Mr. Deputy Speaker:
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 126, in page 74, line 25, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'policy.'.
No. 127, in page 74, line 25, leave out from 'school' to the end of line 26.
No. 128, in page 74, line 28, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'policy.'.
No. 129, in page 74, line 28, leave out 'specifying' and insert
'designed to promote partnership between home and school, including'.
No. 130, in page 74, leave out lines 40 to 45.
No. 131, in page 75, leave out lines 1 to 22.
No. 132, in page 75, line 23, leave out 'agreement or parental declaration' and insert 'policy.'
No. 133, in page 75, line 24, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'policy'.
No. 134, in page 75, leave out lines 30 to 32.
No. 135, in clause 101, page 75, line 41, leave out
'agreement or (as the case may be) in a parental declaration'
and insert 'policy'.
No. 136, in page 76, leave out lines 2 to 13.
No. 137, in page 76, leave out lines 14 to 16.
No. 138, in page 76, line 17, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'policy'.
This group of amendments would remove from the Bill a requirement for every school to have a home-school agreement, and to replace it with a requirement for every school to have a home-school policy.
I make it absolutely clear that we are not opposed in principle to the notion of home-school agreements. However, we believe that, if there is to be a home-school agreement, it should be part of a school's home-school policy, and that it should be part of that policy only if the school decides that it is an appropriate contribution within that particular school in developing home-school relationships.
We are specifically concerned about the way in which the Government propose to operate their plans for home-school agreements. In Committee, the Minister for School Standards said:
The agreement will be signed between a parent's being offered a place and the child actually taking up that place."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 26 February 1998; c. 688.]
The agreement will therefore have to be signed by the parent before the child has even entered the school—which is rather like establishing a pre-nuptial agreement before the partners had even met.
We appreciate that, in the circumstances covered by the Government's proposals, not one parent will refuse to sign the agreement. If they refuse to sign it, they might fear that their refusal will somehow jeopardise their child's education at a school. Although we realise that the Minister—we are grateful for it—has made it very clear that failure to sign will not jeopardise a child's entitlement to a place, it is nevertheless equally clear that all parents will sign the agreement for fear of jeopardising their child's education.
The concept of a completely non-binding partnership agreement was examined as long as 20 years ago, by the Taylor committee, a majority of whose members concluded that the idea of an unenforceable contract was a bad one. They thought that it was the suggestion by a few of a quick and easy way of enlisting home support, but acknowledged that it would not be a particularly satisfactory way of doing so. We certainly believe that the imposition of such agreements will not improve the relationships between home and school—and, indeed, could even confuse the existing relationships.
In a letter that he wrote on 19 February, the chairman of the Education Forum, Mr. Maurice Plaskow, eloquently summarised the crux of the problem:
The key issue is whether every school should be required to have agreements, or can choose whether or not to have them, as part of a flexible approach to developing home-school partnerships.
We want that flexible approach to which he refers.
Many groups have expressed considerable concern about the Government's proposals and the detrimental effect that, like us, they believe they might have. Those groups include the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, the Advisory Centre for Education, the National Governors Council, the Secondary Heads Association—the list goes on.
Many contributed to a letter that appeared in The Independent on 7 March this year. I think that a brief extract would be of interest to the House:
We believe that this requirement could lead to division rather than partnership between parent and school and, further, that it will impose an extra administrative burden on schools.
The Advisory Centre for Education said:
Disciplinarian home school contracts look like an attractive quick fix. They locate the problem in a particular, discrete area (parents), divert our attention from politically embarrassing questions (the organisation and funding of education), placate powerful interest groups (teacher unions) and fit in neatly with current concerns about social standards".
In other words, they regard the proposed approach as the quick fix rather than what we and they believe is necessary, which is the development of a home-school policy in which there is equal partnership.
If there is to be a contract that all parents are required to sign before the child has even entered the school, it is clear that the parents are not on a par with the school itself. An effective home-school policy involves equality for the partners. There must be an opportunity for both partners—the school and the home—to share ownership of whatever the agreement might be.
The whole point of what I am suggesting is that the school would develop a policy, and that the policy itself would be drawn up by the home and school in partnership. The hon. Gentleman is right; it would nevertheless be a voluntary policy, in the same way that the Government's own policy for a partnership agreement cannot have sanctions attached to it, as the Minister has made clear.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that there is little value in having a document which parents are required to sign in advance of their child entering the school but to which no sanctions can be attached. I am sure that he would prefer a system in which the school and parents work together to develop a policy that may include a partnership agreement of the type that the Minister has described.
I am aware that the House is keen to make progress, but I hope that I have, with those few brief words, explained clearly why the Government's policy is not going to be successful in developing the type of home-school partnership that we all want—a partnership in which, for the first time, we perhaps consider not only the rights of parents and the responsibilities of schools but the responsibilities of parents and the rights of schools. That notion needs to be enshrined in a home-school policy, but one for which the home and school have equal responsibility and of which they have equal ownership.
The problem that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has clearly encountered is one that we encountered in Committee. It typifies the experiences of those who served on the Committee. By failing to present detailed proposals, the Government have deprived both the Committee and the House of an opportunity to deal with the specifics of what they have in mind.
Amendment No. 125 suggests that the policy should be reviewed from time to time, and I do not think that anyone would disagree with that proposal. Most home-school agreements would be subject to review, and that would be a good thing. When presenting his idea, however, the hon. Member for Bath seemed unclear about the exact difference between an agreement and a policy, if both were to be voluntary.
The Minister told the Committee that home-school agreements would be subject to consultation. He said that the contracts would contain the sort of provisions that one would expect to see—for example, provisions relating to standards of education, the ethos of the school, regular and punctual attendance, discipline, homework and information that schools and parents exchange. We agree with all that in principle, but the hon. Member for Bath is now saying that what is in the Bill will be insufficient, and will not represent a true partnership between parents and schools.
In Committee, we discussed exclusions. It was suggested then that the conditions on which a child who had been excluded from a school was readmitted might—I emphasise the word "might"; again, the Government were not specific—be written into the agreements. In that event, when parents sent their children to a school, they would know in advance—because of what had been published in the home-school agreement—the conditions on which children who had been excluded might be taken back. In Committee, however, we never really clarified exactly what the Government had in mind, and whether they were happy for such agreements to encompass the conditions on which exclusions would be dealt with.
As the hon. Member for Bath said, partnership is needed. Schools and teachers, including head teachers, do not always receive the support they should be able to expect. Equally, parents often complain that schools do not share information with them, and that they are not always made aware of school rules or standards relating to, for instance, when homework is expected to be delivered. They do not always know what their role is.
I think hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that partnership is needed between parents and schools, but it is not always possible to legislate for that, because parents do not always agree with actions that teachers consider appropriate. In the middle of all that—between the school and the parents with whom it would have a contract—are the children themselves. They clearly need to be made aware of an agreement to which they would be party.
The way in which the agreements would be communicated is still rather unclear, because the House has not been told exactly what is behind the Government's thinking. We find it peculiar that they cannot give us the details, thus saving—perhaps—some time on amendments such as this. After all, they have been able to come up with the costing for the contracts. According to the Government's own figures, the administrative cost of home-school contracts is likely to amount to £1.6 million in 1998–99, and to an additional £0.5 million a year thereafter.
It therefore seems strange that, in an important part of the Bill on which there could be quite a bit of cross-party consensus, the Government have been able to provide costings but still cannot provide detailed information on the content of a contract, and more particularly, on exactly how much autonomy a school and a group of parents will have in drawing it up.
The hon. Member for Bath has made it clear that he believes that there should be dialogue and a contract drawn up before children attend a school. I would not disagree with that principle. He will know—although he did not touch on it—that clause 101 says that the Secretary of State will have the power by order to instruct that
any form of words—
Although the Government say that they have a broad idea of what would be appropriate in a home-school contract, and although the hon. Gentleman believes that there should be much more of a partnership between the school and the parent, at the end of the day, as one would expect in the Bill, the Secretary of State will have the power to determine the wording of the agreements.
is not used in a home-school agreement".
Although we have had to deal with this part of the Bill without the benefit of the full detail that one would have expected the Government to provide, it seems clear that there will not be freedom for negotiation between parents and a school, as I assume the hon. Member for Bath wants, because the Secretary of State may intervene to override the precise wording of individual home-school agreements. That causes concern.
Why do the Government believe that that is necessary? Why do they believe that schools and parents cannot agree? Such contracts will vary from school to school.
How can the Government stipulate that the Secretary of State should intervene in the school contract in such detail, while being unable to provide us with all the things we discussed in Committee, which I will not rehearse but which are clearly behind the thinking of the hon. Member for Bath in tabling the amendments?
The relationship between home and school is obviously central to clauses 100 and 101. It is recognised across the Chamber that that relationship is fundamental to educational progress and success. It has been so recognised by educationists for many years—perhaps always. Equally important are the expectations that the school has of parents and their role, and then the parents have of the school. That those expectations are set, confirmed, codified and communicated is critical if parents are to know how the school expects the child to be prepared for and supported in their learning, and parents are to know what they can reasonably expect the school to deliver to their child.
The home-school agreement must be sensitive to the needs not only of the school but of a particular child. In that respect, I completely disagree with the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). He talks about a policy being better than an agreement. A policy is a planned, coherent approach; a way of doing things; a set of ideas; whereas an agreement implies some sorted of binding relationship between parties or partners.
On the one hand the hon. Member for Bath says that he wants partnership, but on the other he says that he prefers policies to agreements. Surely agreements imply partnerships in a way that policies do not. Most schools already have policies for the relationship between home and school. It would be a very poor school that did not include that relationship in its strategic planning document. Such policies do not equal specific agreements that confirm the expectations of the school and the parents on what each of those partners will deliver.
The hon. Member for Bath should rethink whether an agreement is better than a policy. The Government must be clear about who will be responsible for putting the agreement together. It is obvious, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) has said, that the agreement will benefit enormously from the flexibility—
The hon. Gentleman passionately believes that an agreement is better than a policy. Does he accept that the word "agreement" means that both sides have jointly accepted it? If so, does he accept that an agreement that is imposed by one side on the other, as the Government are proposing, is not the same as the agreements that he is talking about?
Yes, I am happy to concede that point. The word "agreement" implies some discussion and an appropriate exchange of views about the contents of the document. It should also be reviewed in the light of the child's progress through the school. It would be nonsense for that not to be the case.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for explaining that his understanding of an agreement is of something that has been discussed and agreed by both sides. What sanctions does he believe should fall on anyone who is not prepared to sign such an agreement? The Minister has made it clear that no sanctions would be attached to the agreements that the Government are considering. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there should be sanctions for those who are not prepared to sign agreements?
The difficulty with sanctions is that turning a voluntary agreement that has been negotiated in the flexible and pragmatic way that I have described into a legally binding contract creates the potential for litigation, which might well be founded on irrational grounds. A parent who was not acting rationally or even in the best interests of their child, but fulfilling a grudge against the school, would be able to use the full panoply of the law to pursue that irrational course of action.
Let me also put the other side of that coin. Sometimes, a school will not be able to fulfil its side of the agreement, for reasons entirely beyond its control. If the local education authority came under Labour control and cut services and resources—as has happened with Labour authorities throughout history—the school would be in the invidious position, through no fault of its own, of not being able to deliver the range of services that it had promised that parents could reasonably expect. The potential for litigation thus dissuades me from advocating a legal document of the type that the hon. Member for Bath describes.
I am intrigued by how my hon. Friend envisages the flexible system working. Suppose that I were induced to negotiate such an agreement on behalf of our Albert for his education. Does my hon. Friend envisage that I would negotiate with the head teacher a specific agreement on the circumstances for my son? If not, what is the value of it?
Moreover, what happens if the school does not fulfil the agreement? I might not be being unreasonable; I could be being entirely reasonable. Would that not necessarily open up the issue to the law?
New Forest, West. I think that that is the place where the ponies are not.
My hon. Friend talked about the difference between an agreement and something with the sanction of the law, and the obligations which that implies. My hon. Friend is here tonight by agreement; the Whips would not sue him if he were not here. Yesterday he agreed to buy me a meal at the Savoy, but I shall not sue him if he fails to do so.
The lack of legal ability to enforce those agreements does not negate them. They depend on his will to be here, my will to accept his hospitality, and the Whips' generosity, which in my hon. Friend's case is endless.
My hon. Friend, whom I thank for his characteristic courtesy in giving way to me, will agree that a body of men and women of sounder common sense than is to be found in South Holland and The Deepings would be unimaginable. Will he therefore tell the House whether the good burghers of that constituency are manning the barricades in support of legally binding home-school agreements?
First, because of its European connotations, "burghers" is not a word that I would want to apply to the inhabitants of my noble constituency—which, as I have said before, is full of decent fen people who are close to God.
There seems to me to be a reasonable demand by parents for clarity about what they can expect from their local schools. Given that the law obliges them to send their children to school, and obliges the children to attend school for the most important years of their lives, in terms of their development, it does not seem unreasonable for parents to demand that expectations be codified and communicated in a reasonably coherent and consistent way.
That is what we aim to achieve with home-school agreements, but there is a lack of clarity in the Government's position. They seem to have alighted on a good idea but not to have had the necessary foresight, or perhaps the time and energy to develop it. I often look at those on the Government Benches and see a swathe of the half-hearted and the half-witted. I do not know which of those characteristics is to blame in this case, but the Government do not seem to have had the clarity of thought to see the basic good idea through to its conclusions.
Perhaps the worst example of lack of clarity in that respect is the failure to give schools and parents the power to come to local agreements sensitive to local needs. It is nonsense to assume that one home-school agreement can apply equally in the nirvana of South Holland and The Deepings, and in Buckingham.
The idea that there will not be local needs and local differences, of the sort that should lie at the very heart of the agreements, school by school and area by area, is nonsense. It provides yet another example of the Bill's giving ever-increasing powers to the Secretary of State when we should be enabling—"empowering", to use the trendy term—local people to come to flexible agreements for the benefit of schools and children.
I fear that I will not be as entertaining as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) at 1.38 am, but I will address some of the issues.
The tone of this debate is developing in a better fashion than that of the debate in Committee, which was somewhat sterile. Many of the Labour members of the Committee took the view that the only way in which we could have a good working relationship between parents and a school was if the school was required by the imposition of statutory legislation to produce a home-school agreement and a parental declaration of the parent's rights and responsibilities. As a result, we did not have an open debate about the right way forward for schools and parents.
It is important to place it on record that none of my right hon. and hon. Friends doubts the importance of the relationship between the school and the parents of the children in that school—or the relationship between the school and those bringing up the children if they are not the parents of the children. Education is best, and the achievement of the children is likely to be greatest, where there is full support for those children, not only within the school but within the home environment. We would not deny the importance of that relationship or the importance of parents and schools working together in the best interests of the children and the school. We are looking for the best approach to develop the best kind of relationship between home and school and to develop the interests of the children concerned.
Members of the Committee received a number of representations on the points raised by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) in his amendments. For example, the Parent Teacher Associations of Wales wrote to Committee members, offering support for the concept of a home-school policy as opposed to home-school agreements. The associations said:
We strongly disagree with the requirement that schools need to be required by law to have home-school agreements, in conjunction with a 'parental declaration' to be signed by every parent.
The associations urged Committee members
to recognise that the development of policies on these and other matters needs to be a two-way process from the beginning. We all agree that home-school links are important, and that everyone has a role to play in stimulating them. There are many good examples of successful partnerships at school level, through which effective home-school polices have emerged. Let us help to build on the evidence of good practice, and not impose the illusion of partnership through this proposed legislation.
The term "illusion" is extremely important, because it captures what we see all too frequently in terms of the Government's proposals—they are interested in image, rather than in reality and substance.
Although the Bill gives the illusion that the Government are encouraging partnership between schools and parents, the reality is—given the law of unintended consequences—that the opposite will occur and that, because of a statutory requirement to develop home-school agreements, we will not see good practice developed. The process will become something that governing bodies feel that they have to do because they are required to do so by law. Some governing bodies may even treat the process somewhat cursorily—it may come to be seen either as a bureaucratic requirement that schools do not want, or as something that is created and then put to one side. That would not improve educational standards; it would be to the detriment of children and of the development of the relationship between schools and parents.
We also received representations from the Education Forum, which is convened by the National Consumer Council. It comprises representatives from a wide range of organisations, such as the Campaign for State Education, the Consumers Association, the National Association for Special Educational Needs, the National
Association for Primary Education and bodies from Wales and Scotland. On an issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings alluded, it said:
Even the word 'agreement' implies a legal commitment. Signed agreements would undermine the process that has been made in improving home/school partnerships in many schools … The key issue is whether every school should be required to have agreements, or can choose whether or not to have them, as part of a flexible approach to developing home-school partnerships.
That is the key to why the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bath is wrong. As some of the groups that made representations to us argued, although a home-school policy—as opposed to a home-school agreement—could be beneficial, the hon. Gentleman's proposal would impose on schools a statutory requirement to develop such a policy.
We should develop and encourage best practice in schools, but we should allow them to develop approaches that are right for their local circumstances. Some schools might think it appropriate to develop an agreement to which parents would be asked to sign up, although such an agreement would be entirely inappropriate for other schools, as parents might not feel able to abide by the agreement.
I have been listening to the hon. Lady carefully, as until a moment ago she was mirroring—although at somewhat greater length—what I said on the issue. Does she believe that a school would not accept the need for some arrangement for liaison between home and school? If so, does she agree that that means that every school would accept the need for a policy of some sort?
I am really concerned when the hon. Gentleman suggests that I go on at greater length than he does. I believe that the majority of schools want not an agreement, but some arrangement—I use his word—that defines their relationship with parents. However, I question whether making the development of such arrangements a statutory requirement will be to the benefit of schools and parents.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) seems to be in a state of some confusion? If he is so convinced that all schools will be persuaded of the desirability of agreements with parents, why is he so preoccupied with the need to make them a legal requirement?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. If schools develop such arrangements in their own right, why do we need to make that a statutory requirement? As I said, the very fact that there was a statutory requirement would be detrimental to the development of arrangements that suited the local circumstances.
The Education Forum said that it was
concerned about the implications of the term 'parental responsibilities'".
As the Bill sets out the responsibilities of both the school and the parents, the forum said:
There is a danger that agreements could detail parental responsibilities in a way that some parents cannot reasonably be expected to meet e.g. because of home circumstances, their income, their own learning difficulties, or because they do not speak English adequately.
In those circumstances, it is imperative for a school to have flexibility and not to have a single agreement that every parent must sign or be stigmatised. The school should be able to determine how it should develop the relationship between school and home.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings spoke about the legal implications. Notwithstanding the clause that says that the agreements would not be legally binding, I remain concerned that parents might assume that an agreement and a parental declaration signed by them and by the school's representative was a guarantee of a particular level of education.
Following the Labour Government's local authority settlement, many schools have had to cut such courses as music tuition. They may be unable to deliver the level of education specified in the agreement, and that may result in parental recourse to litigation, which would sour relations between parents and the school. The proposals do nothing to encourage the partnership between school and home that is so important in encouraging and enabling children to get the best out of their education.
I fear that the clause, even with the amendments, will not encourage best practice or good relationships; indeed, it will sour the relationship between parents and schools. On that basis, I remain unconvinced by the Government's proposals.
I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) as, unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Committee sitting at which the clause was originally discussed.
Many of the regulations, conditions and proposals surrounding the Bill were presented to the Committee either at the last moment or, even worse, after clauses had been considered. So it is with this very clause. A Department for Education and Employment press release of 18 March, entitled "Morris launches plans to improve management of pupil behaviour", was issued after we had discussed the clause.
How do the clause and the amendment affect children who do not behave well—the difficult ones who, in extreme circumstances, have to be excluded from the school? We all support links between schools and parents and want to build on them, but we remain to be convinced that legislation is required to get good parents to co-operate with schools.
The weakness of the clause is that it will fail to apply to the very children who need it most, because they are often those who are not prepared to co-operate or to consider the home-school agreement closely.
I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is exactly what I am going to do. Amendment No. 130, tabled by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will exclude clause 100(3), which states:
The governing body shall take reasonable steps to secure that the parental declaration is signed by every qualifying parent.
Before we decide to exclude clause 100(3), Ministers should clarify whether it is part of the reasonable steps that a governing body should take for it to tell the parents of a pupil who is likely to be excluded, "We require you to sign this agreement, or we will go ahead and exclude your child from school." Should powers of exclusion, whether for a fixed term or on a permanent basis, be held over the heads of parents who are proving unco-operative in signing home-school agreements?
I raise that matter because, as Ministers will know, the Select Committee on Education and Employment has studied hard the problem of disaffected children, among whom we include those excluded from school. We are concerned at what measures schools may take to encourage parents to become more involved in their children's problems, and what is leading to their disaffection. Tonight, we require Ministers to clarify the interaction between home-school agreements in those cases.
That those questions have to be asked is a measure not only of the surreptitious way in which the Government's policy is evolving but of the confusion in the ministerial ranks. While they are about it, they should explain more fully their policy on exclusions. How far a school can exercise its right to exclude pupils interacts directly with its proposed home-school agreement.
When the Secretary of State came before a joint meeting of the Select Committees on Education and Employment and on Health, just over a month ago, he gave us some confusing signals as to whether he thought the powers contained in the Bill should be used to provide schools with more effective powers to exclude pupils, or whether, by making schools pay for the cost of exclusion—to paraphrase his words—he would in effect emasculate them and prevent them from using that important final sanction in the armoury of discipline that we give schools today.
If he is serious in what he told us at that hearing and he believes that schools should in certain circumstances have to bear the cost of a pupil being excluded, he will make it far harder for schools to tell the parents of such children before they reach the stage of excluding them that they want parents to sign up to a home-school agreement.
In effect, the Department's proposals would undermine the very policy of home-school agreements that it has championed. The confusion should come as no surprise.
Is that confusion not well illustrated by the fact that the Government's position, rather like that of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), is somewhat inconsistent? Originally, the Government talked about contracts that "define responsibilities". We have now moved to agreements, but the hon. Member for Bath is talking about policies.
I agree. This is another example of the Government's addiction to tokenism. When they wanted to show the world that Labour had changed and that they understood the importance of the relationship between parents and the schools that their children attend, they said, "Let us have home-school agreements"—a great banner headline for a day. When we get down to the detail and the complications of requiring parents to sign up to those agreements, it is an entirely different matter.
Once Labour Members were in government, the impracticalities were visited on them. The Department has explained to them that the ideas that they had in opposition are simply impractical, so we are burdened with confusing clauses, such as clause 100, which do not achieve anything.
I am confused about what we are discussing. We have tabled an amendment that makes a serious commitment to changing the Bill for what we believe is the better. Will the hon. Gentleman say what he would put in the Bill to make it better, or is he arguing that the whole thing should be scrapped?
I am not surprised at the hon. Gentleman's confusion. A little while ago, I spoke to his colleague the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who said that he was so tired that he could not remember what he had said in a previous debate. I well understand the problem. It is a disgrace that we should be discussing these important matters at such a late hour. The Government refuse to make available proper time in Parliament for us to debate this in normal hours. They say that it is their flagship policy, but they want it to slip through at 2 am.
It is common ground that the intention behind clause 100, amended or not, is that the expectations of parents and pupils, and the aims and objectives of schools, should be better understood. The question is whether it is to be achieved by the Bill's terms and, in particular, the word "agreement", or by the amendments' terms and, in particular, the word "policy". We have been debating whether an agreement can be legally binding. I refer hon. Members to clause 101(6), which states:
A home-school agreement shall not be capable of creating any obligation in respect of whose breach any liability arises in contract or in tort.
I concur, because as I understand it—I am not a lawyer—a contract must have parties, a specific performance and a consideration. [Interruption.]
I was trying to describe what I understand to be the legal difference between a contract and an agreement. A contract must have parties, specific performance and, in particular, a consideration. The word "agreement" in this context will not have a consideration, so it cannot be legally binding. I disagree with the amendments because I do not think that they are necessary. However, if they are unnecessary, perhaps the Minister can answer some questions on matters that remain unclear, whether clause 100 is amended or not.
Does the Minister envisage the provision applying to each individual pupil? Will there be different agreements for each pupil? Each pupil's need is different. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) made a point which may have been prompted by remarks that I made to him earlier, about whether home-school agreements will make any difference to the sort of pupil or parent who would not take any notice of such things. It is all very well getting people to sign an agreement, but if they have no intention of agreeing to its terms, it is completely useless.
We should have voluntary agreements. The Bill provides great detail of what the agreement should and should not contain, but it does not contain any sanctions with which to enforce the agreement. If there are no sanctions, what on earth is the use of prescribing precisely the contents of the agreement? It would be far better to make it voluntary in the first place.
I hope that the Minister will be able to clear up some of the issues that have been raised. In essence, home-school agreements are a thoroughly good idea. We all want the aims and objectives stated in clause 100(2)(a) to be clear. We all want the school's responsibility as stated in subsection (2)(b) to be clear. We all want the parental responsibilities stated in subsection (2)(c) to be clear. We all want the school's expectations of its pupils to be clear. The idea behind clause 100 is good.
May I ask my hon. Friend the same question that I asked of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes)? How does he envisage home-school agreements working? Will I as a parent negotiate an agreement specifically on behalf of my child with the head teacher, the form teacher or whomever? Or will it be negotiated between parents and the school collectively, in which case it will be not an agreement but a policy?
My hon. Friend touches the heart of what I am asking the Minister to deal with in her reply to the debate on this group of amendments. Will there be different home-school agreements for each pupil? If there are, it seems to me that they will be negotiated between the school and each pupil. If it is the intention that there will be just one identical home-school agreement for all the pupils in the school, of course there will be no negotiation between the parents or the pupil and the school.
My hon. Friend underestimates the paucity of the legislation. The debate is not just about one home-school agreement for the whole school but about the Secretary of State dictating the content and nature of agreements. Can my hon. Friend envisage the Secretary of State drawing up home-school agreements for every child in the country? Or will we have something bland and ineffective rather than something sensitive and particular to the needs of individual children?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It would be nonsense if the Secretary of State prescribed from the centre one model home-school agreement. He might as well not bother, because it would be so bland and ineffective that it would have no import whatever. I notice that the Secretary of State has taken powers in the Bill to enable him to do just that. That would be a dangerous precedent.
I am glad to see that the Secretary of State has woken up. I did not realise that he had quite gone to sleep.
It has been made clear in the debate on whether there should be agreements or a policy, that there is all the difference in the world between the conditions, requirements and needs of my hon. Friend's schools in South Holland and The Deepings and my constituents' schools in the Cotswolds. Indeed, there is all the difference between those pupils and pupils 10 miles away in the middle of Cheltenham or Gloucester.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, much as some of us would also like to debate Welsh issues tomorrow, could we deal with the issue before us, which is the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)? May I refer the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) to clause 100(2), which clearly states that it is for each school to draw up its own home-school agreement in writing? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, because Ofsted inspects each school and the relationships between the school and parents, it is essential that we have a policy on that?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the Secretary of State has those powers. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) fails to appreciate that my hon. Friend is pointing out the critical and implicit difference between a contract, a partnership and a policy, which lies at the heart of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). The Government started off with a contract, we are now talking about an agreement, and the hon. Member for Bath is talking about a policy. Each is different, and my hon. Friend is drawing attention to that in an appropriate and entirely apposite way.
I shall return to that important subject, but first I shall reply to the intervention of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who raised the question whether the power applies to individual schools. Having had a chance to find the relevant clause, I refer him to clause 101(2), which states:
If the Secretary of State by order so provides, the governing body of a school to which subsection (1) of that section applies shall ensure that any form of words … specified in the order, or … having such effect as is so specified
An order under subsection (2) may apply … to any school specified in the order, or … to any description of any school so specified.
Therefore, the Secretary of State can draw up home-school agreements for a specific school or for a wider section of schools if he or she so wishes.
The import of the amendments is to determine whether the clause establishes a binding agreement, a policy or merely an aspiration. That is the heart of the debate. To my mind, it should be a policy, and there should be nothing binding about the clause. If the agreement is binding, we shall start to see litigation, either of pupils or parents suing a school, or of a school suing a parent. That would be a dangerous and disadvantageous departure, which would negate the whole benefit of the clause.
I can see no reason why the school, having drawn up a prospectus as required, should not simply issue a statement of the school's aims and objectives and pupils' and parents' expectations. There could be one copy signed by the school, one by the parents and one by the pupil, so that everybody knows exactly what is expected of them. If the agreement is broken, under the clause, neither pupil, parent nor school can be sued—there are no sanctions. Why not have a simple statement of aims and objectives as I have described?
I shall speak—briefly, at this hour—to amendment No. 125. It is a rare privilege to be able to subscribe whole-heartedly to what I take to be the import of a Liberal amendment.
Amendment No. 125 takes us to the heart of the problem with clause 100 and specifically with the adoption of home-school agreements. As I understand it, the intention of amendment No. 125 is to allow that which is adopted to be reviewed from time to time.
Let us cast our minds back to the period from which the British education system, especially our schools, is still recoiling—the 1960s. Had the Bill been law then, many schools in many parts of the country would have adopted as their "aims and values", to quote clause 100(2)(a), aims and values that would have been abhorrent to the present Secretary of State and to Labour and Conservative Members. Many schools at that time would have adopted elements of social engineering as part of their aims and values. In those circumstances, it would have been necessary for an amendment resembling amendment No. 125 to clock in.
As educational ideas changed—and, if I may say so, improved—it would have been necessary for schools to refine gradually the statements of aims and values contained in their home-school agreements, on a fluid basis. Had that not been possible, there would have been a perpetuation of the worst features of the educational theorising of the 1960s.
Amendment No. 125 therefore clarifies for us a danger latent in the notion of the agreements. There is every evidence from the statements made by the Secretary of State and other Ministers that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) pointed out, the assumption underlying clause 100 is that schools, under the guidance of the present benign—as the Secretary of State no doubt believes—influence of the Department for Education and Employment, will always produce as their statements of aims and values, and indeed in every other respect, an educational elixir that will benefit all the pupils in all circumstances.
However, that assumption is not well founded. We must expect that, very often, those agreements, signed by ordinary mortals—in many cases, alas, as one gathers from a reading of the Ofsted reports, ordinary mortals not entirely able to conduct their schools in the best possible fashion—will incorporate principles repugnant to many, perhaps all, hon. Members. It is therefore of the essence that there should be a correction mechanism.
Amendment No. 125 provides at least the possibility of correction. Alas, it does not contain something that might have gone further: not merely an ability for the school to correct by reviewing its agreements if it sees fit, but a necessity for the school to review its agreements in certain circumstances. If anything, the amendment is too weak to achieve its purpose.
On that point, does my hon. Friend accept that the primary importance for the parent is not whether the school is able to reach agreement from time to time but whether the parent is able to do so? That is the key in respect of having an agreement. I find it exasperating, but I repeat: if that is not to be the case, it is not an agreement, merely a policy.
As usual, my hon. Friend hits a point of the greatest possible significance. These, of course, are not agreements, and for that reason the emperor's clothes have been removed by the reference to policy. For that reason, the Government will object to many of the amendments that we are currently discussing.
As my hon. Friend is not tired of pointing out in these discussions, this is not an agreement. An agreement would imply something mutual—something that is, to some degree at least, morally enforceable. What we have in the Bill is in practice a policy but, alas, without amendment No. 125, that policy is stuck in stone.
My right hon. Friend poses a problem that I am unable to solve, because clause 100(6) makes it clear that the agreements are not enforceable, although in a sense they might be morally enforceable. It must be the hope of the Secretary of State that, by signing the document, parents will somehow implicate themselves in the policy, and having implicated themselves will feel a moral obligation to fulfil their part of what he would describe as the bargain. The problem is that it is not a bargain, and parents have not had a choice in whether to implicate themselves. As a consequence, they cannot have morally implicated themselves and so cannot be said to have a moral obligation in any sense.
I leave aside that slight lacuna in what is actually a policy and revert to the main substance of my point.
My hon. Friend may not have had a chance, at such a late hour, to read the notes on clauses, but they help to clarify the fact that there is no legal power behind the clause. They draw a helpful parallel with section 13 of the Education Act 1997—which these clauses repeal—which would allow a home-school agreement to be used as part of a school's admission process. Therefore, a child could be refused admission if his parents refused to sign the agreement.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In fact, I did have a brief opportunity to look at the notes on clauses, but not in the detail that he was able to do during the Committee proceedings.
We should inspect in more detail the proposition that the agreement will stipulate a school's aims and values, bearing in mind that, without amendment No. 125, that would be locked in stone. It would be a useful thought experiment for the House to think ourselves into how this would have operated in the 1960s and ask ourselves how schools using a policy—misnamed an agreement—enshrining a set of aims and values repugnant to this House would have approached the question of admissions or, indeed, expulsions, to take the two ends of the possible life history of a more unfortunate pupil. Surely we all agree that enshrined here are not just wild and woolly policies, but policies that might affect the conduct of a school and its relationship with its pupils on a day-to-day basis.
I remind the House that there were individuals—Professor Ted Wragg springs to mind—who leaped to the fore in the 1960s with wide-ranging descriptions of aims and values that might have been appropriate for schools. Who knows, perhaps 20 years from now—heaven forfend—there may be the successors of Professor Wragg.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me for a second time. Surely his thesis presupposes that parents would have voluntarily entered into those agreements or, if my hon. Friend likes, policies—I prefer agreements. Surely he concedes that those misguided policies of the 1960s were not born of the will of the vast majority of ordinary hard-working, decent patriots, but of the liberal bourgeoisie who were the architects of the policies and imposed them upon the ordinary citizens of this country.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is moving rather far away from the amendments. I should be grateful if he would come back to them precisely.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not be tempted to stray into that territory.
If we imagine how it would be if the clause without amendment No. 125 came into force, and if some future successor of Professor Wragg incorporated into teacher training or the general jargon of the education establishment views similar to those that he held 10 or 15 years ago and which were at that time the orthodoxy, and if those were locked in—here I refer to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings that is directly germane—
The point is directly germane to amendment No. 125, because we are dealing not with agreements, but with policies. In the absence of amendment No. 125, those policies may be locked in stone with no possibility of being revised, even though they may be repugnant to the parents who were artificially made to sign up to them.
I cannot imagine that it was the Secretary of State's intention to provide for the policies to be locked in stone. I hope that he will tell us, or that the Minister will tell us when he sums up this section of the debate, that the intent of amendment No. 125 always lay in the Government's mind—that it was the intent not merely that a policy or agreement should be adopted, but that there should be constant revision, as thoughts about education develop over time.
That is the only rational interpretation of the intent. However, the Liberal Democrat amendment clearly reveals that there is no such provision in the Bill. That is a remarkable omission. It must be a drafting omission. If so, we shall discover that when the Minister, in his summing up, accepts the amendment. If I am mistaken in my interpretation, it must be the Government's intention—which seems bizarre, but it would have to be the interpretation that the House placed on it—to insist that the terms of the so-called agreements that are actually policies, which have the appearance of being voluntary but are not, are those that the Government intend for education for eternity, or until Parliament changes its mind and enacts an amendment.
My hon. Friend makes a good point in relation to amendment No. 125. With his extensive knowledge, he will recognise that ideas on education change radically, even over a period of five years, so unless the agreements were constantly updated, they would become otiose.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. These are fast-moving matters—perhaps too fast moving. Some stability is to be hoped for. One would hope that, having adopted certain aims and values, a school would pursue them for a reasonable period. Nobody, not even the Secretary of State, could hope that his present vision of what should be the aims and values of schools is the guide for all time. It would be a remarkable statement if the Minister rejected amendment No. 125.
I invite my hon. Friend to consider the import of all this in respect of the human rights of the parents, who might be affected by a refusal to review the policy.
Much as I would like to answer that acute point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not be tempted to stray, because of your earlier admonition.
It would be remarkable if the Government maintained that their current views of what should be in such an agreement constituted the inalienable truth—
I should say that amendment No. 125 was at least an effort to make a positive contribution to an essential debate. In moving it, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) expressed a point of view that he and his colleagues have long held. Although we differ on that point of view, we share the belief that we have to do more to help parents to support their children.
I cannot say that the same attitude was expressed in many of the comments of Conservative Members. The sadness of that is that—as much as they filibuster and make comments that are not conducive to serious debate—we are debating the serious issue of helping parents to support their children. For too long, we have not taken action to address that important issue.
Schools can do much for children. Good schools and good teachers are essential if children are to get a good education, but we know now—all the evidence shows us—that, if a child is really to do well, they will need support also from home.
The Government disagree with Conservative Members who have talked in somewhat disparaging terms about parents who may not know how to help their child, or who cannot cope with that need, who turn their backs on it and who may not want to help their child. We believe that it is so important that parents support and help their children at school that we must make every effort to ensure that they can do so.
Parents have rights—some of our debates today have been on those rights—but they also have responsibilities for their child's education. A home-school agreement is, first, about stating those rights and responsibilities so that parents know where they stand. I think that parents will welcome that knowledge.
Some of the parents to whom Conservative Members have so disparagingly referred do not know what they can do to help their child, but they want to help. They want their children to do well, just as middle-class parents want—and know how to help—their children to do well. They have aspirations and ambitions for their children and want their children to do better in school than they did themselves. Sometimes they do not know how to go about realising those ambitions. One of the advantages of a home-school agreement is that it will clearly state how parents can help their child to succeed. If they do not have an agreement, that opportunity will be lost.
Secondly, a home-school agreement is about expectations and about saying to parents, "You have rights. Society expects you to exercise those rights and to fulfil your responsibilities to your children who are in school." That is the key reason for making such agreements compulsory. For every parent, the agreement will state how they can support teachers in helping their child.
As a society and as communities, we are beginning to have high expectations of parents. For too long we have heard the type of moaning that we heard today from Conservative Members: that we cannot expect some parents to deliver the goods in supporting their children. In the interests of supporting their children, we can and we must have such expectations. The Bill's provision for home-school agreements is an attempt to establish in law the expectation that we rightly have of parents to fulfil their responsibilities to their children.
Some schools already have home-school agreements. The impact that those agreements have had on the children and communities involved shows that achieving those objectives is possible. Not only middle-class schools have home-school agreements; some schools in the toughest and most difficult areas have them. Those schools have begun to recreate a learning culture among parents in their communities. That must be our objective. It is sad that not all schools have chosen to attempt to recreate that culture.
We are clearly stating in the Bill that, in our efforts to value education and to acknowledge the essential partners in a child's learning, we will establish an expectation that parents have both rights and responsibilities. We will also explain how they can help to fulfil their responsibilities for their child.
It is quite clear in the Bill that we do not want to have to take criminal or other legal action or to disrupt a child's education because a parent will not sign an agreement. The agreements are about an expectation and about creating a situation in which parents know that they are doing something on behalf of their child.
There is much in the Bill that will serve to raise standards for every child. If we are serious about that, we must also tackle the role that parents can play. There is an honest difference of opinion between us, but the matter is so important that it cannot be left to chance. Our proposals are set out in clauses 100 and 101. As soon as the Bill is enacted, we intend to ensure that the education service sets out rights and responsibilities for all the essential educators, in the interests of the child. They are important clauses dealing with the responsibilities and rights of parents and teachers; they work in the interests of children and they will raise standards. I ask the House to reject the amendment.
As the Minister said, there is an honest difference of opinion between the Liberal Democrats and the Government on this issue, but it is an honest disagreement about how we achieve something that we both regard as vital. I entirely agree with her about the unhelpful contributions made by Conservative Members—
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. One of the reasons I will not give way is that during one of the hon. Gentleman's numerous interventions my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) asked what he would suggest, given that he was so critical of the Liberal Democrats' and the Government's proposals, but the hon. Gentleman had no answer.
I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) is not so naive that he was not able to intervene, I think, 14 times on other hon. Members.
Home-school arrangements are vital, whether they are called contracts, agreements or policies. The relationship between home and school is very important. Research into what raises standards in schools shows that the quality of the head teacher nearly always comes first, but high on the list is the relationship between home and school.
The Liberal Democrats believe that the most important aspect of the relationship between home and school is the building of that relationship rather than the product, or the simple piece of paper itself. The Government are concentrating predominantly on the piece of paper, which has to be signed so early that there will be no real opportunity for the signatories to it to have time to be involved in its development and to feel ownership of it. However, as the Minister said, that is an honest disagreement between us. As I hope that there will be opportunities to work constructively with the Government on developing their thinking, and perhaps ours, on the issue as the Bill continues its passage through Parliament, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to delay the House, but I wonder whether there has been a breach of privilege by The Independent. In what is now today's edition, the newspaper reports a debate on corporal punishment in independent schools, which has not yet taken place. It quotes extensively the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) who have not yet made their contributions. I pass the newspaper to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and would be grateful if, during the debate on the next group of amendments, you might consider whether it and the hon. Gentlemen have breached the privilege of this House.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to raise the question of a breach of privilege, the normal procedure is to write to Madam Speaker. I suggest that he do that.