HL Deb 23 March 1993 vol 544 cc167-84

3.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is my pleasure not just to be taking the Bill through your Lordships' House but also to be supported once again on the Front Bench by my noble friends Lord Henley and Lord Astor and by my noble friend Lord St. Davids who will deal with all matters which apply to Wales. Modesty forbids my referring to us as "The A Team" of the Front Bench. However, I can say that my noble friends will add great strength and good humour to our deliberations.

The Bill builds on the sound foundations that were laid in the 1988 Act and continues our drive to achieve higher standards. It provides for a new framework in which self-governing grant-maintained schools will continue to thrive and in which the resources available to education may be deployed to better effect. It also offers a new start for some of our most vulnerable children—those in failing schools and those with special educational needs.

It was back in 1981 when I was leader of Cambridgeshire County Council that I was involved with a pioneering scheme called local financial management. That allowed schools to have control over a substantial part of their budgets. I was privileged to belong to a forward looking authority which believed in delegating as much operational autonomy to its schools as possible while at the same time retaining good relationships. The next logical extension of that policy was to allow schools even more control over their day-to-day affairs; that is, a chance to become self-governing. I therefore feel doubly privileged to be part of a forward looking government who believe in and practise devolution of power to schools, to their governing bodies and to parents.

Schools have responded with great enthusiasm to their first real taste of autonomy. Local management of schools is now an accepted part of the education scenery and it has been used by hundreds of schools as a stepping stone to full self-governing grant-maintained status.

This Bill is the last great step in the devolution of power to where it really belongs—in the schools themselves. But devolving power to schools means looking again at the organisation of our education system. That is what we have done.

Under the 1944 Education Act, it was local education authorities that had responsibility for the provision of education. Yet effective control over what went on in classrooms, and over what determined the content and quality of education, rested with the heads of individual institutions and their staff. So there was a disjunction between formal responsibility and effective control which was to prove problematic and which eventually led to the Education Reform Act 1988. That Act gave much more responsibility to individual schools and colleges; and it gave parents the opportunity to seek grant-maintained status for their schools. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 did the same for further education colleges and paved the way for the polytechnics to become universities. This Bill now extends that vision. It provides a framework within which the power and responsibility for achieving high standards will lie mainly with individual schools, with governing bodies, head teachers and their staff being accountable to parents and local communities who have the greatest interest in seeing that their schools succeed.

Clause 1 of the Bill, which replaces Section 1 of the 1944 Act, embodies this vision. It carries forward the Secretary of State's general duty to promote the education of the people of England and Wales. It requires him to, exercise his powers with a view, among other things, to improving standards, encouraging diversity and increasing opportunities for choice". It enables him to do so only to the extent that his specific powers, either on the face of the Bill or in existing legislation, will allow.

I know there is concern about the impact of the clause on higher education institutions. I assure the House that such concern is misplaced. The clause confers no additional powers on the Secretary of State in relation to universities. The clause needs to be read alongside the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. That Act, as this House will well recall, fully secures the continuing independence of universities, and nothing in this Bill, in Clause I or elsewhere, changes that situation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is setting this out in a letter to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

The universities have long been self-governing institutions. Further education colleges and sixth form colleges achieve that status formally from 1st April this year. Many schools are also enjoying, and showing that they can benefit from self-governing status. Only seven weeks ago I announced the 400th grant-maintained school. Today there are 503 approved grant-maintained schools. To date one in five secondary schools have balloted. Many primary schools have also done so and the number of applications is rising daily.

But the precise rate of opting out will depend entirely on the judgment of parents. The Government have absolutely no wish to impose self-governing status on any school. Application for self-governing status can only be made following a democratic ballot of parents. Their commitment to their children's education is crucial. We know that more and more parents are seeing the advantages of choosing self-governing status. I repeat, however, that this is a matter for parents.

The Bill recognises that schools do not exist in isolation. It will encourage the traditional partnerships to adapt to changing circumstances. I would like to say a little about each of the main partnerships: about how the important but changing role of the LEA 'will mesh with that of the new funding bodies; about how a network of self-governing Church schools will still have the support of the Church education authorities; and about how our drive for higher standards will continue to be underpinned by the national curriculum and by the new inspection framework.

The reality is that self-governing schools are already a significant feature of the educational landscape. They are, and will continue to be, directly accountable to parents and to the local community.

Part II of the Bill re-enacts with some improvements the grant-maintained provisions of the 1988 Act. It will help secure a smoother transition to self-governing status and ensure that no unnecessary obstacles are placed in the way of schools considering taking that option. In particular we are making it possible for schools to apply for self-governing status as part of a group. Opting out as part of a group will give schools, especially small schools, the opportunity to share administrative and managerial functions while at the same time retaining their individual characters and ethos.

It would not be appropriate for the growing number of self-governing state schools to be administered by a central Whitehall department. That is why, in Part 1 of the Bill, and in line with government policy more generally, we are delegating functions to new bodies—the Funding Agency for Schools in England, and, in due course, when the number of schools in the Principality requires it, the Schools Funding Council for Wales. It is our intention that these bodies should not become LEAs by another name. They will not be managing individual schools. It will be the schools themselves, their head teachers and governing bodies, who will be responsible for the education they provide. As their name implies, the principal function of the funding authorities will be to fund grant-maintained schools. They will be accountable for this, as for their other functions, through my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, to Parliament.

But they will also need to share the responsibility for securing sufficient school places once there is a certain minimum proportion of grant-maintained schools in an area. There must be appropriate planning for the growing grant-maintained schools sector. That is not a role which can be given back to LEAs. So there is no alternative to funding agency involvement. But all statutory proposals, whether by the funding agency or the LEA, will be subject to objection by those in the local community. And, as now, all controversial proposals will be determined by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. The Bill provides for appropriate consultation to take place between the funding agency and LEAs.

I would like to talk briefly about the future role of local education authorities. There have been many scare stories and I wish to allay any fears or apprehensions. LEAs will continue to have a role, and an important one. However, with or without this Bill, the role of LEAs is changing as all schools take control of their budgets under local management of schools.

I have also noted considerable concern about local education authority trading powers. Local education authorities will continue to provide support services to their own schools and, under certain circumstances, will provide support services to self-governing schools. I know there is concern on that issue and I look forward to many opportunities, both in Committee and on Report, to allay any concerns that noble Lords may have on those issues.

The future role of local education authorities must reflect their responsibility for their own schools and the expanding self-governing sector. The authorities will, of course, continue to maintain those schools that choose not to apply for self-governing status. But even for them, and the more so with self-governing schools, the LEA's role is developing into an enabling one that is increasingly concentrated on those functions for which an LEA is best fitted; for example, assessing and statementing pupils with special educational needs, and enforcing school attendance.

I should like to say a little about each of these important areas. First, I shall deal with special needs. No debate on providing for children with special educational needs can properly begin, especially in this House, without acknowledging and paying tribute to the fundamental work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. It was her report which provided the underlying research and philosophical basis for the 1981 Education Act. I am delighted that the noble Baroness is in her place in the House today and that she continues to take a keen interest in special educational provision. We all benefit from her wisdom in these matters.

I should also like to say how grateful I am to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. Part III of the Bill fulfils the commitment I gave to this House on 29th June last year during the Committee stage debate on the Private Member's Bill introduced by my noble friend. I wish to thank him most warmly for the care with which he has looked at our proposals: he has examined them in great detail and has contributed to the legislation now before the House. I am grateful to other noble friends and the many organisations concerned with special educational needs with which they are associated for their constructive contribution to this important debate.

The Education Bill now before the House not only fulfils the commitments on legislating for pupils with special educational needs which I gave the House last year; it goes well beyond those commitments. The Bill establishes a coherent system which allocates clear roles and responsibilities and is answerable to the parents of the children whom it serves. The Bill puts clear statutory duties on the governors of all schools—self-governing and LEA maintained—to use their best endeavours to secure the special educational provision for all their registered pupils with special educational needs, both with and without statements.

We have strengthened those duties particularly to benefit pupils without statements. The Bill, as now amended, implements our new policy of requiring all governing bodies to draw up, to publish and to report on their school's policy for special educational needs. Schools will therefore be more accountable to parents and also to the independent inspectorate whose framework requires inspectors to evaluate those policies.

We are giving parents of children with statements greater choice over the school for their children. We are improving access to the present arrangements for conducting assessments and making statements through regulating the time and the manner in which LEAs carry out their duties. We are also providing a more coherent and comprehensive set of rights of appeal for parents, and establishing a new independent tribunal to give parents quicker redress through a more open and independent appeals procedure. To clarify one point on which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway has been particularly concerned, I should say explicitly that the tribunal will hear appeals from parents about the choice of school for their child.

Of course, we must not forget the needs of the most able children. That is why we are announcing a new initiative today, in collaboration with the National Association for Able Children, and also with Ofsted. This will develop practical guidance for teachers dealing with gifted children.

There is little point in establishing the new structures and partnerships envisaged in the Bill if children do not attend school. Levels of truancy are causing my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the department great concern. The structure imposed by the school day is an important discipline in itself. A young person out of school for no good reason is vulnerable to bad influences and, as we all know, truancy can be the first step towards juvenile delinquency and a criminal career. We have witnessed too many manifestations of that sad downward spiral recently.

The statutory responsibilities of local education authorities in relation to school attendance are set out in Part IV of the Bill. The clauses bring together, in an updated form, existing provisions contained in a number of statutes. They empower local education authorities to serve school attendance orders and to take cases to court where necessary. They also make provision for parental choice to be taken into account where it is consistent with the aim of ensuring that the child attends school regularly.

The Government declared in the White Paper their intention to place a new duty on local authorities to provide education otherwise than at school for those pupils who require it. We recognise that pupils requiring such provision—for example, pupils excluded for disciplinary offences—often present very real difficulties for the education system. But we must not duck that challenge. The aim will be to make proper educational provision for these young people. We shall be laying before this House shortly a number of government amendments designed to give effect to that commitment.

I must now turn to those schools—thankfully a very small number but disproportionately represented in our inner cities—which are failing to provide good education for our children. We simply cannot stand by any longer wringing our hands while those schools fail our children. Part V of the Bill includes provisions to ensure that the needs of those pupils will be met. Those children deserve no less.

All schools will be subject to inspection under the 1992 Act. Where a registered inspector concludes that a school is "at risk", the Bill provides for swift and effective action to be taken, regardless of whether the school is a local authority school, a church school or a self-governing grant-maintained school. Our objectives are clear: to raise standards in all schools; to expose good, bad and indifferent practice; to disseminate good practice; and to eliminate unacceptable bad practice.

I have referred to the great strides that have been made since the Education Reform Act became law. The national curriculum, like local management of schools, was a concept that was criticised and feared in some quarters. As is often the case, the imagined was radically different from the reality. Both the framework and much of the detail of the national curriculum are now in place. We are continuing to pilot and then introduce the vital assessment arrangements.

The National Curriculum Council and the School Examinations and Assessment Council have made a vital contribution to the introduction in our schools of the national curriculum assessment arrangements. I pay tribute to the two chairmen —David Pascall of the National Curriculum Council and my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach—and also the members and officers of both councils. But it now makes sense to move on and to establish a single body which will bring greater coherence to curriculum and assessment matters. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority will ensure that the national curriculum will continue to be a force for raising expectations and standards.

The Bill also builds on the existing arrangements for the development of the Welsh curriculum. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority will have a more limited remit in Wales than its predecessors. The Bill enables the Secretary of State for Wales to transfer functions of the SCAA in relation to Wales to the Curriculum Council for Wales, which will then be re-named the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales. I am pleased that I did not have to say that in Welsh! It is the intention to transfer assessment of the Welsh language at all key stages from the English to the Welsh body, as well as assessment at key stages 1 to 3 in all other subjects.

I am aware that there has been some anxiety that the provisions of the Bill could threaten Welsh medium education in Wales. I can assure your Lordships that there is nothing in the Bill which threatens teaching in Welsh.

Our earliest schools were church schools. They played a fundamental part in the development of a national education service. The Government attach the greatest importance to the continuing role of the Churches. The distinctive ethos of church schools, the moral values which they take special care to give their pupils, and the attention to pastoral care on the part of their teaching staff, are features which I should like to see in all our schools.

As more church schools opt for self-governing status we arc determined that the partnership between the state and the Churches should continue and strengthen. I have no doubt that many church schools, having made the decision to seek self-governing status, will very much want the continuing support of the relevant diocesan education authority. Those schools should rest assured that, although they will be joining the self-governing sector of schools and so will lose the "voluntary" label they had under LEA stewardship, I am every bit as determined as they are themselves to ensure that church schools remain a distinctive family within the self-governing sector.

Now would seem an appropriate time to outline how the Bill will strengthen the place of religious education in all our schools. The Government are committed to the role of schools in promoting children's spiritual and moral development. The whole of a school's work should contribute to that dimension of the curriculum. But religious education and collective worship provide an important focus for the development of children's values and beliefs.

The Bill is intended to strengthen the position of religious education in all our schools as a vital element of the curriculum. It builds on the arrangements set out in the Education Act 1944, and strengthened again in the Education Reform Act 1988. As a result of this Bill, we are going to see an end to LEAs dragging their feet over the legal requirement to update their religious education syllabuses. The Bill also brings the law into line with the development of self-governing schools.

I have spoken at some length. I greatly appreciate your Lordships' forbearance. This is a vital piece of legislation. We owe it to every child to ensure that he or she is given the chance to realise his or her full potential.

There are radical proposals in this Bill. The Bill extends parental power and I make no apology for that. We need to foster a culture in which responsibility and accountability rest principally with the local provider—that is, the individual school. We need to establish a vital new partnership between self-governing schools, their parents and their local communities.

But no school exists in isolation. Self-governing church schools will continue to need the full support of the church education authorities; and local education authorities will continue to provide certain services to the pupils of all self-governing schools.

We see this Bill as another significant milestone in education. It retains important features of, but updates, the 1944 Education Act. It builds on the 1988 Education Reform Act in order to provide a coherent organisational framework for our schools. It will give professional teachers the space and support to practise their art. This Bill will secure, as of right, a good education for all children from whatever background they come and from whatever ability level they start. We shall make a reality of an education concerned with the wholesomeness of young people by addressing the academic, cultural, mental, physical, spiritual and moral needs of all of our children. In this way we shall not only meet the challenges of a fiercely competitive world; we shall beat them too. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Blotch.)

3.32 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, much of the speech of the Minister has, I believe, underlined precisely why there is so much widespread concern about this Bill throughout the land. It is indeed the final stage in the Government's destruction of the 1944 consensus on education in England and Wales. The contrast in purpose and attitude is enormous. Despite the acute pressures of war, the 1944 Education Act was considered in detail by a Commons Committee of the Whole House and became law only after much consultation and detailed scrutiny. The White Paper which preceded this Bill was published in July last year with only two months for consultation—a significant period because it covered the school summer holidays! The Bill then rapidly followed and very soon the Government applied the guillotine to the debate in the other place.

On publication there were 255 clauses and 17 schedules, making it the longest Education Bill ever. There are now 276 clauses and 18 schedules, after 331 amendments and 24 new clauses were introduced by the Government in the other place. Many of these amendments and new clauses were tabled at the last possible moment, with no proper opportunity for consultation or considered amendment. It cannot be the case that short consultation and a long Bill make for good legislation and educational improvement. The nation is therefore looking anxiously to this House for informed and detailed scrutiny of the Bill.

Currently, the Bill is a recipe for continuing instability in the education system. It makes no attempt to address real problems by providing more teachers for growing classes or replacing dilapidated textbooks or deteriorating school buildings. Instead, it centres on the Government's ideological dogma of removing responsibilities from local authorities without any real consideration of the practicalities.

The Government's clear aim is to decimate local education authorities, leaving them only the tasks no one else wants to fulfil. This is most starkly illustrated by the introduction of the so-called "Clause Zero", now Clause 1 of the Bill, which was introduced only at Report stage in the other place without consultation except, interestingly, for a preview in the Daily Mail which announced it as the death of local education authorities. Clause 1 is intended to replace Section 1(1) of the 1944 Education Act, which put the duty on the Secretary of State for Education to, secure the effective execution by local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive educational service in every area. The new Clause 1 makes no mention of the role of local education authorities. Indeed, the Minister has stressed that. The Government's aim is clearly to phase them out of general school provision. That was illustrated by comments from the Minister, Eric Forth, in Committee in the other place who said, when questioned on why there was no opportunity for schools to opt back into local authority control: there may not be anything for them to opt back into". When asked to clarify, he added: I meant a sufficiently viable authority which would be able to handle schools balloting to come back under its control". However, whatever the Minister may claim, the Government's "big idea"—the internal market in education, operated through grant-maintained schools—has so far failed. It has had only a marginal development in all but a handful of LEAs. The main outcome of the 1988 Education Reform Act has been centralisation: the national curriculum, testing, and centrally determined local management formulae.

This centralisation to the Secretary of State has frightening implications. It seems that in a recent memorandum to the Select Committee which deals with these matters, 44 pages detailed over 100 powers delegated to the Secretary of State, only one of which was subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. If that is true, what does it say about the state of democracy in this country? What does it tell us about who really runs the education system?

Before we leave the Napoleonic zero clause we would do well to note the anxiety which it has provoked in higher education to which the Minister referred. The point remains that, as drafted, the planning powers of all the funding councils as they affect standards, diversity and choice, appear to have been transferred to Ministerial edict.

Listen to what the Conservative Education Association said of the Bill in September of last year: We believe that it represents a massive and dangerous increase in the power given to central government". That was before the zero clause. Meanwhile, parents who have not rushed to apply for grant-maintained status for their children's schools are now being pushed into it by the introduction into the Bill of a new clause requiring governing bodies in areas designated by the Secretary of State to consider balloting on grant-maintained status every year.

The grant-maintained system is the bedrock of the government's philosophy. The Government see grant-maintained schools as the epitome of parental choice. Yet they fail to see that the growth in the number of these schools merely subjects them all to a national bureaucracy which is less accessible and less accountable. They fail to see the inherent contradiction of their own centralising policies, which give more power than ever before to the Secretary of State, and they fail to value the importance of the support services which the local education authority can provide to schools collectively and economically.

Now they are even abandoning their guiding principle of parental choice. This Bill for the first time allows schools to become grant-maintained without a parental ballot. Schools which are considered failing and which are temporarily taken over by education associations will automatically become grant-maintained or close. The Conservative Education Association is alarmed about that. It says: This strikes us as precisely the sort of ideologically based policy that should be avoided". It goes on to describe it as an, unwarranted extension of central government power and concludes: The Secretary of State defines what failure is, and is then judge and jury in every case". An amendment introduced in the other place provided for grant-maintained special schools, but there is no procedure on the face of the Bill for how such schools are to become grant-maintained. Therefore, it is possible that they could do so without a ballot. Once 10 per cent. of pupils in an area are attending grant-maintained schools, the funding authority may establish new grant-maintained schools in that area, with or without the support of the majority of parents.

In addition, this Bill removes the need for two governors' resolutions which at least provided time for debate and consultation before a school begins to ballot on grant-maintained status. The Government have insisted that grant-maintained status is a one-way street. There is to be no way back and therefore no democratic choice for future parents.

As I understand it, the Government's argument against allowing schools to opt back to county status is that it will create an unstable education system. But we already have an unstable education system. Ten per cent. is a very low threshold. How can local education authorities plan the provision and financing of education in their areas when at any moment another school may choose to opt out, perhaps one that attracts a significant proportion of its pupils from outside the area, in contrast to the wishes of the parents of the area itself who may have shown little desire to see their children attending grant-maintained schools, and when the Secretary of State may then choose to make an order to share the LEA's responsibility for planning places with the funding authority.

A stable system where schools, parents and local education authorities know where they stand and can plan with some degree of certainty is badly needed. Why could we not say that schools should decide whether they want to be county or grant-maintained and stick with that decision for five years? Would that not be a more commendably forthright form of government? Instead, we have change by attrition. How sadly political candour, courage and leadership have deteriorated since 1944.

The Government's clumsily devious style is again illustrated in their use of specialisation as a cover for introducing selection by stealth without consultation of parents or teachers, without a clear policy on the means by which it can be achieved and without a thought for those many children who will be labelled as failures by such a system.

As Local Schools Information has said: The encouragement of specialisation in schools is bound to lead to the extension of selection in some form if those schools are over-subscribed; it will otherwise add nothing to parental choice except for those parents living nearest the schools concerned". That judgment is endorsed by the Conservative Education Association which has said: We welcome the priority the Government are giving to technology. We agree that our economic future depends on greater success in this area, but we feel that the need is for an improvement in all schools and not just a few technology schools and CTCs". Any introduction of selection by a school should surely be considered a change of character. But it is significant that Eric Forth stated to the Committee in the other place that: if 10 per cent. of the intake of a school that wishes to specialise … is selected on aptitude, that would not constitute a significant change of character". In other words, should a school wish to specialise in this way, there is no requirement to test the feelings of parents, the local community or even the Secretary of State. How can that help in the coherent provision of an education system to meet the aptitudes and abilities of all pupils?

It seems that grant-maintained status may indeed be seen by the Government as a route back to selection. This month we have seen three schools being given permission by the Secretary of State to introduce selection. But there seems to be some doubt about the way that happened. Perhaps the Minister, when she winds up, could clarify the situation. According to a report in the Independent on Sunday, two of the schools, in Hertfordshire, did not want to introduce selection and are only doing so at the instigation of the DEE. If true, this significant change of admission policy, without the consultation of parents, signifies that the Government's ideology means, once again, central direction —hardly choice and diversity in action!

Whatever the whys and wherefores of Hertfordshire, may I again quote the Conservative Education Association? If the grant-maintained system develops as some of its more ideological supporters hope, then the system will restrict choice rather than increase it". Dictation from the centre to local schools can only intensify as the number of grant-maintained schools increases. Once 10 per cent. of the pupils in a local education authority area are attending grant-maintained schools, the funding authority will share with the LEA the duty to plan school places in that area—a structure reminiscent of Richelieu's intendant system designed to build up the centralised power of the Bourbon kings in 17th century France. How can two separate organisations have such a parallel duty? With whom will ultimate responsibility lie? How can a national funding authority which the Government do not envisage having regional arms be the best way to plan schools in Cornwall or Cumbria? If there is a need to provide a new school in an area, in which sector shall it be placed? Or if there is a need to close a school in an area, in which sector should one be closed? This is a certain recipe for inefficient bureaucracy—as the ancien régime eventually discovered in France.

The Conservative Education Association sums it up well: We fear that all that will happen is the replacement of local education authorities with a far larger, more bureaucratic and less accountable national education authority". Studies have consistently shown that nursery education improves a child's chances in life. Children are likely to achieve more both academically and behaviourally if they have nursery education. Yet this Bill endangers the provision of nursery education. It is likely that some grant-maintained schools may apply to the Secretary of State for permission to provide nursery education. Should such permission be granted, the funding will automatically be deducted from the LEA's budget., meaning that nursery provision will be available in those schools and those areas that apply for it first, rather than in those schools and those areas where it is most needed. For the LEA's discretion to judge such need and to plan the provision of nursery education will be gone, and there is no duty on the funding authority with regard to nursery provision. The outlook is bleak. Either we shall see no new nursery provision or, at best, unplanned and unco-ordinated nursery provision across authorities.

While much of the general framework of the Bill's provision for special needs is to be welcomed, it ignores the question of resourcing the decisions of the tribunal. The special educational needs tribunal is quite free to make decisions about a child's education without any consideration for the cost of such provisions. Yet the cost, for example, a residential placements in special schools can be in excess of £20,000 per annum. Where such placements are deemed necessary for a child's education the Government must indicate from where the money will come. It is also vital to recognise the importance of integration and co-operation in much special needs provision. That is a priority which it is essential to take seriously and which quite clearly the LEAs are ideally placed to fulfil.

Clause 265 of the Bill extends the period during which local authorities can provide goods and services to grant-maintained schools by two years. While that is to be welcomed, we have to ask why there should be any limit at all. The Government say that the market will solve all, but will the market really provide the kind of library service that schools need? What about outdoor activities? Will the market, in all circumstances and in all areas of the country, really provide services as diverse as school meals and specialist support with difficult children as a means of pre-empting delinquency?

Is it not likely, particularly in rural areas, that only one supplier will emerge who can then determine the price? Surely if LEAs wish to continue supplying services and grant-maintained schools wish to bury them, they should have the choice to do so. There is a widespread concern about Clause 256 and music tuition. What talent may we be about to smother? That is a point which must be pursued.

The consensus created in terms of religious education by the 1988 Education Reform Act must not be undermined. Religious education should be relevant and meaningful for all our children or it will not enable them to learn the ethics and moral values they need to play a full part in society. Different areas have different needs from a religious education syllabus and that is why local committees were set up to determine local syllabi. Yet, amazingly, grant-maintained schools, while having a key involvement in drawing up such syllabi, are not to be obliged to follow them.

Adult education offers many the only opportunity they have to return to an education that was cut off too early, a chance to achieve something. Yet growth in grant-maintained schools and subsequent cutting of local education authorities' budgets make adult education harder to provide. It is not just about money—although that is obviously important—it is also about rooms in which to hold classes and books and materials to use. While the local education authority is responsible for both schools and adult education, the two services can integrate to the benefit of both, by sharing resources and classrooms. If the Secretary of State will not allow that to continue, then a solution must be found to ensure adult education classes have access to the resources that they need.

Last week, in this House, we debated access to higher education. Adult education courses available in school premises have often been an invaluable route to higher education for many from poorer families or the ethnic minorities. At a time when the nation is acutely concerned about crime, and particularly juvenile crime, surely we should be paying more attention to the values of education and the involvement of the whole community. Over-simplified league tables lead to crude competition; crude competition leads to exclusion; exclusion leads to alienation, and alienation is often a cause of crime. It is disturbing that those in the Government who are responsible for education do not at least appear to see that more clearly.

The real criticism of the Bill is its lack of vision and its total failure to rise to the challenges of the century ahead. Where is the determination to provide once and for all universal nursery education—the essential base for any relevant educational system? Where is the commitment to create a general teaching council to ensure a sound professional status and reliable professional standards for our teachers? Where is the resolve to reduce class sizes? Where is the determination to build the one nation about which the Prime Minister likes to speak?

Where there has been an opportunity, as in 1944, to capture the imagination of the nation and to build consensus, we have seen instead a demeaning ideological and divisive game plan. Where there was an opportunity to look at the social and economic demands of life beyond the year 2000, and to consider what educational system would best equip our children to meet them, we have seen instead Ministers preoccupied with increasing their own control. Relevant education must equip our children not only for work but for sharing, caring and living creatively in our communities. And yet the Bill, far from strengthening that sense of community without which it is virtually impossible to win the battle for social responsibility, has moved firmly in the opposite direction, pandering to narrow, short-term vested interest at the local level, setting school against school, and centralising power still further with the Secretary of State. It is not just a bad Bill—tactics triumphing over strategy—it is, I have to say, a sinister Bill. We have a great deal of work to do in the weeks ahead.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, with great regret and some shame I have to confess that owing to the very large number of speakers in the debate, I may have to catch a train home to the south coast before it finishes. I apologise, especially to the Minister, whose words I shall read carefully in Hansard.

Here we have another massive piece of legislation on education—the 17th, I believe, since the Tories came to power. So they should finally have got it right. But have they? We on these Benches think not, as do many individuals and organisations qualified to know but little consulted. Among them is a group of people more closely concerned than anyone, except the children themselves; namely, the parents. Certain parents have formed an organisation which they have called the Parents Initiative. They had a lobby here a few weeks ago. I heard some of their questions, a few of which I shall put to the Minister in the course of my speech.

On these Benches we do not feel that Her Majesty's Government have addressed the real needs of education. The real needs of the schools service are: high quality teaching; small classes; adequate buildings and resources; and an early start. I believe that if one asks any parent he or she would come up with much the same answer. Many parents have removed their children out of the state system, as I am sure noble Lords know, in order to achieve small classes for them.

All those things cost money. To pay for them, at the time of the last election the Liberal Democrats proposed an extra one penny in the pound on income tax specifically for that purpose. We do not believe that the internal market can supply those needs. Market forces seem to be the answer to all problems for this Government. It is rather like the answer of Mrs. Squeers to the ailments, real or potential, of the pupils at Dotheboys Hall—a spoonful of brimstone and treacle—which had the bonus, administered as it was before meals, of spoiling their appetites so that it did not cost so much to feed them.

The story began with local financial management, an excellent idea which was initiated by the Liberal Democrats. Paradoxically, it has blown up in this Bill into a massive exercise in centralisation which we believe is largely a political rather than an educational venture. Local authorities, including the London County Council, were set up in 1888 by Lord Salisbury, in an Act shepherded through the Commons by my grandfather. They were to be a counterweight to central government despotism. The present Government, who have been in power too long, have worked unremittingly to destroy that framework and leave themselves with their power uncha1lenge.

The Bill carries that process further. Local authorities will no longer be partners in the provision of education as laid down in the Butler Act of 1944. Clause 1, introduced at the last moment in another place, proclaims that the Secretary of State alone shall promote the education of the people of England and Wales. Suppose one day we had a reincarnation of Dr. Goebbels! The Secretary of State was given 400 new powers in the 1988 Act and this Bill gives him another 50.

Henceforth, the provision and funding of education in England and Wales will no longer be by a partnership between central government and locally based elected bodies of citizens but in the hands of centrally appointed, unelected quangos, the funding authorities. The Parents Initiative asks: Wouldn't it be more democratic if all the new bodies were independent, appointed by t he Education Select Committee, for example?". And it asks: Shouldn't parents have the right to have a Local Education Committee which they can lobby?". I know that individual grant-maintained schools will have a much appreciated autonomy. That does not mean that parents and children as a whole will not find themselves without the democratic outlets that they had before in the form of the local education authority.

Let us consider how the transition to grant-maintained status is to be facilitated and pressurised. The Minister said in her speech that the Government had no wish whatever to impose grant-maintained status on parents. But they come very near to doing so. Clause 21 empowers the Secretary of State to require governing bodies of LEA schools in specified areas to consider once in each school year holding a ballot on grant-maintained status. Governing bodies are to be heavily leant on over that, as noble Lords will see in subsection (4) of the clause. One presumes that specified areas are ones where the local authority is in the hands of one of the opposition parties. Clause 29 makes no provision, as in the 1988 Act, for a second ballot to take place to confirm the first. No opportunity is given for a school that has lost its way with grant-maintained status to opt back into local authority control. So a decision taken perhaps by a small number of parents, with a majority of one, stands for all time. My suspicion here is that it is the hope of the Government that before too long there will be no local education authority for schools to opt back into.

Nor is anything done to rectify the situation whereby a parent whose child is on the point of leaving a school has a right to vote on the school's future status whereas a parent whose child is about to join the school next term has no vote. Think of the destabilising effect of the requirement that grant-maintained status should he considered annually; think of the political feuds and factions that may develop between governors and between parents. That is regrettable on an isolated occasion. But what if the issue is raised every year and kept constantly on the boil? What price the stability and happiness of the school management then?

I do not like Clause 24 at all. It requires governing bodies to make available to any parents the names and addresses of all other registered parents of the school unless they have objected in writing. I would object most vehemently if exposed to lobbying and politicking from a handful of other parents.

I am aware that some of the grant-maintained schools are well satisfied with their own situations. But those schools are likely to become progressively selective. What happens then to the children who are not selected? I understand that a typical situation has arisen in Camden. Two flourishing grant-maintained schools are drawing pupils from their own well-heeled areas—quite legitimately, because in each case they are the nearest school. However, a third area of the population, less well heeled, cannot find places at either of the grant-maintained schools and the children have to travel a considerable distance to the nearest LEA school. It seems increasingly as though the much-vaunted choice will be choice For the schools rather than choice for parents and children.

I shall pass over the confusion that we believe will arise as a result of funding agencies and LEAs having shared responsibility for school placement, which I am sure will be covered by other noble Lords.

We are much concerned about the services that LEAs have always supplied to their schools. Grant-maintained schools are to be permitted to buy LEA services for a maximum of two years. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Why two years? What will happen after two years when a grant-maintained school may need a youth service, a careers service, a music, library or museum service? They are, I think, supposed to appear by magic from the private sector. But what if they are expensive or second-rate—or non-existent? And what if surviving LEAs, because they have had to devolve so much central funding and because they will be disallowed from selling services to grant-maintained schools, cannot afford to offer them any longer to their own schools?

There is much anxiety in regard to music teaching, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said. Over the years the musical achievements of our maintained schools have been quite outstanding. That standard has been achieved because of the ability of local education authorities to supply highly qualified peripatetic instrument teachers to the schools within their authority. What guarantee is there that such services will remain affordable when the system is broken up?

There is also much anxiety in regard to outdoor education. That is an important element in the national curriculum PE programme and has been provided by residential outdoor education centres, a majority of which are supported by LEAs. A quarter of a million young people each year have gone through that experience, which involves outdoor exploration and adventure, research and observation of the environment and personal and social development. The Association of Heads of Outdoor Education is worried that, with the fragmentation of the system, LEAs and school heads will be unable to pay for the centres of excellence which are staffed by highly trained, experienced and responsible people providing an educational experience which, I understand, is particularly helpful to disaffected youngsters who might otherwise become a menace to society. How much more intelligent it would be to fund ventures such as that than to build new prisons.

In Part III the Bill concerns itself with special needs. Much of what is proposed will indeed be helpful, but there are two main areas of anxiety. One is overall planning for children with special needs. Clause 157 makes it the responsibility of LEAs—at least for the care of individual children. But how easy will it be for LEAs to plan strategically for children in grant-maintained schools? I merely ask the question. What authority will they have to say what grant-maintained schools shall or shall not do in that regard?

The other area of anxiety is resourcing: it always has been. I highlight what I mean by giving one example. A couple of weeks ago I was in a school in south London. The head, newly appointed, has been making valiant efforts to raise the standard and reputation of the school. He has been extremely successful. But he and his head of special needs are faced with a problem. They work in the borough of Lambeth and that council is pursuing determinedly the provisions of the 1981 Act on integration into mainstream schooling of children with special needs. Accordingly, the school is being pressed to accept six boys who have been excluded from every other school in the borough. They exhibit what is euphemistically called nowadays, "challenging behaviour". That means that they are disruptive and violent.

I know what it is like having such boys in a school. It requires only one. Their presence can create absolute mayhem. The headmaster had to exclude one boy recently who had caused a girl to have six stitches in her forehead. What is he to do? On the one hand he wants his school to have a good reputation. On the other, he too would no doubt like to fulfil the spirit of the 1981 Act. His answer is that it could conceivably be done. The boys, one, two or three of them, could be admitted if they had the exclusive attention of a special member of staff. But how is that to be paid for?

There is another problem. The school has a little girl in a wheelchair. I am not sure what her complaint is but I am afraid that she will never be out of the wheelchair. The council provided the wheelchair but has not provided any other facilities. It is therefore extremely difficult transporting her from one floor to another. I know that the headmaster, the head of special needs and the deputy are extremely worried as to what would happen in the case of fire. That is another case of adequate resourcing not being available. The problems of special needs can only be solved if LEAs remain in effective strategic control and if sufficient central funding can be ring-fenced to put into practice the principles of the 1981 Act.

I am sure that many noble Lords will have received distraught letters from school teachers and parents on the subject of nursery schooling. Nursery schooling in this country is no longer statutory. It ceased to be so in 1979. However, a number of local authorities have been able to offer the service for three or four year-olds if they felt that they could afford to. The service has been of a high standard, with highly trained teachers and nursery nurses. But only around 25 per cent. of the country's children have been able to benefit from it. The figure in France and Belgium is 95 per cent.

With the coming fragmentation it seems that that precious resource may be lost and the Bill gives no assurance of funding. I know that for many overworked and distraught mothers it will be a terrible blow. There is evidence that early education of a high quality produces excellent results and gives children marked advantages. They do better not only in primary schools, but also American research has apparently shown that the effects are still in evidence when children reach their teens. There are fewer referrals to special education; less tendency to delinquency; and fewer unwanted teenage pregnancies. It was calculated that for every dollar spent on pre-school education, four dollars were saved later. I have no means of checking those figures.

I hope that I have given some idea of why we do not believe that the Bill tackles the real problems. It contains nothing to boost teacher morale; nothing such as the Secretary of State being given powers to set up a general teaching council. There is nothing in it about small classes. It gives no reassurance about resourcing adequately in certain vital areas such as LEA services and special needs. It says nothing about an early start. Instead it seems to me that we have the maximum disruption to produce what looks like being an extremely confused situation. Why can we not build on what we have rather than dismantling the whole framework and jeopardising the smooth running of the system, which only needs modification and adjustment, while we give our attention to the key issues of which I have spoken? We on these Benches will do our best to improve the Bill, but it will be a tough job.

Back to