Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 7:33 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee 7:33 pm, 11th January 2010

When I first examined the Bill, it made me consider how best to assess a measure on Second Reading. I have the advantage of chairing the Children, Schools and Families Committee, and therefore the further advantage of considering, in the past two years, the three main pillars on which educational reform was founded 20 years ago. My remarks today are in that context.

We have considered testing and assessment and the national curriculum and, last week, we published our report on school accountability. The Bill is about all those matters. The measure is a bit of curate's egg. All Governments should learn that legislation is best when it has been tested and piloted or, if not, given to people who genuinely know about the subject so that they can conduct an independent inquiry. Even better, if there is time, is a pre-legislative inquiry by the Select Committee. We have not conducted such an inquiry on the Bill.

Let me comment quickly on some long overdue aspects, beginning with the special educational needs provisions. The Lamb inquiry was set up by the then Education and Skills Committee, predecessor of our current Committee. It made strong recommendations on special educational needs and was a fine report-I think that one member of that Committee is still in the Chamber this evening. We made strong recommendations for giving special educational needs students a proper chance so that they are not faced with a patchwork of provision throughout the country, with provision depending on where they happen to live. Some students and families were getting the right support while others got poor support.

I note that the Bill does not contain something to which we always thought we would go back-one never has time to revert to all the things that one discovers when conducting an inquiry. It is the dreadful lack of capacity, support and opportunity for special educational needs students when they get to 16. That is crucial. The ages of 16 to 18 are extremely difficult for special needs students, even when they have had a good deal, good support, been statemented and got everything that they should have. The ages of 16 to 18 are difficult, as are the ages beyond. Perhaps the Select Committee will have time to revert to that.

I was more hesitant about the reform of the primary curriculum and about including Sir Jim Rose's proposals and recommendations in legislation. Our report on the national curriculum showed that we need a much more coherent approach. People ought to know where they are travelling, starting at the earliest stage, when a child is born, and continuing right through to the ages of 18 and 19. There should be a coherent national curriculum that joins up. At the moment, we have bits of curriculum and great disjunctions in it. The most famous happens at the age of 11, but they happen even at seven, and then at 16 and 18. A person setting out on the journey of life and education is not, even with best endeavours, offered a curriculum that makes sense to both the child and the parent.

Jim Rose conducted an inquiry on the primary national curriculum, and there was also the Cambridge inquiry, which the Government did not like as much, but neither inquiry was right. The results did not mesh with what comes afterwards or with the important foundation stage, which the Select Committee supports wholeheartedly. Bits of the curriculum for specific years are taken, an inquiry is conducted and proposals are made, without seeing those bits as part of one offering.

Most of us agree that putting personal, social, health and economic education on the timetable is a good idea. I am not sure whether it should be in the national curriculum; when we examined the national curriculum, we said it was overfull. We pointed out that academies had much more choice and flexibility and could choose their priorities after the basic subjects had been included in the national curriculum. We asked why, if that approach was good enough for them, it was not good enough for the rest of the schools.

The national curriculum is too full. Although I like the idea of everyone having decent PSHE education, simply placing it in a compulsory curriculum, which is already full, without changing it and granting more flexibility, is worrying. Ken Boston once told me that the trouble with PSHE and things like it is that they are given to the gym teacher with the gammy knee to teach. We need high-quality people who are trained to do PSHE well if it is going to be taught to its full extent.

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