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Mr. Lansley: I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I confess that some of the distinctions and definitions in the Bill with which hon. Members have been wrestling are new to me, but I think that I have comprehended them sufficiently to be able to make a small contribution to the debate. I know that other Conservative Members want to participate as well, so I shall not tarry too long.

The new clauses under debate make it clear that there is a commendable desire among Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members to provide that requirements in relation to the curriculum and pay and conditions are lifted from schools, except where specific circumstances mean that those requirements should be reimposed. I understood the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) to say that, with new clause 6, he was thinking in particular about the reimposition of those requirements on schools considered, broadly speaking, to be failing. I suspect that the same is broadly true with the proposals in new clause 10, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), in relation to the earned autonomy provisions.

Mr. Cameron: I was wondering also whether subsection (2) of new clause 10 would be used to exempt failing schools from the freedom suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposal could be used to exempt schools of a certain size? Many smaller schools, especially smaller primary schools, might not want to have extra freedom. Could not new clause 10 be used in that way?

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I have wrestled in my area of Cambridgeshire with the extent to which schools seek the devolution of budgets. Secondary schools in Cambridgeshire—in the main, they should properly be described as village colleges—are happy to have delegation of budgets, and will take it on. However, many primary schools have not

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been as confident about taking on that responsibility. They either want the process to happen in stages, or they want to take on delegated budgets in concert with other schools, in partnership arrangements or under the umbrella of one of the schools to which they feed their pupils.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does not my hon. Friend agree that it is dangerous to set such hard and fast rules as perhaps were implied by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady)? Some very small schools were extremely successful as grant-maintained schools. They include the famous school in Cheshire that had more governors than pupils when it became grant maintained.

Mr. Lansley: I will always defer to my hon. Friend in his knowledge of the successes and experiences of schools that used the autonomy available under the grant- maintained scheme. I shall not dwell on that matter, save to say that it is possible, under new clause 10, to have a permissive arrangement by which schools that do not benefit from automatic exemption can opt themselves out of the process, so to speak. However, I suspect that we will soon find that, as schools use autonomy and demonstrate the benefits that accrue from that in terms of raising standards for pupils, other schools in the area will think of going in the same direction. Happily, that is what was increasingly becoming the case with grant- maintained schools.

It seems to me that Conservative Members want to ensure that there is a presumption in favour of a power to innovate for schools, except for those schools whose governance, demonstrated accountability and performance are clearly inadequate when it comes to using that autonomy constructively, and which must therefore be excluded. In other words, do we want to ensure that there is a presumption in favour of autonomy for schools, except for a category of schools that have not demonstrated that there would be reasonable confidence in their communities that they would use that autonomy well? If so, would these new clauses deliver that effectively?

8.45 pm

We have not dwelt much on new clause 5. I have the greatest respect for my local government colleagues. Indeed, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association I declare an interest, and I want, wherever possible, to support the views of local government. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will repeat what he said on 11 December: where there is to be a substantial use of the powers, it will be done through and in consultation with local education authorities. That point is important for the LGA and its members would be happy for the Minister to reiterate it.

That should not mean that new clause 5 is implemented, however. There is a risk that, by freeing LEAs from the constraint that the Secretary of State must remove any requirement placed on them, LEAs would be able to establish schools and to overturn existing planned infrastructures; for example, if they did not welcome measures taken by a school to take over LEA responsibilities or to implement its own schemes for admission and so forth. That would be undesirable.

The autonomy that we want will be exercised by schools on behalf of their pupils. That is the boundary that we want to set. If LEAs are offered the possibility to

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exercise that exemption from education legislation on their own behalf, it would be a much wider extension of their powers than we want. The Secretary of State might then have to reimpose limitations on LEAs, as their ability to act autonomously would be far too wide.

Such powers are incompatible with the nature of a local education authority as distinct from a school. An LEA is, in essence, a creature of statute. With the exception of certain recently introduced general duties to the population of the area, people in LEAs—like those throughout local government—know that they are operating within statutory confines. They know where their powers lie; they know what lies within those powers and what is outside them.

In that sense, a school is not a creature of statute. It is a community that may have been established outside statute, but has been brought into the maintained sector because of the funding stream. If we gave an LEA the autonomy proposed in the new clause, it might act in such a way that it became difficult to hold it accountable because it had disapplied its statutory limitations. A school, however, is inherently accountable to its own community.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend's point gives me an opportunity to deal with an aspect of new clauses 5 and 6 that I failed to address during my earlier remarks. If we consider the new clauses as a suite—one relating to LEAs and one to schools—it might be reasonable to assume that the power to innovate under new clause 5 related to the LEA own activities rather than to those of schools. However, has my hon. Friend considered that, taken separately, new clause 5 might allow LEAs to take and implement powers with regard to schools in the area without the permission, consent or agreement of those schools?

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend is following the same line of thought as me. New clause 5 would enable an LEA to disapply legislation affecting it. In effect, the LEA could take upon itself the power to restructure its funding relationship with all the schools in its area and to change the planning framework. As my hon. Friend made clear, the LEA could restructure its responsibilities for special educational needs and the statementing of pupils. Given the nature of the powers in clause 2 that new clause 5 would vary, the LEA would also have the power to restructure its services and activities in relation to schools and pupils outside its area. In effect, we would create competing authorities.

Competition may be a good thing, but we have not contemplated competition between local education authorities that are free to disapply education legislation and enter into a free-for-all in an urban area. I am not sure that it would be wise to contemplate that on the basis of new clause 5, which seems to contain none of the subsequent safeguards that should be imposed, whereas I feel much less perturbed by new clause 6. Under new clause 6, such freedom would be given to the governing bodies of maintained schools. That would fit the philosophy of many schools, as they were established as self-governing communities, so new clause 6 seems perfectly reasonable.

The issue therefore with new clause 6 is not whether it is right in principle, but whether it is effective, or defective, in practice. That is rather different, and it is

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where I part company with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. Under subsection (4) of new clause 6, with the stroke of the Secretary of State's pen, all the control that the Secretary of State wished to exercise over the power to innovate could be reintroduced, but that could be done in a more damaging way because of its drafting. To prevent schools from using the powers that they would be given under new clause 6, the Secretary of State would probably have to designate many of the requirements imposed under education legislation as a whole.

Under new clause 6, the Secretary of State would not be allowed to designate those requirements imposed under education legislation in relation to a specific subset of schools. It would be sensible, for example, to think of a new form of qualifying school, as is implied in subsequent clauses that we shall be discussing, and apply that to new clause 6.

Mr. Willis: I follow the drift of what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he accept that new clause 10 has the same defects? Unless the Bill stated the ways in which schools would be allowed innovate, we would fall into the same trap. I am trying not to inhibit schools from innovating in the ways that they want to innovate, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is also trying not to do that. We do not know how schools will innovate; if we did, we could prescribe much more easily.

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