Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: I welcome the discussion. A valuable conclusion to be drawn from it is that both sides of the Committee support innovation and the possibility that becomes a reality. I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough spoke about promoting, rather than simply facilitating, innovation, because some people may say that there are dangers here. It is helpful that the whole Committee supports innovation. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley reminds us that the Select Committee unanimously supported similar measures over an extended period. It is helpful to know that unanimity exists on this matter.

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Adding the words ''promote and'' would not help: if anything, it would slightly hinder. However, I welcome the spirit of what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said.

The two routes to innovation in the Bill have caused confusion. At the moment, we are debating powers to facilitate innovation. I emphasise that any school can apply to exercise the powers under chapter 1. That is not the case with the powers set out in chapter 2, familiarly known as ''earned autonomy'' and described here as

    ''exemptions related to school performance''.

When we consider that provision, we shall examine which schools will qualify for exemptions because that is related to their performance, and the criteria for performance. Those issues do not arise in chapter 1.

At face value, some Opposition Members appeared to suggest that anybody should be able to change the law without reference to Parliament. Opposition Members cannot really support that proposition. It is vital that a process is gone through if the law is to be changed in the way that applicants propose. In passing, I note that schools that wanted to become grant maintained also had to apply to the Secretary of State.

It is misleading for Opposition Members to suggest that the provisions are unduly bureaucratic. I emphasise that any school can apply for the power to innovate. A weak school may have a partnership proposal to work with a good school, which could be approved under the Bill. Some Opposition Members assumed that those powers would not be available for weak schools. It is an important aspect of the Bill that those schools will be able to apply for them.

Mr. Brady: The Minister makes an interesting comparison with the Secretary of State's past role in grant-maintained status applications. A school in a constituency adjacent to mine had a parental ballot in favour of GM status. There was no educational reason why the school should not move to GM status, but the 1997 general election intervened between the application and the Secretary of State's approval. The parents of that school were denied their will because the Secretary of State exercised an opinion that was not based on educational grounds. That could be avoided by requiring the Secretary of State to have good reason to veto a proposal.

Mr. Timms: Conservative Members are in a small minority in lamenting the passing of grant-maintained schools. The last Conservative Government may have said no in certain circumstances, even if there was a ballot in favour. However, there was a process of application to the Secretary of State in that instance. If that point establishes that Conservative Members accept the need for an application to the Secretary of State, we have made some progress.

Amendment No. 40 proposes leaving out the words,

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

but the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough would accept that a judgment must be made about whether a decision raises standards. The Secretary of State would take advice on that, but

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ultimately, only a Minister of the Crown or the Welsh Assembly can make a parliamentary order to change the law.

The amendments raise important issues about equality of opportunity and special education provision, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest also mentioned. In passing, let me point out, perhaps pedantically, that the amendments put the issue of the improvement of social inclusion into the wrong part of the clause, but I shall not dwell on that. It is worth being clear that we would consider the full effects of any proposal, and that if those issues were damaged, the Secretary of State would not conclude that the proposal would raise standards.

Chris Grayling: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms: In view of the time, I shall not give way, as I need to make progress.

I can assure the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that if the Secretary of State is satisfied that a proposal will contribute to raising standards, she will permit it. In judging whether standards are raised, she will consider, for example, the impact on the provision for special educational needs. I hope that that also helps the hon. Member for Epping Forest.

We do not propose that there should be innovation for innovation's sake, which amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would create. The intention behind the Bill is to raise educational standards. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley made the important point that we must continue to focus tightly on raising those standards, because that has such a big impact on social inclusion later in life.

On the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, the Secretary of State will judge the proposals, and she would rightly be cautious about seeking to extend her powers to make determinations over a wider range of activities. As has been pointed out, many of the initiatives, including extended schools, the ability to provide child care in schools and the ability to contribute

    ''to the development of schools in their communities''

—to use the wording in amendment No. 78—are provided for elsewhere in the Bill. I draw hon. Members' attention especially to clauses 25 and 26, which have been mentioned.

We want head teachers and governing bodies to make proposals, which we expect to be varied and to contribute to the wider community. We do not want to constrain innovation by seeking to define it tightly or by introducing prescriptions that would make it more vulnerable to judicial review or would create a charter for lawyers, as I believe amendment No. 3 would do. It is neither possible nor practical to require the Secretary of State to set a measurable test by which those proposals can be judged.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms: I apologise, but I do not think that I can.

The key test would be whether the proposal would contribute to the raising of educational standards. We believe that, given the clear accountability framework,

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we can be much less prescriptive than has been typical, and can therefore unleash creativity in schools so that teachers can lead the next wave of education reform.

There was some comment on last week's announcement about grammar non-selective partnerships. The Green Paper—published on 12 February—was clear about those partnerships. It stated:

    ''We want to encourage more partnerships between grammar schools and secondary moderns in the future so that they can share expertise and learn from each other . . . We will provide additional funding to encourage this collaboration and in due course to extend it to all selective areas.''

Last week, I gave details about how that commitment has been implemented.

Mr. O'Brien: I had hoped that the Minister might feel it appropriate to give way, as we could have dealt with the point more briefly than he has.

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On his objection to amendment No. 3, I was struck by his concern that it was a charter for lawyers, although I have no reason to declare an interest as a solicitor who ceased practising 14 years ago. With regard to amendment No. 1 and consequential amendment No. 2 on Wales, I am concerned that the word ''innovation'' encompasses innovations of different types, as the exchange between the hon. Members for Don Valley and for South Shields showed.

Although the Minister prays in aid that the focus must be on raising standards, there is no clarification of the various meanings of the word ''innovation'' in the Bill. Without amendments Nos. 1 and 2, and especially amendment No. 3, there would appear to be a much greater danger that the Bill would become a charter for lawyers and that many schools would be disappointed under part 1.

        It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Adams, Mrs. Irene (Chairman)
Brady, Mr.
Coaker, Mr.
Flint, Caroline
Francis, Dr.
Grayling, Chris
Heppell, Mr.
Kumar, Dr.
Laing, Mrs.

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Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Miliband, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Purnell, James
Timms, Mr.
Touhig, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr.

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