Previous Section Index Home Page

However, since the original drafting of the Bill, the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, which we discussed earlier, has come into force. That Act consolidated the appeal and tribunal landscape, and regulations made under it will set out revised arrangements for tribunal hearings, so that appeals brought by proprietors of independent schools—and, through this Bill, proprietors of independent educational institutions and non-maintained special schools—will be heard by the health, education and social care chamber of the first-tier tribunal. I know that that answers one of the questions that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton was bound to ask. The amendments will ensure that appeals are brought to the appropriate tribunal.

The final set of amendments in this group—Nos. 150 to 152—put in place transitional arrangements to enable a smooth transition between the existing regulatory regime, set out in chapter 10 of the Education Act 2002, and the new regime in the Bill. Amendment No. 150 ensures that any actions commenced under the current regime can continue, unaffected, when the new legislation comes into force. That will avoid duplication of effort and ensure that standards are not put at risk by new proceedings having to be started against institutions that are not meeting the statutory requirements. Amendment No. 151 ensures that the 2,400 or so existing independent schools do not have to be re-registered when the Bill becomes law, and it allows the Secretary of State to waive inspection fees so that institutions are not required to pay fees twice.

Lastly, amendment No. 152 ensures that directions prohibiting unsuitable people from participating in the management of independent educational institutions can be carried forward, as are any appeals, or reviews of directions, that are in progress.

17 Nov 2008 : Column 66

I hope that hon. Members will agree that these amendments meet all the concerns about part 4 that were raised first in this place and then in the other place, and will therefore join the Government in agreeing to them.

6 pm

Mr. Gibb: As the Minister said, the Lords amendments reverse the provisions in the Bill that transfer registration and regulation of independent schools from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to Ofsted. That is welcome. We argued against that transfer in Committee, and my noble Friend Lady Morris continued the battle in another place. Her powers of persuasion were obviously much stronger than my own and resulted in the amendments tabled on Report in the other place that we are now being asked to agree to.

The policy behind the provisions in part 4 that sought to make the transfer have been fraught with error and poor policy making right from the start, even during the consultation process. The regulatory impact statement said, erroneously:

However, half of independent schools are inspected not by Ofsted but by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. The ISI inspects schools that teach about 80 per cent. of pupils educated in the independent sector, so those schools will not deal only with Ofsted. That is an extraordinary factual error of understanding that no doubt contributed to the original decision to move the registration and regulation of independent schools to Ofsted. The original consultation document was also materially wrong. It stated at paragraph 2.23 that the reason for the transfer

the Commission for Social Care Inspection—

That is wrong, too. Ofsted does not register or regulate boarding accommodation—that stays with the Secretary of State. What transferred at that point from CSCI to Ofsted was the inspection of boarding provision. Again, this is not a minor drafting error—it goes to the root of the Government’s understanding of how these activities are carried out, and it undoubtedly led to the policy that the Minister is now seeking to reverse.

The ISI and the Independent Schools Council were strongly opposed to the transfer. They have very good relations with the Department’s officials in the independent education and boarding team—they are able to pick up the phone to them when issues arise, and that has worked well for many years. They also feel strongly that the role of inspection should be separate from that of registration and regulation, particularly as there may be disputes over how an inspectorate interprets the regulations with which they are checking compliance. Given that there was no credible policy imperative driving the change, the only reason left was that of efficiency, or alleged efficiency.

During the Committee’s evidence sessions, I asked officials about the extent of such purported savings. One senior official said:

17 Nov 2008 : Column 67

She went on to say:

Another official from Ofsted said confidently that he thought that Ofsted could do the work with between seven and 12 people. The Minister went even further when he said:

Contrast those statements with the words of Lord Adonis in another place six months later:

That was a very welcome change of heart by a much-missed Minister. I wish that Ministers in this House, and Ofsted officials, would take the same assiduous approach to calculating possible cost savings before announcing that the policy would save money. We need less bluster and more facts from the Government.

Having said all that, better the sinner that repenteth. This is a welcome U-turn that we have been calling for in both Houses. As is the way of this Government, they put through their change of mind in the other place instead of here. That is partly down to the powers of persuasion of my noble Friend Lady Morris and partly due to the Government’s mistaken belief that a U-turn in the other place is less noticeable than one here.

These Lords amendments take out a large proportion of part 4 by replacing the words “chief inspector” with “Secretary of State”, and they constitute a large proportion of the amendments that we are discussing. They do not remove all of part 4, however, which will dismay some people, particularly those who teach their children at home. Part 4 gives a definition of an independent educational institution because the Government wanted to ensure that a small number of independent schools that provided only part-time education were properly regulated. Through parliamentary questions and confirmation by the Minister during the debate in Committee, such provision turned out to be just four schools.

Education Otherwise, which represents tens of thousands of parents who educate their children at home—an increasing phenomenon as parents worry about standards of behaviour in too many of our schools—said that these provisions might inadvertently catch informal arrangements to educate home-educated children using shared teachers, who have a particular specialism, in someone’s home. In Committee, the Minister confirmed that the four institutions that he intended to be caught by the clause were Tyndale academy, Kids Company, Headstart Early Learning Centre and The Children’s Garden. It is rather alarming, in terms of competence of policy making and administration, that the Government now say that that figure is not four but 1,100. In a letter to my noble Friend Lady Morris on 7 November, the Minister, Lady Morgan, wrote:

17 Nov 2008 : Column 68

What is astonishing is the phrase, “as more evidence emerged”. It appears that the Government responsible for education in this country were unaware until this autumn that local authorities around the country were using at least 1,100 private education providers for alternative pupil referral-type education. It would be helpful to our discussions if the Minister could explain that confusion.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I want to focus on amendments Nos. 150 and 152. Amendment No. 150 inserts a new clause entitled “Continuity of the law”. I would like some reassurance from the Minister about what appears to be a rather catch-all transitional provision that could allow those making legislation to cover their tracks and say, “This transitional provision is sufficient for all of us retrospectively to agree that everything’s all right.”

Amendment No. 152 inserts a new clause entitled “Prohibition on participation in management”. The Minister mentioned it in his earlier remarks about mischief regarding unsuitable persons and maintaining existing protections in that regard. As I read it, the regulations referred to in the new clause will be made under the terms of that clause. I hope that there will be no hiatus between the safeguards offered by the current protection against unsuitable persons and the introduction of the new clause, which would allow for such protections to be continued but would not in itself introduce them, instead relying on regulations to be made under that clause. I seek assurances from the Minister that the timing will give us continuity of protection.

Mr. Laws: I would like briefly to welcome the 180-degree U-turn in Government policy reflected by the amendments, and to pay tribute to my colleagues in another place who were more convincing than the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) and myself.

According to the Government’s explanation of the amendments, they decided that the case for changing from the status quo was not compelling. As the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned, I would have thought that the evidence we took in the consultation sessions at the beginning of the Committee’s proceedings was fairly clear in making the argument against those changes given that a number of outside bodies gave evidence to say that the changes were unnecessary.

As well as drawing attention to this satisfactory U-turn, can the Minister explain what changes he hopes to implement to improve the communication between his Department and the independent schools sector? We have heard from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that that communication has been extremely effective up until now, but it is clear that there are major weaknesses in such communication. Not only was part of the sector taken by surprise by the changes, but if they had been consulted on in a more serious manner, we might have avoided the protracted debates and time-consuming processes that we have gone through in recent months.

17 Nov 2008 : Column 69

Jim Knight: This brief debate was an opportunity for the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) to make the points that I thought he would make about our small change of heart in this policy area. I am grateful for his warm comments on my noble Friend Lord Adonis. Naturally, as the Minister with responsibility for the Bill, I discuss with Ministers who have responsibility for other policy areas—such as independent schools—debates in the Commons, so the words of the hon. Gentleman and those of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) were not in vain during those debates because I reported their comments to my noble Friend. I justified the policy at the time, and he made the decision in the Lords, having listened to further debate, that the case for change was not as compelling as we previously thought.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton asked about home schooling and part-time providers, who are mostly engaged in alternative provision. We respect the right of parents to educate their children at home if they so wish, and as I said a number of times in Committee, the family home is not an educational institution and will not fall under the definition of institutions regulated under the Bill. Children educated alone by a parent at all times, regardless of location, will be regarded as those receiving home education and there would be no need to register.

Given that all children are entitled to learn in a safe environment, the state has a responsibility to make sure that minimum standards are met if they are not supervised by their parents so that they learn in safe premises, where child welfare and protection standards are met and where their education meets minimum standards. Where home education takes place in a pooled setting, and the child’s education is not supervised by the parent, it is right that such provision should be registered.

The hon. Gentleman asked about part-time providers, and his recollection is right. When we initially took the Bill through the Commons, we were talking about four part-time providers. The work we then did through a telephone survey—it is not desperately authoritative—over the summer reinforces the need for registration. We spoke to just under 50 local authorities following the “Back on Track” White Paper about alternative provision and found that there may be up to 1,100 providers that need to register. I stress to the hon. Gentleman and the House that the figure is up to 1,100 providers—I estimate the figure to be between 130 and 1,100. It was not the most authoritative survey, but that figure reinforces the need for some sort of regulation. It is clear that the likely size of this educational sector makes it more, not less, important that coherent statutory standards are applied to those providers. The 135,000 young people each year who are not educated in schools comprise some of the most vulnerable in society and it is right that the settings in which they are educated should be properly registered and regulated.

Mr. Gibb: Am I wrong to be astonished that the Minister’s Department did not know that 150 local authorities were using up to 1,100 private sector part-time providers to provide alternative education in their areas?

6.15 pm

Jim Knight: Local authorities have a large amount of delegated freedoms, contrary to the narrative we sometimes hear in this place. Where young people have dropped
17 Nov 2008 : Column 70
out of, or been excluded from, mainstream education, local authorities have been using whatever providers they deem fit to provide alternative provision for those young people. I was surprised that the number was as high as the survey might have revealed, but that has reinforced the need to register and to regulate.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree with my right hon. Friend about the need for registration, but is the lack of state provision in special establishments the result of closures in the past, when we rushed too quickly for an all-inclusive approach to education for children who need special education in special establishments?

Jim Knight: I am not sure that it is a result of a rush to closure or that we need to enter into the debate on inclusion for children with special educational needs. Such alternative provision is often required for those with behavioural problems; there would obviously be a high percentage of pupils with SEN, but the principal issue relates to those whose behavioural needs could not be dealt with in mainstream education, meaning that some other form of provision had to be commissioned.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am digressing somewhat from the debate, but I wanted to make a point that I have made before to my right hon. Friend. Would it not be sensible to look seriously at the idea of local authorities forming consortiums that could provide specialist establishments in the public sector for children with very special needs, given that almost all of us have come across such children?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend follows such matters closely, and he will know that as a result of the White Paper we published this year, we have focused a lot more on these issues. We are interested in innovative approaches to improving provision, and we want to raise the overall quality of provision for those young people. It is precisely because of the measures we are taking to raise the participation age that we must not give up on any young person, even when they have made mistakes. We are ensuring that local authorities commission the right provision to get those people back on track.

Mr. Gibb: Does not the debate reveal that a coach and horses has been driven through the Minister’s policy? The White Paper, “Back on Track”, to which he referred, was published in May 2008. At that point, I understand that he had no idea that local authorities were using 1,100 private sector alternative education providers, but he had already formed what he thought would be the policy to improve alternative provision in local authority areas. In his letter of 4 September, he said that his telephone survey was carried out between early June and early July, but he had already formulated his policy in May, before he acquired that crucial piece of information about alternative education in this country.

Jim Knight: The White Paper was drawn up in the context of ensuring that we improved the quality of alternative provision. How that provision was registered came to light in the summer as we sought to implement the White Paper and as we prepared for the announcement of 12 pilots in October in order to develop new and innovative forms of alternative provision. I make no
17 Nov 2008 : Column 71
apology for wanting to drive forward whatever sort of vehicle the hon. Gentleman may propose to ensure that vulnerable young people are educated in registered provision that can be properly inspected, and to ensure that that education is of the appropriate quality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) raised some issues about transitional provisions and the amendments that deal with them. The new clause that amendment No. 150 would insert are intended to provide for the seamless continuity of the law, a phrase that my hon. Friend used about actions begun but not completed under the existing regulatory regime. The purpose is to prevent unnecessary delays and complications in dealing with on-going cases from arising. Clause 151 contains a power to make specific transitional provisions, if necessary. A specific transitional provision would trump the general continuity provision in amendment No. 150.

Amendment No. 151 is intended to provide for the seamless continuity of the register of independent schools in England. The existing register is kept under section 158 of the Education Act 2002. Clause 80 provides for the new register of independent educational institutions, which will include the existing register and any part-time providers. As we have just discussed, they will be registered under clause 77.

My hon. Friend asked about an hiatus with respect to amendment No. 152. I can assure him that there will be no hiatus. As soon as the Bill comes into force, the amendment will allow us to ensure that that transfer of responsibility takes place. We will lay the regulations before the new legislative regime comes into force. Amendment No. 150(6) would grant the power to make the detailed relevant provision. I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend’s questions.

I hope that my other comments have dealt with the queries of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). I wish to add that the relationship with the Independent Schools Council is important. It inspects many independent schools—

Mr. Gibb: That is the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

Jim Knight: Indeed. The Independent Schools Council represents many independent schools. We have a good relationship with many independent schools and I was pleased to visit, for example, Epsom college, last week to mark its sponsorship of Lambeth academy. It joins the United Learning Trust as a sponsor of Lambeth academy and will help the academy to develop its sixth form. That is a positive step for independent schools working with state-maintained schools.

Mr. Laws: Is the Minister confident that communication between the Department and the independent schools groups is strong enough to avoid problems in future?

Jim Knight: We have held discussions with the Independent Schools Council and reached agreement on the three main concerns that it has raised with us. To avoid doubt, I will reiterate the commitments.

First, we have agreed that regulations under the new standard for leadership and management in clause 79 will be modelled on the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s criteria for judging leadership and management in its current inspections framework.

Next Section Index Home Page