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Lord Peston: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, does she intend to address the issue of transparency? Can she assure us that any agreement or disagreement by the Secretary of State within the context of these provisions will become publicly known and that the Secretary of State will accept responsibility for making sure that other schools know about any decision taken for or against any application?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am very sorry that I did not address that point. The Secretary of State is keen to ensure that the relevant people are consulted and that we have the opportunity to ensure that the quality of the idea has been tested. We must make sure that schools in the neighbourhood know about it and that, through the local education authority, we have information about what we think will happen. We must also ensure that as the trial period goes on, we have the ability to ensure that other schools can learn from it. That is the point of the exercise: to ensure that we can learn from and develop these ideas and then come with delight to your Lordships' House and ask for support to help good, innovative projects that have been developed by schools to grow in the system and eventually become the norm.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank everyone who has contributed to this important debate. We all support the notion that schools should be encouraged to innovate. I was mildly amused by the Minister's defence for the LEAs' part in the process. In response
The right reverend Prelate also said that no one would know the outcome of a project. The Secretary of State will not know that either. An applicant can do no more than say, "We have an idea that we believe will work. We believe that it will raise the standards in a school". It is then for the Secretary of State to make a judgment on that, just as parents and the school governors initially made a judgment on that. The matter is second guessed by the Secretary of State and the people within his department.
The right reverend Prelate was concerned about the power that we are discussing and the status of legislation with regard to faith schools, special needs schools and vulnerable children. However, under the Bill, the Secretary of State has an absolute power. At the moment none of us knows which requirements of legislation may or may not be set aside. Every time an applicant approaches the Secretary of State with a proposal a decision is made and, as a result of that decision, there is circumscription as regards which requirement of legislation shall be set aside. We do not know how the Secretary of State will respond to such proposals. Until a certain period of time has passed we shall not know whether there will be consistency either as regards decisions taken by one Secretary of State during his period of office or as regards decisions taken by successive Secretaries of State. They will see each proposal on its merits as judged by the people in the department at the time. It is not the case that somehow or other schools themselves will circumscribe the limits of legislation.
I take the following key point most seriously. Anyone who knows me will know that both in government and in opposition I have fought at the Dispatch Box for a fair deal for children with special educational needs. Special educational needs are not included in the amendment partly because the Minister considered all the arguments that we put at the previous stage of the Bill and decided that a
I refer to a related point; namely, that no school should engage in an innovative project that will adversely affect the education of vulnerable children, cared for children, children with special educational needs or, indeed, adversely affect faith schools or the category or the particular ethos of another school. For that reason subsection (4) is included in the proposed new clause in the amendment. It will be for the Secretary of Statehe will have to do this as regards every decision that is taken on a proposalto decide those areas that cannot be exempted by a particular project of a particular school. If, as has been the case since 1997, Secretaries of State decide that there will be no more selection, that will form part of the barrier to innovation. I accept that that would be the case, however I would regard that with regret.
No school should be allowed to interfere with, or adversely affect, the education of vulnerable children or to affect the ethos of other schools whether they are faith schools or other distinctive schools. Certainly there should be no right for the project proposed by a school to have an adverse effect on other children. I noticed that the Minister's amendment, which protects children with special educational needs, does not mention the words, "children with special educational needs" but refers to all children. Subsumed within that, of course, are children with special educational needs. My subsection (4) of the amendment sets the parameters.
A leader in The Times Educational Supplement of 24th May became rather excited about the proposition that schools should be free to innovate. The article was as cynical and sceptical as I am. It states:
As I say, amendments have been tabled which seek to protect children with special educational needs. We should do what we can to promote the well-being and education of those children. As I say, subsection (4) of the amendment sets parameters in the matter that we are discussing. I keep returning to the question: why should the matter be time limited? If it is a good idea and it works, why should one have to apply a second time to a Secretary of State, wait for secondary legislation and, ultimately, for primary legislation? The reply that we were given was not satisfactory. We want to trust teachers. We also want to trust the Secretary of State to set the overall parameters within which schools may be free to exercise their professional judgment in consultation with other schools and parents, their own school staff and, of course, the LEA.
The right reverend Prelate asked what is meant by informing an LEA. It is important that an LEA knows what is going on. If a school adopts an innovative project which it will evaluate, record and about which it will inform parents with regard to its results, given an obligation on LEAs under a previous statute to raise standards, it is right that they should know what is going on. That is what is meant by informing an LEA. I wish to test the opinion of the House.