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The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Twigg):
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to what the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) rightly described as a wide-ranging debate. It went somewhat wider than the Bill, but enabled various education-related issues to be explored
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while leaving me with two hours and five minutes to respond. I can assure all hon. Members that I will do my very best not to take up the entire time. In case we do finish unexpectedly early, let me inform the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would have been back with us for 10 o'clock, but she is attending the Evening Standard teaching awards. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) asked me to give his apologies because he, too, has an engagement.
In the course of the debate, the Bill was described as modest, sensible, quiet and momentous. It is a Bill that responds to some of the key challenges that we all face when we visit schools. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) set out the issues that are raised with him when he visits schools in his constituency, and I have to say that they are exactly the same as those that are raised with me when I visit schools across the country and in my own constituency. The Bill seeks to deal with some of those issues.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said that 79 per cent. of the Bill simply re-enacts legislation. I am advised that that is not true, although I must confess that I have not carried out such a close analysis of the clauses. It is true that part 1 re-enacts much of the Education Act 1996 with regard to Wales, which simply reflects the effects of devolution and the preference of the Welsh Assembly Government in that respect. For England, there is some re-enactment, but we believe that that applies to less than half the Bill. Perhaps we can return to that subject in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield raised a serious issue in relation to the chief inspector continuing to report to the Select Committee. I spoke to him privately and want to reassure the House by repeating what I said to himthat the chief inspector absolutely will continue to report to the Select Committee. That relationship of Ofsted to Parliament is very important, and there is no intention whatever for it to change. [Interruption.] I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for having given the House her apologiesshe is in fact here.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield asked why more of the five-year strategy is not contained in the Bill. That point was addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). Some of the important measures on which we are consulting and which have featured in the debatefor example, changing category to foundation statusdo not require primary legislation but will be done via secondary legislation. Much of the tone and tempo of the five-year strategy is about deregulation and therefore does not necessarily require direct legislation. If some elements do, we can return to them in due course.
The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) reminded the House about the Conservatives' decision to appoint the former chief inspector and referred to a specific example from that period at Islington Green school. I do not want to comment on that, but I would like to say, in respect of the work that we are doing through the London challenge, that Islington Green school is very much a school on the up. I look forward to working with his colleagues in Islington on making it a city academy.
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They are very keen to create an academy that will serve that important community and give its children opportunities that may not have been there in the past.
The hon. Member for Southport said that the Bill demonstrates an animus towards local education authorities. I simply do not accept that. An important role for local authorities remains through the Bill and the five-year strategy. It is not the old, traditional role of providing but it involves local leadership, strategic planning and being a champion of the child and the family. Bringing together the Bill with the Children Act 1989 will provide an opportunity for local government to play such a role in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North described the Bill as not the most exciting or radical measure. He said that it was sensible. Like other hon. Members, he drew attention to the benefits that the introduction of three-years budgets will bring to schools. That is an important change. One thing that schools tell us is that lack of predictability and certainty in planning their budgeting is a serious challenge for them. In the light of difficulties two years ago with school funding, we have introduced those arrangements, and I believe that they will create stability in the way in which my hon. Friend pointed out.
The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) made a characteristically thoughtful speech. He is right that we need evidence-based policy development. The opportunities to deal through the Select Committee with some of issues that he raisedfor example, the role of phonics in the national literacy strategyhave been important. I am studying Clackmannanshire and the evidence there. My understanding, on advice, is that the teaching of phonics in Clackmannanshire bears a close resemblance to what we do in the national literacy strategy in England and that the main contrast is with what happens in the rest of Scotland. However, I have asked for a more detailed analysis because it is important to consider evidence on such matters.
The hon. Gentleman expressed a concern that was echoed by others in the debate: the danger of losing the hard edge of Ofsted's approach. It is vital to maintain the integrity and robustness of Ofsted's systems. He said that schools were, in practice, unaccountable. I do not believe that he would find many schools that thought that. The combination of inspection, which the Bill tackles, the publication of data in considerable detail and the new school profile, which the measure introduces, forms a powerful set of weapons with which to hold schools to account. I hope that parents would feel that they could use those weapons to gain the sort of accountability that he rightly said we should expect of all schools.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh, in a thoughtful speech, mentioned schools in his constituency. I remember visiting Greensward school in Hockley, and it is indeed a fine school. I was pleased by his comments about citizenshipI do not know whether he will pass them on to the former chief inspector of schools who is conducting the curriculum review for the Conservative party, as I believe that he expressed a different view. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that including
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citizenship in the national curriculum was an important move that enjoyed cross-party support, and I hope that it will continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman rightly set out some of the dilemmas of inclusion and exclusion. We are all trying to get the balance right. At our advice surgeries, we have all met parents who want a special school to remain for their child and those who want their child with a special educational need to be included in the mainstream. We need a system that can meet the needs of all those children and we must work together to ensure that that happens.
The hon. Gentleman dealt with perhaps the most important element of the Bill: the bureaucracy and red tape that so many teachers, head teachers and others in education tell us can be such a burden. The Bill creates the new relationship with schools, leading to a single conversation and moving towards a single funding stream precisely to get away from the position that he accurately described as frustrating for teachers and head teachers. The test will be whether we can make the system work, but I believe that we should be able to do that.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) mentioned academies and asked where their accountability lies. Strictly speaking, they are directly accountable to the Secretary of State. We aim to have 200 academies and we want them to work with local schools and local education authorities to be part of the community. I do not accept the argument that the hon. Gentleman and others make that there is some automatic contradiction between academies' independence, autonomy and ability to innovate, and the desire for collaboration. I believe that we can achieve both. If we do, we can reach a position of genuine excellence for communities, which schools and local education authorities have often let down in the past.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) for briefly leaving the Chamber during his speech. He started with a powerful point about the way in which our system does well for the top 10 per cent. and far less well for the bottom 10 per cent. In the jargon, we have a system that is high on excellence but low on equity. That is a big part of the challenge that we face. We have made good progress. Evidence of the impact of excellence in cities, specialist schools and the primary strategy shows that the biggest beneficiaries have been schools in some of the poorest and most deprived areas in the country. However, I do not deny that a big challenge confronts us.
The hon. Member for Newbury and others referred to clause 70. We do not propose to remove its substance. We will table an amendment in Committee to tidy up aspects of the drafting but leave the principles intact. It is worth reminding hon. Members that, since February 1998, when we introduced the presumption against the closure of rural schools, there has been a significant fall in the rate of closure. The average before 1997 was 30 rural schools a year, and it is now five. Anything that can be done to strengthen that through legislation will enjoy wide support throughout the House.
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