Education Bill [Lords]

– in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 7th April 2005.

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As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards) 1:47 pm, 7th April 2005

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted to open this afternoon's Third Reading debate on this fourth Session Education Bill. I apologise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State cannot be with us today. On Second Reading, she set out that improving outcomes for children and learners should be at the heart of everything that our Department does, and that is also at the heart of this Bill. I am pleased that the Bill has met with widespread cross-party support and that it appears likely that it will make it on to the statute book in its entirety.

It was clear from the rate of progress in Committee that the Bill has created a lot of consensus. I thank those Members of this House and the other place who have contributed to the debates on the Bill and parliamentary counsel for the hard work that has gone into bringing the Bill to fruition. I also thank Mr. Forth for his excellent chairmanship of the Committee and extend my thanks to the other members of the Committee.

We can look back with pride on the impressive progress by learners, teachers and others working in education in every community. The Bill establishes the framework that we need to take education forward and to continue to improve standards and extend opportunities for every child.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Conservative, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

I am grateful to the Minister for generously giving way so soon. The Bill misses the point. The real problems with standards generally in education include the bizarre ways of teaching reading that have crept into our schools over the decades and the fact that 60 per cent. of lessons in our comprehensive schools, including core subjects, involve mixed-ability teaching. Politicians from all parties must start to address those kinds of issues if we are to tackle standards in our state schools in this country.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards)

The hon. Gentleman makes the reasonable point that legislation is only one of the ways in which we can raise standards. The role of legislation is important in providing the framework, and Parliament and Government clearly have an important role in providing the resources for schools, but what really makes the difference, as he rightly reminds us, is what actually happens in the classroom. He raised today, as he has on other occasions, the importance of setting. He has also raised the importance of high quality teaching in respect of English in general and reading in particular.

I am pleased to put on the record in the House what I have said elsewhere today—that we welcome today's report by the Select Committee on Education and Skills. Mr. Gibb has played an active role in that Committee, particularly in respect of that report, which sets out some challenges for our national literacy strategy. I take those challenges very seriously. If I am in this position in a month's time, I will be very pleased to take them forward, but I am sure that any Minister would try to do the same because they are so important.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

The Minister may have noticed that the national media has given a lot of publicity to the Clackmannanshire experiment. Is he aware that the lady who presents the television clip is my sister-in-law, Ann Doran? She is very enthusiastic about the technique, which is not just a one-off—it has been around for some time and merits investigation by the Department.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards)

I apologise to my hon. Friend because I was not aware that the lady is his sister-in-law. I have looked at some of the work that has been done in respect of Clackmannanshire. The commitment that I gave today is that in responding to the Select Committee report we shall do exactly what my hon. Friend suggests by fully investigating the lessons from Clackmannanshire, particularly to assess any differences between what is happening there and our own literacy strategy, and whether any appropriate revisions and improvements might be required as a consequence.

The Bill is the cornerstone of the new relationship with schools and furthers the ambitions that we set out last year in our five-year strategy for education. Through its provisions, we want to ensure that inspection is not a burden but a positive exercise in raising standards and identifying best practice; that there is greater emphasis on quality and accountability, both of schools to their parents and communities and of the chief inspector of schools to all those involved in education; that a skilled and valued professional work force are given the development and support that they need to achieve improved outcomes for all pupils; that schools should have stability and certainty about the resources available to them through three-year budgets that help them to plan strategically and give them the scope to make better and more flexible use of the record levels of investment in education; that schools are freed from unnecessary burdens, for example through the removal of the statutory annual parents' meeting and governors' annual report, alongside the streamlining of data collection on the school work force; that we promote a more mature relationship between schools, parents and communities; and for Wales, that the National Assembly can take forward its programme for high quality education and learning as set out in its 10-year strategy, "The Learning Country".

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

While I am very sympathetic to what my hon. Friend is trying to achieve, can he assure me that the increased autonomy of schools will not cut across the necessary co-ordination that we have highlighted in previous legislation such as the Children Act 2004, whereby local authorities, schools and other authorities all have to work together?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards)

I thank my right hon. Friend, who refers to an issue that was very much part of the debate in the other place and in Committee. We want to ensure that while we promote the autonomy of schools we also encourage them not only to work with each other but, as she rightly says, to work with other agencies that are concerned with the needs of children and young people. It is vital that we as a Department, local government, schools themselves and Ofsted—about which the Bill talks a great deal—ensure that there is coherence between the emphasis on autonomy and the emphasis on high standards, collaboration and real accountability.

The Bill builds on the improvements across our schools system since 1997. It sets the stage for a mature new relationship between the Government and schools whereby schools have the freedom to drive their own improvement, and looks forward to a new era in which we can realise our shared ambition to secure high quality learning and opportunity for all learners. I am very pleased to commend it to the House.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education) 1:54 pm, 7th April 2005

We did not oppose the Bill on Second Reading and we do not propose to do so today. In fact, it is difficult to oppose a Bill that re-enacts so much of the legislation on school inspections that the last Conservative Government introduced in the first place. We support the move to a lighter-touch inspection regime that the Minister outlined; he is right to reduce the burden of inspection visits on schools as well as to increase their frequency where required. Several head teachers to whom I have spoken have welcomed those changes, as well the move to a shorter notice period heralding the start of an inspection.

As I said, we will not oppose the Bill. I suspect, however, that the Liberal Democrats will do so, as they have expressed only recently their commitment to abolishing Ofsted and being soft on school standards—a retrograde step that would let down many of the parents who want to see standards raised.

We support the move to three-year budgeting, which gives welcome stability to schools. Many head teachers are looking forward to the consistency that it will provide. We also support measures to improve the training of school staff. The fact that more and more schools are using teaching assistants to provide support in classrooms means that the role of the Teacher Training Agency should be reviewed and widened to include that.

I commend the work that my noble Friends Lord Hanningfield and Baroness Morris did in the other place to strengthen protection for rural schools faced with the threat of closure and to enhance the consultation process surrounding the closure of special schools, too many of which have been closed, putting at risk, in the eyes of parents, the choice that they have for their children with special educational needs. Conservative Members are committed to introducing a moratorium on the closure of special schools after the general election to give parents of children with special educational needs a real choice when it comes to the education of their children.

There are gaps in the Bill. We would have liked more action to increase parental choice of schools, and more action to restore school discipline—an important issue for teachers, pupils and parents alike. There is nothing in the Bill to tackle the problems identified in today's highly critical Select Committee report on the teaching of reading. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb, who has consistently championed the use of phonics; indeed, he has raised it in the House twice this week. When the Government respond to the report it will be interesting to see how they embrace that. Having looked at the research from the Clackmannanshire study, I understand that phonics can make a huge contribution to the teaching of reading in our schools. It is not right to say that the national literacy strategy places as much emphasis on phonics as the Clackmannanshire approach, and we need to ensure that the strategy reflects best practice so that all children can benefit from methods such as synthetics phonics. We must tackle the fact that one in five children leaves primary school without being able to read to the required level of ability. That impairs and hinders their progress in secondary school and throughout the rest of their lives.

As I said, there are big gaps in the Bill. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who is now in her place, leaves a full in-tray, and there will be much for her successor to tackle on 6 May.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I apologise to the House for arriving a little late and missing the first couple of minutes of the debate. I am unfamiliar with the hectic pace of legislation at this stage of parliamentary proceedings, being more used to the sedentary pace that we normally have.

Having said that, speed has characterised the passage of the Bill. I was appointed to the Standing Committee expecting to take over after its first sitting, but when I arrived at the end to get my orders for the second day I found that the Bill had gone through in a single day. That reflects the fact that if legislation is sometimes revolutionary, this Bill certainly could not be so characterised—indeed, it is rather more evolutionary.

We shall decline the invitation of Mr. Hoban to vote against the Bill, on the ground that he explained: it creates a lighter-touch inspection regime for Ofsted. It would be illogical for a party that is genuinely concerned about bureaucratic burdens on schools and the potential intrusiveness of the inspection system to vote against a measure that makes it slightly less burdensome. We therefore do not intend to vote against the Bill.

I want to put down a marker about schools' organisation, with which the Bill deals. We do not know how it will work in practice but, at this time of year, when allocations to individual schools begin to arrive on parents' doormats, I am sure that all hon. Members receive letters expressing concerns. There is a fundamental problem with the rhetoric that all the parties have been using in recent years, whereby they promote the notion of parental choice while regimes to remove surplus places continue to exist. There is a fundamental inconsistency in those positions because choice requires the availability of a certain amount of capacity to satisfy it. In the Bill, the Government take on centrally more of the burden of determining some of those difficult issues. They will remain difficult, and the regulations and subsequent detail that are relevant to the problem that I outlined will be important in the forthcoming Parliament and to Ministers, from whichever party they come.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.