Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: I shall endeavour to be brief. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. He cited the example of the Oratory, and there is no doubt that many schools across the educational spectrum seek contributions from parents in different ways for different purposes, and that could cause legal problems given the clause's loose phrasing. The Minister should address that point.

There is another aspect to this discussion, to which my hon. Friend did not allude. Does the Minister think that, rather than making it possible, the clause risks excluding the involvement of private sector educators in the establishment of academies? I think back to what has been probably the greatest educational scandal in this country in my lifetime. Some of our greatest state schools, such as Manchester grammar school, were forced out of the state sector. People from all backgrounds in the Manchester area were deprived access to the quality education that Manchester grammar school offered. That situation was replicated throughout the country, with grammar schools being forced to become comprehensives or to move into the independent sector.

I regret the fact that so many former grammar schools are now in the independent sector, and we should encourage some of them to return to the state sector, at least in part. Otherwise, the children whose

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families cannot pay will be deprived of the skills and expertise that those schools have built up over long histories. There may be an opportunity under the Bill for those who are already running successful independent schools to help to establish academies. They could offer their experience, knowledge and even resources to the establishment of an academy alongside existing schools. Perhaps there could be even closer ties. We discussed the right of individual schools in the state sector to form groups. Have the Government addressed the possibility that a group might include private and state schools? They would be provided with common resources under a single umbrella.

A range of innovative ideas could come forward as a result of the legislation, including possibilities that the Government have not envisaged. The Minister keeps telling us that the Bill offers opportunities for innovation, but the stipulation in the clause prevents that.

Mr. Brady: I listened with considerable interest to my hon. Friend, who made an important point. It occurs to me that the Minister has considered some of those possibilities, and that that may underlie the wide powers that he seeks in clause 13, which will allow him to make payments to independent schools to educate any number of children. In effect, he has reintroduced the assisted places scheme, or even the direct grant scheme to which he referred. Is not it odd that in clause 13 he seeks wide powers but in clause 62 he seeks to constrain them?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. The clause risks constraining potential. We have heard much from the Prime Minister and Government Members in recent weeks about their wish to strengthen ties between the public and private sectors and to increase the involvement of private sector management in the education system. We are suggesting not only that private sector companies should be invited to come into the education system, but that educators in the independent sector should be offered an opportunity to come into the state system under the umbrella of an academy. They could share their expertise, resources and the culture that they have built up in their schools to create academies that could offer children from all walks of life an opportunity to turn their education round.

The Government are offering an exciting opportunity. However, I caution the Minister that the clause will make achieving such initiatives more difficult and less likely. I hope that he will give us the benefit of his thoughts on the subject. Would he welcome an opportunity under the academy umbrella for schools such as Manchester grammar to become involved again in the state sector? Does he accept that the clause represents an impediment to such a development?

Mr. Timms: We are spending a long time on the issue. I shall respond briefly, because we have been round this course before. I regret that Opposition Members did not take up the offer made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) to change the order in which the business

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was taken. The knife will fall, but we could have spent more time on some of the clauses immediately following this one.

I am happy to assure the Committee again that we do not intend that academies should be able to levy charges other than in the narrow circumstances in which maintained schools can do so. For example, they can seek voluntary contributions or charge for some school trips. Academies will be treated in exactly the same way as maintained schools in that respect.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West suggested that there was a difference, but there is not. The funding agreement for academies mirrors exactly the charging provisions applied to maintained schools under sections 449 to 462 of the Education Act 1996. We are determined that academies should help to raise standards, particularly in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country. They must reach the pupils who need them most, and allowing them to charge would not support that aim: it would undermine it.

Earlier, I made the point that under no circumstances would the Government abandon their commitment to free education. I urge the Opposition to repeat their commitment on that front. On the basis of those assurances, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

12.45 pm

Mr. Brady: Again, we have had some very interesting exchanges. The Minister says that the funding regime for these schools will be precisely the same as that which applies to maintained schools, yet that is not the structure that the Bill provides. It sets out a completely different definition of the restrictions on charging that will apply to academies. If the regime were entirely comparable to that which applies to other maintained schools, this clause would not be necessary as it stands. It would surely be more appropriate explicitly to refer to the restrictions that apply elsewhere.

The Minister has also made it clear that the powers under clause 2 of the Bill will allow subsections 449 to 462 of the Education Act 1996 to be suspended, thereby opening the door to charging in principle. I am grateful to the Minister for quite properly reiterating the fact that at present the Government have no intention of introducing charges for maintained schools. He asked me to repeat a similar commitment, but I have already gone further than that. Earlier in our proceedings, I gave the Minister the opportunity to include that commitment in the Bill. I do not feel that I need to make any further commitments on that. We have already gone way beyond where the Government stands in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell challenged the Minister, and members of the Committee will note that he did not take up that challenge. Although he has been very courteous in seeking to cover the points that have been raised, he may have caused some raised eyebrows in the Committee, as some hon. Members may have wondered whether my hon. Friend had hit on something.

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Given that the Minister was not prepared to rule out the use of some aspects of the Bill as a mechanism by which some of the former direct-grant grammar schools could be invited back into the maintained sector, we were left to conclude that that is the Government's intention. Opposition Members, and I hope many Labour Members, would welcome that.

At the start of our proceedings, I noted the biographical details of members of the Committee. I am delighted that our nation's grammar schools are well represented on the Government Benches. I would be even more delighted if schools that were forced into the fee-paying, independent sector could be brought back into the state sector, so that they are more widely available to people regardless of their means or ability to pay. The Opposition would welcome that. We certainly have no intention of pushing the Government or the legislation into charging for school places, but we want greater clarity in that regard.

The Minister said that the funding arrangements for academies replicated those from maintained schools, which allow them to seek voluntary contributions from parents of children who attend the school. That is entirely appropriate. It would be very odd if Ministers were seeking to use these powers to prohibit academies, which are more independent, from seeking voluntary contributions, given that they are prepared to permit that practice in the maintained sector. However, the assurance that the Minister happily and clearly gave is not in the Bill, and I do not see where it arises.

It is important to stress that the Minister once again tried to suggest that the Opposition have been unhelpful in the negotiations on the positioning of so-called knives. As I made clear at the beginning of our sitting this morning, the contrary is true.

Mr. Heppell: When these matters are referred to in Committee, I should like to have a chance to respond. I want to make the Government's position clear. We have consistently offered the Opposition more time. To date they have not asked us for a single minute of extra time.

Mr. Brady: It is rather odd that the Government Whip is getting into a high state of excitement, apparently goaded by his hon. Friend the Minister. The Minister raised this point; I did not. I wanted to make it clear that the positioning of so-called knives has caused difficulties for the Opposition throughout our proceedings. It has prevented both Opposition parties from examining those parts of the Bill that we wish to scrutinise. It is absurd to suggest that extra time is available, but that it must be used on those parts of the Bill that the Opposition do not wish to discuss and scrutinise. It is important to put that on the record.

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