Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 6:22 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 6:22 pm, 11th January 2010

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and add:

"this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Children, Schools and Families Bill because it adds hugely to the bureaucratic burdens on schools and colleges without improving real opportunities and educational standards for pupils and without genuinely empowering parents;
its proposals for the regulation of home education introduce powers which are excessive and risk undermining key freedoms for home educators;
it fails to put in place a coherent system for delivering school improvement;
its provisions on family proceedings have not been properly consulted on and do not take account of existing reforms;
and it does not include much needed policies to introduce a Pupil Premium to support the education of children from disadvantaged homes or to establish a new Educational Standards Authority to restore confidence in educational standards and to reduce the extent of destabilising political interference in English education."

It is a pleasure to follow Hilary Armstrong, and I agree strongly with several of her points about the release of sensitive information in the family court. I hope that we will have the opportunity to consider that issue in some detail in Committee. I appreciate that we are short of time today, and I shall do my best to limit my comments on the Bill, which covers many extremely important areas.

I should like to put on record the sadness of my party at the death of the former hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire, Mr. David Taylor. He was much respected across the House and he will be fondly remembered not only by Labour Members, but by Opposition Members, and our thoughts are with his family at this time.

Before I come to my substantive comments about the Bill, I have a request for Ministers. Will one of them, when they respond to the debate, clarify a point that got slightly mangled in the exchange between the Secretary of State and Mrs. Cryer regarding her question about reasonable punishment? She asked about individuals who attend madrassahs and other such quasi-educational settings and whether they should be covered by the existing restrictions on corporal punishment. I thought that the Secretary of State indicated that he was sympathetic to the hon. Lady's point, but that approach appears to contradict both the existing legal position and a letter that Baroness Morgan, a Minister in his Department, sent to a lobby group that is pressuring for a change in the law on this issue. The letter of 6 January to the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance said that some such educational and quasi-educational settings are currently exempt from the existing restrictions on physical punishment. Unless I got the wrong end of the stick, the Secretary of State showed sympathy for the hon. Lady's point, but his Department's position appears to be that the existing legislation will not be changed.

It is obvious from the Liberal Democrat's amendment that we have considerable concerns about the Bill, and that we hope that the House will do the country a service either by not allowing it through the House before the general election, or by making massive changes to the Bill. It is extraordinary that, on the day on which the Secretary of State has effectively had to boast in the Financial Times that we are going to have the poorest education funding settlement since 1997, the Bill proposes to spend about £1.1 billion, in net present value terms, on additional bureaucracy. That money will not be available to front-line education to go to schools and parents and to assist pupils.

This point relates to the additional money that will be spent on the bureaucracy surrounding home-school agreements and pupil and parent guarantees, which even the Government have been unable to cost in the cost-benefit analysis that comes with the Bill. It also relates to the parental surveys that Michael Gove mentioned earlier, and to the cost of school improvement partners and home education and the additional regulation that will arise in that respect. It seems extraordinary, given that educational finance will be so restrained in the coming years, that we will have to spend such a huge amount of money on additional bureaucracy that seems, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said earlier, likely to follow in the tradition of this Secretary of State who believes that he can improve the education system through central direction and legislation.

As the Liberal Democrats mentioned in the Queen's Speech debate, this is the 12th education Bill to come from the Labour Government. It was published only one week after we approved the last education Act, and, unbelievably, amends some of the measures in that Act. That shows the extraordinary tendency of the Labour Government and this Secretary of State to legislate and often to replace legislation before it has even bedded down.

We also have serious concerns about the amount of time that will be available to debate the Bill. When one picks up the Bill, it does not look to be of the size and scale of the last education Act that we debated, or of some of the larger Bills that we are used to dealing with in the House, but it deals with extraordinarily important and sensitive issues, and the debate that we will need to have on some of those issues will be considerable-yet we will be trying to do that in only two weeks. We need to consider the range of issues that we will be trying to resolve in those two weeks.

We will be trying to debate major new proposals on home education that are extremely controversial and difficult. As the right hon. Member for North-West Durham has said, we will be debating new and controversial plans to allow the release of sensitive information from the family courts. Those proposals are opposed by many outside bodies. We will be debating controversial and important proposals on a new licensing arrangement for teachers. We will also be discussing the introduction of a new school report card, of new arrangements for school improvement partners, of new pupil and parent guarantees and of new arrangements for home-school agreements. Other issues to be discussed include the whole future of the primary school curriculum, which the Bill deals with in one clause, the important issue of personal, social and health education, which has already stirred some debate in this place, and the powers of governing bodies.

Those are only some of the issues to be debated, and the Secretary of State and the usual channels have not allowed anything like enough time properly to scrutinise those issues. He cannot be surprised if the Liberal Democrats indicate that we do not want many of those proposals to go through in a half-baked or half-scrutinised way before the general election before which we know the Government are having to rush this Bill through.

Let me make some brief comments about the parts of the Bill that we support and those that we will be seeking to amend. There are two small but important areas that we support unreservedly. The first is the new status for, and access to, PSHE education, although we are not entirely convinced that the change goes far enough in some areas. Secondly, we support, as I believe the hon. Member for Surrey Heath did, the measures on special educational needs; we think that they are beneficialand helpful

We share some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed about bureaucracy in relation to the school report card and the licence to teach, although I do not think that we would put them in as critical a way as he did. We are more optimistic, or more open-minded, than him about the potential for those two matters to lead to improvements, if the measures that the Government introduce address them in the right way. The current mechanisms for school accountability are not particularly effective, and they do not give us a very good measure of the performance of many schools, particularly those that do not have the most challenging catchments and are therefore able to coast along in the league tables without their performance being looked at closely.

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