HC Deb 10 January 2002 vol 377 cc654-7
2. James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde)

What criteria she will use to determine whether schools have earned increased autonomy.[23832]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms)

The criteria will relate to two school characteristics—first, performance and, secondly, school leadership. On leadership, we will work closely with Ofsted, and I will provide the House with a draft consultation document on the detailed criteria before the Education Bill leaves the House.

James Purnell

I thank the Minister for that answer. May I draw his attention to schools, such as Alder High in my constituency, that do not perform outstandingly in terms of absolute results and league tables but do very well in terms of value added and that are rapidly improving? Will he explain how such schools, which would particularly benefit from the extra freedoms under the provisions for earned autonomy, will be able to earn that autonomy?

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our aim is to establish a modern, effective comprehensive system that commands the confidence of every community in the country, building on the extra investment that we are making in schools. We want successful schools and teachers to lead a wave of reform, and our view is that giving them greater freedom, as will happen under the earned autonomy provisions, and removing some of the current constraints, will enable them to do so.

As my hon. Friend says, it is important that the opportunity should be available to schools in the whole range of local circumstances. In the consultation, we certainly intend to propose referring to the newly available value-added data to ensure that schools such as his have that opportunity, along with schools in other parts of the country.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Does the Minister accept that the concept of earned autonomy is insulting to the vast majority of Britain's schools that deliver quality results year after year? He refused to provide clear criteria in the Education Bill that we are considering, so may I suggest the criteria that we should use? If a school is not in special measures, or not showing serious signs for concern, it should automatically have earned autonomy.

Mr. Timms

No, I do not agree with that suggestion. It is right that we look to our most successful schools and teachers to lead the next wave of reform in education. If we had taken the hon. Gentleman's advice, we would not have had, for example, the literacy and numeracy strategies. We intend to set the criteria so that about 10 per cent. of schools will qualify for earned autonomy in the first instance. We will see how things go from there, but it is important that we look to our most successful schools to take the reforms forward and pioneer the innovations that we shall then want to apply throughout the whole system.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Most of us are pleased to support and accept more autonomy for our local schools, but is my hon. Friend aware of the problems caused by some foundation schools that set their own admission criteria, especially in areas such as Kent, where selective education is in place? What plans does he have to help to sort out the mess caused by Tory Kent county council, whose failure to look ahead and plan means that pupils in Aylesham village and other parts of my constituency are denied places in secondary schools in September?

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend knows that we have taken the view that decisions about whether there should be changes in the selective nature of admission arrangements in some parts of the country, including Kent, should be made by parents locally. He will also be aware of the arrangements that we have made for that.

I reassure my hon. Friend that the provision for earned autonomy is certainly not about reintroducing anything like the old grant-maintained schools that were introduced by the previous Government. For example, there will not be any extra money for schools with earned autonomy. As to changes to admission arrangements, our view is that they are best dealt with locally.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

What powers will the schools with extra autonomy have that grant-maintained schools did not have?

Mr. Timms

We have proposed in the Bill that the extra freedom should be in two areas. The first is over the curriculum and the second is over teachers' pay and conditions. There is, of course, the possibility that we shall want to extend that list in due course in the light of experience, but that would require additional primary legislation. For now, we are sticking to those two areas.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will not have read the Bolton Evening News this week. If he had, he would have seen headlines to the effect that schools across Bolton between them have banked more than £5 million as they wait for a rainy day. Each has a genuine reason for keeping the money in the bank, but would it not be better to bank the money centrally so that the cash flow could continue? If that experience has been replicated across the country, billions of pounds must have been banked. The money is not being used for the purpose for which it was designed, namely education.

Mr. Timms

That is a matter for governors to decide. I have, sadly, missed the latest issue of the newspaper that my hon. Friend mentioned, but I think that he will accept that schools have enjoyed great gains from their ability to make their own decisions about how to allocate their resources. They can decide their own priorities on issues such as maintenance and repair work. It is right that the resources are used for the benefit of children in each school and that they should be applied to that end. If there are concerns, I hope that the governors in the schools involved will ensure that the resources are applied properly.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Opposition strongly support increased autonomy for schools, but what confidence can schools and parents have that the criteria will be open, clear and transparent when the Government persist in abusing their majority in the House, as they did this morning to prevent proper debate and scrutiny of the Education Bill? On Tuesday, the Committee lost 11 clauses because they were not debated—and four more this morning—because of the application of an absurd timetable by the Government, who use knives to prevent discussion of the important parts of the Bill while allowing time for those that no one wants to talk about.

Mr. Timms

I am mystified by the hon. Gentleman's point. The Government offered the Opposition an additional three hours of debate in Committee on Tuesday. We were keen to continue the discussion beyond the time that we actually took. We offered an extra three hours, but the Opposition refused them.