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"slap dash, panic driven, and nakedly and naively populist".
As I mentioned in an intervention on the Secretary of State, New Zealand had a similar monitoring and licensing system. It ran the system for several years and found that there was no problem with home-educating families. It therefore scrapped the scheme last year, saying that it was a waste of time and money. Is it not time that Ministers learned from that experience and did likewise?
Chloe Smith (Norwich, North) (Con): You must excuse me, Mr. Speaker, for suffering from such a bad winter cold that any compassionate teacher would seek to exclude me from their classroom for fear of infecting everybody else. I am therefore happy to have to keep my comments brief. I should start also by noting that I am, I suspect, the only Member of the House to have sat my GCSEs and received all my subsequent education under this Government-I may or may not be all the better for that, but there we are. I did that in a comprehensive school in rural Norfolk. I understand that I might therefore have shared a local authority with the Secretary of State in my early years.
I want to assert that I believe passionately in education as a means of encouraging aspiration and ambition. This debate has been wide ranging and measured, but I hope that, during the wind-ups, the Government will drop the rather sad refrain that we have heard before-not least during the Personal Care at Home Bill before Christmas-that to oppose a hyper-active, headlong
and rather heavy-handed Bill is to advocate putting nothing in its place. That is not the position of many Conservative Members.
We want to focus instead on giving teachers the trust and freedom to do their jobs, rather than on producing and debating another education Bill from another Queen's Speech. Such legislation has been introduced nearly every year, but-notwithstanding my own education under this Labour Government-less than half of all pupils currently leaving school achieve five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, at the top levels. Will the Government accept that their policies have failed, and that teachers and head teachers must now be given the trust and the freedom that they need to complete their jobs? They must not be given a bundle of bureaucratic burdens, which is what the Bill could provide if it goes through in its current form.
I do not have an awful lot of time, but I want to discuss four aspects of the provisions, from parts 1 and 3-the home-school agreements, the school report cards, the charitable status of academies, and the primary curriculum. I shall discuss each of them at top speed.
I welcome the strengthening of the existing home-school agreements. The Government agree that the present HSAs involve a bureaucratic process with few real benefits. However, the Bill could undermine them, for two reasons. First, it seeks to personalise agreements rather than making them reflect common standards that are expected of all pupils at a school. That could undermine the idea of common standards, and it could also create a mammoth administrative task for schools.
"It would be wrong to make signing the Home School Agreement a condition of admission, as this could unfairly deny a child a school place."
That is wrong-headed, however. Agreements should set out common standards that are expected of all pupils, and should define the expectation that parents support their kids at school. What parent would refuse to sign a simple agreement on such terms? A failure to sign could be, and should be, a ground for head teachers to say, "I don't want such children in my school because it could hinder everyone's learning." It might also have to be a ground, further down the line, for other agencies to become involved with the child and the parents. The Bill should create an opportunity to have a civilised condition of admission in that regard.
On school report cards, the Bill will get it wrong if it seeks to introduce a single grade for schools. There is no such thing as a single card that meets the data needs of all the interested parties. I also understand from one school in my constituency that there is not yet a united view within the Government on how such data should even be calculated. We need to publish as much data as possible about a school, for two particularly good reasons that were given to me by a vice-principal in my constituency. The first is that that would pull attention away from the borderline data. The second is that it could help to attract and retain good staff by reflecting the breadth of what the school does.
On the automatic charitable status for academies, the vice-principal I just mentioned is vice-principal of Norfolk's first academy, the Open academy, which is in Norwich,
North. Jumping out of the frying pan of any bureaucracy associated with a local authority into the fire connected with the Charity Commission would not be desirable, so the academy and I support this measure to simplify procedures for these new schools. May I take this opportunity to praise the Open academy for its impressive achievement in doubling its benchmark GCSE results last summer?
My fourth point is on the Rose review of the primary curriculum. In so far as these measures provide an opportunity to teach children basic learning skills, I welcome them, but they must, without doubt, be supplemented by knowledge. This must be a question of skills plus knowledge, and I believe that that is the view of many primary schools in my constituency, including the Heartsease primary school, of which I must declare that I am due to become a governor very shortly.
In three of the four areas that I have just mentioned, great opportunities have been missed. On home-school agreements, instead of empowering schools, the Bill will force head teachers to tailor toothless agreements with each parent. The measure on report cards could have provided parents with a great range of data that could help them to make choices for them and their child. But no, it seeks to condense information, turning sharpness into fuzziness. As to the Rose review, yes, children need skills for learning, but they also need knowledge. In all those cases, the measures are incredibly prescriptive towards children. The Bill fails to empower teaching professionals and, given the stream of legislation coming out of the Department, it risks stifling both head teachers and teachers.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Well, here we are, Mr. Speaker, a new year and a new education Bill. It is now almost an annual event, with nearly as many education Bills as finance Bills. We have had the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the Education Act 2002, the Education Act 2005, the Education and Inspections Act 2006, the Education and Skills Act 2008, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 and now the Children, Schools and Families Bill in 2010.
It is not just the 50 clauses and four schedules of this Bill or the 270 clauses and 16 schedules of last year's Bill that are the problem; it is the scores of regulations that each of these Bills spawns and the dozens of sets of statutory guidance and programmes of study that local authorities, governors, head teachers and teachers all have to read, absorb and act upon that is the real burden.
It is becoming almost axiomatic that, legal skills are as necessary as pedagogical skills to succeed in education these days. Legal skills and knowledge will become even more important if the Government succeed in putting on to the statute book the pupil and parent guarantees in the opening clauses of this Bill, which is why the Association of School and College Leaders is right to warn that these guarantees will
"open the flood gates for increased litigation against schools".
If an education Bill every year were not evidence enough of a directionless and rudderless education policy, the escalation of ever-grander promises from curriculum entitlements to pupil guarantees should be a warning. After nearly 13 years of this Government and billions of pounds of extra taxpayers' money, we still have a situation in which 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds are leaving primary school struggling with the basics of reading, writing and maths, and half of all children qualifying for free school meals fail to achieve a single GCSE above grade D. It is all evidence that the Government have failed to tackle the problems that lie at the root of underachievement in too many schools, which will not be resolved by passing yet another law saying that bad schools should not be allowed or declaring that henceforth all pupils and parents will receive better guarantees.
I now know that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) was a teacher at the school that my father attended-Leeds grammar school-but not, I think, at the time of my late father. He is right to say that the pursuit of ideas lies at the heart of democratic politics and that it requires a broad, liberal and high-quality education system. The hon. Member for Yeovil is right to say that the proposed report card risks becoming a box-ticking exercise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) pointed out, 84 per cent. of the schools in New York are graded A and 13 per cent. are graded B under a report-card system; in fact, only seven schools in New York were graded D or F last year.
The hon. Member for Yeovil is also right to question, as we do, the value of personalised home-school agreements-a point also well made by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who rightly fears that the Government are mixing up the pastoral care of pupils, an ongoing matter for a pupil's personal tutor, with home-school agreements, which should be about the ethos of the whole school.
Just before Christmas, I visited a primary school in London. I sat in on a remedial reading lesson for an 11-year-old girl. The child was barely literate after seven years of primary education and despite three years of twice weekly, one-to-one tuition. She was being shown flashcards of simple words that she had rehearsed hundreds of times over the years. She managed to read the word "even", so I asked the teacher if the child could read the word with the first "e" covered up. The teacher covered up the "e" leaving the word "ven". The child could not read it. She did not know what the letter "v" sounded like, so she could not begin to sound out the word.
Why is it that that little girl, who was meant to be able to read the word "even", could not read the word "ven"? The answer is that she had not been properly taught the sounds of the alphabet and how to blend them. She had been drilled in the "whole word recognition" method, which simply does not work for the least able children and works only inefficiently for other children. That is not an isolated example. In last year's SATs, 9 per cent. of boys and 4 per cent. of girls failed to register a grade in the key stage 2 English tests. That means that they are starting secondary school completely illiterate.
How does the Bill propose to reform primary education? By creating six "areas of learning" and, in each "area of learning", a programme of study with 84 objectives running from E1 to E24, from M1 to M29, and from
L1 to L31. The Government claim that that is a more flexible arrangement, but what could be more prescriptive and undermining of the professionalism of teachers than to be faced with 84 detailed objectives that they all know will have to be incorporated into their lesson plans on pain of criticism by Ofsted? For example, on a particular day a teacher will write on the board "Objective: to recognise how authors of moving-image and multi-modal texts use different combinations of words, images and sounds to create effect and make meaning". That is what happens. They will write the objectives on the board, and that will be one of them on one particular day if the Bill comes into effect.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency simply cannot help itself. This proliferation of objectives-this bureaucratic tick-box approach to education-bears the hallmarks of the QCDA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Government since they were formed, and it is one of the key reasons why we have not seen improvements in our education system despite the billions that have been spent.
As for home education, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner)-who has vast experience in the field of education-expressed concern, shared by many Members, about the dangerous increase in state intrusion into people's homes. As he pointed out, clause 26 and schedule 1, if implemented, would stamp out the individuality that home educators cherish.
The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred to the Government's timidity about letting people get on with their own lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who has conducted an effective campaign on the matter, referred to the passion of home educators, and asked how the Government could proceed with the provisions given the overwhelming opposition to them. That is a question that Ministers need to answer.
In a powerful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on home education, emphasised people's fundamental freedom to educate their children. That presumption and that freedom are undermined by the Bill.
Clause after clause of this Bill demonstrates Ministers' lack of understanding of the underlying causes of the problems in our education system. It proposes pupil and parent guarantees that will land head teachers and governors in the courts; home-school agreements that will become a bureaucratic nightmare for heads, with a bespoke contract for each child that will be reviewed and rewritten every year; a new curriculum for primary schools with hundreds of prescriptive objectives serving only to undermine teachers and kill the joy of education; and a new licence for teachers that is also designed to undermine their confidence.
I am not sure that our education system can stand yet another Bill that deluges schools with ever more prescription, and diverts schools from their core purpose of educating children. I am not sure that our schools or our teachers can continue with an education policy that is so lacking in focus, and so overtly political and ideological. I am not sure that our country can continue with an education policy that continues to fail so many children from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds.
This Bill will do nothing to tackle the deep-seated problems that are the cause of underachievement in too many schools. It needs to be consigned to the waste paper bin, and I urge Members in all parts of the House to help us to do just that.
At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said we should not focus too much on drawing political dividing lines, but we have just heard a classic example of that. Let me put to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) what he has just said, because I think he will regret it. He said that we have not seen improvements in our education system. Those words will ring around this country, in constituencies throughout the land. One of the major Opposition spokespersons has told the House of Commons there have been no improvements in our education system.
I must inform the hon. Gentleman that I have just been to a reception in Downing street. It was attended by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the head teachers of the 150 most improved schools in this country. Those people are a credit to this country; they work hard, and they have delivered real progress. We should start every debate by praising our head teachers, teachers and schools for the excellent work they have done and for raising standards in our country. [Interruption.] That is the context in which we should consider this matter. [Interruption.] I bet the Opposition Members who are shouting at me now do not go back to their constituencies and say to their schools that standards have fallen.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath talked about dividing lines. There is a very clear dividing line, in that the current Secretary of State and Government consider it important for the state not to intervene in every school, but to stand away from schools and to allow them to pursue their own agendas and improvement programmes. However, when there is underperformance and underachievement and it is necessary for the state to be involved, they will not turn around to say that the state will not be involved. In those circumstances, the state has a responsibility to involve itself, and involve itself it will.
Mr. MacShane: In 1997, no school in Rotherham had been rebuilt for about 20 years, and there was rotting infrastructure. Almost all of them have now been rebuilt. I am proud that the head teacher of Thornhill primary school is in the Gallery tonight. She will listen to the scorn and contempt of the Conservative party for what this Government have done. It should be ashamed of itself, because we have served the children of our nation, and it will not do so.
The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) raised a point about people acting in loco parentis. Such people fall into a number of categories, including the following: those employed in a capacity where a legal ban on
physical punishment applies, such as school teachers or child minders; people within, or close to, families, such as step-parents, parents without parental responsibility and babysitters; and people in educational or quasi-educational settings. Where such people administer physical punishment resulting in actual bodily harm or constituting cruelty, they would be prosecuted and would not be able to rely in court on the defence of reasonable punishment. I am not aware of any evidence that the law as it stands is not working as it should in this regard.
A number of Members on both sides of the House raised the important topic of home education. We all want to strike the right balance in allowing parents their proper right to exercise their responsibility for their children and to educate at home should they choose to do so. It is also right for us to balance that against the need to ensure that we have the education standards we want, including for children who are educated at home; and, in that context, issues in respect of safeguarding arise.
In dealing with some of the issues raised by a number of people, including the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), and my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), the fundamental right is that of the child not to be denied a suitable education. The local authority must consider the wishes and feelings of the child when carrying out monitoring. In most cases, parents provide a good education, but when that is not the case, the state should intervene. The monitoring of home education will be done with a light touch and it will be proportionate, so parents who are doing a good job will not see much difference from the current arrangements.
The Bill focuses on education, not on safeguarding, and safeguarding issues will be dealt with in the usual way. It is inconceivable that a local authority would revoke registration for a genuine mistake. The legislation says that registration "may" be revoked, and in such cases parents can appeal to an independent panel if the local authority behaved unreasonably. There is no right to see children on their own but this is a factor that can be taken into account if the authority decides to seek a school attendance order, and there is no right of entry under these provisions. I hope that what I have said has answered some of the general points that people have been making.
A number of Labour colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), and for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), and my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield and for Vauxhall, made interesting contributions to this debate.
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