds of freedoms that existing academies have, but out of practical consideration for the implications of academy status. Some of those concerns are present when considering all-through academies, but not usually present when considering those cases. As the Minister will know, because I signed off with the Secretary of State a number of all-through academies, the model of primary schools linking with secondary schools to form all-through academies was an innovative way forward. But all-through academies are a different case from stand-alone primary schools, or indeed even stand-alone infant and nursery schools. That is because many of the concerns stem from the relative size and community location of primary schools. It is for that reason that the amendment seeks to prevent primary schools from becoming academies.
Primary schools, by and large, serve their immediate local community. If a local school becomes an academy, parents could risk finding that there is a shift in its admissions policy or in the way in which it serves the local community. The primary school is much more of a local school than many secondary schools can claim to be, because they are, typically, the only school in a small rural village or in a particular area. They are much more of a neighbourhood school, however much secondary schools aim to be that.
In the previous debate, we expressed concern about the role that local authorities will not have under the Bill. Most local authorities will say that the schools most dependent on their advice and support are primary schools. The vast majority of primary schools are community schools, and they have not even had the experience that foundation schools will have had in managing the enormous range of responsibilities that come with academy status. How much will that cost? Where will that expertise come from? How will primary schools deal with that? How will a small primary school, with perhaps only a few pupils, be able to cope with some of the demands being made on them? Capacity is a very real issue. Most secondary schools already employ a range of staff who will be able to deal with the increased administrative requirements, but many primary schools have only a school secretary, who will doubtless be expected to deal with many of the issues and problems that come with academy status.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
These are exactly the same arguments that were advanced by Labour during the discussion of grant-maintained schools, which were often supported by the local community
and perfectly able to exercise the powers and responsibilities involved. Indeed, many of them did so very successfully. Unfortunately, Labour is still in an ideological time warp and hostile to the idea that parents, governors and other professionals can have effective local control over their own schools.
Vernon Coaker: Who will have local control over whether a primary school in the hon. Gentleman's constituency becomes an academy? It will be the head teacher and the governing body, and it will then go to the Secretary of State for approval. There is nothing in the Bill to say that parents, the community, local people or even the local authority must be consulted. If the hon. Gentleman's point is that before a school changes its status or applies to become an academy it should have the support of all those people, I would agree with him in many respects. Certainly the academy model that we pursued-although it obviously related to secondary schools rather than to primary schools-was about trying to ensure that there was proper local support for the conversion.
One of the problems with the Bill is that it does not require the support of everyone in the local community for a school to convert to academy status. Indeed, an amendment tabled by one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues tries to address that problem. When we talked about special schools, some hon. Members mentioned the need to ensure, and demonstrate, that local parents, the local authority and local people supported them, but that is not what the Bill would do.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I am not ideologically opposed to academies-I approved a significant number of them, including all-through academies. In the last debate, we talked about the difference between the academy model presented in the Bill and the academy model that the previous Government pursued. As I said, I do not believe that people are motivated by anything other than a genuine desire to improve educational standards for children, but there is a difference of view about how to achieve that.
Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but it would be perverse for any head teacher with the support of the governing body not to take into account the settled view of the local community, whether that was as a result of consultation directly with the governing body or others, or of the local authority, local charities or others. The idea that this is some kind of top-down approach to be forced on schools is untrue.
Vernon Coaker: In the spirit in which debate has been conducted in Committee today, I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising that I was trying to be constructive in my response. He will have read the Bill and he will know that clause 5(1) does not specify who should be consulted by a school wishing to convert. It just says that it
"must consult such persons as they think appropriate."
"The consultation may take place before or after an Academy order, or an application for an Academy order".
If the hon. Gentleman follows his point through to a logical conclusion, one might expect the Bill to list the parents, the local community and so on as parties which should be consulted and shown to be supportive of the academy bid, because that would strengthen the application and increase its potential for success. Similarly, one would have thought the Bill would require consultation to take place before the academy order was applied for. I agree that such consultation is necessary, and the hon. Gentleman's point was not unimportant, but the Bill does not do what he would wish it to do.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, first, the Bill requires that there must be consultation and, secondly, that that consultation must be with "appropriate" people, so it is inconceivable that some of the stakeholders he mentioned-local people and parents and the local community-would not be deemed to be appropriate? Indeed, "appropriate" people, which is a general term, might be a far better description than a specific one which might not cover one particular group.
Vernon Coaker: Unusually, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, because a much tighter form of words in the Bill would ensure that we deliver exactly what he proposes. I believe that the Bill is so drafted because the Government think that the opposition from local authorities and local groups that always emerges to school reorganisation could hold up the progress of the Bill and the attempt to fast-track some schools to academy status. The lawyers will have said, "Put in 'they think appropriate', because if you start listing people and groups such as parents and community organisations, you will open yourself up, when trying to convert, to the possibility of legal challenges from parents and organisations saying they were not consulted when they should have been." To fast-track academies is a policy objective, and I think that Ministers, their officials and their lawyers will have said, "For goodness' sake, don't make a list, because it will be a hostage to fortune." Furthermore, I cannot understand why clause 5(3) includes the phrase
"or after an Academy order".
Vernon Coaker: I have tabled an amendment to that effect, as the hon. Gentleman will no doubt have noticed. Other than parents, local authorities are the key group that should be defined, but of course they have been missed out as well.
Mr Rob Wilson: The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case, but I would like him to clarify something. In the debate on the previous amendment, he said he did not want special educational needs schools included, and now he is saying he does not want primary schools included. In government, he wanted to limit the number of secondary schools that could become academies. It seems that he actually wants an old-style command-and-control system in schooling, rather than to allow local communities and parents to decide what they want. Can he clarify that for me?
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