Education Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 17 June 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 3:08, 17 June 2002

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the care that she has taken, between the end of the Committee stage and today, to consider many of the matters that were raised in Committee and for the copious letters that we have all received. We have all received copies of one another's letters, there have been offers of meetings, and, for some, there are concrete moves forward in the amendments on the Marshalled List. I thank the Minister warmly for all of that.

The nature of many of the amendments is to support the Government in what they say are their aims—encouraging innovation, giving earned autonomy as far as possible to schools that deserve it, allowing schools to operate more commercially at a local level and encouraging collaboration and co-operation between schools. My first amendment would allow all schools to innovate, with the aim of raising standards. Subject to consultation and only within the parameters set out by the Secretary of State, it would free the system from the bureaucracy caused by the fact that every application would have to go to the Secretary of State and be crawled over by people in the department and form a process of iteration involving the department and the school. We want to cut out all of that costly and time-consuming process in order to allow schools more freedom to innovate within the parameters set by the Government. The projects carried out by the schools under this heading must be recorded, evaluated and reported to parents.

The advantage of my amendments is to cut out all the bureaucracy and central control. Perhaps as an aside I may welcome Mr Miliband to the department because almost the first thing he said was:

"Out with central control and out with unnecessary bureaucracy. What we want to do is to set schools free to do what they do best".

These amendments are tailor-made for Mr Miliband and his team to accept.

Schools are accountable: they are accountable to their governors and parents and more than ever to their local communities; and they are accountable in a more formal sense to the inspectorate. My proposals place no artificial time limits on innovation. Any project would be entered into in conjunction and in consultation with parents and local people.

If the innovation works, it can be absorbed into the school's programme on a permanent basis and it will not be reliant on Parliament producing a regulation for each and every project for every school. It is all very well for the Government to argue that primary legislation is time-consuming and that secondary legislation is not. I know of secondary legislation that is waiting in the wings for parliamentary time but the argument always is that there is not time for it.

If the project does not work, and if there has been proper evaluation, it can be suspended and set aside; or, a project that is accepted can be superseded when a better idea arises. Innovation is a dynamic, as are schools. They are always thinking of new and better ways to improve standards.

Nothing in law prevents good innovative ideas from being promoted or demonstrated to other schools. In many local education authority areas, in-service training is often based on the dissemination of such new ideas and developments with a view to raising the standards of teaching and learning in a particular authority or area.

I now return to the Minister's letter of 11th June. I was interested to see that the first part of Amendment No. 2 obliges the Secretary of State to have regard to the need for the curriculum to be broad and balanced and to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of children and society and the likely effect of a project on all children, which must include children with special educational needs.

In Committee, I argued cogently for just that to happen; for a link to be made with the need for a broad and balanced curriculum. However, we were told that it was not necessary because Clauses 74 to 77 oblige schools to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. Now we have the Government's amendments placing that requirement on the face of the Bill. It is on the face of the Bill either because it is necessary or it is otiose and is there to pander to those of us who argued for it in Committee. I believe that it appears because it is necessary to the Bill. There was no connection between the early and later clauses. That is slightly puzzling because we called for that in Committee.

I want to refer to the debate which took place on 2nd May, which appears in cols. 810 to 812 of Hansard. The noble Baroness said:

"An example I have used before in your Lordships' House concerns the ability of schools to work more closely with further education and to look at workplace learning".

We have yet to debate provision for 14 to 19 year-olds and still do not know what that will mean in detail, but they will address the whole issue. In the meantime, schools are working with further education colleges and there appears to be nothing to inhibit them from doing so.

The Minister then read out the words of a head teacher, who said:

"I have long wanted to do something that brought in the children and their families earlier to my school, specifically because it would raise standards. But of course I could not do it".

That head teacher was concerned about bringing in under-fives and parents. What is to stop schools bringing in parents, mother and toddler groups, nursery groups, play groups, nursery classes and nursery schools? There is nothing in law to prevent that. There are mechanisms in law for developing nursery classes and for allowing the advent of nursery schools. I was chairman of a mother and toddler playgroup for about eight years and I know that collaboration and working with the feeder primary schools was almost a daily activity. Therefore, I cannot imagine what that poor head teacher is desperately waiting for the legislation to allow.

The Minister later said:

"In theory, Amendment No. 1 would do away with the Secretary of State's role of checking and approving innovative projects".

I simply say, "Amen to that"; that is precisely what we are trying to do. We are trying to cut out the unnecessary intrusive meddling by the department in the natural activity of schools in trying to improve their delivery of services which improve teaching and learning.

The Minister went on to say:

"In addition, without the involvement of the Secretary of State, schools and LEAs would in theory be free to change the law at will".

No, they will not. If my amendment is interpreted properly, it is for the Secretary of State to set the parameters; in other words, to set the limitations and the framework within which innovation can take place. That has been addressed by an amendment, so we, too, have done some thinking since the last stage of the Bill.

Finally, (at col. 812) the Minister stated:

"That brings me back to my main point; namely, the absolute importance of the Secretary of State's role in the process and in safeguarding standards".—[Official Report, 2/5/02; cols. 810-812.]

Certainly the Secretary of State needs to have a concern about standards in schools, but he has so much assistance out there—the inspectorate, the fact that schools are openly and publicly accountable, and the downward pressure given by parents to schools. It is not necessary to have a daily grind of departmental interference in what schools do at a local level. At this stage, we need to trust schools to do what they do best; that is, to deliver education for their children. Where they do not, they will be found wanting.

I repeat that we support schools' constant search for improvement and the removal of unnecessary inhibitions to good innovative ideas. We believe that the framework within which such innovation and freedom to set aside statute should be set by the Secretary of State, a point raised by the Minister in Committee, and we support accountability and the involvement of governors, parents and local education authorities in the process. However, we do not support the Secretary of State, plus an army of civil servants and advisers, becoming involved centrally in the minutiae. That would increase bureaucracy and the need for endless guidance. It would increase the need to take up legislative time dealing with orders for each project and it would place arbitrary time constraints on the project.

For those reasons, I hope that the Minister will accept that we support and want to encourage innovation, but without the burden of central bureaucratic control. I beg to move.