Education and Inspections Bill


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Division No. 38]
AYES
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Wilson, Mr. Rob
NOES
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Brooke, Annette
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Chaytor, Mr. David
Creagh, Mary
Gwynne, Andrew
Hillier, Meg
Hope, Phil
Knight, Jim
Moffatt, Laura
Morden, Jessica
Mulholland, Greg
Shaw, Jonathan
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Snelgrove, Anne
Teather, Sarah
Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 145

Power of Chief Inspector to investigate complaints by parents about schools
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 534, in clause 145, page 96, line 27, at end insert—
‘(1A) Where the Chief Inspector receives 25 or more qualifying complaints in relation to a relevant school, he shall carry out an inspection under section 8.'.
Clause 145 gives Ofsted a new power to investigate parental complaints when the parents have exhausted the local complaints procedure. The action that Ofsted can take will be dependent on the circumstances; it may involve a meeting with parents, bringing forward the inspection of a school or other body, or using the information received to inform the next routine inspection of the school.
At present, Ofsted has no formal role in investigating parental complaints and although a small number do complain, Ofsted has no power to intervene other than its power to order an inspection. The objective of clause 145 is therefore to establish Ofsted as an accessible route for parents to take when local complaints procedures have been dealt with. I am sure the Minister will agree with that summary of the clause.
The amendment would ensure that the chief inspector used his power to inspect under the clause when large numbers of parents complained about a school. When 25 qualifying complaints are received in respect of a relevant school——
Sarah Teather: Does not the hon. Gentleman think that it would be better if a very serious complaint was always investigated at the discretion of the chief inspector, rather than requiring 25 such complaints? Is it not more important to check the content and quality of the complaint rather than the number of them?
Mr. Gibb: That is a very good point, but it is probably already covered in the Bill. The inspector has discretion to call an earlier inspection under clause 145 and I am sure that he would do so if the complaint were very serious.
I am trying to establish whether 25 parents making separate complaints or getting together and sending in 25 co-ordinated complaints would indicate a general level of concern in the community that would need a response, not by a meeting of parents, which is an option in the clause, but by an earlier inspection of the school. That is the purpose of the amendment and I should be interested to know the Minister’s view. If he feels that 25 is the wrong number, perhaps we can agree on a compromise of a different number to trigger an automatic inspection.
The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): The hon. Gentleman gave an accurate description of this important clause. It makes it explicit that Ofsted can consider complaints from parents about the provision in their children’s school and that in some circumstances such complaints may result in an unscheduled inspection. The provision will incentivise the swift resolution of parental concerns at a local level; it recognises that it is the nature of the complaint that is critical, as the hon. Member for Brent, East said, not necessarily the number of parents who complain.
The amendment would replace that approach with a simple trigger system in which Ofsted’s discretion is effectively removed and the chief inspector is required to inspect the school in question on receipt of 25 complaints, using his discretionary power. The trigger approach would take little account of the seriousness of the complaint, or whether inspection is the most appropriate course of action given the circumstances. The amendment would have the effect of leaving Ofsted and schools vulnerable to malicious, vexatious, unmeritorious or serial complaints from a relatively small group of people, possibly related to a single class in the school.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether a different number would be better. It is better to leave it to the discretion of the Ofsted inspector. The amendment takes no account of when a school was last inspected, and it could result in multiple inspections of an individual school, as there is nothing to stop the same group of parents resubmitting a complaint. Further, it does not specify a period within which the complaints should be received. Would it be a term, a year, or even longer?
Annette Brooke: The heading of the clause is “Parental complaints”. I have come across a situation in which complaints from teachers resulted in an inspection. Is there any provision in the Bill for that?
Jim Knight: My reading of and briefing on the clause concludes that it is about empowering parents. As I quickly glance at it again, I see that it contains an entitlement to investigate complaints about schools, so I am quickly trying to think through whether teachers could apply. There is nothing specific in the Bill about teachers, but there could be provision for them. If I need to be more specific, I shall drop the hon. Lady and the rest of the Committee a line. I hope that on that basis the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Gibb: The amendment would not end the discretion of the inspector; it would simply add a new subsection (1A) to clause 145. The amendment would not delete anything, and the discretion of the inspector would remain, regardless of whether the amendment were agreed to.
The amendment is intended to increase the role and rights of parents. The Minister talked about serial complaints, and referred to 25 being a small number of disgruntled parents, but in my experience as a constituency MP, one hears concerns expressed by that number of parents. They are very real concerns and they probably reflect a wider concern about the school. I am disappointed with the Minister’s response, but one cannot win all the amendments that one tables. The issues have been aired, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 145 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 146 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 16

Powers to facilitate innovation
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 275, in schedule 16, page 221, line 10, after ‘subsections' insert ‘(4) and'
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 85, in schedule 16, page 221, line 10, at end insert—
‘(4) After subsection (9) insert—
“(10) Where changes to a school granted under this chapter make it ineligible for redesignation under the specialist schools programme, the Secretary of State may relax any requirements of that programme.”'.
No. 276, in schedule 16, page 221, line 10, at end insert—
‘(4) After subsection (9) insert—
“(10) Where the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales refuses to make an order under this section, he or it shall provide the qualifying body with a certificate setting out the reasons for so refusing.”.'.
No. 277, in schedule 16, page 221, line 10, at end insert—
‘2A (1) Section 3 of EA 2002 (Variation or revocation of orders under section 2) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2) omit “, on one occasion only,”.'.
No. 202, in schedule 16, page 221, line 28, leave out ‘consult' and insert ‘inform'.
No. 278, in schedule 16, page 221, line 32, at end insert—
‘3A (1) Chapter 1 of EA 2002 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 5 insert—
“5A Duties to provide advisory services and information on powers to innovate
(1) The Secretary of State shall secure that advice and information about making an application for an order under section 2 is available free of charge to any qualifying body.
(2) A local education authority shall ensure that each maintained school which they maintain is aware of its ability to make an application for an order under section 2.
New clause 21—Power For National Assembly For Wales to decide pay and conditions provisions—
‘(1) Section 7 of EA 2002 (Exemptions related to school performance) is amended as follows.
(2) Omit subsection (5).'.
Mr. Gibb: Schedule 16 continues and extends the power to innovate which that was introduced in the Education Act 2002 for a limited period of just four years. The sunset clause in the existing legislation will expire on 30 September. By repealing the sunset clause, schools will continue to be able to test innovative proposals for raising standards when the proposals require education legislation to be set aside or modified for the period of the trial.
Innovation is considered to be a vital element of the Bill. The Prime Minister in his introduction to the White Paper said that the success of specialist schools and academies comes from
“the can-do attitude of their principals and staff, and the drive that their business and educational sponsors bring to their development—backed by their willingness to innovate and use their freedoms imaginatively.”
The power to innovate allows the Secretary of State to grant exemptions, relaxations or modifications to existing legislation for a limited period. It permits and enables the trial of new and innovative ways of raising standards. In some cases, the success of those innovations has led to permanent changes in the law; for instance, under section 105 of the Education Act 2005, the power to offer foundation degree courses.
3.45 pm
The power to innovate was one of the key powers offered to schools in the 2002 Act. On Second Reading of the Bill, in December 2001, the then Secretary of State said:
“The first part of the Bill will introduce the new legal frameworks to give us the power to back the schools that have good ideas but that do not fit the rules as they stand. We will also establish a schools innovation unit to make sure that those ideas are supported and are shared with other schools. When our best schools come up against legislative barriers that stop them trying the solutions that they think will work, they will be able to ask for the legislation to be varied for a pilot period if that is what is needed. That is a power to free schools to do the things that they want to do to benefit their pupils.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 192.]
That was said by Lady Morris, as she now is, before she changed her views and became a Labour rebel.
Conservative Members welcome any attempt to give schools greater autonomy, and our amendments are designed to extend that even further. Amendment No. 275 and new clause 21 would remove restrictions relating to the Welsh Assembly on powers to innovate and earn autonomy, particularly on the pay and conditions of teachers. While pay and conditions for England and Wales are set nationally, we see no logic in allowing the Secretary of State the power to remove the national pay and conditions agreement but not giving that power to the Welsh Assembly.
Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] As the sole Welsh Member of the Committee, I was saving myself for the highly important framework powers in clause 154, which we will obviously not reach.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Assembly has not asked for such powers as are suggested in the amendment and new clause, although it has asked for the framework powers? Differentials in pay and conditions would lead to difficulties in a constituency such as mine, which is on the English border. For instance, teachers in my constituency might be paid less or more than those in Bristol, just across the border, which could lead to a drain between the two countries.
 
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