Department for Education and Skills

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 16th October 2002.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:41 pm, 16th October 2002

I beg to move,

That this House
expresses its sympathy to the pupils, parents and teachers affected by the fiasco of grading this year's 'A' level exams;
condemns Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills for proceeding with the new system of 'A' levels in the face of expert advice;
regrets the confusion this has caused in university entrance both this year and next;
calls for the Qualification and Curriculum Authority to be made independent of Government;
further regrets the confusion caused by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills over her powers on exclusion appeal panels;
expresses its sympathy to the teachers at the Glyn Technology School in Ewell for the problems this has caused;
calls for the end of the current system of appeals panels and the introduction of the option of enforceable contracts between schools and parents;
notes that the problems for schools caused by the backlog at the Criminal Records Bureau are continuing;
regrets that there is no sign of a reduction in truancy numbers;
and further notes that the Government has failed to hit its targets on primary school attainment and that the Secretary of State has failed to repeat the pledge of her predecessor to resign if these targets were not reached.

It is right and proper that this House should, for the second day in a row, be dealing with the failures of the Department for Education and Skills, because those failures spread far beyond the A-level fiasco that we discussed yesterday. Wherever we look in our education system, from primary schools to universities, we find missed targets, demoralised teachers and angry students. Ministers' complacent performance over A-levels shows how far they are out of touch with the reality of the world of education. They should know that there is a rising tide of discontent among those who work hard to keep our schools, colleges and universities going. Heads and teachers are doing their best to help children. Ministers delude themselves that they can provide the solution. Mostly, Ministers are the problem. Non-stop intervention, meddling, pointless initiatives and meaningless targets have left teachers crying out to be allowed to get on with their job of teaching.

The underlying problem with this culture of non-stop intervention is that, too often, there is no substance behind it. The most telling phrase to describe the Secretary of State's approach is the description of her secondary school policy as being like a doughnut, in that

XIt has icing on the top and nothing in the centre."

It is a telling criticism, because it comes from her deputy, the Minister for School Standards, talking privately—or so he thought—to Sir William Stubbs. Hell hath no fury like a senior official sacked as a scapegoat. I look forward to hearing more of the views of the Minister for School Standards on his Secretary of State's policies.

Let us look in detail at some of the Secretary of State's recent interventions. There are five areas that need to be covered in this debate. Those involve the serious problems that have hit the Department since the House rose for the summer at the end of July, so this is just two and a half months' worth of disasters. There are many more, and I know that many colleagues on both sides of the House will want to add to the list during this short debate.

Let us start with the most extraordinary failure of the Secretary of State: the mess that she has helped to create at the Glyn technology school in Ewell, where an appeals panel has insisted that two boys excluded for issuing death threats to a teacher should be let back into the school. This is an extraordinary failure because she has managed to make a bad situation worse, even though almost no one disagrees with her. Of course the two boys should not be let back into the school. What they did to the teacher concerned was a disgrace, and I am not surprised that the head and the other staff feel as strongly as they do. But if ever there was a time for quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, it was last week at the Glyn technology school.

The parents have legal rights—because of the appeals panel system that we have just heard the Prime Minister defending—and they are insisting on exercising them. Instead of quietly helping the school and the local education authority, however, the Secretary of State saw the chance for some easy headlines about how tough she is. She must have known that she had no power to back up her tough talk. All that she succeeded in doing was to raise the temperature, so that there is still no solution.

Councillor Kay Hammond, who is now responsible for sorting out this mess, summed up the effect of the Secretary of State's intervention. [Hon. Members: XShe is a Tory."] Labour Members are complaining that Kay Hammond is a Tory, as if that makes a difference. It is a great shame that Government Members are playing politics when a councillor is trying to solve a difficult problem in a good local school that is threatened by a national crisis.

Kay Hammond wrote to the Secretary of State saying that her intervention

Xwas not helpful because we were trying as a matter of urgency to find a way forward in a very difficult situation."

She went on to say:

XUnfortunately, all the attention, exacerbated by" the Secretary of State

Xacting beyond her powers, has made Surrey's job almost impossible at present."

That is a damning indictment of the right hon. Lady, even though she has acted in a way that all of us would support. No one in the House thinks that those boys should be back in that school, but Surrey county council has been trying to act effectively, and not jump on a bandwagon, as the Secretary of State did.

In the spirit of inclusiveness that pervades the Conservative party these days, I offer the Secretary of State some suggestions of positive action that she could take to avoid this mess in the future. First, she should get rid of appeals panels. Even without the bad decisions that they reach, they are expensive, legalistic and take too long to come to a decision. I agree with the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers that these panels should go. Heads and governors should have the power over discipline in a school. If the heads and governors get an exclusion process seriously wrong, the local education authority should be the appeal point. [Interruption.]

Secondly, I offer the Government another of the policies that we unveiled last week. [Interruption.]