Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.40 pm

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): The Bill is a testament to the Government's extraordinary belief that constant change is synonymous with progress, and that any problem can be cracked with more legislation. Above all, the Bill rests firmly on the premise that every problem in our schools could be solved if only the Secretary of State had more power to impose a solution from her office in Whitehall.

However, the Government's rhetoric in recent months has been more encouraging, especially for those exhausted head teachers and teachers worn down by the ceaseless flow of centrally generated initiatives, directives and policy changes. It would appear that the legion of Labour spin doctors has got the message that teachers and heads alike are fed up, cheesed off and walking out—even if the policy makers have not grasped it. The mood music from the Government since the election, therefore, has been about empowering head teachers, devolving power

4 Dec 2001 : Column 247

to schools and reducing the administrative burden on heads, teachers and governors—a theme, indeed, that was recurrent in the Conservative party's election manifesto.

Measures to liberate teachers were keenly anticipated, and many people hoped that this Education Bill would at last herald a true sea change in the Government's willingness to trust teaching professions. Many in the teaching profession hoped that this Labour Government had finally woken up and smelt the coffee. Unfortunately, it now appears that the Secretary of State has not merely smelt the coffee, but has downed enough full-on, super-caffeine-boosted educational espressos to induce a frenzy of new centralising measures, initiatives and diktats.

After all the talk and hype about empowering heads and teachers, the Bill turned out—surprise, surprise—to contain sweeping new powers for the Secretary of State, and to do nothing to give real freedom to those who deliver results in the classroom. Instead, the Secretary of State is to preside in glory like Elizabeth I—the virgin queen, Gloriana—over a court of suitors and favourites, who will come to her in Whitehall seeking educational favour and indulgence for their pet schemes in the shires. The Secretary of State may have many qualities, but the virgin queen she is not.

The Bill will weaken local education authorities. That is not a bad idea in itself but, whereas a Conservative Government would have devolved power properly to the schools, this Bill will send that power straight up the line to the Secretary of State. Key decisions will be taken even further away from the classroom. Local accountability will be further undermined.

However, in terms of practical measures, the Bill will do nothing to assist children in Pevensey bay in my constituency. This winter, they face a daily walk of more than five miles to and from school along a busy, out-of-town main road and then across unmade tracks. They will be out in all weathers from the age of eight, while a school bus carrying their younger siblings drives past with empty seats.

The Bill will do nothing for the overcrowding that those same children face once they get to school. At Pevensey and Westham primary school, 10 out of 12 classes contain more than 30 children.

The Bill will do nothing to address the chronic problems of overcrowding in schools right across East Sussex, particularly in my constituency. It will do nothing for the 40 per cent. of primary schools in my constituency which have one class or more with 35 or more children. It will do nothing for the 25 per cent. of primary schools that have two or more classes with more than 35 pupils. [Interruption.] Labour Members ask what LEA we are in. East Sussex, unfortunately, which suffered under Lib-Lab control until June this year.

The Bill will do nothing to address the two classes of 38 children in year 5 at Battle and Langton primary school. It is a new school, built in 1987, under the last Conservative Government. Now, five years into a Labour Administration, it is swamped and under-resourced. The Bill will do nothing to address the cramped and uncomfortable condition of children at Battle and Langton who are being taught in poor temporary accommodation, mouldy in winter and baking hot in summer.

4 Dec 2001 : Column 248

I am constantly amazed at the way in which teachers manage to cope with these large forms in such small classrooms, extracting the best from our children in a truly miserable environment. I have nothing but admiration for the way in which they manage to impose discipline in classes that take inclusion to an extreme but where exclusions are almost impossible.

At King Offa primary school in Bexhill, four classes in key stage 2 all exceed 35 pupils. That is largely because of a mandatory requirement to reduce class sizes to below 30 for the younger children, which has cost the head a whole class. With more than 35 children, classes are becoming unmanageable. Fast-growing kids are crammed into classrooms built for 30. Group work or project work that requires elbow room or extra space is all but impossible. Youngsters with excess energy to blow off spend their days in cramped classrooms, where just walking around can be disruptive to other pupils. Will anything in the Bill allow the headmistress of King Offa school to manage her way out of this predicament? Absolutely not. I invite the Minister to tell us in the winding-up speech what provisions will ease the chronic overcrowding in East Sussex.

The Bill will do nothing to address the farce of non-existent parental choice in my constituency, where children are lucky to get into their local school, let alone successfully express a preference for another.

The Bill will do nothing to address chronic teacher shortages. St. Richard's Catholic college, one of the best secondary schools in East Sussex, is advertising for a vice principal. Ten years ago, the governors had more than 80 applicants for the job; now the school will be lucky to get 10.

Elsewhere in my constituency, another first-class deputy head has resigned and returned to the classroom because he found the bureaucratic burden intolerable. Fortunately, the school in question retains his teaching skills, unlike two of his teaching colleagues, who last year left the profession altogether, driven out by the dead weight of bureaucracy and a total lack of professional independence for teachers.

Such is the overcrowding and undercapacity in schools in my constituency that the notion of parental choice is little more than a joke. Appeals are at record levels, yet still children find themselves with problems in getting into their local schools. Stonecross is just one of many primary schools that, because of the constraints of overcrowding, constantly turns away parents who live only a short walk away.

The Bill will do nothing to address the issue of a badly needed new village school in Ticehurst. The school, its governors and the community have worked tirelessly to obtain a new site and a funded development plan, yet the project languishes, bogged down in bureaucracy and officialdom.

There appears to be a perverse logic prevailing within Whitehall; it endeavours to run our education system along more businesslike lines, mimicking practices that it perceives in the private sector. However, successful businesses today abhor centralisation and go out of their way to devolve management responsibility to the lowest possible level. Senior management in the most successful large companies are there to set goals, pick the right individuals and then let them get on with the job without

4 Dec 2001 : Column 249

constantly second guessing them from above. Those managers reward good performance, but swiftly remove those who are unable to deliver.

The reverse seems to prevail in Labour's education regime. The Government seem more and more determined to try to micro-manage schools from the centre, but that will only make it more and more difficult for heads to recruit or retain good individuals while making it almost impossible to get rid of those who do not perform.

One of the commonest complaints that I hear during my numerous visits to schools is that on the rare occasions when heads find that a staff member is not performing well it can take years to tackle the problem effectively. The long-drawn out process just to get rid of one individual can be especially corrosive in a small school. We must be prepared to treat teachers like the professionals they are—allowing them far greater self-regulation, while freeing heads to handle staff as they see fit.

As I said earlier, the Bill represents a missed opportunity. It offered the chance to draw a line under the debilitating trend to centralisation, the initiative overload and the mass exodus of excellent teachers from the profession. On both sides of the House, we want the best for our children, but the clear divide between our approach to teaching and that of Labour Ministers is writ large in the Bill: Conservatives trust teachers—Labour do not.

8.51 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I am pleased to speak in support of the general principles underlying the Bill, especially the encouragement of greater innovation and flexibility and the reduction of bureaucracy. We must accept the legitimate criticisms about bureaucracy made by teachers and head teachers in recent years—not just in the past four years.

The spokesmen from the two Opposition parties criticised the Bill from different perspectives. The Conservatives attacked the Bill for being too centralist, while the Liberal Democrats attacked it for introducing more decentralisation than even the Conservatives were prepared to undertake. I thus conclude that the balance between intervention and decentralisation is probably about right. The Government's approach of intervention in proportion to the degree of success is the right way forward. Although I sympathise with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for whom I have great respect, his idea that a struggling school should simply be let loose to do what it wants is completely ludicrous.

The Bill performs an important function in tidying up some of the loose ends in previous legislation. I especially welcome the provisions to extend the inspection regime to private schools. That has been a huge gap in our education system for many years. I welcome the reconsideration of the role of the learning and skills councils in the planning of post-16 education, and their powers to approve the establishment of new sixth forms, to change existing sixth forms and to close inadequate ones.

I want to draw the House's attention to part of the Bill that has not really been discussed: the provisions relating to the responsibilities of governing bodies. I want to introduce a note of caution about the decentralising tendency as regards the autonomy of head teachers.

4 Dec 2001 : Column 250

Although it is right as a general principle that management should be allowed to manage and that decentralised management structures are more effective, such decentralisation must take place in a framework of accountability. As the son of a head teacher I am especially conscious of that argument.

The comparison between what we are doing in the education service and what we are doing in the health service is odd: although we are starting—at long last—to constrain in the health service the excessive influence of the dominant producer interests in the form of consultants, in the education service we are pursuing the opposite course and are strengthening the powers of the dominant producer interest—the head teachers. A balance has to be struck somewhere, and we have to consider what replaces the line of accountability to central Government when head teachers are given carte blanche to operate their schools as they think fit—albeit only for three years, with the possibility of extension for a further three years—and that comes down to the governing bodies.

I shall briefly raise a local issue to exemplify some of the dangers of that approach. At one school in my constituency—I shall not name names, although which it is will be obvious to my constituents—parents accused the head teacher of intervening inappropriately in the conduct of key stage 2 tests, on the evidence provided by children at the school. That led to an inquiry by the chairman of the governing body, who felt it necessary to refer the case to the governing body's dismissals committee, which consulted the local authority's personnel department, which produced a report on the allegations. I am not aware of what the report says, but on the basis of the allegations that my constituents have made, which I have seen, the evidence is pretty damning. The governing body decided to take no action against the head teacher, following the consideration of the local authority's report, but it was not prepared to publish that report. That raises several important issues.

First, is it right that the governing bodies of small schools—I am talking about a primary school—should have that enormous burden of responsibility placed on them? A very complicated series of allegations was made about a complex series of incidents and there are serious consequences for the school and the head teacher. Can we reasonably expect volunteers, who give up their spare time, to take on those important personnel responsibilities, especially as they may involve dismissal or serious disciplinary action?

Secondly, is it right for the inquiry carried out when such allegations are made to be kept secret? That is a matter of crucial public importance; it reflects on the school's reputation and that of the head teacher and on the integrity of the key stage 2 tests, so it ought to be in the public domain as a matter of course.

Thirdly, if it were the case that the inquiry had led to criticisms involving gross misconduct by the head teacher, should that automatically be a case for dismissal, or would it be reasonable for that head teacher to return to his post?

I ask those questions purely to emphasise the crucial issue of the accountability of local head teachers and the necessity of having a strong framework of accountability. I am not sure whether the existing powers of governing bodies, nor the changes to those powers proposed in the Bill, are sufficiently strong to hold the actions of all head teachers to account. I am certainly not sure whether the

4 Dec 2001 : Column 251

existing powers of local authorities are sufficiently strong to do that. So to whom will head teachers be accountable if the provisions on opting out of the various legal requirements are accepted?

I am concerned about others things in the Bill. Several hon. Members have raised the issue of faith and specialist schools. I have no fixed views on faith or specialist schools—I am open-minded about their roles and their achievements. I tend to think that specialist schools are an interesting concept, but any major expansion of faith or specialist schools has to be done on the basis of the available evidence. It concerns me a little that the move to faith schools has been driven not necessarily by the evidence, but by assumption.

It is certainly true that the figures on the GCSE performance of faith schools that I saw recently showed that, on average, faith schools performed better than non-faith schools to the tune of 7.5 per cent. for five A to C GCSEs. However, it is equally true that, in Anglican schools, the proportion of youngsters on free school meals is significantly lower than it is for non-faith schools and it is also true that, in Catholic schools, the proportion of youngsters with statements is significantly lower than it is in non-faith schools.

If we are to consider the raw figures for attainment at GCSE, we have to set them in the context of the intake of existing faith schools. I do not think that we can draw any easy conclusions. However, reflecting the comments of some of my hon. Friends, I believe that we need a much more detailed debate than we have had so far about the evidence available on faith schools.

The same point applies to specialist schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) referred to the recent Ofsted report on specialist schools. It said that, across the board, such schools performed slightly better than non-specialist schools in terms of the trend of improvement. However, it is a very slight difference. I have read the report line by line, and I would urge all hon. Members to do so. It makes some damning allegations and is very inconclusive about the performance of the existing specialist schools.

Again, I ask whether we are forming policy based on evidence or based on gut reaction and assumption. As with faith schools, we need a much more considered debate about the record of the existing specialist schools. We need to set all the performance indicators in context.

Although the controversy in recent weeks has focused on the debate about faith and specialist schools, they are not mentioned in the Bill. It is interesting that some of the most profound structural changes to the secondary education system are not touched on by the Bill at all. That may be normal and acceptable, and it is true that we do not need to legislate for everything. If we do not need primary legislation, why have it?

With the onset of more faith schools and perhaps more specialist schools, secondary education is going through profound structural change, but we have not considered the other aspect of the system that dominates the levels of achievements of thousands of young people. I refer to the continued existence of selection. Again, it is not mentioned in the Bill, and it has hardly been mentioned at all in the public debate in recent weeks. However, the existence of explicit selection by means of the 11-plus in

4 Dec 2001 : Column 252

36 local authorities in England—almost a quarter of all local education authorities—must be confronted sooner or later.

One or two hon. Members have referred to Kent and to the overall level of achievement there. They have also referred to the number of schools with serious weaknesses in Kent, but the fact is that, in such an area, it is impossible for the majority of schools to achieve at the level of the best. The structure prevents that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page