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Estelle Morris: The teaching profession will not count the number of clauses in the Bill. It will judge us by how

4 Dec 2001 : Column 192

things change on the ground. Those members of the profession who can use the powers that we give them will do so and they will be freed up.

Let me give an example that shows the dangers of the Tories' approach. They tend to count the pieces of paper that are sent to schools rather than reading what is in them to judge whether they are helpful. The Bill will split key stage 4 from key stage 3 in the national curriculum and it will free up the national curriculum to give more power and freedom to schools. The only way that we can do that is to rewrite in legislation the whole national curriculum. The irony is that many clauses re-establish legislation from previous Bills, but we have had to do that to free up the national curriculum now. When the hon. Gentleman considers the Bill further, I hope that he will reflect on that point.

We have always known—we are now in a position to build on this—that the way to improve all our schools is to learn from the best teachers in the best schools. Good ideas about educational reform are always born in our best schools. The way to transform the education service is to evaluate what goes well in our good schools and make sure that we make it available to all schools.

Like other hon. Members, I know from visiting schools that many schools are already finding solutions to some of the challenges that we still face. We need to give the good schools the freedom and flexibility to innovate further and we need to ensure that we can evaluate what they do and allow all schools to learn from them.

The first part of the Bill will introduce the new legal frameworks to give us the power to back the schools that have good ideas but that do not fit the rules as they stand. We will also establish a schools innovation unit to make sure that those ideas are supported and are shared with other schools. When our best schools come up against legislative barriers that stop them trying the solutions that they think will work, they will be able to ask for the legislation to be varied for a pilot period if that is what is needed. That is a power to free schools to do the things that they want to do to benefit their pupils.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): Liberal Democrats obviously welcome any measures that will allow more autonomy for individual schools, but does it make sense for the Secretary of State herself and her Department to make those decisions? Would it not make sense for the local education authorities to exercise some of that control? Would that not be a real understanding of decentralising decision making?

Estelle Morris: It would be entirely wrong for any Secretary of State to make the decision by his or herself—heaven forbid. The decisions will be based on the advice of Ofsted and on performance information. I have seen it quoted once or twice that the Secretary of State will take the decisions, but they will be taken on the basis of advice and good quality information.

There are two reasons for our approach. First, some LEAs are not good and we would not want to give such powers to weak and struggling LEAs. We also want national consistency, which is important. If Ofsted provides guidance and we use qualitative data and if the Secretary of State makes allowance for that and takes decisions according to what the provisions permit, we shall have a system that ensures national consistency.

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However, I am grateful to hear that Liberal Democrats welcome the power to innovate. It may sound strange, but it will be hugely useful.

Let me give an example of how that power could have been used. Many of the deregulation measures in the Bill on which there is unanimity among hon. Members create flexibility at key stage 4. That flexibility could have been introduced earlier had the power to innovate been on the statute book. Schools have gone slightly over the line of what is legally acceptable for a flexible key stage 4 so that they meet the needs of the child. I do not criticise them for that; it is what they have had to do against the background of the legal framework. That is an excellent example of how greater freedom and the power to innovate will be useful.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Briefly, my right hon. Friend knows that I welcome many of the powers in the Bill. However, if we are trying to promote innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit, and some of the initiatives of the education action zones failed to be as innovative as many of us hoped, from where will she get the entrepreneurs of education who will produce the ideas? How will she deliver that, because one problem has been finding enough innovators and good champions of new ideas?

Estelle Morris: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I take it seriously. There are many innovative ideas in schools. Part of the problem is that schools and teachers work in isolation. There has to be a mechanism in the education system for people to get together to develop an innovative idea. Much of the Bill's thrust is to allow clusters and partnerships between schools to develop which have been frozen out of the system over the past 20 years—this is an interesting subject for debate—because of the consequences of the accountability framework that the previous Government put in place. It is necessary to keep that framework and to put levers for co-operation back into the system so that people can share good ideas and learn from each other, because that is badly needed.

The Bill introduces other new flexibilities. Clauses 34 and 35 give schools significant flexibility on staffing. Schools will be able to share staff so that, for example, other schools can benefit from strong subject departments and staff can learn from one another. There will be new opportunities for schools to make use of further and higher education staff in delivering education where that is appropriate. Schools will have greater freedom to involve properly trained assistants in working with children. We are not introducing a flexibility in staffing for its own sake; we are concerned about the quality of education that we offer our children.

Of course there is work that only a qualified teacher should do, and the Bill recognises that. Clauses 129 and 130 also recognise that properly trained classroom assistants have a major supporting role. We are creating for the first time a framework within which schools can develop the model of staffing that will best help them to raise standards.

There will also be new freedoms for schools to deliver wider services. It is a tragedy that in many deprived areas the school with the most resources is often shut when the rest of the community could use it. It is excellent that the

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Bill allows schools to extend the services, such as child care and adult education, that they provide to the community. In that way, schools can be at the centre of the provision of services that are offered to communities. The services will not just be optional extras, but vital to a school's community. They will provide what communities want and people need.

Schools will also have the freedom to join together to provide LEA services. LEAs and schools have been involved with us in pilots to establish innovative models that deliver local authority services. If LEAs choose to they can contract out some of their services to schools. To reassure the Liberal Democrats, the funds that are delegated to local authorities for their purposes under our fair funding arrangements can be devolved to schools only with an authority's permission. There will be a partnership. LEAs and schools will decide together on innovative ways of providing services, such as those that improve a school, and might choose to put schools at the centre.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) rose

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) rose

Estelle Morris: I shall give way again to the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Willis: Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a massive contradiction in the proposal that will effectively ring-fence budgets and the idea of developing across-the-board facilities and services within local authorities? Is she not aware that if we try to improve education without considering health, housing and other services that local authorities provide, we will repeat the problems that we already experience? Surely there is a need to let local authorities be innovative in the use of their resources to provide an over-arching facility for young people, so that they get the best start in their education and continue to get the best.

Estelle Morris: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's objective of ensuring that there are services supporting education, and I do not differ from him one iota in acknowledging the effect of health and housing inequalities, poverty and poor social services provision on efforts to raise standards. However, I am prepared to do everything in my power to make sure that the money that the Government secure for education goes to education and to schools. I pay tribute to local education authorities for allocating that money in the past four years. However, it is imperative that funding supports the changes that we are now asking schools to make, so I want to take reserved powers, which I know to be opposed by the Local Government Association, so that, if necessary, we can ensure that money goes to education.

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