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8.18 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I am intrigued by the debate we have had so far, which I have tried to place in the context of things that I have watched happen in my constituency since I was first elected in 1992. One of the first things I looked at in respect of education in the area was the desperate need to raise the ambitions of young people. That fits in with many of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).

It is critical for the House to focus on education and to ask whether the Bill enhances what is happening locally. I shall put the Bill in the context of developments in my constituency that have brought positive benefits for the life chances of my constituents, how that has spilled over into trends in the area and whether the Bill improves the situation.

The first major change was the development of a series of new primary schools. One of the best-managed private finance initiatives-I do not mind being bipartisan about it; it was brilliantly managed-was led by what was then Tory-controlled Cheshire county council, working in partnership with all the key customers including the young people themselves. It made a difference: that group of children felt that the school really did belong to them. The initiative, together with Sure Start, began to change the life chances of young people, and I have seen it develop.

More recently, last September, we created a new academy, the University academy. It is the result of a fantastic partnership between Chester university, the local diocese and two secondary schools that have been merged. The close partnership with the university sector has resulted in new builds for both the academy and a further education college. Even in the few months involved, it has made a number of young people ask themselves a question about university: what is this mysterious place to which very few have aspired? It has already made a difference, and I commend it.

I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has returned to the Chamber. When he visited the academy, he witnessed the leadership that, after only a few months, is already starting to make a difference. He also witnessed the results of a
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different Labour investment when he visited Hammond school. I am sure he will recall the extraordinary talent of young people who had benefited from the specialist investment in dance and drama that had enabled state-funded pupils to get into that elite school. All that investment has transformed the life chances of people in my constituency, who are beginning to believe that they can do better than their predecessors.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who knows my constituency, will be aware that there were periods when we had massive unemployment among people in their mid-teens, partly owing to recessions and technological change in the big manufacturing areas back in the mid-1980s. The children of that generation are now starting to aspire towards something different, and that is encouraging in itself. I view the Bill in the context of what is happening now. The most important of the guarantees mentioned in clause 1, to which no one has referred today, is the pupil ambition

That returns us to the heart of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, and it must be seen in the context of a two-way trade. Students cannot attend a school at which they expect to enjoy good behaviour around them unless they are part of it themselves. We must work hard to ensure that a programme of that kind is enshrined in legislation as soon as possible.

My second point relates to 21st-century schools. They need investment, and I believe that unless the investment programmes that I described earlier continue into the foreseeable future, it will not be possible for that part of the Bill to be delivered either. We need continued state investment, together with the ambitions set out in the Bill. Perhaps I can plug something to the Secretary of State. He visited a brilliant high school in my constituency in the week of the TUC conference last September, and saw the marvellous work being done in a shambolic set of buildings in Neston. I hope that the Government will move that school further up the list in the Building Schools for the Future programme.

As we have heard, the Bill also deals with home education. I too have received representations, and my petition on the subject was presented by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), for which I am grateful. There have been some misapprehensions and misconceptions about the Bill. Proposed new section 19E in schedule 1 makes it clear that there is no requirement for children to attend sessions on their own with a representative of the local education authority. I would have objected strongly had there been any suggestion that a child could be required to attend such a meeting. There is an absolute right of objection in the draft provision, and I consider that very important.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I do not think that that guarantee is terribly absolute. Although a parent may object to the inspector's entering the home to speak to the child, he or she may then be deemed to have been unco-operative in terms of one of the visits that is required, in which event the right to educate the child at home may be revoked. I would not be taken in by the superficial appearance of the provision.

Andrew Miller: I am not a lawyer, but proposed new section 19E includes the words

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Proposed new section 19G which I should like to be strengthened a little in Committee-states that the regulations "may"-I think the word ought to be "should"-provide for the provision in new subsection (2)(b) enabling an extension of the registration period to be automatic in the event of an unwarranted draconian action of the kind described by the hon. Gentleman. I think that it is possible to find solutions.

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

Andrew Miller: Very briefly.

Mr. Stuart: Proposed new section 19F(1)(e) states that a local authority may revoke a registration

We need reassurance if we are to believe that parents will not be penalised.

Andrew Miller: I have referred the hon. Gentleman to proposed new section 19G, which concerns appeals. The regulations should, in my view, provide for the registration to continue automatically in the event of an appeal.

Finally, I wish to say a few words about special educational needs. In the old county council structure in Cheshire, a significant number of SEN appeals were conducted at a very high level by volunteers. People with little or no means were reliant upon the voluntary sector to make representations on behalf of their child within the appeals mechanisms. At the opposite, more wealthy, end of the county, however, people were represented by highly qualified lawyers. That cannot be right. We must have equality in the SEN appeals process. The right of access for those children whose cases need representation must be absolute, and there must also be fairness in the quality of that representation. Whatever the detail of the steps that will be taken to strengthen the process, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that children of all backgrounds have both a right of access and the right to the same quality of representation.

This is an important Bill that builds upon the building blocks to which I have referred, and I hope that when it passes through Committee, it will emerge as a measure that helps to build further upon those building blocks. On that basis, I support the Bill.

8.31 pm

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I am unsure whether my voice or my time will run out first, but I hope to concentrate on three issues: home education; personal, social and health education; and family courts.

Schedule 1 to the Bill deals with the registration and monitoring of home-educated children, and it follows on from the Badman report, which gave rise to a significant number of concerns among home educators, who have done a fantastic job in lobbying parliamentarians. The right to interview children alone is a particular concern. The Government have listened, but it is clear from the debate that there are still significant concerns. If in Committee we can provide more reassurance that there will not be a heavy-handed lever for local authorities to use if they are not happy with what is going on, that will be welcomed by all.

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There are also concerns that the safeguarding agenda has been over-emphasised compared with education. Actually, the balance of words in the Badman report shows that that is probably not the case. Nevertheless, it was felt that part of the Badman report brief was to look at safeguarding. If a Government have restrictive measures in place and protect their own back, they can say, "But we did all of this to try to prevent such an event from happening." There is a timidity in just allowing people to get on with their own lives, because I am not aware of a huge problem. That is not to say that one day there might be a problem, but that will be an exception rather than the rule. We seem to be legislating for something that might happen in very exceptional circumstances.

Registration is key. It would be welcomed more if families were convinced that they would receive help and support. There is to be some money for home educators, but it is unclear whether that will go towards the cost of local education authority bureaucracy, or whether some of it will go towards helping home educators provide things, such as science equipment if that is what their children are interested in. The crux of the matter is that many people feel that this is a licence to interfere and the whole move is representative of a societal attitude that seeks to quantify and standardise everything.

Proposed new section 19E does not reassure, as proposed new subsection (1)(a) allows LEAs to determine whether the education is suitable. Many children are home educated because they were not thriving in the state system and their parents made a positive decision to home educate. Indeed, the siblings of some of the children I met were perfectly happily in the state education system; their parents had made a specific decision about one child, not for reasons of dogma or because they thought they knew best, but because that was what was best for that particular child. It is important to bear that in mind. During the recess, I met a number of home-educated children and I was struck by the breadth and variety of the learning experiences made available to them by committed parents. The concern is that some well-meaning local education authority officer with the bog-standard training will insist on changes so that the national curriculum of the day is more closely adhered to at home.

The problem with the education system, which I have been following for many years, is that it suffers from fads. Such fads have included the literacy hour and the numeracy hour, which the Secretary of State does not seem to like very much because he is getting rid of them. Over the years opinions have changed as to the best way to teach children to read, but the reality is that although there may be an overall "best way", some children learn in different ways. A good teacher will adapt to that, and home-educating parents are doing exactly the same, by adapting to what their children need. I hope that reassurances can be given in Committee on this issue.

On personal, social and health education, I fully support both what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said about needing to get rid of that term and talk instead about "life skills", and the provisions in the Bill. I served on the Select Committee on Health in 2002, when it undertook an inquiry into sexual health. We had as witnesses a number of young people who were scathing about the sex education that they had received. They all made a number of interesting observations, the first of which related to the "geography teacher" syndrome-I do not know why the geography
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teacher is always picked out for approbation. Not all teachers are instinctively comfortable delivering this part of the curriculum, even with training. There is nothing worse than being taught this subject or taught about relationships by a teacher who is embarrassed, so we need to have specialist teachers or good, high-quality training, with an opt-out if the teacher does not want to deliver this subject. Bad PSHE is worse than no PSHE.

The second point made to us strongly by those children was that those in their peer group who were taken out of classes were often those in the most need of information. It was not that their parents wanted them to receive this education at home; it was that their parents did not want them to be educated about sex and relationships at all. That is a problem, and we should consider-this might sound like a slightly wacky idea-involving parents more in what is going on and running courses for them so that they can follow up at home on some of the topics that are brought up in school. Some parents would like to talk about this subject-some teenagers would want them to do so like they want a hole in the head, but such an approach would be helpful.

The third point that was made to us dealt with alcohol, peer pressure and self-respect. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) made the point well about the impact of alcohol and the fact that it leads to careless attitudes, and we have to address this part of our education too.

Let us compare our approach with what happens in Sweden, which has a programme of relationship-based education. We always talk about "sex and relationships", but we should be talking about "relationships and sex education". Sweden's relationships education encourages people to talk about relationships in a way that covers friendships, bullying, respect for individuals and relationships with the opposite sex-as has been said, a holistic approach is much the best one. The schools also arranged, as part of the curriculum, a visit to the young people's sexual health clinic-we nearly put this in the report, but we decided that it would not pass the Daily Mail test. We found that the clinics were not just places that dished out condoms and contraceptive pills; they involved multidisciplinary teams. If their people found that a young person was being promiscuous, they would arrange for a psychologist to have a chat with that person, because they took the view that such behaviour was a sign of deeper problems. The evidence from places such as Sweden and the Netherlands shows that better sex education leads to an increase in the age at which young people have their first sexual experience and to fewer partners. Although I welcome the Government's sense of direction, I hope that they will take specific account of some of the details.

In the remaining few moments available to me, I wish to talk briefly about the family courts. I welcome the move towards more openness, because we have probably all encountered constituency cases where we were not able to see the reports from the courts, where a parent was accusing the judge of bias or a professional of not doing a job properly and where it was difficult to obtain transparency. Clearly, that is wrong and there needs to be some accountability, but the new rules have been in place for less than a year and this issue is extremely delicate, and so change has to be introduced gradually.

The media's prime interest is in selling newspapers. I have a constituency example. My female constituent was involved with Fathers 4 Justice and details were
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published in the press that meant that her daughter could be identified, going against everything that is supposed to be possible. My constituent challenged that in court and the judge effectively said that because of her high-profile position, her daughter did not enjoy the same protections as other children. We talk about opportunities and protections for all, and there should not be any impact on the children just because their parents might be involved in something that we do not like. Apparently, section 97 did not apply because my constituent had put herself in the public domain by protesting and courting publicity for her cause, so her children were not entitled to the same protection as others. Given that the media are totally irresponsible and exist only to sell newspapers, they will publish and be damned. I think that we need to be very careful before giving them carte blanche to ruin children's lives.

8.41 pm

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who made a well-presented contribution to the debate. Many of the speeches this evening have been well thought out and well presented. It is such a large subject that we might easily get distracted, but I hope that I do not become too distracted, as I took large sections out of my speech when the time limit went from 15 to 10 minutes.

This Bill is the latest step on the long path to improving education in our country and I shall support it tonight. It is a key element of that long path. Let me put it into context in my area. Like many others, I shall refer to Sure Start as one of the cornerstones in starting to recognise that children do not come with a works manual. Parents start from scratch. Our society today is a more flexible one, shall we say, in which people do not grow up in the same street as their parents or grandparents. There is no one to turn to, and knowing how to bring up children and how to be a good parent becomes much more challenging. With Sure Start provision, we at least did one thing: we started to teach parents how to play with their children, how to bring their children up and how to have expectations that their children will do better in life than they did.

The theme of raising expectations is an important one to me. Let me step forward a few years in talking about educational provision in my town. We had six secondary schools and a surplus secondary school was converted partly into an educational campus for special educational need provision and partly into a skills academy, staffed by the local college, to take students aged 14-plus one day a week. It now has 150 youngsters and is the largest such academy in the country. They come from the five remaining schools for one day a week. We have to thank our Government for sending a cheque of £8.5 million to allow us to refurbish the school and make it a jewel in the crown, as that would not have been possible otherwise. The academy is raising expectations among our 14-year-old students as well as the qualifications that they are achieving, and people are now realising that vocational status is equal to academic status in education. To me, that is very rewarding.

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