You must excuse me, Mr. Speaker, for suffering from such a bad winter cold that any compassionate teacher would seek to exclude me from their classroom for fear of infecting everybody else. I am therefore happy to have to keep my comments brief. I should start also by noting that I am, I suspect, the only Member of the House to have sat my GCSEs and received all my subsequent education under this Government-I may or may not be all the better for that, but there we are. I did that in a comprehensive school in rural Norfolk. I understand that I might therefore have shared a local authority with the Secretary of State in my early years.
I want to assert that I believe passionately in education as a means of encouraging aspiration and ambition. This debate has been wide ranging and measured, but I hope that, during the wind-ups, the Government will drop the rather sad refrain that we have heard before-not least during the Personal Care at Home Bill before Christmas-that to oppose a hyper-active, headlong and rather heavy-handed Bill is to advocate putting nothing in its place. That is not the position of many Conservative Members.
We want to focus instead on giving teachers the trust and freedom to do their jobs, rather than on producing and debating another education Bill from another Queen's Speech. Such legislation has been introduced nearly every year, but-notwithstanding my own education under this Labour Government-less than half of all pupils currently leaving school achieve five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, at the top levels. Will the Government accept that their policies have failed, and that teachers and head teachers must now be given the trust and the freedom that they need to complete their jobs? They must not be given a bundle of bureaucratic burdens, which is what the Bill could provide if it goes through in its current form.
I do not have an awful lot of time, but I want to discuss four aspects of the provisions, from parts 1 and 3-the home-school agreements, the school report cards, the charitable status of academies, and the primary curriculum. I shall discuss each of them at top speed.
I welcome the strengthening of the existing home-school agreements. The Government agree that the present HSAs involve a bureaucratic process with few real benefits. However, the Bill could undermine them, for two reasons. First, it seeks to personalise agreements rather than making them reflect common standards that are expected of all pupils at a school. That could undermine the idea of common standards, and it could also create a mammoth administrative task for schools.
Secondly, the Bill fails to give HSAs teeth by ignoring their usefulness as a potential tool as an admission condition. The Secretary of State has said:
"It would be wrong to make signing the Home School Agreement a condition of admission, as this could unfairly deny a child a school place."
That is wrong-headed, however. Agreements should set out common standards that are expected of all pupils, and should define the expectation that parents support their kids at school. What parent would refuse to sign a simple agreement on such terms? A failure to sign could be, and should be, a ground for head teachers to say, "I don't want such children in my school because it could hinder everyone's learning." It might also have to be a ground, further down the line, for other agencies to become involved with the child and the parents. The Bill should create an opportunity to have a civilised condition of admission in that regard.
On school report cards, the Bill will get it wrong if it seeks to introduce a single grade for schools. There is no such thing as a single card that meets the data needs of all the interested parties. I also understand from one school in my constituency that there is not yet a united view within the Government on how such data should even be calculated. We need to publish as much data as possible about a school, for two particularly good reasons that were given to me by a vice-principal in my constituency. The first is that that would pull attention away from the borderline data. The second is that it could help to attract and retain good staff by reflecting the breadth of what the school does.
On the automatic charitable status for academies, the vice-principal I just mentioned is vice-principal of Norfolk's first academy, the Open academy, which is in Norwich, North. Jumping out of the frying pan of any bureaucracy associated with a local authority into the fire connected with the Charity Commission would not be desirable, so the academy and I support this measure to simplify procedures for these new schools. May I take this opportunity to praise the Open academy for its impressive achievement in doubling its benchmark GCSE results last summer?
My fourth point is on the Rose review of the primary curriculum. In so far as these measures provide an opportunity to teach children basic learning skills, I welcome them, but they must, without doubt, be supplemented by knowledge. This must be a question of skills plus knowledge, and I believe that that is the view of many primary schools in my constituency, including the Heartsease primary school, of which I must declare that I am due to become a governor very shortly.
In three of the four areas that I have just mentioned, great opportunities have been missed. On home-school agreements, instead of empowering schools, the Bill will force head teachers to tailor toothless agreements with each parent. The measure on report cards could have provided parents with a great range of data that could help them to make choices for them and their child. But no, it seeks to condense information, turning sharpness into fuzziness. As to the Rose review, yes, children need skills for learning, but they also need knowledge. In all those cases, the measures are incredibly prescriptive towards children. The Bill fails to empower teaching professionals and, given the stream of legislation coming out of the Department, it risks stifling both head teachers and teachers.
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