Schedule 16 — Repeals and revocations

Part of Sale of Mobile Homes (Interviews) – in the House of Commons at 9:33 pm on 5th May 2009.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 9:33 pm, 5th May 2009

That measure was introduced in the Budget as a result of yet another fiasco in the administration of funding by the Learning and Skills Council—fiascos including EMAs, capital funding and now sixth-form funding. The LSC is accountable to Ministers, so it is a little rich for this Minister to ask us whether we support his emergency measure to tackle his crisis caused by his lack of oversight. I shall leave the matter there.

I hope Ministers will keep a close watch to ensure that moving chairs and desks in an office block in Coventry does not become the focus of the Learning and Skills Council, the YPLA and the Skills Funding Agency.

We support the measures in the Bill that put Sure Start centres on to a statutory footing. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for the scrutiny that she gave the provisions in part 9 of the Bill, particularly as she did so late into the night on the final Thursday of the Committee, which also happened to be her birthday. She has been, and remains, a firm advocate of Sure Start, but she wants to ensure, as we all do, that its services reach the most disadvantaged and hard-to-reach families in our society—something that the National Audit Office tells us that Sure Start all too often fails to do.

We support measures in the Bill that give independence to the exam regulator, Ofqual. Those measures were originally suggested by my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron when he was the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills. A raft of evidence points to falling standards in the rigour and quality of examinations—not in the rigour or quality of the students or teachers, but in the exams. I have already quoted Professor Peter Williams, who said in The Observer in July 2007:

"Over 20 or 30 years I don't think there is any doubt whatsoever that absolute A-level standards have fallen...I think all university academics and a good proportion of sixth-form teachers would agree with my assertion."

However, one of Ofqual's first acts was to ask one of the three exam boards, AQA, to lower the grade boundaries in its new science GCSE to conform to the grade boundaries of the other two exam boards. I would have hoped that the approach would have been to instruct the other boards to raise theirs.

We welcome measures in the Bill to tackle poor standards in schools, particularly those that relate to behaviour. Ofsted reports that 43 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough, which is a staggeringly high proportion. We know from answers to parliamentary questions that 344 children are suspended from schools in England every day for violence against other pupils. We know that more than 4,000 children under the age of six were suspended from primary school last year. We know that in 2006-07, some 980 three and four-year-olds were suspended for physical assaults against other pupils and teachers. We know that the number of children suspended 10 times or more in a year has tripled over the past four years to nearly 900, and we also know that police have been called into schools 7,000 times to deal with violence. Some of those cases relate to incidents outside the school gates, and some to cases involving disruptive parents, but some cases dealt with incidents inside the school.

As we discovered in Committee, the Bill makes the involvement of the police in classroom management more likely. The new powers for teachers to search for weapons, drugs and alcohol require the search to be carried out by a teacher of the same sex as the pupil being searched, in the presence of another teacher of the same sex. That requirement for two teachers could be a problem for a very small primary school where there are no male teachers, or indeed in any primary school that has fewer than two male teachers. It could also be a problem in circumstances such as school trips, where there might be just one male teacher. The response that the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, made to those points early on Friday morning, on the final day of Committee proceedings, was as follows:

"our guidance on" school visits

"says that if a power to search is required, people should call the police."

I realise that we had been up all night, but it seems absurd for the Minister to suggest that when a teacher needs to search a pupil for stolen items, she should call the police. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said:

"As a parent of young children, I cannot imagine how horrified I would be if, having signed the consent forms and allowed my child to go off to the Lake district or wherever, I found that the police had been summoned" ——[ Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 26 March 2009; c. 841-43]

We are also concerned that the power to search is confined to weapons, knives, alcohol, drugs and stolen items. There is nothing in the provision about pornography, or indeed any item prohibited by the school rules, such as mobile phones and iPods. We need to give teachers and heads the powers that they need to enforce the rules of the school, whether they concern adherence to the school uniform rules, a ban on bringing mobile phones to school, or any other rule, such as those regarding completion of homework or standards of behaviour generally. [ Interruption. ] I may well come to that. There is nothing in the Bill to clarify the law so that the onus is not on teachers to prove that their actions in maintaining order are lawful and proportional. There is nothing in the Bill to protect teachers from false accusations.

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