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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 6 June 2000

(Afternoon)

[Mr. JOE BENTON in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Schedule 8

Amendments

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 369, in page 82, line 11, at the end to insert the words—

    `Education Reform Act 1988 (c.40)

    . In section 218(2B) of the Education Reform Act 1988 (school and further and higher education regulations)—

    (a) for ``or city colleges for the technology of the arts'' substitute ``, city colleges for the technology of the arts or city academies'', and

    (b) after ``such colleges'' insert ``or academies''.

    Environmental Protection Act 1990 (c.43)

    . In section 98 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (definitions) in subsection (2)(e) for ``or city college for the technology of the arts'' substitute ``, city college for the technology of the arts or city academy,''.'—[Mr. Wills].

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: Nos. 370 to 374 and 376 to 379.

New clause 27—City academies.

New clause 29—City academies: land.

New clause 28—City colleges and academies: special educational needs.

New schedule 1—City academies: land.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): Thank you, Mr. Benton. I welcome you back again, slightly unexpectedly, to the Committee this afternoon. I hesitate to say whether this will be our last sitting, but I am delighted to be back.

I shall not detain the Committee for long, but I want to address the important question of selection. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) was concerned about this issue and it is important that we should remind ourselves why the Government have taken the approach that they have. The matter was discussed exhaustively during deliberations on the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which, as hon. Members will recall, provided for the admission authorities of schools with a specialism, not limited to special schools designated by the Secretary of State, to select up to 10 per cent. of their pupils on the basis of aptitude for a prescribed subject. City academies will be specialist schools and their funding agreements will be entirely consistent with the Government's policies for maintained schools. We intend to make it possible for those schools to select 10 per cent. of their year seven intake each year on the basis of aptitude for the specialism.

The reasons for that are simple. I have explained them already but they are important and I want to try to allay the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East. Specialist schools must emphasise one particular curriculum area. In those circumstances, it makes sense to give them the opportunity to select a small proportion of pupils on the basis of aptitude for that specialism. If a specialist school exists in an area, pupils with an aptitude for the subject may have a particular interest in attending the school, but we deliberately decided that the percentage should be small so as not to have a major impact on the composition of overall pupil intake. Having said that, we believe that allowing for a proportion of pupils to be selected on the basis of their aptitude for a particular specialism will have an impact on the development of that specialism in that school. It will help the school to perfect its experience and expertise, raise standards of teaching and learning and, therefore, benefit every pupil in the school. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East is very concerned about the impact on all pupils, and rightly so. We are all concerned about the impact on all pupils, but we believe that the measure will benefit every pupil. There is no question of there being second-class pupils in any schools for which we are responsible.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Wills: I shall give way in a moment but I want to make one final point. It will be for the city academy itself to decide whether to select 10 per cent. of its pupils, just as it is for the admission authorities in specialist schools to decide. It will be an option, not a requirement.

Mr. Willis: It is germane to the argument that I ask the Minister to put on record an answer to this question, for the sake of the Committee and, especially, for the sake of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East. Since the introduction of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, in which the selection of 10 per cent. of pupils by aptitude was introduced in specialist schools, how many schools have been granted specialist status and, of those, how many have employed the 10 per cent. selection process? The Minister will know that it is less than 5 per cent.—it will be interesting to find out the exact figure—which shows that there is no evidence on which to base his argument that the measure is either wanted or will have the desired result.

Mr. Wills: As always, the hon. Gentleman brings a wealth of experience to the subject. We do not have the exact figures with us, but I shall write to him with the exact details. [Interruption.] I have just been informed that we do not have the figures [Laughter.] When I said we, I meant we. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with a precise answer. On his question about whether the proposal is wanted, the selection process will be an option. We shall not impose the idea on schools, but if they think it is appropriate, they can implement it. There is a logical basis for the belief that I have set out. The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about evidence, but sometimes we must proceed on the basis that there is the potential to do good. That is why we are giving schools the option.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): As a point of information, will the Minister tell the Committee whether it would be possible for a city academy to interview all applicants to the school as part of the process of deciding who should fit into the 10 per cent. for selection on the specialist criterion?

Mr. Wills: Yes, it would be possible, although whether a school chose to do that would be a matter for the school. To conclude my brief remarks on this subject, unless any other hon. Members want to intervene—

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): The Minister, while making his case valiantly, ignores the fact that many people in the Labour party have campaigned for 35 years against extending selection, so my hon. Friend does not persuade me that there is any merit in the selection process. If he wanted to argue the question from a practical viewpoint, he would ask what the effect of selection has been during the past couple of years, and the answer is nil. He need not bother to tell us the precise figures because, within the context of secondary education, the proposal will be completely insignificant. Having campaigned for 35 years to end selection, I remind him that it took 20 years, from 1944–45, for the Labour party to arrive at its policy on comprehensive secondary education, and I do not believe that it acquits itself well now to introduce an extension of selection at the age of 11. Again, I ask: what about the other 90 per cent.? Is it not sufficient for people to express a view that they want to go to a particular school? Why impose selection?

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reminder, but I remind him that the Labour party has campaigned for 100 years to extend opportunity to everybody and we must take appropriate measures to further that where there is a clear need to do so. I accept that I will not persuade him, but I urge him not to get hung up on means rather than ends. I share his ideological passion for the outcome that we all want to see, and I urge him to focus his formidable energies and passions on that, rather than on this one prescriptive measure that we are including in the Bill. It is an option, not a requirement, and if it will work, why should we rule it out?

I leave my hon. Friend with that question because I believe that we have troubled you enough with this issue, Mr. Benton.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 6.

Division No. 17]

AYES
Benn, Mr. Hilary Betts, Mr. Clive Chaytor, Mr. David Davey, Valerie Foster, Mr. Michael
Hanson, Mr. David Marsden, Mr. Gordon Whitehead, Dr. Alan Wicks, Mr. Malcolm Wills, Mr. Michael

NOES
Boswell, Mr. Tim Brady, Mr. Graham Brooke, Mr. Peter
Clappison, Mr. James Hayes, Mr. John Willis, Mr. Phil

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 384, in page 82, line 11, at end insert—

    `Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 (c.33)

    In section 5(9) of the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 (disabled persons leaving special education) in the definition of ``the responsible authority'', in paragraph (c) for ``a further education funding council'' substitute ``the Learning and Skills Council for England or the National Council for Education and Training for Wales''.

    Education Reform Act 1988 (c.40)

    In section 128(1)(b) of the Education Reform Act 1988 (dissolution of higher education corporations) for sub-paragraph (v) substitute—

    ``(v) the Learning and Skills Council for England or the National Council for Education and Training for Wales.'''. —[Mr. Betts.]

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move amendment No. 331, in page 82, line 23, leave out subparagraph 3.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss Government amendments Nos. 385 and 386.

Mr. Boswell: May I first say how pleased I am that you are back in the Chair, Mr. Benton? I hope that we will discharge our remaining proceedings crisply and to the point. I shall not belabour the amendment but, despite the excitement of our exemplary debate, there are other important matters to consider.

The Government have recognised the problem in their amendments, which appear primarily or substantially to meet our concerns. I do, however, have a couple of points to make. The Minister will be familiar from visits to further education colleges that they promote activities other than the strict delivery of education, such as a catering activity or a partnership activity with local business, which is all well and good. The original proposal was to regularise or put on a fair basis the conduct of such businesses by establishing companies as a supplementary function of further education. I have no objection to that. However, I am slightly worried about the structure that will be secured by the Government's arrangements.

Further education colleges are being given the power to form companies as a supplementary activity, but only if no public money is involved and they are not for the purposes of education. If public moneys are committed to that process or put at risk by the formation of the company, the colleges will have to apply to the Learning and Skills Council to validate the proceedings. That is a clumsy procedure. However, the Government's structure is probably the only option.

I have one or two specific concerns. I am worried about the de minimis aspect. I can imagine a situation, which I have often seen in further education colleges, in which a non-educational activity is used sensibly for a subordinate role in education. For example, a college might have a catering activity. It might find a way in which it could introduce one or two students to that activity—either as tuition, as full members of the college, or as work experience—thereby enabling them to participate in it as part of an education experience.

4.45 pm

I am not considering a college tuition catering department—many of us have had excellent meals at training restaurants—but a contingent use of a college support facility for the purposes of education. No member of the Committee would suggest that it would be wrong to have such an activity if it was properly conceived and properly protected.

The converse situation might be one in which public money was used for a primarily educational purpose and the activity was extended or was associated with another activity, meaning that it linked across the boundary into the company activities of the college. I am concerned about both possibilities—a redefinition of what constitutes education or a possible migration of money to the company activity from the college activity. A breach of the conditions or a forensic investigation by the Learning and Skills Council might be triggered.

The Under-Secretary might want to say that the situation can be dealt with only through sensible give and take and that he would not seek to discourage de minimis understandings. The wording appears to be restrictive, with the suggestion that it would be impossible for the college to proceed, unless it had specific permission to do so, if there was a whiff of public money intended for education.

I am concerned about what we might call prior clearance. I do not want to refer too much to the Inland Revenue because I know that that upsets the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, who has had enough upsets today already. Companies will be familiar with being able to approach the Inland Revenue to talk about what they intend to do and possibly to get clearance. A college might form a company or make a sensible business proposition, possibly involving the private sector as well as a little learning and skills money. I would hope that, so long as the intentions of the activity were not distorted, such a college could go to the Learning and Skills Council to say what it proposed to do and state the ball-park expenditure, explaining how it intended to finance the project and showing its business plan. I hope that such a plan would be accepted unless or until the college materially changed it.

The issues might work out in practice through common sense, to use the favourite phrase of the Minister—the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). We are prescribing in statute, the provision has been felt to be over-restrictive and the Government are seeking to relax it. I am anxious that they relax it sensibly so that colleges do not feel constrained in undertaking sensible activities as part of, although not necessarily in the same legal form as, their main education activities.

 
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