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17 Nov 2008 : Column 84

Mr. Hayes: Those are the Government’s own figures, and I am sure that the Minister will want to confirm that.

Jim Knight: My point was about proportions. There have been significant demographic increases in the numbers in that age group, which is why there has been an increase in numbers. The overall percentages, however, remain broadly stable.

Mr. Hayes: The numbers that I have here are not proportions, but numbers of people. [Interruption.] However, the hard figures and the proportions of such people aged 21, 22 and 23, for example, have risen over that period, and the Minister ought to know that.

I do not want to detain the House for too long. In conclusion, we want fewer and more rigorous tests, less bureaucracy, more freedom for professionals and a commitment to excellence for all, underpinned with a special focus on the most disadvantaged. That is what our nation, our teachers and our schools deserve, and it is what our children deserve. In that spirit, I note and welcome the amendments.

Mr. Laws: I seem to be rising only to welcome U-turns from the Government this evening, and I cannot let this particular one pass without comment. As the Minister said, there has been not one U-turn, but a double U-turn on this issue. One has come from the Conservative party, which, as the Minister rightly said, was praising the key stage 3 tests as the most important just days before it welcomed their abolition. That will teach the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) not to be so honest and straightforward in how he answers questions in future. I am sure that he will have learned that if and when he speaks from the Government Front Bench.

We welcome the U-turn on the key stage 3 tests. The provisions in the amendments allow for the Government to insist on the application of the national curriculum tests as they exist at the particular time of the year, rather than at the beginning of the year. That raises the subsidiary question of whether the Government anticipate any further U-turns on key stage tests—perhaps a further amendment to the manner of key stage 2 tests. There is also the related issue of when the Government will clarify the nature of the key stage 2 tests in 2009. Will the Minister say something about both points when he responds?

The Minister said that changes to the testing regime in-year were acceptable, whereas it would not be acceptable to carry out changes in-year to the curriculum, as that would be extremely destabilising. I register that point, but he may want to acknowledge that carrying out changes mid-year in the testing regime has serious implications for school planning and for those who provide materials for the key stage 3 tests. Like me, the Minister may have seen correspondence from publishers a large proportion of whose business was producing key stage 3 test documents for schools. They were less than amused by the very short notice given of this year’s change in relation to the key stage 3 test.

Will the Minister acknowledge that, although the abolition of the compulsory key stage 3 testing regime this year was desirable, and although it may have been prompted by the unusual chaos in the testing regime
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over the spring and summer, we would not want a change at such short notice to be an example of how the testing regime should be changed in future? That change has caused a great deal of disruption to schools and those associated with the testing regime, including those who supply materials for it. I hope that he will recognise that as he sums up and that he will assure us that future changes to the testing regime will be more measured and thought out.

Rob Marris: I welcome the effective abolition of the mandatory key stage 3 test. That was long overdue, and the Government have done well.

I want to focus on amendment No. 209, which amends part of section 74 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006. The 2006 Act itself would amend part of section 88 of the Education Act 2002. There are amendments to amendments, but as the Minister said, section 74 of the 2006 Act is not in force two years after its passage. Yet tonight we are amending it. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can explain in a little more detail—not exhaustive detail, as I am sure he could if he wished to—how it has come to pass that an Act passed by the House two years ago to amend an Act that was passed four years before it is not yet in force, although tonight we are amending it.

Jim Knight: When I see my right hon. Friend the Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household, I know that I need to be relatively brief. I will attempt to be so. I accept that we have had some debate by way of intervention with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), and I accept his general support for the amendments with gratitude.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked a few questions and commented on the rapid U-turn by the Conservative party. I can tell him categorically that there will not be any U-turn on key stage 2 tests. We have proceeded with the procurement for 2009, which is coming to a conclusion. As the Secretary of State said in his statement, we think it important that there is an independently assessed national measure of performance that allows parents and us to judge the performance of primary schools. That function is performed in another respect by GCSEs, but in respect of key stage 2, if there are any changes, those will be informed by the expert group set up under the leadership of Sir Alasdair Macdonald, the head teacher from Tower Hamlets.

Mr. Laws: Can the Minister tell us when the announcement on the key stage 2 contractor will be made?

Jim Knight: I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman exactly when. As I said, that procurement process is coming to a conclusion. I had a note about it in my box this weekend, but as far as I recall the note did not include a date. In-year changes to national curriculum assessment would be exceptional; I am not proposing that we should make this a matter of routine. When we made the announcement back in October, some English and maths teachers got in touch to say, “What am I going to teach now?” I suggested that perhaps maths and English would be a good idea.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) raised some questions around the implementation of the 2006 Act. If I led him to
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believe that the whole Act had not been implemented, that was an error. Certain parts of the Act have been, and others, as has been pointed out, are still to be. I am advised with rigour that these are the appropriate amendments to the appropriate amendments of the appropriate Act. I hope that he takes my reassurance.

Rob Marris: Can my right hon. Friend tell me the appropriate date when those appropriate amendments to the appropriate amendments to the appropriate Act will be brought into force?

Jim Knight: As I said in my speech, the amendments will come into effect by regulation shortly, so they will have effect very soon. Clearly, they are in regard to the key stage 3 tests, which otherwise would have to be conducted by schools this summer. We will bring forward the regulations very soon. On that basis, I hope that the House will support the amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment : No. 171.

Jim Knight: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 172, 183, 184, 187, 189, 208 and 214.

Jim Knight: These are the amendments introduced in the other place by the Government in response to amendments tabled by Baronesses Walmsley and Howe, supported by all parties and, I think, inspired by an amendment originally tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).

The Government are committed to involving young people as widely as possible in matters that affect them. We demonstrate that commitment by consulting children and young people in the development of our policies—for example, in developing and evaluating the effectiveness of the children’s plan. As we set out in the children’s plan, the Government’s aim is for all young people to want and be able to participate and take responsible action. Giving children and young people a say in decisions that affect them can improve engagement in learning, help to develop a more inclusive school environment, and improve behaviour and attendance.

7.15 pm

I am sure that no one, least of all schools, would disagree that the voice of pupils is extremely important. As hon. Members will know, we have already acted decisively. In the 2002 Act, we required schools to have regard to statutory guidance about consulting pupils on decisions that affect them. We want to build on that now to ensure that all schools are consulting their pupils, as a minimum, on certain core aspects of school life. We know that more than 95 per cent. of schools in England already have school councils, which means that they are fulfilling this new duty. It simply is not the case that this duty, as some have alleged, will mean extra burdens on schools. It will provide clarity about the essentials, so that all schools and pupils are clear about the matters that they should be consulted on, as a minimum.

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Next year, school staff, their representatives, governors and pupils will be consulted on what those essentials should be. We envisage that, as a minimum, those essentials might be policies relating to behaviour, uniform, school food, health and safety, equalities and sustainability.

Involving pupils in participation and decision making is already a key part of the personal, social and health education and citizenship education curriculums. It gives young people the opportunity to develop critical thinking, advocacy and influencing skills, and empowers them to make an active contribution to their school and wider community—exactly the skills that employers are saying we need to develop more of in our young people.

The new duty in these amendments gives a clear message about the importance that we place on the involvement of pupils in matters that affect their education and school life—I make no apology for that. However, we do not want to tell schools how to go about their business. The regulations will set out just the matters on which they must invite views, but they will continue to be free to do that in ways that work best for them. We will not prescribe the manner of consultation or which pupils should be consulted. That will be for schools to decide.

In drafting the new duty, we have sought a balance in defining a responsibility that is both unambiguous and manageable for school governing bodies. To that end, statutory guidance made under proposed new subsection (5) in amendment No. 171 will help schools to understand the scope of the new duty and set out examples of how best to involve pupils and invite their views. I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr. Gibb: As the Minister has told us twice, the amendments were all tabled in another place by the Liberal Democrat peer Lady Walmsley. Few people, if any, would deny the advantages of a school giving pupils a voice in developing policies that affect the children at that school. That is increasingly accepted as best practice, and the best performing schools in the state sector will invariably have a long-established route through which pupils can express their views on key aspects of how the school is run.

I am a particularly strong supporter of school councils, not least because the views expressed by those councils are often as strong on issues of discipline and behaviour as my own and those of my party. On rare occasions, some school councils that I have met go beyond even our zero-tolerance approach to discipline and behaviour.

An ordered and safe school environment is a pre-occupation of pupil opinion in many of the schools that I have visited, even those where behaviour is good. As my noble Friend Lord Elton said in Committee in another place:

pupil voice—

Jim Knight: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because this might speed things up. Does he not agree that Lord Elton is one of his noble Friends and that he moved the amendment in slightly longer form in Committee in another place, so therefore it would be untrue to say that these amendments were introduced and instigated solely by the Liberal Democrats?

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Mr. Gibb: This particular amendment was introduced by the Liberal Democrats, but I will return to Lord Elton in a moment. There is a common concern about extending the existing statutory duty on schools to take into account pupils’ opinions. The concern is the extent to which the duty will be taken further and the fact that these additional duties will be statutory.

As my noble Friend Lord Elton said in another place on Third Reading:

Jim Knight: Did Lord Elton support the amendment?

Mr. Gibb: I have given the Minister the opinion of Lord Elton. This goes to the crux of our concern about these amendments.

Mr. Laws: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: I will not. The hon. Gentleman will soon have his moment.

As my noble Friend Lady Morris, who speaks for the Opposition in the other place, said in Committee:

We fully endorse that view. It is odd, therefore, that a Liberal Democrat peer should have tabled a series of very prescriptive and centralising amendments that will, once statutory guidance is introduced, effectively dictate to schools the issues on which they will be obliged to consult pupils. I had thought that it was a Liberal Democrat mantra that such decisions should be made at the local level.

Jim Knight: Will the hon. Gentleman give way one more time?

Mr. Gibb: I will not give way again; the right hon. Gentleman will have another opportunity to speak when he concludes the debate.

Anyone going through the Hansard record of any Bill passing through this House would see it littered with Liberal Democrat amendments, prescribing their particular hobby horses and policy imperatives. They are in favour of local decision making, provided the decision is in line with Liberal Democrat policy and ideology. The Minister, Lady Morgan, clarified on Third Reading what amendments she was supporting. She said:

She continued:

She then went on to say a most extraordinary thing, which I can only assume was not said with a straight face, namely that

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That is an extraordinary statement. If the words “regulation” and “must” do not amount to centralised prescription, I do not know what does.

It is not surprising that these amendments have received such a hostile reception from teachers and the teacher unions. As Chris Keates of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said to The Times Educational Supplement:

John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders said:

He went on to say:

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