Education Bill

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Mr. Willis: I do not wish to speak to amendments Nos. 69 and 70, because I suspect that they have been tabled to the wrong part of the Bill. However, amendments Nos. 29 and 30 are extremely important and require detailed analysis and response by the Secretary of State.

I believe, both as an individual and as a representative of the Liberal Democrats, that if we are to liberate the requirements of the national curriculum it must be done with a semblance of order to ensure that young people continue to have a broad and balanced curriculum. It continues to worry me that some aspects of specialist schools could distort that provision.

I hope that when the Minister responds he will concentrate on key stages 3 and 4, or the extended key stage 4 for the 14 to 19 curriculum. There is a fundamental difference in the disapplication of the national curriculum at key stage 4 and above. As I said on Second Reading, the Government are right to have a major review of the 14 to 19 curriculum and the organisation that goes with it. We are at one with the Government on that, as is the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West.

It is necessary to consider separately the criteria for key stage 4, or 14 to 19, and for key stage 3. Especially at key stage 3, the need to retain the breadth of curriculum that is offered to all young people is incredibly important. I mean that not only in respect of a group of youngsters of a certain ability at key stage 3. We should not cut off areas of the curriculum to children with special needs or particular difficulties. In statements made by the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), it is worrying to note that when examining the primary curriculum he decided to remove music and art as compulsory requirements for key stages 1 and 2. That sent out all sorts of wrong signals.

At one extreme, set curricula have been prescribed in the past, as happened in 1988—the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West will agree that we learnt lessons from the mistake of saying what every child should do. However, nor should we go the other way and say that during their formative years we should deny our young people opportunities to have a broad and balanced curriculum that includes the arts, particularly art and music. Such a curriculum should also include humanities, social sciences and religious education because they are all important areas.

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I should like the Minister to reply to the point about key stage 3. On the subject of issuing guidance about what can be disapplied, or what the framework for disapplication might be, he must remain mindful that key stage 3 is important. Key stage 3 guidance should be separate from that for key stage 4, and he should withhold guidance for the latter until we have been able to address the issue of the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds.

Mr. Brady: I am with the hon. Gentleman on at least 90 per cent. of his argument. However, I should like to press him a little on a worry that I have. Welcome as a relaxation of the curriculum for the 14-to-19 cohort may be because it provides for a more vocational or work-based aspect to their education, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that should be an aspect of education, not its totality? I would be rather concerned if that group of young people were taken out of school and out of a broad curriculum, however defined, and put in a solely vocational and workplace-based training situation.

Mr. Willis: If I have given the hon. Gentleman that impression, I apologise profusely. That is certainly not the case. We will be lost if my party, or any other party, goes back to the bad old days of a division between vocational and academic education, as if the two can be separated like sheep and goats—one lot going off on an academic path, the other on a vocational one. If that is the vision, I want nothing to do with it. [Interruption.] I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) who is saying from a sedentary position that that is not the case. I was simply trying to respond to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and ensure that he did not go home tonight and toss and turn in his bed agonising over what I may have meant.

I urge the Minister to give us clear parameters for key stage 3 and to leave key stage 4, in terms of advice and disapplication, until we have had an opportunity to consider where we are going with the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds.. Although innovation is important and we support it, the framework in which it takes place is also important. Increasingly, there are national considerations for key stage 4 and beyond, and I think that a desired objective of the Government—certainly, one of ours—is to increase participation beyond the age of 16. That must be a fundamental premise for whatever we do with the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds and it requires careful guidance. We do not want to go back to a situation where only the privileged continue in school to key stage 4.

In respect of disapplying the curriculum, will the Minister give me his thoughts on what will happen to religious education and say whether it will become something that could be disapplied? Will the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education, which looks at religious education syllabuses throughout local authorities, be disbanded? That would allow individual schools either not to teach religious education and to be disapplied from the agreed

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syllabus of a local authority, or to pursue fairly fundamentalist religious teaching. I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance on those issues.

Chris Grayling: I want to make a few points. I have great concerns—they are reflected in an amendment that I have tabled to the next clause, but clearly relate directly to this debate—about the nature of the national curriculum once the proposed provisions are implemented, if indeed they are.

There is no doubt in my mind—I think that this is now widely accepted—that the national curriculum, albeit following some teething problems, has made a major contribution to raising educational standards. It was no coincidence that the generation covered by last week's Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey of the standards in British schools tallied almost exactly with the lifespan of the national curriculum. It worries me that this legislation risks significantly undermining the national curriculum.

If all we are talking about is some limited ability to change the curriculum—to add some diversity or an extra dimension to what a school is doing—then I have no problem. However, the sweeping provisions proposed would in theory allow a school to go far beyond simply adjusting its curriculum to increase the diversity of teaching offered to its pupils. I would like some clear caveats in the Bill.

I echo the view of many head teachers—and some of the aspirations that lie behind the provisions—that we can be too prescriptive in our schools. Many heads say that they do not have the freedom and flexibility that they would like to offer additional dimensions to the education in their schools to reflect the needs, desires, wishes and culture of pupils. That is without doubt desirable. My concern is that there are no proposed limitations to such flexibility, and that a school that meets the criteria under this legislation could make wholesale changes, with no clear benchmarks, framework or guidelines as provided by the national curriculum. Essentially, they could do what they want.

After the positive contribution to our education system that the national curriculum has made, it would be a retrograde step to allow curriculum anarchy. That, at its most extreme, is the potential consequence of this legislation. There must be enough flexibility to allow schools to reflect their desire for diversity, but not such great flexibility that their curricula can go in significantly different directions.

Caroline Flint: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have had much discussion about safeguards relating to the Secretary of State—whoever it is at the time—authorising such measures, and that the bottom line is that schools will be able to apply for the ability to implement them only if they are connected to raising educational standards? That will be the basis on which any such freedom can be agreed. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that anarchy will reign in our schools. He cannot have it both ways: he cannot talk about free schools and then say that there will be anarchy as soon as they try to apply such freedoms.

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Chris Grayling: The hon. Lady misses the point that the provision allows not simply limited changes, but wholesale restructuring of the curriculum. I support the principle of free schools and allowing heads freedom to take decisions in the interests of their schools, but I do not believe that that should be taken so far that we scrap the national curriculum. I do not see any clear safeguards in the Bill to protect the national curriculum.

We are talking about rights to amend curricula and conditions that are earned through performance. They are not earned through application. They are almost automatic rights for certain schools. Those schools could take radical decisions on their curricula without reference to the Secretary of State. If I am wrong on that point, I hope that the Minister will correct me.

Up to a certain point, that is desirable, but the question is where to draw the line between heads having sensible freedoms to operate enlightened management policies in their schools and the national curriculum going out of the window. I am concerned that the legislation does not define that line. It leaves to schools' individual judgment which direction they want to go in. That is foolhardy, given the degree of success that the national curriculum has engendered in many of our schools.

8.45 pm

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