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8 Apr 2010 : Column 1225

Mr. Allen: I am sorry to persevere on this question, but this is a classic case of the baby being thrown out with the bath water-of the life skills baby being thrown out with the sex education bath water. If we could separate these issues, even at this very late stage, would it not lead to our ensuring that every child in this country who needs proper life skilling will be able to get it when they require it in the national curriculum? Even at this late stage, will my hon. Friend discuss the matter with the Opposition and seek a sensible way forward, instead of our having this criminal waste of parliamentary time, and the consequent damage that will be done to thousands upon thousands of children, such as those in my constituency?

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend has been a great campaigner for this type of early intervention and work in schools, whether we call it PSHE or, as he prefers, life skills. The legal advice I have received is that it is not possible to do what he wants, however. We have spent a long time talking to others to see whether we can find a way forward, but it was not possible to do so. Therefore, with much regret, we find ourselves in the current situation. I hope that after the next election we will be in a position to return to this issue and ensure that we secure the statutory provision that both my hon. Friend and I want.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the 12th report of 2009-10 of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It was written after the Government tabled an amendment on the measure in question, which the Committee viewed as follows:

In fact, therefore, it seems that what has been lost was incompatible with the human rights of children not to be harassed and discriminated against, if, for instance, they come from same sex-parent households.

Mr. Coaker: It is not often that I say this, but I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman's point; indeed, his own Front-Bench team will not, I think, support him. The relevant clause talks about the principles that have to be pursued in respect of PSHE, including providing accurate and balanced information, endeavouring to promote equality and encouraging acceptance of diversity. As the hon. Gentleman knows, at present faith schools are under no obligation to ensure that PSHE is taught in that way. To support his own argument, he says we will have faith schools all over the country promoting all sorts of values and ideas that many would regard as inappropriate. Of course they will be able to teach in a way that is consistent with the values of their school, but for the first time they will also be required, by legislation, to ensure that alternative points of view are put as well. The balance and accuracy the hon. Gentleman seeks are therefore included in the legislation, and the Bill will ensure that that happens.

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Dr. Harris: My Liberal Democrat colleagues strongly opposed clause 11's proposed new section 85B(8) to the Education Act 2002, which says of all the stuff about equality and diversity:

The JCHR looked into, corresponded on and got legal advice about that, and it came to the unanimous view that it will mean that the assurances the Minister just read out are meaningless in the context of the schools in question, and that it will create the potential for homophobic teaching to be mandatory.

Mr. Coaker: Even at this late stage, it is quite strong to say that the legislation will make the teaching of homophobia mandatory. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on that statement, he may think that it is not the most appropriate thing to say about what will happen in faith schools, many of which teach PSHE.

Dr. Harris rose-

Mr. Coaker: We have an hour for this debate, and many other hon. Members want to contribute. I will take another intervention and that is it, because the issue has been debated long and hard in Committee. I do not agree with the statement that the Bill is incompatible with the European convention on human rights. The opposite is true: the principles in the Bill will mean-this is quite proper-that a faith school can teach PSHE in a way that is appropriate to its values and principles, but for the first time it must also teach that there are alternatives and to put that fact before a class. Quite frankly, that is what all good schools and all good teachers have always done, and I am sure that is what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) will have done when he was a head teacher and taught in a school.

2.30 pm

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene again. I am putting the view of the JCHR, which was established by Parliament to give such advice. The Minister can say that he is not interested in it or that he disagrees with it. That is his right, but he must know that some, not all, faith schools wish to teach that homosexuality is sinful. I believe that the place for such teaching is in religious education classes, not in sex education classes. The Bill will allow some faith schools to teach that in sex education classes. That is where I and the Joint Committee disagree with him-indeed, the Liberal Democrats made it clear that we disagree. Such things should be put in religious education lessons.

Mr. Coaker: As I say, for the first time there will be a requirement to teach that there are alternative views.

The Conservatives have blocked the proposal and stopped it proceeding. English and European case law do not support a continuing opt-out to the age of 16. In introducing the Bill, Ministers must sign an undertaking that it is ECHR compliant. If the right of withdrawal had been set at 16, no such undertaking could have been signed. We were therefore advised that, legally, all clauses relating to PSHE had to be withdrawn.

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We hope that we can bring these matters back before Parliament in the near future, along with other measures that we have had to remove from the Bill, such as toughening home-school agreements, home education and the ability to collect data for the new school report card. However, as I said at the beginning, it is important to retain certain elements of the Bill, such as those on special needs and alternative provision. To that end, the Government support the Lords amendments.

There are now clear dividing lines between us on education. In the weeks to come, we will seek a fresh mandate to continue our work of investing in schools and providing opportunity for all pupils everywhere, irrespective of their ability, and we will expose the threat posed by the Conservative party, with its free schools, free market policy and immediate cuts to school funding. We will oppose that and ensure that the British public are aware of it as well.

Mr. Gibb: I thank the Minister for the concessions that he has made, which will remove clauses that posed a direct threat to the professional autonomy of teachers and that would have heaped mounds of bureaucracy on to teachers and head teachers and threatened the rights of parents to withdraw their children from sex education and to educate their children at home.

The first element of this bureaucratic Bill, which we are happy to oppose, is a series of excessively prescriptive pupil and parent guarantees. Scores of guarantees were set out in the appendix to the White Paper and in a consultation document, with 38 tick boxes for teachers and more time taken away from the classroom. For example, guarantee 2.2 states that:

But given that 16 per cent. of 11-year-olds do not reach level 4 in English and 9 per cent. of boys leave primary school without even reaching any grade in the English key stage 2 standard assessment tests, that leaves scope for huge amounts of litigation.

The key to raising standards is not to pass a law guaranteeing things, but to understand the reasons for underperformance and to address them. If passing a law guaranteeing outcomes was the answer, we could cure world hunger and all known diseases this afternoon in the House. The key to raising standards in our schools is not through bureaucracy, but through greater freedom for professionals and by expanding the academy programme, with academy providers such as Absolute Return for Kids and the Harris Federation encouraged to establish more schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country.

These clauses would have piled additional bureaucracy on to teachers and head teachers and exposed them to the threat of expensive and time-consuming legal action. John Dunford from the Association of School and College Leaders said that those guarantees

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We wholeheartedly agree with ASCL's concerns and are therefore pleased that the Government have abandoned those clauses.

On one-to-one tuition, which the Minister touched on, we also strongly believe that it is needed for children who are falling behind, and we support that approach-that is what good schools do-but best practice is not spread by passing a law prescribing a whole raft of centrally crafted guarantees that people would then seek to enforce. We need to get away from such micro-prescription and give professionals and schools the autonomy that they need to flourish as professionals. That is how to raise standards. The Secretary of State is keen on his dividing lines in politics-I do not blame the Minister-but we believe that education policy should not be designed to be used as a tool in party politics. Education policy is about ensuring that we have the right landscape to enable schools to provide the highest quality of education for our children.

On home-school agreements, it is right to abandon clauses 4 and 5, which would have created bespoke, individualised home-school agreements, negotiated for each child and each parent in a school and rewritten annually. We believe in strengthening home-school agreements, but not in turning them into a bureaucratic nightmare for head teachers. The Government's proposals faced widespread opposition. For example, ASCL called the idea "unrealistic" and pointed out that

Again, that is our view exactly, and we are pleased to see those clauses go.

On areas of learning, the proposed changes to the primary curriculum-with the introduction of six highly prescriptive areas of learning, each with voluminous programmes of study, each of which has a multitude of objectives-is anything but flexible. The English programme of study alone has 84 objectives. Maths has 76. Clause 10 would have been a major misstep, and we are happy to see it fall as well.

The proposed introduction of personal, social, health and economic education was one of the most controversial aspects of the Bill. We have always strongly supported parents' rights to withdraw their children from sex and relationships lessons, and we have refused to compromise in upholding those rights. No one should ride roughshod over the rights of parents to bring up their children in the way they see fit. Ultimately, however small a minority wish to withdraw their children from such lessons, it should be up to the parent, rather than the Secretary of State and the Minister, to decide whether they want their children under 16 to attend lessons on sex and relationships.

Dr. Evan Harris: The opt-out already exists in religious education and collective worship, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, but case law now shows that when children become competent to make up their own minds, it is an infringement of their rights for parents to withdraw them, or not to withdraw them, from collective worship-for example, compulsory prayer. Under his logic, should parents who feel passionately about the origins of the universe and believe in young-earth creationism have the right to withdraw their children from biology lessons, for example, for the reasons that he gives?

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Mr. Gibb: Parents have a right to withdraw their children from schools and to home-educate their children, which is another right that the Bill would infringe. I do not believe that creationism should be in the school science curriculum-the hon. Gentleman is right about that-but parents ultimately have the right to educate their children at home if they wish.

As a result of our continued opposition to clause 14, the Government have chosen to withdraw all four clauses that relate to PSHE. We would have been happy to discuss PSHE being part of the curriculum, and we are therefore extremely surprised that the Government have chosen to withdraw entirely all four clauses. If we are elected to form the next Government, the role of PSHE in the curriculum is an issue that we would address and consult on. As my noble Friend Baroness Perry said in another place last night:

Mr. Coaker: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that if the Conservatives were to form the next Government, the consultation on PSHE to which he referred would include the extension of the mandatory aspects of PSHE to academies?

Mr. Gibb: No, it would not apply to academies because the essence of an academy is that it would have the same rights as an independent school but would not be able to charge fees. Given that even the Government have not proposed extending the duties to independent schools, we consider our policy entirely consistent with that. I know the Government have extended the duties to academies. They have infringed the freedom of academies in many respects since the Secretary of State took his position, but we believe that academies should have the same status as independent schools.

Mr. Allen: Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from PSHE, or life skills, does he accept that the absence of a mandatory aspect, which will be lost in this ludicrous wash-up process, will above all damage a particular group of children-not those who come from well-educated middle class homes, like those of many hon. Members present, but those who may come from a one-parent family or a deprived area and lack the social and emotional ability to make the best of themselves and the best, therefore, of their education at primary and secondary school? Does he accept that whoever is responsible and however it happened, that failure of all of us here to make life skills a mandatory part of the national curriculum will impact badly on constituencies such as the one that I represent, and no doubt on areas in his constituency too?

Mr. Gibb: As my noble Friend said in another place last night, every secondary school has such lessons in the curriculum. We must be careful about how prescriptive we are about aspects of the curriculum. We were happy to allow clause 11 to go through. It is only advice that the Minister is receiving that is forcing him and the Government to withdraw, in a slightly petulant manner, all four of the PSHE clauses simply because we are so opposed to just one of them, clause 14.

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The proposed licence to practise for teachers would have done nothing to raise standards and would have been an expensive and bureaucratic burden for hundreds of thousands of teachers. The Secretary of State's view, as set out in his letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) yesterday, is that

That, though, is not the view of teachers. It is not the view of ASCL, it is not the view of the NASUWT. It is not the view of the NUT, which said that it

The NUT pointed out that

I suspect that that figure is significantly higher by now.

Christine Blower is quoted today as saying:

The General Teaching Council, which the Government wanted to administer the licence to practise, stated that

Even the body charged with running the scheme is against it. If all the teacher unions are against it and as the Opposition are against it, we are pleased that the Government have backed down and are withdrawing the associated clauses, too.

2.45 pm

Finally, I am delighted that our sustained opposition to the Bill's draconian and excessive proposals to regulate home education has resulted in the Government's decision to abandon those clauses as well. We have always stressed that the choice to educate a child at home should belong solely and entirely to parents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said on Second Reading:

Home educators across the country will be extremely relieved to be spared compulsory registration and monitoring. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) correctly pointed out, there is a need for support for home-educating families, but only if the Government can

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