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There is also the question of what happens if parents decline to sign the contract. I understand that under current law no parent can be forced to sign. If a parent declines to sign, they cannot be held to the obligations
that they have not agreed to. Also, if parents know that they can decline to sign and can face no sanctions, why should they sign-and especially because everything they are alleged to want is guaranteed by law anyway by the Secretary of State?
One of the Secretary of State's other wheezes for involving parents is to have parental surveys. I am very keen on surveys on education. There was one in The Sunday Telegraph this weekend that pointed out that David Cameron is trusted more than Gordon Brown by some 12 percentage points to improve this country's education.
Michael Gove: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me therefore repeat that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is trusted by many more parents to improve education than the Prime Minister is trusted.
As I understand it, the survey the Secretary of State proposes is for the parents of children in year 5 to be asked whether they are happy with the provision of secondary schools in their area. If a certain number of parents-the required number is as yet unspecified, as the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) pointed out-say they are unhappy, the local authority has to produce a response, although no time scale is specified. If the local authority produces such a report addressing the complaints of dissatisfied parents and then a number of parents object-again the required number is unspecified-the local authority has to put its report to a schools adjudicator. If the schools adjudicator finds against the local authority, the local authority has to come back with a new report-although, again, the time scale is not specified-and so the process continues. The local authority must ultimately implement plans, unless it considers them to be unreasonable, in which case I suspect the courts will once again be called in to define exactly what is reasonable.
Let us imagine that a local authority goes through this process and that that all happens within a year, and it then seeks to implement its plans only to find that the next cohort of parents of children in year 5 takes a completely different view of education provision. What happens then? Do we go through the same process all over again? Which group of parents is sovereign? Again, all the Secretary of State is proposing is a hugely bureaucratic process whose only certain beneficiary is the legal profession.
Earlier, in response to remarks made by the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), I mentioned my concerns about the licence to teach. There is a basic question that we all, particularly the Secretary of State, must answer: what value does this add? Bureaucratic bodies very rarely resist the accretion of extra powers to themselves, but the body charged with administering this new obligation-the General Teaching Council-has signalled profound concern about the additional powers it has been asked to accept. It says that it would be a challenge to develop a system that has sufficient rigour to make a positive impact while remaining proportionate and not unduly burdensome. It also points out that many teachers are sceptical about
the practical benefits that can be secured, and interpret the initiative as another burden on them and their schools. The GTC specifically worries that any message about trusting professionals would be difficult to communicate when they see this as simply something additional layered on to the many existing mechanisms to which they are subject.
It is vital that we enhance the prestige of teaching and the esteem in which it is held, but I am not sure how that can be done simply through a process of bureaucratic certification. The answer is to raise the bar for entry to the profession and to improve continuous professional development, but the Bill contains no measures to achieve either of those aims, as both the professional associations I mentioned earlier-the National Union of Teachers and the ASCL-have pointed out.
Mr. Graham Stuart: Does my hon. Friend agree that head teachers should better be able to monitor the teachers on their staff in order to support them and bring them up to standard, and, if necessary, to remove from the profession those who are not of a sufficient standard-an action that too rarely happens nowadays? That is what we need, not the complex, bureaucratic and expensive system the Secretary of State proposes.
Along with improving the accountability of the professionals, we should improve the accountability of schools overall. That is why I am a supporter of reformed league tables, and why I am concerned about the Bill's proposals on the school report card. One of the great things about league tables at their best is that they shine a light on those schools-very often in disadvantaged circumstances-that are dramatically exceeding expectations, and the rest of us can learn from what those superb schools are doing. We can look at those schools that have challenging intakes and yet exceed the national average and say, "In this particular institution, there are leaders and teachers who are doing a superb job, and we wish what they are doing to be more widely applied elsewhere." Having that combination of professional autonomy and accountability-rigorous, clear, transparent, data-led accountability-is very important.
I fear that we may be moving away from a process that, although it has some flaws, provides a measure of clarity, towards something that is at once both fuzzier and more bureaucratic. The Government want their new school report card to supersede the attainment league tables as the principal accountability measure, but it is unclear how these school report cards will work. There is supposed to be an overall grade, but that grade may conflict with an Ofsted report measure. It is unclear who will assess the grade a school is to be given. Will Ofsted be responsible for that, or the Department? If the Department is responsible, will there not be a perverse incentive for it-no matter how incorruptible its Ministers-to ensure that every year more schools are seen to be succeeding? One of the problems with the report card introduced in New York is that the proportion of schools classified as good or excellent is now some 80 per cent. of the total. That is precisely because of that tendency to level-up purely in terms of how schools are reported-not in terms of what they are actually achieving.
Within the report card, there will be a variety of different ingredients, but what weight will be given to each of them? In assessing the overall grade, what weight will be given to the attainment tables, to value-added and to contextual value-added? Given that the report card is supposed also to measure such things as well-being and parental satisfaction, what weight will be given to them? What weight will be given to the quality of a school's relationship with other schools in framing the overall grade?
The answer is not to have a bureaucrat assessing an overall grade on a basket of measures that they decide. The answer is to retain and improve league tables, with a focus on academic attainment, and to ensure that, using sophisticated technology that is increasingly available, parents have the opportunity to develop their own ways of comparing schools in lots of different fashions, all of which will allow them to find the education and school that are right for them.
Still on the subject of finding the right school, one of the most controversial issues is home education, as we know from earlier debate. Although I wish to discuss this, I shall do so very briefly as it will certainly be debated at length in Committee. I am deeply concerned about the additional bureaucratic burden that will now potentially be placed on thousands of our fellow citizens whose only crime is to want to devote themselves as fully as possible to their children's education. It is a basic right of parents to be able to educate their children in accordance with their own wishes, and to educate them at home if they so wish. There may be many reasons why parents take that decision: they might be dissatisfied with local provision; their child might have a specific educational need that they feel can be better supported at home; or they might have philosophical objections to the style of education on offer at the local state schools that are easily accessible. Each of these decisions can sometimes be illuminating, in that they can tell us what is wrong with current provision-there might be a lack of diversity, for instance. Ultimately however, this is a basic human right that every parent should have, and I feel the Bill erodes that right, because, as I read it, it allows the state to terminate the right of a family to educate a child at home if the education offered is not deemed suitable according to regulations that the Secretary of State writes.
Mr. Stuart: I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that New Zealand introduced a similar licensing and monitoring system a number of years ago but last year gave it up on the grounds that it was a waste of time and money. Have the Government learned nothing from the foreign experience of this system?
It seems that the Government have learned very little; indeed, I believe that the report on which their recommendations are based was described by one member of the expert group called in to help us as one of the most rushed, flawed and populist exercises with which he had ever been involved. I know that the Secretary of State bears no malice towards home education, so I hope that in Committee he and the Minister for Schools and Learners will do their best to address the many legitimate concerns. I do not know of any home educating parent who supports these provisions. I, like almost every Member of this House, have been inundated by correspondence, telephone calls and e-mails from,
and had private meetings with, home educating parents who are deeply concerned about this legislation, because it undermines the right of a family who have broken no laws and placed no child in danger to decide what is in the interests of their child.
As the debate on home education has developed, I have become particularly worried about the way in which various issues have been conflated; I am especially worried about the conflation of safeguarding and child protection with quality of education. I deeply regret the way statistics have been used to suggest somehow that children are intrinsically at greater risk if they are being home educated; I believe I am right in saying that not a single home-educated child has had to be taken into care as a result of a child protection plan, yet there are those who have sedulously spread the myth that somehow children are at greater risk through being home educated.
Mr. Mark Field: Does my hon. Friend also recognise that there are often positive reasons for parents choosing to educate their children at home? These decisions are not necessarily a reflection on the schools or the local education authority, so the notion that simply improving the LEA or the schools will dissipate the demand for home education is entirely wrong. Some parents home educate for very positive reasons.
Michael Gove: I entirely understand the point made by my hon. Friend; he is right to say that a host of reasons are involved, and it is not for us to second-guess the decisions made by parents. Many of those who sacrifice not only earnings but time make a commitment of love towards their children in order to home educate them, and that should be celebrated and applauded, not denigrated and undermined.
One of my specific concerns is that this legislation means the state will take it upon itself to regulate what may or may not be taught in the home. Proposed new section 19C in schedule 1 provides that parents will have to produce a report in accordance with regulations laid down by the Secretary of State explaining what they propose to include in the education programme for their child. They will then have to allow an inspector in at an appropriate point, and that inspector will have to be satisfied that the education being provided is suitable, according to the regulations laid down by the Secretary of State. If that education is not considered suitable by that local authority employee, the right of that individual to be home educated can be revoked. So this is not about safeguarding or even about child protection; this is about the Secretary of State being able to say that an individual home-educating parent is not providing an education that he deems appropriate and therefore they should not have the right to educate that child at home.
One of the other terrible things about this legislation is that proposed new section 19F in schedule 1 sets out that when the information provided by a parent to a local authority changes and is found to be wrong, even if it was materially right when it was given-in other words, the parent made efforts to ensure that the information was correct but the local authority finds that it has changed in some respect-the right to educate that child at home can be revoked. Even though the parent is not at fault and sought to provide the right information
at the right time in the right way, they can lose the right to educate their own child. A draconian extension of state power is potentially made possible by this Bill, which is why all my hon. Friends will be working hard in Committee to ensure that we can find a consensus on this sensitive area, so that the rights of home educating parents are respected and we do not fundamentally erode their liberties.
Mr. Laws: I share some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. Is it his party's position that the existing regulation of home education should be left unchanged, or does he foresee the need to make some changes?
Michael Gove: I do foresee the need to make some changes. I do not believe that the current system is perfect, but it is fundamentally important that we respect the rights of home educators first and that we ensure that any change to legislation is conducted in accordance with their wishes and interests-they have made it crystal clear that the approach that has been taken so far runs counter to those.
Mr. Stuart: I wonder whether my hon. Friend finds it bizarre, as I do, that this Bill, unlike any piece of legislation to deal with children going back to 1989, fails to make the interests of the child paramount in any consideration. Instead, the Bill considers any administrative failures on the part of parents as being an open and shut case for the revocation of home education, regardless of the interests of the child, and that is simply wrong.
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. More broadly, I should point out that the Secretary of State's own children's plan makes it clear that it is families that bring up children, not the state. The rights of families should be respected, and I am not convinced that they are being respected by the proposals being introduced.
There are parts of the Bill to which the Conservatives have no objections. Such areas include the powers to intervene when youth offending teams fail and the ability of school governing bodies to establish academies-indeed, I thought that the Secretary of State made a superb case when outlining the importance of academies becoming exempt charities. I also think it is right that schools should be able to use delegated funds to provide community facilities, and the proposals to improve information sharing for local children's safeguarding boards seem sensible. We also share the Government's aspirations to ensure that children have all the skills and knowledge that the best personal, social and health education is supposed to impart, but we want to see more about precisely what is proposed. We differ from the Government in one respect: we believe that the right of parents to withdraw their children should not be eroded. We agree with Sir Alasdair Macdonald in that respect. [Interruption.] Exactly, we agree with his recommendation in that respect.
There are other areas, such as the primary curriculum, about which we have profound concerns about the direction the Government are taking, and we have advertised those elsewhere. At its heart, our objection to this legislation lies in our basic view that we should regulate less, trust professionals more and build on the excellence and diversity already on display in the schools system. Our philosophy for schools is simple:
"It is about schools feeling ownership of their own future, the power and the responsibility that comes from being free to chart their own course, experiment, innovate, doing things differently: the decision-makers in their own destiny not the recipients of a pre-destined formula laid down by Government."
That was the case made by Tony Blair to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in 2006. It is a principled vision that I entirely endorse, and I am sorry only that the Secretary of State's Bill departs from it so profoundly.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The pre-debate calculations carried out did not take account of the length of the two Front-Bench speeches that we have heard, so there is pressure on the availability of time for Back-Bench speeches. Originally, a 15-minute limit was imposed and I intend to follow that for the first speech to be made from the Labour Back Benches and by the first Conservative Back Bencher. I am sorry to say that thereafter the limit will have to revert to 10 minutes if this debate is to be as inclusive as most people would wish it to be. I hope that that will be seen as a reasonable decision in the circumstances.
Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): I trust that I shall take a fair deal less than the 15 minutes allocated to me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I found the exchanges between the two Front Benchers fascinating, and I am sorry that I shall not follow them in talking mainly about schools.
I wish to discuss some of the Bill's specific aspects, much of which I welcome-for example, the statutory basis on which the Government propose to put personal, social and health education. Most of my remarks result from my experience, gained both before I came to this House and in this House, of the effects of social exclusion, in particular.
I cannot stress too strongly how we must help and support those children who do not get the support from their families that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was talking about, or how we must work with them so that they can take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them. The evidence from many different reports that I saw when I was in the Cabinet Office is that emotional well-being is critical to enabling the most vulnerable to learn, and so paying attention to that is very important. There are some superb programmes out there and we should be far more centrally prescriptive when it comes to what we know works in PSHE. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) knows the programmes about which I am talking.
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