Clause 41 — Schools forums

Education Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 15th July 2002.

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Votes in this debate

Lords amendment: No. 27.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

I beg to move that this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments (b), (c) and (a) to the words so restored to the Bill.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

Collaboration between schools and LEAs is an integral part of the new funding system, and we want that partnership to be effective throughout the country. The forums that we are about to consider put that principle into practice. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I dally slightly longer than normal to explain the Government's approach fully.

Our debates on the Bill have not shifted our perspective that forums have an important role under the new regime. We have always said that some LEAs have effective consultation arrangements on funding matters. However, that is by no means the case in every authority. Clause 41 provides a real opportunity to ensure that schools in every area have a voice on a range of matters that are directly relevant to school funding. We are in the era of the self-managed school, where the delegation of school funding has greatly increased. Given that landscape, it is only right that local schools have the opportunity to articulate views on financial matters that affect them, in partnership with their LEAs.

In considering the attempt to remove schools forums from the Bill, we have the benefit of the consultation exercise that we launched in May. It ended last month and we have been able to consider the results, which I should like to report. There were a little under 200 responses in the period for reply. They showed general support for the concept behind schools forums: partnership and consultation on managing the schools budget, which clause 39 would create. We therefore believe that we were right to include schools forums in the Bill and to persist with them. As one school said,

"the establishment of a schools forum on a statutory basis is absolutely necessary as a part of the new framework of school funding and it would be a major breach of faith if the proposals were to be dropped."

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

The Minister said that 200 people responded. How many were consulted?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

I do not know the figure off the top of my head, but I shall intervene later to provide it or include it in my winding-up speech.

The National Assembly for Wales strongly backs schools forums. It set out its proposals for them in "The Learning Country", the policy paper that it published last year.

We have also received strong backing for forums from bodies such as the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association, the National Governors Council and other schools organisations. I shall quote an extract from a letter that we recently received from the SHA. It states that

"the overwhelming majority of our Council believes that the Schools Forum proposal should go ahead and we very much hope it does not get lost in the parliamentary process".

The Foundation and Voluntary Aided Schools Association wrote:

"We do see these as a very significant step towards bringing informed professional judgements to bear on local LEA funding . . . we have tried to get across . . . how strongly we feel on this."

Debate on schools forums in the House and in another place has been about two main issues—the way in which forums are to be constituted, and their functions. We have tried to ensure that authorities are not required to change arrangements that work well and are designed to establish proper dialogue between schools and LEAs over the allocation of funding.

We want to tackle practice that does not work well and reinforce rather than disturb good practice. A dialogue between an LEA and its schools on the management of the schools budget is essential, and there will be different ways of achieving that. However, forums have been identified as an important factor in facilitating a mutual understanding of budget management. Examples that have been brought to our notice include the Bath and North-East Somerset LEA's school budget forum; Croydon LEA's leadership groups; Hampshire's standing conferences for head teachers, and the forum established by Telford and Wrekin LEA. We want such local arrangements to be able to continue with little or no change, and other LEAs to be able to design their schools forums to evolve out of bodies such as head teacher consultative groups.

Our amendments therefore propose much greater flexibility. There will be local flexibility about the balance between head teacher and governor representatives, and the size and method of selecting school members. Elected members of the LEA will be allowed to join forums. The Learning and Skills Council will have only observer status. The quorum requirement will be relaxed. Costs will be charged to the schools budget, but detailed provisions will be for local decisions.

We will give guidance on a range of issues, but this will be non-statutory and for each LEA to use as it wishes. Those significant changes introduce much greater flexibility and will enable many LEAs to turn existing local groups into statutory forums. We believe that those changes are a substantial and positive response to consultation and show that we have listened to the concerns expressed during the Bill's passage.

We have also listened to what has been said about the functions of the schools forums. There was substantial agreement in the consultation responses that the functions that we envisaged for the forums—mainly consultative and advisory, as we have consistently emphasised—are on the right lines. This has confirmed our belief that the forums will provide a valuable resource for education authorities.

The consultation exercise also showed considerable support for a limited decision-taking function, although we recognise that many have expressed a fear that this function would be expanded over time. That was never our intention, but nor was the decision-making function ever the main point of school forums, which are intended primarily to strengthen local partnerships. We have, therefore, considered the matter further, and, in consequence, we have tabled the amendments now before the House, following extensive discussions in the House of Lords. The amendments emphasise the advisory and consultative role of the schools forums, and restrict the role of the forums so that advice and consultation will be the limit of their function. The forums' advisory role is much the same as before, involving the funding formula for schools, service contracts, specific issues such as the balance of special educational needs spending, and arrangements for education otherwise. There will, however, be no power to take financial decisions.

I have been passed a note giving me the answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I am told that all LEAs were consulted, and about 90 responded. About 30 national organisations were consulted, 20 of which responded. The consultation was not sent specifically to schools. Perhaps my colleagues in the Department were worried about the bureaucracy that might be involved, and about the taunting that might come from Opposition Members about that. A summary of the consultation was placed on the Department for Education and Skills website.

I hope that the House will join me in rejecting the Lords amendment and agreeing to the Government amendments, which preserve the most important aspects of schools forums while limiting their role to advising LEAs.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education) 8:45 pm, 15th July 2002

I am pleased that the Government have taken some small steps to allay the fears that have been raised about the potential role of schools forums, although the Minister has not gone as far as we would wish. He spoke of the importance of collaboration and partnership between local education authorities and schools, but this is, in a sense, partnership by diktat. To move from a situation in which schools forums already operate perfectly successfully on a voluntary basis—as the Minister accepts—to one in which there is a statutory requirement to form and operate such forums, especially when there is a clearly recognised cost element to be borne, is to take a significant step.

If the Minister's interpretation of the Government amendments is accurate, and the role of the forums is to be purely advisory and consultative, it is even more surprising that we should need a measure to require their establishment. As the Minister knows, that was one of the principal bones of contention in another place. Less than a month ago, on 19 June, during an exchange on this issue in another place, the Minister, Baroness Ashton commented:

"As will become clear when we reach Clause 41, the schools forums are primarily advisory bodies."

That led to a brief misunderstanding, in which some Members thought that she had said "purely advisory", and she was obliged to clarify her comment, saying:

"My Lords, I am sorry; I said "primarily advisory" and not "purely advisory".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 19 June 2002; Vol. 636, c. 799.]

The Minister's statement that the forums are now to be purely advisory bodies is, therefore, an interesting and useful development. It sits ill, however, with the statutory nature of the forums.

The Minister's statement also sits ill with his remarks a few moments ago about the importance of deregulation, which he says that he accepts. This is clearly a regulatory measure that will increase the bureaucracy imposed on schools and local education authorities. It carries a cost, which is required by law, and according to statute will be placed squarely on the local education authority. The Minister prays in aid the consultation that ended in May. He says that the consultation largely supported the establishment of statutory schools forums in that there was support for consultation between LEAs and schools. It is easy for schools and LEAs to engage in such consultation at present, if there is support for it.

It is not surprising that many Members in the other place and in this House fear that the Government have other intentions that perhaps go beyond the limited aims that the Minister has set out. He spoke about the context of these proposals in the light of the self-managing nature of our schools. He said that the role of the forums would be mainly consultative, and that although the consultation showed that there was support for a limited decision- making power, the Government's amendments do not proceed in that direction.

The Government made some welcome concessions on Third Reading in the other place. They were prepared to set back the date of implementation of the schools forums provisions from 31 October to 15 January 2003. They allowed LEAs more discretion on how the schools forums should be constituted, and accepted that forums would have to include governors and head teachers, but the balance would be at the LEA's discretion and the method of election would be locally determined. The minimum size would be raised, but there would be no maximum. There would be a requirement to ensure exact proportionality between school phases. The Learning and Skills Council would have only observer status. The maximum percentage of non-schools members would be reduced from 25 to 20 per cent., and would include elected members of the LEA.

Even with those changes and concessions in the other place, there is still a nub of concern about the nature of schools forums. The reassurances that were given on the size of the forums and the balance between the different phases of education implicitly accept that there is a danger that schools forums may in practice not represent the interests of all schools or all phases of education in an area. There may be some room for the balance to be tilted between different schools or phases of education.

Many schools forums already operate successfully on a voluntary basis, and the Minister cited some of them. The Government say that their education policy is about shifting away from one-size-fits-all provision, so it is ironic that schools forums are moving in the other direction towards such a policy, with a new arrangement being imposed on schools and LEAs.

We also concerned about the constitutional implications of this provision with regard to responsibility for LEA expenditure. There is a wider debate about the best mechanism for funding schools, how much money should go directly to schools, whether that should be done through a formula or in the spending review, as has been discussed once again today, or whether it should be done on a direct payment basis, which cannot be relied on in the long term. Although the Chancellor today spoke about a three-year period, that is hardly a hard and fast guarantee of a funding stream that can be relied on and that enables schools to plan accordingly.

It is felt that bodies are being established which, even if they have no decision-making powers, will be there to advise Ministers on a massive power that they are taking to control local authority expenditure. Again, responsibility for the expenditure will rest with local education authorities, but control over it is being shifted—in the small matter of funding for the forums themselves, but more significantly in the context of the proposals to ring-fence schools budgets.

By what mechanism, and in what circumstances, will funds be moved from one budget to another? How do Ministers intend to exercise their sweeping new power over local authority budgets? How will it be decided whether schools budgets are inadequate or sufficient? What procedures will be used to assess the recommendations and advice given by schools forums? They will be able to express concerns about the way in which money is disbursed, which will be passed to Ministers to interpret.

The massive central power that Ministers are taking is a thread that runs through the Bill. The forums could almost be seen as a cloak beneath which Ministers can hide their actions.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the balance of power between local education authorities and Government here in Westminster. Would he care to tell the House how he would organise that balance, and how his party would like it to be struck between the centralisation that he sees as a thread running through the Bill and powers for LEAs? I am thinking about what was said earlier about local democracy by Mr. Redwood.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

I should be delighted to do as the hon. Gentleman asks, but I fear that I cannot. He will probably not be surprised to learn that I feel very comfortable with the system of allowing schools the maximum resources, power, independence and freedom. I hope that, when we are in a position to consider the details of what we will say before the next general election, that view will feature strongly.

It should be noted that the Government are themselves engaged in a profound redefinition of what LEAs should do. I am not necessarily suggesting that the Government are being sneaky in any way, or trying to hide their true motives. A genuine debate is probably taking place in Government about the exact role of LEAs.

I was not taking a shorthand note, and I am sure that the Minister will forgive me if I misquote him slightly, but I think that when he appeared before the Select Committee recently, he made it very clear that LEAs should not be running schools—that their role should be strategic, and that they should take an overview. My hon. Friends and I feel comfortable with that. I suspect, however, that over the next couple of years the local education authority will become a very different animal from the one that we see today, or the one that we saw a year or two ago.

There is certainly potential for movement in a certain direction. We heard today about direct payments to schools. We are trying to be consensual and non-partisan this evening, but we could comment that those payments may only just cover employers' national insurance contributions, and that they may be eaten up by the funding for Curriculum 2000, which never reached many schools. We should also bear in mind the shortage of funds currently experienced by many schools with sixth forms because of the Learning and Skills Council settlements. None the less, there is an increasing tendency towards direct payment in the form of a cheque submitted to the head, thereby bypassing the LEA. At the same time, through the Bill, the Government are assuming the power directly to squeeze the LEA side of the budget.

We have various concerns, which in part relate to the point that was rightly raised about the exact role of LEAs and of individual schools, and about the extent to which we are moving in a particular direction. The Minister might want to add something to that debate. However, there is also the real constitutional concern about the divergence between where the responsibility lies for control and expenditure of public money through the local authority, and the increasing shift towards taking decisions about how that money is spent elsewhere—notably, by Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 9:00 pm, 15th July 2002

This was an important issue for Liberal Democrats in Committee—in the Commons and in the Lords—and it remains important as we consider the amendment before us. When the Minister introduced this group of amendments, he referred to those who support the recommendations of schools forums. Mr. Turner was right. I had intended to ask how many consultation documents were issued and how many replies were received. The Minister rightly pointed out that the organisations that were very supportive of schools forums—they supported them as described in the original Bill, not in its amended form—included the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association and the National Association of Governors and Managers.

If I were still a practising head, I would be somewhat attracted to the concept of schools forums. I was often at odds with my local authority about my school's budget share, and during area meetings, local primary heads were at odds with me about how much money they were getting in comparison with the secondary school. In turn, the local special school argued that the primary and secondary schools were getting a greater share. It was very difficult to decide which of them was being disadvantaged. Of course, that is one reason why we elect local authorities, and why members of all political persuasions—and independents—put themselves up for election. Taking such decisions is a fundamental role of local authorities. I might disagree with certain of their decisions from time to time, but it is important that this House preserve local government's right to take decisions on matters for which it has a distinct responsibility—a point to which I shall return in due course.

The Minister mentioned Wales—an issue on which I, too, have been lobbied. The National Assembly for Wales's Green Paper, "The Learning Country", was a very good document. I urge the Minister to reconsider separating schools forums for Wales and for England, because under the legislation it is possible to do so.

I am pleased to see that the Welsh Minister is in his place to answer these deep questions, if he is still a Minister in that Department—[Interruption.] There have been so many changes recently that I did not know whether he was just sidling on to the Front Bench for a chat. One of the advantages of having an elected Assembly for Wales is that it has every right to say what it would like for its schools. The Minister is at leave to exclude schools forums for England and have them only for Wales. If that is what the Welsh Assembly wants, the Liberal Democrats would accept that, as is only right and proper.

I agree with the Minister and Mr. Brady about the need for better consultation with head teachers and governors about school budgets. That is said with due humility. The examples that the Minister gave of forums that have been organised by local authorities and their schools are shining examples of what can be done within existing regulations. We do not need a raft of new regulations and organisations to achieve what the Minister wants. We—and probably the Conservatives, too—would be happy to make it a duty on local authorities to consult head teachers and governors about school budgets and to publish the arrangements for so doing. That can be done within existing arrangements without all the paraphernalia of schools forums. That would protect the position of head teachers and governors.

The schools forums proposed in the Bill now are very different from those originally intended by the Government. The original intention was for schools forums that would have considerable powers, if the Secretary of State decided to give them those powers. The forums would have had direct powers over local authority budgets and how they were devolved to schools. I am delighted that the Minister has agreed that those powers are not necessary. However, if the bodies will be merely consultative, why are we going to such great lengths?

I also agree with the Government that schools should have a right to petition the Secretary of State if they feel that they are being disadvantaged. That is right. Head teachers and governors have a duty to ensure that the resources that they get meet their school's needs, especially now that they will be held more and more responsible for what happens.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Minister is so excited about the additional money. I am excited too, and I just wish that I was still leading my school as these resources were pouring in. However, I was in the House when the additional £19 billion was announced, but it turned out to be £6.1 billion.

Photo of Mrs Valerie Davey Mrs Valerie Davey Labour, Bristol West

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am sorry, but I do not want to be distracted on to that issue. I am sure that the hon. Lady is far too wise to lead me astray.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West made a telling point. [Interruption.] It is always sad when Ministers cannot even be bothered to listen to the argument, because if they did they might be able to engage properly in the debate. The issue that the hon. Gentleman introduced was the new funding arrangements that are being proposed for schools and local authorities. If the budget for schools—the annual grant from the centre—is to be ring-fenced, with a separate budget for local authorities for running the LEAs, we will have a very different beast from the one that we have now. We have major reservations about the new arrangement, and it will call into question the enormous top-up that local authorities give to schools over and above the standard spending assessment that the Government say that they should spend on their schools.

The Minister knows—he is a highly intelligent young man—[Interruption.] Oh, so he's 37. Wonderful! Heavens above! He knows that in the past financial year local government spent £370 million over and above Government grant on schools in local authorities. It was not heads or governors who raised that money. Those people did not go before the electorate to win seats to sit on the council and to make decisions to raise council tax accordingly.

If we want to go down the road where everything is centrally controlled, where everything is decided in London and is simply imposed on schools and local authorities, I question whether local authorities have any future. On that basis, why do the Government not devolve all the money directly from the centre to each individual school? If that is what they want, let them say so. It seems that that is where we are going on this issue.

The jibe "one size fits all" has been made at our comprehensive system. It is a jibe that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and other Cabinet members constantly make at the public sector. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West is right to say that before us is an example of one size fits all that is being foisted on local authorities and schools irrespective of whether they want it.

Under the Learning and Skills Council arrangements and the Learning and Skills Act 2000, funding for 16 to 19-year-olds is now provided by the Learning and Skills Council—a wholly unelected quango. Yet there is no mention in the Bill, or in the 2000 Act, of the suggestion that there should be a schools forum for the Learning and Skills Council. It seems to me bizarre that a democratically elected body should have to have a schools forum to interject, but that a totally unelected quango can deal with £6 billion of taxpayers' money, without any say from elsewhere.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is even more important a point given that the clear logic of the Government's position is to shift to a 14-to-19 phase of education and that the logical concomitant of that might be that the funding stream will go in the same direction, in which case even less of the money would go through the local authority route?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is an area of genuine discussion with the Government and something that we need to have out with them. In an intervention during a recent debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis, gave a definite no to the question. However, the issue remains on the table. I ask the Minister to explain why the Learning and Skills Council does not have to consult schools even though it is determining their budgets; nor, indeed, does it have to consult a further education college.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Proposed section 47A(1) refers to a schools forum including other bodies if the authority—that is the local education authority—so determines. The words used are:

"representing such bodies as the authority may from time to time in accordance with regulations determine."

That means that there is an avenue available to address the real problem that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that. If he reads the background notes, he will find that we are talking about a member of the Learning and Skills Council being allowed on the schools forum not as a voting member but as an observer. No doubt he or she will have nothing better to do than observe. I am making the point that the reverse does not apply. We have an unelected body that is responsible for £6 billion of taxpayers' money, to which none of the regulations that we are discussing apply. At the same time, we apparently have to have a new organisation for the local education authority. I want the Minister to reply to that issue.

The final point that I want to raise is the question of non-school members. That is an important issue on which the Minister can provide clarification. What was the reasoning, for instance, behind the reduction in the House of Lords from 25 per cent. to 20 per cent? It would be useful to put on record that rationale. Will the Minister explain why head teachers and governors are important school members, but teachers and support staff are non-school members? I find that insulting to teachers and non-teachers, who somehow do not even qualify, for the sake of the school forums, to be recognised as part of the school community. If a formula can be devised for the proportion of head teachers or governors on the school forum, surely the same courtesy can be extended to the very people who have an important interest in their schools—the teachers and support staff.

In an earlier debate, Mr. Mole, who has left his place, raised the issue of the burdens on governors. Most governors apply to join a governing body or—shall we say—are encouraged to do so because they want to become involved with that particular school. That is their real interest. When they get there, they find that they have all sorts of other duties as well. Representing other schools is difficult both for individual governors and for individual head teachers. Head teachers, by definition, as chairmen of governors, have a real interest in their own school and community and have a duty to fight for the best interests of their school and their school community. It is difficult for them to make objective decisions about budgets et al, across a whole authority, without having all the other information. If we want governors to play a key role, as the schools forum legislation clearly envisages, we are putting yet another huge burden on school governors.

At the end of the day, this is an issue of local democracy. As a party, we are fundamentally supportive of the whole principle of local democracy and local decision making. We believe that the balance is just about right between increased autonomy and increased ability to innovate for schools, and local authorities that have become light-touch authorities. They are absolutely essential, however, in terms of making sure that all the machinery fits together. They have key roles to play. All we are saying to the Government is this: why invent a whole area of bureaucracy that is totally unnecessary, when, by simple regulation, using existing provisions, the Minister can have exactly what he wants—advisory bodies including governors and head teachers?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight 9:15 pm, 15th July 2002

The reason why I asked the Minister how many people had responded to the consultation was that the Government's consultation record on the Bill, and on a whole range of issues related to it, is excellent, but that the response has been tiny. The Minister kindly gave me the figures. Of the 200 or so responses to the consultation, 90 were from LEAs and 20 from other bodies. I therefore assume that about 110, being from neither LEAs nor other bodies, were from schools. Those 110, of course, represent 110 of 25,000. A provision that was designed originally to give schools a key role in determining their budgets was, therefore, sufficiently popular for only 110 of those schools to respond to the Government, let alone say yes—the Minister did not tell me how many said yes.

Rather like Mr. Willis and my hon. Friend Mr. Brady, I find it hard to understand what the clause's purpose is any more. I understood what its purpose was when the Bill left this House for the other place. The Government were then determined that schools should get it right when LEAs got it wrong, and that schools should be given the opportunity to get it wrong even if LEAs had got it right. The Government do not trust LEAs, and it does not matter what kind of LEAs they are. I am not a great fan of LEAs, but even the budgets for grant-maintained schools were set according to the formula—admittedly with knobs on—determined by LEAs.

When the Bill left this place, the clause enabled LEAs to be overtaken by schools in determining school budgets. As far as I can see from reading the proposed new section 45A in clause 39, schools could determine the size of the school budget as well as how it should be disposed. Schools could decide that money should be spent on schools rather than on old people's homes, transport or roads. That was the Government's absurd purpose, and their lordships rumbled it and got rid of clause 41.

The Government accepted the need to remove the worst bits of clause 41—the power of schools to override LEAs, which, for all their faults, are democratically elected—yet they still think it necessary to keep the rest of the absurd framework. They want to put into statute something that many LEAs do already and that many groups of schools could do even if their LEAs did not want them to. It is not unknown for head teachers and governors to meet outside the arrangement made by an LEA.

It is extraordinary that the Government think that the only things that happen are provided for by legislation or regulation. The Minister shakes his head, and I do not blame him. He is on the new side of the Labour party that does not believe that, but I regret to say that this clause confirms my belief that the Minister shares the Government's outlook that the only things that happen are determined by regulation and legislation. That is not the case, so there is no need for the statutory framework. Unlike the Government, I do not disagree to the Lords amendment.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

I begin with a matter of no significance. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis, wants Mr. Willis to know that, although my hon. Friend may look like a year 12 in a suit, he is actually only a year 6. He is at least two years younger than me, so he does not want any aspersions cast in his direction. He is very much young Labour, and is coming up sharply alongside us.

I shall deal with three points in my response to this interesting debate: the purpose of the changes, the role of LEAs and the nature of the proposals. It is important to recognise that LEAs are already required to consult on the funding formula and on the scheme in the financial control document that they issue. The quality of the consultation that takes place as a result of the encouragement that is given to LEAs to form the partnership with schools that we want should be honoured in the breach as well as in the observance.

The amendment tries to remedy the problem that, in some LEAs, schools feel that they have insufficient chance to have a proper dialogue with the LEA about the organisation of a school's budget. The forums have received much support from organisations representing head teachers and schools. Notwithstanding what Mr. Turner said about the consultation, I was impressed by the seriousness of purpose demonstrated by the respondents. We are trying to solve the problem that some schools feel disempowered when the LEA formulates its plans.

On the role of the LEA, the Conservative party cannot decide whether it loves LEAs or loathes them. In the course of a single day, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has gone from loving them to loathing them and back again. Mr. Redwood made a passionate plea to get rid of them completely. The Government believe that LEAs have an important role, but it is not one of running schools. Their role is to support schools in school improvement, to provide the services that cannot be provided by schools alone and to support the drive to rise standards.

I must tell the Liberal Democrats that the role that the Government have set for LEAs is standing the test of time. It is a proper role that is designed to enhance what schools do, not to replace it.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The Minister misrepresents my view. I said nothing about the abolition of LEAs. However, how much will the forums cost? Why can he not find a better way to take account of the views of schools without creating more expensive bureaucracy?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

I am sorry if I misrepresented the right hon. Gentleman's views. They seemed clear to me, but I am happy to hear that he, too, loves LEAs.

Costs depend on how LEAs decide to develop the forums, which are the mechanisms for consultation. LEAs that already have meetings with head teachers and others can simply extend those to include the forum. We have designed clause 41 to encourage LEAs to exercise maximum flexibility on how they undertake their responsibilities.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked who should be represented on the forums. That is a matter for local authorities. We are not trying to create a schools parliament and I would hesitate before inviting a cavalcade of people to come along to the meetings. However, if LEAs think that members of the local schooling community have important points to make, they can invite them to the forums. Heads and governors are referred to as key players because they control school budgets, and it is the purpose of the forums to discuss school budgets.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of the learning and skills councils. It is significant that the Chancellor mentioned in his statement today the need to develop serious relationships at a local level between LSCs and the bodies with which they work. Part of that could involve discussing how the serious dialogue at LEA-school level can be extended to the LSC. The impression from my local experience is that in its first 18 months of operation, the LSC has made serious efforts to be a genuinely open and consultative body, although I take the hon. Gentleman's point that it is not democratically elected.

The Government amendments need to be set in the context of the arrangements that we are introducing to separate the budgets of schools and LEAs. Although LEAs will retain ultimate responsibility, it is time to give schools a sense of collective responsibility, in their partnership with an LEA, for the way in which their budgets are managed. What is the best way to dispose of resources? How are different priorities to be addressed and met? Is it better to spend money at school or LEA level to do best by pupils? Schools have an opinion on those questions and it should be heard clearly in LEAs.

We should not replace the mechanisms that work well, but we should put in place mechanisms if they are missing. The Lords amendment shows a distrust of schools, which is wrong. I hope that the House will vote against it and instead favour the Government amendments.

Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 315, Noes 169.

Division number 309 Education Bill — Clause 41 — Schools forums

Aye: 315 MPs

No: 169 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Government amendments (b),(c) and (a) to the words so restored to the Bill, agreed to.