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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold. She has enabled us to have an interesting and wide-ranging debate at a time when what happens in our schools could not be more topical. As a scientist, I particularly agree with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, about science education, with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford about citizenshipon which I look forward to an
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opportunity to say more in two weeks' timeand with the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, about the fact that size and music matter.
Taking the long view, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, and others that education is the key way to promote equality of opportunity, and central to reducing poverty and deprivation. It should be a service for all children, accountable to whole communities, and should hang together as a wholealbeit containing healthy diversity, with schools co-operating and working together for the sake of their community rather than fighting each other. That is how standards can be driven up.
A good school at the heart of every community; that is what we in this House share as a common objective. That should help children achieve all five outcomes set out in Every Child Matters, not just academic achievement to the exclusion of all else. Fortunately, many schools do just that and I pay tribute to them. We also believe that schools are far too controlled by Whitehall. That is the yoke from which they need to be set free, not from the control of their locally elected representatives. Yet the Government propose yet more nationalisation through the power of the new schools commissioner.
However, turning to the short view, the recent White Paper represents a terribly wasted opportunity to raise standards. With school rolls predicted by the Audit Commission to fall by half a million over the next 10 years, the opportunity to provide more personal attention to children, by reducing class sizes, should be seized not squandered. Otherwise these surplus places will cost the taxpayer millions without any real benefit to our children. Yet the Government want to add to that surplus by encouraging new providers to create more places, even where no demand has been demonstrated or there is already excess capacity.
Real parental choice can easily be achieved where there is excess capacity. But instead we are promised parental choice through more structural change and new providers. While we on these Benches do not oppose new entrants into the provision of schools, it must be done in a way that does not undermine fair admissions and local accountability.
Of course we must seek to improve standards and ensure that no child is left behind, but it is not by constant fiddling about with structures that we will achieve that. It is, as my noble friend Lady Sharp and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, by giving them a good start, identifying problems early and providing a wide, relevant and stimulating choice of curriculum, especially for 14 to 19 year olds. In that, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It is by supporting schools and providing adequate resources for learning and good quality teaching, and by developing management and leadership skills among our senior teachers, as many noble Lords have said.
The idea that the new trust schools proposed in the White Paper would increase parental choice is preposterous. On the Liberal Democrat Benches, we
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support those measures that give parents more information and involve them more in the life of the school. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, that children thrive when their parents are really involved in their education. Yet much of that motherhood and apple pie stuff is already being done in the best schools. I doubt that it needs legislation; it merely needs spreading of best practice, and I endorse the questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about that.
Most references to parental choice in the White Paper are pie in the sky, and cruelly mislead parents. In reality, oversubscribed schools choose their pupils; parents do not choose them. We oppose reduced parental choice where a majority of parents are not allowed to stop a governing body voting to become a foundation or trust school, and cannot opt for a new school to be a community school. The words "parental choice" should stick in the throat of the Government, who have legislated to ensure that academies do not have to take any child with special needs whose parents want it to attend. The long-winded and expensive dispute resolution service that has been set up will find itself with little to do. Advice lines are already finding that parents soon give up trying to exert their rather non-existent rights when they realise how little their child is wanted by the school. Is it any wonder, given the confusion and complexity that will arise if every school becomes its own admissions authority, that the Government see the need to set up "choice advisers" to help disadvantaged people understand the admissions process?
Unfair proposals on admissions are, of course, at the heart of objections to the White Paper, so heartily supported by the Conservative Party. Does that not ring alarm bells in the corridors of power at No. 10, even if the fact escapes them that a clear majority of their own Back-Benchers, their own Deputy Prime Minister, a former party leader and a former Secretary of State for Education oppose these measures? This White Paper is Tony Blair's epitaph; his Mozart's Requiemthe thing that he must see through before he dies a political death. I wonder whether, like that wonderful musical epitaph, it was commissioned by an anonymous stranger in a black cloak, perhaps one who habitually occupies the government Front Bench in your Lordships' House when education is on the agenda.
The Opposition's agenda is clearly, first, to embarrass the Government and, secondly, to reintroduce selection and the unfairness of their own grant-maintained system back to the future of our schools. Your Lordships heard that here today from the noble Baroness who introduced the debate. They are happy because the White Paper's admissions free-for-all will surely produce selection by the back door. In a situation where the resources that follow a child with special needs are as inadequate as they are today, after eight years of Labour government, no school in its right mind is going to be keen to allow too many of them in if they can avoid it. Situations arise like the one I heard about only this week, where two severely autistic children are holding a school in a very deprived
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area to ransom by behaviour which the school does not have the knowledge, skills or resources to handle. The rights of these two needy children, and those of all the others whose education is harmed by the attention staff have to pay them, are being infringed by this Government's failure properly to provide for their needs. In such an environment, the measures relating to trust schools are downright dangerous to the whole edifice of our education system.
We on these Benches believe that collaboration rather than competition is the right model to drive up standards, not setting school against school against the wishes of the local community. The trust model proposed in the White Paper seems to offer only one attraction to a schoolto become its own admissions authority. Why else should it want to do that? The Government have made it clear on the record many times that there will be no financial incentives. However, I say to noble Lords, watch this space for a U-turn. The Government have a nasty habit of ensuring that if you do what they want, you get extra money. For example, today you can have extra money for any kind of brand new school you wantas long as it is an academy.
The Minister's mantra that trust status promotes innovation, diversity and builds a school ethos has no evidence base and we are not alone in opposing these measures. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, about the need to validate new ideas. The Secondary Heads Association, the NUT, the Audit Commission, the National Audit Office and their own Back-Benchers tell the Government that their latest proposals will set school against school.
We therefore oppose this model as proposed and have grave concerns about such a transfer of ownership of public assets to a trust that could be owned and controlled by groups with no local connection or accountability. But we can see advantages in groups of schools which serve whole communities becoming trusts. They could have the sort of syndicated plan referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood. That would encourage co-operation. It may improve the range of choice at 14 to 19, highlighted by my noble friend and by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about Tomlinson and the difficulties that failure to implement fully those proposals have brought us. Community trusts could provide wider facilities for learning, leisure and out-of-school care than any single school can, and be in the interest of the whole community. They could cross the age range and would involve the local authority and other partners.
The well-being of children in schools is paramount and is not only served by the quality of the teaching, but by the personal qualities of the teachers. It is for the sake of most decent hard-working teachers, as well as for the safety of children and the peace of mind of parents, that we need to sort out the mess that has emerged recently about how people working with children are vetted. We will debate these issues later when we have the Statement, so I shall not say much
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now, but I would like to place on record what we on these Benches believe about the matter, because it is relevant to any debate about schools. First, we have tried to provide a thoughtful, rather than a yah-boo response. We do not seek the scalp of Mrs Ruth Kelly. That we may leave to No. 10. Secondly, we believe we should take the opportunity as soon as possible to make a root and branch review of the systems for vetting those who are considered safe to work with children, based on the sensible proposals of Sir Michael Bichard. Thirdly, like him, we favour a single list for ease of use of employers and, crucially, training in its use for head teachers and governorsand we need more training for all who work in schools about child safeguarding issues.
However, because of the anomalies about some people who are or have been on the current listsin particular, the sex offenders registerwe believe great care should be taken in the criteria for who should be put on the new amalgamated list. There should be no automatic read-across from all the other lists. We believe that to protect the human rights of those who wish to work with children, there should be a robust appeals system.
We also believe that this is a matter for experts not Ministers. Ministers should set up the systems and structures and bear the responsibility for that. The criteria should be public and challengeable by Parliament. But it should be an independent panel, answerable to a Select Committee, that makes the decisions based on robust risk assessments. Perhaps it could include a member from the General Teaching Council as well as child protection experts and the police. I hope that that is the type of proposal that we will hear in your Lordships' House very soon. Only then will we be able to give parents the confidence in the system that they require, and children will be safe in their own schools.
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