Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would clarify that point. His party has talked in the past about significant government devolution within England. Would he prefer different education systems in different parts of England, too?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman knows that the Liberal Democrat party is in favour of regionalisation. The population of the area where I live and work in Yorkshire and the Humber is exactly the same size as that of Scotland. Therefore we see no reason why Yorkshire and the Humber should not have the same powers as Scotland to innovate, disapply tuition fees and give quality care to the elderly. The hon. Gentleman and his party do not share that view, but it is entirely legitimate and we can debate it.

I fundamentally disagree with the Government's idea—the Bill is a classic example—that they should take more and more powers to the centre and use them in whatever way they wish, with secondary legislation and regulation, irrespective of the views of the House and areas of England. That idea should be challenged, and the Minister should respond to that.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I confess that I am a little puzzled as to where the hon. Gentleman and his party stand on this issue. He has criticised grant-maintained

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schools and our free schools proposals, yet he has welcomed the measures that the Government are introducing that will give greater discretion to individual schools, and he wants to prevent the Secretary of State from deciding whether that discretion should be devolved to schools.

The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he believes in greater powers for schools, but he does not believe in the Secretary of State having a role in deciding which powers should be given to schools. He wants clarity in the Bill, so why is he talking about regional systems, when it might be better if the decisions were made, say, on the Isle of Wight and not in Woking?

Mr. Willis: With the greatest respect, I wish that the hon. Gentleman would follow the debate. I was responding to a reasonable question in a legitimate intervention from one of his colleagues. Perhaps I should not take interventions, because if I do, I get into trouble for responding to it.

Mr. Turner: It is the way the hon. Gentleman responds.

Mr. Willis: It's the way I tell them—but we shall not go into that.

On Second Reading, I asked the Secretary of State to give the Committee the definitions of a successful school and a failing school. I remember having an exchange with the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), with whom I enjoy debating, about the definition of a failing school. I went back to a definition that was given in a Department for Education and Skills press release of 1 March 2000, which referred to

    ''The new benchmark—with no school having fewer than 25 per cent. of its pupils gaining 5 good GCSE passes''.

Schools that did not meet that benchmark would have special measures applied to them, including being teamed up with a beacon school, being introduced into fresh start or bringing in super heads. All those issues were raised after 1 March 2000.

11.45 am

In an article in The Times on 5 September, when the White Paper was introduced, the Prime Minister said:

    ''Our best schools are outstanding, but 480 schools—one in seven of the total—secure five good GCSEs for fewer than a quarter of their pupils. This is unacceptable.''

He did not qualify or include a rider to that statement about schools' performance. While some Opposition Members may accept that definition, I and other hon. Members do not. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who has worked in some demanding schools in his time, would also accept that that extremely narrow definition of a failing school is unacceptable. It is therefore important to ask whether we should have such a definition.

Amendments Nos. 75, 76, 77 and 78 follow a pattern. They seek to broaden the definition of innovation and success. At present, all that can be varied for schools is the national curriculum and the terms, conditions and levels of pay for staff. If that is the Government's total vision for secondary schools

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and the future of secondary education, God help us. The amendments would extend innovation into other key areas. I hope that the Minister will accept that the Government must envisage far wider discretion for innovation.

Amendment No. 75 would include innovatory child care projects within the scope of the powers given to schools. The Minister and the hon. Member for Don Valley would be the first to accept that child care and early years education are crucial in raising standards. Indeed, all hon. Members would surely accept that. Many years ago I worked as the head of a major secondary school. We had the power to run our own daycare centre in the school, and did some experimental work with Leeds university and the Institute of Education in that regard. The amendment would encourage innovative approaches to our schools, rather than applying these measures just to the curriculum and working conditions. Clauses 25 and 26 may provide schools with sufficient scope to innovate in other ways. If so, I would accept the Minister's view on the matter.

Amendment No. 76 deals with the improvement of special education provision. The link between raising educational standards and developing new special education provision can be difficult. Our survey of 240 so-called challenging schools showed that one of the problems that many of them face, especially in our inner cities, is the significant rise in the number of children with special educational needs in deprived areas. I think that the Minister would accept that. It is often the schools with the greatest challenges in raising standards, whatever that means, that also face communities of youngsters with other special needs that must be addressed. For example, two additional children with special educational needs can distort the performance of a small primary school. One of the most exciting aspects of the Bill is that it will allow some secondary schools to act differently. On Second Reading, I tried unsuccessfully to talk about my sadness that the schools with those difficulties that need to innovate the most, because they are not successful on the Government's terms, will be denied the ability to do so.

The point behind our amendments is that, if we gave all schools these powers, we would enable those that face more challenging circumstances, particularly in special educational needs, to use more exciting methods. The Minister will know that I spend much of my time working with integration projects for children with special needs in different circumstances. When we were operating in Leeds, we became a centre of excellence, particularly for children with severe learning difficulties. We attracted a significant population of those children, and it was a great sadness that they had an adverse effect on our examination performance, on which we were judged. I say that they had an adverse effect, but they also had an enlightening effect on our school. Nothing in the Bill would enable that school to operate in an exciting way, and the Minister must address that.

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Amendment No. 77 deals with social inclusion projects. The purpose is to find out whether the powers in the Bill would be sufficient to allow a school to run its own pupil referral unit.

Chris Grayling: I am grappling to understand the difference between the hon. Gentleman's position and that of the Conservative party. My colleagues and I have argued for giving schools more broad-ranging powers and the freedom to decide their own fate and how they operate, instead of the convoluted process of limited engineering, controlled tightly by the Secretary of State, that allows only a select few to have some powers. We want schools to take the decisions that concern them and benefit their pupils, and I am at a loss to understand the difference between our positions, as we both want much greater freedom for schools.

Mr. Willis: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, and there are two responses. Some of us lived through the grant-maintained saga—[Interruption.] With respect to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), it was not a success, but an absolute debacle. It created massive divisions in our education system.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I will just finish my point. I am glad that I have roused the hon. Lady.

The grant-maintained saga created huge divisions in the system. Approximately 1,000 schools became grant maintained and, in doing so, took resources from other schools in the area, as that was the way that the system worked. Those schools did an enormous amount of cherry picking of students, which had a skewed effect on the exam results of most local authorities.

Mrs. Laing: I was officially asking the hon. Gentleman to give way because I should not have made my comment from a sedentary position. Now that he has given way, I should just like to point out that he and many Labour Members are obsessed with divisions in education, instead of paying attention to raising standards, which the Bill purports to be about. Grant-maintained schools raised standards enormously in certain places, but not in every area because not all schools became grant maintained. Grant-maintained schools worked exceptionally well, to the enormous benefit of hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr. Willis: I do not wish to cast aspersions on the achievements of grant-maintained schools, many of which achieved a great deal. I am delighted at the success of any school, but I reject the view that giving one school virtually all an authority's capital budget and increasing its funding by about another 17 per cent. should be regarded as equity. It was the inequity of that system that had to be—

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Prepared 11 December 2001