HC Deb 16 January 1989 vol 145 cc119-28 10.19 pm
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the School Curriculum Development Committee and Secondary Examinations Council (Designation of Staff) Order 1988 (S.I., 1988, No. 2171), dated 12th December 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th December, be annulled.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

It will be for the convenience of the House to discuss with this the second motion: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the School Curriculum Development Committee and Secondary Examinations Council (Transfer of Property) Order 1988 (S.I., 1988, No. 2172), dated 12th December 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th December, be annulled.

Mr. Fatchett

The two orders are somewhat narrow. They are consequent upon the Education Reform Act 1988 and involve the transfer of staff and property from the Secondary Examinations Council to the School Curriculum Development Committee.

Hon. Members who have read the orders will have been fascinated by the detail and no doubt will have seen a long list of names of people and another list of property about to be transferred from one body to another. They may well ask why we are praying against the orders. Perhaps it is worth my while offering an explanation. I know that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) will be interested in the answer. The fact that he is still here at this time of night suggests a rare interest.

We wish to raise a number of points about the transfer of staff. Hon. Members can now discount further intellectual and academic interest in their property as we are concentrating on the order relating to staff. We do not seek to divide the House on the order. As that news may be of some importance to Conservative Members, I have announced it early in the debate. I hope that that is a sign of populism on my part or realism on the Conservative Benches. We seek a brief debate on the issues, and wish to raise one or two important points. When we initially prayed against the order we were concerned about the way in which one or two members of staff were being treated. Since then substantial progress has been made, but we wish to allow the Minister to deal with those matters and to raise one or two other issues.

I shall broaden the subject briefly and offer our congratulations to the Secondary Examinations Council on its work over the years. It has developed a substantial educational representation, and it is appropriate that we show our support for its work in the past and our respect for what it has been able to achieve in education.

The debate also gives us the opportunity to look forward to the work of the School Curriculum Development Committee and its various bodies which will make an important contribution to the development of education in Britain. We have had differences with Conservative Members about the detail of the national curriculum, but they will recall that at no stage did we vote against the principle of the national curriculum. The Secretary of State even criticised us for not putting up sufficient opposition. He has now recognised that we put forward constructive opposition and make constructive suggestions in the hope of turning his national curriculum into a vehicle that improves education quality and standards.

To achieve that shared objective of improving education, and of the various bodies of the School Curriculum Development Committee contributing towards that process, it is important that staff are transferred amicably to the new bodies. That will contribute to their well-being and their efficiency. With that in mind, I should like to ask the Minister three specific questions that she may well be able to answer when she replies to the debate.

First, according to information that I received this afternoon, four members of staff have not been offered what they would deem to be suitable alternative accommodation and employment. We are all aware of the difficulties in finding suitable alternative employment. What further additional steps will be taken so that those four members of staff can be taken on board and can make a contribution? I understand that that is what they would like to do.

Secondly, if the four members of the SEC are taken on board the new organisation, will there be a need for a supplementary order to the existing statutory instrument, or will they be covered by it in some way? I gather from the Minister's glance across to other sources that the answer may well be that a supplementary order will be needed.

Thirdly, I ask the Minister about the present legal status of the Secondary Examinations Council. According to paragraph 48 of its articles of association, there seems to be a procedure that allows a voluntary wind-up of the organisation, but for it to be activated there must be a members' meeting. I understand that there has been no such meeting, so there can be no voluntary wind-up under article 48. If the SEC has not been wound up on that voluntary basis, it could, alternatively, be subject to a compulsory wind-up under section 652 of the Companies Act 1985. As I understand those procedures, three months' notice must be given—and they have not been given.

Clarification of the SEC's legal status has a bearing on the status of individual employees who have not yet been satisfactorily transferred to the new bodies.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

Just before we finish the questioning session, perhaps I can ask the hon. Gentleman whether he realises that there will be a widespread welcome in the north of England for the projected move of the new curriculum council to York. Many people will look forward to the new opportunities afforded by the Education Reform Act 1988, and the way in which the new council will work from York, which is in the middle of the north of England.

There will be a certain amount of surprise at the Labour party's praying against an order such as this; it has always been thought that Opposition Members were very interested in the regionalisation of Government offices.

Mr. Fatchett

I recognise that I gave the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to make a useful intervention that could get him some local publicity. I am a little surprised that he took the opportunity to try to score a cheap party-political debating point. I expected better of him. As a matter of information, I tell him that the educational assets board is also to be located in the centre of the north of England—in Leeds.

Conservative Members who served on the Standing Committee that dealt with the Education Reform Bill will recall the extensive and efficient way in which I lobbied on behalf of Leeds for that new institution to be located in my constituency. So great was the power of my persuasion, so eloquent were my arguments, that the Secretary of State, despite counter-lobbying for London and Blackburn by one or two of my hon. Friends, almost immediately afterwards announced that the board was to be in Leeds. He was right to do so, because a report was published only a couple of weeks ago showing that Leeds is now regarded by many as the second city in the country, following its growth under an effective Labour-controlled council. It will not be long before it takes over as the first city. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity he gave me to make those points.

We look forward to the work of the new body, which is an important one. We shall monitor its work; it will have a real opportunity to shape educational content, delivery and process in this country for many years to come. We wish it well and hope that all the staff are on board and that there will be good relations in the future.

10.29 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

When my leader told me that I was to be transferred to shadow the Secretary of State for Education and Science and to join the old triumvirate that he and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and I enjoyed in shadowing the Department of the Environment Ministers, I decided to prepare long and hard for my maiden speech on education as my party's official spokesman. This is it. I scratched my head a little wondering why we have to debate the two orders.

I am sure that it is very important for Christine Ann Coles that she is transferred with her friends and others from the School Curriculum Development Committee to the new body. I am sure that it is vital that the Sony 3000 camera, registration No. 215270, and the Ferguson cassette No. 19132 be vested in the National Curriculum Council. That Parliament, this centre of democracy, should allocate an hour and a half of debate to such details is somewhat surprising. It may be a sad commentary on the intervention of central Government in minutiae. If we had regional government, this matter could be debated somewhere else.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Surely we are debating the central core of Liberalism—pavement politics, the community.

Mr. Hughes

I have sparred with the hon. Gentleman in Committee and would hate to disappoint him, so I thought of something substantive to say about the detailed issue. I shall make three points of substance to the Minister. I hope that she will reply to them.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

Yes, but I do not want to extend matters of small detail into a long nocturnal debate.

Mr. Bowis

The hon. Gentleman has raised some detailed points. Has he seen the mention of a hot letterpress machine? Does he think that the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) has consulted satisfactorily with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) to make sure that she approves of such things being handed out for education?

Mr. Hughes

A hot letterpress machine is just the sort of thing that is necessary for pavement politics because it can be used to print leaflets.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Section 28 stops all that.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman says that section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 stops all that, but that is a subject for another day.

I come to my three substantive points. I and people in education are troubled about the composition of the National Curriculum Council. Perhaps the Minister will give us her views on that. It has produced advice on mathematics, science and English. The Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues say that they have consulted the National Curriculum Council, but most of the staff, and certainly the principal staff, have not yet taken up their appointments. I understand that the post of principal officer for primary education, first advertised in December, has not yet been filled.

There is some concern that at the speed at which national curriculum development is proceeding it anticipates the appointment to posts and the full functioning of the NCC. I am happy that the NCC is in York. That seems to have been a good move. None the less, it is another sign of the haste with which the Government are proceeding. It is unwise haste, and I should be grateful for the Minister's assurance that things will slow down so that the people who are meant to give advice are in post before advice is given. If the orders for attainment targets and programmes of study in mathematics and science are presented to Parliament before the NCC is fully staffed and we are told that NCC advice has been sought and taken, that would be a misrepresentation.

My second point may overlap with the debate that will take place on Wednesday about schoolchildren aged under five. There is often a mix of under-fives and over-fives in the same classes. I have asked parliamentary questions about that. If the national curriculum is meant to apply to children of five and upwards, there is a risk that it will reach down below that.

I understand that in circular 1, issued by the National Curriculum Council last month, the advice given is that the law should be ignored, and that in the first year—1989–90—the national curriculum should not be applied to children other than by the year after they attain statutory school age—that is, not by term, but by year. That is inconsistent with the Act. Will the Minister confirm that the Act has been superseded, and that the curriculum will apply only from the year after children become five so that there is no risk that children under five will become subject to the national curriculum?

There is ground for concern about the independence of the NCC. The calculations of the Department for the inquiry into teacher shortages by the Select Committee—which is going on at the moment, and at which evidence will be given tomorrow—have finally revealed the official view that properly qualified maths and science teachers will not be available until 1995, even on an optimistic view of present trends, to teach up to the age of 16 all subjects in the national curriculum. The Department has not previously admitted that.

The NCC appears now to be accepting the Government's response to that projected—and actual—shortage, and its response has been to say that, instead of the original approximately 20 per cent. of curriculum time for science, it should be 12.5 per cent. I am worried that the NCC will always agree with the Government's view, and I should be grateful for a resounding commitment from the Minister to the complete independence of the NCC. If that is true, she must give an explanation of why, in this case, the NCC appears so easily to have accepted that one should reduce expectations rather than do what I am sure the public would demand—aim to get the teachers in place to teach the amount of science, and other course subjects, that we need rather than teaching less of those subjects.

There is some substance behind the orders, but I do not think that there will be a Division on them.

10.36 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for clarifying his reasons for debating the orders. It has been of immense help to me. I am also glad to hear the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House about the possibilities and virtues of regional government.

It may help the House if I outline the background to the orders, which have been made under section 15 of the Education Reform Act 1988. The Act provided for the establishment of three independent councils to advise my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Science and for Wales on the curriculum in schools and on examinations and assessment. The new councils are the National Curriculum Council, the Curriculum Council for Wales and the School Examinations and Assessment Council. The functions of the councils are set out in some detail in section 14 of the Education Reform Act and, apart from giving advice, include keeping the curriculum and examinations under review, assisting the Secretaries of State to carry out research and development relevant to the curriculum and examinations, and the publication and dissemination of information.

The SEAC is also responsible for advising the Secretary of State on the approval of qualifications under section 5 of the Act and has been designated as having statutory responsibility for approving the associated syllabuses and syllabus criteria.

Naturally, the councils also have specific responsibilities related to the national curriculum and its associated assessment and testing arrangements. The NCC, for example, is required under section 20 of the Act to conduct consultations on the Secretary of State's proposals for attainment targets and programmes of study in core and other foundation subjects and report the results, with its own advice, to the Secretary of State. SEAC's functions include making arrangements with appropriate bodies for the moderation of assessments. The three councils are, indeed, among the Government's principal sources of advice and support in the introduction, development and maintenance of the national curriculum.

Mr. Wigley

Although I accept what the Minister says about the importance of those bodies, why is it necessary to go into the minutiae of these orders? Will such orders be necessary whenever an item of hardware or an individual is transferred from one department to another? Is that the implication of the Education Reform Act?

Mrs. Rumbold

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's observation. The orders were laid, but we did not pray against them. If Opposition Members wish to make inquiries about the nature of such orders, they are exercising their rights as democratically elected Members of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman must address himself to the safeguarding of those rights. I am happy to answer the points that have been raised

It might be appropriate to elaborate a little about the advice and information that we have received from the National Curriculum Council about the amount of science that will be taught in our schools. The NCC has advised my right hon. Friend that, for the majority of students taking science, it would be appropriate for 20 per cent. of their time to be spent in the study of science as a double subject so that science becomes more generally studied by as many students as possible up to the age of 16.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey will know that, over the years, we have been anxious to prevent youngsters who have been persuaded, for one reason or another, not to continue the study of science—that applies particularly to girls and we are anxious that it should not continue—from dropping science early in their secondary school years. With the advantages of the national curriculum coming on stream, we saw this as a good opportunity to ensure that double science would be taken as a general principle for all students.

However, there may be cases—it is important to enable such cases to be recognized—where students, because they were at one end of the spectrum or the other, found it less valuable to study the full percentage of science. We thought, therefore, that it was right to accept the advice given to us that 12.5 per cent. might be acceptable to students who perhaps had taken subjects early in GCSE and wanted to study other sciences individually, or to students who perhaps found the double science so exacting that they were unable to concentrate on other parts of the curriculum that are just as important.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Minister's explanation is helpful. She touched on the concern that young girls in some schools might be discriminated against because the school felt it was obliged to fulfil only the 12.5 per cent. rather than the 20 per cent. requirement. We should guard against such unintentional discrimination, particularly in respect of those who are traditionally discriminated against in such subjects.

Mrs. Rumbold

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We are anxious to guard against that and I hope that he will accept my reassurance on that point.

The National Curriculum Council and the Curriculum Council for Wales have inherited an active programme of curriculum development projects from the SCDC and its Welsh committee. The projects include work on mathematics, writing, art and economic awareness, all of which should contribute usefully to the implementation of a broad and balanced national curriculum.

Both our new bodies have made an excellent start and have done a great deal of work in a short time. It is important that the Government's consultative document, "The National Curriculum 5–16", which was published in July 1987, made it clear that the work of the SEC and the SCDC would be taken over by the proposed new statutory councils. In the case of the SCDC, which was part-funded by the local authorities, the consultative document announced that the Government would take complete responsibility for funding from April 1987. The hope was expressed that the great majority of staff would transfer to the new council and, accordingly, the Education Reform Act contained a provision in section 15 for the transfer, first, of all the property, rights and liabilities of the SEC and SCDC which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, were required by the new councils in order to perform their function; and, secondly, of the contracts of employment of any SEC or SCDC employees designated by the Secretary of State. The transfers are accomplished by means of statutory instruments under the negative resolution procedure.

I join the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) in his expression of gratitude to the SEC and the SCDC for their work. Both bodies, which were non-statutory, have contributed greatly to the underpinning of the new statutory bodies. The work of the SEC on the GCSE should be especially commended. It undertook an enormous amount of the hard work that produced such a good grounding for the successful introduction of the examination. It is important that that should be on the record.

I shall not dwell on the order that transfers property, rights and liabilities. I think that it is generally agreed that hot letterpresses, for example, involve matters on which we need not concentrate too much.

I shall comment on the NCC's move to York. It made good sense for one of the councils to leave London as both were to need more staff and more office space than their predecessors. The move to York has made it easier for the NCC to recruit new staff of good quality. I am told that nearly all the NCC's key staff took up their posts at the beginning of January. We need not be overconcerned about the staffing of the council, but we must not be complacent until it has been completed. It seems that the council's move to York will assist in the recruitment of staff of good quality. It will provide local employment opportunities outside the south-east of England, which in turn will make the council's independence from Government more manifest. We expect also that location in York rather than in London will bring some recurrent savings to the taxpayer, which will amount to about £1.5 million a year. That is a not inconsiderable sum and it is a saving to be welcomed.

The order transferring rights and liabilities under contracts of employment was also drawn up in the light of advice from the chief executives who, in turn, have sought to accommodate the wishes and aspirations of the employees of the SEC and the SCDC. Following the establishment of the councils and the approval by the Department of new and expanded staffing structures to cope with the expected additional workloads, the chief executives consulted staff informally about the vacancies that needed to be filled. Wherever possible, individual preferences were taken into account so that, for instance, SCDC officers who did not wish to relocate to York with the NCC were offered jobs in London.

For officers in grades below principal professional officer, a joint staffing committee comprising representatives of the SEC, the SCDC and the DES was established to advise the chief executives on the alternative possibilities for any staff who were unhappy with initial offers of jobs. As a result of those efforts by the new managements of the NCC and the SEAC, all but one member of the SCDC's staff were found suitable jobs in London or York. All but one of the SEC's staff have been offered jobs on the same terms and conditions as their SEC jobs. In the opinion of the SEAC's chief executive, these jobs are suitable for their skills and experience. Formal offers of jobs were made in October.

Redundancy terms have been agreed for the two members of staff who could not be found jobs and they have now left. I believe that one of them is about to set up his own business. The order laid before the House on 13 December designates all 120 remaining employees of the SCDC and the SEC, with the exception of four employees of the SEC, to transfer to the NCC, the SEAC or the CCW with full credit for their service with the former councils and without the loss of any accumulated employment rights.

The order does not contain the names of four SEC employees who, despite having been offered jobs with SEAC which the chief executive of SEAC regards as suitable, have so far declined to accept those jobs. I understand that the four individuals concerned have had a series of discussions with the chief executive of SEAC and representatives of SEC. The latest discussions took place as recently as the end of last week. The Department has kept in close touch with the discussions. Consideration of the future of these staff continues and I do not know what the outcome will be. It would be wrong for me to prejudge what will happen.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central asked specific questions and I hope that I have answered his first question. He also asked whether a new order would be necessary for the four members of staff. A separate order will be necessary for the transfer of those staff if they accept posts.

The hon. Member also asked about the status of the SEC. It will be wound up under section 652 of the Companies Act 1985. If it is no longer trading, there will be no need for a members' meeting because the three-month time limit will be set in motion once staff liabilities are settled. In other words, it does not ncessarily follow that an official winding up is necessary.

Reference was also made to under-fives. The Education Reform Act 1988 allows a phasing-in for particular subjects and children reaching the age of five during the school year 1989–90 will be subject to the national curriculum only if the school so desires. There is no conflict with the Education Reform Act. For those under five, the national curriculum can never be compulsory. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. It would not make sense to deny rising fives an opportunity to start—

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Minister appreciates that there is widespread concern about this matter. There are many mixed classes with rising fives and over-fives. Many people believe that we should not put children into the mill of the curriculum until they are well past the age of five. Many heads and teachers feel that children need to find expression in different ways and not be tied to the curriculum. The more children under the age of five whom we can protect from the national curriulum for their own self-development, the better. I hope that the Minister will encourage schools not to lump under-fives and over-fives together, but will encourage them to start the curriculum later rather than earlier.

Mrs. Rumbold

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. However, I hope that he is not suggesting that we should deliberately go out of our way to disadvantage young children. Many rising fives and slightly younger children are competent to start progress on the national curriculum. It would be a backward step for us not to allow schools that are adequately staffed with teachers who have completed the early-years training, which covers children aged three to seven—I am glad to say that an increasing number of staff fall into that category—to benefit some children before the age of five by beginning the first stages of the national curriculum.

All that depends on parental choice. There is no compulsory education before the age of five. There is compulsory education after the age of five and, therefore, the parents must decide whether they want their children to attend school early. If they choose a school which begins rudimentary work on the national curriculum before the age of five, we must assume that parents are aware of what they are doing.

Question put and negatived.

  1. BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE 101 words