Education Bill

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Mr. Brady rose—

Mr. Timms: I shall give way in a moment. We have not heard much from Conservative Members on that issue for a long time. The motion did not give the impression that it is still their policy to promote free schools and to cast off the constraints imposed by local authorities, and we would welcome clarification.

Mr. Brady: Does the Minister believe that the only way in which a school can be democratically accountable to parents and the local community is through an LEA?

Mr. Timms: The motion clearly implied that democratic accountability can be achieved through local authorities, and there is much merit in that view. It will be even more interesting to Government Members if the Opposition propose a new mechanism for democratic accountability of schools that does not involve local authorities, and we look forward to hearing more about that in the Committee.

Chris Grayling: The Minister will be aware that, over the years, the Conservative party has believed consistently that we should entrust head teachers and governing bodies with more powers. It is not for me—a new member of the Committee—to talk about party

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policy, but I strongly believe that what is missing from the Bill is the ability to give powers to head teachers and governing bodies.

Let me give the Minister a practical example. The Bill provides entirely for successful schools, but a great success of the grant-maintained school system was to give freedoms to schools that had underperformed so that they could turn themselves around and become successful. That is completely missing from the Bill.

Mr. Timms: Like the hon. Gentleman, I would like to know his party's policy on that issue and I hope that we shall be informed of it during the debate. His point about work load was raised on Second Reading, and teachers and head teachers share his concern. As proceedings continue, we shall see that several parts directly address that issue and allow us to make major strides in dealing with it in the way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in her lecture to the Social Market Foundation a few weeks ago.

As several hon. Members pointed out in helpful sedentary interventions, it is important to stress that the process is voluntary for schools, LEAs and qualifying bodies. They can apply if they feel that that is in the interests of raising standards in their school or area. We are not imposing the process on anyone, and I assure the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that many schools will want to apply for the freedom provided by part 6. That will, of course, involve them in additional work and planning, but many schools will want to take up the opportunity because they can see the value of using the measures to raise standards.

Mr. Brady: The Minister clearly believes that many head teachers and governing bodies will seek to take advantage of the provision. How many LEAs does he believe will do so, and does he believe that the provision will be popular with them?

Mr. Timms: I certainly expect to see applications from LEAs.

Mr. Willis: The debate has been interesting, especially in the light of Conservative Members' admissions that they have no education policy at all. That is a starting point for the future, if nothing else. I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the main principle behind the amendment, which is to consult, and is not as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight described it.

Consultation is anathema to the Conservative party. The assertion that democratic responsibility and accountability and the Conservative party go hand in hand is a contradiction in terms. We have heard it today and we shall certainly hear it in future debates. We want to establish the consultation of local education authorities, not to return to the bad old days when the local authority was the provider of all services as a monopoly supplier. We accept that those days have gone and that modern local authorities see themselves as enabling bodies to raise standards in schools.

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However, we reject the view of the Conservatives and, increasingly, the Government, that what happens to one school does not have an impact on another in the same area. The purpose of consulting the local education authority, which is at present the only democratically elected local body, is to ensure that one man's riches do not create another child's poverty. That is what happened with grant-maintained schools: the principle was established that local authorities were not consulted. There was a direct relationship between a group of parents and a ballot, the fractured management of the school and the Secretary of State.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: Let me make this point before the hon. Gentleman gets too excited. What happened with many grant-maintained schools—Conservative Members who were in government at the time should remember this well—created great problems locally in terms of admissions and the disproportionate use of resources. The amendment attempts to address that impact. Although we would have preferred to see it in the Bill, we are grateful that the Minister has conceded that, in regulation, both here and in clause 4, it will be made a condition that local education authorities have to be consulted. With that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 74, in page 1, line 6, after ''to'', insert ''promote and''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 40, in page 1, line 8, leave out

    'in the opinion of the Secretary of State,'.

No. 75, in page 1, line 9, after ''standards'', insert ''or childcare provision''.

No. 76, in page 1, line 9, after ''standards'', insert

    ''and the improvement of special educational provision''.

No. 77, in page 1, line 9, after ''standards'', insert

    ''and the improvement of social inclusion''.

No. 1, in page 1, line 9, after ''England'', insert

    ''; there shall be a presumption in favour of innovation except where the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to prevent it''.

No. 31, in page 1, line 9, after ''England'', insert

    ''and promoting equality of opportunity''.

No. 78, in page 1, line 9, after ''England'', insert

    ''or the development of schools in their communities''.

No. 2, in page 1, line 11, after ''Wales'', insert

    ''; there shall be a presumption in favour of innovation except where the National Assembly for Wales has reasonable grounds to prevent it''.

No. 32, in page 1, line 11, after ''Wales'', insert

    ''and promoting equality of opportunity''.

No. 3, in page 1, line 12, at end insert—

    ''(2A) In subsection (1) 'innovation' means any change from existing practice in a particular school, educational institution or part thereof''.

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Mr. Willis: I expected the first group of amendments to receive the Minister's assurance within about five minutes so that we could move on, because this group concerns the substance of the clause. I hope that we can have a massive debate on the principles at stake.

Amendment No. 74 moves on from some of the Minister's comments on the last group of amendments. Hansard will show that he emphasised that he wanted to see the promotion of innovation, not simply its facilitation. He also made the point, which Labour Members supported, as I did, that local education authorities could apply to innovate in order to raise standards. We would like to see in the Bill the words ''to promote'' as well as ''to facilitate''. To promote is a proactive activity; to facilitate is passive. Does the Minister accept that, for both qualifying bodies and schools, our system has consistently prided itself on the promotion of innovation and we would like to see it take place again?

The amendment also raises the cost of innovation. Although cost is mentioned in the explanatory notes, it is unclear where the additional resources to promote--or, indeed, to facilitate--innovation will come from.

Amendment No. 74 examines the issue of promotion but also raises the question of funding for innovation and whether additional resources will come from the standards fund or from the new funding stream that will result from changes to the standard spending assessments and the funding of local authorities and schools. Where does the Minister expect the resources to come from to promote and to facilitate innovation? At present, the only resources available are special Government grants to specific schools. There must be resources to support the initiative if there is to be wide-scale acceptance by schools and local authorities.

Amendment No. 40 is, perhaps, the most important that the Liberal Democrats propose in this sitting. It seeks to remove from clause 1(1) the words

    ''in the opinion of the Secretary of State''.

I hope that Conservative Members will support the principle of what we are trying to achieve, because it is a key issue. Before we leave the clause, we require answers from the Minister to three questions. First, can he explain what ''earned autonomy'' means? It goes to the heart of what the Government seek to do. Secondly, can he define ''a successful school''? Thirdly, can he define ''a failing school''? Those three terms are used constantly. They were used on Second Reading and have been used by the Prime Minister and various Education Secretaries and Ministers throughout the lifetime of this Labour Government. It is important that we put the meaning of those terms on the record, either in the Bill or in the regulations.

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman is jumping ahead by addressing points that will be raised under clauses 5 and 6 and onward. Those are the earned autonomy, not power to innovate, sections.

Mr. Willis: I am perfectly happy for the Minister to reply that he will answer my questions when we discuss those clauses. However, within our discussion of the

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group of amendments—particularly amendment No. 40— I am trying to wrap up the essence of what the Government seek to achieve in facilitating innovation, and the Liberal Democrat response to it. The two go together.

The Minister must tell us why the Secretary of State alone should have such powers. Why do they fall within her remit? If the Government believe, as I do, that the vast majority of schools throughout the country perform well, why should we not assume that all schools and LEAs should have those powers, unless there is a good reason for them not to have them? That is at the heart of our discussion. Ofsted says that an increasing number of schools and LEAs are performing well and that some of the problems in LEAs seem to have been rooted out. If that is so, why do we not allow them those powers, subject to certain qualifications? For example, a school under special measures or even a school that is showing serious signs of weakness could not take up those powers.

There is a fundamental difference between the Secretary of State, who is saying that she must have control of the whole process—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Don Valley rightly says that I do not believe in a national system of education, but she does. With respect, if the Government want a centrally directed and centrally controlled education system in which everyone dances to the same tune, they should be honest enough to say so. If the Government want to achieve that, they can. They have such a system in France and in other countries, but I do not believe that we should have that here. With your experience in Scotland, Mrs. Adams, I am sure that you will have seen different education systems that reflect local conditions. The same applies in Northern Ireland and in Wales, as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) will attest.

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Prepared 11 December 2001