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The Committee produced a good report, which recognised that the Badman report had not been handled in quite the same way as many other Government reports. We are rushing through this legislation, and we need to stop and look again. I very much hope that, in
Committee, changes will be made proving that the legislation represents soft-touch regulation. We have heard a lot from Ministers about it being soft-touch, but I have said before-
In reality, what starts out as light-touch, particularly when a local authority does not necessarily operate in the best possible way, can easily turn into something more than that-something that becomes another burden and is about controlling and changing what home educating parents do. I very much resent that, and I wish that it did not happen. I hope that the Government will still look and listen and, in Committee, change the legislation to make it much more acceptable to all those home educators who do a very fine job.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is neither a light touch nor a soft touch; she is a very fine parliamentarian, and it is a privilege to follow her excellent speech.
Every progressive civilisation has depended for its success on the quality of the education of its citizens, both male and female. I have observed, over almost 27 years as a Member, that the most important thing in politics is ideas, open minds and progress. That has been the great tradition of western democracy since the age of enlightenment, but the greatest ideas are usually ruined by rules and regulations and the fine print that follows them, and I am bound to conclude that the authors of this Bill could not see the wood for the trees.
That is why I commend the intellectual approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and I pay tribute to all who have followed their vocation to teach, just as I did when I left university. I faced my first class in a county secondary modern school in Cornwall; I then went to Leeds grammar school, which was an education in several senses. In my first job as a qualified teacher, I went to Loretto school in Scotland, and I am proud to be a Scottish-registered teacher; and then I spent 14 years at Harrow school. In all those schools, the quality of leadership and the scholarship of the teaching staff guaranteed the quality of education for all the pupils. That is still true, and that is why my hon. Friend is right. The issue is about a partnership between parents and teachers, with the state providing funding, unless we are talking about the independent sector, which has such an important role to play.
In my last few weeks as a Member, I do not mind saying that it is no good being rude about schools such as Eton and the people who go there. First, they do not choose to do so-their parents choose; and secondly, those schools are often the best in the world. All of us should seek to elevate the quality of education throughout the country to the best that can be achieved. It is foolish to deny that.
The hon. Gentleman has had a very distinguished career, and we are great friends outside the House. However, it is very easy to run a successful educational programme in the independent sector if
one excludes all the poor children and all the children with special educational needs, and if it does not represent the communities in which most of us live. That is the difficulty, and sometimes people in the independent sector ought to have more humility in respect of what they claim for their schools.
Robert Key: In responding to the distinguished Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I should say only that that is why, ever since 1946, the independent sector has endeavoured always to broaden its interest and intake and to provide more scholarships. But what has been the response? All the scholarships that were available to poorer children have been restricted, and since this Government came to power no scholarship amounting to more than 50 per cent. of the fees has been allowed. That is a retrogressive policy, and I deplore it.
I fear that the Bill has missed the point. As Baroness Walmsley pointed out in the other place, we have had more than 1,200 regulations since 1997, and they have added up in words to more than the combined works of Shakespeare. That is not clever, and I agreed so much with Lord Sacks, who, in the other place on 26 November 2009, reminded us that not everything that matters can be measured; not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that is valuable can be valued at a price. Of course, that is true.
As a veteran of the 1983 Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts and, I think, the only survivor of the Committee stage of the 1988 GERBIL, the great Education Reform Bill, of the now distinguished peer, Lord Baker, I can observe that the Bill before us is really not worth most of the paper on which it is written. Clause 23 alone, on the licence to practise, would be enough to erode the morale and confidence of most of the teaching profession.
There is, however, an aspect of the Bill to which I want to refer, because I support it strongly. That aspect is represented by clauses 10 to 14, on personal, social, health and economic education. It is a clumsy phrase, and I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) that, if we can think up something snappier that means something to people, so much the better. However, parents are responsible for providing a moral dimension to the education of their children, and, in my ideal world, where marriage would be the norm but stable relationships would be the best equivalent for everybody else, parents would take on that responsibility.
Such education would be not just about the biology of sex, but about the moral framework-about marriage, stable relationships and all those virtuous things that lead to stable communities and a stable society. We cannot force parents to do it, however. Some parents do not want to; some do not think that they are very good at it; and some would rather that doctors or, indeed, teachers did it instead. Someone must do it, however, and after more than 25 years as a Member one of my regrets is that Parliament and successive Governments have failed to encourage young people, over several generations, towards a more mature understanding at an earlier age of how to respect their bodies, friends and communities. It is much better that teachers should do this than pornographers, drug-pushers, people-traffickers or criminals, and that is why clauses 10 to 14 should be supported.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that people outside this place, on the estates and in schools and communities, do not have a clue what this is all about. I think he is right. In fact, it is worse than that, because most people inside this House do not have a clue what it is about either. Those of us who have been here for a long time and have been talking to our education authorities, social workers and hospitals-accident and emergency departments, and so on-realise the enormous challenge that young people face nowadays that we did not face when we were their age.
The whole question of sexually transmitted infections is now the biggest public health issue in most of our constituencies, and that is fuelled by access to alcohol and its low price: it all goes together. That is why I very much welcome clause 11, particularly subsection (4), which defines, from paragraphs (a) to (g), exactly what is meant by personal, social, health and economic education. In terms of public health, we must be hard-nosed and realistic about the temptations faced by young people on our streets in our constituencies on Friday and Saturday nights, with large volumes of alcohol, binge drinking and irresponsibility all around. That can lead only to the A and E department of a hospital, where one will find, if one asks people quietly, that on a Saturday night they receive teenage girls who have had between 20 and 30 units of alcohol over a period of four or five hours, and who are legless and likely to have engaged in sexual activity that has been dangerous for them. In all this, do we not usually blame the girls? Is it not those bad gals who cause all the trouble because they are the ones who get pregnant and cause all the teenage pregnancies? In fact, it is the young men who cause the trouble, not the girls, and it is time that we addressed that. I hope that the Bill will lead to a huge improvement in the quality of education of our young people that takes on board the importance of educating young men, just as much as young women, about their social responsibilities and relationships.
I mention in parenthesis a remarkable phenomenon that should be happening right across the country-the emergence of street pastors. I helped to launch a street pastor scheme in Salisbury last autumn. These people are not busybodies who wish to go about preaching to young people-far from it. They want to be there quietly to help at critical moments at times of critical decisions when young people-it is usually young people, but not exclusively-have had a little more to drink than they should and have to decide whether to stop or how far to go. For those young people to find alongside them experienced, trained people to whom they can talk is proving to be a great benefit, certainly in Salisbury and I believe elsewhere.
I commend the report on alcohol published last week by the Select Committee on Health, because that, too, recognises the significance of cheap alcohol. I have come to the conclusion over all these years-Parliament has been discussing this for 26 years, to my certain knowledge-that we have gone much too far in making alcohol cheap and more widely available. We will not address this problem satisfactorily until we go for minimum unit pricing, and we will have to start to restrict the number of outlets and police the whole thing much better. If one asks any police force, certainly mine in Salisbury-Salisbury, for goodness' sake: that wonderful, safe, beautiful city, which has so few problems compared
with most-one will find that 80 per cent. of crime is still committed by people with alcohol-related intent. That is the bottom line, and we really must do something about it.
Then we come to the whole question of the education of our children and how we can best get it across. I make a plea that this Government, in their dying days, and the incoming Government carry on from where my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath started in bearing in mind the intellectual approach to take towards education. Before rushing into the thicket of undergrowth and muddle that is in the Bill, the House should bear in mind that British education is still the envy of the world, that English is still the most important language in the world, and that it is our duty to future generations to uphold the primacy of ideas over regulation. It is our duty, as a nation, to guard with pride the intellectual endeavour of western Christendom and western civilisation, and that depends on the quality of our education.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). I remember that when I was Public Health Minister there was much that we could agree on, as in his speech today, as regards young people and their health, opportunities and aspirations in life.
I am pleased to speak in the debate on the Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. As an MP of 13 years, I have seen a lot of changes in my constituency. Back in 1997, our aspiration was just to get indoor toilets in so many of our schools with dilapidated buildings and terrible outside toilets that were not a joy for the pupils, the teachers or the cleaning staff. Since that time, we have seen the refurbishment of very many schools, with more than £100 million spent on new school buildings. We have three new secondary academies and four specialist schools. We have seen improvements across Doncaster, although I would be the first to admit that there is still some way to go. In 1998, 34 per cent. of our pupils got five A to C-grade GCSEs. If one compares that with the proportion in 2009-71 per cent.-there is no doubt that there have been changes, not only through resources but reforms that have meant that the outcomes and prospects for many children in Don Valley and Doncaster are better than they were some years ago.
The Bill tries to look further at how we get the right balance between rights and responsibilities, not only for schools and staff but for pupils and parents. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on seeking further to address these important issues. As a former member of the Education and Employment Committee, as it was then, I know only too well how important leadership is in schools. Under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), we undertook an inquiry into the role of the head teacher in that context. To be honest, nothing changes-the head teacher's role as leader of a school was as important then as it was decades before, and it is as important today as it will be in future. More support should be given to head teachers in tackling underperforming teachers in their schools. If that is not done, it does not serve the school, the pupils or their parents, and it certainly does not serve other teachers who are having to cover for those who are not up to the job.
A lot has already been said-I will not repeat it-about pupil and parent guarantees and home-school agreements. I think I understand why my right hon. and hon. Friends want to enshrine guarantees for pupils and parents in our communities, which is a worthy aspiration. However, I am concerned about how they will be enforced and understood by pupils and parents, and about exactly what would trigger the point at which a parent might go to the local government ombudsman to tackle an issue they are worried about. Alongside that, I am concerned about the time taken and the number of cases that the ombudsman might have to take on. Over several years as an MP, I have had to work on behalf of constituents with the local government ombudsman, and I know that they are not exactly underworked in the number of cases that they have to take up in a whole host of other areas. I hope that that will get further attention in Committee.
On home-school agreements, as a parent rather than as an MP I have seen three children go through GCSEs, A-levels and degrees under a Labour Government, and two are currently looking to do postgraduate qualifications as well. Before that, I happened to have them attending a school that was already providing home-school agreements, which the Government of the time had not enshrined in law. The agreements are important, as it is important for a parent when their child starts a school, whether primary or secondary, to have a baseline of what is expected from them and their children. They should also know what they can expect from the school, both in standards of education and in pastoral support, which is very important for children's well-being.
I am concerned about where home-school agreements are going and how much more work might be needed to personalise each one to meet the needs of every child. Hon. Members have outlined that concern in this debate. As a parent, I hope that when it comes to the educational needs of my children, and those of my constituents and of every parent in the country, that personalised attention takes place through their form tutor in each year group. Parents engage in their child's education in different ways, such as through the parents' meetings that they should have and the information that they receive about their child's success or otherwise. That should be an ongoing process, and I am concerned that we may be trying to mix that up with home-school agreements too much.
Another point that I wish to make about home-school agreements was made to me by a head teacher in my constituency recently. Clarity is needed about the consequences for those parents who do not abide by their responsibilities. In most schools, as the agreements stand, an overwhelming majority of parents fulfil what is expected of them. A very small minority do not, and that could be to do with attendance at school, supporting the improvement in their child's behaviour and so on. Head teachers tell me they do not really know where they should go and what they should do when that breaks down completely. The Bill mentions the courts and parenting orders, but some of the head teachers to whom I have talked do not realise that they can already use parenting orders. We need to ensure that where they already have powers, they know how to use them appropriately.
The matter needs attention, and a parenting order, parenting contract or acceptable behaviour contract-whatever we want to call it-may be necessary. At the
moment, as with all sorts of matters to do with rights and responsibilities, the question is what to do when the responsibilities are not taken on and what sanctions there are to make a parent engage. The vast majority of parents do so, even those who are having difficulties and challenges with their children, but some refuse, and teachers often feel that there is not a lot they can do.
The new duty on local authorities requires them proactively to seek parents' views on the range and quality of secondary school places in their area. I am interested in that, and I understand that it is focused on the year 5 age group. Perhaps there is something to be said for asking parents of children in other year groups, who have already gone into secondary education, what they think about the experience and the choice.
I was concerned recently when I took up a case on behalf of a Catholic primary school in my constituency. The local education authority was going to cease to provide funds for buses for the children from that school in Edlington, a deprived area by anyone's measures, to go to a local Catholic secondary school. I understand that there have also been cuts in bus services to other schools. There are four specialist schools in my constituency, and part of the role of specialist schools was to offer children who excelled in a particular specialism the opportunity to go to them. If local authorities cut the means of transport to them, what choice is there for those children's parents? That needs to be attended to.
I very much support the idea that schools should consider supporting the wider community and be able to use their delegated budgets to invest in doing so. Given the amount of money that has gone into improving our schools and building new ones, it seems only right that we should see them in the context of the wider community. There should be opportunities for other community organisations to benefit from a school's facilities, but also to help schools and work with them on the issue of families in the community. There are other community organisations that can help the staff of schools provide better for their pupils.
I would also like schools to have an opportunity to have far more control over their finances in planning ahead. There have been headlines recently about the number of schools sitting on reserves. I shall not justify or defend schools that sit on huge amounts of money that could be better spent in their school community, but there are times when a school has to plan ahead for its needs, for example when year groups are changing and a large number of children are coming into the school because of the number of births locally. That will have an impact on spending in that school and the number of staff it needs to employ. In one year, school numbers might go up-
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I must confess that I find the Bill, and particularly the provisions for the regulation of home schooling, deeply troubling. I am sure that many Members will raise the issue, so I shall endeavour to be brief.
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