HL Deb 18 July 1994 vol 557 cc56-64

1Clause 5, page 4, line 15, after 'institution' insert '—

  1. (i) made by either of Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Schools, or
  2. (ii)".

1A The Lord Beloff to move that this House do disagree to Commons amendment 1 but propose the following amendments in lieu-

IB Page 4, line 15, after 'institution' insert'—

  1. (i) made, subject to sub-paragraph (c) below, by either of Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Schools, or
  2. (ii)".

1C Page 4, line 17, at end insert: ("(c) in relation to any particular institution, to the readiness of the institution by agreement to allow Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Schools—

  1. (i) entry to the premises of the institution at all reasonable times;
  2. 57
  3. (ii) access to records and other documents kept by the institution which reasonably relate to the discharge of the functions of Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Schools.")

Lord Beloff

My Lords, it is often said that princes know no gratitude. Perhaps that might be extended to Prime Ministers. We in your Lordships' House received an Education Bill which we found distasteful in many respects. We passed a number of amendments which we thought improved the Bill to a great extent. For those improvements one would have expected Her Majesty's Government to be overflowing with gratitude. They sent us a bad Bill and we sent them a good one. In fact, I had visions not merely of telegrams of congratulation from the Prime Minister but that he would depute the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, to bring bottles of Krug champagne for all those who had done this valiant work. Nothing of the kind!

The Bill went to the Commons and after proceedings in Committee, which I can hardly recommend to your Lordships as an intellectual affair of the highest order, a number of amendments were inserted. Largely, they had the effect of reversing the improvements that your Lordships had made. I can only assume that this being an Education Bill I may address the House briefly in Latin: quos Deus vult perdere prius dementat. That means: those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad.

It is extremely difficult to understand the reasons that can have led the Secretary of State and his acolytes in another place to alter a Bill which, as it came to them, was acceptable to the education world in general. We are told by the press—and not everything we read in the press is to be believed—that before this week is out we may have a new Secretary of State for Education. I can imagine nothing that would be less acceptable to a new Secretary of State than to be landed by the Bill in a totally unnecessary quarrel with the universities of this country. It would indeed be a bad beginning.

Therefore, I suggest that my noble friend the Minister—after, perhaps, taking advice and, as it is still very early, I do not think that the House would object to a short adjournment for the purpose—should propose that further consideration of the amendments be postponed until the overflow Session in the autumn. In that case, if there is a new Secretary of State, there will have been time to reconsider the matter and the amendments from the House of Commons might not be pressed. Then the Bill in the form in which it passed through your Lordships' House might become law. However, I see no movement on the part of my noble friend to fulfil my very well-meant and helpful suggestion. I shall, therefore, proceed—alas—with my Motion.

The question relates to the access by inspectors of schools to institutions, especially those of higher education, which are performing functions in the field of teacher training. There has always been a fairly helpful and close relationship between universities and the inspectorate. The universities would be quite happy to continue that and those which are engaged in teacher training would probably often welcome the presence of persons with particular knowledge of the subject.

However, the way in which the Bill has now been amended would tend to make such inspections an automatic matter rather than a matter of mutual agreement. In particular—and this is the main point mat I should like to make to my noble friend the Minister— it was said by the Secretary of State after the Committee stage when the Bill returned to another place that he would ensure that the powers of grant which are given to the agency would be exercised in such a way as to compel universities to admit the inspectors.

One may say that something which is done by compulsion and which would, in any event, have been done by agreement is no great matter. However, it represents a departure from what has consistently been maintained by Her Majesty's Government, not only in the case of this Bill but also as regards preceding education Bills; namely, that it was not their intention to use the funding power to affect the internal arrangements in particular fields of teaching and study of universities. Therefore, such provision would create a departure and no doubt might in future be regarded as a precedent.

The purpose of moving the alternative amendments to Commons Amendment No. 1 is to ask my noble friend the Minister to say that the Secretary of State had no intention of indicating the use of funding powers to compel the universities to do this, and that that was an incident in debate which could be overlooked.

Moved, That the House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 3, but propose Amendments Nos. 1A, 1B and 1C in lieu thereof.—(Lord Beloff.)

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I should very much like to support what my noble friend said, especially in relation to Amendment No. 1C. Perhaps a little background history will not be inappropriate here from someone who was Her Majesty's Chief Inspector for teacher training and higher education for six years, including the time when the visits by HMI to university departments of education first began; indeed, all 40 institutions which offered training for teachers were visited during that time.

I have used the word "visit" because we were never inclined to call such visits inspections, nor did we ever assert a right of access, a right of entry., a right to enter a university or a right to have access to any of its papers. It seemed most important at the time because of the much more overriding principle of academic freedom of our universities that HMI should go into universities by invitation only. That very important principle was preserved throughout the whole of the 1980s and, to my knowledge, also through the 1990s.

It is true to say that in the time when CATE (the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education) was first set up, it was necessary for universities to have a report by HMI on their courses before those courses could be submitted for accreditation by the council. In many ways that was a strong incentive for them to invite HMI. Nevertheless, it seemed to us, to the vice-chancellors and to the professors of education concerned that it was a very important distinction to draw that HMI did not make such inspections by any right of the Secretary of State to send us in or by any right of access that HMI had, but simply because the universities chose of their own free will to invite us: we were there as guests.

The status of HMI in universities was totally different, although I hope that the courtesies were no less in institutions other than universities. As I said, we were there as guests of the universities and we only had access to those papers and classes that the university concerned chose. In fact, the universities were the most courteous, the most charming of hosts, the most willing to allow us free access to anything that we felt was relevant and, by and large, had an extraordinarily good story to tell as regards what they were doing in the training of teachers. Indeed, it certainly left me and, I believe, most of my HMI colleagues with a deep commitment to the quality of work which the universities were doing in the training of teachers. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to reassure us that such a vitally important element of academic freedom, and the relationship between HMI and the universities as regards such visits, can be preserved in the future.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I too should like to support the amendment. The two previous speakers have put forward the heart of the case. However, I should like to stress the fact that accountability is not at issue here. Indeed, there is no dispute about the ability of inspectors to look at courses of initial teacher training. The two qualifications that the amendment makes are very limited and, I hope, not unreasonable: first, that inspectors may have entry "at all reasonable times"; and, secondly, that they may look at matters which "reasonably relate" to their business.

It is always a good rule to imagine that we are dealing with the business the other way round. As the Minister knows, the Department for Education is accountable to Parliament. It is bound to supply Parliament at all reasonable times—and, indeed, it does so—with information which relates to Parliament's reasonable queries. However, it has not always been thus. There was once a time in the Parliament of 1626 when another place insisted on marching into the Signet Office and rummaging through the files itself. The noble Baroness will, I think, imagine the kind of reaction which that produced in quarters in Whitehall. It is something which I think, happily, has not been repeated.

The measure has two very reasonable qualifications for entry: that it should be done at reasonable times, and that it should be concerned with matters which are intra vires. I may say that because of the amendment which the noble Baroness, to my great delight, moved at Third Reading of this Bill, the research of departments of education in universities would be, as I understand it, ultra vires for the inspectors. Therefore it is only the initial teacher training with which they are concerned. I cannot see that this is really likely to be contrary to what the Government intended. I would be glad to be told either that the amendment is to be accepted or that, because it in fact represents no more than they ever intended, it is unnecessary.

Lord Judd

My Lords, from these Benches, I too, would like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, on having so reasonably moved this amendment. I hope that the Minister will find it possible to reassure the House this evening, as indeed the noble Lord sought. The issue has raised profound anxieties about academic freedom, and I do not think that they can be lightly dismissed. I have read with some concern what the Secretary of State said in another place. The Secretary of State has had a long innings—many of us would perhaps say far too long an innings—and towards the end of an innings perhaps due to tiredness and so on it is possible that even by his own standards language became a little wild. But for those of us who treasure academic freedom in the universities and centres of higher education as something very special in British traditions, and something not to be eroded, what the Secretary of State said bears scrutiny. He talked about wanting to leave, as much freedom as possible to higher education institutions".— [Official Report, Commons, 677/94; col. 357.] Those are ominous words. In whose judgment is that freedom assessed? He talked candidly about proceeding by means which were "not quite as straightforward"— those were his words—"as amending the Bill".

He went on to say specifically at the same column of Hansard —he himself claimed that he was not putting it pretty crudely, but if this is not putting it pretty crudely I do not know what it is—that, the bottom line will be no inspection, no funding". He claimed that that is the method by which what he and some of his honourable friends wanted would be achieved. He went on to argue: It will be a condition of my grant to the agency under clause 7 that … it should impose as a condition of its grant to all higher education institutions under clause 5 a requirement that they must allow HMI unrestricted right to inspect activities on which the agency's funds are spent". What we have heard, in the reasonable way in which this amendment has been moved and supported, is that everyone wants to see quality in the preparation of our teachers. We therefore want to be able to discuss in a reasonable way what is going on; whether it is adequate and how it could be improved. But this evening there is the much graver issue of the tradition of academic freedom in our centres of higher education. If the noble Baroness is able convincingly to reassure the House tonight as regards what the Secretary of State really meant to say, I am sure we shall take that seriously, but, if not, we on this side of the House shall have no hesitation in supporting the noble Lord if he pushes his amendment to a vote.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I hope I may be allowed to say a few words in support of this amendment. I wish to start by expressing my most profound sympathy to my noble friend Lord Beloff who could reasonably have expected an emissary, and who obviously did. He had large expectations of a visit from his noble friend Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare bearing dozens and dozens of bottles of Krug. He must have been painfully disappointed and I am sure that all your Lordships would wish to express their deep sympathy with him.

At the same time as expressing sympathy with my noble friend I would just like to express a note of surprise. I may have completely misunderstood this, but my impression is that the Government have once again said that university freedom is not a matter of such great importance and that it can be intruded upon from time to time. It would certainly seem to me that when the Government have said that in the past they have achieved the astonishing feat of bringing all the university vice-chancellors together to a position of total agreement, absolute unanimity and great effectiveness. I wonder whether they are doing that again on this occasion.

Lord Dainton

My Lords, I hope I may add a very brief word to this debate, and it will be brief simply because other speakers have been so persuasive and so fluent. I remind your Lordships that the present involvement of universities in teacher training at all levels whether it is B.Ed, Postgraduate Certificate of Education and at higher degree levels, has evolved over many years in this country in the light of experience. The same is true of the partnership of the universities with the schools in which the practical experience is gained. It is a partnership which both sides value.

In their quest for quality which has already been referred to—and which we are all aiming for— universities have frequently opened their doors (I do not know of any case where they have closed them) to Her Majesty's Inspectors. That interaction between those inspectors and university departments of education has proved valuable to both sides. It is an arrangement which, because it is voluntary, engenders a degree of very fruitful co-operation which I in my experience have noticed is often absent from enforced inspection. I hope that the Government will not—as the Secretary of State almost threatened in another place on 6th July (this has been referred to already)—apply the principle of no inspection, no funding. I hope that instead the Secretary of State will choose not to disturb an arrangement which works well and will leave the university-HMI interface to develop further naturally. I am sure that neither side will be at all reluctant to co-operate where real advantage can be gained.

On the other hand, real damage will be done and academic autonomy will be infringed—that is something which has always been of great concern to this House, as has already been mentioned—were inspectors to succumb, or be instructed to succumb, to the temptation to interfere with what is taught and what is researched in the field of education despite the proviso which has excluded research. I, too, hope that the Minister can reassure us that in this matter the natural processes of evolution can continue without great upset.

5 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I think we do our friends and colleagues in another place a disservice if we say that we give no credence whatever to the rights of an elected Chamber to have its say, for the first time, on a Bill passing through these two Houses. This is a Bill that started off in the House of Lords and I believe we, rightly, did a good job with this Bill. I agree with my noble friend and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that we sent this Bill in good shape to the House of Commons. However, we must not invalidate its legitimate right as an elected Chamber to have its say about this Bill.

Having said that, I want now, I hope, to give all the reassurances that noble Lords are seeking and to say that nothing has changed. The automatic, legally-based right of access, that is feared is the case, was indeed sought in another place and rejected. My light honourable friend did not accept the amendment.

I assume that the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Beloff are not designed to alter the requirement that the agency should have regard to Her Majesty's Inspectors' advice, which was the sole purpose of the original amendment. My noble friend's amendments seem designed to secure—although I am advised that they do not do so—that Her Majesty's Inspectorate's advice is available only when institutions agree to reasonable HMI access. My noble friend Lord Beloff wishes to prevent my right honourable friend securing such access for HMI through conditions of grant, as he has said he intends.

Those who took part in our debates on the Education (Schools) Act 1992, which established the independence of HMI within Ofsted, may recall that the inspection of school teacher training is mentioned specifically in that Act as a function which may be assigned to HMI. I recall giving my noble friend Lord Elton in particular a number of assurances that we intended HMI to continue to inspect this important area of provision.

It was suggested in the other place that—in the context of new arrangements for teacher training—it might be timely to put teacher training inspection on a firmer footing. But to give the inspectorate a new statutory duty in this area would have to have been matched by a new statutory right for HMI to inspect institutions. My right honourable friend decided not to go down that route.

On both sides of this House there is general support for the need for HMI to inspect and report on initial teacher training. HMI must have access to higher education courses, as well as to school centred courses, to allow open and fair judgments of quality to be made and the right balance to be struck between courses of different types. But the Government are equally concerned, as noble Lords know, never to encroach unnecessarily on the freedom of academic institutions.

HMI has had the de facto right to inspect teacher training in universities for many years—because the Secretary of State would not otherwise have approved the courses, as my noble friend Lady Perry pointed out. I stress that in that respect we wish only to preserve the status quo: to retain arrangements under which access is secured in practice by non-statutory means.

Course approval by my right honourable friend is, as noble Lords know, to be abandoned under the Bill. To replace it as the lever which secures HMI the access it needs, my right honourable friend has decided to use conditions of grant. He proposes to make it a condition of his grant to the agency (under Clause 7) that the agency should in turn include among its conditions of grant to all higher education institutions (under Clause 5) a requirement that they must allow HMI to inspect all teacher training activities funded, in whole or in part, by the agency. That is the only way in which the agency will obtain information about the quality of provision. Equivalent access to schools running or involved in teacher training courses is secured directly under the 1992 Act.

The agency has to consult on the conditions it imposes under Clause 5, and that will enable the universities to make any representations they wish about the way in which the relevant condition of grant is expressed. It may well be that words similar to those used in my noble friend's amendment are included. It is certainly no part of our intention, or HMI's practice, to secure unreasonable access.

The right of access to schools and other public sector education institutions secured in the 1944 Act did not lead to unreasonable demands being placed on schools and institutions; nor did the arrangements for course approval. There is no reason why the new arrangements should be any different. But we need new arrangements because, as I have made clear, my right honourable friend will no longer have the course approval powers to underpin inspection. The agency could, it has been argued, build a similar right into its accreditation procedures. But in practice that would be the same as a condition of grant. An institution which did not allow access would not be accredited, and so not funded. The result would be just the same.

I can reassure the House that Ofsted has always limited its inspection of initial teacher training to those aspects of courses which are designed wholly or mainly for teacher training students. It does not have powers to do otherwise. It does not, for example, look at the subject study in B.Ed courses which is offered to other undergraduate students alongside intending teachers. There is absolutely no intention to alter that practice.

I hope that noble Lords who had any concerns about the proposed way ahead, including my noble friend Lord Beloff, are fully reassured that we are not intending to secure by conditions of grant anything which could not be secured through the course approval mechanism in the past or anything which higher education institutions will consider an unreasonable imposition.

We expect the practice to continue, but it is right to put on the record that any higher education institution not agreeing to be inspected or, even worse, refusing or being anti-inspection, could not possibly expect to be funded for teacher training if it were not possible to make judgments about the quality of the courses. That is what we are talking about here.

Finally, perhaps I may refer to the amendment which has been passed by the other place. I had hoped that that modest amendment would be widely welcomed, as it was in another place. It was prompted by the desire of Members of all parties to secure a firm role for Ofsted as the main source of independent quality advice for the teacher training agency. That that was the Government's intention was clear from our initial consultation paper. The amendment put the position beyond any reasonable doubt.

I spent many hours at this Dispatch Box giving assurances to Members of this House that quality would be an issue for teacher training and that we would make sure that the teacher training given to our young potential teachers would be of quality. The only way that we can do that is to allow Ofsted and HMI to operate in the way suggested.

Clause 5(4) (b) relates to quality assessments to which the agency must have regard in carrying out its funding functions as respects a particular institution. As a result of the amendment these are divided into two parts: any assessments of quality made either by Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Schools to which the agency must have regard and any other assessments to which the agency believes that it would be appropriate to have regard or to which the Secretary of State requires it to have regard. HMI assessments are therefore set apart as the first and most essential evidence. The use which the agency makes of that evidence or any other evidence is a matter for its judgment in the light of the objectives set out in Clause 1 of the Bill.

I invite the House to agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1 and to reject the other amendments on the Marshalled List.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, we will all have listened to the Minister with great care, as we always do. I can begin by assuring her, in the light of her first remarks, that we do not deny that the other place has certain responsibilities with regard to legislation. I think that there is common ground on that.

It is unusual for the roles of the two Houses to be reversed. Normally a Bill goes to the other place and after passing through its various stages there comes to us. We then exercise what is usually referred to as our role as a revising Chamber. Noble Lords congratulate each other on how well they perform that role. This is the opposite. This Bill came first to this House and went through all its stages here, and the other place was then asked to act as a revising Chamber. The fact that in the opinion of everyone who has spoken so far this afternoon on the subject the other place did not exercise that right very judiciously is a matter for regret.

On the substance of my Motion and the alternative amendments, the noble Baroness has gone a long way to reassure us that no substantial departure in the direction of compulsion was intended. Whether universities themselves will be wholly satisfied with that assurance when they have read the text it is not for me to say. However, I believe that it would be the general opinion of this House that we should accept and have on record what the noble Baroness said. I therefore beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Amendments Nos. 1A, 1B and 1C, as amendments to Commons Amendment No. 1, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Commons Amendment No. 1 agreed to.