Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 9:40 pm, 11th January 2010

Well, here we are, Mr. Speaker, a new year and a new education Bill. It is now almost an annual event, with nearly as many education Bills as finance Bills. We have had the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the Education Act 2002, the Education Act 2005, the Education and Inspections Act 2006, the Education and Skills Act 2008, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 and now the Children, Schools and Families Bill in 2010.

It is not just the 50 clauses and four schedules of this Bill or the 270 clauses and 16 schedules of last year's Bill that are the problem; it is the scores of regulations that each of these Bills spawns and the dozens of sets of statutory guidance and programmes of study that local authorities, governors, head teachers and teachers all have to read, absorb and act upon that is the real burden.

It is becoming almost axiomatic that, legal skills are as necessary as pedagogical skills to succeed in education these days. Legal skills and knowledge will become even more important if the Government succeed in putting on to the statute book the pupil and parent guarantees in the opening clauses of this Bill, which is why the Association of School and College Leaders is right to warn that these guarantees will

"open the flood gates for increased litigation against schools".

As Mr. Laws pointed out, how is the local government ombudsman going to be able to enforce loosely defined guarantees about the quality of education?

If an education Bill every year were not evidence enough of a directionless and rudderless education policy, the escalation of ever-grander promises from curriculum entitlements to pupil guarantees should be a warning. After nearly 13 years of this Government and billions of pounds of extra taxpayers' money, we still have a situation in which 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds are leaving primary school struggling with the basics of reading, writing and maths, and half of all children qualifying for free school meals fail to achieve a single GCSE above grade D. It is all evidence that the Government have failed to tackle the problems that lie at the root of underachievement in too many schools, which will not be resolved by passing yet another law saying that bad schools should not be allowed or declaring that henceforth all pupils and parents will receive better guarantees.

I now know that my hon. Friend Robert Key was a teacher at the school that my father attended-Leeds grammar school-but not, I think, at the time of my late father. He is right to say that the pursuit of ideas lies at the heart of democratic politics and that it requires a broad, liberal and high-quality education system. The hon. Member for Yeovil is right to say that the proposed report card risks becoming a box-ticking exercise. As my hon. Friend Michael Gove pointed out, 84 per cent. of the schools in New York are graded A and 13 per cent. are graded B under a report-card system; in fact, only seven schools in New York were graded D or F last year.

The hon. Member for Yeovil is also right to question, as we do, the value of personalised home-school agreements-a point also well made by Caroline Flint, who rightly fears that the Government are mixing up the pastoral care of pupils, an ongoing matter for a pupil's personal tutor, with home-school agreements, which should be about the ethos of the whole school.

Just before Christmas, I visited a primary school in London. I sat in on a remedial reading lesson for an 11-year-old girl. The child was barely literate after seven years of primary education and despite three years of twice weekly, one-to-one tuition. She was being shown flashcards of simple words that she had rehearsed hundreds of times over the years. She managed to read the word "even", so I asked the teacher if the child could read the word with the first "e" covered up. The teacher covered up the "e" leaving the word "ven". The child could not read it. She did not know what the letter "v" sounded like, so she could not begin to sound out the word.

Why is it that that little girl, who was meant to be able to read the word "even", could not read the word "ven"? The answer is that she had not been properly taught the sounds of the alphabet and how to blend them. She had been drilled in the "whole word recognition" method, which simply does not work for the least able children and works only inefficiently for other children. That is not an isolated example. In last year's SATs, 9 per cent. of boys and 4 per cent. of girls failed to register a grade in the key stage 2 English tests. That means that they are starting secondary school completely illiterate.

How does the Bill propose to reform primary education? By creating six "areas of learning" and, in each "area of learning", a programme of study with 84 objectives running from E1 to E24, from M1 to M29, and from L1 to L31. The Government claim that that is a more flexible arrangement, but what could be more prescriptive and undermining of the professionalism of teachers than to be faced with 84 detailed objectives that they all know will have to be incorporated into their lesson plans on pain of criticism by Ofsted? For example, on a particular day a teacher will write on the board "Objective: to recognise how authors of moving-image and multi-modal texts use different combinations of words, images and sounds to create effect and make meaning". That is what happens. They will write the objectives on the board, and that will be one of them on one particular day if the Bill comes into effect.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency simply cannot help itself. This proliferation of objectives-this bureaucratic tick-box approach to education-bears the hallmarks of the QCDA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Government since they were formed, and it is one of the key reasons why we have not seen improvements in our education system despite the billions that have been spent.

As for home education, my hon. Friend Mr. Turner-who has vast experience in the field of education-expressed concern, shared by many Members, about the dangerous increase in state intrusion into people's homes. As he pointed out, clause 26 and schedule 1, if implemented, would stamp out the individuality that home educators cherish.

Sandra Gidley referred to the Government's timidity about letting people get on with their own lives. My hon. Friend Mr. Field, who has conducted an effective campaign on the matter, referred to the passion of home educators, and asked how the Government could proceed with the provisions given the overwhelming opposition to them. That is a question that Ministers need to answer.

In a powerful speech, my hon. Friend Mr. Stuart, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on home education, emphasised people's fundamental freedom to educate their children. That presumption and that freedom are undermined by the Bill.

Clause after clause of this Bill demonstrates Ministers' lack of understanding of the underlying causes of the problems in our education system. It proposes pupil and parent guarantees that will land head teachers and governors in the courts; home-school agreements that will become a bureaucratic nightmare for heads, with a bespoke contract for each child that will be reviewed and rewritten every year; a new curriculum for primary schools with hundreds of prescriptive objectives serving only to undermine teachers and kill the joy of education; and a new licence for teachers that is also designed to undermine their confidence.

I am not sure that our education system can stand yet another Bill that deluges schools with ever more prescription, and diverts schools from their core purpose of educating children. I am not sure that our schools or our teachers can continue with an education policy that is so lacking in focus, and so overtly political and ideological. I am not sure that our country can continue with an education policy that continues to fail so many children from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds. This Bill will do nothing to tackle the deep-seated problems that are the cause of underachievement in too many schools. It needs to be consigned to the waste paper bin, and I urge Members in all parts of the House to help us to do just that.

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