Amendment 7

Schools Bill [HL] - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Lord Lucas:

Moved by Lord Lucas

7: Clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out “, and the curriculum followed”Member’s explanatory statementThis and the other amendments tabled to this Clause, Clause 2 and Clause 3 in the name of Lord Lucas are intended to protect some of the freedoms currently enjoyed by academies.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, in moving this amendment I will speak also to the other amendments in this group. We have been speaking of large and fundamental questions, and I find myself entirely in agreement with those who are concerned at what the Government have been saying. I therefore wish to take my noble friend Lord Agnew’s advice and try to avoid getting too deep into the weeds that we should be in. If the Bill were—as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, wished it to be—a real exposition of what the plans were, we should be debating whether, as Amendment 7 says, academies should still enjoy freedom over the curriculum, or to what extent and how that should be expressed. That is what our role should be, not just handing that power over to the Government.

I think these amendments were drafted before I had begun to focus on the constitutional enormities being attempted in the Bill. So, yes, academies should have some freedom of curriculum; yes, they should have control over the school day; yes, they should have freedom when it comes to staff remuneration and admissions numbers. We should also be really careful about preserving existing contracts.

Another Bill before this House asks that the Government be allowed to tear up the contracts that landowners have with the providers of telecom masts. Security of contract—the belief that a contract entered into cannot just be rolled over—is a very important part of a successful constitution in a free country. To have two Bills in front of us which both try to act as though that were not the case is deeply concerning. Therefore, my noble friend Lord Baker, in his offhand remarks about Darlington, should realise that there is a DfE office in Darlington; this is probably part of the plan. We must get back to where we should be. All the concerns I have raised in this group are valid, but not particularly in the context we find ourselves in now. I hope we will move on to other big questions. I beg to move Amendment 7.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I want briefly to respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about his amendments being detailed and therefore not echoing the feeling of the debate we have had so far. On the contrary, it absolutely gets to the heart of the problem. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, in the last group, about the detailed work he had to fulfil as Minister in his role of managing academies as a whole and failing and problematic academies specifically.

The amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, go in the other direction and say that academies should be able to retain their personal freedoms. The difficulty is that the Bill does not give us any sense of the Government’s direction on academies. It is absolutely summed up by those two contradictions. It is important and this is the place in the Bill. I may not agree with all the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but I am very grateful that he has laid them because it makes something very clear to me: the Government do not understand what they are trying to achieve.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour

My Lords, I follow those welcome comments from the noble Baroness. This conversation—the closest thing we get to pre-legislative scrutiny—ought to give us the opportunity to guide Ministers in their reflections, which we all urge them to have and hope they will have, on what we think is important and less important; what there must be standards about, if we are to agree that; and what we should leave to academies. That is what the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the next group are helping to do. They are opportunities for noble Lords to flag things they think are sufficiently important that the Secretary of State should have a view on them on behalf of the country.

I too will not get into the whys and wherefores of curriculum freedoms, leadership and management or the length of the school day. I happen to broadly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and it is not unusual that we find ourselves in broadly the same place on such things. However, I echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said. It is awkward, unsatisfactory and goes back to what my noble friend Lady Morris said earlier; this is a difficult Bill for us to deal with at this stage.

The substantive point I want to make to the Minister at this stage is for when the Government are thinking about time for Report and how we deal with it. It will be quite Committee-ish in how we deal with things—assuming they come back with something substantive and different which shows that they have listened to us. We are going to have to have the opportunity to properly debate what we hope will be much more of an educational vision that they will set out for us. We can then put down amendments on it and discuss in the normal way on Report.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

May I very briefly add to that? This is not just a matter for the Government; it is also a matter for the Chief Whip in the timetabling of Report. We had exactly this problem with the Health and Care Bill. We suddenly discovered a lot of detail on Report which should have been visible to us in Committee. As a result, Report took much longer, and the House sat until 1 am or 2 am on certain days. I hope the usual channels are looking at the detail of this because it will affect Report stage.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

We do, of course, have the ability to recommit a Bill to Committee if there are substantial changes to it.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton Conservative

My Lords, I rise briefly to support my noble friend Lord Lucas on protecting these freedoms and to try to cross the bridge between the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight. I managed those interventions with the powers that already exist. The freedoms that my noble friend Lord Lucas proposes go to the heart of what academisation is about. I will give noble Lords one tiny example. In Norwich we have two primary schools four miles apart. In one school they speak 25 different languages and the other is in an old-fashioned 1950s council estate—a totally different dynamic where a totally different approach to education is needed. Is that to be decided here in an ivory tower in Whitehall?

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I apologise for missing some of the earlier speeches; the ones I heard were very helpful. I support this group of amendments because it emphasises the question of freedoms. The one thing I had agreed with the Government on in the past—there has not been very much—was the emphasis on the kind of freedoms schools would have, which is why I am completely bemused by what has happened with this Bill.

The other very important thing has been raised in other comments, which I would like the Minister to take away. If you tell anyone outside this place that there is a Schools Bill and you are talking about schools, interestingly enough they say, “What are the Government proposing for schools? What is the educational vision?” I have talked to teachers, parents and sixth-formers and they say, “What’s the vision?” I have read it all and I say, “There is none, other than that the Secretary of State will decide that later on.” Because there is no vision, these amendments really matter as they give a certain amount of freedom to people who might have some vision, even if I am not convinced that the Bill has it. I was glad to see these amendments.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour

My Lords, I will make a very brief intervention. I struggle with the whole issue of the curriculum. I basically agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. When I look at many schools, there is not the time in the week for them to do the things that—as the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, just said—might need to be done in the school and community context. The school week is overcrowded and does not leave sufficient flexibility for teachers to use their professional judgment about what needs to be covered. I understand that.

I suppose it is my age—I do not know—but I have always welcomed the entitlement of the child that the national curriculum brought about in the day of the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I was teaching when the noble Lord, Lord Baker, introduced the national curriculum. My kids in an inner-city school got a better deal because we, as teachers, were made to teach them things that, to be honest, we had assumed they were not able to learn. That is a whole history of education to go into.

I find it quite difficult still to balance the entitlement the national curriculum gave to children to learn a broad and balanced curriculum, and still would. I worry that freedom on the curriculum means that a school will choose not to teach music, science or Shakespeare. When you have the relationship of all schools to the Secretary of State, I struggle to be really confident that the DfE, Ministers or civil servants could intervene if a child was being denied that access to a broad and balanced curriculum.

I have never quite worked out how it resolves. It is always the same; in most schools it works well, and they get it right, but we need to protect the right of every child to all the subjects in the national curriculum and all those experiences we think they need. I am asking the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in his response, to reflect on how his amendment would ensure that balance and that the protection of the child’s entitlement will be kept.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) , Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I think that we are at risk of having a really interesting debate about the substance of what a child should learn in school, which the Bill does not actually allow us very easily to do. The benefit of what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is proposing is that he is very clear where he is coming from, why he is doing it and what he is seeking to achieve. There is a philosophical underpinning of the amendments that he is proposing, so at least we have something to hold on to when we either agree or disagree with him.

The noble Lord wants to protect the freedoms of academies to innovate, to be creative and to respond to local needs. There is a really interesting debate about whether the entitlement of a child crosses over with that. It would be great to have some thoughts from the Government on where they stand, so that we can engage with this in a more meaningful way to people who may, possibly, be watching our proceedings, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said.

Many who are leading schools at the moment will agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. They have been in touch to tell us that this was a bit of a bolt from the blue for them. They are very concerned about what this means for the way that they will be able to lead their MATs and individual schools in the future. That worries me because, when making these kinds of changes, it may not be possible to get everybody to agree with you as you move forward—people have deeply held and very different views on these issues from time to time—but you at least need to make an attempt to engage, to explain and to grow understanding of why you are doing what it is that you are doing.

It has been great to have the focus on Darlington in our discussions this evening; it is appreciated. A leader of a MAT, whom I will not name because I have not asked her if I can, called me when the Bill was published. She said that it looked as though it had been drafted by a primary school class that just wanted to be in charge but did not really know what it wanted to do about it. She was being quite flippant, but serious too. She runs an outstanding group of schools; I am in danger of giving away her identity. The point is that this is something unexpected that is resented by many leaders of MATs who care deeply about the quality of education and experience of the children who attend their schools. They may agree to a greater or lesser extent with the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but they have not been taken on a journey along with the Government to a place where they can proceed with confidence in what the Government are about to do, and support it or otherwise.

I understand that you cannot always get everyone to agree with you. My noble friend Lady Morris gave her example, but the example that I can remember is when the Labour Government introduced the literacy and numeracy hour. Not everyone was thrilled about this; it was seen as a bit too interfering and too prescriptive, but the Government at the time were clear why they thought it was the right thing. They had to go out and justify it, look for evidence and say that it was about addressing a very fundamental problem that we had with standards of numeracy and literacy at the time in our primary schools. They went ahead and, in the end, those measures got broad support from teachers and parents. That would be a much better approach.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 7:00 pm, 8th June 2022

Reflecting on the debate that we have had, it occurs to me that, effectively, in announcing that all schools will become academies, it is an announcement of the end of the national curriculum. What my noble friend has just described in respect of the literacy and numeracy hour was an up-front policy and up-front announcement—it was something about which there could be a consultation, discussion and debate. There has been no press release saying that the Government’s wish is to abolish the national curriculum, yet that is what we must have in mind as we debate this Bill.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) , Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

Is it? I would like to know the answer to that question, because it is not clear whether that is the Government’s intention or not. Were the Government to come forward to say that it is what they plan to do and that they want freedom such that there is no national curriculum as we would recognise it now, then we could have a really big argument about that. We would involve school leaders and parents and look back over the successes and failings of the national curriculum; I very much agree with what my noble friend Lady Morris said about an entitlement to education, particularly around music and literature.

The fact is that we do not know. The Government’s intention is not being shared with us. We may be imagining and fearing the worst, and fearing intentions that do not exist, but the Government are asking a hell of a lot for us to accept on trust an assurance from the Dispatch Box here that there is no current intention to do certain things. Really, what we ought to expect, and what families expect, is much more information about is going to happen on the ground and in the classroom. That is what people are really interested in.

I take it that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will not press his amendments, so we do not need to get into whether we would support them individually, but I just flag this issue about the lack of effort that the Government have made to engage with leaders in the sector. It is really damaging and is destroying some of the confidence that leaders have in the department at this point.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, it is probably worth my reiterating my noble friend the Minister’s comments that we have heard and understood noble Lords’ concerns about the breadth of the power we are discussing and the fears about the centralisation of power over academies with the Secretary of State, and I know that we have heard other concerns about the nature of the power. It is worth reflecting on what the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said in terms of how we use this Committee stage. While we have heard those overall concerns, it is useful to have a discussion on specific elements within those clauses where noble Lords have issues that they wish to raise or questions that they wish to discuss so that we can make the best use of the time that we have in Committee.

I shall deal directly with the amendments tabled by my noble friend. We share his desire in these amendments to protect academy freedoms. The first set of regulations made under these powers are intended to consolidate and reflect existing requirements on academies. They will not represent a change of requirements on academies. This includes those areas referenced in my noble friend’s amendments: curriculum, length of school day, leadership and admissions. It is important to bear in mind that some requirements exist in these areas for academies, such as the requirement to teach a broad and balanced curriculum, including English, maths and science, and the requirements of the Academy Trust Handbook in relation to management and governance. The Secretary of State needs to be able to set standards in these areas. As my noble friend the Minister previously said, it is important that there is a clear set of minimum standards for academies to ensure that we get the basics right. At this point, it is also worth repeating that the Government have no desire to intervene in the day-to-day management of individual academies other than in cases of failure.

I turn specifically to Amendment 29, which seeks to protect the provisions within existing funding agreements. My noble friend Lord Nash touched on this, as did others. As we move to a fully trust-led school system, it will become increasingly unwieldy and difficult to regulate thousands of schools on the basis of individual funding agreements with no consistent set of minimum standards that apply equally to all academies. That is why, alongside a more proportionate compliance regime, we want to move away from a largely contract-based regulatory regime to a simpler and more transparent statutory framework—one fit for a system where every school is an academy.

I just touch on the debate and scrutiny that we might need in that circumstance. Some of the requirements are in a handbook that is amended by Academies Ministers; in bringing what is currently in a handbook into a form of regulation, with consultation with the sector in advance, there was the intention of having an increased level of parliamentary involvement and scrutiny in that process compared with the status quo, reflecting the fact that we are aiming to move towards a system where every school is part of a multi-academy trust. I hope that helps to reinforce the Government’s intention behind what we are seeking to do here. It also ensures, as I have said, that academy trusts are subject to a set of requirements over which Parliament has oversight and to which they can be held to account by parents. My noble friend’s amendment would enable funding agreement provisions and academy standards to co-exist and potentially conflict, if the former are not rendered void where there is a corresponding academy standard.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 34, which seeks to prevent primary legislation relating to the curriculum being amended by regulation unless it relates specifically to the curriculum in academies. Academy trusts are already subject to many of the same requirements as maintained schools, as set out in numerous pieces of primary legislation. As I have said, the intention here is to consolidate these requirements on academy trusts as much as possible into the academy standards regulations. This will be a gradual process; we want to work with academy trusts on the implementation of the academy standards at a pace which is right for them. As my noble friend reassured the Committee in her previous contribution, for each and every change of those regulations, there would be consultation in advance.

As we move towards a school system in which all schools are academies within strong trusts, we will want to ensure that the legal framework is fit for purpose, including by removing requirements that should prove excessively onerous or unnecessary. Clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to make these adjustments, subject to the affirmative procedure, and to be responsive to the changing needs of the school system.

I recognise that the autonomy to decide on key aspects of running a school, including the curriculum it chooses to teach, enables academy trusts to deliver the best outcomes for their pupils, and we have no intention to undermine those freedoms. This Government and I share my noble friend’s commitments to the principles of academy freedom, and, with this reassurance, I hope that he will therefore withdraw his amendment at this stage.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for her response. I think that it merely illustrates how far apart we are on the appropriateness of the structure of this Bill that we cannot have a serious discussion about what the curriculum freedoms should be. It is entirely undefined, and the Government say, “We’ll just make it up as we go along in the next few months, and that is what you are allowing us to do if you pass this Bill”. That is where the serious discussions lie; we ought to be having discussions about how the curriculum works. That is the level of responsibility we ought to be taking in this House, and this Bill seeks to take that away from us and place it with the Executive. I am delighted that we have had such unanimity around the Committee on what we think of that as a process.

So far as these individual amendments are concerned, yes, I applaud the diversity, innovation and freedom which the academy structure has had. It will be a problem to move that into a national system, but it will not be impossible. We ought to look at it, because this Bill gives the Government the power to introduce a totally prescriptive national curriculum. They could say what every school was going to do at every moment of every day, and we would have no more right to intervene on that—

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has really illustrated the puzzle I have: the handbook is clearly working at the moment—we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, that interventions can take place in the case of maverick trusts—so why on earth not let that continue, allow the consultation with the sector on the future governance and accountability arrangements, and then bring a Bill in a year’s time when we can actually go through it in detail and scrutinise it effectively? We could also have a statement at the front saying, “This Bill is about the academisation of all schools”. Why not be explicit and say this up front in the legislation, if that is what the Government want to do? Why does it have to be done in this sort of underhand way, and before they have properly worked out with the sector how it is best done? I just do not get it.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 7:15 pm, 8th June 2022

No, my Lords, nor do I; I think it would work much better in that sort of way. The Government are good at making declaratory statements such as, “We’re going to do this: we’re going to abolish the sale of petrol engine cars in 2030”. We all know how effective that sort of statement can be. What is the difficulty if the Government were to say, “We are going for this sort of process; we’re going to have a period of consultation; it will end on this date; it’ll be in a Bill in Parliament in a year’s time, and that’s how it’s going to be worked out”? They would get exactly the same process as is envisaged by my noble friend Lady Penn—

Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour

I intervene briefly to say that an enormous amount of work could and should be done on the curriculum. The fact is that we are into the 21st century, and fantastic work is being done by educators all over the place about how we best educate our young people for the best possible outcomes. Yet, we have this odd divide between the schools that have to do the national curriculum and those that do not.

As my noble friend Lady Morris said, we should look at what the entitlements and requirements of an educated society are in order to rise to the challenges we obviously face as we move forward. Those should be things that are available to all young people. There might well be an argument for saying that those schools that are currently maintained schools but are required to do every last detail of the national curriculum might flourish more if they had some of those curriculum freedoms. So there is a big advantage to being able to talk in the round about our vision for what educated young people would be when they leave our education system. After all, there is common agreement now that young people will stay in school until they are 18 or 19. Gone are the days when they would leave at 16. There is such a lot to gain from having a much broader discussion about what an entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum actually looks like, not just for the good of the individual but for the good of society at large.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

Yes, my Lords, and I imagine that we will have it as a part of the process of deciding how to turn maintained schools into academies. There is a really important debate to be had on where we should be resting, and I look forward to it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 7 withdrawn.

Sitting suspended. Committee to begin again not before 7.50 pm.