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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, our educators are very concerned to provide the best quality information in schools and they have the benefit of the huge expansion of resources in schools, which make the technology readily available for our
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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, will the Minister encourage the view that, if television channels are not prepared to attract child viewers, they are unlikely to remain attached to that channel? They should follow the example of the Welsh television channel which works in partnership with the BBC.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness alluded to an important example. The Welsh television channel provides a good service in those terms. In general, it is for independent broadcasters to decide on how attract their audience. They have always recognised the importance of appealing to children.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, evidence suggests that the lower propensity to enter higher education of August-born children reflects their lower attainment in the compulsory school years. Schools may admit children at age four or five, but younger children who remain longer in nursery provision will benefit from the same early years foundation stage as their counterparts in school. This issue is complex, and we are undertaking further research, on which I expect to report in October.
Lord Dearing: My Lords, I thank the Minister sincerely for his reply, as I had hoped that he would wish to undertake research. In this research, will he note that, when gender is brought into the equation, girls born in September are 50 per cent more likely to get a university place than boys born in August? That suggests that maturity, as powerfully indicated by gender and age at entry, is a major factor in the educational opportunities being offered to our children. We are seriously failing children who, through their relative lack of maturity, are not responded to properly by the educational system. This needs to be researched, and I welcome the Ministers response.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I notice that the noble Lord was born at the end of July, which means that, as many of us had suspected, his advancement in life was because of natural brilliance and hard work and nothing whatever to do with birth dates. Of course, he raises an issue that is immensely serious, which is why we have commissioned research from the Centre for the Economics of Education, an organisation jointly run by the LSE, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University of Londons Institute of Education. We will receive its report in October, and I will look forward to having further discussions with the noble Lord and other interested noble Lords after that.
Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I attended a grammar school many years ago in Spennymoor, County Durham. There was a rule to the effect that you could not take the higher school certificate examination until the year in which you reached your 18th birthday. The qualifying year ended on 31 August. In consequence, as my birthday is on 16 September, I found myself almost a year older than many of my contemporaries. Is it not possible that, if any similar rule applies in relation to qualifying exams, it may explain part of the discrepancy?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, there is no such rule now in respect of public examinations in this country. I am sorry that the noble Lord was treated in that way. I hope that these situations are not recurring.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I declare an interest, having two girls born in summerone in July and one in August. Does the Minister accept that, had the Government accepted the Tomlinson proposals, this problem might not be so bad? The university entry requirement would then be the diploma, a much broader qualification than just one-off A-levels taken at a particular time.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not follow that line of reasoning at all, as young people would still need to take qualifications. The fact that it is a larger rather than a smaller number of qualifications does not self-evidently affect the issue at all.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, it has long been believed that summer babies catch up with their peers by their teens, but this report shows that not to be the case. Is it not time to ensure that every school has streaming and setting, so that pupils are taught by their ability?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I think that we are reverting to one of the questions from yesterday, which the noble Baroness is determined not to give up on. As I said to her then, there is substantially more setting in our schools than there was 10 years ago. However, we think that that matter is best left to the judgment of head teachers; it is not an issue for me as a Minister to start decreeing on from the department in central London.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, the Minister may just have answered my question, but I will ask it. To what degree do individual head teachers have flexibility to move children around, as it were,
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Lord Adonis: My Lords, I sense that a major research project might be in the offing on the birth dates of Members of the House of Lords; it would be interesting to see what that revealed. The specific answer to my noble friend is that head teachers have the flexibility that she mentioned. However, as she may be aware, there is a big debate in the international education community about the virtues of holding children back for a year if their progress is less than should be expected for their age. That is not common practice in this country, but it is elsewhere. I have pages of research evidence on the pros and cons of both systems. Suffice it to say, as so often with these educational debates, the result is inconclusive.
Baroness Warnock: My Lords, will the Minister ensure that if this research is carried out, as I greatly hope it will be, it will be very widely publicised? Does he agree that attitudes have changed over the past 25 to 50 years? It used to be thought very often that it was greatly to peoples advantage to be the youngest person in their class and that that showed that they were very bright, and so on and so forth. Now we are more interested in maturity as a factor in education. Does he agree that people ought to know this and that the research should be very widely publicised when it is completed?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
(1) The Secretary of State shall by order appoint a Standing Commission to investigate and report on the devolution of powers to local authorities in England, to be known as the Devolution Commission.
The noble Lord said: I am sure that we will have a number of days of extremely interesting discussions on this Bill. On behalf of the whole Committee, I welcome the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, back to pole position on the Bill. I also congratulate her on her survival, first, of the appalling cold that she had a fortnight ago, which prevented her from making her speech on Second Reading, and, secondly, of the recent government reshuffle, which was probably even more harrowing. We are very pleased to see her sitting in her place again this morning.
I pay tribute, too, to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, who substituted for the Minister extremely competently at Second Reading and who, I understand, will reply to some of the amendments in Committee, despite the fact that she was on duty on the Pensions Bill yesterday. It is clear that the Government are working their Ministers in this House fairly hard at the momentand it is said that they are looking for reinforcements.
The amendment is in some ways a probing amendment, although it is suddenly and unexpectedly topical following the Statement on the constitution on Monday, when the Government announced all sorts of interesting things. We are clearly embarking as a House, a Parliament and a country on another major debate about constitutional affairs. That is something that I personally and the Liberal Democrats generally very much welcome. However, the interesting thing about the Statement on Monday was how little it said about the issues covered by the amendment; in fact, it had nothing at all to say about them. I think that it was the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, who noted that the Statement did not mention devolution once. Devolution and decentralisation to local government do not seem to be seriously on the Governments agenda, although there are some rather minor aspects of them in the Bill.
It seems to me and many people in my party that the time has come to take a long, hard look at just how much power can be devolved from the centre, from the regions and from unelected bodiespartnerships, quangos, et ceterato local government. Of course nobody is saying that partnerships are not important and that local government should not take part in partnershipsof course it shouldbut where does the locus of power, of decision-making and of authority
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The precise details of the devolution commissionthe standing commission that I am suggestingare not perhaps vital now. What is important is the principle that there should be a free-standing autonomous body which is representative not just of central government but of local government and which is responsible for looking at issues outside the traditional framework of government and Whitehall departments.
People at the centre have a vested interest in maintaining powers therethat is where they are and that is what they doand they may be suspicious of anybody else trying to do these things, particularly if powers are devolved to a range of authorities in different parts of the country that might make different decisions. There might be a diversity of provision, which is anathema to people who want uniformity. Clearly, there have to be standards and minima beyond which people cannot go, but the degree to which local government is now in a stranglehold of detailed rules, regulations and targets is a scandal.
The Bill perhaps goes a little way towards relieving that, but it is only a little way. Something much more fundamental is required. The amendment is therefore more than a probing amendment; it is a challenging amendment. It challenges the Government to say whether they agree with it and what their vision is for local government.
On page 49, paragraph 169 talks about local communities. Some of this stuff was in the White Paper and some of it is in the Bill. The Green Paper talks about empoweringI use the Governments words in the hope that they might understandand engaging citizens and neighbourhoods and devolving more power directly to the people. A number of interesting ideas are set out. Again, on the next two pages, a requirement is placed on local authorities to,
An odd thing about these pages is that the word new keeps cropping up. There is nothing new about all this; many local authorities have been doing it in different ways very successfully. Later in Committee I
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The point is that the Government are absolutely right to be looking very hard indeed at the relationship between government and Parliament, which is what most of the Green Paper is about. They are also absolutely right to be looking at the way in which people living in streets and communities can get involved in local decision-making. But somewhere in betweenat regional level and local authority levelthere is a great void in the Governments thinking and proposals. Unless they are prepared to have democratically elected local authorities that have real powers, can achieve things and can raise funds to achieve those things, then all the local engagement in the world is no use. It is a complete waste of time engaging with a local authority whose powers have been emasculated and whose ways of working are subject to the stranglehold of detailed rules and regulations from on top.
Let us have a bonfire of all those regulations. Let us have a sustained and serious devolution of powers from the centre to local authorities over a period of years. It is no good trying to have a big bang; you need to do it slowly, steadily and evolutionarily, and get a new culture. Until you do that, all that local involvement will do is produce immense frustration because people will get involved but nothing will happen. I therefore have great pleasure in begging to move the amendment.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I support my noble friends amendment because it goes to the heart of the issue that we on these Benches have with the Bill; namely, the relationship between central and local government.
I think that the Government have now come to quite a good analysis of some of the problems of the democratic deficit, centralisation and so on that face our country; the problem is the inadequacy or insufficiency of the actions that they are taking to deal with those problems. The White Paper and the Bill are fundamentally prescriptive on the nature of the relationship between local councils and their citizens, a theme that was very much picked up in Tuesdays Green Paper on governance, which contains a lot about the rights of citizens to challenge their councils in various ways and hold them to account. We absolutely agree with that.
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