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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.

4 p.m.

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

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to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, she said that LEAs would provide the information that would help the Secretary of State. We have not dealt with the amendment yet, but LEAs were not originally to be statutory consultees in the process. Only after a great deal of pressure from both the Liberal Democrat Benches and our own were LEAs made consultees, but originally they were not even to be consultees. In responding to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, the noble Baroness said that all the schools in the area concerned would be informed of any proposal. However, that is not stated in the Bill.

The right reverend Prelate asked who should be consulted and about what. Subsection (2) of Clause 4 states that the qualifying body; that is, the applicant,

    "shall consult such persons as appear to the body to be appropriate".

The applicant would consult with whom it decided to consult about what it wished. There is absolutely no difference between us as regards the need for consultation, but the appropriateness of the consultation would be very much a matter for the applicant.

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

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provision would be included on the face of the Bill. Therefore, I did not consider it necessary to second guess that provision in the amendment. There are amendments on the subject in the names of Liberal Democrat Peers and an amendment in my name. Therefore, we have belt and braces, as it were, on that issue.

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 State—he will have to do this as regards every decision that is taken on a proposal—to 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:

    "One of the key principles of English law is that anyone can do anything which is not explicitly prohibited.

    When it comes to state education, however, this maxim is turned on its head. Since the late 1980s, central government has increasingly dictated what schools can and cannot do.

    Now, at last, there are signs that the tide could be turning. Writing in the press this week, Tony Blair made much of his desire to 'promote national standards while also empowering front-line workers'. Mr Blair cites new powers, contained in the education Bill currently before Parliament, which would allow heads to opt out of existing education legislation.

    But the fact that the majority of schools will have to go cap in hand to the Secretary of State if they want to 'innovate' undermines the Government's claims to be loosening its grip on schools".

What the article is actually saying is that no innovative project can go ahead unless it has the blessing of the Secretary of State. As I say, different parameters will apply as each decision is taken. The proposals will be time limited. If a school proposes a measure that will raise standards in that school and wants to introduce it on a permanent basis, it may not be able to do so because after three years have elapsed it may have to go through another bureaucratic process to get an

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extension of three years. After that it will have to wait for primary legislation on a school by school basis. One school's innovative project is not necessarily a one size fits all project. It may stand alone. The notion that we should have primary legislation in this House to allow an innovative project to continue at one or, say, half a dozen schools, but not all schools, seems to me to be bizarre.

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.

4.9 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 116; Not-Contents, 141.

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