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Lords Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:57 pm on 23rd July 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Early Years and School Standards) 5:57 pm, 23rd July 2002

I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 14 to which the Commons have disagreed, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 14A in lieu thereof.

In moving this Motion, I wish to begin by saying that we all share the desire to ensure that that teachers, head teachers and governing bodies do not need to carry out unnecessary tasks. No one could disagree that we need to do all we can to enable teachers to focus on their core tasks. So it is not that intention which we are debating; we are discussing the means of giving effect to that intention. I also wish to say that the original Lords Amendment No. 14 is not the way to do that. Trying to legislate in the way proposed in that amendment is not only unlikely to be successful; more importantly, it carries a serious risk of being counter-productive. I should like at the outset to make two points that I believe are very important.

First, there cannot be an assumption that all new regulation is inherently bad. As a result of perfectly sensible pressure from the Opposition, we will be making new regulations in a number of new areas. If we had in place a duty of the sort proposed in the original Amendment No. 14, it would put our ability to do that in jeopardy. I know that that is not the intention, but it is the effect. I also make it clear that this is not a problem about the drafting of the amendment; it is a fundamental problem with the approach.

Secondly, much of the material that is sent to schools is intended to be helpful, and is recognised as such. If we send material connected with the national literacy and numeracy strategies, for example, it will help teachers, saving them time and boosting achievement. That, of course, is a perfectly sound investment. So I agree absolutely that it is good to cut out unnecessary and unhelpful material. Again, however, that is not the effect of Amendment No. 14. Its effect would be to cut back material that may be highly beneficial to schools and to children.

These are fundamental points, but perhaps even more fundamental is the concern that, rather than reducing the level of prescription that schools face, the duty proposed might in fact increase the level of prescription. The reason is simple. Through this Bill we have set out to deregulate. We have been absolutely clear about saying that we believe that education legislation is over-prescriptive and that the level of regulation is too great. And in a very consistent way, we have set out in this Bill to begin to change that. The way we have done it is this. We have taken a piece of over-prescriptive primary legislation and repealed it, but taken a power to make secondary legislation. We have made clear that the regulations we will make will be significantly less prescriptive than the primary legislation that has gone before. But the crucial point is that if we cannot make regulations, we cannot deregulate.

The implementation of this Bill will require the making of significant numbers of regulations. The repeal of detailed primary legislation will be brought in at the same time as the new regulations. If we cannot make the regulations, we shall be unable to commence the repeals, and the chance to reduce burdens on schools will be lost.

So, the approach set out in Amendment No. 14 would mean that we would be unable to implement the deregulatory agenda that I hope we all wish to see, freeing schools from unnecessary prescription. In addition, there is a risk that the amendment would mean that schools would not receive useful information that would help them in their daily work, but also potentially that they would be uninformed about key aspects of their work.

Consider the biggest documents we have sent to primary schools in the last academic year: the single largest document at 224 pages was the special educational needs toolkit; the second largest at 210 pages was the special educational needs code of practice; the third largest at 200 pages was the schemes of work for citizenship, helping schools to introduce that new subject to the curriculum; the next at 158 pages was the Early Literacy Support Programme—an optional but widely welcomed measure to help children having difficulties with literacy at key stage 1; the next at 115 pages was the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document 2001; the next, at 74 pages, the "Schools—achieving success" White Paper; and then 72 pages on springboard 6—lessons for use in booster classes. The latter is also an optional but widely welcomed measure which is useful for those children struggling to reach level four at key stage 2—the level that we believe is necessary for children to access the secondary curriculum. I could go on but those seven documents comprise almost 60 per cent of the pages we sent to primary schools last year.

I am not sure that any noble Lord could say which of those documents might be considered unnecessary for schools to see, particularly not the two largest, the special educational needs toolkit and the special educational needs code of practice which together comprise almost a quarter of the pages sent by central government to primary schools; not, I imagine given the lengthy debates about the importance of citizenship we have had during the course of this Bill, the schemes of work for that subject; and not, I expect, the teaching materials relating to literacy and numeracy that have received such a warm welcome in our schools. I hope that no noble Lord would argue that we should keep teachers in the dark about their pay and conditions. That leaves the White Paper. I can imagine the outrage that would be expressed, quite rightly, if the Government gave teachers no opportunity to take part in the consultation on our plans for the next few years.

I understand that the approach of Amendment No. 14 may be well intentioned, but it would be counter-productive. It would be counter-productive because, first, there would be a danger of an adverse impact, because the Government would be prevented from acting quickly to address important issues. Secondly, there could be an adverse impact on schools not receiving important information which would help them to do their job more effectively or implement legal requirements, such as those relating to special educational needs. Thirdly, there would be a serious risk that the amendment would stand in the way of the very serious attempt to deregulate which we have begun in this Bill, because deregulation requires us to issue new, less prescriptive regulations. We cannot have a situation in which any of those things happen.

The Government's approach in Amendment No. 14A seeks to avoid all of those difficulties but also to reinforce their efforts to reduce burdens on schools. As noble Lords will be aware, this amendment received careful consideration in another place and creates a duty for the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the number of documents that the department sends to schools. We have achieved a great deal in the past three years. There have been about one-third fewer documents sent out this school year compared to 1999-2000. Amendment No. 14A will be a transparent means of demonstrating that we mean what we say in reducing burdens on schools.

We also recognise the point made in another place that, while the department's communications are valuable, they are not always of universal interest. We shall look further at better ways of targeting our communications even more directly to the intended audience, and of signposting our documents clearly.

As I have said in previous debate, the Secretary of State is engaged in a wider look at the issue of teacher workload and burdens and will respond on these matters formally in the autumn. An annual report to Parliament will add to our efforts in this area by providing even greater transparency in regard to the department's communications with schools.

I shall return in a moment to the other amendments standing in my name.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 14 to which the Commons have disagreed, but do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 14A in lieu thereof.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)