Learning and skills bill sails into storm

March 24, 2000

The learning and skills bill has sailed through its report stage in the House of Lords and straight into a storm over the anti-homosexuality rule section 28.

It took just two days for the 85-page, 118-clause bill to successfully negotiate the report stage last Monday and Tuesday. This stage and the preceding committee stage in the Lords are where many bills are blown off course.

But, as The THES went to press on Wednesday, Tory peers and crossbenchers were preparing to reject a government amendment on sex education in schools, which was due to be tabled during the bill's third reading yesterday.

The amendment is designed to circumvent the Lords' opposition to government plans to repeal section 28. They rejected repeal of section 28 last month. The government is effectively offering peers a deal by hinting they may drop repeal of section 28 if the Lords agree the new amendment.

The amendment seeks to reform the 1996 Education Act. It would give education secretary David Blunkett the power to issue guidance modifying sex education in state schools. The controversy lies in the amendment's stated objectives for such guidance. Critics say it would result in children being taught that "stable relationships", which could be same-sex, are as acceptable as heterosexual marriage.

One overarching issue - the lack of detail in the bill - dominated discussion at report stage last week, prompting amendments tabled by Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers.

Conservative education spokeswoman Baroness Blatch moved a number of amendments calling for greater detail aimed at reducing the scope for government to customise the legislation through regulations. Two, both later withdrawn, stated that at least two-fifths of the members of the national and local learning and skills councils, to be set up by the bill, should be people with recent non-public sector business or industrial experience.

The Conservatives, still smarting over the effective abolition by the bill of the training and enterprise councils, fear that the local LSCs could be dominated by bureaucrats who sideline employers from education and training planning.

Higher and further education minister Baroness Blackstone reiterated the government's commitment to the business sector and its major role in LSCs, but she said there was no need to specify the exact proportion of business representatives.

Doubtful, Baroness Blatch said: "The concern is that the government say all the right things. I have been present at a number of meetings where ministers have explained their intentions, but very little in the bill bears out those intentions; much of it is left to chance."

The Liberal Democrats also showed their reservations about the lack of detail in the bill. The party's education spokesman, Lord Tope, and higher education spokeswoman Baroness Sharp moved a number of amendments aimed at ensuring that the members and function of the national and local LSCs reflect the diversity of local populations in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation, age, religion and disability.

Speaking to a number of similar amendments, Lord Tope said: "I find it a rather surprising omission from the bill as published. If the government is serious - and I believe it is - about tackling social inclusion and promoting equality of opportunity, it is important that the learning and skills council is seen as representative of the whole population and the whole community; that it cannot be seen or perceived as, at worst, a white male, business-dominated body."

Baroness Blackstone said government amendments, which were agreed subsequently, would ensure equality of opportunity. They would go further, she said, by placing a duty on the council to publish a report annually on progress made in equal opportunities in the year past and proposals for the year ahead. The Liberal Democrats withdrew their amendments.

The Liberal Democrats also sought to amend the bill to restrict schools inspectorate Ofsted to inspecting schools only. The bill would give Ofsted the power to lead inspections in virtually all general further education colleges. Colleges fear that the heavily prescriptive external inspections developed by Ofsted for schools may be ill-suited to college level education.

Baroness Blackstone said it was necessary for Ofsted, with its "powerful influence in enhancing standards and quality", to inspect all learning for 16 to 18-year-olds because of concerns about standards and low attainment in this age group. The Liberal Democrats withdrew their amendments.

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