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The Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper and the Statement that has been made. Perhaps, again for similar reasons as given by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, perversely, because much of what is in the White Paper has also been in our policy documents. I am tempted to wonder why, if all three parties are so much in agreement on all this, it is still necessary after all these years.
We welcome particularly the proposals for the general teaching council, a body I have advocated previously in your Lordships' House. I am sure that the Minister can reassure us that the Government will consult widely and will try to reach as wide agreement as possible on the establishment of the council. Much is at stake and the wider the agreement that can be reached when it is established, the more likely it is to be successful.
We also welcome the proposals for target setting for individual schools. We welcome particularly the proposals for teacher training, the return of the probationary year and especially the qualification for head teachers. My regret--I should perhaps mention once again that I am married to a teacher--is that, so far as I understand, there are few proposals for continuing training for teachers throughout their career once they are qualified, apart from the relatively small number of them who will have a scholarship. That is a matter of some concern.
I am sure that we all share the overall aim that the Government have stated: to drive up standards and try to achieve a situation where no child should fail. That is absolutely right. A child has only one chance during his school career. But once again I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington: the devil is in the detail. I have not yet had an opportunity to read the White Paper and I shall do so with considerable interest.
We know where we want to go but maybe the route will sometimes be a little different. I worry about the tendency to be over-prescriptive and control more than is necessary and desirable, whether it is by the LEA--a concern of the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, although not one I share, but then I am also the leader of a local education authority--or by the Government. My worries were not allayed, reading the Guardian this morning, by its reference to,
It is not Ministers who will drive up the standards, nor Members of your Lordships' House. Teachers will drive up the standards and we must give them the space, the opportunity and, above all, the resources to do the job.
That takes me on to my next points of concern. The Statement refers to "fair funding" and "fair admissions". Fair funding is a very desirable aim. I wish the Minister and her colleagues every success in seeking to achieve it. If they can achieve a system whereby both Lancashire and London feel that they have a fair funding system, she will truly have achieved a miracle. It is inevitable that what will be fair for some will be seen as unfair for those whose share of the cake is a little smaller. That is inevitable. The cake is already too small. The issue is not so much how it is to be divided up, but how big the total cake will be. The concerns about fair funding will be less if greater resources are provided.
As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the White Paper or comments made around it to suggest that there will be in real terms additional new resources to meet the additional new requirements. The Budget Statement last week, though welcome in the sense that it would have been unwelcome if it had not been made, still means in real terms a cut of £200 million in the level of education
Related to that, I have considerable worries about how the "payment for results" system will be implemented. That is something I shall certainly want to examine in detail. One of my anxieties, which I suspect will be shared by many schools, is what the position is to be of those schools which have already taken action to drive up standards and therefore start from a higher point than perhaps those that are of more concern. Can the Minister assure us that there will be an equitable scheme to take account of that, particularly for those schools that have improved significantly but can go no further without additional resources which will certainly be financial and may also be space?
I turn now to fair admissions--I suspect an area with which it will be almost as difficult to deal as fair funding. I have not had an opportunity to read the White Paper; I do not know what it says specifically in relation to admission arrangements. Can the Minister tell us how the Government propose to tackle what is, in many areas, a nightmare situation? In some LEAs, my own included, there are a significant number of grant-maintained schools. So there are a large number of different admission authorities, each operating a different system where some parents gain but many, and many children, actually lose. What plans do the Government have to tackle that problem? Do they envisage a role for the LEA in co-ordinating admission arrangements?
Another of my anxieties concerns the consultation period. As I understand it, it is a three-month consultation period ending in early October. At most times of the year a three-month consultation period would be more than adequate. I share and understand the Government's desire to get on with this, but in two weeks the schools in England will be going on holiday; the governors will not be meeting; and the local education authorities will not be meeting. Effectively, the consultation period for schools, for governing bodies, for local education authorities and local authorities has been hard. It is actually no more than six weeks and a fairly difficult six weeks coming, first, at the end of the term and then at the start of the following term. I understand the reasons. It is unfortunate. I hope the Minister can reassure us that if there are late submissions from governing bodies, LEAs and so forth, they will be treated with as much value as those who are perhaps better able to meet what is, under the circumstances, a particularly tight timetable.
In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper. We certainly welcome its intentions. Where we are able to support the proposals we will do so; where we are not able to support them, then our criticisms will be constructive.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Pilkington and Lord Tope, for welcoming the White Paper. I am also delighted that there seems to be consensus across the political parties
However, if I may say so, I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, was a little cynical at times in regard to our commitment to try to raise standards in schools. This White Paper is a demonstration of our concern and our passionate wish to improve standards in British schools, and that is what we intend to do.
The noble Lord was being a little cynical also when he suggested that we had always been opposed to a national curriculum. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff--who is unfortunately no longer in his place--in a famous speech made way back when he was Prime Minister, was the first leading politician to raise the whole issue of the curriculum and whether it could continue to be a secret garden for the teaching profession. We have always felt that there is a strong case for involvement in the curriculum from government, local education authorities and parents as well as the teachers. Of course, we did not necessarily support the exact form of the national curriculum as it was originally introduced.
Perhaps I can say also that in answering questions this afternoon I shall not go back to the issues raised on the assisted places scheme and languages. There will be plenty of time to do that later this week during the Committee stage of the relevant Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, raised the question of consultation in two respects. First, more specifically, it is our intention to consult widely on how the general teaching council will operate and on its membership. That will include consultation with the teacher's unions.
The noble Lord also raised the question of the time for consultation generally on the White Paper. We are sensitive to the fact that the schools go on holiday at the end of July. However, I hope that in the next two or three weeks there will be time for people to read the White Paper and start the process of discussion. Schools come back early in September and will be able to take up the matter again. They will have another two months after the holidays. That ought to be ample. However, we are sensitive to the issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, made some points in relation to grant-maintained schools. He suggested that we intended to emasculate them. Talk of emasculation of those schools is absolute nonsense. Grant-maintained schools will become part of a new framework. Like other schools, they will be able to choose to become a foundation, community or aided school. They will continue to serve their local communities and flourish in a new environment. Foundation status will give grant-maintained schools many of the powers that they currently value. For example, foundation schools will employ their own staff and own their premises, much as GM schools do now.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, raised questions about parental choice and admission proposals. I can assure your Lordships that we have no intention of reducing parental choice. Quite the reverse. One of the things the last government introduced was partial selection which seriously loaded the dice against certain pupils and created harmful and unnecessary uncertainty for all parents in an area. Recent Audit Commission figures show that around one in five parents did not obtain their genuine first preference of school, even though there were around 800,000 surplus places in the system. We want genuine opportunities for parents to decide between good local specialist and church schools, not a senseless scramble which ends up with massively over-subscribed schools and many disappointed parents.
Finally, in responding to noble Lords speaking for the Opposition parties, perhaps I can pick up the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on the question of finance. Of course it is true that fair funding is extremely important--I cannot guarantee the miracle the noble Lord is asking for in making both Lancashire and London happy--but I think he is quite wrong in suggesting that the Budget last week did not provide a substantial real terms increase in funding for our schools. The cash increase will be 5.7 per cent. and the real terms increase will be 2.9 per cent. That is a lot better than our predecessors have done for many years.
Lord Elton: My Lords, the noble Baroness's welcome words about an ambition to have the best teaching methods available in every classroom appeared, to a careful listener, to fall in that part of the Statement which referred to an early years plan and to the teaching of literacy and numeracy. I hope she can assure the House that it is the Government's intention to see the best teaching methods available in every classroom at all age ranges and that the need extends beyond literacy and numeracy to all other subjects. Many of us have been anxious about teaching methods for many years. I am reassured from what I have heard, not having seen the White Paper, that the turn appears to be away from mixed ability and child-centered teaching. That is reassuring. But even if the teacher training colleges now all adopt this with enthusiasm at once, which is not likely--I wish her every success in changing traditions there--it will still be 40 years before the new intake has worked through the profession. There is therefore a heroic task to be done with in-service training with existing teachers. I hope she can tell us a little more about that.
A lot of not very old dogs cannot learn new tricks. Honest people have been taught difficult methods and cannot adopt new ones. There must be an escape hatch. It is not only children who do not get a second chance in schools; it is also teachers. If a teacher has failed in one school, he or she ought to have an opportunity in another. You can never retrieve a seriously damaged
The very welcome news that headteachers will now be trained for their business and management job appeared to announce that the training would be after they had taken post. That being the case, it will be very superficial or it will be some time after responsibility has been taken in the long holiday; or--in my view this is the better solution--anyone who applies for a job as headteacher should in the reasonably distant future have the qualifications to enable him or her to take the job. That is a task to be undertaken by the new General Teaching Council.