Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.32 pm

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): As the House would expect, I shall focus my comments on Wales. I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) that Wales has received scant regard in comments hitherto. The Bill is an extremely important piece of education legislation for Wales, and we would have expected a passing reference to Wales from the Secretary of State.

The absence of any such reference raises wider concerns about the confused nature of the devolution settlement, whereby the political leadership resides in the National Assembly, but the machinery of law-making remains at Westminster. This is the only Parliament that we still have. I regret that. A moment ago, I requested from the Vote Office a copy of "The Learning Country", which is the equivalent of the White Paper containing the

4 Dec 2001 : Column 231

education proposals for Wales. The fact that the document is not available raises concern about the devolution settlement.

Unlike the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central—who, I am glad to see, is back in his seat—I do not have dual citizenship, as it were, so I have no problem in welcoming broadly the proposals for Wales, while condemning some of the principles that underlie the proposals for England. The Bill marks a major step forward by providing a distinctively Welsh education policy. That is greatly to be welcomed. "The Learning Country" has been described by the teaching unions as a visionary alternative to the dry and arid thinking that pervades the Government's policy in England. I echo that.

Privatisation has been ruled out as a matter of policy in Wales, as have specialist selective schools. Clause 66, which refers to the private sector being involved in the management of schools, applies only to England. That is greatly to be welcomed, probably not only on our Benches. The thinking reflected in "The Learning Country" has steered us in Wales away from the market-driven, competition-inspired thinking that unfortunately was a characteristic element of education policy at Westminster over successive Governments.

The document is based on a communitarian ethos that is widely shared across the parties. That is reflected in our communities, where 90 per cent. of pupils go to their local community school. Our basic aspiration as a society in Wales is to create for all children excellent local comprehensive schools embedded in their communities. I see those principles as underlying the proposals in "The Learning Country", and I welcome them.

The Bill affords the Assembly a large number of discretionary powers; again, we welcome that. Clause 13, for example, enables the Assembly

That is a wide ranging discretionary power—a so-called Henry VIII clause, I am led to believe by constitutional experts.

Echoing the comments of the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central, I welcome the completion of the development of a genuinely distinctive national curriculum for Wales. The Bill contains exciting proposals for the Welsh baccalaureate and other detailed proposals—for example, for the creation of a special educational needs tribunal, and new measures for better transition between primary and secondary education. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central is glad to see that the Welsh Joint Education Committee is to be put on a firm legal footing. It has other legal matters on its mind, but its constitutional basis is assured.

The Bill, perhaps reflecting the complexity and confusion of the devolution settlement, has an unclear and complex format, especially for Welsh Members. There is a separate part on the curriculum for Wales, but in the other parts one has to trawl through the references to the Secretary of State to see whether the National Assembly is mentioned. One of the worst examples is in clauses 128 to 137, which deal with teacher qualifications. One must read on to clause 141 to discover that those matters are devolved to the National Assembly. Clause 141 states that

4 Dec 2001 : Column 232

and that

That reminds me—I see one of Wales's great historians, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) in his seat—of the famous reference in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "For Wales, see England". The Bill does not have the same brevity or succinctness, unfortunately. An ideal solution, from our perspective as a party, is for primary law-making powers over education to be devolved to the National Assembly. If that is where the political leadership and the political accountability reside, surely the machinery of government and of law-making should also be devolved there. If that is not possible for political reasons, may we at least have, as other hon. Members have requested, separate legislation for Wales, which would allow us, while representing Wales in the House, to have sufficient time to dedicate ourselves to specific measures affecting Wales?

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: If that is to occur, the hon. Gentleman and other members of his party must do more than quote the bits of the Bill that they like. Has he anything to say about the amount of money that goes directly to schools in Wales and is in the schools budget, compared with England? Those figures do not look favourable in Wales's case and suggest that the threat, if not the implementation, of ring fencing has a purpose.

Adam Price: I listened with interest to the point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier. There is a case throughout the United Kingdom for considering the evidential basis for different means of disbursement in education. I would be more than happy to continue a discussion with him on that point, but I am sure that he will agree that a distinctive and separate measure would greatly facilitate our ability to represent our constituents not only on this issue, but on the other issues that he raised earlier. If we are to have what could be called a cut and shut in respect of a Welsh and an English Bill, may we at the very least have a clearly formatted Bill so that we do not have to trawl through the provisions in order to find out whether we are reading clauses that refer to Wales?

I want to raise two issues that are not devolved. First, from my reading of this very complex Bill, it does not seem that there has been any devolution of power in respect of teachers' pay and conditions. That is greatly to be regretted, because such power has been used very effectively in Scotland, to which it was devolved, not least by the new First Minister in his previous incarnation. In creating a distinctive education policy that meets the needs of Wales, devolution of that power would be very welcome.

Secondly, clause 10 deals with a power for schools to form companies or to subcontract school services, and with the creation of an open market for those services. Again, it is not clear whether these powers have been devolved to Wales or whether the National Assembly for Wales has a right of approval that operates alongside the local education authority right of approval in England. I know from a question asked in the Assembly that the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning herself is not clear on this very point. That raises a question about the level of discussion that has been undertaken in the

4 Dec 2001 : Column 233

joint ministerial committees. I would greatly welcome some indication from the Minister about the position of Wales in relation to this very wide-ranging power.

We welcome greatly the fact that Wales is beginning to chart its own course in terms of education policy. Education has always been at the core of our political thinking in Wales. It has been very important to disadvantaged communities and has always been seen as the core of social and economic development. The fact that we are now seeing greater devolution of powers is to be welcomed. I saw that The Guardian referred to Wales the other day as a left-wing teachers' utopia. For some hon. Members adjacent to me, I am sure that that is a very graphic description of hell. We may not be building utopia in Wales, but we are building a better Wales. I ask the Minister for greater devolution of power even than hitherto, so that we can at least begin to use the available tools to create the basis for a better society in future.

7.43 pm

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): The Bill is intended to build on the success of the past four years—and a lot of success there has been. When I was reading the White Paper on which the Bill is predicated, I noted that chapter 6 goes into great detail about how successful the Government's policies have been on the basis of using the system that we have at the moment. Local education authorities and schools are succeeding and will be encouraged to continue that success. Of course, solutions vary and we do not have a one- size-fits-all solution for every situation. Partnership is very much emphasised, as well as intervention where necessary, positive support and funding.

I must say, as I am sure many other hon. Members have, that that approach has worked very well in my constituency. Stoke-on-Trent has three beacon schools. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, all three—Adderly Green infants, Western Coyney primary and Sandon high school—are situated in my constituency. Not so many years ago, all three had great difficulties, which shows the progress that can be made and is being made under the current system.

The proposals to raise standards for all and to ensure that every child is best equipped for work, the wider economy and society are extremely welcome. The progress that has been made is significant and ranges from teachers' pay, training and status to capital improvements. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that three new primary schools are being built in my constituency as we speak. The construction of a fourth primary school starts early next year. If someone had told me five years ago that I would seeing four new primary schools in my constituency within four years, I would have laughed them out of court. The schools are a very tangible example of the success of Government policy, which has been reflected in the classroom in pupil achievement. It is a success that is based on a background of promoting innovation, identifying weaknesses, giving positive support based on partnership and intervening when necessary.

That leads me, however, to a significant concern. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of my anxiety, because I wrote to him at some length when the White Paper was published. The progress to which I have referred has been based on supporting, promoting and

4 Dec 2001 : Column 234

encouraging innovation and success, as well as on identifying weaknesses and taking positive measures to provide support and encouragement, and intervening where necessary to ensure that those weaknesses are dealt with. I believe that that policy has had a considerable amount of success, but I am concerned that the Bill appears to reverse it. The Government appear to be saying that they will let the so-called better schools float by opting out of national pay scales and the national curriculum.

That most significant issue is at the heart of the Bill. It is a major concern to me and, no doubt, many of my colleagues. It seems that we are moving from a policy that is based on utilising success and that uses raising standards as its bedrock to one of opting out in the name of diversity and choice. I am not against diversity and choice—indeed, I think that they have been a great success—but I am very worried that the policy of diversity and choice as it is manifested in the Bill will not lead to more diversity, but could certainly lead to more fragmentation. The Government need to give a lot more thought to that issue.

I found the language that is used in the White Paper very interesting. Many of my colleagues, if not all of them, will have read the document, in which I did not see the word "comprehensive" at all. If it is in there, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will point it out, but I could not find it. I did find a reference, however, to stale and outdated arguments about diversity on the one hand and uniformity on the other. I wonder whether the word "uniformity" has replaced the word "comprehensive". I readily accept that many hon. Members have far more experience than I have in education, but my experience, such as it is, has led me to conclude that I have seen good schools and schools that are not so good, and I have witnessed enormous progress, but I have never seen a school that is uniform. I have never seen separate schools that are exactly the same. I have experienced a different ethos in different schools; I have seen good head teachers and those who were not so good; I have experienced spirit, innovation, excellence and even things that would make hair curl, but I have never witnessed uniformity. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will explain "uniformity" in the context of the Bill.

Diversity has played and will continue to play an important part in education, as it should. However, we should not be so eager to dispatch the comprehensive system, if that is the intention. When balanced with the pursuit of public good, diversity in education is an excellent concept, and the Government have shown that it can work. However, the public good must counterbalance the pursuit of diversity; otherwise fragmentation will ensue. I am worried that "uniformity" is somewhat misleading and may be a smokescreen to hide the undoubted successes of the comprehensive system.

I want to concentrate on one or two specific matters. The Bill provides that schools that are deemed successful should have the freedom to excel and innovate. That is fine, but why should such freedom apply only to schools that are deemed to be good? What are we saying to schools that are deemed to be unsuccessful, but are successful? I know from constituency experience that such schools exist. They may not be successful according to the arbitrary standard of the league tables, but their

4 Dec 2001 : Column 235

work is extremely innovative and they excel and make genuine progress. Why should freedom be available only to so-called better schools?

I have already referred to opt-outs from national pay and conditions and the national curriculum. The Bill promotes the idea of forming separate companies. Will my hon. Friend explain that in a little more detail? Will the companies be private? Will they make a profit? Who will manage them? Will they have to register at Companies House? The provision is alien to my view of what should constitute the way forward.

Faith schools have already been mentioned—an important but difficult subject. I understand the arguments: we have had faith schools—Roman Catholic and Church of England—in this country for centuries. It is therefore difficult to argue that we should discriminate against other faiths. However, I want to put on record the Secretary of State's comments to the General Synod on 14 November. She said that she intended to speak briefly on faith schools. She continued:

If the provision for faith schools is to be extended, the decision should be made locally. It should not be a matter for the Secretary of State and I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that.

The Bill refers to external partners; I have already commented briefly on my anxieties about them. There is nothing wrong with involving the private sector, other schools and organisations that can help and support. I was somewhat reassured when I read in the explanatory notes that the partners will advise, not take over. Again, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed that.

The Bill has much to commend it. I have profound anxieties about some of the fundamental issues that the measure covers. I am more than happy to listen to my hon. Friend the Minister and see what happens as the Bill progresses through Parliament. We should try to build on success, to create diversity, not fragmentation and to promote ethos rather than ethnic background. I have many serious doubts, but I am happy to support the Secretary of State's comments in a recent press report when she said that her job and that of the Government is to ensure that all pupils have the best chance in our school system.

Next Section

IndexHome Page