Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I want to make a few comments, as my name has been mentioned during the debate.

The Government have been criticised for the number of initiatives that they have introduced, but no one could doubt that, since 1997, they have striven to

Column Number: 30

create opportunities for all those involved in education—teachers, governors, LEAs or even politicians with an interest in education—to improve the ways in which we motivate our children and young people to learn. The norms that I expected when I was at school many years ago are different to those that are faced by children in many of the communities that I represent. Communities were often held together by the work that was offered, such as mining, which gelled the approaches of those communities to education and to the law. That cohesion has broken down over many decades, and we are trying to recreate it. That is why I believe so passionately that we should not treat schools as islands.

Some years ago in the Education and Employment Committee, on which I served with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, the point was made repeatedly that schools cannot operate on the basis that children come in at 9 am and leave at 3.30 pm, and they can have a detached attitude to what happens during their waking hours outside school. We argued for schools to be able to use their budgets more creatively, whether individually or with other schools in their communities, and we considered the use of non-educational resources. That view comes out in the tone of the Bill.

I want to discuss devolution, the powers of schools to get on with the job, innovation, and the role of the state. Politicians of all parties talk about the power to choose, but I must say as a mum, as well as a Member of Parliament, that many parents have little choice about where their children go to school. It is usually the school that is on their doorstep and in their community, because if they go to work they have to get their kids to school first. Other factors also affect their child's education. Many people do not have the means to pay their way out of that situation by going to live in a leafy suburb or paying for schools outside the maintained system. That is why it is so important that our education policy on driving up standards is aimed at every school in every community. It is also why parents need a safety net. They need to know that the buck stops somewhere, and that someone is making informed choices. By having a Department responsible for education and a Secretary of State to represent it, Governments of all shades of opinion have recognised that, because taxpayers' money is used, the Government of the day should drive the agenda on standards and should decide how that money will be distributed.

I was in a beacon primary school a few weeks ago, and teachers said that they referred to one section of their money as Blunkett money, because they defined it as money with which they could do what the hell they wanted. [Interruption.] Hang on a minute. Opposition Members are saying that schools cannot spend the money as they wish. I suggest that schools have and will continue to have more autonomy over how they spend their money than ever before. That slices through many parts of the Bill.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Flint: No, I will finish my point.

Column Number: 31

Schools have more autonomy and more ways to innovate. I refer to the Education and Employment Committee report on the role of head teachers. We found that good head teachers and local education authorities were innovative in many different ways. However, that is not always the case, and there must be a balance between devolution and elected politicians taking responsibility for driving the education agenda.

Mr. David Miliband (South Shields): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are not drawing a stark enough contrast between innovation that goes on daily in schools throughout the country to develop education fit for the children in the individual school, and innovation that breaches national terms and conditions or the national curriculum? There are a multitude of practices under the single word ''innovation'', and it is important to distinguish properly between them.

Caroline Flint: I agree. Innovation is not the property of any one person or group; it has many forms. The Bill is trying to grasp the fact that, at a certain level, it is impossible for schools or other partners, such as the LEA, to take part in some innovative projects. One issue that I will be interested in is examining the scope of the national curriculum, particularly at 14 plus.

The Bill is all about motivating children to learn.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady was talking about the freedom that schools have to spend money. I was pinching myself as she spoke, because I had a conversation no more than two weeks ago with a head teacher who expressed frustration about how little control she had over the money that came to her school. She said that she spends endless hours chasing after little ring-fenced budgets that are not suitable for the needs of her school, and that drives her up the wall. How do her experiences relate to the hon. Lady's? The real world in which the head teacher is working is very different to the one that the hon. Lady mentioned.

Caroline Flint: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one point: funding takes many forms. Some still goes through the LEA and is passported on to schools. The Government have made huge efforts—with Labour LEAs as well as others—to ensure that that money is passported on to schools. There are other sorts of funding. For example, a ward in my constituency is considering having a mini education action zone. Hon. Members may say that it should have the money anyway, and we could debate that, but the fact is that schools can bid for and receive money from the pots for education action zones and other innovations, whereas they could not do that before. That is part of the educational contract under which the Government are committed to driving up standards. The Bill provides that resources will be released to allow teachers the freedom to use innovative methods if they are clearly linked to raising educational standards.

Column Number: 32

I want to make a point about the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. As he knows, I take a great interest in child care. During the summer recess, I spoke at a number of conferences throughout the country about child care and the education White Paper. There is great optimism in the child care sector that the Bill will enable governors to expand their role in community provision. Early years partnerships will enable schools to have more freedom to innovate in that area and to consider issues around the concept of the extended school. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the child care sector has picked up on that, which is why his amendment is not necessary. I think that his point is covered elsewhere, as are some of his other amendments.

In my area, the bottom line is how we raise educational standards. The issue is about those who could achieve much more than they do; the need to ensure a better educational environment for those in the middle of the group; and the achievement of those who, for whatever reason, are socially excluded and need extra support or different ways of learning to enhance their motivation and their enjoyment of education.

It is important that we do not dilute the Bill's opening lines and the core principle of raising educational standards. I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman intends to do that, but I feel sure that his point will be covered elsewhere in the Bill and that the measure's application will become clearer as we proceed.

12.30 pm

Chris Grayling: I shall start by picking up on the final comments of the hon. Member for Don Valley. There is no division in the Committee or the House about the desirability of raising educational standards; the division is about how we reach that point. My great fear about the tone set in the initial clauses is that the Bill seeks to raise standards by over-engineering the education system. As I shall keep saying until I am blue in the face, the consequence is that we shall give undue amounts of work to heads and teachers, making it much more difficult for them to deliver day-to-day quality teaching.

Again, I hark back to a conversation that I had with a primary school head, this time in my constituency, who said, ''What I really want to do is teach. I want to get out of my office and into the classroom to work with some of the kids in the school. The trouble is that so much stuff is coming from central Government that I don't have time to do that.'' My fear is that the process of innovation only through a prescribed route decided and vetted by the Secretary of State will simply add to the complexity of the ''stuff'' with which our head teachers have to deal.

Mr. Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has made two sets of interventions this morning. On the one hand, he made an important point about burdens on teachers and the priority that should be attached to getting them teaching. On the other hand, he argued for greater devolution to schools of various

Column Number: 33

responsibilities that LEAs currently discharge. How does he square that circle? He wants to allow teachers to teach, but he also wants them to get into the business of planning and goodness knows what else, which local authorities currently do for them.

Chris Grayling: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has ever served as a school governor, but if he has, he will have much experience of the amount of unnecessary paperwork that comes out of LEAs, of the number of reports that must be completed for LEAs and of the amount of reporting back that must be done for LEAs. If we add to that the constant stream of initiatives from central Government—a primary school governor recently told me that she had six to deal with by the end of January—it amounts to an enormous and intolerable burden on schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West on his amendment. We approve wholeheartedly of innovation, but it should not be a question of the Secretary of State saying, ''If you do what I tell you, you can be free to do what you want.'' That is a contradiction in terms. The presumption should be that schools will be given greater freedom to innovate, to understand and appreciate the character of their pupils and their areas, and to respond to those needs. The whole process should be one of pushing responsibilities down the line rather than schools being required to demonstrate that they are somehow a cut above the rest so that they can enter a selection process in which the Secretary of State decides whether they will get extra freedoms.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 December 2001