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Mr. Reed: On the funding formula, we probably agree about the size of the difference between the best and worst funded local authorities. However, how successful has the hon. Gentleman been in convincing his Front Bench team to change the formula, as the Tory proposals seem to be exactly the same as ours? Does he believe that change is possible at all or, like me, does he wish to continue working with the F40 to try to make improvements?
Mr. Clifton-Brown: With the greatest humility, may I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman had been here at the beginning of our debate and heard the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), he would have learned a little more about Conservative funding? I know that the hon. Gentleman is very loyal and has come to the Chamber to make a contribution at the last minute, but he has read out a speech for another debate. He was quite rightly ruled out of order by the Chair. While I appreciate his intervention, we all know what the situation is.
I have said almost enough. I started by talking about bureaucracy and gobbledygook in the Bill, and I should like to end with the same subjects. I refer the Minister to paragraph 218 of the explanatory notes, which says:
"Subsection (4) allows persons specified in subsection (3) to supply information received under this clause from the Inland Revenue, Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland to any of the persons specified in subsection (5) for purposes relating to eligibility for education maintenance allowances."
"It also allows those who have received this information to pass it on to those who are actually administering education maintenance allowance schemes. The intention is for the clause to facilitate a single information sharing scheme, enabling the Secretary of State, or any other person specified in subsection (3) to receive information on specific applicants directly from the Inland Revenue and Department for Work and Pensions on behalf of the other administrations and to pass it on to them so that they in turn can pass it on to those administering their education maintenance allowance schemes."
That may be clear to the Minister, but it is not over-clear to me why the Inland Revenue is involved. I know what the Department is getting at. In relation to free
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school meals, it is necessary for the Inland Revenue to be involved. I urge caution on the Minister in that regard. Free school meals and parents who are on benefits are a very sensitive matter in schools. It is bad enough for some children to be castigated because they receive free school meals. It is even worse if their parents are to be investigated as to whether the children are entitled to free school meals. If that does happen, it should in no way involve the children. That could be extremely damaging.
The Bill is not a particularly good one. It does not address the problems of our education system in 2005, which are deep-seated and require solutions. I regret to say that the Bill is not the way to solve them.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): The debate has been wide ranging. At times the topics covered in speeches from hon. Members on both sides have touched only tangentially on the Bill. That is not surprising, given that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, called it a quiet little Bill, with little of the radicalism of the five-year plan in its content.
We heard speeches from the hon. Members for Huddersfield, for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), and an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who once again demonstrated his deep knowledge of the education system and his views on how to tackle some of the deep-seated problems facing us. When the Select Committee lands the reports to which its Chairman referred in his opening remarks, it will be interesting to see the conclusions on the teaching of reading in our schools.
In a wide ranging speech my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) demonstrated his deep knowledge of education based on visits to all the schools in his constituency. He has been assiduous in his visiting, and I shall return to some of his remarks. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) spoke about issues concerning rural schools. As he rightly pointed out, it was the action of Conservative and Liberal peers in the other place that introduced greater safeguards for rural schools in the Bill. We had two late additions to the Government ranksthe hon. Members for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) and for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), who probably gave longer speeches than they expected when they arrived at the House this morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) discussed issues of bureaucracy in the Bill.
I shall touch on some of the comments that hon. Members made, starting with three-year funding. Conservatives welcome the introduction of three-year budgets, which provide much-needed stability for schools. The proposal raises an issue that the hon. Member for Bury, North highlighted in his remarks. He spoke about his metropolitan district council, where the ceiling had been applied when the funding regime changed a couple of years ago. My local authority, Hampshire, has the floor applied to it. The last figures that I saw suggested that if the floor were removed, Hampshire would lose £18 million in funding for its schools. We should be grateful for some clarification from the Minister about how floors and ceilings will be applied when we move to the three-year funding regime.
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The hon. Member for Loughborough gave us a curtain-raiser for the Adjournment debate later. I shall not comment on that, but he echoed the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh about school funding and the arrangements for the transition to the three-year rules. My hon. Friend, in a great display of cross-party consensus with the hon. Member for Loughborough, spoke about bureaucracy in our schools, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold. It is a recurrent theme in visits that I make to schools in my constituency and elsewhere.
Teachers feel burdened by bureaucracy and are worried about the amount of paperwork that they have to sift through. They are concerned about the 12 pages of red tape that hit a teacher's desk every day of the school year. Until we lift the burden of bureaucracy and red tape from our schools, particularly primary schools, head teachers will be diverted from their key task of leading the teaching and learning in our schools and will become accountants, administrators and bureaucrats. We need to move away from that if we are to raise standards in our schools.
As hon. Members noted, the Bill includes provisions for a change in the relationship between Ofsted and schools. I was rather curious about the comments of the hon. Member for Southport, who welcomed the change in the inspection regime and spoke about Ofsted in almost glowing terms, but I seem to recollect that last week the Liberal Democrats proposed to scrap Ofsted. I am intrigued that the hon. Gentleman made no reference to that in his speech. That demonstrates once again that the Liberal Democrats need to be consistent and clear in their messages. Perhaps they will table amendments to that effect in Committee, demonstrating the importance that they attach to standards in education.
Mr. Hoban: And the hon. Gentleman will note, if he reads Hansard carefully tomorrow, that I said almost glowing terms. That does not get away from the key fact that, yet again, he did not talk about his party's plans to abolish Ofsted, so we wait with bated breath to hear in Committee what the Liberals' plans are for Ofsted.
I shall comment on some changes to the inspection regime and Ofsted. The first is the change to the definition of special measures. The hon. Member for Luton, North commended the weakening of the definition set out in the Bill. At present, schools that are failing or are likely to fail can be put into special measures. The Bill waters down the definition of special measures. Schools that are likely to fail can no longer be put into special measures, and where a school has failed but has demonstrated a capacity to improve, it can avoid being put into special measures. The result will be fewer schools going into special measures, but that will not mean that fewer schools are failing their pupils. It seems that we must wait until schools have failed before we bring in the detailed intervention and support that Ofsted can give when schools are in special measures.
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We have spoken about the interaction between Ofsted and parents and the fact that the Bill moves away from the formal meeting between Ofsted and parents. One of my concerns is the lack of information to parents once a school has gone into special measures. I know of one parent who had to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to gain access to the subsequent Ofsted reports on their school. It is wrong that parents should have to resort to the Act to obtain such information. They should be able to have access to the reports without going down that route. If we are to extend choice in our schools, parents need to know what is happening in their child's school. Obtaining that information is bureaucratic, inappropriate and laborious.
The Bill seeks to encourage greater choice and diversity in schoolsa pale imitation of our own plans for the right to supply. There are proposals in the Bill to allow local authorities to invite promoters to come forward with proposals to run a new school. That is a modest measure. We will introduce proposals to give people the right to establish new schools, rather than having to seek permission to do so. I wonder whether the proposal in the Bill is yet another example of a Government who are all talk. When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) about the measure, he stated in a written answer:
"The Education Bill currently before Parliament will extend the requirement for a competition to all new secondary schools, including schools replacing existing schools as a result of re-organisation."[Official Report, 28 February 2005; Vol. 431, c. 939W.]
Under "Building Schools for the Future", a whole series of new schools is about to be built. Will they be subject to the same power of competition that is set out in the Bill? The Minister needs to be very clear whether they will be open to the competition to find people who are prepared to take on those schools and to manage them. If that is not the case, these clauses, like other measures on school choice and diversity, are window dressing. The Government have form in this area. They talk a big story on choice and diversity but the reality is often somewhat different. When I asked how many competitions had been held by local education authorities for the provision of a new school since the powers were introduced, the Under-Secretary saidthere will be no prizes for guessing the answer
"There have been no competitions for new secondary schools since the requirement for a competition for additional secondary schools was introduced in June 2003."[Official Report, 28 February 2005; Vol. 431, c. 939W.]
Another area where the Bill takes no action, save for the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends in another place, is that of behaviour. One of the areas of consensus in this debate concerns the declining standards of behaviour in our schools. This morning, I spent some time with head teachers from a range of schools in south Hampshire, from primary to secondary schools, and mainstream schools to special schools, particularly those teaching children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. There was a clear consensus in that meeting that behaviour was a growing problem from the primary stage right through to the secondary stage. If we are to
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raise standards in our schools, we must ensure that those children who want to learn can do so in lessons that are free of disruption from the troublemakers who prevent them from getting the education that they deserve and need.
This Bill would have been the ideal opportunity to introduce measures to help to bring that about. The Government could have introduced measures to protect our teachers. A teacher is assaulted every seven minutes in our schools, but the Government do not bring forward any measures to help them. Once again, we have to rely on Members of the other place to introduce statutory duties to get the chief inspector to report on discipline and behaviour in school and to put pressure on the Government to ensure that it is a duty of the Training and Development Agency for Schools to ensure that the school work force are trained to promote behavioural development.
Why have not the Government brought forward measures to strengthen the position of head teachers who have to make decisions to exclude pupils? In one Hampshire school recently, the head's decision to exclude a pupil who assaulted a teacher was overturned by an independent appeals panel. That head teacher's judgment was second-guessed, which undermined his authority, sent a clear message to pupils who wonder why children who disrupt lessons are allowed to stay there, and made teachers feel more vulnerable to attack.
The Bill introduces no measures to tackle the problems that arise when false accusations are made against teachers. How many stories do we have to hear about teachers suffering from false accusations? False accusations destroy many teachers' professional and personal lives, yet the Government fail to act. No wonder teachers are losing faith in them. Our teacher protection Bill would give teachers anonymity when faced with an accusation until the point at which they are charged, sending a clear signal that Conservatives support teachersthat we are concerned about their safety and security and the threats that they face to their professional lives.
As many hon. Members have said, this is a modest Bill. If it is passed before the general election, it will be a fitting epitaph to a Labour Government who came into office with bold promises for education but have delivered so little. There is little in the Bill for the teachers who are subject to an assault, little to tackle the 1.3 million children who truant and little to help parents who despair of finding the right school for their child. It bears all the hallmarks of a Government who have run out of steam, direction and drive. It is time for a change in education. The people of this country want a Government who will put education at the heart of their priorities and pursue the raising of standards of attainment and school discipline with drive, commitment and enthusiasm. It is time to give the people of this country that choice.
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