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Schools White Paper

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Skills – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 9th February 2006.

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Conservative, Reading East 10:30 am, 9th February 2006

What assessment she has made of the Education and Skills Committee report on the schools White Paper; and if she will make a statement.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I have read with great interest the Select Committee report on the White Paper. I was pleased that the report accepted the key building blocks of the White Paper and welcomed without reservation our proposed reforms in personalisation, discipline and behaviour, and improving the quality of teaching and leadership. The report also contained a number of detailed recommendations, to which I shall respond in due course.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Conservative, Reading East

Having started the process of making concessions to her Back-Bench rebels, will the right hon. Lady share with the House the Government's red lines in the education White Paper and the soon-to-be-published education Bill?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

Of course I can share those red lines. We want to raise standards and increase investment in our schools, and give schools the freedom and flexibility that they need to forge links with one another and external partners to do the best for every single child in every school throughout the country. Those have always been our red lines. They remain so, and I am completely committed to carrying them through to legislation.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

My right hon. Friend knows that I am not often described as a Back-Bench rebel. The Select Committee produced a majority report, and we were proud of its quality. We are quite pleased with much of my right hon. Friend's response, but will she assure the House that she is still willing to improve the Bill in the next few days before it is prepared and we receive a copy, I believe, next week? Will she assure the House that the full import of the Bill will ban all interviews, and schools will have to obey the admissions code?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the Select Committee report. I am sorry that Mr. Wilson and his colleagues decided to play politics with a constructive submission to the debate. I remind my hon. Friend—I have great respect for him and for his contribution to the debate—that we do not yet have a Bill. However, he is quite right—in future, schools must follow the admissions code, and they will not be allowed to interview. We will have a co-ordinated admissions system. I want excellence for every child in the country, but I also want a system that is fair and is seen to be fair. That is why I could clarify for my hon. Friend and his Committee the fact that the system will promote both excellence and equity.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

The Secretary of State clearly wants to improve the quality of education. Does she believe that the Select Committee report gave sufficient thought to the teaching in schools of technical and engineering education, which is critical to the future economy of this country, particularly manufacturing? I accept that the Secretary of State is genuine in what she is seeking to do, but does she believe that sufficient emphasis and attention has been given to technical and engineering teaching in our schools?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

Yes. I am delighted to remind the House that the education Bill will include provisions to introduce a new vocational curriculum in our schools, which, over time, will introduce 14 specialised diplomas, including one in engineering. By 2008, every child in the country will have the opportunity to study one of five specialised diplomas while we work to deliver all 14 in a system that will require schools to collaborate with one another to provide the best possible personalised education and vocational education for our pupils.

Photo of Jeff Ennis Jeff Ennis Labour, Barnsley East and Mexborough

My right hon. Friend will know that the Select Committee report recommended the introduction of a system of benchmarking for secondary school pupils receiving free school meals or for parents who receive the working families tax credit. That is a way not of introducing a quota system but of introducing an added-value measure that will improve the social mix in all secondary schools. Will she give serious consideration to incorporating that measure in the Bill when it is introduced in the House?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend is right. Neither he nor I want a system of quotas for schools. We want every school to take seriously their responsibility to widen access to ensure that every child, no matter what their family type or background, has the opportunity to apply for admission. There should not be any barriers outside the school that say, "Sorry, you're not welcome here." The role of the admissions forum, which was developed after the 2002 legislation, is very important, not just in co-ordinating admissions informally with schools and the local authority but in reporting cases in which schools breach the admissions code to the adjudicator.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I welcome the Secretary of State's letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee as a step in the right direction, but why, when she talks of giving schools more freedom, is she retaining so much control in Whitehall? Why cannot all schools be given more freedom on the curriculum, for example, and why must a local authority that wants to compete to build a new community school ask for her permission? Would not real reform see her powers cut, not increased?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has welcomed my clarifications to the Chairman of the Select Committee. I hope the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will now give a commitment to back the Bill. He is right. There is already significant freedom over the curriculum through the national curriculum. Schools have the ability to innovate and they can apply to the Secretary of State for the power to innovate further. In the Bill we will propose that all trust schools within a particular trust are able to take up the power to innovate, so they can experiment with different approaches in the curriculum if they can make a strong educational case for doing so. Within the 14 to 19 curriculum, working perhaps with local business foundations and businesses where they can secure increased investment, schools as groups of schools may decide to come together to offer a different curriculum to their students. That is the sort of case that we will consider on its merits.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Of the many interesting policies described in the White Paper, how many will require primary legislation?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

We have set out all the measures that will require primary legislation in the annexe to the White Paper, but in addition I have committed the Government to banning interviewing, so there will be more measures requiring legislation than were originally set out in the annexe. The list is comprehensive, although my hon. Friend is right to suggest that what we are doing is building on what is seen to be working. We are building on the governance model of voluntary aided schools. We are building on the relationship with external partners seen in the specialist school system. We are building on the relationship between schools that is seen in the academies programme as well, allowing them the freedom and flexibility to develop in a way that drives up standards across the board. We are also introducing safeguards in primary legislation to make sure that the system is fair.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Is not the central message of the Government's White Paper that the future of education is not a monopoly of conventional local authority schools, but much more diversity of provision, with local authorities increasingly acting as commissioners? That is why I hope the meeting that the Secretary of State has at Downing street today with potential backers of trusts is a success. It is also why I was pleasantly surprised to see from her briefing note to the parliamentary Labour party that the announcements that she made the other day

"do not dilute the essence of the reforms".

We hope that that is true, but the trouble is that every one of her so-called clarifications looks very much like a retreat. Does she not recognise that there is a clear majority across the House of Commons for real reform of public services? Instead of prevaricating and settling for second best, will the Secretary of State pledge today that there will be no more concessions?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I am glad the hon. Gentleman welcomes our commitment to diversity in the school system, which has driven up standards in every school across the country over the past eight years. He is right that local authorities will have a strategic role. The best local authorities already have a strategic role in education, and I want that delivered in every local authority across the country. He asks me whether we are diluting the reforms. We are not. We are making sure that excellence is accompanied by equity—that parents choose schools, rather than schools choosing parents. If the hon. Gentleman says that our commitment to no new selection in schools is watering down our proposals, all Labour Members and the wider public will see what he and his colleagues stand for.