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Lord Rix: Having been absent from the House of Lords for the first three days of this week owing to a sudden family bereavement, I was unaware of the opening amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, until rather late in the day when I took my place in the Committee. I apologise for that.
I feel that I must give Amendment No. 1 my full support, in particular subsection (5). The Marshalled List contains many amendments referring to special educational needs and disability. How appropriate, therefore, to insert such a supportive clause right at the beginning of the Bill. It is but a harbinger of things to come. I hope that the Minister will be minded to offer a favourable response.
Baroness Perry of Southwark: I, too, have added my name to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford. However, I should also like to offer my strong support for the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Blatch. I shall not repeat all the points made so strongly by both noble Baronesses, rather I wish simply to underline my particular concern that we should not create a two-tier system of schools. Some schools might be rewarded with a proposal which in reality is simply plain, good educational practice. Other schools, however, which might already be doing less well, would not be allowed such flexibility. Please let us have the right to
Secondly, it is important to put on to the face of the Bill that a broad and balanced curriculum must be preserved. It is vital that that concept is maintained. A good many head teachers in the system have their own hobby-horses and would like to do things differently, not least in secondary schools. Some feel strongly that less able or less motivated children should be given rather boring and tedious technical and practical work, with little exposure to academic subjects at which, given the opportunity, they might excel if they happen to be late developers. The concept of a broad and balanced curriculum is one which has been hard fought for over the past generation or so of teachers and schools. It is terribly important to retain it by writing it into the Bill.
We felt that to allow something in the order of one-fifth of school time to be used for experiment was acceptable, but what is done must fall within the concept of the broad and balanced curriculum. Thus the main amendment in this grouping would allow schools to be innovative and to give certain children different kinds of experiences outwith the constraints of the national curriculum.
Finally, I hope that any innovations will be closely monitored to ensure that they really do raise standards. We have all seen people riding high on their hobby-horses, promoting what at the time seemed to be frightfully good ideas. Those people become very enthusiastic; they go to conferences and get very excited about the notion. Ultimately, however, no one asks the question: were the children performing better and producing better work as a result of the introduction of the new idea? We do not want an education service that is full of gimmicks. We want one that genuinely provides ever-increasing high standards for all school children.
Baroness Walmsley: I support this group of amendments and wish to say something about teachers as professionals. The Government have said that they respect teachers as professionals and want to encourage them to behave as such, and they have introduced a number of initiatives to help teachers to develop their professionalism.
One of the criteria of a professional is someone whose judgment can be trusted in his or her field of expertise. A second criterion is someone who will keep up with the latest research and the cutting edge of best practice in that field. What nonsense it would be, therefore, to tell teachers that they are professionals and then to tell some of them that they cannot innovate and to tell others that they have to ask a lot of other people before they can do so.
All professionals innovate and conscientiously evaluate the results of those innovations in the interests of the people that they serve. For example, at the moment my dentist is evaluating a new piece of equipment for blasting my teeth with very fine
For those reasons and many others, I support in particular substantive Amendment No. 15, which has been brought forward by my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford, and the paving amendments leading up to it.
Lord Dearing: I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as the chairman of a committee that recently advised the Church of England on its schools. In commenting, I am assuming that Clause 2, in particular, applies to all schools, not only successful schools. That is important.
I support the thrust of the comments that have been made. I cannot see that it is an effective way of doing business for a government department at the centre to take individual decisions for 20,000 schools about which it knows nothing. That is not an effective means of decision taking. If it is to be done conscientiously it will take an armyand I am not convinced that the army will do it well.
I understand, and engage with, the Government in saying that they want to free up the process more. If I were a Minister, I would be worried about what the blighters might do if the whole 22,000 were let loose with a blanket authority. I would want a handle to be kept on itbut not by me at the centre of the 22,000.
Mention has been made of local education authorities. They know these schoolsit is their business to know these schools. It would make good management sense to use the expertise of LEAs and, in the case of church schools, the diocesan boards of education. They should be consulted, certainly, and perhaps they should initially approve proposals, because I am scared about what might happen if this is let loose and the final power is with the governing body. I would want to keep a handle on it.
But I urge the Government to think again about how they can create the right balance between their view of "We must keep a grip on every decision" and letting 22,000 flowers bloom. I urge the Government to think again on that particular point.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: There has been a long tradition in English education, stretching back almost to the beginning of the last century, that local education authorities and governing bodies run schools. The Department of Education and the old Board of Education were never fitted to take the roles of a Napoleonic education system. Suddenly, the Government have decided to change things. I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said. Without
Lord Roberts of Conwy: I ask the Minister to ensure that, in her reply to the debate, she indicates exactly what the Government have in mind by way of innovation. We are all in favour of innovation in principle. We know that innovation does take place in schools. But clearly the Government have got something very particular in mind when they introduce a clause of this kind, which amounts to a power to facilitate innovation. In all the discussions we have had so far on this particular chapter of the Bill, the mystery remains of what exactly the Government have in mind by way of their hope for innovation. What kind of innovation do they expect?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: This has been an interesting beginning to the first day in Committee. Noble Lords have raised some interesting questions, which I shall attempt to address. Reference has also been made to later amendments.
The clause is at the heart of our attempt to change the conditions under which schools and local education authorities can lead our education system. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has rightly pointed outas, indeed, have other noble Lordsthat there are many ways in which schools can innovate. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for putting some of those on the record. But the issue for us is much deeper. We believe that schools and local education authorities are in the best positionbecause we are able to understand what they are doingto start looking at ways in which they can move education forward.
Noble Lords have asked me to be specific. I shall try to be, but I shall inevitably refer to a couple of retrospective ideas. The purpose behind the clause is to say that we believe that there are ways in which schools are beginning to innovate and ways in which they would like to innovate but do not believe that they can because of legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said that schools can get round the national curriculum. That, in a sense, raises the issue; it is about schools which have got round it.
An example I have used before in your Lordships' House concerns the ability of schools to work more closely with further education and to look at work-place learning. We discovered that schools were doing this, but doing it despite the legislation. A more recent examplewe are now in the later stages of the Billcomes from my own experience of visiting a school not far from here. The head teacher said, "We were delighted to see that the childcare potential is now being recognised in this Bill because for me, as a head teacher, I have long wanted to do something that
Different schools will have different ideas. That is the purpose of the clause. I cannot give the Committee a list of what schools may want to do. If we knew what they wanted to do specifically, and we could see the standard-raising effect, it would be in the Bill. This is simply about enabling schools to come forward with their ideas.
We wish to put on record that we welcome the fact that schools can innovate. Nothing in the Bill affects the ability of schools to innovate as they already do, as noble Lords have described. The Bill applies only where schools are prevented from doing so because of legislation. In no way will the Bill attack the freedoms that schools have already.
In theory, Amendment No. 1 would do away with the Secretary of State's role of checking and approving innovative projects. The effect would be that no statutory instrument would be placed, and that, in turn, would mean that there was no public record of the changes made. We believe that there should be accountability and the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of the use of this power through the placing of statutory instruments. That is secured clearly by giving the role of making statutory instruments to the Secretary of State.
In addition, without the involvement of the Secretary of State, schools and LEAs would in theory be free to change the law at will. It is essential that every proposal under the power to innovate receives scrutiny in the light of the best professional advice.
Without the Secretary of State's involvement, we lose the bigger picture. It would be wrong to allow individual schools to determine what proposals they believe would benefit their pupils without regard to the effect on neighbouring schools and LEAs. Given the breadth of these powers, we believe that it is vital that we retain this broader view.
The Secretary of State also provides protection for the vulnerable. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, and I will no doubt debate these issues in more detail, as will other noble Lords. I want to be clear that there are no circumstances in which we would want to approve any project that weakens the position of the vulnerable. Indeed, in determining whether or not a proposal raises standards, the Secretary of State will have regard to the need to raise standards for all children, including those with special educational needs.
But we should also be clear that there is no reason why any innovative project from a school or from a local education authority would be any less likely to benefit children with special educational needs. Indeed, I very much hope that these proposals will lead to innovation for children with special educational needs. We should be encouraging any project that might lead to higher educational standards for this group of pupils.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, referred to the issue of "four-fifths of the time". Within her amendment that is a key part. There is no restriction on time in the national curriculum. So long as schools complete the programmes of study, they can take as long or as little time as they like and set the school day or term that they consider appropriate for their pupils.
Perhaps I may take this opportunity to reassure the noble Baroness that we have addressed other points in the amendment. Guidance on the power to innovate will be made available to all schools and LEAs. I have placed a draft version of the document in the Library, but perhaps I may summarise its key points.
The guidance currently covers eligibility, exemptions available, consultation criteria against which applications will be judged, the approval of proposals and the evaluation of projects. While we have no preconceived ideas about the sort of exemptions applicants would wish to seek, the Secretary of State would expect all schools applying for such freedom to demonstrate that they will continue to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum.
Applicants are also required to consult those who are likely to be affected by the proposal. Where a school is the applicant, we would expect that to include the local education authority, as well as all those involved in the school, including parents and pupils, and other relevant parties.
Schools will continue to be subject to Ofsted inspections and the accountability framework. Furthermore, they will be required to conduct their own evaluation of their project. We do not intend to rule out schools in special measures from the exemptions, as they are as entitled as any other school to attempt to raise standards and improve education. However, the Secretary of State will be able to make judgments on individual cases.
That brings me back to my main point; namely, the absolute importance of the Secretary of State's role in the process and in safeguarding standards. Amendment No. 4 is at odds with our view that the LEA has a vital part to play and should be consulted whenever a school puts forward a proposal. I appreciate what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has said about the paving nature of some of the amendments, but to deal with the amendment specifically, we believe that LEAs themselves and education action zones should be able to come forward with proposals.
LEAs undoubtedly have a strategic role in innovation, but they also have a direct track record of success in this field. For example, in working with education action zones, in delivering literacy and numeracy strategies, and in turning round schools in special measures, LEAs have demonstrated their potential to have a real impact and make a real difference to standards in their schools.
I want LEAs to be able to build on that experience and, where they have new ideas for innovative ways of raising standards in schools, to be able to come forward with proposals. Their role may be particularly important for projects involving collaboration between schools, where the LEA will be best placed to make that work. I can see no reason, therefore, to exclude other qualifying bodies from the powers under Chapter 1 if they can assist schools in innovating to raise standards. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness will not press the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 concern the role of the Secretary of State in relation to Wales. The Committee will not be surprised that I am concerned that the spirit of the amendment goes against the spirit of the devolution settlement, under which the National Assembly for Wales has devolved authority for most educational matters apart from determining teachers' pay and conditions.
It would seem strange on the face of it if, where a proposal and the power to innovate relate to a matter for which the National Assembly had devolved responsibility, the National Assembly was not allowed to determine whether it believed it would lead to higher educational standards for children in Wales.
Indeed, under the amendment the National Assembly would still be required to lay an order, but would be able to do so only if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, a proposal would raise the educational standards for children in England and in Wales. The amendment would also extend the test of a proposal in both England and Wales by requiring that a proposal contribute to the educational standards of pupils in both countries. Naturally, we would hope that proposals would have the potential to be applied more widely both in England and in Wales, but there may be proposals that relate specifically to the circumstances of schools in England or in Wales. I believe that this is a sensible approach to take and that it is in line with the spirit of the devolution settlement.
I now turn to Amendments Nos. 14 and 157. Their effect would be to define the word "term" in two places in the Bill. I have listened to the arguments carefully, but remain convinced that it is not necessary to include such a definition in the Bill. I, too, am aware of what Mr Price has been doing, and we have been in discussion both with him and with the Local Government Association.
The word "term" has a clear, ordinary meaning in common usage which will determine its interpretation in the Bill and which is in line with the interpretation sought by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. Clause 1 includes a number of definitions which are useful for ensuring that this chapter of the Bill can be understood. The word "term", however, does not appear in this chapter, so this definition would not mean anything in this particular context.
I am clear, therefore, that there is no gap. I am happy to place on record our belief that there is no lack of clarity in this legislation. The duties to determine when children should and should not be at school are clear. This should not cause any problems for local education authorities or for schools. I hope that that assures the noble Baroness that the position is as she would like it to be, and that her amendments are therefore unnecessary.
I believe that the power to innovate offers an exciting opportunity for schools and LEAs to come forward with new ideas to raise standards. I hope that with the reassurances I have given, together with the draft guidance that I have circulated, noble Lords will feel able not to press their amendments.
Baroness Blatch: I am afraid that I am even more concerned about the Bill as a result of the Minister's response. She made no reference to a central question posed by myself and many other speakers. Where will the civil servants come from? Who will monitor and evaluate every single application? Who will deal with the minutiae? This will either be done properly, or it will be done in a cursory way. It will be time-consumingI would argue that it will be time-wastefuland it will be very costly. The Minister made no mention whatever of those matters.
The Minister said that these clauses were at the heart of the debate. We all agree about the aim of the early clauses of the Bill; namely, that schools should be free to innovate. We accept the importance of that. The best schools do it as a matter of course. A school is a dynamic; it should constantly seek ways to raise standards. There is no argument about that. That is the heart of the debatenot the civil servants, the bureaucracy or the minutiae of a terribly bureaucratic system, but the fact that we want to support schools in their efforts to innovate in order to raise standards.
The Minister went on to say that the issue was much deeper, but there was no depth in any of the arguments that she used to counter much of what we said. She argued that schools should be free to work more closely with further education. I do not know where the Minister has been, but the schools that I know already do that. There has been a great deal of collaboration with FE. In fact, schools in my area also work with higher education through masterclasses for bright children, visiting professors coming to schools and children visiting the universities. Collaboration with further and higher education does not need to be exempt from regulation.
The Minister also talked about pre-five education. Schools up and down the land are working with playgroups, mother and toddler groups and nursery classes in a more formal and integral part of the school system. I do not understand what the problem is there. In the middle of all that, the Minister said that she could not give precise examples. I am not sure that there are any. We have touched on those areas in which we think that legislation could be relaxed and where some freedom should be given to schools. The Minister's arguments do not stand up against the points that we have made.
What legislation stands in the way of schools working with FE? What legislation stands in the way of them working with higher education? We know that we have legislation coming on 14 to 19 education, which will make more formal arrangements for children to partake of mainstream education both in mainstream schools and with further education. Those issues will be dealt with in that legislation. The Minister does not have a strong argument on that point.
The Minister went on to say that there should be accountability. Schools live in a goldfish bowl these days. They are accountable. A great deal of information is put into the public domain about the performance of schools. They are responsible to their governors and their parents. They have annual meetings and periodic statutory consultation processes. As the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said, the local education authority also knows a great deal about its local schools. More formally, schools are also highly accountable through the Ofsted system. The argument about accountability will not wash.
I have no reason to doubt the noble Baroness when she says that the Government believe in protection for the vulnerable, particularly for those with special educational needs, because I know that she means it. That is such a fundamental point that it has to be written on the face of the Bill. I am sure that many noble Lords feel strongly about that and will wish to return to the issue.
The answer to every school's prayer is that the Government are going to send them guidance. Our schools receive guidance by the hour. Our head teachers are up to saturation point. Every day when they pick up the bundle of post from behind the door, their head hangs low, because they should be using their energy and all the time at their disposal to get on with the business of teaching and helping to develop their young people in their classrooms, but instead they have to read missives from the DfEE. I cannot believe that that is put forward as a serious argument against our proposals.
The noble Baroness also said that where the school was the applicant, we would expect it to include the LEA. I have some concerns about the role that the LEA would play, but it is right that it should be informed and consulted. I am more worried about the suggestion that the LEA should be the determining factor. We shall come to that on later amendments.
The Minister has not mentioned staffing at the department or the costs of such a process and how it works. She went on to talk about education action zones. They are innovative by nature. That is why they were set upto go outside mainstream education and explore ways of raising standards, particularly in the inner cities, although that has been extended to rural areas now. Again, I do not understand why such schools need to move outside the existing legislation.
The Minister also talked about collaboration between schools. What is there in law to stop that? My air of absolute frustration may have been detected in my response to the Minister's comments on the amendments. All I can say is that we should free up schools. That does not mean schools doing as they like, as the Minister argued. We should set the framework within which they can explore and innovate with the aim of raising standards for their children. We should allow them to work with governors and parents, constantly exploring ways to raise standards. There is no worry about a repeat of William Tyndale. It could not happen today. Too much is known about what goes on in schools. They live in a goldfish bowl and are openly accountable. Twenty years ago, the department boasted about the secret garden. I remember the daily battle in the department about control. Let the reins go. Set the framework, give the professionals their head and let them get on with it. Self-evaluation, Ofsted and public information are all there as a constraint on schools doing what they like, to use the Minister's words.
I do not remember the Minister being particularly critical of the detail of my amendment, although I shall have to read her comments. That we shall return to the issue is not in doubt. The Minister made some specific comments about the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I have sympathy with all those amendments, but I do not want to deny the noble Baroness the opportunity to come back and counter the Minister's remarks if she wishes to do so. I hope that the Minister will think again about putting in place a labyrinthine system that is second nature to the department, because it will simply debilitate the energy and resources of people who have better things to do. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.