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Mr. Collins: The hon. Gentleman may be awareI would be interested to hear his comments on this as Chairman of the Select Committeethat some of the people behind the exciting projects for new city academies say that they find it very frustrating to have to use a high proportion of the funds available to them on architects' fees. They would like standard, bespoke, off-the-shelf designs from which they could choose and which they could move around in a modular fashion. Does he agree that that would not only be desirable but would deal with his points about quality of design?
Mr. Sheerman: I could not disagree more. This country's public architecture has been blighted for years by off-the-shelf design. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in design, I can take him to within a mile of this Palace and show him the ghastly effects of off-the-shelf design in the public and private sectors. Such design is a blight and the last thing that I want. I have seen some exciting developments in design in city academies. One of the London academiesin Hackney, I thinksupported by the Union Bank of Switzerland concentrates on maths and music and is designed in the shape of a guitar. That is wonderful and exhilarating, and one of the finest architects in Britain is designing it.
Individual design is therefore important. The Select Committee has visited many new build schools and found that three things appear to work: taking design seriously, consulting students and teachers, and having good architects who know something about the locality. We need unique, not off-the-shelf design.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more about design, but does he agree not only that the school design needs to be unique but that how it fits into the local environment is important?
Mr. Sheerman: Absolutely. I compliment John Sorrel and the Sorrel Foundation and joined-up design in schools. They do a fantastic job in inspiring students to be involved in the design and modification of their schools. I see you are looking at me, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I shall leave design and revert to inspections.
The inspections will be generally welcomed for being lighter and faster. As I said, the role of parents has to be carefully evaluated because they do not have all the answers. Before the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale intervened, I was about to say that parents do not know everything. Indeed, if we let parents have the only say on design, I fear that we would end up with mock Tudor, half-timbered schools. A balance between good architects and parent-student views is desirable.
I want to ask the Secretary of State a serious question. I am a bit worried about her since she took up her position in only one regard. The Bill appears to remove
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the strong claim that the Select Committee, by custom and practice, had to calling the chief inspector of schools and Ofsted to account. For a long time, there has been a belief that the right way for the chief inspector to be held accountable to Parliament is through the Select Committee. That came about when Chris Woodhead was the chief inspector. I understand that he will play a major role in designing much of the curriculum for the Conservative party. We look forward to seeing what sort of curriculum that will be. It seems a lot of power to give one former chief inspector.
However, I am making an important parliamentary point. The three former Secretaries of State accepted that there was a special relationship of accountability between Ofsted and Parliament through our Committee. Unfortunately, the Bill appears to push in the opposite direction. The previous measure that pertained to Ofsted provided for only four responsibilities for the chief inspector of schools in relation to the Secretary of State. The Bill provides for eight, starting with
and ending with behaviour and attendance of pupils. It seems to establish a clear relationship with Ofsted at one end and the bossesthe Departmentat the other. Will the Secretary of State give my Committee and me some comfort by assuring us that we remain in the loop and that we shall continue to have a role in future?
This is an interesting Bill, but I suspect that we shall have to have this debate all over again at some point, because as we all know, the Bill will not come to fruition if there is an election on 5 May. Perhaps that explains the lighter attendance today. Education debates are usually very well attended on both sides of the House. However, it is an important Bill, and there are some interesting dilemmas that all of us in the education sector want to press the Government on. That is the nature of a healthy relationship between Parliament and the Executive.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The Bill does not set the pulse racing, which is probably why most hon. Members so far have preferred to talk about something else. It was well summarised by the Conservative Lord Hanningfield, who described it in the House of Lords as
Perhaps we should not regret the lack of innovation. Innovation is good in schools and in teachers, and perhaps in local education authorities, but probably not in Governments coming up to an election wanting to create eye-catching headlines and capture cheap votes.
The Bill is certainly a compendium; the noble Lord was right in that regard. It is a piecemeal affair, with a number of hastily added clauses and schedules. We can
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almost see the draftsmen adding bits on here and there as they went along. It is the product of at least four different forces: the wild ideologues of No. 10; the Department for Education and Skills, which has a slightly better grasp of real-time education; the educational world and its lobbyists; and the wise counsel of the noble Lords. All four have had an input. I do not want to over-stress the role of the noble Lords, because they have had enough flattery lately and there is a danger that they might become seriously vain.
The Bill is a curate's egg; it is both good and bad. The good is fairly evident and has been mapped out already in this debate. The Bill introduces a more frequent inspection regime with a lighter touch, which is good. Although Ofsted has done much good in sharpening focus and procedure in schools, we should not forget its past failings. Assessors should always be assessed and, when possible, made accountable. Ofsted, particularly under its previous chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, ran a reign of terror without adequate appeal. I know from personal experience that it drove good teachers out of their chosen profession and saddled all teachers with an absurd bureaucratic role.
Mr. Chaytor : Does the hon. Gentleman find it unusual that the official Opposition now appear to have re-employed the former chief inspector, and does he expect him to run a reign of terror through their election manifesto?
To return to the issue of bureaucracy, most schools not only have inspections of inordinate length but hire consultants to do pre-inspections, which adds to the overall cost and bureaucratic burden. Overdosing on inspections without first demonstrating the need for them is a mistake that the Government make over and over again. Best value in local government is another example of such bureaucracy. An equivalent situation in the medical world would be a doctor who dealt with every ailment by first giving the patient the maximum dose of a drug, and only reducing it over a period of time, or who sawed off a limb before considering applying a plaster.
The changes proposed in the Bill are predictable, and the Government should probably apologise for introducing them as late as this. However, it is too late for some schools. In relation to Mr. Woodheadthe Pol Pot of the inspection worldI was given the example of Islington Green school, which complained about the chief inspector's judgments in 1997. In that year, Chris Woodhead overruled a unanimous decision by a series of inspectors that the north London comprehensive had passed its inspection, and declared it to be failing. It has taken eight years and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to disclose what the staff and pupils knew all along: that the school was improving. A team of Her Majesty's inspectors sent to the school on behalf of Mr. Woodhead to carry out a corroboration visit unanimously backed the view that it was not failing. None the less, Mr. Woodhead went ahead and put it on the list of 265 schools requiring special
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measures. That is not an encouraging precedent, but it is encouraging that the Tories see a future role for the gentleman.
A change in model is proposed, coupled with a saving of bureaucracy and the ending of pre-inspections, which schools cannot do all the time, as there would simply be no point. I do not know whether short, sharp, unheralded inspections will be less frightening for schools, but there is the promise that they will be more constructive. Some of the comments of the Secretary of State move in that line. The Bill still provides a key roleI thought that I would talk about the Billfor HMIs, and a residual role, as I understand it, for LEAs' inspection, too, which can perform a positive role.
There is no evidence that the Government have learned a great deal from history, however, and those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It would be remiss of me not to mention that school inspections have a long history in this country. The 19th century poet, Matthew Arnold, was a school inspectorI ponder how much poetry is in the soul of the current school inspectorate.
None the less, the range of inspections, including nursery, careers, child minding, independent schools and religious education, is well mapped out, and we have no particular objection to such a range. What is at issueand what has not been entirely clear so faris the manner and objectives of such inspections. Perhaps the whole issue was left deliberately cloudy. We are broadly sympathetic, however, to the changes in that direction. We are broadly sympathetic to the reduction in categories of failure, and to the strange inclusion, for this Government, somewhere in the Bill in relation to Wales, of a reduction in the Secretary of State's power in relation to inspections. That is the first time in the House that I have seen a Secretary of State's power reduced voluntarily.
I want to flag up one issue that might create problems later. The Government are now giving a green light, in a sense, to further sixth-form expansion where there is some sort of demand, and where schools have proved their ability. That will almost inevitably lead to smaller sixth forms that do not provide the full range of subjects for pupils and their parents. In those circumstances, there will be more scope, not less, for examining sixth forms.
The Bill contains other proposals to which we have no particular objection. A hooray is due for the abolition of parents' meetings. I say that as someone who was once on an LEA and examined the absolutely dismal turnout at those meetings. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) thinks, LEA after LEA has asked the Department whether it can stop this charade, as it is not how parents wish to be involved. Various recipes have been tried to get parents more involved but they have persistently stayed away. In one school that I examined, one parent and a whole phalanx of governors attended the meeting. When I inquired as to why that one parent had come, I was told that, coincidentally, that parent was the caretaker and had to come. That shows the support for such meetings in many places.
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We are generally fairly neutral on whether to change the governors' report into a profile, as it could be the same thing under another banner. Three-year funding, varied with data, is quite a reasonable idea. In that proposal, however, it seems to me that No. 10 wanted its pound of flesh. It seemed to want a move towards equalisation of funding, and there might be some hidden agenda in that regard. The current arrangements are subtly changed. At the moment, as I understand it, there is core LEA funding in addition to discretionary LEA funding taken from or recharged to the schools, with the Government specifying the overall spending level. The legislation seems to put in a hurdle whereby the school forum's approval must be secured. I presume that that idea has crept in from No. 10. The LEA can appeal to the Secretary of State, however, if it is not satisfied. It strikes me that such sophistication is not necessary and does not add a great deal to the process.
The Bill deals with two aspects of school organisation: the opening of new schools and the rationalisation or closure of existing schools. In the context of the opening of schools, the LEA is largely being reduced to the status of promoterthe decision-maker being the school organisation committee, the Secretary of State being involved whenever the magic word "academy" is used, and the adjudicator being the final point for appeals. That is how the system operates, but given that it is bounded by the Secretary of State's regulations in the first place, what we have is a process that an authority can start but cannot subsequently control, and ultimately must fund. That regime is well established by the Bill.
On school closures, the Government have been very boldI would almost say reckless: brave, but foolhardy. They will give directions to LEAs and foundation schools when there seems to be over-provision, without of course mentioning individual schools. If they are not satisfied with how the process is evolving, they can take it over. Many Governments in the past have thrown on local authorities the onus to make all the unpopular decisions, and perhaps I should praise the Government in this instance for having taken some of the burden of unpopularity on themselves. It is possible that they are serious about falling rolls, and want to address what could be a considerable issue for the country; it is also possible that they will live to regret what they are doing.
There is an animus against LEAs in this and the previous Government's legislation, which was reflected in the comments of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. If LEAs did not exist, however, it would be necessary to invent them. They have a hugely important role to play in quality control, behaviour support and so ona role that the Government are not entirely capable of playing, and perhaps are not competent to play. Hon. Members will recall that a few days ago the former Minister for Schools, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), was chastised by Mr. Speaker for misbehaviour in the Chamber. In those circumstances, we cannot have a great deal of confidence in the Government's ability to address issues of behaviour.
LEAs, it seems to me, are supporters of schools, co-ordinators of schools and sources of innovation for schools, but, crucially, their role is to guarantee that no child in a given area fails to receive a proper entitlement.
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They are guarantors of equal provision. No free market, no anarchy, no competition will fulfil that role. The unjustified erosion of LEA powers is regrettable, but it is argued for. LEAs are given targets and duties, but in no sense are they given enhanced powers.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned allowing public-school governors to get their schools to opt out of the LEA family simply by means of a vote, without even the democratic procedures that the Conservatives built into the opt-out system. That is a regressive step. During the opt-out procedure, the governing body of a school in my LEA, in what was once my ward, chose that route. There was a vote by parents, whichin a middle-class area in which the governing body might have expected to succeedcontradicted the governing body. That school has gone on to be extraordinarily successful. It has well-behaved children and high standards, and is very much part of the LEA family.
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