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Sex Discrimination (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill [HL]

Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

17 Jun 2002 : Column 492

Education Bill

3.8 p.m.

Report received.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 1:

    Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—

(1) This section has effect notwithstanding anything in Chapter 1 of this Act.
(2) A maintained school governing body may resolve to implement an innovative project which, in the opinion of the governing body, contributes to the raising of educational standards achieved by registered pupils at the school, subject to—
(a) consultation with the parents or guardians of children at the school,
(b) consultation with surrounding schools that would be affected by any project proposed under the first paragraph of this subsection, and
(c) informing the local education authority.
(3) Subject to subsection (4), the governing body may resolve to exempt any innovative project from any requirement imposed by education legislation on the governing body.
(4) The Secretary of State shall by order designate any requirement imposed by education legislation on a school governing body as not subject to exemption, relaxation or modification by a governing body, even in the case of an innovative project.
(5) Any project carried out under subsection (2) shall be evaluated, recorded and reported to parents."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the care that she has taken, between the end of the Committee stage and today, to consider many of the matters that were raised in Committee and for the copious letters that we have all received. We have all received copies of one another's letters, there have been offers of meetings, and, for some, there are concrete moves forward in the amendments on the Marshalled List. I thank the Minister warmly for all of that.

The nature of many of the amendments is to support the Government in what they say are their aims—encouraging innovation, giving earned autonomy as far as possible to schools that deserve it, allowing schools to operate more commercially at a local level and encouraging collaboration and co-operation between schools. My first amendment would allow all schools to innovate, with the aim of raising standards. Subject to consultation and only within the parameters set out by the Secretary of State, it would free the system from the bureaucracy caused by the fact that every application would have to go to the Secretary of State and be crawled over by people in the department and form a process of iteration involving the department and the school. We want to cut out all of that costly and time-consuming process in order to allow schools more freedom to innovate within the parameters set by the Government. The projects carried out by the schools under this heading must be recorded, evaluated and reported to parents.

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The advantage of my amendments is to cut out all the bureaucracy and central control. Perhaps as an aside I may welcome Mr Miliband to the department because almost the first thing he said was:

    "Out with central control and out with unnecessary bureaucracy. What we want to do is to set schools free to do what they do best".

These amendments are tailor-made for Mr Miliband and his team to accept.

Schools are accountable: they are accountable to their governors and parents and more than ever to their local communities; and they are accountable in a more formal sense to the inspectorate. My proposals place no artificial time limits on innovation. Any project would be entered into in conjunction and in consultation with parents and local people.

If the innovation works, it can be absorbed into the school's programme on a permanent basis and it will not be reliant on Parliament producing a regulation for each and every project for every school. It is all very well for the Government to argue that primary legislation is time-consuming and that secondary legislation is not. I know of secondary legislation that is waiting in the wings for parliamentary time but the argument always is that there is not time for it.

If the project does not work, and if there has been proper evaluation, it can be suspended and set aside; or, a project that is accepted can be superseded when a better idea arises. Innovation is a dynamic, as are schools. They are always thinking of new and better ways to improve standards.

Nothing in law prevents good innovative ideas from being promoted or demonstrated to other schools. In many local education authority areas, in-service training is often based on the dissemination of such new ideas and developments with a view to raising the standards of teaching and learning in a particular authority or area.

I now return to the Minister's letter of 11th June. I was interested to see that the first part of Amendment No. 2 obliges the Secretary of State to have regard to the need for the curriculum to be broad and balanced and to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of children and society and the likely effect of a project on all children, which must include children with special educational needs.

In Committee, I argued cogently for just that to happen; for a link to be made with the need for a broad and balanced curriculum. However, we were told that it was not necessary because Clauses 74 to 77 oblige schools to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. Now we have the Government's amendments placing that requirement on the face of the Bill. It is on the face of the Bill either because it is necessary or it is otiose and is there to pander to those of us who argued for it in Committee. I believe that it appears because it is necessary to the Bill. There was no connection between the early and later clauses. That is slightly puzzling because we called for that in Committee.

I want to refer to the debate which took place on 2nd May, which appears in cols. 810 to 812 of Hansard. The noble Baroness said:

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    "An example I have used before in your Lordships' House concerns the ability of schools to work more closely with further education and to look at workplace learning".

We have yet to debate provision for 14 to 19 year-olds and still do not know what that will mean in detail, but they will address the whole issue. In the meantime, schools are working with further education colleges and there appears to be nothing to inhibit them from doing so.

The Minister then read out the words of a head teacher, who said:

    "I have long wanted to do something that brought in the children and their families earlier to my school, specifically because it would raise standards. But of course I could not do it".

That head teacher was concerned about bringing in under-fives and parents. What is to stop schools bringing in parents, mother and toddler groups, nursery groups, play groups, nursery classes and nursery schools? There is nothing in law to prevent that. There are mechanisms in law for developing nursery classes and for allowing the advent of nursery schools. I was chairman of a mother and toddler playgroup for about eight years and I know that collaboration and working with the feeder primary schools was almost a daily activity. Therefore, I cannot imagine what that poor head teacher is desperately waiting for the legislation to allow.

The Minister later said:

    "In theory, Amendment No. 1 would do away with the Secretary of State's role of checking and approving innovative projects".

I simply say, "Amen to that"; that is precisely what we are trying to do. We are trying to cut out the unnecessary intrusive meddling by the department in the natural activity of schools in trying to improve their delivery of services which improve teaching and learning.

The Minister went on to say:

    "In addition, without the involvement of the Secretary of State, schools and LEAs would in theory be free to change the law at will".

No, they will not. If my amendment is interpreted properly, it is for the Secretary of State to set the parameters; in other words, to set the limitations and the framework within which innovation can take place. That has been addressed by an amendment, so we, too, have done some thinking since the last stage of the Bill.

Finally, (at col. 812) the Minister stated:

    "That brings me back to my main point; namely, the absolute importance of the Secretary of State's role in the process and in safeguarding standards".—[Official Report, 2/5/02; cols. 810-812.]

Certainly the Secretary of State needs to have a concern about standards in schools, but he has so much assistance out there—the inspectorate, the fact that schools are openly and publicly accountable, and the downward pressure given by parents to schools. It is not necessary to have a daily grind of departmental interference in what schools do at a local level. At this stage, we need to trust schools to do what they do best; that is, to deliver education for their children. Where they do not, they will be found wanting.

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I repeat that we support schools' constant search for improvement and the removal of unnecessary inhibitions to good innovative ideas. We believe that the framework within which such innovation and freedom to set aside statute should be set by the Secretary of State, a point raised by the Minister in Committee, and we support accountability and the involvement of governors, parents and local education authorities in the process. However, we do not support the Secretary of State, plus an army of civil servants and advisers, becoming involved centrally in the minutiae. That would increase bureaucracy and the need for endless guidance. It would increase the need to take up legislative time dealing with orders for each project and it would place arbitrary time constraints on the project.

For those reasons, I hope that the Minister will accept that we support and want to encourage innovation, but without the burden of central bureaucratic control. I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley is attached to the amendment and I rise to speak in support of it. The Liberal Democrats have made no secret of the fact that we support the whole notion of innovation. We feel that all good schools should constantly be innovative. Therefore, in terms of the broad purpose of this chapter of the Bill, we are 100 per cent behind the Government. However, we are not 100 per cent behind them in the way they have sought to do it.

We believe that all schools should be allowed to innovate and that it should not be restricted to the few. Furthermore, the Secretary of State should not have the prime decision as to who should innovate. That is our main objection. So much power is put into the hands of the Secretary of State that any school contemplating an innovation that may require exemption from the current legislation must first submit such innovations for consideration. An important point to bear in mind is that not all innovation requires exemption from current legislation. Schools are innovating all the time and are doing so without the need to put the legislation aside.

That brings me to my next point. It is wrong that the main purpose of the first chapter of the Bill sets out the business of schools having to approach the Secretary of State and say, more or less, "Please, Miss, can we innovate?". That may be a rather crude translation, but essentially it is the case. Such a provision sends out the wrong message. Although almost everything that schools might want to do can be done within the current legal constraints, many schools would feel inhibited about trying anything new because, perhaps erroneously, they would believe that they must seek permission before the introduction of any innovation. Far from stimulating innovation, we feel that the message of the first chapter of the Bill will convey that permission will have to be sought before anything new can be done.

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We believe that the Bill as presently drafted puts far too much power into the hands of the Secretary of State. In particular we are worried about Clause 2(1)(a), which will confer sweeping powers on the Secretary of State to put aside all education legislation. In addition, in this clause decisions are to be left to,

    "the opinion of the Secretary of State".

I make that point in light of the fact that the spokesman for this legislation in the other place could not cite any examples of what schools might want to do which they are not already able to do. In the debate in Committee in the other place, Mr Stephen Timms, the then Minister for Schools, rather weakly defined innovation as, "doing something new". In Committee we cited probably the best example of what schools might like to do with the power to innovate; namely, changing the school day to continental hours. We were not convinced that even that was necessarily a good example because already schools can change the timing of the school day, provided that they allow for a break in the middle of that day.

The Minister went almost as far as to say that, because we were asking schools to think the unthinkable, by definition she could not think of any examples of what they might do. In contrast, the amendment before the House asks Ministers to define very clearly what schools cannot do. For example, in Committee it became clear that the power to innovate could not be used to allow schools to introduce fees, to introduce more selection or to put aside their provision for special educational needs.

We appreciate the broad aims of this chapter of the Bill. Schools should be innovating and trying out new approaches. Indeed, from these Benches we would argue that good schools already innovate; they have a great deal of leeway in which to do so. By and large, those schools do not need this legislation. The only area where currently schools feel thoroughly constrained is in the curriculum, which we shall come to later when we discuss earned autonomy. However, as I have already made clear, we fear that this heavy-handed legislation will inhibit rather than encourage innovation.

We appreciate, too, the degree to which the Minister herself has sought to meet our reservations expressed in Committee. We were worried about the sweeping away of the provision for special educational needs. Now specific mention is made on the face of the Bill of the need to provide for special educational needs, along with the fact that such provision will not be exempted. We were worried about the position of local education authorities because it is necessary that they should be consulted. Again, on the face of the Bill the right to consultation has been conferred on local education authorities. We are extremely grateful to the Minister for those concessions.

However, while those are real advances, what the Minister has not done is to confer what would be achieved if Amendment No. 1, which we share with the Conservatives, were to be accepted; that is, to introduce the key element of allowing all schools to innovate.

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Again, the reasons why we are backing this Tory amendment are that, first, it offers an opportunity for all schools to innovate by offering them encouragement rather than seeking to inhibit them. Secondly, it reverses the onus of proof. It would be up to the Secretary of State to define those areas, such as fees, selection or SEN, where schools may not be exempted from education legislation.

Thirdly, through the mechanism of affirmative regulation, the system would become open and transparent. Schools, local education authorities and other qualifying bodies will know where they stand. Lastly, the amendment would allow the Secretary of State a good deal of flexibility. We have argued that perhaps it would not be appropriate for schools in special measures or those showing serious weaknesses to have wide-open powers to innovate. Again, that point is of particular relevance when we discuss earned autonomy.

In Committee the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, made much of the fact that it is precisely those schools with difficulties that need to be able to think the unthinkable. I agreed strongly with his comments. The amendment would give such schools the power to do so, but it would be for the Secretary of State to decide those areas where schools would not be allowed to trespass beyond the current legislation. Having said that, we have always argued that perhaps some schools should be encouraged to "stick to the knitting" rather than to seek to experiment. Equally, however, we would be happy to see a degree of flexibility written into the provisions.

I conclude by saying that, so far as concerns these Benches, the Minister has in effect failed to meet our key demand that all schools should have the power to innovate. We believe that the Government's ideas remain innately muddled and inoperable. While we are grateful for the concessions that have been made, in essence they are only cosmetic concessions, putting on to the face of the Bill what was already included in regulations. For those reasons, we support the amendment.

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