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Lord Dearing: My Lords, perhaps I may offer a view on the subject. During previous stages of the Bill I was critical of the Government's proposals in the clause because they were limited to the 10 per cent highest performers in various categories. I argued that schools struggling with the curriculum needed scope and opportunities for freedom.

As I have understood the Bill—I hope correctly—as it stands with the Government's amendments, we are no longer limited to those schools in the top 10 per cent. Instead of just the top performers, it extends to those that are well led or well managed. So my struggling school, which is well led and well managed, and there are many such schools, will be eligible. I hope that the Government can confirm my interpretation and that the clause goes much further than was originally intended. I welcome that.

I turn to the amendments before us. I start with two propositions. First, after the years of travail—the nightmare of the national curriculum, as it first was—we have something which is good, rather than something about which we should be saying "Alas, for good reasons we want to keep a bit but it should go as a statutory requirement". It is a protection for children in all schools—little ones, big ones, good and not so good. Our children need that protection.

On the other hand, I believe that there is benefit in allowing good teachers opportunities to be innovative. It enables them to respond to the particular children that they have and to the particular learning opportunity that may be available. For example, if I were teaching history

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in York, I should want to engage the excitement of the children in the Roman origins of the city, the Viking days and perhaps in the railway days. If I remember rightly, the National Railway Museum is there. There are great learning opportunities that I want to free up.

So it is a balance between the safeguards for children which are provided by the kind of sensible national curriculum that we have now and innovation. I think that there is considerable scope for innovation, but I should like to open the doors.

In saying that I want to open the doors I am cautious, particularly about the three core subjects. Those are the incrementally learned subjects. We live in a mobile society where kids move from school to school. We know about the awful problem of the migration from primary to secondary school and the regression that takes place there. Unless children follow a common curriculum in those incremental subjects, many of them will be disadvantaged. So I want the cupboard open more widely. I think that the amendment, which really says, "No, we believe that the time has come largely to say goodbye to the national curriculum", is too soon. I think it is taking too great a risk with the education of all children in all circumstances.

Therefore, I feel that—if I understand the Government's approach—they are opening the door more widely. That will let schools with different levels of attainment come through the door, but maintain as a core, as a reference point to all schools, the national curriculum. Therefore, I want to go with the Government rather than with the more ambitious proposals put forward in the amendment.

Lord Peston: My Lords, later on—if we ever get there or live that long—there are amendments standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lady David on interpreting and adjusting the curriculum to take fully into account the needs of the individual child. That is a subject that I hope that we shall debate to some extent.

However, the amendments relate to something different. I am not entirely sure that I fully understand what the noble Baroness has in mind. I can see her point—and I shall argue it later anyway—that concentrating on what are called "the best schools" may entirely be wrong. It may well be that where one wants flexibility it might not be in connection with the best schools, however defined, one might just want them. I think that that is what the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, was saying; that they wanted something quite different.

That is my first worry. But my central question, which I put to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and, presumably, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, is whether they mean all schools at all levels. Do they mean primary and secondary schools, for example, should have this freedom? If they could clarify that it would help me when we reflect on this matter in a few moments.

It would also help me if they told me—and I think that this also applies to my noble friend the Minister—what subjects they have in mind. Again the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has essentially alluded to that aspect. I would regard it as—putting it not too strongly—catastrophic if

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these exemptions applied to the three core subjects. The three core subjects are rather different from the others. They are what one builds on. There is no way if one is not literate that one can read history, or anything else for that matter. There is no way if one is not numerate that one can do almost anything. One thing that I despair of is that—I allude to one of our earlier debates on citizenship and so on—our young people are supposed to be great experts on saving the planet, but most of them could not say what the law of conservation of energy was. To be perfectly honest, I would rather that they knew what the law of conservation of energy was and later on in life set about saving the planet rather than the current modish way of doing things.

Therefore, I again ask the noble Baronesses who have tabled the amendment whether they remotely have in mind that a school might be able to not follow the national curriculum on the three core subjects? Is that at all possible because that would worry me enormously?

Lastly, we should not be naive about what drives schools these days. It has nothing to do with education philosophy any more. That went years ago. It has little to do with the national curriculum. They are driven entirely by examinations and testing. What drives schools now is what gets the relevant number of grades at—I cannot remember whether it is O-levels or GCSEs. It is very difficult for someone of my age group to catch up with all the different things. The examination and testing system drives everything. Again, therefore, even if one wanted to see flexibility in this area, how could that be remotely possible given the examination systems we have? I put that question to the noble Baronesses.

To summarise, I have intervened interrogatively. I should like the answers to my questions so that I can have a better understanding of what they have in mind.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I support Amendment No. 12. Paragraph 5.1 of the document Policy Statements and Draft Regulations supplied to Standing Committee G, states:

    "All schools need to ensure that the curriculum continues to develop, within the statutory framework, and responds to changes in society and the economy, and in the nature of schooling itself".

I agree wholeheartedly with the words "responds to changes". Yet, the current curriculum remains overcrowded with content and is strait-jacketed by a rigid system of testing and assessment. It allows little room for dynamic adaptability. There is a strong argument, therefore, in favour of greater flexibility for all schools with regard to the national curriculum. Such flexibility should apply to all schools, not just successful ones—particularly not to successful ones.

At a time when educationists and business leaders agree about the concept of the "creative age", it is salutary to find that those responsible for education policy are lagging behind. Technological advance, organisational change and globalisation have driven a shift from manual work to "thinking" jobs that demand a new range of skills, from problem solving and communication to self-organisation.

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Two years ago, the think tank Demos stated that,

    "while the underlying economic structures of society are undergoing a dramatic transformation, our educational structures are lagging behind. The dominant educational paradigm still focuses on what students know, rather than how they use that knowledge".

In Committee, the Minister said:

    "It is our view that non-core foundation subjects need to be protected under earned autonomy. That means that no school will be able to suspend any subject, but will be given flexibility in relation to the programmes of study for non-core subjects, allowing far more freedom in teaching and greater scope in curriculum planning".—[Official Report, 2/5/02; col. 906.]

Given the safeguard described by the Minister at the Dispatch Box, it is hard to understand why she will not extend the exemption on the curriculum to all schools. That is why I support the amendment.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I shall respond to the debate by saying that we are not far apart in our intentions. In Committee, I said that I would reflect further on the nature of the criteria for earned autonomy and on the number of schools that might qualify. I can now tell your Lordships' House the outcome of that reflection. Before I do, I must make it clear that the core subjects—English, mathematics and science—will not be touched by the proposal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, we are discussing the programmes of study for non-core subjects.

We shall shortly discuss amendments that would bring the judgment of the chief inspector into the criteria for earned autonomy. The reason for that is straightforward. We have always said that we want the best led and best managed schools to qualify for earned autonomy. We now wish to align the criteria for earned autonomy with those for short inspections. That will mean that, if a school has qualified for a short inspection under the current inspection arrangement and has received a good inspection, it will be eligible for earned autonomy. However, if a school receives a good inspection of any sort, we should be prepared to consider whether it might be suitable to give it additional freedoms. It will be for the chief inspector to identify those schools, and that is why the amendments that we have tabled are needed.

I listened carefully to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in Committee and today, as, I hope, she will see. Initially, we said that 10 per cent of schools might qualify for earned autonomy. Under the criteria that we propose, we expect that 30 per cent of secondary schools and 60 per cent of primary schools will qualify. I hope that noble Lords will agree that that is a significant move.

It does not end there. We are not prepared to extend the freedom to schools that are not sufficiently well led to manage it properly. I hope that noble Lords will agree that only schools that manage their affairs properly should be able to change such fundamental matters as pay and conditions and programmes of study. However, we want to see all schools well led and managed and able to take on the additional freedom. Our goal is that, over time, all schools should be able to take on the freedoms. We will review the qualifying criteria, if necessary, to achieve that aim. In coming up with new ideas for

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helping schools to be innovative in all kinds of ways, government should do the job properly and ensure that we roll out programmes to the schools that can make best use of them. We must protect the education of our children. I hope that I have proved that I listened to what was said.

All of that can be achieved without the amendments that we are discussing. Indeed, Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 could also allow us to limit to 10 per cent the number of schools qualifying. Moreover, I should make it clear, particularly with regard to Amendment No. 13, that the legal position on teachers' pay and conditions must be clear for all schools. We should not allow a position in which the law governing teachers' fundamental entitlements is not clear to all current and future teachers. Whatever happens, eligible schools cannot simply decide to exempt themselves from legal pay orders and the schoolteachers' pay and conditions document. There must be a process whereby schools become legally exempt. The provisions proposed in the new clause would remove the safeguards in the Bill.

The Government's legislation will work, but Amendment No. 12 would create an insoluble conflict between this power and the powers in Parts 6 and 7. We cannot place a general presumption against compliance with a key component of the Bill in this new clause, while setting out in Parts 6 and 7 the detailed powers surrounding the curriculum. That is why Clause 6 is drafted as it is, presuming compliance with the general law re-enacted later in the Bill but allowing limited exemption from it in certain qualifying circumstances. With all humility, I must say that the Government's approach is preferable.

The Government's approach already ensures automatic exemption for schools qualifying. It already ensures that the requirements for a broad and balanced curriculum are met. It already ensures that high-performing schools that are well led and managed qualify. In addition—and of particular importance—it ensures that no one is left in any doubt as to the legal requirements for any school.

With regard to Amendment No. 18, I hope that noble Lords will recognise that we have been open about our intentions for the criteria for schools qualifying for earned autonomy. We set out those intentions in a policy statement that can be found in the Library of the House, and we made it clear that we intend to have a full public consultation. The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform considered our proposals for regulation-making powers in detail. It was content with the proposed procedures, and I hope that, as is the convention, the House will be guided by the committee's view.

I hope that, on that basis, noble Lords opposite will accept that we have moved considerably and given them what they asked for. The amendments do not help to further their aims. I hope that the amendment will, therefore, be withdrawn.

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