Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: The criteria used in the registration process are applied in a common-sense way. There is no precedent of an inspector making an unreasonable judgment about fitness for purpose, for example, because the school is not yet up and running. No one in the independent sector is claiming that.

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No one on the Committee would expect a school to open if the premises did not meet basic health and safety standards. Someone seeking to set up a school should be able to demonstrate to an inspector that the curriculum that they propose to teach is adequate. They should be able to demonstrate satisfactorily that there are adequate provisions for staff checks, police checks and accountability. The issue is not as complex as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight seeks to make it, unless he wishes to open the door to people who, for a variety of reasons, are not fit to run schools in the independent sector. I am sure that he does not intend that. As the Independent Schools Council and others have said, that would undermine the reputation and standards within the independent sector. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's concern.

Mr. Turner: I am not seeking to prolong the debate unnecessarily, but clause 156(4) states:

    ''The Chief Inspector shall then inspect the school and report to the registration authority on the extent to which the independent school standards are met, and are likely to continue to be met in relation to the school.''

Similarly clause 157(1) states:

    ''Where a school has been inspected under section 156, the registration authority shall, taking into account—

    (a) the report of the Chief Inspector under that section, and

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    (b) any other evidence relating to the independent school standards,

    determine whether those standards are met, and are likely to continue to be met''.

The clauses are in the present tense. If the Minister means what he says, they would have been better in the future tense as well.

Mr. Lewis: It may help the hon. Gentleman—or it may not—if I say that we intend to table an amendment to clause 153 on Report. It will ensure that the powers in the Bill are broad enough to allow us to set standards. There has been significant consultation with the independent sector. We are able to introduce the Bill, which represents a consensus on the issue, because the independent sector accepts that it offers a reasonable way of making judgments. The hon. Gentleman's argument is that people in existing schools do not welcome competition from outside, but that is not a reasonable premise.

The hon. Gentleman's comments about the Summerhill case raised an interesting and important issue. The Ofsted report listed six separate complaints. The school accepted three of them but appealed to the independent schools tribunal on the other three. I shall briefly discuss the complaints about which there was not agreement. That may help us define ''reasonable'' in the context of inspectors making decisions in sometimes difficult circumstances.

Complaint 2 was that there were insufficient working and accessible toilets for the numbers and gender of pupils and staff. At the beginning of the tribunal, Summerhill demonstrated that it had repaired the defective toilets and installed additional toilets to meet the requirements. On that basis, it was agreed that the complaint should be annulled: a common-sense response to concerns that were expressed, which Summerhill may have disputed. However, it acknowledged the problem and put it right.

Complaint 4, the second complaint about which there was a difference of opinion, expressed the need to improve teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom. There was concern about poor attendance at lessons. The third complaint was about improving assessment. As a result of those complaints and discussion at the tribunal, there was a settlement. At the end of that process, the agreed settlement included measures that tackled those issues. The school agreed to provide a stimulating learning environment and timetabled lessons, including suitable class-based lessons and self-supported study programmes. It agreed to make a more systematic assessment of pupils' learning progress and needs. As part of the settlement, the school agreed that it had significant progress to make in the areas that the inspector identified as problematic.

Mr. Turner rose—

Mr. Lewis: I have not finished. I shall consider giving way to the hon. Gentleman when I have. Ofsted felt that it was desirable that Summerhill should encourage pupils to attend lessons or undertake suitable private study, not force or manipulate them into doing so. That was the basis of the agreement, and

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the school agreed to follow and implement the terms that it set out.

Mr. Turner: The Minister said that the school should ''provide'', whereas the statement said that the school should ''continue to provide'', which does not involve an admission that the school was not providing a stimulating learning environment. His quotation suggests that the school was not providing such an environment.

Mr. Lewis: That is the last time that I shall encourage the hon. Gentleman to intervene. The discussion proved that the inspection process is beneficial: having disagreements, resolving which decisions taken by the inspectors are reasonable and seeking to achieve a practical and sensible way forward in a tribunal. That shows the benefits of an even-handed and fair approach to inspection and the tribunal.

In later clauses, which refer to proposed changes in some contentious areas, we will go one stage further and allow more discretion so that, in difficult circumstances, tribunals are not required to find in favour of the school or the inspector. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to seek the middle ground, and those clauses are designed to enable tribunals to do that.

We seriously disagree with the Opposition amendments. It is in the interests of children, parents and those working in the independent sector to put in place requirements from day one that minimum standards must be achieved before a proprietor is allowed to open an independent school. The regime proposed in the legislation is reasonable. It is cynical of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight to suggest that the existing independent schools might go along with it because they do not want competition. If the independent schools thought that the regime was a threat to the way in which they seek to educate the children who attend their schools, they would have made a hue and cry about the Government seeking to interfere in their independence by over-regulating and removing parents' right to make an honest choice to educate their children in the independent sector. The independent sector is not making that case in the context of the legislation. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Brady: The debate has been interesting and worth while. The Minister explained why the Government chose to remove the terms of provisional registration that were in the previous legislation, although his explanation was based on examples where provisional registration had palpably failed but which he could not give to the Committee. We look forward to receiving those examples in writing, as he promised.

Late in the debate, the Minister sought to reassure the Opposition by pulling out of the hat the announcement that a Government amendment will be tabled on Report. It would be so much better if Ministers did that first. The Minister went on at some length about discussions that he and his colleagues had had with independent schools and the bodies that

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represent them. If only Ministers would understand that part of our constitutional process sits alongside consultation with outside bodies. That is the Committee stage, in which we are currently engaged. It would be nice if Ministers were occasionally to volunteer information without it being pulled out of them against their will.

I thank the Minister for his reassurance, and for his indication that the clauses that we have not yet discussed provide for greater flexibility. That was the only matter that we sought to explore in tabling the amendments, and I suspect that we could have dealt with it more quickly and concisely if the Minister had responded earlier. We have not yet seen the Government's proposed amendment to clause 153. Will the Minister give members of the Committee some more detail about the amendment, perhaps in writing? He gave the Committee some reassurance, however, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 155 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 156

Applications for registration

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 534, in page 90, line 35, after 'proprietor', insert 'or other appropriate authority.'

This is another amendment that seeks to offer the Government more flexibility. If Ministers can assure Opposition Members that the amendment is unnecessary, we will be happy to withdraw it. Clause 156(1)(b) makes it clear, with no apparent flexibility, that an application to enter an independent school in the register must

    ''be made to the registration authority by the proprietor of the school in the prescribed manner.''

It is not difficult to envisage circumstances in which the proprietor of a school may be unable to do that. He may have fallen under the famous Clapham omnibus and be in no position to make representations or applications to anybody, appropriate or otherwise.

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Equally, it may be that the proprietor of a school is in a state of health, whether it is permanent, chronic and progressive or temporary but severe, that prevents them from taking this sort of action. It is even conceivable that when the proprietor of the school contemplates the appropriately strict terms of registration, he looks at himself and even though he happens to have been running a good school, doing a good job for the pupils within it, says, ''I am not going to be considered, under the terms of the legislation, a fit person''. He may do a runner. The school may continue to operate in an effective manner without its proprietor, but there will be no obvious and immediate route to registration.

There may be a number of circumstances that even the Minister with his legendary perspicacity cannot

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foresee in which the proprietor is unable to apply for registration himself. In seeking to insert the phrase ''or other appropriate authority''—we are open to persuasion as to whether this is the appropriate route—I would like to hear from the Minister what flexibility or alternative route he believes is available in the Bill for circumstances in which the proprietor is unable to take the necessary steps. Might it not be appropriate for a governing body or a board of trustees, for example, to apply for registration? We look forward to the Minister's response, and I hope that he can reassure us that the Bill allows for some flexibility to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

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