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We support the measures in the Bill that put Sure Start centres on to a statutory footing. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for the scrutiny that she gave the provisions in part 9 of the Bill,
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particularly as she did so late into the night on the final Thursday of the Committee, which also happened to be her birthday. She has been, and remains, a firm advocate of Sure Start, but she wants to ensure, as we all do, that its services reach the most disadvantaged and hard-to-reach families in our society—something that the National Audit Office tells us that Sure Start all too often fails to do.

We support measures in the Bill that give independence to the exam regulator, Ofqual. Those measures were originally suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) when he was the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills. A raft of evidence points to falling standards in the rigour and quality of examinations—not in the rigour or quality of the students or teachers, but in the exams. I have already quoted Professor Peter Williams, who said in The Observer in July 2007:

However, one of Ofqual’s first acts was to ask one of the three exam boards, AQA, to lower the grade boundaries in its new science GCSE to conform to the grade boundaries of the other two exam boards. I would have hoped that the approach would have been to instruct the other boards to raise theirs.

We welcome measures in the Bill to tackle poor standards in schools, particularly those that relate to behaviour. Ofsted reports that 43 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough, which is a staggeringly high proportion. We know from answers to parliamentary questions that 344 children are suspended from schools in England every day for violence against other pupils. We know that more than 4,000 children under the age of six were suspended from primary school last year. We know that in 2006-07, some 980 three and four-year-olds were suspended for physical assaults against other pupils and teachers. We know that the number of children suspended 10 times or more in a year has tripled over the past four years to nearly 900, and we also know that police have been called into schools 7,000 times to deal with violence. Some of those cases relate to incidents outside the school gates, and some to cases involving disruptive parents, but some cases dealt with incidents inside the school.

As we discovered in Committee, the Bill makes the involvement of the police in classroom management more likely. The new powers for teachers to search for weapons, drugs and alcohol require the search to be carried out by a teacher of the same sex as the pupil being searched, in the presence of another teacher of the same sex. That requirement for two teachers could be a problem for a very small primary school where there are no male teachers, or indeed in any primary school that has fewer than two male teachers. It could also be a problem in circumstances such as school trips, where there might be just one male teacher. The response that the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), made to those points early on Friday morning, on the final day of Committee proceedings, was as follows:

school visits

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I realise that we had been up all night, but it seems absurd for the Minister to suggest that when a teacher needs to search a pupil for stolen items, she should call the police. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said:

We are also concerned that the power to search is confined to weapons, knives, alcohol, drugs and stolen items. There is nothing in the provision about pornography, or indeed any item prohibited by the school rules, such as mobile phones and iPods. We need to give teachers and heads the powers that they need to enforce the rules of the school, whether they concern adherence to the school uniform rules, a ban on bringing mobile phones to school, or any other rule, such as those regarding completion of homework or standards of behaviour generally. [ Interruption. ] I may well come to that. There is nothing in the Bill to clarify the law so that the onus is not on teachers to prove that their actions in maintaining order are lawful and proportional. There is nothing in the Bill to protect teachers from false accusations.

Mr. Graham Stuart: On Friday I visited Hornsea Burton primary school in Hornsea in my constituency—a lovely school of 90 pupils. The only male member of staff is the caretaker, and the idea that that school, founded on warmth and community feeling, should call the police every time that there needs to be a search is frankly ridiculous. That is indicative of the poor thought that has gone into so much of the Bill.

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes the point better than I could by citing a specific example from his constituency of Beverley and Holderness. Raising standards of behaviour in schools is key to raising academic standards. Giving teachers the power and protection that they need is key to raising standards of behaviour. While we support the Bill’s new powers for teachers to search pupils, it does not go far enough to tackle the endemic problem of persistent low-level disruption in our schools.

Today, the Prime Minister heralded yet another education White Paper and therefore yet another education Bill. However, it is not the number of Bills that builds a quality education system; it is the direction of policy. The Prime Minister says that he wants to give more power to parents, but today’s announcement is not about more power for parents; it is about one particular parent wanting to cling on to power. The Opposition will not oppose the Bill tonight, but it is clear that if we want a real rise in educational standards in this country, what we need is not another Bill from the Government but a change of Government.

9.45 pm

Mr. Laws: I, too, begin by thanking all those involved in the scrutiny of the Bill, including Ministers who were, as ever, very patient in Committee. They accepted many interventions and, as the hon. Member for Bognor
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Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said, gave the Opposition a great deal of amusement on the morning of 26 March as they tripped over a number of their own new clauses and parts of the Bill.

I would particularly like to thank all the staff and others in the House, including the departmental staff who stayed for our very long sitting on 26 March, which lasted overnight into 27 March. They could not go home for a few hours in the early morning to clean up, but had to stay in the House because of the rather odd behaviour of the usual channels on the Government side. We very much appreciate the fact that they did so. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for their support and for their proactive approach throughout proceedings on the Bill, although they had the good sense to leave before the overnight sitting on 26 and 27 March; they did not, I think, anticipate the length of that sitting.

I should like to make three points in conclusion. First, there was a rather bad-tempered debate earlier on child protection and child well-being. It was a pity that it was so intemperate on both sides, because it is an extremely important issue, which we ought to deal with in the mature way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole dealt with it. We were surprised when we heard that the Government were going to introduce three new clauses at short notice. Two of those new clauses do not cause us particular concern, but new clause 22, which introduces a new targets regime, is very significant indeed. Although we did not oppose it today, we want to find out a lot more about it before deciding whether to support it in another place. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families for saying that he is happy for my hon. Friend and others to sit down with his departmental officials and perhaps Ministers to discuss the measure before it goes to another place, as it is important that we deal with the concerns that my hon. Friend set out very clearly.

On the issue of child protection, I am disappointed by the insistence of the Secretary of State on keeping the substance of the serious case review secret. He knows that no Liberal Democrat Member has any problem with the notion that certain parts of serious case reviews should not be published. I can think of one page of the baby P serious case review that I certainly would not want to put in the public domain. When he kindly invited a number of us to look at that serious case review, I made notes on what I considered to be the significant parts of it. When I passed those notes to his departmental officials to find out how much was already in the public domain, or how much was not in the public domain, so I could not use it, all the points that I considered to be significant concerning the way the baby P case was handled, were, according to the officials, not in the published version of the serious case review, and not in the public domain. I therefore question whether on the basis of the selective information that is published we can understand fully what happened in such cases. I believe that there is a middle way whereby the bulk of the reports can be published and small portions excluded. None of the bodies cited by the Secretary of State has commented on that issue.

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Secondly, I wish to make an observation on the Bill, which includes, particularly in the parts relevant to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, a ragbag of measures, which suggests a lack of direction, particularly in the DCSF education portfolio. I am genuinely disappointed that on the subject of Ofqual, although the Secretary of State has taken a welcome step by introducing this new organisation, the Government have not gone much further in setting up what would be an objective standards regulator, rather than a body that will simply seek to regulate existing qualifications.

The Secretary of State must know that if the intention behind the establishment of the body is to end the annual debate where the Schools Minister and others have to pop up on TV in the middle of August to comment on standards of GCSEs and A-levels, it will not work. It will not work because the Government have set up Ofqual in a very limited form and not given it the ability to comment on educational standards in a way that could allow all those interested in the education debate in this country to understand what has happened to educational standards over time. Without that basic understanding, we have little chance of having policy that is informed by fact, rather than dogma.

Although we were not able to debate it today, there is an awful lot in the Bill on the children, schools and families side which adds to the bureaucracy of schools. The Secretary of State must know that individuals whom he greatly respects, such as John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders, have been highly critical of much that is in the Bill on the new complaints procedures, the regulations surrounding the use of force, and the search powers. All those bring in extraordinary bureaucratic burdens which head teachers object to and which will make their job in schools much more difficult.

I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on how those proposals and the impact that they will have on schools square with what the Prime Minister talked of today in his rather drab education speech, in which he spoke about a White Paper that will contain proposals to reduce the burdens on schools, and about rationalising the statutory duties, correspondence and guidance that schools receive. The effect of much that is in the Bill in the children, schools and families area will be to impose new bureaucratic burdens on schools. Issues such as the use of force could make the job of head teachers and teachers more difficult, potentially even making them less willing to intervene in circumstances where the use of force is necessary.

Finally, an aspect of the Bill that showed up the incoherence of Government thinking in terms of accountability—I hope this will be dealt with in the White Paper that is to come—is that of school oversight. We were told that the Young People’s Learning Agency was being established to cover the academies programme because, in a nutshell, the Government do not have confidence in the ability of local authorities as commissioners and standard setters at a high level.

In the west country there will be a tiny number of academies which, owing to the Government’s lack of confidence in the oversight of local authorities, will have to be monitored by some regional quango because the Government do not trust the local authority commissioning and oversight process. That is not only
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extraordinarily wasteful, but a terrible indictment of the existing regime that we ought to depend on for the oversight of 23,500 schools in the country.

If we cannot trust local authorities to do their job of overseeing schools and as the first tier to hold those schools to account for the standards that they deliver, we have a real problem, not only with the average schools and the better than average schools but with the many schools in this country which are in challenging circumstances and which are performing badly, but which are not academies at present.

My final comment is about the context of the debate in education. There is a feeling about the Government that they may be coming to their final months in office. Many of us can remember when the Government started the process of public service reform—the attempt to improve public services in 1997. They started with no cash because they were tied into the spending limits that the Conservative Government set. They started with no reform agenda. Indeed, the early mantra was standards, not structures.

After a while the money started to flow, as the Conservative spending plans were dumped. That led to some improvements, particularly in terms of the capital stock and the staffing in schools. Eventually, there was a change in policy by the Prime Minister, who acknowledged the importance of structures, rather than standards.

Over the past couple of years, we seem to have gone backwards. The Secretary of State, in his first speech, turned on its head the Prime Minister’s comment about the importance of structures rather than just standards. The whole reform agenda has clearly run into the sand, as confirmed by the Schools Minister’s extraordinary comments the other day on the proposals to extend the academies programme to primary schools. He described the proposals as sending

and leading to an

I should have thought that Lord Adonis would have felt shivers down his spine at that description of what is, after all, merely an extension of the existing academies programme. There could be no clearer indication that the reform programme in education has come to an end.

Although the Prime Minister claimed today that he wants to be on the side of spending more and continuing to invest in education, as opposed to being on the side of austerity, we know that the Government’s spending plans after 2011 deliver real reductions in total expenditure year on year, and that there will be cuts in capital expenditure of 17.5 per cent. in real terms each and every year beyond 2011. We are almost back to where we started in 1997, returning to an era of austerity in public services, including education, and no reform programme. If we are to see standards continue to improve, and the gap between youngsters from deprived backgrounds and those from more affluent backgrounds continue to narrow, we will require an awful lot more in policy terms than what is now on offer from this Government.

9.56 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart: As we approach the end of the time available to this fading Administration, it seems that the Bill will be the final law on education that they
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have a chance to introduce before the next general election. It is their SATs test. Does the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families lie awake at night fretting about next year’s constituency league table and what it might mean for his future? Has Labour’s educational curriculum been distorted and narrowed by the test ahead? I fear that this Bill—this flimsy, incoherent Bill—provides evidence that it has. The Secretary of State has introduced it not to improve education but to fulfil the aspiration that he notoriously described to the New Statesman back in March 2006, when he said that he aspired to create political dividing lines, to show up the Conservatives and to score political points. This Bill was the educational equivalent of the 50p tax rate—another example of the vicious, paranoid, clan-based politics that he and his master have used to claw their way to the top.

It seems that no smear, no clandestine briefing and no moral outrage is too much for that coterie of the now electorally damned. But the game is up. People are not fooled anymore; they have had enough of Labour. So I appeal to the Secretary of State to accept his fate, recognise that defeat is inevitable and use the time he has left to try to do something constructive. He should work with Opposition Members not to create dividing lines but to do constructive things, such as introducing the apprenticeships that we would all like as a result of the Bill, because time and again Ministers have failed to show how they will make those apprenticeships a reality. They have made the promise, but they have not put forward the mechanisms with which to deliver it.

I appeal to the Secretary of State to give schools more freedom and to get apprenticeships going, because politics is not about winning or about power; it is about trying to make a positive difference and trying to make people’s lives better. [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State may laugh at such naive idealism, but I suggest to someone so young that, although he may never serve again after next year, despite being so young, he has one year left to try to work positively for the future of education and for our young people, and not to carry on with what is a politically driven, rather than an educationally driven, agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Mr. Speaker: With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 3 to 5 together.

Financial Services and Markets

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Question agreed to.

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Building Societies

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Question agreed to.

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