Orders of the Day — Education Bill [Lords]
Mr Tim Collins (Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education; Westmorland and Lonsdale, Conservative)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let us move on to the Bill. The Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear that the Bill is something that we can welcome. It would be a bit odd if we did not welcome it given that very large parts of this huge Bill involve re-enacting without amendment previous pieces of Conservative legislation. The Bill looks substantial, with 128 clauses and 19 schedules. What a testimony to the diligence, effort and original creative capacity of the Secretary of State and her team—one might think. However, sadly, one finds that the Education Act 1996, which the Bill repeals, is re-enacted word for word in clauses 1, 3, 4, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 32, 35, 47, 48, 50, 51 and 57 and in schedules 1, 2, 3 and 4. There is an equally long list of word-for-word transpositions in the Bill from the Education Act 1994, which it also repeals. Given that 79 per cent. of the Bill's text is lifted word for word, clause for clause and schedule for schedule from legislation that was put on to the statute book by the last Conservative Government, of course Conservative Members are unlikely to oppose it. However, it shows that there is not a great deal of originality and creativity in the eighth year of a Labour Government.
There are a few new measures in the Bill about which I shall talk, but we must put that in context given that four fifths of it simply puts back on to the statute book what was there anyway. What an extraordinary waste of parliamentary time. The Government said in recent days and weeks that there was insufficient time for the proper consideration of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill or the European constitution, but they have found enough time to re-enact, word for word, measures that already exist, which make up 80 per cent. of the Bill.
Let us move on to one or two of the new measures that the Government have included in the Bill. About a week or so ago, we heard from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State about the importance of parent power. We were told that parent power would be at the heart of their vision for the future of the UK education system. Parent power was going to be the way in which standards in schools would be driven up and something that would uniquely distinguish the Government from any of their predecessors. However, the Bill will remove the right of parents to meet Ofsted inspectors. It will scrap the annual school parents' meetings and remove annual school reports to parents. That does not sound much like parent power to us.
As is normal in such circumstances, the Bill has been improved during its passage through the other place, which is where it was introduced. Two important measures have been added as a result of amendments that Ministers in the other place resisted. In particular, the Bill now requires parental consultation before the closure of small, rural primary schools. As a result of the Government's defeat in the other place, parental consultation will be required before the closure of special schools. Given the Government's rhetoric about parent power, we hope that the Secretary of State will accept those amendments—even though her colleagues in the other place resisted them—and that the provisions will be included in the Bill that finally completes its passage through the House.
I welcomed the fact that the Secretary of State talked about her wish for greater freedom for schools. The Bill will result in a little extra freedom for schools at the margin. However, that must be set in context by the fact that the Government's first action on coming into office in 1997 was to remove grant-maintained status from all schools without any consultation with parents, many tens of thousands of whom had voted in parental ballots throughout the land so that their schools could become grant maintained. Even after the Bill is enacted, supposedly freer foundation schools will lack many of the basic freedoms enjoyed by schools with grant-maintained status, which we propose to give to all schools without exception, or the wider school freedoms that we would like to introduce.
The so-called self-governing schools that the Government propose will not have the absolute freedom to decide whether they wish to expand. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say that she does not want to stand in the way of those schools, but she does not propose to give them the power to take such decisions. They will have no power over admissions and there will be no change to the local authority controls over their funding mechanisms. They will have no control over exclusions, or their own right to set up a sixth form. Even city academies will have less freedom under this Government than they will under a future Conservative Government.
We welcome the Government's proposals to change the structure of local education authorities. Such change is a step in the right direction, but as usual it is half-hearted and belated.
It was interesting that the Secretary of State did not mention in her speech one of the measures that the leader of the Labour party general election campaign apparently wanted to put at the heart of the Bill: the new power for local education authorities to invite new providers to come along to have a look at whether they want to set up a new school. I wonder why. I suspect that it was partly because she felt that her own Back Benchers—those few who turned up—would not be strongly in favour of the proposal, and partly because she knows that it will make no real difference to any significant number of schools. As long as it remains for local education authorities to determine whether they want a new non-state provider in their area, non-state provision will remain a theory, not a practice. There is certainly no proposal to introduce a statutory right to supply for new providers of education, which the Conservatives propose to introduce straight after the general election.
The Secretary of State briefly mentioned the national literacy strategy. The Bill might not be the legislative vehicle in which to address such matters, but the Conservatives are wholly convinced—not least because of the splendid efforts made by my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb—that a national literacy strategy that does not have phonics at its heart is a strategy that will not succeed in the way that today's children and future generations have every right to expect.
Sadly, the Bill constitutes a series of missed opportunities. Even though it is an education Bill, it contains no provision for teacher protection, including a statutory right of anonymity when facing an allegation of abuse. It contains no provision to give head teachers the final say on exclusions, or to give the Secretary of State an unambiguous power to impose a moratorium on special school closures or for parents to be involved in that process. It does not create a school expansion fund and thus makes no progress toward a genuine right to choose.
The Government still believe that a public sector monopoly, driven from the top, is the best and only way of providing education—even though that flies in the face of the experience in every other field of human endeavour and the example of a number of other European countries. The Secretary of State, like her predecessors, believes that she knows better than head teachers how to run their schools, how to impose discipline and how to control budgets. Perhaps that is why she got such a rough ride from the Secondary Heads Association.
Much is being done well in Britain's schools, but a great deal could be done a lot better. Tinkering at the edges will not work, still less tinkering by a Government who have clearly run out of ideas and are running out of time. It is time for action on school discipline, parental choice and professional freedom, and the Conservatives will provide it.