Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: The Minister issued a challenge. I commend him to look at two areas. First, the curriculum books provided to nurseries are too complex and substantial—we are talking about thick documents—to be digested and implemented by the staff of those schools, who are often mothers or fathers working a few hours a week. Secondly, as a result of Ofsted inspections, schools have to create lesson plans that are excessively onerous and which require them to do a substantial amount of work outside paid hours. That is feedback directly from providers in my constituency.

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Mr. Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those two examples. On curriculum books for the foundation stage, it is not the thickness of the book—that is insulting to the provider—but the content that matters. I will certainly raise the issue with my ministerial colleague, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, on the basis that a member of the Committee feels that the curriculum guidance for the foundation stage is unnecessarily bureaucratic.

As one would expect, I speak to teachers all the time and they sometimes talk to me. There are differences of opinion about lesson plans after an Ofsted inspection. Many teachers increasingly find the outcome of Ofsted inspections helpful and supportive as a guide to lesson plans and other issues. It is wrong to make the blanket statement that Ofsted inspections that may cause teachers to have another look at lesson plans or at the way in which they do things are too burdensome and onerous. There is no evidence for that.

Mrs. Laing: I accept the Minister's point but does he accept that many providers of early years education are extremely concerned about the recent change that requires them to be inspected by Ofsted when they were previously inspected by the social services department of the local authority? That change has occurred and I do not say whether it is good or bad—I hope that it is good because we all want the system to work—but I ask the Minister to recognise that there is concern among providers and to undertake to keep the matter in the forefront of his mind as he watches his Government's policy evolve and work in practice.

Mr. Lewis: For as long as I am in post, the hon. Lady has my assurance that I will look at that. In any service or walk of life, change always brings fear and insecurity. That is not a reason for refusing to make change or for refusing massive expansion in early years education and child care. It is a reason for implementing change sensitively and in partnership with providers and parents. It is vital that we do not use fear of change as a reason for preserving an unsatisfactory status quo.

I agree with the hon. Lady that providers will understandably have concerns when an inspection and regulation regime is changed, but good communication and clarity of roles and responsibilities—fundamentally at local level in respect of the early years partnerships responsibility—will allay many of those concerns. I hope that the hon. Lady is satisfied with that assurance.

Mrs. Laing: I am satisfied and glad to have the Minister's assurance on that point. As for the whole of clause 149, it was a delight once again to hear a Minister more or less say, ''This is what the Conservative Government did, so it must be right.'' That is fine by me.

Clause 149 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 150 and 151 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 15 agreed to.

Clauses 152 and 153 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 154

The registers

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

Mr. Brady: I seek some brief comments on the requirement for independent schools to register. I have had contact with one of the main representative bodies for such schools, the Independent Schools Council, and it stresses that it is relaxed about the new registration standards under the Bill, not least because it believes that they will be lower than the standards that it requires ISC schools to meet. The ISC goes on to say:

    ''We are wholly in favour of rapid action to deal with bad independent schools: at the moment it tends to take far too long to get an inadequate independent school closed''.

The requirements are uncontentious for many independent schools, but they would welcome reassurance from the Minister on one matter: the extent of the changes that will require formal re-registration. The ISC says in its letter to me:

    ''While of course changes in the character of, and education provided by, independent schools need to be notified to the DfES under a clear procedure, we are anxious that only major changes should require formal re-registration (and would be very glad of an assurance from the Government on that point)''.

I hope that the Minister will assure us that only major changes will require formal re-registration, and that a petty and inconsequential change in circumstances or status will not.

Mr. Lewis: I think that I can give that assurance. The difficulty centres on the definition of the word ''major''. I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman, because the meaning of that word could be disputed in the future. The letter that he referred to suggests that the independent sector feels that the legislation is appropriately balanced. I would go further: the legislation is more than reasonable with regard to the standards the sector applies to itself. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that the definition of the word ''major'' will be consistent with that spirit. There will be some discretion, and we would expect a common-sense approach to be taken to any changes.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance. I have no intention of ensnaring him on a definition of ''major'', but I was hoping that he would give his own definition, and flesh out the circumstances in which formal re-registration would be necessary.

Mr. Lewis: I would like to clarify the re-registration point. If there is significant change, the only requirement is to notify the DFES, which has to approve it. That is not a burdensome process. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to clause 158(2):

    '''material change', in relation to a school, means—

    (a) a change of proprietor

    (b) a change of address, or

    (c) a change to the school in respect of any of the matters referred to in section 156(2)(a) to (e).''

That puts a framework around the definition of changes that would be regarded as major or significant.

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Mr. Brady: As I understand the Minister's remarks, the definition of ''major change'' is comparable to that of a ''material change'' in clause 158. He would not expect schools to have to re-register unless there was such a material change.

Mr. Lewis: I confirm that the hon. Gentleman's understanding of what I said is accurate.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to the Minister for providing the statement of policy on independent schools. I propose to develop my points in debating the proposed amendments to clause 155, but I would like to refer him to page three of the statement, which says that a school will achieve overarching objectives in the curriculum by providing

    ''full-time supervised education . . . which incorporates objective and systematic coverage of the broad areas of learning''

including technology. I am sure that the Minister will remember that during an earlier sitting I referred to Rudolf Steiner schools, which take a particular view of the relevance of technological education, especially at an early age, and how damaging it can be to a child's development. I neither share that view nor disagree with it, as I have insufficient knowledge and understanding to make any judgment. However, the Government are immediately in danger of ruling out several successful schools by their definition of standards in their policy statement. Will the Minister indicate the force of the statements, which I accept are draft statements, and the extent to which he and the National Assembly for Wales—the registration authority for the Principality—are willing to accept that there are ways of doing things different from those that are conventionally acceptable?

12.45 pm

Mr. Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making a valid point. I referred to a pilot project with three Rudolf Steiner schools, which shows the Government's willingness to be flexible and sensitive on these issues to allow for particular circumstances. I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment to consider the wording of the draft statement, to use his phrase, to ensure that it does not create an unnecessary problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 154 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 155

Unregistered schools

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 554, in page 90, line 8, at beginning insert:

    'Save as under section [New Independent Schools].'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 549, in page 90, line 9, at end insert:

    'save under subsection (8) below.'

No. 553, in page 90, line 30, at end insert:

    '(8) A person may conduct an independent school which is not registered subject to the following conditions—

    (a) that in all literature, websites, advertising, contracts or other information circulated by or on behalf of the school it is made clear at every references to the school that it is ''unapproved'', and that such information contain a statement of the information in (c) below

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    (b) that each parent of any pupil, each year, and each parent of any applicant for admission, prior to accepting a place, be told in writing that the school is ''unapproved'' and be given the information contained in (c) below

    (c) the information is that the school is neither inspected by or on behalf of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector nor registered to meet certain standards by the Secretary of State or (as the case may be) the National Assembly for Wales.'

New clause 9—New independent school—

To move the following Clause:—

    '(1) Sub-section 155(1) shall not apply to an independent school—

    (a) before the Chief Inspector has undertaken his inspection and the registration authority determined whether to register the school,

    (b) within the first twelve months of its establishment unless the school has re-opened with substantially the same management and premises as a former independent school which has been refused registration or removed from the register of independent schools in the previous five years.

    (c) within the first twelve months of a change of proprietor, unless that person has within the previous five years been the proprietor of a school which has been refused registration or removed from the register of independent schools.'

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