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Mr. Willis: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said; he put his finger on a great problem with

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which all Opposition Members have had to wrestle during the passage of the Bill. In Committee, we had insufficient time to examine the meaning of much of the Bill's contents. On Report, we find ourselves with ludicrously little time to deal with crucial issues.

While it is interesting to analyse a Liberal Democrat new clause, our aim is to try to ensure that the Minister for School Standards and the Secretary of State give a proper explanation of the Bill's intentions. Hon. Members should remember that we have not had much of the promised guidance that would provide an explanation of the Bill.

Mr. Fallon rose

Chris Grayling rose

Mr. Willis: I shall make a little progress. I realise that the hon. Gentlemen are so enthralled with the debate that they want it to continue until 10 o'clock at least.

An illuminating aspect of the Secretary of State's statement this afternoon on Mike Tomlinson's latest report for Ofsted was her response to questions about the increasing division, particularly at secondary level, between schools and children making excellent progress and those not doing so. The whole House shared a sense of frustration that children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds, travellers' children and children in care were not making the progress that we had hoped for. The 2001 GCSE results last summer showed that 30,000 young people were leaving school without a single GCSE between them. That is an indictment of our system. It is not a credit to any of us.

7.30 pm

In answer to questions this afternoon about raising standards at key stage 3, the Secretary of State's vision was that children should have more of the same and be tested more, and that somehow, although that had failed at key stage 2, it would suddenly be a success at key stage 3. I found it an incredibly sad response.

Many of the children who are switched off by the age of 11, and many of the children, especially from ethnic minority homes, for whom the curriculum is a turn-off as well, attend schools in the lower quartile of the league tables. According to the Government's current policy, as reflected in the Bill, none of those schools will be allowed to innovate. They will all have to follow a tightly controlled prescription from the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State and the Minister shake their heads. I am happy for them to intervene to explain that that will not be the case. In reality, that is what is envisaged. The very schools that most need to innovate will be the ones that cannot. New clause 6 deals with that issue.

Mr. Fallon: I understand that for the Government, freedom is control. The House must be willing to simplify their extraordinary proposal whereby schools will have to beg for their freedom. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that the weakness of new clause 6, especially subsection (3), is that under the guise of innovation, a

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school could exempt itself from almost anything—not just admissions, as the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) pointed out, but from obligations on attendance, truancy, discipline, testing or almost anything else? The drafting of subsection (3) is too wide, in almost the same sense as the drafting of subsection (4) is too narrow.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman has his point of view, which he has expressed clearly. In the circumstances that he described, two things would occur. First, the local authority, which has a duty in this regard, would have to intervene. Secondly, when Ofsted inspected, it would fail the school on all those factors and put it into special measures. The school's powers to innovate would thus be lost.

I have great faith in schools. Of course, at times, like my two newly acquired dogs, they let me down. I should tell the Secretary of State that I have two lovely new dogs, but at times they are a huge disappointment to me. However, I do not want another "Diary" piece on the subject. Generally speaking, I believe that schools are desperate to do a good job.

As a head teacher for almost 20 years before entering the House, there were times when I looked back and felt that I should have done things differently. Things should have been performed in a better way. We should have taken different decisions. That will inevitably be the case.

If we want to attack some of the problems in our secondary schools and deal with the issues of under-achievement and of youngsters being turned off, we must free schools so that they can be innovative, and so that they do not have to go to the Secretary of State every time they want to do something different.

Chris Grayling: May I say how much I welcome the hon. Gentleman's conversion to the free schools policy that we advocated at the last general election? As regards the positioning of the new clause within the Bill, would it not cause a legislative problem were the clause to be accepted by the House tonight? In a sense, although the clause might deliver to schools the freedom to innovate that all of us would welcome, it would come directly head to head with the provisions on earned autonomy.

In one part of the Bill, we would be saying to schools that they had the freedom to innovate, subject to the Secretary of State's imposition of a number of restricted areas, but in another part of the Bill, we would be saying that a school had to apply for the right to innovate. In order to introduce the new clause into the Bill, would we not need to delete substantial chunks from the rest of the Bill?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman, as ever, makes a good point. We never got to the bottom of why the provisions on innovation and earned autonomy were not meshed within the Bill. In many cases, they seem to be one and the same. When we reached the provisions on earned autonomy, which we are not dealing with tonight, we were staggered for two reasons—first, because earned autonomy meant the ability to disapply the national curriculum, or it applied to pay and conditions. That was the extent of earned autonomy.

Secondly, the Committee was staggered to learn that the extent of the Government's confidence in our secondary schools was that by the end of the Parliament,

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10 per cent. of them would have achieved that. That would mean that some of the schools that had been granted specialist status or beacon status would not be considered good enough for earned autonomy. I am trying to deal with that controlling element through the new clause and the amendments. I am sure that when he has the opportunity, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) will speak eloquently and fluently on these matters.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Conservative Members seem to be struggling with the meaning of innovation and autonomy. If those are difficult concepts to follow, they are at any rate embodied in the Bill and probably would be involved in any Conservative free school proposals. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that Conservative Members are in danger of missing the point of the new clause, which is essentially to decide who has autonomy and the capacity to innovate, and who legitimately should have it?

Mr. Willis: The short answer to my hon. Friend is yes. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) disowned the Conservative policy on education at the last election, and one can understand why. It was a discredited policy and the Conservative party suffered a landslide defeat because it had no real policies on education that people understood. I understand that the hon. Member for Ashford has learned the error of his ways. The party is a reformed party and he is much more friendly and considerate. In that tone, I am trying to engage members of the Conservative party and meet them half way. I am delighted to be able to do so.

I shall make a little progress—

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) rose

Mr. Willis: I have not given way to the hon. Gentleman. It would be most discourteous of me not to do so.

Mr. Hoban: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. For those of us who are new to the debate on innovation and autonomy, I want to clarify the aim of new clauses 5 and 6. I understand that the aim is to give every school the power to innovate, which seems entirely reasonable. From the hon. Gentleman's comments, it seems that the range of areas in which a school can innovate will be set by the Secretary of State. Although the new clause would allow more schools to innovate, there is a risk that the Secretary of State would narrow the areas in which schools could be innovative.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I congratulate him on it. How much better that we know the parameters within which schools will be able to innovate than schools spending inordinate amounts of time making presentations to the Secretary of State, only to be told, "I'm very sorry, but that is not an area in which you can innovate." It is that sort of bureaucratic nonsense that I am trying to do away with. Whether or not the drafting of the new clause is as precise as it should be, if the Government were to accept it—I understand that they will accept the principle—they would redraft it in their

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own image, although it is to be hoped that they would do so slightly better than in respect of the order of consideration.

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