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Schools and Curriculum Act 2008

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Mr Speaker,

I beg to move, that this Bill now be read a second time.

This legislation and associated measures, Mr Speaker, aims at nothing short of a step-change in performance and standards in our schools. The last ten years has seen a big government revolution in education; peppered by the occasional attempt of the member for Sedgefield and other forward thinking members of the party opposite to drive real change. That big government revolution has seen - despite high levels of investment that we can all support - internationally comparable standards in our schools dropping through the floor. From fourth in the OECD to fourteenth in science. From seventh to seventeenth in reading. From eighth to twenty-fourth in maths. Far from excellence in schools, we have mediocrity. 

The problem isn’t our excellent teachers, headteachers, or the students. The problem is an increasing creep of bureaucracy, requirements, and targets. Whitehall pushing from one side, local education authorities pushing from the other, the constant growth of guidance and a curriculum so prescriptive that we have lost any scope for innovation, agility, or creativity.

We have already taken steps to give teachers more authority and relieve them of the burden of unnecessarily complex guidance, commissioning Geoff Southworth to develop a more concise Teachers Handbook. But guidance is just one part of the puzzle. 

The legislation today will give every single school in England the opportunity to have more autonomy, and all schools will have the opportunity to become reformed Academies. This is for a simple reason. We trust teachers, and we trust headteachers. We trust that they will be able to make the best decisions for students in their local area - and that a diversity of approaches creates opportunities to learn. 

That trust, Mr Speaker, comes not just from our intrinsic trust of the professionals and their relationships with the communities they serve. It comes from evidence. International evidence, which shows the best performing education systems whether in Sweden, Finland, Singapore, or in Canadian provinces - they all devolve more to the frontline. And evidence here in the UK, too. City Technology Colleges - established by my right honourable friend the Lord Baker of Dorking - were the forefather of Academies. Because of the intransigence of local education authorities at the time, only 15 were established; but they remain excellent comprehensive schools in working class areas, with results at GCSE half again as good as the national average. The early evidence, too, is that Academies are outperforming the schools they replaced and have seen their GCSE results grow more quickly than the national average. But even given that evidence, the previous government has progressively eroded the freedoms that Academies enjoy, inserting more prescription into funding agreements; and its reform proposals in 2006 were watered down by a left wing backbench rebellion.

Well, Mr Speaker, we trust teachers and headteachers and we trust the evidence. That is why the first part of this Act does two things. First, it allows any school to apply to become an Academy. In the first instance, we expect schools rated as outstanding by OFSTED to be the first cab of the ranks; as well as the continued sponsor-led model for underperforming schools. The new model funding agreement for those Academies will restore the autonomies eroded in recent agreements; as well as for an opportunity for outstanding schools to become sponsors of underperforming schools seeking to become Academies. Second, part 1 reforms the Academies governance structure to increase their accountability to local communities. Parents, teachers, and the local community will - in effect - become the de facto owners and controllers of these Academies, organised along co-operative principles and following the excellent example of recent co-operative trust schools. Individual academies will, based on these provisions, determine their exact governance structure. They will have a high degree of autonomy - on the condition, Mr Speaker, that we are replacing accountability to big government to big society.

The second part of this Act introduces new flexibilities for maintained local authority schools; removing Labour’s obsession with school structures and instead winding those structures into a flexible arrangement that allows schools and local authorities to agree between them the appropriate level of autonomy for their circumstances. 

The third part of this Act sets out a new framework for the national curriculum. The purpose of this framework is twofold. First, to establish a clear baseline and a core and common curriculum that is much more slimmed down that the one we have inherited. Second, it provides a sliding scale that schools and local education authorities can draw from in particular circumstances. For example, Mr Speaker, some Academies may have a strong focus on technology and will want the exercise those freedoms most in that area, while wanting to apply more nationally recognised standards elsewhere at least to begin with. The point as ever, Mr Speaker, is about flexibility and trusting educators.The national curriculum should be a resource, not a millstone around teachers’ necks.

The core standard will be taught in all schools, but will be principles based as set out in the legislation. The common standard will go a step further, setting out key outcomes and objectives for core subjects, and will be the default for local authority schools. The expanded standard - which is much more akin to the curriculum we inherit - will expand that to all subjects, as well as providing additional mandated guidance - no schools will be required to follow this level of the curriculum unless it is necessary to maintain standards, and my hope is that it will largely be a resource for teachers. Local authorities and the Government will, in circumstances or poor performance or breaches of the core curriculum, have the power to intervene and require schools to follow a more prescriptive level of the curriculum.

This curriculum framework is just that - a framework. The curriculum itself should be set by professionals, and I have no intention of getting involved in that matter. I will shortly set out to the House the details of a review of the national curriculum within this new framework, which will be implemented from the 2010 academic year at the latest.

The fourth part of this Act simply defines the role of Local Education Authorities within this new framework as - primarily - advocates for parents, commissioners of school places, and ensuring that no children fall between the cracks. Local Education Authorities have a new and important strategic role to play in this landscape - a far sight clearer than the muddled mix of responsibilities that came with Labour’s big government experiment.

The fifth and final substantive part of this Act repeals a significant number of administrative burdens on schools based on feedback that schools gave at the time and since on their usefulness; as well as fulfilling our pledge to scrap burdensome statutory performance targets. In many cases, this is no comment on the purpose of these duties; some of which are sensible. But they impose a legal burden on schools to do things a certain way - and our priority is to ensure schools have the freedom to act in accordance with their students’ interests rather than with prescriptive legislative requirements.

Before I close, Mr Speaker, I would like to briefly comment on implementation. I have instructed the Department to begin considering applications for Academy status immediately, with the hope that several hundred outstanding schools will become Academies by the next academic year; with many more good or outstanding schools in the pipeline. Funding will be appropriated in the upcoming Budget where necessary. Changes to existing local authority schools will be introduced at the same time with the initial default arrangement being the status quo, giving schools and local education authorities the time to consider the arrangements that they want to put in place. Curriculum reform will take somewhat longer. While this framework will be in place from the next academic year, the existing curriculum - bar some simple administrative tweaks to reduce the burdens on teachers - will be the common standard; with the full review and revision complete for the academic year starting in 2010.

This is ambitious legislation, Mr Speaker. But it is necessary. I want to remind the House again of the challenge it faces: a precipitous and devastating decline in our internationally comparable standards. That decline affects our poorest and most disadvantaged the most. They are robbed, Mr Speaker, of their chance for a better school, a better education, and a better life. This legislation, Mr Speaker, will turn lives around. It will fix the broken holes in the education system. It will end the big government experiment, putting teachers, parents, and communities back in control of local education. I commend it to this House.

Schools and Curriculum Act 2008.pdf

Katherine West

Conservative MP for Watford (2007 - )

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Mr. Speaker,

I thank the Secretary of State for the bill she has presented.

It is quite a large and comprehensive bill. I tend to find most large and comprehensive bills contain provisions that are good and then not so good. I made clear to the press this bill would not be receiving my support, but I do want the Secretary of State to understand that I do not think every element of her agenda is to be opposed. If I did not feel I had some disagreements with the bill that was fundamental to the bill's purpose, Mr. Speaker, I would be hoping to find a route forward via amendment. Unfortunately, I am unsure if a compromise can be found on this. 

I do also want to provide a fairer assessment of the Labour government's record than I feel the Honourable Lady was providing. In 1997, I believe in global education rankings the United Kingdom hit 40th and there were dismal results. I do think the first few years of Labour's record did see successes and improvements in education, but then the Secretary of State is right to say at some point this stalled. So I think from Labour's tenure in government we can look at successes and failures, and we can learn from both. 

But I want to be clear that the current results we are seeing is not enough, Mr. Speaker. Mediocrity is not enough. We need a new drive and we need more ambition for our children. Continued investment is desirable, Mr. Speaker, but we do need to think big so that can translate into results.

To that end, I do applaud the Secretary of State's ambition. While I do not agree with all or even most of her prescriptions, I do not doubt she has strong ambitions for our education sector and for British children. That, at the very least, is a good start. 

Mr. Speaker I'll confess that structures mean very little to me when it comes to what makes a good school. I think there are times where academies work, times where local maintained schools work, times where schools need more freedom and times where schools require more guidance. To that end, I don't have an ideological dog in this fight. Having been a parent, what I wanted for my children was that they got the best schooling they could. To that extent, as long as my children were safe and received a good education, I cared very little for who ran the school, the size of the curriculum and whether the state supporting that school was a big or small one.

I must be honest that I do not feel the Secretary of State for Education has quite comprehended that, and much of the content of the bill presented to the House today is part of a wider ideological crusade. I don't want a big state experiment to be unleashed on school children, but I'm unsure if a 'small state experiment' so to speak is the alternative. 

Because lets be honest: despite the Secretary of State’s vague assertion the evidence is on her side, we know that serious scrutiny of the evidence does not support that assertion. 

I would refer to the House to the report the Education Select Committee published in 2005, Mr. Speaker. It raised concerns at the Labour government’s expansion of the academies programme – an expansion the Secretary of State deemed to be too conservative, Mr. Speaker – on multiple fronts. 

The fiscal strain of academies was raised, with academies having a capital cost of £21 million per school in 2005, representing £21,000 per place compared to the government’s basic need cost multiplier of £14,000 per place. 

The select committee made clear the efficacy of the academies programme has not yet been established. Further from that, considering the extra investment put into academies it questioned if this was an effective allocation of resources. A study of academies showed that some not only failed to show an improvement in GCSEs, but that in some academies GCSE results fell. 

In academies there was also an increase in expulsions, and there are legitimate concerns that in academies that did see an increase in GCSE results came as a result of increased expulsions. 

Mr. Speaker, the next concern I’ll raise in relation to the academies programme has been branded a ‘moral panic’ by the Secretary of State. So I’ll quote directly from the Select Committee itself regarding valid concerns some can use the sponsor programme within academies to exert power and influence on the curriculum: 

“The Academy programme has raised controversy in many areas, particularly due to the nature of the sponsors involved in schools. A number of the existing Academies are sponsored by evangelical Christian groups and this has led to allegations that sponsors could have undue influence over the curriculum (for example, giving greater weight to creationism than the theory of evolution). This involvement can be bought relatively cheaply. For less than £1 million, as compared to an average of £25 million in public funds, sponsors can gain considerable influence or control over a school. Whilst we would not wish to suggest that this influence is being used maliciously, this seems a small price to pay, particularly for corporate sponsors.”

With all these concerns raised, the Secretary of State’s determination to expand academies on a mass level is extremely concerning. To fundamentally change the whole system of schooling is something that should be done carefully – to do so without any evidence is reckless. 

And even then I have concerns as to the priorities the government is holding as it expands the programme. The limited evidence we do have is that academies best serve underperforming schools in underinvested communities. Why the government is choosing to prioritise well performing schools in the rollout is beyond me. The focus should be on those who need assistance most, not schools which are already performing well under the current model. 

Mr. Speaker one point of agreement I do have with the bill is the new governance framework for academies, and the cooperative model it seems to have been inspired from. It has followed an openness this government has shown towards cooperatives and mutuals broadly since its time in office, which is an openness welcomed by the Liberal Democrats. The Secretary of State, in my opinion, had the opportunity to be more radical and remove the more questionable “sponsorship” model altogether. Further, I am unsure if vital decisions based on a school should be done in AGMs. Accountability and transparency should not be a once in a year event, but a persistent and ongoing one. 

The Secretary of State is determined to prove that these reforms aren’t Whitehall led and top down in their nature. Firstly, I would question if this is the case why priority towards academy conversion is then being targeted towards high performing schools. Secondly, may I ask the Secretary of State to clarify broadly if this means all schools would become trust schools? Without the consultation of local communities? How is this not, as the Secretary of State denies, top down Whitehall reorganisation of our schools?

In short Mr. Speaker, while there are initiatives the Liberal Democrats support whether it’s the slimming down of the curriculum – though the devil is in the detail there – or the removal of Labour’s ineffective and harsh truancy targets, the Secretary of State has not sufficiency communicated that she has taken an approach that is led by either consensus or evidence. She is asking the House to grant her the power to tear apart the framing of schooling as we know it with only the faith that this would work or drive up standards. 

I am afraid that I cannot operate on that faith. 

The Secretary of State could’ve chosen to take a more careful approach where the academies programme was expanded whilst rigorous examination and evaluation was still taken so we could say with certainty whether, or in what circumstances, it worked. We could have taken an approach where focus was put on underperforming schools, not schools that were already benefitting under the current model. e

Unfortunately, despite some parts in the bill that could receive our tentative support, that careful approach was not taken, and as a result it will not be receiving support from the Liberal Democrats today. 

Ruth Murphy.

Labour Member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton (1974-).

Opposition Whip (1982-).

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