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Standing Committee G
Tuesday 22 January 2002
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 554, in page 90, line 8, at beginning insert:
'Save as under section [New Independent Schools].'—[Mr. Brady.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Pike. I trust that you have lunched well. I had Cumberland sausage and red onion marmalade, which I strongly recommend.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive a certain disjunction between what I say now and what I said this morning. We discussed the fact that people choose different sorts of education. Sometimes we may think that they are bonkers, but they are simply choosing a particular type of education. I appreciate that the Government want to regulate in such areas to minimise the risk for parents and students. However, in a wholly regulated system there is a danger that new ideas may not be developed. My amendment No. 553 sets out certain conditions under which those who choose schools that lie outside the framework of regulation may continue to do so. The school should make it clear at all stages that it is unapproved and has not been inspected or registered to meet the standards of the Department for Education and Skills or the National Assembly for Wales. I tabled the amendment not because those who choose that kind of education are right to do so, but because they have a right to do so. They have a right to take responsibility for their children's education and to do the best for their children.
New clause 9 relates to the creation of new independent schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) baldly said, anyone who runs a school that is not registered is guilty of an offence. I explained that it is difficult to see how it is possible to establish a new independent school in those circumstances. We therefore propose three simple exclusions from that bald statement of an offence. First, someone will not commit an offence if they run a school before the chief inspector has undertaken his inspection and the registration authority has determined whether to register the school. Secondly, someone will not commit an offence within 12 months of the school's establishment. I exclude the possibility of a new school having the same management or premises as a former school that was refused registration or that was removed from the register. Thirdly, someone will not commit an offence if the proprietor changes, unless the new proprietor has, within the previous five years,
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been a proprietor of a school that was removed from the register.
I am concerned that it might be possible for those who are already in the marketplace to work with the Government to keep newcomers out. That happens quite often in situations where the Government are considering introducing regulation. We are familiar with this practice in a range of retail sectors and if we are not careful, we will also be familiar with it in regard to schools.
The present providers of independent schools should not be the only ones providing for the future and without the amendment, it might be possible to keep new entrants out of the market. Nor do I believe that independent schools necessarily provide good value for money at the moment. Indeed a report by Dr. John Mark, entitled, ''Standards in Spending—Dispelling the Orthodoxy'', demonstrates very well that
''although independent schools are good at providing higher standards, they do not necessarily, grade by grade, represent good value for money in crude terms.''
That is not to say that parents are wrong to choose to spend their money in this way, nor that it is wrong for money to be spent in this way. If parents choose to spend their money on independent schools, it may be that they are buying something extra, other than additional grades. However, my concern is that the Bill provides no opportunity for new independent schools.
Finally, I commend to the Committee the words of Sir Osbert Sitwell, who, when asked where he was educated, wrote in Who's Who, ''during holidays from Eton.'' That is of course one of the most important components of any child's holiday. I understand perfectly why parents choose to spend money to send their children to independent schools, secure in the knowledge that the bulk of their education is being provided outwith those establishments.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Pike. I trust that you have had a good lunch too.
A number of important and interesting points have been made about the amendments, but in general there is a significant difference of opinion on these issues. I will try to address the points that have been made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner).
One of the first points that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West made related to the criminal offence element of running an independent school on a non-registered basis, outside legislative requirements. The Bill does not create a criminal offence, because it is already an offence to run an independent school that is not registered or provisionally registered. The wording in the Education Act 1996 is very similar to the wording in this legislation, which talks about being guilty of a criminal offence in those circumstances.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Perhaps I should have referred to the ''maintenance of'' a criminal offence, rather than the ''creation of'' one. I was concerned about the point at which a
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person's action becomes a criminal offence, rather than the fact that there should be a criminal offence. I hope that the Minister will address the more substantive point that I raised about the circumstances in which there may be difficulties in registration, and whether flexibility should be allowed.
Mr. Lewis: The hon. Member for the Isle of Wight asked how one could inspect a school and decide whether it was fit for registration before the school was actually open. Clearly, the existing situation would prevail. Prior to registration, a school has to demonstrate that it is fit for purpose. There is a range of issues to consider, including the quality of the physical environment, the staffing arrangements and the proposed curriculum and a range of objectively reasonable measures, with which the Independent Schools Council would have no problem. The provision is entirely reasonable. It is not about keeping new players out of their market. I do not accept that. A number of objective factors, such as the preparations, plans, structure and leadership, can reasonably be considered before a school is due to open to see whether it is fit for the purpose and can get up and running once it is registered. As I said, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point.
The point about a criminal offence is relatively straightforward. If a potential proprietor of a school, whether an individual or a company, is aware of the law but chooses to set up and run a school outside the legislation that the House has approved, they will be breaking the law. Surely one of the first issues that a responsible adult seeking to set up a school should address is the legislative regulatory framework surrounding that decision. They will be perfectly aware that starting to run a school pre-registration is a criminal offence and will know the consequences of so doing. There is no attempt to mislead people. Frankly, anyone who does not check the legislative requirements is not fit to run a school.
Mr. Turner: The Minister referred earlier to provisional registration. Section 465 of the 1996 Act provides for provisional registration, but I see no such provision in the Bill.
Mr. Lewis: I can confirm that. The Government do not believe that provisional registration works. Indeed, a range of instances shows how it has been abused and how provisional registration may be granted, but then matters drag on. It is then much more difficult to close a school because of the disruption to pupils and employees. Surely the sensible way to proceed is to ensure that, from day one, everyone is clear about the rules of the game. A proprietor must meet certain standards provided for in legislation. That concept is not difficult to understand; it is quite straightforward. An individual who tries to get round the legislation in the way that I have described is not fit to be running a school in the first place.
Mr. Brady: The Minister has referred to provisional registration not working. It may be convenient for the Committee if he gives some examples.
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Mr. Lewis: I do not have examples to hand. However, I am willing to write to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Turner: The Minister has referred to achieving standards. I think that I am correct in saying that a school that does not meet achieve the standards prescribed under clause 153 will not be fit for registration. Again, I thank the Minister for the information on the clause that he circulated, which runs to 12 fairly closely typed pages. It states:
''We envisage that the regulations will provide that the teaching in independent schools must enable pupils to learn and fulfil their potential''.
Teachers will meet the objectives if
''they show good understanding of the subject matter being taught, in the way they present and discuss it and develop essential skills''
and if they
''show good understanding of the aptitudes and needs of the pupils''.
How can they understand the needs of pupils if there are no pupils because the school has not opened?
The objectives will also be met if
''lessons are well planned, appropriate teaching methods are deployed''
''pupils are well managed''.
The Minister has been trying to respond to the question about how a school that does not exist can be inspected, but he has not yet done so successfully.