Clause 6
Children, Schools and Families Bill
3:00 pm

Parental satisfaction surveys

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move amendment 138, in clause 6, page 7, line 17, leave out ‘Each calendar year’ and insert ‘At least once every four years’.

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David Amess (Southend West, Conservative)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 86, in clause 6, page 7, line 17, leave out ‘shall’ and insert ‘may’.

Amendment 139, in clause 6, page 7, line 19, at end insert

‘provided that the local authority judges that such a survey provides good value for money in helping to deliver school improvement.’.

Amendment 47, in clause 6, page 7, line 23, at end insert

‘but shall not include schools that have had a full Ofsted inspection during the 12 months prior to the survey being carried out.’.

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

The Minister finished on some words that are rather relevant to clause 6. He said that there was good bureaucracy and bad bureaucracy. I fear that what we are coming to here is rather bad bureaucracy. According to the explanatory notes, clause 6 amends the Education Act 1996 so as to require local authorities in England to seek and assess parents’ views on the provision of schools in their area. Where there is material dissatisfaction with existing provision, a local authority is required to consult with parents and develop a response plan that addresses the dissatisfaction. This is another of the clauses in the Bill that has caused a lot of concern about whether this additional bureaucracy is justified.

The NASUWT, in its submission to the Committee, said:

“it remains to be convinced of the need for parental satisfaction surveys”.

The Local Government Association said that it had concerns about the measures in this part of the Bill and believed that responsibility for responding to parental concerns about the provision of schools should rest with councils and that they did not support a right of appeal to the adjudicator. They have supported a lot of the amendments to this part of the Bill, including amendments 86 and 139.

There is one thing that the LGA says in its submission that I do not agree with and where I have some sympathy with the Government. It says:

“Councils are held to account by local electors through direct elections; the accountability of the ballot box provides an effective recourse for parents who are dissatisfied with councils’ plans for the provision of school places locally.”

The truth is that the ballot box has proved across the country and for many years to be an extremely ineffective way to deal with discontent about school performance and the provision of places. Many parts of the country have what are essentially rotten boroughs, where one party has been in power for a long period. They are often complacent about educational standards, and aspirations are low among elected members, and often officers as well, but because of the party’s strength, some parents’ concerns are not expressed effectively at the ballot box. I put it to Committee members, who will have a great deal of experience of local elections, that the performance of local schools, even when performance is low, is rarely an issue in such elections.

I am sympathetic to any Government who seek to implement intelligent accountability in a monopoly state system where people have a limited choice of provider. It is sensible that we should try to make the system as responsible as possible, understand the concerns, appoint  an inspectorate to hold schools to account and have some kind of inspection mechanism to hold local authorities to account when they are doing a thoroughly bad job and the ballot box is not proving effective. However, the issue here is whether the parental satisfaction survey and all that comes with it is really a sensible way to deliver school improvement. In our view, it is not. Our amendments seek to remove the compulsion and bureaucracy involved in the proposed parental consultations.

In some ways, the most important amendment that we have tabled is not the lead amendment; it is amendment 86, which would make the parental satisfaction surveys voluntary by allowing local authorities to decide whether they would be useful. That raises a question about the clause. If you will excuse me, Mr. Amess, I will put the case for amendment 86 now instead of speaking at great length later about the clause as a whole.

Some of the other amendments were also designed to moderate the worst effects of the provisions. For example, amendment 138 would remove the obligation on local authorities to consult annually, which is surely excessive, even for those who feel that parental satisfaction surveys might be useful. Amendment 139 would also give local authorities a different kind of flexibility by ensuring that the use of parental satisfaction surveys was conditional on the local authority’s having judged that the survey provided good value for money and helped deliver school improvement.

The Conservative party has also tabled an amendment in the group. Amendment 47 suggests that a parental satisfaction survey should not be necessary in schools that have had a full Ofsted inspection within the past 12 months. In other words, the survey should not replicate a review of school performance.

Mr. Amess, I do not know whether you have had the chance on a dull evening to read through the full horrors of what is involved in the clause, but Members who have read the paper circulated by the Department on the parental responsiveness trial will have a sense of what a bizarre and bureaucratic set of requirements are about to be imposed on schools if the Bill is passed. The clause is one of the many parts of the Bill that must be taken seriously, because it will affect many people and involve great expenditure of public funds.

The policy is set out clearly in paragraph 2.3 on the first page of the report on the parental responsiveness trial, which has already been carried out. I am afraid that I will have to quote a bit to prove my point that the provisions are excessively bureaucratic and should not be a duty. The policy is described as follows. First, every local authority in England will be required

“to ask parents of children in Year 6 their views on secondary school provision in their area, alongside the annual admissions process, and act on those views.”

John Dunford, the respected leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, noted in his evidence to the Committee that that is already striking, because the Government will require every local authority to consult parents whose children are not yet in secondary school. In other words, the secondary schools are going to be held to account by parents whose children do not yet attend them. As a consequence parents, whose children may be going on to secondary school, will be giving feedback based on what they have heard locally. Although I am not suggesting that the views of such parents on  secondary provision have no value—parents often have some sense of the quality of schools in their area—that is a serious deficiency in the suggested policy.

The second part of the policy is that views should be gathered via a—needless to say—nationally prescribed survey that will ask parents how happy they are with the local provision. The survey is designed to yield quantitative results and we have been sent a copy by the Department. The key question that parents will be asked to answer is how happy they are with the secondary schools in their area. Parents will have the stunning choice of being able to say that they are either very happy, happy, neither happy nor unhappy, unhappy or very unhappy.

3:15 pm
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Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

That is the alternative vote system.

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman makes the first argument I have heard in favour of this particular paper, but I do not want to intrude into matters that the Labour party may currently be debating.

From what I have said, we may already think that the survey is bizarre, intrusive and wasteful. However, the report on the parental responsiveness trial goes on to say:

“Where there is ‘material dissatisfaction’”—

I am not sure whether that has been defined yet, but we will come back to it no doubt—

“LAs will be required to address those concerns in a published plan.”

Therefore, if the response is high enough—we will come back to that in later amendments—there is enough material dissatisfaction and parents have said that they are unhappy or quite unhappy, there will be a plan. Local authorities will then be required to consult again

“with parents of children in Key Stage 2 (i.e. Years 3, 4, 5 and 6) to formulate the plan.”

That is not enough, however, because the document goes on to note:

“If a proportion of parents think that their views have not been considered fully or the proposals offered do not address their concerns, they will have the right for the plan to be referred...to the Schools Adjudicator.”

The schools adjudicator, however, lies outside the local authority. The document continues:

“In such cases, the Schools Adjudicator will review the process and outcome and say whether the plan is reasonable. He can accept or reject the plan or direct the LA to make changes to it.”

That is the case even though the schools adjudicator is not an elected individual. There is even more, but I really would be testing your patience, Mr. Amess, if I described what has to happen if the local authority responds other than in a positive way, and how there can be further appeals and counter-appeals.

All sorts of questions are raised by the survey, such as whether it will be value for money, whether we are consulting the right people, whether we have to consult in such a rigid way and whether it is right that we should give away democratic control to the schools adjudicator. Could such a device be used effectively to block any challenging changes that the local authority had to make to local provision due to an over-supply of places? Some hon. Members might say that that would be a good thing, but others might say that it would make it impossible for local authorities ever to deliver difficult changes in their area, even when they are regarded as being democratically accountable.

We have some idea about whether the survey will be welcomed and relished by parents, because pilots are already ongoing around the country. A number of local authorities were approached and were going to take part, but it seems that many of them fell away, presumably when they realised what was involved. The Government ended up with five local authorities taking part in the survey. In the impact assessment, which I assume was prepared before the trials took place, a 65 per cent. response rate to the surveys was assumed, and the costing was done on that basis.

The Committee will be interested to know the actual response rates in the five local authorities. In local authority 1 the response rate was 4 per cent.; in local authority 2 it was 14 per cent.; in local authority 3 it was 4 per cent.; local authority 4 did fantastically well and reached 20 per cent.; and local authority 5 reached 4 per cent. So the average response to the surveys, as I read the Government’s own case for such surveys, was 6.6 per cent. In other words, out of every 20 parents, almost 19 did not even bother to send the survey back. That is against a 65 per cent. planned response rate in the impact assessment. So far the Government have had a tenth of the response they were expecting.

Paragraph 10.2 of the report says:

“The response rate and numbers of responses are low, but not unexpected. Indeed, the trial LAs said they were ‘pleasantly surprised’ at their response rates”,

even those with response rates as low as 4 per cent. I find that degree of optimism quite extraordinary.

There are all sorts of other issues that we could raise, which we will obviously have to come back to when we debate other amendments. But I want to ask whether the Government have made the case for this additional level of bureaucracy. With all the other elements of school accountability that have been looked at—with Ofsted, with the report card, with league tables—there is a case for ensuring we know what parents think. There is a case for improving the accountability of schools and for holding local authorities more effectively to account. This highly bureaucratic part of the Bill is not the way to do it. It will impose additional costs on local authorities at a time when they can ill afford it, given the economic climate.

Even the Government do not really believe that the policy is worth bothering with, if we look at the impact assessment again. Normally we know how optimistic such things are, because Governments have to prove that policies are worth while, and we know that the annual benefits are often inflated and wildly exaggerated. But when we look at the costs and benefits of this policy, as described in the Government’s own paper, signed off by the Secretary of State, we discover that the net cost of the policy in present value terms is expected to be between £21 million and £22 million per year. The net benefit is estimated to be between £9 million and £23 million. In other words, the mid-point for the benefit is expected to be £15 million or £16 million per year against a cost of £21 million or £22 million.

Even the Government seem to think that the policy is a complete waste of money. Given the pathetically inadequate response to the pilots, the fact that even the Government seem to think it is a waste of money, the state of current public finances and the bizarre way in  which the survey has been constructed, this is one part of the Bill that the Government should take back to the drawing board and think on again.

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Caroline Flint (Don Valley, Labour)

It is interesting to discuss how we can give more parents a say in planning local schools services. With the current range of choice, which some members of the Committee may disagree with, whether it is specialist schools, academies, community schools or faith schools, it has become a more complicated landscape, though not necessarily in a bad way. It has always seemed to me that parents are not involved in planning school services as much as they should be. In the past, most planning was based on population and whether schools should stay open, and that determined how a local authority might plan its schools services. That was not always easy for Members of Parliament when faced with a local authority suggesting that a primary or secondary school might be shut because of the falling birth rate, although I understand the problem is the other way round now with the birth rate going up in more recent times. It is an important discussion to have, but I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I have concerns about how the matter will be dealt with in practice.

On planning school services, the survey has to be more rounded than is provided for in the Bill. We have to think about how, having done a survey in a particular year, the local authority or others in a school community are going to plan services. There are not going to be any changes in that year. Basically, parents who fill in the survey will have what is on offer.

Given that it has been established by the trials that it is best to have the questionnaire alongside the application for a school place, there are not going to be any changes at the end of that year. One wonders whether parents will be left rather dissatisfied over their input into the debate. Taking regular soundings in different forms—questionnaires are one way to do it, but sampling and meeting parents in the community and in smaller groups are also helpful—to aid a longer term strategy of change, perhaps over three to five years, would be the way forward.

I have concerns about how empowered different groups of parents will be to take part in the surveys. We can look at the response rates by local authority, as has been indicated. I would be interested to know in which local authority the response rate was 20 per cent. as opposed to 4 per cent. We have to be mindful of the fact that sometimes it is the better educated, more articulate and confident parents who will fill in the forms; other parents, who are equally interested in their children’s schooling, may not feel that they have the wherewithal to answer the questions.

Coming from a family where I was the first to go into further and higher education, I know that it is difficult for parents to talk about something when, sometimes, their experience of it is very limited. I do not want to say it in a patronising way, which is why I referred to my personal circumstances, but that is a reality. Among some parents there is a great deal of deference to the school and a belief that teacher knows best. Sometimes teacher does not know best, but the parent may not feel equipped to challenge a teacher in the way other parents feel enabled to.

On the response rate, I raised on Second Reading which parts of the local authorities the responses came from. If they were from the wealthier parts, where people are more likely to be in professional jobs and be more highly educated, then even that 4 per cent. may represent a distortion of the parents of the year 6 group across the local authority area. At a time when we are all concerned about social mobility and the opportunities for people to get on, we need to be mindful of a distortion in the survey and in how it works. The amendment is about how often the survey is done and the pressures on local authorities. Whether it is done once a year or once every four years, the question should also be about the quality of the engagement.

I would like to refer back to choice. Some parents are able, through their own means, to transport their children to a school further away because they feel that it meets the needs of their child, perhaps because of its specialism. On Second Reading, I referred to local authorities cutting school transport for some children. I have had that problem in my area, and it has particularly affected faith schools. Public transport has been cut and parents—often with low incomes and working shifts—of year 6 pupils have realised that they will not be able rely on their children being helped with transport to a faith school, which may be more then 3 to 5 miles away.

When we talk about satisfaction, we should be talking about choice. Choice can be easier for some than for others, when choosing the school that they want their child to go to. Involving parents in how local and school services are planned is absolutely important, but we have to look at whether the measure will deliver the Government’s best intentions.

3:30 pm
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Nick Gibb (Shadow Minister (Schools), Children, Schools and Families; Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, Conservative)

As has been alluded to already, clause 6 creates another set of machinery under which the level and standard of education provision is assessed, this time by means of a parental satisfaction survey. According to the policy statement the Minister sent us on 19 January, it will be a survey of

“parents of year 6 pupils, as they apply to secondary schools for their children, about their view of secondary school provision in the area.”

Under this machinery, if the survey reveals that a majority of parents are unhappy with the provision locally, the local authority must publish a plan setting out its proposals for responding to that dissatisfaction.

I suppose that this policy is devised on the assumption that local authorities do not know about parental dissatisfaction in their area and that, once they are made aware of that dissatisfaction through this survey, they will replace the director of children’s services and their education advisers, and they will set out a brand new plan to sort out the poor provision. I doubt very much that any of that will happen.

That new plan is then meant to be put out for consultation and “eligible” parents—defined by the hon. Member for Yeovil as parents of pupils in years 3, 4, 5 and 6—will be able to refer the plan to the schools adjudicator, who either approves, modifies or rejects it. And so it goes on, but I will not rehearse the saga of events that is meant to follow.

If we had schools adjudicators before us today, no doubt they would tell us, as the local government ombudsman did, that their expertise is in admissions and that they dare not tread into the fields of pedagogy or the curriculum.

Amendment 47 is simply a probing amendment to make the point that the new Ofsted framework contains:

“A short parent’s questionnaire that will be sent when the school is notified of an inspection.”

So there appears to be an element of duplication, albeit that the Ofsted survey covers only one school and is aimed only at the parents of pupils attending that school. Nevertheless, the survey will have been carried out and it will contain extensive data that should, if an Osted inspection has been carried out recently, serve to inform the local authority of the views of at least some parents in the area.

It is a particular area that matters, rather than the whole local authority area. For example, in West Sussex, which covers a very large geographical area, there may well be pockets of high degrees of satisfaction, but in other parts there may be far less satisfaction. The net effect may be overall satisfaction, but when the data are broken down by localities a different picture may emerge.

This issue was touched on briefly in the report on the parental responsiveness trial, which was sent by Ministers to members of the Committee on Monday. In paragraph 12.2, it says:

“Local authorities were asked to analyse the data by ward... However, LAs felt the ward level analysis was possibly not correct either, as they no longer work at ward level. Some suggested school catchment areas were more useful but these can be quite large, are subject to change and may focus too narrowly on school-specific issues...All felt it was useful, however, to look at the geographical distribution of responses, not least because it contextualises the qualitative responses (the reasons why parents are satisfied/dissatisfied).”

It would be helpful if the Minister said a little more about the geographical issues relating to such surveys in very large local authority areas.

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Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

This issue is very difficult. I am a great believer in democracy at all levels. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I believe that in my lifetime democracy has proved to be the greatest force for progress the world has ever known, notwithstanding the great religions that have helped us from time to time.

However, I am worried about the proposed application of democracy. Ofsted costs us £500 million per annum. There is a lay person on the Ofsted inspection team. What do they know of education? They might not know very much, but they bring another perspective, check on the school, decide whether it is doing good, bad or indifferent, and identify areas of weakness, which can get special attention. Then schools try to improve on that basis.

I will say no more about Ofsted. I think that it is a very unwieldy body and very often the calibre of the inspectors is not what I would want it to be. Having very close relatives in the teaching profession, I could give a few choice anecdotes about their views of Ofsted. Be that as it may, it is a major inspection force: a school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher observed in the classroom, inspection process, in order that we have a grip on how well our schools are performing.

League tables are very unfair; they simply reflect the number of passes in any subject for any number of children, but, again, they are a measurement. They can, to some extent crudely expressed, show that some pupils are doing very well in some schools and others doing not so well. Everyone knows the script. We have the added-value tables, which say that in areas of considerable  deprivation, pupils have benefited massively from excellent teaching, dedicated staff and hard-working people who ensure that children make some improvement. Again, that is another test.

Today, we are bringing about guarantees. Each and every child will have a guarantee that its education will be properly cared for and looked at. Local authorities still send inspectors and advisers to help. It is an old-fashioned saying but it is true in this instance: “Weighing the pig does not make it any fatter.” How many ways and how many times are we going to weigh the pig? How are teachers beginning to feel about this? They are education professionals dedicating their lives and careers to the betterment of the children who form the next generation of bread winners.

I would think they are up to their back teeth with weighing the pig. How often do they get the chance to teach without having to think, “What will this do to the league tables? What will Ofsted say about this? Can I be innovative in something else?” As a Government, we are putting a huge burden on to a group of people who have served us magnificently for 150 years in state schools.

Of course, there have been failures. There are local education authorities that one would not pay in washers, they are so bad. That is also subject to democratic mandate. It has to be said that turnout is disappointing. Even when there is a very poor council, they still keep returning them—Tory and Labour. That is what they want to do and that is democracy. As Churchill said, “Democracy is probably the least worst form of government”. As a little aside, Lord Reith, who was the first director-general of the BBC and known for his autocratic style, when asked by John Freeman on the television about his preferred form of governance, I think replied, “Despotism, tempered by assassination.” We are trying to avoid such a radical approach to our schools. [Interruption.] I am not looking in any particular direction. We are trying to avoid that.

In my opinion, this is becoming very difficult. I do not know where this idea has sprung from. I am in favour of communities getting together to express the collective will on things large and small, but when we have a system of checks and balances provided by dedicated professionals caring for our young people, I wonder whether one more straw on this camel’s back might not be one too many.

I hope that the Minister can think again about this. I am a loyal Labour bloke, not one of these new Labour flibbertigibbets. Whatever he says I shall vote for. The truth is that this is deeply flawed. If it is not defeated and withdrawn today, there is a serious possibility of it being defeated on the Floor of the House.

3:45 pm
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Ann Cryer (Keighley, Labour)

I will not try to compete with my hon. Friend—nothing can match that.

As I have said before, my constituency is very diverse. I know that my constituents in Ilkley will send the local authority shed loads of opinions on any subject, particularly on their children’s education. In the case of senior school, their children mainly go to Ilkley grammar school, which is not a grammar school but a very good  comprehensive. The parents who send their kids to that school are largely professional, and they will take a great deal of time about giving their opinions.

At the other end of the scale are two Keighley-centre wards in which 95 per cent. of the children attending most schools do not know a word of English. In some cases, they have not even heard a word of English before going to school, because their houses get satellite television from Pakistan. Their parents are just as concerned as the Ilkley parents that their children should do well. However, many will not have the facility to understand, write or read English, and I am not sure what to do about them. We can be as politically correct as we like by sending them letters from the local authority in Urdu, Bangla or Punjabi, but it will not help a great deal because, by and large, the parents who do not have English are also illiterate in their mother tongue. I can make no suggestion other than that the local authority sends people out to the school to hold discussions with those parents, but even that might not help.

I understand the thrust of the clause, but I am not sure how we get anywhere with parents of the type that I have described. We also have many white parents who are on hard drugs, and they will not take much interest, so we will not get any feedback from them. Nevertheless, the whole thrust of the measure is a good idea, and I will be voting for it.

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

I was absolutely delighted by my hon. Friend’s brilliant oratory—particularly her last sentence. To be serious, I thought that my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Wolverhampton, North-East and the hon. Member for Yeovil made some interesting points. To start from first principles, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley summed up the thrust of the policy correctly. Some of the detail of it and the way in which it will work in practice will be refined as we go on.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that this is not about an individual school. He was good enough to say, if I remember his remarks correctly, that the parental satisfaction survey is about not one individual school, but the plurality of choice that is available to parents in an area. I understand the intention behind amendment 47, but he misunderstands the breadth of the survey and the reason behind it.

Similarly, through amendment 138, the hon. Member for Yeovil talks about a local authority carrying out a survey every four years rather than every calendar year. He will no doubt have read proposed new section 19J(8) of the Education Act 1996, which does, I think, exactly what he says. It states:

“The Secretary of State may, at the request of a local authority”—

I know that he will not like this because it is too centralising—

“exempt the authority, to an extent and during a period specified”.

The whole point of subsection (8) is to say that when a local authority has demonstrated that it has taken account of the views of parents, tried to ensure that the provision available to local parents is of the necessary standard, and done its best to respond to what people are saying to it, it is not appropriate to require it continually to have an annual survey. That was the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley.

Let us say that a response plan is drawn up by the local authority as a result of a parental satisfaction survey—the example that my right hon. Friend used  was that the plan said that a school had to work more closely with children’s services. There would then be a number of issues. I think that she asked how one could expect that plan to make a huge impact in a year. The provision recognises that if a local authority has a plan in place and is clearly delivering on the points that parents have made to it, or it commands the satisfaction of parents, it would not be sensible to require an annual survey simply to satisfy a piece of legislation.

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

If the Bill was currently law, how many of the 150 local authorities would the Minister expect to be exempt under subsection (8)?

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

I do not know the answer to that. Much of what is in clause 6 is a matter for guidance, which will be informed by the pilots, debates and discussions that take place. There is an opportunity in the Bill to achieve in part, if not in full, some of the desires of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that he expressed through his amendment, and to ensure that the survey is not something that takes place every single year, which would be unnecessary and inappropriate.

We have had an interesting debate, and since we will examine other aspects of the clause later, I will not stray too much for now. There is a decision to be made, however. We have a parental satisfaction survey, and the first thing to decide is whether that is a good idea—the clause clearly sets out that it is. If that is the case, what is the constituency of that survey? Of course, at the moment, it is based on the local authority area, as that was how the pilots worked.

I know that you will correct me if I stray too far and move out of order, Mr. Amess, but I am trying to inform the Committee of some of the thinking that has been taking place. If there is a big area such as West Sussex or, in my case, Nottinghamshire, how do we make sense of a parental satisfaction survey? Everyone in the area could vote, and the survey might say that there is complete satisfaction in the south and in the middle but not in the north. We were trying to say through the pilot that there must be a way, whether through wards or school catchment areas, of breaking the results down to make the survey sensible. Otherwise there would be a huge body of evidence that would seem to say that parents across the whole area were dissatisfied when that was not the case.

The second point, which is starting to be addressed, is how we determine what number of year 6 parents need to vote before there is a sensible estimate of—or barometer for—the parental view on secondary schools in an area. There are later groups of amendments about this, but in the context of this debate, I would suggest that it would need to be a high number to avoid campaigns by groups or individuals with a particular gripe, which would be unfair to the local authority. We are considering all those issues. However, the main point that I want to make is that the flexibility that the hon. Member for Yeovil wants with his amendment is allowed by proposed new section 19J(8). He would argue that that is centralisation and that, from his point of view, the measure is not particularly important, but I think that it is a very real power.

I want to address a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East and my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. I say all the time that the teachers, head teachers, teaching  assistants and other support staff in this country are a fantastic group of people who work extremely hard, often in difficult circumstances, to ensure that young people achieve the best that they can. Notwithstanding that, what mechanism do we put in place to ensure that the dissatisfaction that parents might feel about what is going on in their area can be expressed to try to change the secondary school provision in the area? That is what the clause is designed to provide for.

The hon. Member for Yeovil mentioned that the ballot box alone is not always the most effective way of delivering local democracy. This is about the social policy choices that we have to make. There sometimes a problem of parents feeling disfranchised, and how we address that is a real issue. Of course we need to do the things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said—engagement, face-to-face meetings and so on—but the question is whether that is enough. The clause says that we do not think that it is enough and that we need to find another way of dealing with the issue in a way that is proportionate and sensible, and that does not undermine the teaching profession in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East is concerned about, but gives parents a voice where they feel that they do not have one at present.

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Caroline Flint (Don Valley, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of the local authority in planning local education services is key, and that its ideas have to be put forward as a proposition so that parents may express their views? The proposition could be about the number of primaries, whether it shuts or opens schools or whether it introduces academies or specialist colleges, as well as one of the issues that parents get energised about most—the numbers at a particular school. Some provision could be reduced or some provision could be extended to meet the local demand for places. Is there not a problem with asking for a survey to be carried out before a proposition is put forward about the local authority’s thinking on how services should be planned? That is where we have got things the wrong way round.

Expectations are another issue—my hon. Friend looks quizzical. A weakness in the system has been local authorities planning local services—they have to be planned three to five years in advance in many circumstances—but not involving parents and others or allowing them to have a say on the authorities’ thinking about where the services are going and how they might look in the future. Some parents might come to have a very close and vested interest in what the outcome may be. I am wondering whether we have lost sight of that, and I would like to think that we could pull things back together in a more meaningful way.

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

I understand my right hon. Friend’s point now. She is absolutely right to say that this is about trying to ensure that people can influence the direction and provision of services on which they rely through the local authority.

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

Absolutely. If, as many of us do, we think that there needs to be a mechanism over and above just an election every four years—some authorities use thirds—the challenge is to try to establish something  that provides for that. That is what the parental satisfaction survey is about, but I absolutely agree that it must be conducted in a way that is sensible, that does not over-bureaucratise the system and that does what is says it on the box, which is to empower parents as they would wish to be empowered to help to plan the system for the future. If that can be done, it would be a reinvigoration of democracy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East was right to stress, in his own lyrical and expansive way, the importance of democracy. Democracy has many different forms and aspects. It is not just about voting. It is about engagement, involvement and people feeling that they can influence decisions. As I have said, I think that the thrust of the clause will achieve that.

In answer to the specific point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil, I hope that he will look at proposed new section 19J(8) and feel that it goes someway towards ensuring the flexibility in the system that he wanted to bring about through his amendments.

4:00 pm
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Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

When I was a councillor, my town clerk used to say, “Mr. Purchase, if you really must have these crazy left-wing policies, at least let me administer them effectively.” I thought that that was good advice and have tried to follow it throughout my political career. Four amendments have been tabled to the clause, and each one of them would give more discretion for local people, through their councils, to decide whether or not to proceed with a ballot. Why does not the Minister accept the amendments?

Photo of Vernon Coaker

Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

Because we think that the flexibility in proposed new section 19J(8) will do much of what the amendments would bring about. In relation to the clause, as with other aspects of the Bill, we will of course continue to look at how we can improve what we are doing. However, I think that such flexibility is certainly brought about by that proposed new subsection. Given my comments, I hope that the hon. Member for Yeovil will withdraw the amendment.

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

We have had an interesting debate, as have Labour Back Benchers—one of them supported the clause as drafted. We heard a good contribution from the right hon. Member for Don Valley in which she raised serious questions about whether it is meaningful to consult the parents of pupils in year 6 and whether that is the right point at which to inform parents who have already made decisions.

We also heard a robust contribution from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East. None of us on this side of the Committee could understand earlier in the week why he had not served on a Bill Committee for 11 years, but we are now beginning to get an idea. We are also starting to fear that he is trying to work his way off such Committees for the future.

Photo of Vernon Coaker

Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

I have spoken at great length with all my hon. Friends and I am delighted that they members of the Committee. I have said before that up to a point—hon. Members understand what I mean by that—a robust exchange of views, within both Committees and parties, is helpful for discussion and debate.

Photo of David Laws

David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

I am delighted to hear that; I think that the Minister is indicating that an opportunity for a free vote is coming up.

Photo of Vernon Coaker

Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

That was why I said “up to a point”.

Photo of David Laws

David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

Up to the point of Members voting against things that they do not like.

We have had an interesting debate, but I suppose I would have more sympathy for the Government’s offer of such an imperfect mechanism if there was currently no mechanism in place to hold schools to account. However, they are offering their mechanism when we already have a large amount of accountability, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East indicated. We have Ofsted and all sorts of school improvement agencies, and later in our proceedings we will debate the school report card. We have school improvement partners and the local authorities. We often consult the parents of pupils who are already at particular schools, and we of course have the choice mechanism so that if people in some areas do not like a school, they can go to another one, although that choice is not available in many areas. We therefore already have five different mechanisms for holding schools to account, so the issue is whether the provisions will add anything.

Photo of Ken Purchase

Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

We are talking about practicalities and bureaucracy, but how would the hon. Gentleman organise such a ballot—should he ever be in a position to have to do so—when the pupils could come from perhaps six or seven boroughs, as would happen in my area with Walsall, Dudley, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Birmingham and South Staffordshire? All the children could be sent to the same school, so who would do the organising and which local authority would be responsible?

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point that I did not touch on in my speech. I believe that the Government intend to consult only those who are within the local authority area. In other words, I believe that even if those children are crossing a border and accessing a school in the local authority area that is being looked at, their parents will not have a vote as part of this process—it will be only the parents within the local authority area. If I have got that wrong, I am sure the Minister will correct me, but I believe that those parents will not be consulted.

There are real issues surrounding whether we will be consulting people at the right time, whether we have to do so every year, why the response rates from the existing pilots are so low and why—the Minister did not respond to this point—even the Government’s cost-benefit analysis suggests that the measure is a waste of money. The Government have not made a very strong case for the provision, and the only real point that the Minister has made in response is that there is a get-out clause in proposed new subsection (8), which states

“The Secretary of State may, at the request of a local authority, exempt the authority”.

That is very different from our amendment 86, which would give the local authority the ability to decide whether to hold a survey. If we were confident that the Minister was suggesting that very few local authorities would have to do that and if there were some reassurance that the duty would be imposed only on failing local authorities, there might be some value in the measure,  although I would still want to amend it significantly because most of it is wrong. However, I am not confident that the get-out that the Minister describes will be used very often—I think it will be the exception.

The Minister was not able to tell me how many local authorities out of the 150 would not be required to carry out the survey, if the measure was now in force. The proposal is a waste of money, and it is something we can ill afford at the current time. Labour Members have expressed their considerable concerns effectively. Governments do not always get things right; they sometimes need to listen, reflect and conclude that they have made a mistake. I hope this is one of the areas on which the Government decide they have made a mistake.

I cannot accept all the assurances that the Minister has given us so, at the appropriate time, I will press amendment 86 to a Division, as I consider that to be the substantive amendment. However, at this stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 138.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Kerry McCarthy.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 2 February at half-past Ten o’ clock.