Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Whitty: This amendment goes very much to the heart of the matter, affecting the whole approach to the new framework. It is true that the first part of Amendment No. 23 is fairly straightforward. However, it is unnecessary. The proposal in the first subsection is that the Secretary of State should be placed under a duty to promote high standards similar to that which we are placing on education authorities and governing bodies.

We strongly support the assumption that the Secretary of State should promote high standards of attainment, but this provision is unnecessary. Section 11(2) of the Education Act 1996, with which the noble Baroness will be familiar, already places the Secretary of State under a duty to,

among other things,

    "improving standards, encouraging diversity and increasing opportunities for choice".

We believe that that duty is sufficient. The wording is not quite the same as that of the amendment, but it achieves the same purpose.

However, it is the second subsection of the proposed new clause which strikes at the very heart of the Bill. The intention appears to be to allow up to one-third of the highest-achieving maintained schools the option of retaining their present status. In the case of GM schools, that would mean remaining outside the new school framework.

I hesitate to use the term "wrecking amendment", but in effect this amendment challenges the whole basis of bringing the GM schools into the new framework. Moreover, the amendment seems to be based on the

5 May 1998 : Column 603

false assumption that the Secretary of State will have power to require any school to change its status. He does not and will not. Changes of status brought about by the introduction of the new school framework will be the result of the relevant clauses of this Bill being approved by Parliament.

If, as the noble Baroness implied, the main intention is to protect successful schools from unnecessary and unwarranted intrusion by local authorities, then that is also our intention in the new framework. We made it clear in the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, that intervention by local education authorities should be in inverse proportion to success. It is one of the key principles behind the code of practice referred to by the noble Baroness which we shall introduce under Clause 119 of the Bill and which we shall no doubt discuss later. The code of practice will ensure that local education authorities use a very light touch in their relationship with successful schools. But that is very different from excluding a large section of schools from the new framework. We have no sympathy for the retention of any system of school organisation which is divisive and which would leave some schools outside the new framework and beyond any influence on the part of the local authority.

We shall have opportunities later in the course of the Bill's progress to discuss grant-maintained status and the new framework. However, there are three points which are particularly significant to the present discussion.

First, what the noble Baroness proposes is not what the grant-maintained movement itself wants. In the Second Reading debate my noble friend quoted from a letter from the Grant-Maintained Joint Monitoring Group, which represents the main grant-maintained organisations. It said:

    "We join the Government in looking forward to the new framework, not backwards to old divisions".

That is exactly the point.

    "We believe, like the Government, that self-managed schools will play an important part in driving up school standards and securing financial prudence".

Secondly, it is our approach that all schools, including our most successful schools, do not operate in isolation from others. Success breeds success.

Thirdly, we believe that all schools, no matter how successful, should be considering how they can improve further. We have made clear on many occasions that all schools should regard themselves as primarily responsible for their own improvement. But we also see an important role for the local education authority in this area. That, it seems to me, is the main cause of the noble Baroness's opposition to these proposals. We regard the local education authority as key to supporting such improvements generally,

I am not sure whether the noble Baroness was referring also to Amendment No. 24, which is grouped with Amendment No. 23. I understand the objectives behind Amendment No. 24, but it is our view that, if it were carried, it could lead to a narrower interpretation of the duties of local education authorities than we intend. The word "attainment" in relation to pupils is sometimes used rather narrowly as attainment in relation to assessment in the national curriculum. We believe that the

5 May 1998 : Column 604

duties on standards should be interpreted more widely in that local education authorities have other duties in which they need to promote high standards and that that is reflected in the current wording of the clause.

I hope I have made it clear that I regard Amendment No. 23 as a serious inhibition on the intention of the Bill and Amendment No. 24 as unnecessary and possibly counter-productive to the intention behind the Bill. I hope, therefore, that, although we shall debate the issue of the framework and the definition of the new status of schools at a later stage, the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendments.

Baroness Blatch: The noble Lord takes some satisfaction in reading and re-reading the letter that apparently speaks for grant-maintained schools. I do not argue with that. I know the lady who signed the letter, or who had it signed for her, and I know the organisations for whom she speaks. However, I have to say to the noble Lord that many grant-maintained schools feel very strongly about this issue. There are also some, even among the organisations which are part of the trilogy behind the letter, which have taken the view that this Government was elected on 1st May with a very large majority and that they intend to carry out these proposals. Those schools have therefore fought for the best of a bad lot. They have been working with the Government, visiting Ministers and securing as many concessions as they can in order to make the Bill slightly more palatable than it was. I have checked their preferred position with them, and the noble Lord can check himself. Indeed I understand that they prefaced their comments by saying that they would rather there was no change from the present status at all. Given that they believe that that change will happen, they have taken a realistic view.

I thought that the Government could be more mature about this policy, offer the framework and give all these schools an opportunity to stay where they are. They are within the family of state education; they are not outside it. Many of our grant-maintained schools are working well with their neighbouring schools and have very good relationships with their local authorities. They are not out there as alien beings. There are a number within my own local authority, and their relationship with the authority is a very good one.

The noble Lord rightly said that the Secretary of State would not personally take away their status; it is a matter for Parliament. That is what we are here for today, unless we are rubber-stampers. I do not intend ever in my life to be someone who simply rubber-stamps policy, whether it is for my government or the party opposite. The proper job of Parliament, and particularly of this Chamber, is to look for ways of achieving policy objectives. The policy objective as I see it is that within our state system we should have the highest possible standards of education that are achievable. I strongly support that policy. I simply say that there are at least two categories of schools that are achieving very well; many of them are beacons in their own right. Certainly any performance tables that we have seen since their inception more than bear out how well those schools have been performing. And we have a Bill which is going to wreck them. It is a wrecking policy and will wreck them, particularly the grammar schools, to which we will come at some time in the future.

5 May 1998 : Column 605

I am simply exercising my right, as a Member of this Chamber, to say to the Government that they could achieve their policies of seeking, promoting, encouraging and, where necessary, cajoling local authorities and schools to improve their standards from whatever base they are now at. They would receive a good deal of support from us for doing so. But I cannot think, for the life of me, why we should see the changing of the status of these schools and the demise of the grammar schools.

It may be new Labour, but this is "old" Labour with a vengeance. There are people in the Labour Party--who I understand in the future are to be expunged from it--who have been looking for a long time to get rid of the grammar schools and anything that they regard as elitist. I do not regard them as elitist; I regard them as rungs in the ladder for young people. Some young people are more suited to a highly academic curriculum than they are to a vocational curriculum or a mixture of the two. I thought diversity was now something that was common parlance between us as parties. In this great educational system of ours, choice and diversity--which I believe are now more commonly used by both parties--had room for these schools. I am extremely sorry that the noble Lord gave an old Labour answer from a new Labour Government.

This is the politics of envy back with a vengeance. We saw it over the down on Oxford and Cambridge; we saw it over assisted places; we are now seeing it on grammar schools; and we are certainly seeing it on grant-maintained schools. While there is breath in my body I shall fight for them. I hope that the noble Lord will at least use the time between now and the next stage of the Bill to register with his colleagues in another place that we are very concerned about these schools. We are not saying that they should not become foundation schools; we are not saying that they should not be brought into the framework. But they are owed democratic process. They voted for their present status. Why not give them an opportunity to vote openly and democratically for the opportunity to become foundation schools or even community schools if that is what they wish? I would trust them to make that choice. Some would, and some would not. I believe that we should encourage them and, where we see those lights burning, we should encourage them to shine even brighter.

This is a policy backed by the politics of envy. It is a sad day for education in this country. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Duty of LEAs to promote high standards in primary and secondary education]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page