Education Bill

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James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the freedom he proposes is a large one? If it were adopted, schools could opt out of the whole of the national curriculum and the whole national pay and conditions framework, without any reference to Government.

Chris Grayling: I have tabled an amendment to a later clause that addresses the hon. Gentleman's point about the national curriculum. The teaching profession and the Government will eventually have to address the issue of national pay and conditions, given the huge difficulties of finding teaching staff in south-east England. The cost of living in some parts of the country is vastly different from that in other parts and we shall have to address that in looking at the framework for pay and conditions in schools. The presumption that innovation is a good thing and that schools should have the ability to innovate with relative freedom rather than having to go through a complex and difficult qualification process must be the best approach.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that some elements of the grant-maintained school system did not work as well as they should. The whole foundation of grant-maintained schools was democratic, with local parents deciding whether schools became grant maintained. In many cases, unfortunately, it became a political rather than an educational battle. If the hon. Gentleman is correct in his assertions, he will surely agree that it cannot be

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right to allow only some schools to innovate. Grant-maintained schools delivered excellent quality, but the fact that not all schools were grant-maintained made it more difficult for those changes to be seen across the board. Similarly, the system advocated in this Bill, whereby only a select number of schools have the right to apply to be innovative, cannot be the best way forward. The presumption should surely be that every school should be given the flexibility to innovate, unless there are compelling reasons, such as special measures, not to do so.

To set limitations will inevitably mean that the best-run schools with governing bodies that have the time, professional skills and ability to go through a complicated application process—probably the schools that were grant-maintained and that are now foundation schools—will benefit. There is no mechanism in the Bill that would give struggling inner-city schools that are beginning to turn themselves around the freedom to innovate. The measure will simply allow the best schools, which always emerge at the top of the pile, to do so again. To give all schools the freedom to innovate must be a better approach than simply putting limitations on what is happening.

I want to make one point on the issue of child care, in response to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough; I shall return to the issue as our debate progresses. I have serious anxieties about the way in which we regulate the pre-school sector. As the hon. Member for Don Valley knows, because I raised the point in the House last week, I am anxious about the amount of regulation that we impose on what should still be a relatively informal developmental environment. We are far too prescriptive and elements of the Bill continue that process.

I would feel profoundly uncomfortable about supporting the amendment of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, not because I am in any way unsupportive of child care, early years education or nursery provision but because that sector is being sucked into the educational mainstream in legislative terms and is being subjected to too many of the norms applied to secondary and primary schools. As that process develops, not only are many of those groups being driven out of business, but the people who run them find it far more difficult to do the job that many of them do so well. That is why I am profoundly uncomfortable about bracketing child care provision with an Education Bill that is fundamentally targeted at the older years of education.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): To reinforce my hon. Friend's point on early years provision, when I was a member of the sub-Committee of the Select Committee, we took evidence on those matters. It would be helpful to direct all Committee members to the evidence sessions in that inquiry. While the report came out broadly—with some reservations—in favour of prescribing training for all those concerned with child care, a considerable amount of evidence placed a higher value on parents and the community in the earlier years, which are increasingly overlooked. I hope that the evidence sessions will inform the

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Committee's considerations on not being over-prescriptive, particularly regarding early years provision.

Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for that information. It reinforces my view that we should not allow the Bill to continue the process of over-formalising early years provision. We must get it absolutely right and find the best balance between an informal environment and developmental facets. The balance is not right in this country at present and I do not want the Bill to make the imbalance even greater.

It must be the correct approach to give schools the right to innovate as a matter of course. That right should be removed only where there are compelling educational reasons for doing so. The balance is wrong in the Bill. I commend my hon. Friend's amendment.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West has already spoken to the amendment tabled in his name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, and I do not wish to waste the Committee's time in reiterating his points. I would like to probe a little further on amendments Nos. 75 and 76, which were eloquently presented by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I would not necessarily have suggested that the matters referred to in amendments Nos. 75 and 76 should appear at the beginning of the Bill, but as the hon. Gentleman has made that suggestion, I would like the Minister's assurance that special educational needs and child care appear at the beginning of the Government's draft of the Bill. If they are not, I would not take it as an indication from the Minister that those are not considered extremely important subjects. They are indeed extremely important and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is right to have raised them at this point in our deliberations.

Amendment No. 75 deals with child care. Will the Minister assure us that the Government do not consider child care to be merely some sort of by-product--an added extra--of education? Does he agree that the care of small children is the beginning of their education? Thankfully, in most families the duties of early child care and, therefore, the beginnings of education are undertaken by parents or grandparents, in the community or in the family. However, families in some areas of the country are less fortunate and, in those cases, providing early years care and therefore education gives small children the best start in life.

I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for Don Valley. She is chairman of the all-party child care group, of which I am vice-chairman. That does not mean that we entirely agree on all of the issues, but I know that she gives this matter high priority—indeed, she said as much this morning—and so do I.

12.45 pm

I seek the Minister's assurance that we are not to assume that the Government do not give the matter high priority simply because it does not appear near

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the beginning of the Bill. I look forward to examining the issue later in part 9. I hope that we will have more time then to explore the Government's plans.

Likewise, I wish to probe further on amendment No. 76, which also was eloquently proposed by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. The issue of special educational needs is not being handled properly and is causing chaos in some parts of the country. Some education authorities simply cannot cope with requests for statementing. Many families cannot deal with the long wait between requesting a statement for a child and the exploration and granting of one.

The theory of inclusion for children with special educational needs works well in some cases, but is a complete disaster in others. Recently, special educational needs has been seen as a single problem, but it is far from that. There is an enormous range of needs. A slight inability to read because of dyslexia, for example, is simple to deal with by inclusion in the main stream. A child may need an extra hour or so each week or some minor assistance. However, at the other end of the spectrum are conditions such as Asperger's syndrome, which is serious and often not detected until a child is past the age at which something might be done to help him or her. To suggest that small children with Asperger's syndrome should be treated in the same way as children with mild dyslexia, by inclusion in the main stream, is to treat the problem as less serious than it is. It is an increasingly serious problem.

Inclusion does not always work, and the disruption of mainstream classrooms by children with serious problems that should be dealt with in another way is becoming a problem. Let us make no bones about it: the education of other children in classes in which children with severe learning difficulties are included is being affected.

The amendment contains many implications for the budgets of schools and LEAs, and for the work loads of teachers and teaching and care assistants. Most importantly, there are enormous implications for the foundation of children's learning ability. I shall not take up more of the Committee's time on the issue now, but I hope that we will have plenty of time to discuss it in parts 6 and 10 of the Bill in a few weeks' time. I seek the Minister's assurance that, just because the Government have not put special needs in the first clause of the Bill, it does not mean that they do not give the issue high priority.

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