Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: I want to make some comments, with respect to amendment No. 35, about the future of the national curriculum. I have not been completely reassured by the Minister's comments.

Two possible scenarios seem possible. If the Bill is intended to allow a school the flexibility to modify its curriculum to reflect its desire to be innovative and specialised and to offer an additional dimension to its teaching while retaining the fundamental principles of the national curriculum, that is logical. However, if the Government want to bestow complete freedom to move away from the national curriculum, we need to understand that. If the former possibility is what is intended, clearer signposts should be provided to show that there will be limits on a school's ability to make radical changes to its curriculum that would override the basic provisions of the national curriculum.

If the Government intend the first of the two scenarios that I have suggested, the amendment does not amount to a radical change; it would draw the line between sensible curriculum modification and a move towards curriculum anarchy. If it is not intended that schools should be allowed to depart entirely from the national curriculum, the Minister should be able to accept the amendment in the spirit in which it is put forward. I seek substantial clarification of the safeguards in the legislation that would stop a school from heading down a path so radically different from that of the national curriculum that it would fundamentally change the nature of the education that pupils received.

I strongly believe that the national curriculum has made a significant contribution to education. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has mentioned the limitations of the scope and nature of the curriculum. Nevertheless, it is essential for schools to have a fundamental platform on which to base their teaching if standards are to improve. I would feel deeply uncomfortable if the Bill did not close loopholes that might allow that platform to be removed.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I am listening with care, but I am not clear what my hon. Friend understands the objectives of the national curriculum to be.

Chris Grayling: I see the objectives as providing a basic set of signposts for schools about the teaching that they are expected to provide in basic subjects such as maths, English and so forth. It is a framework to enable schools to deliver the fundamentals of teaching, and we should ensure that that remains so. We do not expect many schools to move off at such a tangent that they radically change what they are doing. However, the legislation would allow a school to re-engineer its

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curriculum entirely away from the standards set by the Government. A line should be drawn between freedom to innovate and freedom to make wholesale change in a way that changes the nature of teaching. That is the line that I hope we will not cross.

Mr. Willis: I shall speak about the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil and me.

Amendments Nos. 44 to 47 are probing amendments. They build on what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West was trying to deal with in his amendments. I am trying to find out from the Minister whether the total limit of earned autonomy is simply the national curriculum and pay and conditions, or whether it will touch on other areas. In each of the amendments, I have sought to insert a phrase that broadens its scope. If the Minister does not accept the amendments, is he saying that earned autonomy extends purely into those two areas and nowhere else, and that the Government do not envisage any extension to it? Last weekend, head teachers spoke to me about issues including selection, admissions policies and religious education, particularly for children from single-faith schools who come into the maintained sector. I should like an assurance on the record that the Minister does not propose any extension in terms of earned autonomy. That is the purpose of the amendments.

Amendment No. 81 picks up the issues raised by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. I understand his concerns. While I had grave reservations about what was done to us in 1988, we now, particularly after Lord Deering's review of the national curriculum and what has happened since, have a workable national framework. That has a number of advantages. My party and I still believe that it is too prescriptive and that schools need more flexibility within a broader framework. I think particularly of what constitutes a modern foreign language. It is quite insulting that we cannot use many eastern European or Arabic languages, which would be appropriate in certain areas. We seem to think of foreign languages as being only European—basically, French, German and Spanish.

9.30 pm

Mr. Brady: Schools in my constituency tell me that it is no longer possible to recruit teachers of French, Spanish or any of the other modern European languages. The avenue that the hon. Gentleman is exploring might help solve some of the teacher recruitment problems.

Mr. Willis: I shall not rise to that.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell makes a valid point about what has been achieved. One achievement has been the recognition that today's society is much more mobile than previous ones. My family—and perhaps the families of those hon. Members who are 20 years younger than me—lived most of their lives in the same place. We grew up, went to school and went to work in the same areas, but that does not happen now. In some inner London

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constituencies, one family in three moves each year. That is massive mobility. For that reason, stability in the curriculum is important.

The Minister has not yet made clear what parts of the national curriculum schools can disapply under part 1. I am sorry, Mrs. Adams, to have to speak about clause 80, which helpfully brings the Education Act 1996 up to date. Is the Minister saying that no school will be able to disapply the core subjects of mathematics, English and science in key stage 3, but that schools will have the opportunity to vary the foundation subjects, from technology to a modern foreign language, under the powers given in part 1, if not in parts 5 and 6? If they are not allowed to vary those subjects, what is the use of having that power?

I am trying to be objective and to accommodate the legitimate points made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, but we need to allow experiment. I must tell the Minister—this will take only an hour—that I visited Stockholm recently to look at secondary education provisions there. I visited a school with a significant number of Turkish immigrant children. It also had a fairly large population of Kurdish children and Finns and other nationalities that lived in the area.

Although Swedish, English and mathematics were the core national curriculum subjects, the head teacher decided that everyone would be taught in English, not Swedish. The whole curriculum was taught in a foreign language. In the playground, children spoke Swedish. At home, they spoke their mother tongue. At school, they were taught in English. I found that environment incredibly exciting and vibrant. If the Bill is applied literally, as the Minister suggests, we would not be able to do such things here. That would be a great sadness, because innovation can be enormously exciting. With amendment No. 81, I am trying to get clarity from the Minister on that important area.

I agree with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, although he did not make this specific point, on the need to maintain a broad balanced curriculum for youngsters through to the age of 14 and the end of key stage 3. I have no objection to a subject framework, but we should not believe that a collection of subjects equates to a curriculum. A curriculum is far more than that, and I want schools to be able to approach those subjects in many different ways and deliver an exciting and vibrant curriculum to young people. They need to turn them on, particularly in those areas where they are not turned on and are opting out of school earlier and earlier.

Caroline Flint: On modern languages and flexibility, I applaud what the hon. Gentleman said about considering other forms of languages and mother tongues in communities. However, I would like to address a situation that certainly exists in schools in my constituency, where children have huge problems with their mother tongue of English. No matter how much I might, in my heart, like all children to learn a second language, it concerns me greatly that some children who do not feel confident with their own language are placed under enormous stress by being expected to start on a foreign language as well.

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Special needs children come in 1,001 varieties, but some have very difficult communication problems, particularly with their own language of English, verbal or written. I hope that that would be considered. Such consideration should not be absolute, but until children reach a certain level of competence in their own language, we should be mindful about pressuring them with a second one.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue. A full debate is required to do justice to it. I agree with a significant amount of what she said. My personal view is that 11 is too late an age at which a child should start to learn a modern foreign language. If we genuinely want to engage young people in a foreign language, it must be done much earlier. I would like children to do something exciting with languages at the end of key stage 1.

I have reservations about some of the things that the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) have said about immigrants and language. Although I accept that the issue is important for young people, if we are going to integrate people whose first language is not English into our society, we must first recognise them as individuals, and recognise their culture, faith and language.

One of the exciting things that one finds in Scandinavia is a statutory right for children from other countries to be taught in their own language for a minimum time each week. That immediately says, ''We value where you've come from, your language and your heritage, and we will build on your skills.'' If we can combine both those ideas, we can start to do some exciting things.

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