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House of Lords

Wednesday, 30th June 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

Michael James, Lord Bishop of Rochester--Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Southwark and the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.

Royal Assent

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Health Act, Water Industry Act, Tax Credits Act, Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act, Road Traffic (Vehicle Testing) Act, University College London Act, Imperial College Act, HFC Bank Act, Cathedrals Measure, Care of Places of Worship Measure.

Summerhill School

2.42 p.m.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their response to the recent Ofsted report on Summerhill School.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, Ofsted has reported that Summerhill School fails to meet statutory minimum standards of accommodation, welfare and instruction, and is not providing adequate education. We have served a notice of complaint, requiring the school to make specified improvements within a year. We have also asked the school to submit an action plan within three months.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does the noble Lord think it appropriate to consider closing, after 78 years, a unique educational institution in the private sector which has such massive support from pupils and parents? Does he accept that, despite Ofsted's disclaimer that it is not sitting in judgment on Summerhill's philosophy of pupil democracy, that is exactly what it is doing?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the key issue is children's entitlement to minimum standards of

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education and welfare. The Ofsted team was an experienced HMI team. The inspection lasted five days. It took place against a background of many years of promises to take action which were not achieved.

As to whether it is an attack on the principles of the school, it is perfectly possible to argue that there is no requirement on the school to change its ethos. It is about ensuring that pupils pursue a broad and balanced curriculum, whether through lessons or private study, that their progress is monitored appropriately, and that acceptable levels of achievement are attained.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, since when has it been the policy of the Government to take a view about the philosophy and education of private schools? This is a school which attained 75 per cent A to C passes in 1998 and 63.9 per cent in 1999. Those figures are well above national averages. There is no truancy; and there is the highest possible level of parental satisfaction with the school. When those parents are paying their money and know what they are paying for, who are we to take a different view about the philosophy of education in a private school?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the situation is straightforward. There is a duty to ensure that independent schools reach and maintain standards laid down in the 1996 Education Act 1996. The inspection identified problems of attendance at lessons, progress not being properly assessed and poor teaching in a quarter of the lessons observed. The inspection reached its conclusions on that basis, following which a notice of complaint was served.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, does not the Minister's last reply suggest that the remit of the inspectors may not be wholly appropriate in examining schools such as Summerhill, which has deliberately set itself out to promote qualities of character and personal development rather than those of strict educational attainment as measured in classroom performance? Those who, like me, live near the school understand the international reputation which it has gained and the extraordinary effect which will be brought about by its closure and the impact on its friends abroad.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I repeat that the statutory provision relating to minimum standards must be operated. The inspection team concluded that there were serious weaknesses which had to be addressed. Of course it is open to the school to make representations to Ofsted about the inspection and the report. It is also open to the school to appeal to the Independent Schools Tribunal within one month of the service of a notice of complaint. But I am satisfied that the inspection was carried out properly and that the conclusions reached were in accordance with the statutory responsibilities.

Lord Tope: My Lords, reflecting on the wider implications of the threat to Summerhill School, does the Minister agree that the beacon of innovation, flair, imagination and lateral thinking which ought to

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characterise teaching in our schools has all but been snuffed out by the overload of government prescription and an overcrowded national curriculum? Can the Minister tell us of any government initiative that will assist teachers to re-establish their professional independence and, at least as important, their own innovation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have certainly travelled some distance from Summerhill School. The Government are concerned to raise standards in all our schools. That is why we allocated extra resources; made the classroom size pledge; published the teacher Green Paper; and are tackling failing schools. That is why the public are supportive of the action we are taking.

Baroness Young: My Lords, is it not a fact that in many respects Summerhill School has been a pioneer of many educational ideas which have subsequently been incorporated into mainstream school teaching and practice? Is it not also true that to do anything which would destroy such a school, different as it may be from most independent schools and others, would damage the whole educational system?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that all schools, Summerhill included, have lessons which they can offer to the rest of the school system. However, I do not believe that the inspectors' request that the school effectively monitors the progress of pupils, that acceptable levels of achievement are produced, and that health and safety provisions are properly put into place cuts across the ability of any school to innovate and to develop good practice.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the levels of achievement are well above the national average of our own state schools.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness to refer back to the report of the inspectorate. That report identified serious weaknesses in terms of health and safety issues, teaching and non-attendance of pupils at lessons. It also identified that progress was not properly assessed. In the light of those conclusions, it was inevitable that the report would be produced as it was and that my right honourable friend took the action he did.

Lord Glenamara: My Lords, this is a splendid old school which does excellent work. Its standards and philosophy are quite different from those of Mr Chris Woodhead. Thank heaven there is at least one school where they are different. It would be an outrage to close down this school. Parents send their children there because they want to. Its achievements, including its educational achievements, are high. Please do not try to iron out all schools in accordance with the ideas of Mr Woodhead.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there is no intention of prohibiting parental choice or the freedom

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of the independent sector. However, as I said, the inspection identified serious weaknesses which need to be addressed. The hope is that the school will get down to addressing them.

Climate Change Levy

2.51 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What further consideration will be given to ensuring that the climate change levy will not place high energy-using industries, including the engineering steels industry, in an internationally uncompetitive position.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government recognise the need for special consideration to be given to the position of energy-intensive industries under the climate change levy proposals, given their high energy usage and exposure to international competition. The Government intend to set significantly lower rates of the levy for those energy intensive sectors that agree targets for improving their energy efficiency. Detailed negotiations are now under way with the sectors concerned. The Government will work closely with business on the detailed design and implementation of the climate change levy.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I am exceedingly grateful to my noble friend for that Answer and for the information given in Question Time earlier this week. I wonder whether my noble friend can go a little further and cover two points. First, can he make it clear that the Government are well aware of the investment and priorities served in a number of high-energy using industries, especially in engineering steel where a marked environmental advantage has already been secured? Secondly, can the Government make it clear that no British industry will be faced with particular disadvantage or threat of closure by having to bear burdens which are not shared or matched by those in competing industries, either in Europe or elsewhere? Would it not be a great tragedy if cleaner industry in Britain was closed in order that dirtier industry abroad could prosper?

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