HL Deb 07 May 2002 vol 634 cc995-1015

3.10 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 6 [Exemptions available to qualifying schools]:

Lord Peston

moved Amendment No. 38A: Page 5, line 10, at end insert "or local education authority The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 38A, tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lady David, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 43A and 47A. I had intended to start by making an acerbic remark or two. The exodus from the Chamber helps me enormously in that.

Education and local education authorities used to be dear to the hearts of my noble friends, but given their lack of contribution to the Committee stage of this Bill, clearly times have changed. However, I still live in hope that, apart from my noble friend Lady David and myself, one or two other colleagues might occasionally join the debate as it develops over the next 12 hours or so.

Local education authorities and local government in general feel neglected and unloved. Not only is that true generally, as I have said, but it is particularly true in relation to this Bill. My own view is that, apart from their important role in terms of local democracy, the contribution made by LEAs to education has been vital over the past century and, in my judgment, should continue to be so. However, it is difficult to interpret the Bill in any way other than to suggest that LEAs will continue to be neglected and unloved, given the emphasis placed by the legislation on all kinds of other organisations rather than LEAs themselves. The fact is that LEAs still have a leadership role to play in education and, more importantly, I do not believe that the law either has been changed or is proposed to be changed to such a degree that the earlier responsibilities of LEAs will disappear. It is still the case that, when things go wrong, LEAs will at the centre of having to put them right.

Those are my background remarks. The amendments have allowed me to make those observations, but they also reflect my particular concern that, in this part of the Bill, provision is being put in place for successful schools to vary both the national curriculum and matters such as teachers' pay and conditions as part of their earned autonomy. That move was heralded in the education Green and White Papers.

Last Thursday I argued that I was not happy with the part of the Bill enabling schools to vary teachers' pay and conditions from nationally agreed scales. I do not resile from my worries over that matter. However, what appeared to concern most noble Lords was whether schools would bid above nationally agreed scales in order to obtain scarce staff and thus produce adverse local effects. I believe that I was alone in suggesting the reverse danger; that of schools bidding down teachers' pay and conditions. I have to admit that no one agreed with me; nevertheless, I have gone on record in saying that movements in both directions are worrying.

Continuing with pay and conditions under this general rubric, my second-best position is that, if such a freedom is to be granted to certain schools, then it should also be granted to local education authorities confronting problems within the schools for which they remain responsible. As I said, I am not particularly keen on the freedom in the first place, but if it is to be conferred, then I see no logic in denying it to LEAs.

Turning to the national curriculum, I shall refer right back to the 1988 Act which my noble friend Lady David and I dealt with from the Opposition Benches in this House. We then took the view that the curriculum should be small and limited and should not be made too prescriptive. Beyond that, schools should be given a great deal of freedom. I recall an amendment tabled in my name and that of the late lamented Lord Joseph asking for precisely that. There are certain basic elements of education that are so fundamental that they should be made compulsory within the national curriculum, but no more than that should be stipulated on a compulsory basis. Guidance and the freedom to choose should obtain beyond that point.

For those noble Lords who are new to your Lordships' House, that Bill was passed in the bad old days when there were vast numbers of Tory hereditary Peers in the House. Although very many of those Tory Peers agreed with our view, in those days the Whips simply said, "No, the Bill must be carried and we do not want to accept amendments of this kind". Such an approach was not unknown at the time. Happily, however, experience gained in the intervening years has shown that the need to have a flexible curriculum built around a core in which there was no flexibility was right and everyone has followed our thinking. I am only sorry that Lord Joseph did not live, as I have, to see that what we argued for then turned out to be correct.

I still believe in flexibility within the curriculum, but I do not see why that flexibility should be restricted to a certain group of schools. Thus the other reason for tabling the amendments is to enable my noble friend on the Front Bench to explain to the Committee why, if such flexibility in the curriculum is a good idea with regard to "earned autonomy"—in future I shall not be using that expression very often—the case made in support of that position should not also apply to local education authorities.

To summarise, my argument is twofold. I wish to express my general support for local education authorities, which I hope will be echoed by my noble friend, and I seek to change the Bill so that what is good enough for a sub-set of schools should also apply to LEAs. Thus the freedom could be applied to all the maintained schools for which an authority is responsible in any one area. I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Lord opened with his acerbic comments, which I shall leave for the record to show. He went on to discuss the importance of LEAs maintaining their role and, again, I have no argument with that position. Perhaps I may put one or two questions to the Minister.

I assume from the amendments that an LEA would be free to apply on behalf a single school, a group of schools or, indeed, all the schools in its area. Given that, if a single school and/or a group of schools wished to be considered for earned autonomy, why should they not make the application themselves? One argument that has a certain appeal is that, if a group of schools wishes to exercise the freedom, then what the noble Lord suggests may well provide a means of cutting down on bureaucracy. But if we apply what the Minister has stated so far in the debate with regard to applications being made for earned autonomy, then each school will have to be considered on its own merits as regards whether it is a fit and proper institution to be awarded earned autonomy. I am not sure that much time would be saved.

I wonder whether the Minister will say that a group of schools could be considered and that an overall judgment would be made on whether the group was capable of accepting responsibility for exercising such a form of management. When we discussed the clauses covering earned autonomy, we argued that there should be a presumption that all schools could gain earned autonomy unless, for one reason or another, the Government believe that a certain school was not a fit institution to take advantage of it. The Government did not appear to like that suggestion.

Indeed, the papers giving further information on these clauses suggest that only 10 per cent of our schools may be given permission to enjoy earned autonomy. I still have serious reservations about that. I would imagine that 30, 40, 50 or even 60 per cent of our schools would be more than capable of running their own affairs. Indeed, I would suggest that that would be the case for an even higher percentage. Many schools will be upset if the criteria are drawn so tightly that only 10 per cent of all schools are allowed to exercise earned autonomy.

There is an underlying question that I should like to put to the Minister. What would be saved if an LEA made an application on a school's behalf, given that earned autonomy is granted when an institution itself declares that, "We believe that we have sufficient expertise to meet the criteria set by the Government for running our own affairs", and thereby gains exemption from a number of pieces of legislation designed to raise standards in schools? Am I right in saying that, whether it applies in a group or through a whole LEA, each individual school would be subject to a school-by-school critique as to its suitability for earned autonomy?

Baroness David

I do not want to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in her arguments; I want to follow what my noble friend Lord Peston said about local education authorities. I said at Second Reading that one of the things I like about the Bill is that it gives greater opportunities for local education authorities, which had been downgraded under the previous government. I hope that during the course of proceedings on the Bill my noble friend the Minister will give more importance to LEAs and their roles. This amendment gives her an opportunity to do that.

Lord Dearing

At the risk of being repetitious—I confess it—I wish to speak again on this clause. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in regard to not undermining the position of local education authorities. I declared an interest previously as a vice-president of the LGA and I do so again.

My question concerns the principle of "earned" autonomy as opposed to "needed" autonomy. It is a false idea that you earn autonomy. The issue is what is needed for the best education of young people. We are moving towards that in the Green Paper for those aged 14 to 19—and three cheers, say I—but there is a serious problem in particular areas and in particular schools with regard to those aged between 11 and 14, where we lose too many children from education because they cannot engage with the mandative curriculum.

I have argued previously that there is no need to relieve a duty to apply the curriculum in schools where there are excellent results; it is not a handicap to them But I have spent some hours in the past week in a school which has serious problems, and part of those serious problems involves engaging all the young people, particularly from 11 to 14. The curriculum is the problem. I believe that through the good offices of the LEA—okay, the school cannot be trusted entirely—and its judgment that this would help to achieve better results, then there is a case for "needed" as opposed to "earned" autonomy.

As to pay, I have said before that it is the most expensive game I know to engage in unless you are an expert. I fear that the trade associations would be much more expert than schools and it could be a worrying game.

Schools in difficulties are losing teachers in a competitive market in languages and in science, where there are scarcities. Teachers are naturally attracted to the successful schools with good GCSE and A-level results. Perhaps the need for flexibility in the other schools is more significant in the context of good education. Again I would argue for the role of the LEA in taking judgments—certainly in being involved in the decision.

Lord Lucas

I largely support the noble Lord, Lord Peston—there is a role for LEAs. I do not share the noble Lord's views as to precisely what that should be, but it is no good having everything centralised and then the central organ deciding it needs a lot of quangos locally because it does not know what is going on. The LEA is there to provide that kind of function.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. I do not know how long it is since the Minister—or, perhaps more recently, anyone in the Box—has looked at what the 11 to 14 science curriculum looks like, but I suggest that they pick up a copy of GCSE Bitesize, or something like that, look at it and see if there is one fact, method or anything else in there which they have used since they were 11 to 14. It may be used in a trivia quiz but, frankly, there is so much in there that is extremely boring. Anyone who has half an eye turned to the practical world rather than to succeeding in academia will easily be turned off by that kind of thing.

I cannot confess that I have explored other areas of the curriculum. There is probably more fascination in English, history and other areas, but certainly the science—and I am a scientist—at 11 to 14 is extremely dull. I can quite see why schools which are having a difficult time in educating their children may think that there are better areas in which they could contribute. They could contribute much the same kind of skills if they were to look at the rather more practical applications of science than the stuff that has been washed up in the curriculum.

As to whether LEAs should be allowed to apply for exemption in the same way as schools, I share my noble friend's view that where it is a matter for schools, then schools should apply. But there are several areas in which an LEA may well benefit from that kind of exemption—for example, in the area of transport. School transport has been a problem for a long time. It is expensive, it is difficult to organise and there have been various cut-backs over the years. In the Bill we are looking at transport for 16 to 18 year-olds, but there is already a three-mile limit. I do not suppose noble Lords know many people who would let their kids walk three miles to school. The whole business has got caught up in the way that legislation is phrased. For instance, you are not allowed to charge people for school transport so you make them pay for other forms of transport. There are all kinds of inflexibilities. At last one or two experiments are taking place and we are looking at new ways of providing transport: for example, yellow bus schemes. Some kind of flexibility for LEAs in this area could well be a benefit.

I should also like to see flexibility for LEAs in the area of special educational needs provision. You can get into a terrible jam in an LEA if you suddenly find that you have more serious autism cases cropping up and you do not have within your patch the provision to cater for them. It can cost anything up to £250,000 per year per child to deal with severe autism, but if you can provide for it in your patch or in conjunction with another neighbouring local authority or two, you may well be able to manage it for £100,000 or £150,000. With 10 or a dozen kids, that would be an enormous saving of money, but you cannot do it under current regulations.

Other problems also flow from the inflexibility of SEN legislation and the other legislation governing the way local authorities work. We should allow local authorities to look at different ways of providing, particularly when dealing with rarer and more complicated special educational needs—for example, by getting together with other providers or cross border and so on—and if they need exemption from the law, certainly the Secretary of State should be prepared to consider that. So I support the words of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, but not entirely the spirit behind them.

Baroness Walmsley

I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about the way science is taught in schools these days. I have observed a number of science lessons quite recently and in most of them the children were very interested in the subject. It depends on the way it is taught.

As to the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in regard to the curriculum, we on these Benches have long promoted the idea of a minimum curriculum entitlement with a certain amount of flexibility around it. That flexibility would give the opportunity to add more relevant science lessons for the kind of children referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

My noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford mentioned last week that we on these Benches are not happy with the concept of the very limited earned autonomy in the Bill. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that all schools should have earned autonomy unless there is a good reason why they should not.

For those reasons, I support the amendment. When making applications for autonomy the local authority must be involved. It has responsibility for all the children in an area and anything that one school does affects all the others. It is absolutely crucial that. the LEAs are central to this issue.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

I intervene simply to remind the Minister that many of the most interesting and important innovations that have taken place in education in the past decade have come from local education authorities—from local management of schools, to school-based teacher training, to innovations in civic responsibility in the curriculum. I could name dozens more very good innovations. I refer, for example, to the way in which new teachers are introduced into the profession and so on.

Local authorities have played a major role in innovation—in terms of new thinking in relation to the curriculum, as well as in the new organisation of schools. It would be an insult to the splendid history that local authorities have, and to their current involvement with schools, if they were not allowed to apply for exemption where they have a sensible plan for innovation and if they were not allowed to coordinate and comment on applications from individual schools within their area.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

The debate has been an interesting opening to the second day in Committee. I am grateful to everyone who has contributed.

Perhaps I may say immediately to my noble friend Lord Peston that I, too, am a great supporter, as are the Government, of the role and work of local education authorities. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, I pay tribute to the innovation that they have given us in the past, as they no doubt will in the future.

I am not against the principle behind the amendment. I agree that successful LEAs, as well as schools, should be able to earn additional freedoms and flexibility. I am glad that my noble friends Lord Peston and Lady David tabled the amendment. It gives me the opportunity to make it clear that, in practice, LEAs can already do so.

In committing themselves to deliver enhancing, stretching outcomes in local public service agreements, local education authorities already have the opportunity to earn additional freedoms and flexibility. Indeed, some 36 local authorities have signed a local PSA with central government; and nearly all of the remaining upper-tier authorities are scheduled to do so.

There are a number of local authorities—although perhaps I may focus on one—where the PSA has focused specifically on education. There is a local authority that has examined, for example, the attainment of ethnic minority children within its area and set itself a challenging target to ensure that their needs are met.

Turning to issues raised, the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, referred to the 14 to 19 strategy. I agree that it is an important part of where the Government are trying to move for the future. I understand his comments about schools in challenging circumstances. It is precisely because we want to make sure that schools are able to think of new ideas that we have developed the power to innovate, which I trust the noble Lord will support. That power is available to any school that wishes to apply for it. Indeed, our hope and aspiration are that schools facing difficulties will come forward with ways in which they can develop new ideas. Local education authorities are able to come forward under the power to innovate in just the same way as schools.

I think I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on the 11 to 14 science curriculum. I have 12 year-old who is in the middle of it. I quite enjoy it at the moment—he will appreciate that remark. It is partly why we are working hard on our key stage three strategy, to ensure that the dip that we see in the achievement of some children when they move from primary to secondary school is dealt with, and that the transition is dealt with better so that they continue to grow. Science is one of the areas on which we shall focus. Our children do exceptionally well at primary school at five; that does not carry through to key stage three in the same way. We should like to see that addressed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked a specific question about schools applying for the criteria. She was right: it will be for individual schools to apply. We want to make application as easy as possible. Therefore, we shall be ensuring that schools know what the criteria are, so that in a sense they are able to see their eligibility and the system is not complex. I fully endorse the points made about special educational needs. Again, we trust that the power to innovate will be used, as will earned autonomy, to support children with special educational needs.

I do not believe that the amendment would provide an appropriate way in which to give LEAs earned autonomy. The flexibilities on offer relate specifically to the curriculum and to teachers' pay and conditions—matters on which we believe schools, not LEAs, are best placed to decide what is appropriate. That is not to say that LEAs should not be consulted and, where appropriate, have an important contribution to make.

On the question of the number of schools able to apply for earned autonomy, I remind the Committee that I have committed the Government to a reexamination of the criteria. We are committed to proceeding with caution in the best interests of the education of our children, while recognising that we want earned autonomy to develop. Therefore, whatever we are looking for in terms of numbers now is where we begin and not where we end. I have made a commitment to re-examine the matter, and I shall bring forward further ideas on Report. I hope that with those reassurances my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Peston

I thank my noble friend for her reply. I also thank Members of the Committee who have taken part. Our short debate has illustrated a point that I made right at the beginning; namely, how difficult it is, certainly for me, to understand the Bill. I found, for example, the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, particularly enlightening. She interpreted this whole area quite differently from the way in which I had interpreted it. I am not saying that the noble Baroness is wrong and I am right; I simply draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that the Bill is not clear.

Equally if not more significant was the distinction made by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, between "earned" and "needed". I had taken it for granted that any changes were in large part needed and not earned. Again, I may misunderstand the Bill totally.

I had assumed also—a point that emerged, perhaps unintentionally, from my noble friend's remarks—that many problems and needs are frequently not to do with a specific school but with a whole local authority area. I very much follow the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, on the subject. My interpretation was that the solution was not to be found within an individual school but within the whole LEA. If the LEA does not have the powers to do that—and I shall reflect on whether it does or not–

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend, but I want to make the point that the power to innovate, which is available to local education authorities, is specifically geared for schools in challenging circumstances. We are looking to schools that are successful and well led to have earned autonomy, which will be permanent. The term "earned autonomy" may not suit everyone but at least it describes what we are trying to do. That is the difference.

Lord Peston

I thank my noble friend.

Baroness Blatch

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I am sorry if I interpreted the provision wrongly. My understanding was that the clauses related to individual schools receiving earned autonomy. My understanding was that when an LEA was included as an applicant it would apply for the schools in its area.

I agree with the Minister that innovation is there for the schools referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing; namely, those that require more help and want to do more for those young people who are dislocated from mainstream education. The clauses on innovation are more appropriate for that.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and my noble friend Lord Lucas spoke about freedom for LEAs to be exempt from legislation. That was the question answered by the Minister. She did not appear to answer the question about an LEA acting on behalf of its schools. We know now about an LEA earning autonomy, but I do not know the Minister's response to the idea of an LEA acting for the schools in its area.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

We are framing autonomy in such a way that it is for schools to apply individually, not as a group. We have not yet considered the idea of a group application. The basis on which we wish to go forward is with schools applying individually.

Lord Peston

I thank everyone for their interventions. I have not finished yet! I am not for a moment saying that the interpretation of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is wrong; I am simply pointing out that it is different from mine, and I shall think about it. I am more than willing to think that I am wrong.

I cannot resist a remark or two on the science curriculum, although I shall wait until we reach the part of the Bill dealing with the 14 to 19 science curriculum to comment on that. However, I have a sinking feeling that it will arise at a time when I am unable to be present for the debate. As regards the earlier curriculum, when we debated religious and moral issues late last Thursday the distinction between value judgments and other propositions emerged.

As always, when one goes home from this House, one thinks of infinitely better arguments than one used when on one's feet. Following the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I decided that the argument that I should have used was this. In elementary Newtonian mechanics I was taught how to calculate the range and trajectory of a gun, and that kind of thing. I was quite good at it. But I was not taught that it was a bad thing to point guns at people, let alone fire them. It seems to me that there is that distinction there, but I would not get the one confused with the other.

To go back to my main point, although I have never had the need to calculate the range and trajectory of a cannon or anything else, it is an important part of the syllabus. If I were teaching it and a young person said he was bored, I would say it was good for him to be bored, because that is the nature of teaching elementary Newtonian mechanics. I used to say that about economics generally to anybody.

Having said that, I shall think further, as my noble friend the Minister has said that she will, too, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 39 not moved.]

Lord Lucas

moved Amendment No. 40: Page 5, line 27, at end insert— ( ) The Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales may from time to time publish statistics to inform the public of the effects of the application of this Chapter. The noble Lord said: Returning briefly to the previous amendment, if the noble Lord, Lord Peston, wants a modern illustration that will fascinate people, how Beckham bends a football is a rather more interesting and topical way of looking at Newtonian mechanics than firing cannon shells. Sadly, the curriculum has not caught up.

I apologise for not having been here yesterday, which is when I should have been here in order to make sure that Amendment No. 40 was grouped with Amendment No. 363, which sets out the main reason for it—to deal with the general question of the Government's statistics. In the circumstances, perhaps we should leave Amendment No. 363 to another day and concentrate on Amendment No. 40. I shall say merely that if we have a lot of experimentation and variation in the system, it is important that we should be given a good range of information from which the public can draw conclusions and that that information should be presented regularly and, most of all, consistently. I do not have any particular views on the form in which it is presented. In the past, developments such as education action zones have been characterised by a lack of information rather than by a presence of it. I hope that these reforms will be different. I beg to move.

Baroness Walmsley

I support Amendment No. 40. If the Bill results in a lot of experimentation, the general public will be very interested and I am sure that they will want good quality factual information on which to base their judgments on these measures.

Amendment No. 50, which is also in this group, returns to the subject of parliamentary scrutiny, specifically the need for an annual report to Parliament about the earned autonomy provisions. The aim of the amendment is to ensure that the Secretary of State's decisions on allowing certain schools to be exempt from education legislation are subject to parliamentary scrutiny at least once a year. Subsection (2) of the amendment specifies that the annual report shall include details about the level of negotiations in schools that have opted out of the pay and conditions document. Rather than seeking to provide for teacher negotiations on the face of the Bill, as did an amendment to Clause 6 that we debated last week, this amendment offers a less prescriptive compromise. The aim is only to ensure some account ability for all opted-out schools in relation to teachers' pay and conditions.

What accountability would be in place without the clause for schools that opted out of the teachers' pay and conditions legislation? Last week, the Minister suggested that the Secretary of State will lay orders and that that puts matters on the public record. The Secretary of State laying orders for regulations is not the level of accountability that we seek. I wonder whether the Minister can make any comment about that.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

There is a question that the Government have to answer here. We understand that there is a great deal left to consultation and a great deal left for detail to follow in regulations. In responding to the previous amendment, the Minister said that the Government have been advised to proceed with caution on their proposals for earned autonomy. They are apparently envisaging about 10 per cent of schools earning autonomy. The Minister will know that a number of us on all Benches believe that a much larger number of schools will qualify for earned autonomy by any criteria. The Government have two choices: either they draw the criteria so tightly that no more than 10 per cent of schools would get through and qualify for earned autonomy; or they draw them in the normal way, as they would want to draw them, but then award autonomy to only 10 per cent, either on a first come, first served basis or by selection. The schools which will be most affected by the proposal should understand how that 10 per cent will be selected—whether the criteria will be drawn artificially to keep the numbers down or whether the criteria will be general, but only 10 per cent of schools will be selected.

The question is pertinent to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Lucas about evaluation. Either this is a pilot or it is not. This is a Bill for the future. Schools will earn autonomy or not, as the case may he. If it is a pilot, the parameters within which it will operate must be written on the face of the Bill, or at least known at this stage of our discussions so that we understand with what we are dealing.

Lord Peston

I have one question for my noble friend the Minister. The Government are fully entitled to say that their thinking is going in this direction and that they require support from your Lordships to go ahead and try it. One aspect that has troubled me— the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, put her finger on it by using the word "experiment"—is that this is not an experiment. This may be a misinterpretation, but schools that get such autonomy will have it once and for all. We have all wondered what happens once those who earned the autonomy are no longer there and those who have replaced them could not conceivably have got it if they had applied. That is my definition of an experiment. We would then have to think about the issue again. I thought that the Government's position was that autonomy could be earned once and for all. Could we have some clarity on that? The issue is not unrelated to the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about reports. If autonomy is earned once and for all, there is no point in reporting, because it is done. The report would simply lead to a standard response of, "I told you so", which is not much use. Will my noble friend clarify whether the use of the word "experiment" is right? I have a strong feeling that it is not, because earned autonomy will be given and then that is it.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

I support the general tenor of the remarks that have been made thus far about the need for some accountability in the working of the system in the future. We do not necessarily want to place a burdensome responsibility on a new body or an existing body for annual reports. Does the Minister consider that if Ofsted or Her Majesty's Inspectors are going into schools in any event and reporting to the department, they could also look at the way in which the system operates? In that way, some information might flow back to the department and, through the department, to Members of both Houses.

Baroness Walmsley

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked about whether it is worth publishing statistics, public information or an annual report, on the grounds that once it is done it is done. We are looking at the aggregate of all schools. Such information would certainly inform future decisions by the schools, the LEA or the Secretary of State as to whether similar changes were desirable and in the interests of children. It would certainly be worth publishing such information for the sake of future application.

Lord Peston

I must confess that I have already made a bit of trouble in that part of my contribution. My only comment is that if the reports showed that the idea had been a mistake and we learnt that we should not let other schools do it, that would not solve the problem of the schools that had been allowed to do it.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

I rise very briefly to support Amendment No. 50 and draw attention to the specific reference there to the National Assembly for Wales. The amendment provides that, the Cabinet Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in Wales shall lay … an annual report as to the operation", of these provisions. It is very important indeed that that should happen, particularly as the Bill provides for a great deal of secondary legislation and legislation yet to be provided by the Assembly to make the Bill work. It is very much in the interests of parents, teachers and all interested authorities in Wales that they should see the effect of all that secondary legislation which is still to come, and the effects of the Bill in Wales as well as in England.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Perhaps I may begin by saying to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that I am indeed glad that he is leaving Amendment No. 363 to another day. I look forward very much to discussing it with him.

It is clearly important for the public to know the impact of a school's use of any freedom, and we already publish statistics and quantitative data on school performance through Ofsted reports and performance tables. This framework ensures that schools remain accountable for their performance. In particular, it informs the public about the school's performance. This framework will continue to be in place for all schools, including those with earned autonomy.

I say to my noble friend Lord Peston that this is not a "once and for all" matter. I remind noble Lords that, as the documents we have placed in the Library state, and as I have previously said, earned autonomy may be withdrawn or restricted if a school's performance, falls significantly below the top 15 per cent mark in their free school meal band for 3 years running; or … falls below the median performance level in that free school meal band in any one year; or … is judged by Ofsted to fall below excellent or very good in two of the three aspects above". Furthermore, when any school exercises any right to earned autonomy, the exemptions will be brought into force by statutory instrument. Consequently, there will be a complete record of all exemptions whether relating to the national curriculum or to teachers' pay and conditions which are being applied. We are keen that monitoring arrangements should be proportionate and do not burden schools unnecessarily and do not duplicate information. With this caveat, I am pleased to reassure noble Lords that, in line with departmental guidelines, we shall of course monitor the use of earned autonomy. We also certainly expect to make public that monitoring.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked specifically about accountability on pay. That is a matter of earned autonomy, and in a sense we have to let go of it. General employment law will of course apply, just as it does in thousands of other small and medium-sized enterprises, if I may term schools as such in this context. We do not think it appropriate to make the unnecessary burden of requiring every school to report every year on how they have settled their teachers' pay. The statutory instrument will record the fact that the school has earned autonomy. Obviously, however, the local machinery for determining pay will be local and relevant to that school.

I believe that Amendment No. 50 might have the unfortunate effect of discouraging schools from applying. The amendment also does not make clear the underlying purpose of an annual report. As I said, however, exemptions will be brought into force by statutory instrument in the case of any school exercising this right, and there will be a record. Consequently, I cannot accept that part of the amendment.

Baroness Walmsley

The amendment asks for the Secretary of State, not individual schools, to lay an annual report before Parliament. The Secretary of State should have an overview of the situation and should be able to do that. Therefore, I do not think that the amendment would discourage schools from applying by imposing an additional burden of bureaucracy. Far be it from us on these Benches to suggest that schools should have any further paperwork at all. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Indeed I shall. The amendment would in fact require us to collect information from each school in order to make that annual report. That of itself would require schools to provide us with that information at all times.

Baroness Walmsley

Surely in actually making the application the schools are providing the Department for Education and Skills with the information they are applying and the basis on which they are applying. The department would already have that information and would not need to go back to schools to ask for it.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I shall give an example. A school may be in discussion with its staff about changing the way in which the school operates. The staff may, for example, be prepared to agree to run breakfast clubs as part of the school day, to provide opportunities and an example for children who do not have new technology at home. At the time of applying for earned autonomy, however, the school and the teachers may not yet have decided all the details. Moreover, the details may change over time. We believe that the amendment as currently drafted would require schools to provide us with that information on an on-going basis.

If the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is asking whether we would be prepared to provide information during the course of our monitoring arrangements, as I said, we would be happy with such an arrangement. I am simply saying that the amendment would not work because it asks schools for so much information. We want schools to use the autonomy to get on with educating at a local level and to make the system work for them and—most importantly—for the children whom they are educating. We are perfectly content with providing information as a part of our normal monitoring. Moreover, Ofsted will be examining the relationship between earned autonomy and the results, particularly in schools for which autonomy has not worked. Al though we hope that there will be no such schools, that information will be available.

Lord Lucas

I am not sure that the principle of not knowing what is going on is a good one; it is certainly not the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, would manage the economy. I also do not think that it is the way in which the Department for Education and Skills should be operating. The department should have learned a little from education action zones, where none of us know what is going on, and from individual learning accounts, where only the crooks knew what was going on. It is a very good idea to have a bit of information available.

The Government promised that we will have fully electronic government by 2005. It would not take me long to write something that schools could use to keep themselves up to date, on the government web, about the exemptions for which they had applied. It really is not complicated. It would take just a few tens of thousands of pounds to do a Rolls-Royce job on it, using commonly available techniques. It should not be beyond a web-aware government to put in place this sort of arrangement. Nevertheless, as this Government still cannot answer my Written Questions by e-mail, I am not surprised. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

moved Amendment No. 41: Page 5, line 30, at end insert— ( ) In so far as regulations made under this section relate to a curriculum provision, they shall, in addition to providing for an exemption or modification, require persons responsible for the delivery of the curriculum in any school to have regard to the need to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum in that school. The noble Baroness said: The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that pupils in a school which is allowed an exemption from or a modification to some provision of the national curriculum retain an entitlement to curricular breadth and balance. The amendment probes the Government's intentions in this regard. In the policy statement accompanying this part of the Bill, the Government state: Without removing the fundamental entitlement of all pupils to a broad and balanced curriculum, the Government wants to give successful and well-led schools greater flexibility in recognition of their success, their professionalism and their strong leadership". Under previous legislation, this right to a "broad and balanced curriculum" was extended to every registered pupil of compulsory school age attending a maintained or grant maintained school. This amendment would place on the face of the Bill a similar guarantee for pupils in those schools able to "opt out".

In January 1998, David Blunkett, the then Secretary of State for Education, announced his intention to introduce "new, more flexible arrangements" for the curriculum in primary schools, to ensure that they focused efforts and attention on the national literacy and numeracy strategies. Initially, many welcomed, the prospect of reduced prescription afforded by this new and more flexible arrangement. Nevertheless, the implications of the announcement were of concern to those who had always believed that a broad and balanced curriculum was a fundamental criterion for good primary education.

The foreword to the national curriculum handbooks signed by David Blunkett and Sir William Stubbs in 1999 states: An entitlement to learning must be an entitlement for all pupils. This National Curriculum includes for the first time a detailed, overarching statement on inclusion which makes clear the principles schools must follow in their teaching right across the curriculum, to ensure that all pupils have the chance to succeed, whatever their individual needs and the potential barriers to their learning may be". The first line of that inclusion statement states: Schools have a responsibility to provide a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils". These "opt-out" powers for successful schools contradict the Government's stated commitment to inclusion and raise fundamental questions about the concept of a national curriculum. It is true that the current curriculum remains overcrowded with content and that a rigid system of testing and assessment allows little room for dynamic adaptability. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley argued recently, in that sense we support the concept of a core curriculum. There is a strong argument therefore in favour of greater flexibility within the national curriculum. The need for adaptability is emphasised in the current national curriculum document. However, this should apply to all schools and not just to successful ones.

At the same time there must remain a national framework which secures a balanced and broadly based curriculum entitlement for all pupils. In both the Green and the White Papers there was welcome recognition of the importance of sports, arts, drama and music. It is vital that the place of such activities is considered within the framework of a curriculum entitlement, not just as optional extra curriculum activities. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

We do not know how these clauses will turn out in practice when schools receive autonomy. I agree with the noble Lord Peston, who is no longer present, that one of the problems with the Bill is that it is low on detail. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, is right to pose the question that she did. In their responses the Government have constantly said that they believe in a broad and balanced curriculum and that it is inconceivable that an application would be accepted if it did not offer a broad and balanced curriculum. If that is what the Government are saying, it ought to be on the face of the Bill. As the Bill is written, it is an "anything goes" clause, unless, that is, a particular Secretary of State takes a particular view of education at any particular time.

I believe that we are all trying to say that the framework within which schools are expected to operate and the framework within which schools are expected to apply earned autonomy should be well understood. At the moment that is not the case. As the Bill is written, any part of the legislation can be exempted from the national curriculum and pay and conditions provisions. It seems to me that in this area at least there should be some codification on the face of the Bill as regards the nature of the curriculum offered to each child.

There is another question which I believe pertains to the individual in a school. Under the law as it stands, each child in this country has an entitlement. If, under earned autonomy, that entitlement is infringed in some way, where are we? It will be infringed. Some schools will enjoy exemption. If the response is that no child's right to entitlement will be infringed, earned autonomy is a very narrow issue indeed and will not be consistent with what is written on the face of the Bill. It is time for the Government to tell us what they mean. How open-ended is earned autonomy? If it is not open-ended and if the Government believe in a broad and balanced curriculum, in what way will they define that? What about the status of the child's entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum as regards all the aspects of it which are written into other statutes? How will that be protected?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Last Thursday and in another place there was much discussion of schools' requirement to deliver a balanced and broadly based curriculum in relation to earned autonomy and the powers covered in Chapter 1. I hope that I can assure the Committee that protections are in place, particularly with regard to the earned autonomy provisions where the curriculum flexibilities available include only the national curriculum. This is set out in subsection (3) of Clause 5. Duties which are not a legislative part of the national curriculum cannot be disturbed by that provision.

The basic curriculum as set out in the Education Act 1996, and as re-enacted by Clause 74, is required to be balanced and broadly based. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will know, there are two broad aims: to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at school and in society and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life. I am sure that the Committee is aware that Clause 75 re-enacts the Secretary of State's, local education authorities', governing bodies' and head teachers' duties to ensure that maintained schools satisfy the requirements to deliver a balanced and broad curriculum. Those duties are unaffected by the provisions of Chapter i as they are not part of the national curriculum and therefore not subject to exemption or modification. It follows that the legislation will still require the Secretary of State, local education authorities, governing bodies and head teachers to ensure that the school curriculum is balanced and broad based.

I recognise what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is saying about the Bill. However, it is worth reminding the Committee that the policy statements set out our detailed intentions. As regards considering flexibilities within the curriculum, I draw attention to our strategy on 14 to 19 year-olds which addresses issues of developing the curriculum while ensuring that students are able to follow a curriculum appropriate to their needs. We are also clear that the Delegated Powers Committee was content with our use of regulations here. I hope that on that basis the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

Will the Minister spell out a little more whose responsibility it is to make sure that schools that take advantage of the earned autonomy provisions in the Bill nevertheless still adhere to a broad and balanced curriculum? As she explained on the previous amendment, those who apply for earned autonomy can do so without spelling out precisely what they intend to do when they apply for it. At least, that was the implication of her remarks. If that is the case, it applies also in relation to the curriculum. Therefore, until they have chosen to go the earned autonomy route and are pursuing that route, we do not know whether they will still maintain a broad and balanced curriculum. Whose responsibility is it to make sure that the school concerned is adhering to the overall provisions of an entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum? Is it the responsibility of the local education authority or that of Ofsted? Whose responsibility is it?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

The responsibility lies with the governing body, the local education authority and, indeed, the department. In considering this matter we are trying to ensure that schools operate within the broad and balanced curriculum. Last week I said that the areas we are looking at, particularly as regards key stage 3, focus not so much on getting rid of any subjects within the national curriculum but on ensuring that flexibility can be applied within programmes of study. We have moved on in our debate as regards the 14 to 19 strategy. However, we would expect schools to be clear about what we are trying to do as regards earned autonomy and to report in the normal way to parents through governing bodies, to the local education authority and, of course, through Ofsted.

Baroness Blatch

I follow up the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I noted what the noble Baroness said in the initial response to the amendment. I say at the outset that it is difficult to divide innovation from earned autonomy in this matter as some schools are already innovating; that is, they may well have modified the national curriculum before they qualify for earned autonomy. However, I go back to the words in the Bill. Clause 2(1)(a) states: conferring on the applicant exemption from any requirement imposed by education legislation". That is a total free for all.

We should also consider Clause 6, to which the amendment relates. It states: Regulations may for the purposes of this section … designate any curriculum provision or pay and conditions provision as attracting exemption as of right … designate any curriculum provision or pay and conditions provision as attracting discretionary exemption … designate modifications of any curriculum provision or pay and conditions provision as being available as of right, and … designate modifications of any curriculum provision or pay and conditions provision as being available on a discretionary basis". There is no protection there whatever—for the entitlement of the individual child, for a broad and balanced curriculum or for any national curriculum requirement. It would be helpful to know where in the Bill those protections are. There is no qualification of Clause 6(1).

Lord Northbourne

May the exemptions to the curriculum—the legal requirements—include exemptions to what I believe are the very extensive guidance notes issued by the department? My impression is that it is often those detailed directions as to exactly how a subject should be taught that are burdensome to teachers and unsatisfactory in terms of pupils of varying abilities.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

Further to the question of my noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, put her finger on the problem earlier when she asked about the conflict that might arise if a child's entitlements were not being met by the need to provide a properly balanced and broad curriculum. If the school were to fail in delivering such a target, what would happen? What sanctions could be used against the school, and how would one go about rectifying the failure to provide what the noble Baroness described as the proper entitlement?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I shall reiterate what I said about the broad and balanced curriculum so that noble Lords can understand what I am trying to say. Clause 74 re-enacts the Education Act 1996. We have two broad aims, which I have described in detail—a broad and balanced curriculum. The phrase "curriculum provision", as the noble Baroness said, is defined in Clause 5(3). As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, the power to innovate is a separate provision in that regard.

It is clear that we need to protect the entitlement of young people to receive a broad and balanced curriculum. It will be for schools to notify us at the time of applying that they are indeed looking at the curriculum. We would expect governing bodies and schools, as part of their work, to be absolutely clear in that regard. It is the responsibility of all education organisations—local education authorities, governing bodies and Ofsted—to ensure that that is the case. If schools acted outside the provisions or regulations on earned autonomy, we should act to ensure that that was brought to an end. That is clear.

I understand the desire of Members of the Committee to be as categorical as possible. I assure them that it is our desire, too, to ensure that within the framework we are clear about what students are entitled to receive.

We have already said that our thinking moves on in the context of the strategy for 14 to 19 year-olds. We want to ensure that we do not end up in the position in which students in one school learn a set of subjects that we all recognise and consider to be appropriate within the curriculum but that those in another school do not. That is what I should call the basis for an entitlement for students to continue to receive education.

Baroness Blatch

The Minister keeps invoking Clause 74. There is no reference in Clause 6 that states that, subject to Clause 74, schools may modify, relax, deviate from and so on. Moreover, there is no reference to Clause 6 in Clause 74. In what way does Clause 74 override Clause 6? If the Government do not do so, we shall table an amendment that states, "Subject to the requirements of Clause 74, the following can be done". That would get close to what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, is trying to achieve in the amendment. That would at least—it takes on board the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton—protect those young people in relation to a subject that I suspect is very vulnerable in this regard; that is, religious education for all children.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

We believe that religious education is protected and that the Bill is correctly worded. However, in the interests of moving on, I am happy to go back and ensure that that is the case. My understanding is that we are absolutely clear that we are re-enacting, through Clause 74., the Education Act 1996, as it refers to a balanced and broadly based curriculum. I shall report back to the House at a later stage if that is appropriate.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I thank the Minister for her promises. I believe that the clause to which she refers is Clause 76, which is entitled, Basic curriculum for every maintained school in England", rather than Clause 74.

We have had a good debate, which has shown that there is concern about this matter on all sides of the Committee. I am glad that the Minister has taken our concerns to heart. We look forward to any proposals that she may bring forward at the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.