Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: A difficult tightrope.

Mr. Brady: Yes, a difficult tightrope. The Minister is confident that worthwhile innovation will be spawned by the measures in the Bill, and, like me, he wants such worthwhile innovation to flourish over a period of three years, and renewed for a further three years. Even with recourse to the facilities of a bullying, control freak Government Whips office, surely the Minister cannot be confident that, should the present Government remain in office, it will be possible to bring primary legislation through the House in time to renew a valuable scheme that has proven its worth in improving the education of children. It is truly bizarre that, in the context of a Bill that gives the Secretary of State vast new powers, Ministers are so coy and reticent about schemes that have proved their worth and value.

The Minister went on to say that there were two other routes, one of which was an extension of the earned autonomy provisions, which can be done by order. The Minister is again contradicting his earlier point. If my amendment is inappropriate, how can it possibly be appropriate to make a permanent change by order extending the earned autonomy provisions? That is nonsense. I suspect that the truth is that the Minister does not believe that there is scope to do all that may be necessary under clauses 1 and 2.

The Minister then went on to discuss a third way, the regulatory reform order. If that is a viable alternative, why has it not been used before to allow innovation in education?

5.30 pm

The Minister's contribution was not a serious attempt to justify the Government's position, and it was not worthy of him. He said that it would be wrong for innovation to continue for decades, because, by definition, it would not be innovation. In an earlier exchange, the Minister suggested that a particular amendment would be a charter for lawyers. However, in his remarks a few moments ago, he applied a partial definition to innovation. Surely, he is aware that our remarks in the Committee can be considered by the courts.

If the Minister really wants a genuine opening up and flourishing of schools through innovative projects, I hope that he will reconsider his remarks and accept that innovation can continue and that, clever and far-seeing as he or other members of the Committee may be, we cannot always anticipate innovations that may make significant differences.

Several hon. Members rose—

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Mr. Brady: I am spoiled for choice. I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury first.

Mr. O'Brien: There is a world of difference between innovation as an identifiable outcome or product, and innovation—the Minister more accurately used the phrase ''innovative proposals''—that is more a way of life, a culture, an attitude, or an approach, whether in school, business or any walk of life. The Bill presents innovation as something that is identifiable and measurable.

The use of the word ''innovative'' has caused further confusion, which has been rightly highlighted by my hon. Friend. There has been no clarification of the word used, which is crucial to the Bill and important with respect to the cultures that exist in schools.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am pleased that I took his intervention when I did, as the Minister is away at the moment. The discourse on the subject might have been much longer had I not. My hon. Friend's comment casts doubt on the Government's commitment to innovate.

Mr. Willis: The longer the hon. Gentleman speaks on the amendments, the more difficult it becomes to make progress, because we do not know what is in the Government's mind with respect to innovation. The comments of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) about innovation, whether in the commercial or the public sectors, were also pertinent.

We wanted not only a new Bill, but all existing education legislation to be taken away and rebuilt to provide a framework that would allow genuine innovation to flourish. With the Bill, we have the worst of both worlds. We are retaining existing legislation—including the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and the Education Act 1996—and we are trying to allow for innovation by disapplying bits of that legislation, rather than having a genuinely reforming Bill that gets rid of much of that legislation and allows innovation to flourish with the minimum restriction. That is the problem that we have in dealing with the Bill.

Mr. Brady: I am slightly concerned at the number of times I have agreed with the hon. Gentleman today, but he makes an important point. If Ministers were really committed to the flexibility that many members of the Committee would like, they would be following a different route. Even given the constraints of the Bill and the powers that Ministers are giving themselves, we have had no real indication so far of how they want to use them. Perhaps that makes it all the more remarkable that I am prepared to trust Ministers as far as I said I would.

There is no consistency, rationale or common sense in the approach that Ministers take in the Bill. It is contradictory and bureaucratic. Ministers propose to return to the House in due course with further primary legislation. They may say that a proposal has been demonstrably working for the last six years, but although they had power and primary legislation before, they did not have the power to keep it going. I

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hope that, on reflection, the Minister will agree that it would be sensible to remove the restrictions. If he does not, I shall seek to divide the Committee.

Mr. Timms: I shall take just a few bold strides further up the mountain. I was going to say that the hon. Gentleman was arguing contrary to the position that he had previously taken, but then I discovered that he was arguing in both ways in the same sentence. In one breath, he says that we are taking vast new powers and that that is unjustified, but in the next breath he says that we should make them vaster still. I say that that is wrong. The procedure in the Bill is appropriate for piloting projects, but other procedures are more appropriate for a permanent change to the law.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked what would happen if a bit of the Bill was dropped. That is precisely why the Bill makes provision to extend an order for a further three years. A regulatory reform order can be obtained in no more than 18 months, so the intention is well covered.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 4]

Brady, Mr. Graham
Grayling, Chris
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Laws, Mr. David
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr. Phil

Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Flint, Caroline
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Heppell, Mr. John
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Miliband, Mr. David
Purnell, James
Timms, Mr. Stephan
Touhig, Mr. Don

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Brady: On a point of order, Mrs. Adams. Could you clarify whether we voted only on amendment No. 4, or on amendment No. 7 also?

The Chairman: The Committee voted on amendment No. 4.

Mr. Brady: It was my intention to press amendment No. 7 to a Division as well.

The Chairman: It will have to be taken later. We will take amendment Nos. 5 and 6, after which you can move amendment No. 7 formally.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 38, at end insert—

    ''(3A)Before making an order under this section, the Secretary of State or the National Assembly shall have regard to such guidance as may be published by the Chief Inspector''.

The amendment would impose a rationale on the decision-making process. It would create a new subsection (3A). The amendment would not remove clause 2(3), which allows the Secretary of State or the Welsh Assembly to consult the chief inspector. I contemplated deleting that subsection and replacing it

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with a requirement to consult. However, I am anxious to be helpful, and to avoid an explosion of bureaucracy for schools or the Department for Education and Skills. We are keen to see the Department working as smoothly as possible.

It seemed sensible to take a different approach. The amendment requires the Secretary of State or the Welsh Assembly to

    ''have regard to such guidance as may be published by the chief inspector''.

As the Minister commented, there may be many orders under the provisions. Some may be relatively small in scope. Rather than requiring Ministers to consult the chief inspector on every occasion, which may hinder him in carrying out other duties, the amendment would allow him a degree of authority in the process. Guidance could set out specific elements of innovation that are unhelpful and elements that have been demonstrated to improve standards, or set criteria of value to Ministers in understanding where innovation has been successful.

It is not a contentious amendment, and I hope that the Minister will accept it and urge his hon. Friends to do the same. It would improve the process by ensuring that when the chief inspector has clear strong views about the application of measures relating to innovation, Ministers would be expected to take them into account.

5.45 pm

Mr. Willis: We do not support the amendment, and I am sorry to break ranks with the hon. Gentleman. We seem to have been getting on so well, with our pig on a tightrope pushing a boulder uphill.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: It was an elephant.

Mr. Willis: We seem to have got smaller during the day.

There is a query about the role of the Office for Standards in Education in England and the chief inspector in Wales or England. We have argued consistently that Ofsted should have a new developmental role, rather than one of pure inspection. The Committee should consider what the former chief inspector would have been able to do with such powers. I know that the hon. Member for South Shields was a personal friend and that he often dined in his palatial apartments. [Interruption.] I do the hon. Gentleman a disservice; he only worked at No. 10. The former chief inspector assumed powers that he did not have. He spoke continually on matters of education for which he did not have a direct responsibility. To give a chief inspector powers to create guidance for innovation would be unacceptable, and I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will agree.

Ofsted and the chief inspector have a clear role. Ofsted has won much support from our schools for the temperate way in which the present chief inspector has gone about his business. The new Ofsted regime uses a light touch, which has built confidence in schools. The thought of giving Ofsted new powers to create guidance for innovation would send out all the wrong signals. I am surprised, given the leanings of the hon.

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Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, that he should want another body to put out regulations. I trust that, on reflection, he will realise the error of his ways.

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Prepared 11 December 2001