Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: The last thing I want is to impose an undue work load. The point about the 15 per cent. threshold is that it is unlikely that many heads or governing bodies will want to make a change that represents more than 15 per cent., except in unusual circumstances. The figure was chosen to add the caveat that if wholesale changes are to be made, there is a duty to consult. In the case of minor changes, the responsibility of a head or a governing body is to take decisions on behalf of the school.

Mr. Willis: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but my arguments remain valid. I shall not return to our debate on clause 6, as I should be ruled out of order if I did so. However, on the subject of disapplication of the national curriculum, the Minister said that most of it would not be disapplied; therefore, having a wholesale change, which I would like to see in many schools, is unrealistic. In the light of my comments, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the amendment to a vote.

Mr. Timms: I am glad to give the hon. Member for Epping Forest the assurance that she seeks about the seriousness with which we take the need for adequate provision for children with special educational needs. That was shown by the launch this week of the new code of practice, circulated on two occasions in the House, which focuses on meeting individual needs. Raising standards for children with special educational needs is an integral and central part of the task of raising the standards of education more broadly. We want to make the process through which schools earn their autonomy as simple and as unbureaucratic as possible. The clause makes it clear that the governing body must consult the parents or pupils in respect of any curriculum provision. I confirm that that will include reference to provision for children at the school with special needs. Parents have a voice through that arrangement and through parental representation on the governing body; we should not lose sight of that in this discussion. I think that the governing body of a successful school would not press ahead disregarding the views of parents.

Ofsted will continue to inspect schools that exercise earned autonomy and to be involved especially with the education that a school provides for children with special needs. That is a further safeguard.

As to the amendment, to prescribe in the Bill the exact proportion of the curriculum and of the parents who support a proposed change would add disproportionately to the bureaucracy, without comparable benefits. I took exception to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), but I agree with him on that matter. Schools are required to consult. It would be an onerous exercise to set up the ballot envisaged and difficult to work out what the 15 per cent. figure referred to and how to calculate 15 per cent. of a curriculum. Safeguards are built into the process and I hope that the Committee, which is right to be concerned about the matter, will accept that they are adequate to protect the interests of parents.

Mrs. Laing: I have listened carefully to the Minister, and I accept his assurance that attention will be paid to special educational needs in this context. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Chairman: Is it the wish—

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I had hoped to speak to the amendment.

Mrs. Laing: May I give way to the hon. Lady?

The Chairman: Order. I had started to put the Question. I am keen to get Mr. Willis back on his feet. Is it the wish of the Committee that the amendment be withdrawn?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 53, in page 5, line 38, at end insert

    'the head teacher and'.

You have redeemed yourself, Mr. Griffiths, and you are back on my Christmas card list.

The Minister may say that the amendment's purpose is covered in the Bill, but clause 7(2) specifies that there will be consultations with the teaching staff, not with the head teacher. I hope that the Minister will simply accept my non-contentious amendment. The head teacher has a role in the school that is different from that of the rest of the teaching staff. He or she oversees performance, recommends performance-related pay awards and implements key policy aspects such as pay and conditions provisions, whatever they eventually will be. Therefore, we must include the head teacher, as well as the staff, to ensure that they have a prima facie role in the consultation process.

Mr. Timms: The sentiment behind the amendment is not contentious, but I hope to persuade the Committee that the amendment is unnecessary. The requirement to consult each teacher includes the head teacher. I am happy to put that on the record to allay any doubts.

In addition, the head teacher will have a full opportunity at governing body discussions to put his or her views. The majority of head teachers are governors, but all head teachers, whether governors or not, can attend all governing body meetings and receive all papers.

I agree that it is essential to take the head teacher's views into account in making proposals about changes to pay and conditions. Governing bodies will have to take careful note of their recommendations, but in many instances the proposals will come from the head teacher. Governing bodies recognise the key role of the head teacher in implementing proposed changes and in ensuring the motivation of staff through times of change. No governing body would take that route without the involvement of the head teacher.

I hope that I have been able to persuade the hon. Gentleman that the amendment is unnecessary. His point has already been taken into account.

Mr. Willis: I am disappointed by the Minister's response, because I thought that my request was reasonable. There is a clear difference between a school teacher and a head teacher. The Government's descriptions of the two posts demonstrate how separate the roles are.

Head teachers have a prima facie role. If there are major changes, particularly as a result of earned autonomy, the head teacher will play a pivotal role. By refusing to include both, the Minister is just digging his heels in; he does not want to change the Bill in any way. That is disappointing. Having aired the issue, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Caroline Flint: I have a brief point. Will the Minister clarify what role pupils at the school will have in the consultation process? Subsection 7(2)(c) says:

    ''in any case, consult such other persons as appear to them to be appropriate''.

Where there are changes to the curriculum it is useful to engage the pupils, if appropriate and according to their age, in some of the discussion. Where does my hon. Friend see young people fitting into that consultation process?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend makes an important point. She is right to draw attention to subsection (2)(c), which gives the opportunity to consult young people, among others. An amendment has been tabled on this matter, and we will debate it at a later stage. The Government agree with her about the importance and value of consulting with young people. We recently funded Schools Council UK, an education charity to produce a secondary schools toolkit to support exactly that kind of student participation in the decisions that affect them. Schools Council UK has already produced a successful version for the primary level. That is just one example of ways in which we are encouraging the involvement of young people in these decisions. I agree that this is important and I hope that it will be adopted more widely.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Removal of exemptions

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 54, in page 6, line 9, after 'body', insert

    'but after consultation with that body'.

This is a small but important amendment. This Government and previous Governments have rightly stressed the importance of the governing body in the implementation of school policy. Since 1998, increased powers have been given to the governing body. Under existing legislation, the governing body has most of the powers regarding schools, not the head teacher, as is often thought.

The amendment seeks an explanation of why the governing body should not be consulted about the removal of exemptions. The clause basically says that the Secretary of State or the National Assembly can make an order to revoke without any application by the governing body. We understand that there may be a need to do that. However, we should like to insert the phrase

    'but after consultation with that body'.

Although we recognise that the governing body might not make the request, if the Secretary of State is to act in a relatively unilateral way, it should have a right to be consulted on the matter. The amendment would simply enshrine in the Bill the importance of the governing body where changes are being made to any element of school status.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has identified an important issue. The clause does not allow for unexpected developments in the history of a school that can affect its results or its performance. The Bill provides for schools to form a federation and, de facto, to become a single school with a single governing body. There could be linkages between less successful schools and more successful schools.

We all hope that best practice in education can be spread to schools with problems. A less successful school might seek the guidance of a better performing school and to share some of its culture, facilities, expertise and so on. In such an environment, as two schools get closer together there may well be fluctuations in the performance of a school. If they truly merge into one school and become a single unit, it is conceivable that there may be ups and downs in its performance that reflect particular arrangements rather than the academic performance of pupils. That is a possible example.

3.15 pm

Equally, demographics change, and every school has its ups and downs and good years and bad years. A school may move down the league table before returning up a year or two later for reasons that are probably beyond the control of the governing body, head teacher or the staff. This is not an exact science. There is a danger that if the Secretary of State has absolute powers to intervene and remove qualifying status, and may do that without referring to those on the ground who know the school's detailed situation, the removal of the exemption would be unfair and would bear no relation to the long-term trends, skills and competences in the school.

I ask the Minister to address the important issues raised by the amendment.

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