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The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, after two such powerful introductory speeches in support of the amendment, I rise with a fair amount of trepidation. Perhaps I may say first that we all support innovation in our schools, wherever that is possible. Furthermore, we all pay tribute to the Minister for the kindly and gracious way that she has discussed these matters with us. The noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Sharp, have already indicated their appreciation.
However, I wonder whether this amendment would achieve its intention. It appears to put all innovative power, irrespective of merit, into the hands of individual schools. But schools with a head teacher keen on innovation already have powers to act in a maverick way. The amendment states that the LEA is to be informed, but what does that mean? What is the LEA to do with the information? Why, in the case of Church schools, would not the diocesan authority be included in such consultation?
Very properly, provision is made for consultation with neighbouring schools. Who is to define what are the "surrounding schools"? Furthermore, if those schools do not like the new proposals, what action could they take to prevent a particular innovation? On reading the amendment, it appears at first sight to be somewhat loosely drafted.
I turn now to the nitty-gritty of the matter. We are all concerned about striking the right balance and encouraging the right partnerships in the process of innovation. This amendment would create a kind of free-for-all which could possiblyeven probablyundermine important statutes, perhaps even to the extent of undermining the religious character of a school. That would be a matter of great concern to these Benches.
But then the freedoms promised by the amendment may disappear, since the Secretary of State would be required to produce a list of statutory requirements or exemptions that would inhibit innovation. As a cautious person, I have to admit that if I were the Secretary of State, I would err on the side of caution, in particular with regard to the education of children with special educational needs and with regard to the sensitive issues of collective worship and REmatters which could be affected by the wrong kind of innovative process. We need to give a great deal of thought to exactly what is being proposed in the amendment and whether it might, in the attempt to secure greater freedom for schools, in fact limit those schools.
Furthermore, should we not be concerned by the powers conferred by the amendment on this and subsequent Secretaries of State? It appears that she or he could exempt whatever she or he chooses. What would that mean for the future?
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that we shall all know where we are, but I wonder whether, in a desire to ensure that innovation is positive and good, the Secretary of State may not err on the side of being cautious. That may not be beneficial. We must remember that when we are talking about children it needs only an innovation which lasts for six months or a year to do a whole lifetime's damage to a particular generation. Inspections of schools do not happen all that frequently and parents can be swayed before they know the outcome of the innovations being proposed.
Lord Peston: My Lords, I, too, rise with some trepidation on this subjectbut with less trepidation than in Committee. As your Lordships will know, I remarked then that I found the Bill largely incomprehensibleif we could do the whole thing again over the next year I believe we may get therebut bit by bit I am beginning to understand it. I think that I understand this part of the Bill and, therefore, I believe that this amendment is based on a misunderstanding and is misplaced.
If I may start by pouring oil on troubled waters, we all agree that we favour innovation and the raising of standards that takes place to a considerable extentbut not entirelythrough innovation. Both the Government and the Opposition are committed to the view that standards in our schools have risen continuously over the past few years and therefore they must have at least some presumption in favour of the innovative status quootherwise they would have to explain how it is that they are committed to how well the schools were doing.
The central point is derived from the heading of Clause 2that is, "Power to suspend statutory requirements etc". That is what this clause is about. It is not headed, "Innovationwhat you must do to get permission to do it", or to do any of the things the noble Baronesses said. The clause seems to deal with schools which have certain innovative ideas but have discoveredor it has been drawn to their attentionthat these potential innovations clash with existing statutory requirements and so on.
If that is the case, how should it be dealt with? My original view of the clause was that it looked bureaucratic and that we should find a way into this area without involving, at least to any great extent, the Secretary of State. But on reflection, as a result of what was said in Committee, it seems to me to be of the utmost fundamental importance that if we are discussing the power to suspend statutory requirements we could not possibly place that power in the hands of schools or even in the hands of the local education authorities. Although I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate that we need to ensure that the local education authorities are involved in these matters, this power must rest with the Secretary of State. Therefore the Government are on the right track in that regardnot because of anything to do with education but because of matters to do with the power to suspend statutory requirements of any kind.
Having said that, we could ask whether the way the issue is set out in the Bill in any way inhibits innovation. The reply to that question will depend on what my noble friend the Minister says in response. It is possible to interpret the Bill by saying that the Secretary of State will be extremely negative, will mostly reject innovative projects and will not let people know what has been agreed in other schools, so that the whole subject then becomes the new "Secret garden". But I see no reason why that should be the case. It is at least as possible that schools will propose to the Secretary of State something that they want to do and say, "It looks as though this clashes with statutory requirements. What do you think?" The answer may be, "It does not clash and so I do not want to get involved". Alternatively, the Secretary of State may say, "I think that, prima facie, it does clash. Put up a case to me", and the Secretary of State will be bound to respond to that.
I am glad that the amendment has been tabled because it enables us to get a clearer view of what this is all about. It certainly enables my noble friend to say what she thinks on this matter. Neither the
Lord Dearing: My Lords, as someone who stands in long grass, I am very glad to hear of the extent of the consultation between the Front Benches to try to find an agreed way forward. At least we are all of one mind as to the objective. I am only sorry that so far we do not have an agreed way forward.
As to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, I was very concerned that the power to innovate should extend to all schools. Indeed, I believe that the particular power in Clause 2 does so, as opposed to the curriculum power. I was concerned that schools in trouble, provided that they were well led, should be able to innovate. I believe that this is all right in terms of applying to all schools.
The fundamental question is: who takes the decision? I remember hearing in chatsnot on the Floor of the House expressions of some concern that even a Secretary of State should be able to set aside legislation. It is quite something to say, "Madam, you can do it". I have sat on two governing bodieswe were worthy folksbut I wonder about the wisdom of allowing a governing body to have the power to set aside main statutory legislation. If the one causes me to quiver, the other causes me to bolt.
I share the right reverend Prelate's fear if the Secretary of State has to set the boundaries. The reasons for individual items of legislation are soundotherwise they would not have been enactedand if the Secretary of State were to have on her back every interest group in the country, with very good arguments as to why a particular piece of legislation should not be within the field of innovation, I fear that that would too much circumscribe the possibility of ideas that we have not even thought of.
I understand the objective of the amendment, which is to reduce bureaucracy. I spoke out with concern that officials, with great respect to themI was an official for a long timewould not have local knowledge, and I referred to the importance of the involvement of the LEA. I have read the amendments. One amendment seeks that there should be consultation with the LEA. I would want in addition to that an assurance that the views of parents and the LEA will be before the Secretary of State when she makes her decision. I would hope that the views of the LEA would carry great weight.
I do not believe that there will be an avalanche of proposals, for the reason adduced in the House when the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, posed the questionshe had a long list"What would you want to do?", and there was a stony silence. I hope that a good number of proposals will come forward, but I do not think that there will be an avalanche. While I welcome the spirit behind the first amendment and want to encourage sensible innovation, we should be cautious. If I have to choose between the two approaches in a Division, as a cautious man, I shall go with the Government.
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