I beg to move amendment 8, page 3, line 11, at end insert-
'(1A) In the case of a member or members of a governing body objecting to an application under subsection (1), there shall be a ballot of the parents of children enrolled at the school, subject to regulations laid down by the Secretary of State.'.
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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 78, page 3, line 11, at end insert-
'(1A) Before making an application for an Academy order, the governing body shall consult relevant parties on whether to make such an application.
(1B) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance as to how governing bodies should conduct such a consultation with parents, pupils, teaching and non-teaching staff and their representatives, neighbouring schools and the local authority and such other parties as he may think appropriate and such guidance must also specify the information to be made available to consultees in relation to the proposed arrangements for Academy status.'.
(a) the local education authority,
(b) the teachers at the school,
(c) the pupils,
(d) the pupils' parents,
(e) such persons as in their opinion represent the wider community, and
(f) such other'.
Amendment 18, page 4, line 11, at end insert 'including the local authority for that area.'.
Amendment 77, page 4, line 14, leave out 'may take place before or after an Academy order, or' and insert 'must take place before'.
Amendment 9, page 4, line 14, leave out 'an Academy order, or'.
Amendment 86, page 4, line 14, leave out subsection (3).
Amendment 10, page 4, line 15, at end add-
'(4) Consultation on Academy status should not be led by any member of a governing body who may benefit financially as a result of conversion to Academy status or whose salary, terms or conditions may be affected by such conversion.'.
New clause 1- Reversion of Academies to maintained status -
(1) This section applies to any former maintained school which has been converted into an Academy under section 4.
(2) The governing body must make arrangements for the holding of a ballot of parents under this section if at least 10 per cent of the parents of pupils at the Academy request it to do so.
(3) The purpose of a ballot under this section is to determine whether the parents of pupils at the Academy want the Academy to be converted into a maintained school.
(4) If the result of the ballot is in favour of conversion, the Secretary of State must-
(a) revoke the Academy order, and
(b) take such other steps as he considers necessary to convert the Academy into a maintained school.'.
When were elected this May-God, it seems years ago-we all knew that there was some prospect that politics in this place might never be quite the same again. Many of us, frankly, welcomed that. The huge and welcome influx of new Members gave us all hope that things could possibly be different. That, along with the odd arithmetic of this place and the challenging nature of the country's problems, seemed to dictate that the way ahead would be through rational consensus and for a while-all too short a while-it appeared that tribalism and command-and-control politics were dead; the Chamber and Committees would be important and the policy would have to be evidence-led, much to the disappointment of the media, whose preference is always for a good scrap.
What do we have with amendments to the Bill, however? We have the spectacle of Ministers who have already told us that they will accept no amendment, period, and the sight of Whips new and old cracking their knuckles off-stage and perfecting basilisk-like stares in the mirror, persuading people not to vote for amendments such as amendment 8 and others that, it could be argued, align with the spirit and improve the detail of the Bill. Paradoxically, they are doing that because they assume that is how coalition politics work. I say paradoxically, because the amendment-denying Ministers in front of us, whose agents the Whips are, seem to be the most mature, civilised and benign advocates of the new politics. I personally cannot associate myself with the recent comments made by my hon. Friend Tim Farron; nor can I afford to drink in the Boot and Flogger. I am simply moving an amendment with which the Committee should be comfortable and, frankly, which any Member of any party can and should be free to support.
In the event of a governing body being divided, amendment 8 obliges a school to hold a ballot if a governor or a minority of governors object to an application for academy status. It therefore provides a restraint on a motivated group of governors misrepresenting or riding roughshod over parents' wishes.
Mr Evans, you might recall that under Mrs Thatcher, in the Education Reform Act 1988, a parental ballot was an essential precondition of the change to grant-maintained status in any school. There were votes across the country on those matters. Sadly, subsequent Governments seem to have lost interests in the views of parents and, in my view, have disempowered parents, with one exception. Tony Blair insisted that the change from grammar school status required a parental ballot and that condition survives and is effectively incorporated in this Bill.
Can anyone in this Chamber give me an argument for why grammar school parents should be balloted before the status of their school changes and parents of children at other schools should not? I am at a loss to find such an argument. Why should grammar school parents have a right that primary school parents, comprehensive school parents and special school parents do not have? Will anyone agree with the former and present me with a good argument for voting against the latter?
Presumably, the reason is that a change from grammar school to non-grammar school involves a change in admission arrangements for the cohort coming in the new year. With an academy, the admissions code remains the same and all that effectively happens is that the school organisation changes.
My hon. Friend suggests a cynical intention on the part of Ministers and I hesitate to endorse that. People must reach their own conclusions as to whether such an intention is present.
Is anyone going to give hon. Members a good reason to vote against my amendment, which would not even give parents the same rights as the parents of children at grammar schools but would be conditional on a governor objecting to proposals? I cannot for the life of me see why anyone would vote against it, but I suspect that nearly 300 will.
Let me be clear that I have no prejudice against grammar schools. I went to three of them-expelled from none, I hasten to add-and I taught happily at an ex-direct grant, independent school for 15 years. I am agnostic about educational structure and this is just a matter of logical consistency. In our debates on this issue, Mrs Laing has called on the Opposition to
"acknowledge that parents should be the people who have the greatest say in their children's education".-[ Hansard, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 43.]
Mr Jackson has accused Labour of not trusting people
"with the education of their own children."-[ Hansard, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 118.]
"the Conservative Front-Bench team takes the view that parents should have more choice".-[ Hansard, 21 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 444.]
They are all wise and experienced politicians who must know, as we all do, that governing bodies can sometimes splinter, be out of touch or be monopolised or taken over by cliques, particularly given the current chronic shortage of governors nationally; it is quite difficult to get people to become governors. Governing bodies also can and might misread parental opinion.
There is a general concern, which I share, about people who are temporarily and contingently nominated as the governors of a state school being entitled unilaterally to change the status of an asset that is paid for and financed by the whole community without the consent of that community or its elected representatives. Setting that concern aside, however, changing the status of a school without allowing the parents of children at the school a decisive voice is extraordinarily hard to justify, especially given the discretionary and entirely unspecific nature of the consultation arrangements in the Bill. The only motive that I can see for opposing my amendment, other than the dishonourable motive that my hon. Friend Mr Hancock has suggested, is a relative indifference to parental wishes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the possibility of a ballot taking place arose, it should not be just the parents of children at the existing school who were allowed to vote? It would have to be wider than that and take in the parents of children in feeder schools, as they would be the major beneficiaries, and if not them, the wider community as a whole. As we have argued time and again in our debates on this issue, secondary schools are a focal point in many communities and offer more than the teaching of children.
I am arguing simply that we should be at least as permissive as Baroness Thatcher was in 1988. My hon. Friend argues that we should be more permissive, but the Government are arguing, and anyone who votes against my amendment will clearly be convinced by that argument, that we should be less permissive.
Amendment 9 would delete the words "an Academy order, or", the effect of which would be to ensure that consultation on academy status would have to occur prior to the order being made. It is good common sense and, in essence, it is supported by the Chair of the Education Committee. As he said on Second Reading:
"The Government's concession in clause 5 at least makes governing bodies consult those whom they deem appropriate, but it is blunted by the fact that they do not have to do so prior to applying to the Secretary of State and because they can do so even after they have been issued with an academy order. Those consulted in such circumstances would have good grounds for feeling that they were participating in a charade."-[ Hansard, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 49.]
I do not think that it is our business in this place to encourage charades.
I am aware that, from time to time, it suits Members to parody, simplify and stereotype their opponents. The last Government are characteristically portrayed by the current Government as an unmitigated disaster and, in return, Labour Members portray the Government as an unmitigated evil. If people want to live in a world of hyperbole, that is fine-if a little wearisome-but let us conduct a simple thought experiment. Let us imagine a Government-any Government-different from ours, who propose to allow a public institution to change its character. They agree that the institution must consult people about the change, but they allow consultation only after the irreversible change has happened. Would Members back such a Government? Would they applaud them? What would be the point of consultation? What would that process do for public cynicism about public service consultation-already significantly eroded by the pseudo and sham consultations organised by the previous Government? But on the coalition side of the Chamber, how many quotes-showing our previous attacks, time and again, on sham consultation-do we want dragged up and used against us? At least those consultations did not take place after the event. Why do we want to invite comparison with the twisted politics of a communist plebiscite?
Is the only reason why we support the provision that the Government are proposing it? I notice that no one has said that post-hoc consultation is a cracking idea. It cannot be a case of "my Government right or wrong". That is not a good basis for a working democracy. It will not help the Government if we vote for indefensible nonsense. It will not help the Government if we vote, but compromise our beliefs in the process. Inconsistency and duff arguments will not help the coalition in the long or short term.
Amendment 10 is genuinely probing. It makes the obvious and, for me, slightly unkind point that the last time schools were given greater financial freedoms under local financial management, which I have always supported, nearly every governing body was presented with a paper from the headmaster showing that his salary should go up because the headmaster down the road would be getting a significant increase. We saw salary inflation across the headmaster class, so headmasters may have something to look forward to from new academy status. Of course, they may not think in those terms, and I am sure that the majority do not, but the point is pretty obvious to all of us-imagine asking MPs to consult on a change that might possibly result in improved salaries. The concept of declaration of interest has some relevance in these provisions, so it is important that consultation is led by those who have none.
I acknowledge that I have not shown a lot of enthusiasm for the Bill, but despite that and despite my doubts as to its cost and effects, I am not seeking to derail it. I do not wish to cause trouble. Free schools and academies are in the coalition agreement. All I hope I have done is to make a case for good sense, which I think most people are up for, the primacy of the Commons Chamber, which I think most of us support, and the right of parents to be taken seriously. I hope rational beings on both sides of the Committee will see their way to support the amendment.
I want to speak to new clause 1, on the reversion of academies to maintained status, and amendment 4, on consultation on conversion to an academy. I shall concentrate the majority of my remarks on new clause 1, and will speak only briefly to amendment 4, as consultation has been pretty much covered in our previous debates.
I tabled new clause 1 because there is no provision in the Bill for academies to revert to maintained status. That means that all the potential problems that the Bill would permit-such as restrictive curriculum, discriminatory admissions and employment policies-would be made permanent at the point of conversion. The Government admit that problems are likely. I have cited this before, but it bears repeating that the Minister responding for the Government in a debate in the other place stated:
"I fully accept that if you trust people things do go wrong, but that is the direction that we want to try to go in."-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 7 July 2010; Vol. 720, c. 299.]
It beggars belief that the Government would not want to guard against certain things going wrong, so is it really necessary to give schools complete freedom over admissions, curriculum and employment just to show that the dedicated people running our schools are trusted? I would argue not. The public are funding these schools, so on their behalf we must ensure that children are protected from indoctrination, that they are taught key subjects and that their staff are fairly treated. But given the Bill's failure to make proper consultation mandatory when schools convert to academy status, it is crucial to have a mechanism for parents to say that they want their schools to revert to maintained status if, as an academy, things do go wrong.
The Government want academies to be like private schools funded by the state, yet if things go wrong at a private school, parents have more recourse than parents of children at an academy as envisaged in the Bill. For example, if a private school behaves in a way that a parent does not like, the parent can stop paying the fees, withdraw their child or pay for their child to go somewhere else. There is no comparable control in the Bill for parents of children in academies. For example, it may well not be practical or possible for there to be the surplus capacity necessary for children to be pulled out of one academy and be sent to the next state-funded school of choice.
If parents see things going wrong in schools and believe that the Government's complete trust has been misplaced, surely they should be able to do something about it. The amendment is designed to provide a remedy to parents as a group-if, for example, an academy failed to teach key subjects or sought to impose religious beliefs on pupils. The amendment means that where 10% of the parents of pupils at an academy request it, the governing body must make arrangements for the holding of a ballot of parents to determine whether they want the academy to be converted back into a maintained school. If the Government are in favour of decentralising, as they constantly say they are with their big society rhetoric, why do they not want to let parents have the power to act if they decide that an academy is not better and if they want the school to go back to being a maintained school?
On the practical aspects of the amendment, as opposed to the principle that she has already articulated, will she explain why she arrived at the 10% figure as a threshold before a ballot is triggered? As to the ballot itself, once the mechanism is in place, what majority would apply to the ballot-50% or more-before academy status could be withdrawn?
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman takes the amendment sufficiently seriously to want to know such a level of detail, which is very encouraging. It seemed to me that 10% was a reasonable threshold, but I would be delighted to discuss the issue in more detail with other Members who might want a slightly higher threshold-I would not have thought we would want to make it lower- and I am equally open to suggestions as to the necessary majority. Perhaps a simple majority would not be enough and a two thirds majority might be better. At the moment, however, I am using the amendment to set out a basic principle.
I think that the hon. Lady's amendment puts forward a good point. However, does not the intervention from Mr Timpson highlight the problem with the process that we have to go through in that the hon. Lady could have the most brilliant idea ever and be like Cicero in presenting it, but it would make no difference at all because there is no Report stage for the Government to consider her point and table appropriate amendments?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for coming to the rescue. That was an exceedingly good point, which completely reinforces the fact that we are being forced to rush the Bill through at breakneck speed for no better reason than, presumably, the Secretary of State wanting to put a notch up and say that he has managed to achieve something before September. That is not a good way to make decisions. We should be going through the Bill line by line, making proposals and hearing the Government's response so that we are able to create the best possible legislation. We are being railroaded into a charade that is not designed to get the best piece of legislation on to the statute book, and that is what we should be getting.
Amendment 4, in my name, seeks to make real consultation mandatory before funding arrangements are signed for schools converting to academy status. Again, the lack of consultation in the Bill demonstrates that the legislation is about centralisation, not about empowerment. Rather than power to parents and pupils, the actuality will be the Secretary of State and his civil servants managing thousands of funding agreements with individual schools at the expense of local accountability.
An amendment in the other place means that the governing body of a converting school has to consult those persons whom it thinks appropriate, but there is nothing to prevent a school that is eager to convert from missing out key stakeholders. Proper consultation would enable reflection on accountability and governance, and on whether the freedoms that academy status will bring can be used without disadvantaging other parts of the community. Members will know from what I have said so far that I do not believe that that is possible.
I am sure that most parents would want a direct say over the removal, by severing the local authority link, of their right to democratic influence. The ramifications of so many schools becoming independent are enormous, and children, local parents, teachers, trade unions and the wider local community are surely entitled to have their voices heard. The point, which was made in the other place and by Members of this House last week but not adequately answered, is that article 12 of the UN convention on the rights of the child gives children the right to express views on all matters affecting them. Failure to consult students on matters that might significantly alter the ethos and curriculum of a school is a retrograde step, and it makes a mockery of the Secretary of State's empowerment claims.
Consultation should be central to the Bill. It is not sufficient to rely on the role of parent governors or TUPE regulations for staff, because they do not adequately equate to proper consultation on abandoning the education system as we know it. For example, I have no doubt that, on the conversion to academy status, many staff will have well-informed views that go well beyond the question of the transfer of their terms and conditions.
To sum up, on reversion to maintained status, why does the Minister want to deny parents the power to trigger a ballot? And on consultation, why is he in such a hurry? Why does he not have time to listen to those affected?
It was a pleasure to hear Dr Pugh looking back with such fond nostalgia to those democratic, halcyon days of the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. I did not know that he cared quite as much, but it was a wonderful trip down memory lane. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman in usually favouring democratic solutions and thinking that consultation is good and voting better, but sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good. What we have from Ministers is the opportunity for schools that so wish to obtain greater freedom to serve their pupils, parents and the wider community by having more to spend of the money that is properly theirs in the educational budget, and greater freedom to decide who they employ and how, and what they do in the classroom.
The Bill does not, as Caroline Lucas suggests, set up some kind of complete freedom, whereby iconoclasts can seize control of a school and ignore all kinds of standards and requirements; those schools will still be within the state sector, monitored and regulated, and they will still need to achieve standards. There will be a great deal of interest from the local community, but there will still be the national regulatory scheme, too, so the hon. Lady was just trying to shock the Committee and is not living in the real world.
Is it not the case that, if one gives academies the right to choose their own curriculum and opt out in so many respects from the local authority, one is giving them exactly those freedoms? I do not think that anything that I have said is designed to shock; my remarks exactly reflect the Bill. It will give academies incredible freedoms that other schools do not enjoy, and it will have huge ramifications for the rest of the local authority, as academies drain resources from it and from other schools. That is why consultation is so important.
That is a completely different argument from the one that the hon. Lady made in her speech, in which she said that these schools would be free of all checks, balances, regulation, inspection and control, and that they would go wrong. She seemed to be implying that we were giving schools the freedom to do badly. That is a particularly fatuous argument, because parents have considerable influence through governors and through their own voice, and they would take a great deal of interest. The number of pupils applying to go to the school would drop off very rapidly if the kind of disaster that she envisaged in her remarks came true, so I do not see that happening. I think that a combination of national regulation, the framework of law and local pressure would, on the whole, be benign.
Now the hon. Lady is arguing a rather different case-that these academies are going to be so successful, because they have all these excellent freedoms, that they will attract more and more people from the local community at the expense of the other schools in the area. I wish it were so. I do not think they will be that successful and take all the pupils from the local area, but if they are very good, I welcome the fact that more people will want to send their children there. That is a benign pressure to place on the other schools in the local area. It may be, however, that some of the more traditionally maintained schools act as the beacon that she would like to see.
To clarify my point, I am talking about the fact that these schools will drain resources away from other schools. That is already happening in my constituency with the existing academies established under the previous Government, and it will happen even more under the new Government's proposals. I am talking about resources coming out of other schools because academies will essentially outsource things such as special educational needs provision and other co-ordinating methods that were usually undertaken by the local authority. That means that the local authority will have less money to perform those same roles.
The main mechanism by which academies could take more of the money would be by their being extremely popular and attracting more pupils, because most of the money follows the pupils. That is a thoroughly benign pressure. If these academies are going to take off and develop extremely good standards and reputations, they will attract more pupils and get more money, which they will need because they are teaching more pupils, and the other schools will need to pull their socks up. If the outcome is not as successful as that, the hon. Lady's worries should fall away. Surely she must accept, however, that we need some challenge and improvement in the system, and that there is nothing wrong with choice.
Why is it that someone like the hon. Lady does not trust anybody other than the state and is never prepared to give anybody any freedom to initiate, innovate, change and improve? Cannot she see that we desperately need to raise school standards, and that we need to do something to try to make that happen? Her system was tried for 13 years, and it did not work.
The right hon. Gentleman's point about trust is unfortunate, to say the least. Governing bodies do not always get these things right, and that is why some kind of mechanism needs to be in place. The amendments are trying to achieve that and to remedy some of the problems caused by our not having enough time to do the job properly in Committee.
I have said that I love democracy, and it is often a good idea to give more people more votes. However, let me deal directly with the issue. Parents are not without powers or influence in this situation; if they were, I would immediately sign up to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Southport. I suspect, however, that Ministers will argue, like me, that it would be a nice addition but is unnecessary because there are other checks and balances in the system.
Let us consider those elements. First, there is an elected local authority that will have a lot of influence and control over these schools. Its voice will be heard because it has considerable influence over the appointments of the very people who will be making this proposal or decision for each school. The local authority often has members on the governing body, and the governing body has parent representatives. If the parents became alarmed by the way in which the head teacher and the senior governors were moving, they would presumably make their voice heard through the parent governors or use their ability to change those governors to make the point.
The evidence suggests that it takes seven years for a school to gain or lose a reputation, so it is not correct to say that the parents have this power to change things immediately. That is not going to happen-it will take a long time, and in the meantime children will lose out.
That may well be the case generally, but not in this situation. Changing to an academy is a one-off event of some significance in a school's life, so parents would be well aware of it and the school would communicate with them. If the parents were alarmed, I am sure they would make their views known. I know that parents of children in my local area are well attuned to what is happening in their local school, and if they are alarmed by something that is going on, they soon raise it. They can do so directly with their councillors, with their MP or with the school's governors.
I understand and accept entirely the right hon. Gentleman's point about the checks and balances being in place once a school is created, but the amendment is about whether people should have a choice about such a school being set up. Is he saying that the parents of potential pupils at such a school should not have a say in whether it should change its status? He is perfectly right about what happens after the event, but this is about what happens before the change.
If an entirely new school is being set up, it is up to the people putting forward that proposition to make their own decisions and canvass the marketplace to see whether people are likely to go to it. If there is a proposal to change a school's status, parental opinion is very important, but I suggest that under the system set out in the Bill, which develops the current system, there will be plenty of opportunity for parents to make their views known. They can do that directly by talking or writing to the head teacher or governors, or they can get different people on to the governing body if they are really worried.
My experience is that people care desperately about the education of their children, and if they thought that the head teacher and the small group in the governing body who were trying to steer a change through were getting it wrong, they would make their views known very strongly. I suspect that the head and the governing body would moderate their stance or back off if they felt they had lost the confidence of their pupils and parents.
The right hon. Gentleman is sketching out various alternatives to a more democratic arrangement. I understand his argument, but is he not also making an overwhelming argument not to proceed in September? All the things that he asks parents to do cannot be done, because the parents are on holiday and the school is shut.
It cannot be done on that short a time scale-these things will take a bit of time to go through. As soon as schools want to make a proposal, they will have to put in an application, and of course they will notify parents at that time. It is quite possible for them to do so by e-mail or post in the school holidays, and the schools will be back in September, when there will be opportunities for the dialogue to continue.
The right hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. May I point him to paragraph 7 of the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill? It states:
"The Secretary of State expects that a significant number of Academies will open in September 2010 and for the number to continue to grow each year."
As Dr Pugh says, there is simply not the time to consult in the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggests.
I think hon. Members are making obstacles where none need occur. Changes will go speedily only if the local community is happy. As soon as it gets out that a school is considering academy status, the local community will be engaged. There are local newspapers, local websites and all sorts of ways to do so, and the usual school grapevines will be in operation.
Opposition Members protest far too much-we all know they hate freedom, and they do not believe that free people can mobilise themselves in a good cause. I can assure them that people can do so very quickly if need arises. They should not be so afraid of the idea that their local schools might want a bit more freedom and a bit more of their own money to spend. It is dreadful that they believe that all their local schools need so much control from the centre that they want ever more regulation and control from Whitehall of the kind that Labour Governments meted out, and continued or increased control from local education authorities in the hope that one day there will be more Labour authorities to exercise it.
Surely it is high time that we set free the schools that wish to be set free. I can assure the Committee that should groups of parents not wish a change to academy status to happen, they will mobilise quickly and democracy will work. It is still alive and kicking.
I, too, would like to consider the serious lack of consultation required before establishing an academy, as outlined in clauses 3 and 5. I share the concern of not only other hon. Members, but teachers, parents and other stakeholders, who fear that they could be excluded from the whole process at the whim of just over half a governing body-that could be five, six, seven or eight people-intent on establishing an academy.
I know that there was much debate in the other place about consultation, but the resulting amendment, which allows the governing body to choose to consult after the academy order is made, does not go far enough. To say that the academy can consult after the event is nonsense, as is the provision that it must
"consult such persons as they think appropriate."
When the previous Conservative Government attempted to persuade schools to opt out of local authority links under the grant-maintained status legislation, parents were not only given the right to be consulted but allowed to vote on whether the school should opt out. That vote was binding on the governors, who had to accept the parents' will. Parent power ruled, and I, for one, trust parents.
Neither the original Bill nor the amendments passed in the other place give parents a guaranteed voice in the process. I can envisage, in many cases, governing bodies riding roughshod over parents and the community and making the changes that they want regardless. I say that because I witnessed the behaviour and the blind ambition of some governors and head teachers in the days of the former Cleveland county council, when the grant-maintained legislation was in place. A majority of governors and a few governing bodies favoured opting out, but the parents rejected that approach and their decision was final. Under the Government's current proposals, such governing bodies could-and, I believe, would-make the decisions and ignore the parents.
That is straightforward. Parents have always made good decisions when electing parent governors, but they have to be able to make bigger decisions, and I believe that they should be consulted.
The Government have chosen to ignore genuine concerns about the Bill. That is not new politics, but old politics of the worst type. Rushed legislation makes bad law. In the words of the National Association of Head Teachers, legislate in haste, repent at leisure. I therefore hope that the amendments that would compel governing bodies to consult parents, among others, will be supported.
I welcome you back to the Chair on the third day of our Committee proceedings, Ms Primarolo.
My hon. Friend Dr Pugh presented a strong argument, which the Minister clearly needs to answer, on whether the Bill currently goes far enough in giving those who care about the future of their school the opportunity to be involved in determining it. He set out the case for a ballot and looked back to the previous Conservative Government's decisions about grant-maintained status, which he looked to as a model. Like other hon. Members, he acknowledged that our noble Friends in another place debated consultation at length, hence the provision, which should have been included from the outset, for consultation. Alex Cunningham mentioned it, and it has improved the Bill a great deal.
My hon. Friend referred to the parents of children who currently attend the school as the electorate in such a ballot. As my hon. Friend Mr Hancock pointed out, many other interested parties may wish to be part of it. I therefore think that amendment 8 is a very useful tool for prompting a discussion on who should be consulted and how.
We are considering a series of amendments, which examine consultation and votes in detail. Caroline Lucas tabled a new clause, which would allow for a reversion to maintained status if there were a trigger. She set out a 10% threshold on that. We could make some sort of hybrid amendment that sets out a 10% threshold of parents to trigger the kind of ballot that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport mentioned, or adopt a model based on the amendments tabled by the Opposition, which are more specific on who should be consulted and how that should happen. The debate is therefore important.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, but the problem is that we cannot amend the Bill unless we win a vote. That is the problem with this process. Frankly, we all feel immense frustration. His point is exactly right, but we cannot amend the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has made that point on a number of occasions-this afternoon and previously-but the fact remains that it is a question not just of whether we amend the Bill, but how we do so. That is what we are debating. When the Minister responds, he might say what the guidelines are for consultation on aspects of the Bill following debates in another place.
Amendment 8, which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, is quite specific about one group of people who will be affected and who may take an interest.
I take the point that the hon. Gentleman and others have made on the importance of consulting parents, but surely the Bill already ensures that they will be consulted. Clause 5 is clear that people "must" be consulted. It is also clear that people refers to "such persons as" the governors "think appropriate". Surely to goodness no one would suggest that parents do not fall under the phrase,
"persons as they think appropriate".
The hon. Gentleman made that point in an earlier debate on another group of amendments. He is absolutely right that the Bill, as amended-amendments that were pressed for by my noble Friends in another place-would highlight parents as an obvious, key group for consultation. The question asked in amendment 8 by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport is whether there should be a ballot.
Who should trigger such a ballot? There may be some sympathy for the proposal of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion for a reversal ballot-she suggests that 10% of parents could trigger such a ballot, but my hon. Friend said that an approval ballot should be triggered by one governor. However, one would have thought that even if a governing body, who might have signed up to academy status after a discussion lasting for a considerable period, decides to go for academy status, people outside that group may want a ballot. There are therefore problems with his proposal.
Whether the threshold of one governor or 10% of parents is used to trigger a ballot, does the hon. Gentleman see the danger of a type of guerrilla warfare against a school? Ten per cent. of parents or one governor are very low thresholds. They could keep the debate going on for ever, which only introduces uncertainty on the school's status.
I do not want to accuse Sammy Wilson of complete nonsense, but the gist of amendment 8 is a procedure for dealing with an objection. If a governor disagrees, there would be a ballot. The ballot would decide on that objection, and that would be the end of the matter. The hon. Gentleman said that a governor could keep the debate going for ever, but they cannot do so. That is not what the amendment proposes.
I should like to make a little progress, after which I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I hope will contribute to the debate on this group of amendments.
The key question is this: do we feel that there is enough consultation provision in the Bill? There is also an issue of timing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southport and others referred when speaking to amendment 9. Is it possible to have meaningful consultation after an application has been made to the Secretary of State? In the debate in the other place this issue was addressed, and, as I recall, it is the signing of the funding agreement that makes things final. Therefore, should consultation reveal that everyone in the wider community is horrified by the idea of the school becoming an academy, there would be the option not to proceed. In other words, before the final funding agreement is signed, the application could be withdrawn and the process stopped at that point. There is a misunderstanding about when the point of no return is reached. It is not when the application is approved, but when the funding agreement is signed.
I hope that my hon. Friend does not find my intervention unhelpful, although he might- [ Laughter. ] Does he agree that the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Dr Pugh go to the heart of the old Liberal adage about giving people a choice and a chance to have their say? Anything short of support for that would fly in the face of many of the things that we have stood for over the years.
Against my hon. Friend's possible intention, that was a helpful intervention as it gives me the opportunity to repeat the point that the amendment is about one particular group of people who would be involved in the vote, not others who would also be affected-a point that he made in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Southport. It is therefore important that the consultation should be as wide-ranging as possible, but it should take place before the final funding agreement has been signed. It is in that period that a meaningful consultation can take place because there is something to consult on.
If there were a good head teacher in a good school who recommended a transition to academy status, a ballot called with a 40% turn-out and 21% of the parents said no to academy status and 19% said yes, would the head master have to resign? Could the head teacher be lost because his proposal had been rejected?
We are moving into uncharted territory with the suggestion of motions of no confidence in head teachers and legislating on that point. It is an interesting point.
I hope that the Minister can tell us how the consultation process will be supported and how it can move forward. I hope that he can reassure the Committee-as those in the other place were reassured-that consultation will be meaningful and allow everyone to have their say. Hon. Members have already raised concerns about the time scale over the summer for those who wish to take early advantage of these measures, and there are schools which do want to take this route. I would be interested if the Minister can say how we can ensure that that consultation is meaningful in those instances.
Amendment 9 is an important one in the context of consultation. It is possible to have that consultation after the application has been made. Amendment 9 would require the consultation to take place between the application and approval by the Secretary of State. It is fair to say that there may have been some discussions already between the Secretary of State and the Department and the schools that started this process before the Bill was introduced. It is possible theoretically therefore that approval could be given quickly. The amendment would narrow the window for consultation between the application being made and being granted by the Secretary of State. If that happened in a short space of time, there would be no time for consultation. We need the consultation to be able to proceed until the signing of the final agreement, which is the agreement that creates the academy and concludes the process.
Does it not follow that trying to get academy status by September must be nonsense? Can my hon. Friend sketch out an indicative timetable that includes application, the funding agreement-which is irreversible-and, somewhere in the middle, consultation, bearing in mind that it is only six weeks until September?
I suspect that my hon. Friend has posed a problem not for me, but for the Minister to answer when he replies to this debate. He is right: as I have already said, the Committee will need some reassurance that those consultations can take place over the summer for schools that wish to proceed quickly.
For the reasons that I have outlined, this is an important debate for the Committee to have. My hon. Friend is to be commended on moving the amendment in his customarily considered way. For that reason, it should be treated as a probing amendment by the Minister, rather than one on which the Committee should be divided, because it would not actually achieve the aspirations that many hon. Members have outlined, and which others will perhaps outline later in this debate.
I would like to speak to amendment 4, and to support amendment 78, on the process of consultation, and amendment 77, on the timing.
I have grave concerns about the Bill. I cannot understand why the provisions are being rushed through for no identifiable reason other than political expediency. The Bill seems to seek completely to undermine the role of local authorities. It seems to be unaware of-indeed, antagonistic towards-the crucial role that those authorities play in planning for special educational needs, equalities, fair admissions, and so on. From my 25 years of being a governor, I know the importance of the local education authority in supporting schools, so it should be quite clear that I am not happy with the Bill. However, it is simply disgraceful to try to force through a re-designation of maintained schools to academies, bringing about a change in governance, curricula and admissions, and a possible loss of amenity to a local community, albeit without any meaningful consultation with them.
Amendment 4 seeks to outline a range of people and groups who should be consulted. They include-obviously-teachers, parents, other local authorities, pupils, potential partners to academies, and the wider community.
Proposed clause 5(1)(c) in amendment 4 lists the pupils. Would the hon. Lady not agree that consulting with pupils aged 11-or, if we give academy status to primary schools, five or six-might be a little stretching for them at that point in their educational cycle?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I have some experience of consulting on an academy-albeit not the sort of the academy proposed by the Bill-and I can assure him that pupils find it very easy to grasp what the change of their school to academy status would mean. However, his point is valid in that there must be a given length of time for a consultation to take place, so that the arguments for and against an academy in an area can be properly explained to everyone concerned. However, the Bill completely overrides any meaningful consultation process.
There are many professionals with good experience of how to consult effectively with children. Exactly the same point that Julian Sturdy has just raised-the point about why children should not be consulted-was raised with me when I was dealing with the establishment of academies in Medway a couple of years ago. However, it is a completely spurious point, as I think my hon. Friend would agree, because even much younger children have good insights. The question is how we go about consulting them, not whether we should consult them.
When talking about consultation in the education of children, does the hon. Lady recall that the previous Government introduced provisions in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010-which went through Parliament in the previous Session-relating to the education of home-educated children. Those provisions imposed far more draconian checks and balances on how parents who educated their children at home were to do so. However, there was no consultation by the previous Government when they introduced those provisions, so there has been no consistency from her party on the issue.
I am quite sure that the previous Government were setting precise and specific standards for home education, because it is really important to ensure that children's education is protected when they are being educated at home.
I shall return to amendment 4. It is important that time should be given to consulting all the relevant groups in an area that will be affected by a new academy. I find the Liberal Democrats' position on this issue rather confusing. The academy that we were hoping to establish in my constituency has been stopped by the Government. It was supported by the local authority, in partnership, and backed by the university of Durham. It had huge support in the local community. It took some time to work through with the local community what the arrangements would mean, but once that had been adequately explained and they had asked their questions of the relevant partners and got the answers, everyone was clear about the way ahead. The parents and teachers were also very clear that they wanted an ongoing relationship with the local authority. If the Bill goes through unamended, as seems likely given the parliamentary process that is being adopted, it will be impossible for parents to have their points heard or to maintain their desired relationship with the local authority. I therefore urge hon. Members to support amendment 4 and amendment 78, so that proper consultation arrangements can be put in place.
I also want to speak to amendment 77, which relates to the timing of the consultation. When I first read clause 5, I thought that there must be something missing. Surely no one could be suggesting that it is appropriate to consult after an academy order has been made. That is clearly ludicrous. When I discussed this with people in my constituency at the weekend, they suggested that we should perhaps applaud the Government for being up front and honest about the fact that they were not going to hold consultations or pay any attention to any consultations that were held. Obviously, if a consultation takes place after an order has been made, they are not going to pay any attention to it. So perhaps the Government are just being honest in clause 5, and saying that, as they are not going to pay any attention to any consultation, it does not matter whether it takes place before or after an academy order is made.
Did the hon. Lady not hear the answer given my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson, which is that the academy order is not the final moment in the conversion process? The final moment involves the funding agreement, which takes place after the academy order is made, so there will be plenty of time for the consultation to take place.
I did hear that answer, but many of us fear that, at that point, the process will already have gone too far in a particular direction for it to be stopped. In any case, the Government should adopt best practice, but it is not best practice to carry out a consultation when all but the very last stages of a decision process have already been completed. It would be more honest of the Government to admit that this clause had been inserted in the other place, that they did not want it in the Bill in the first place, and that there is no intention whatever to consult outside the governing bodies. Significantly, they should also admit that no attention will be paid to the outcome of any consultation exercise. This is not what the Government should be doing; it is not good practice.
I should like to speak to amendments 8 and 9 and new clause 1. I shall possibly touch on amendment 4 as well. Over the past few weeks, it has been interesting for me, as a new Member, to listen to Labour Members telling us that a figure of 51% is the correct one in any decision. Today, however, I think it was Alex Cunningham who told us that using a figure of 51% was an unacceptable way of coming to a decision. I am interested that their consistency on one argument does not necessarily carry over into another.
There are some sensible reasons behind amendment 9, in that one would probably want a consultation to have begun-and possibly even finished-before making an academy order. I suspect that as schools move along this route, that will indeed be the case. Today, however, I have been struck by the lack of confidence in our governing bodies and our head teachers. It has been staggering to listen to that. I sit as a school governor and I was until recently a school teacher. Perhaps I am judging hon. Members unfairly, but they seem to be giving the impression that governing bodies are educational asset strippers who want to move forward as quickly as possible without any consultation with parents. As a governor and someone who has worked as a teacher, I do not recognise that portrayal of governors as some kind of strange being.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about Members not taking governors' commitment seriously. I want to reassure him that that is certainly not the argument that many of us are putting forward. The point about governors, of which I am one, is that they have a strong duty to take into consideration the impact of changes on the children in their school. They attach the utmost importance to that duty. We are asking them to take into account the impact of the proposed changes on the wider community, but they will be able to do that only if they consult the wider community. Many of us are concerned that that will not happen unless such a requirement is incorporated in the Bill.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Amendment 8 does not mention the wider community; it simply mentions parents. We also now have community governors to represent the interests of the wider community. So it is untrue-sorry, it is incorrect to suggest that governors do not take into account the role of their school in the community. In fact, over the past few years, one of the great moves forward for most schools is that they now recognise their position at the centre of the local community, and no longer see their responsibility ending at the school gate or the perimeter fence. Most schools now work incredibly hard to build links with their communities.
I suspect that the hon. Lady and I will have to agree to differ on this point, otherwise we will end up bouncing backwards and forwards. Head teachers, teachers, governors and those who have attended a governors' training course are generally well aware of their responsibilities beyond the boundary fence of their school.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that any school that wants a long-term future and wants to attract the necessary intake of pupils to maintain its position will have to take cognisance of what is going on in the community, because without community support it will not get a supply of pupils?
My hon. Friend makes that point better than I could. That is precisely why I am making the point today that governing bodies are not full of educational asset strippers. They consist of people who care deeply about their schools and communities and who will not change the governance arrangements of their school without proper consultation with parents, pupils and the wider community. We should pay respect to the people who serve as governors. They are dedicated individuals who understand their responsibilities full well, and they will not proceed without proper consultation.
There seems to be a view that a particular school serves a community, but in many areas the reality is that it serves different communities. A catchment area will include a range of different communities, not all of which might be represented on the governing body.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I was going to make about amendment 8, which limits consultation on the ballot to the parents at the school at the time, taking no account of the wider community or communities. One of the biggest problems that I have with the suggestion of a ballot for parents is this: given that orders can take up to a year to go through, who do we ballot? Do we ballot year 11 parents? Do we ballot year 6 parents from feeder schools? Do we ballot people who might be thinking of having a child at some point? The impossibility of drawing a correct boundary around those to be balloted is the weakness of the ballot process.
Having served as a local councillor who has been through the Building Schools for the Future process, I would like to ask Labour Members who propose ballots this question: where were our ballots on the proposal to merge schools? Where were our ballots on the proposal to close schools? Where were our ballots on the proposal to move ahead with academies, put forward by the previous Government? Such ballots did not exist, and the Government were right not to call for them. Proper consultation with the governing bodies, involving consultation with parents and schools, was the best course of action.
The same applies to health services. In my area, a number of health services have been lost. Trusts have become foundation trusts, and their governance arrangements have changed, but we had no ballots on those proposals either.
The hon. Gentleman will probably be disappointed, as I was about to move on to that point. Labour Members have said a great deal about the role of the local authority, and of parents in relation to it, in control of schools. In the area I represented as a councillor, when parents were up in arms about proposals to close our primary schools, the local education authority was in no position to fight such proposals or to act as a guardian for our local schools, because there is no genuine control by the local authority over education. The surplus places legislation and the Ofsted framework come down from central Government. It is a fallacy that parents are continuously engaged with their LEA about the structure of education in their area. The theory might look and sound good, but the reality is different.
The Bill gives parents a choice-I limit my comments here to maintained schools that become academy schools-to vote with their feet. Dr Pugh wants parents to vote in some form, and I suggest that providing a range of different education facilities in an area enables parents to decide not with a tick in a box but with their feet.
My concerns about new clause 1 echo many of those put forward by my hon. Friend Mr Timpson. We might end up with the strange situation in which 10% of parents are continually unhappy with the governance arrangements and go back for a second, third or fourth bite at the cherry. That is the problem with a 10% threshold, or a 30%, 40% or 49.9% threshold-
The hon. Gentleman's points underline the fact that we do not have time to discuss the amendments properly. He focuses not on the principle of providing some way for academies to revert to maintained status, but on whether the threshold should be 10% and whether there will be vexatious uses. It is not beyond the wit of mankind to devise ways of further amending the proposal to ensure that it is not put to vexatious use. Will he focus on the principle of the amendment, and say whether he agrees with it?
My hon. Friend has, I hope, allayed some of the fears of Caroline Lucas. Should the measures not succeed, or should the school not be happy with the position, the Bill would provide a route back.
We should trust governing bodies and governors to do their job. They are dedicated people, education professionals, well intentioned parents, and well intentioned people from local communities. They will not steamroller ahead against the wishes of parents and the wider community. They will take on board seriously the views and aspirations of local people. The weakness of not having a range of education provision is that we deny parents and pupils a choice over the curriculum that they want to follow. We end up with parents choosing between school A and school B, which are identical. There is nothing wrong with some competition, with giving parents the choice and with allowing them to vote with their feet. I urge the Committee to vote against the amendments.
I want to speak particularly to my amendment 86, which is a probing amendment designed to understand the Government's reasons for not including in the Bill consultation with key groups, including the wider community, prior to a school seeking academy status.
Previously, when maintained schools converted to academies, the local authority was obliged to consult widely. Although there was no legal requirement for public consultation where a new academy was to be established, the local authority at least had to be consulted. I am worried that that is not being replicated in the Bill. Despite some progress, the current wording on consultation is inadequate, requiring consultation only with
"such persons as they think appropriate".
It is of the utmost importance that parents, pupils, staff and the local authority are consulted.
We have already talked a little about the importance of consulting children. I want also to draw attention to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which successive Governments have supported, and which sets the standard by which we expect children to be treated in this country. Part of that is about talking to children and listening to their views on matters that affect them. Few matters could affect children more than that currently under consideration by the Committee.
The changes will impact on all the groups to which I have referred, including the wider community, children who are not currently at school, children who are going on to school, and children who are at other schools. I will not rehearse the arguments that were advanced on Second Reading, but it is important to consider those in the context of the amendments.
The Government have said that they are committed to giving parents a greater voice. The National Governors Association has said that, in that case, it would like to see consultation with parents as part of that principle. I reiterate the point I made earlier that governors have a strong duty to put the children in their school first. I would like a provision for prior consultation with the wider community to be included in the Bill. That would mean that, before taking the decision to seek academy status, the governors were in command of the full facts. That cannot be controversial, and I cannot understand why the provision is not in the Bill.
Several groups have raised the concern with me that the wording of the Bill is so broad as to leave governing bodies open to legal action should they not carry out consultation with groups in a way that is considered proper. Will the Minister consider that in his response, as I would hate to see that happening to governing bodies? As a school governor, I would find it extremely worrying to find my school in that position.
Does it not strike my hon. Friend as odd that, while the Government are proposing to allow local communities to engage in consultation and to vote on planning permission for residential developments, they are proposing no such consultation when it comes to the impact on the future of a school and the implications of that for the whole community?
That brings me to a point that was raised with me by the TUC. The Government's concept of the big society appears to feature the involvement of more and more people in the services that they own as members of the community, but this proposal, like some of the other measures that have been pushed through, seems to be directly at odds with that principle.
Would the hon. Lady care to comment on the previous Government's conversion of schools to academies, and their school closures? Does she believe that there was proper consultation with parents and pupils then, and does she feel that there should have been ballots?
I believe that we can always do better when it comes to consultation, but I also believe that the standard being set in the Committee today marks an extraordinarily low point in the history of consultation. I think that we should move on from what was done by the previous Government, and ensure that there is more consultation, not less.
Let me emphasise to the Minister that schools are at the heart of their local communities. If there is no consultation with the people who will be affected by the Bill, schools will drive a wedge between themselves and their communities, and I believe that we have an obligation to prevent that from happening. My amendment seeks to establish why the Government do not wish to ensure that the views of the community inform the decisions of schools. I should be grateful if the Minister could answer that question.
You will be pleased to know, Ms Primarolo, that I spent most of the weekend trying to pronounce your name without embarrassing myself or you. That is as near to pronouncing it correctly as I can get. I apologise for my rudeness to you last week when I could not pronounce it.
It is a pleasure to follow Lisa Nandy. Is it Wigan? It was on the annunciator screen, but I missed it. It moved so quickly. You know how unaccustomed this place is to things moving quickly, Ms Primarolo, except on the annunciator screen. Anyway, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, and I had more than a degree of sympathy for what she had to say.
I hope that Members will give serious consideration to some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend Dr Pugh and others, including Caroline Lucas. She made a very good point. The only point on which I disagreed with her was the percentage business: I did not think that that was helpful to the debate.
I am disappointed that Mr Redwood has left the Chamber. He seemed to be digging himself gradually into a deeper and deeper hole, and taking interventions to save himself from burying himself. He appeared to be saying that everyone else could be right, but parents would have to be wrong. Parents could not be trusted to make a decision as important as this, because they might simply get it wrong. Well, who is to say that anyone else is going to get it right?
I should be interested to know what is wrong with giving people an opportunity to discuss and to make a decision. I shall explain shortly why I think that is important, but let me deal first with the notion that the amendment, or something like it, cannot be accepted because there is not enough time. Nothing in the rules of the House suggests that the business cannot be changed. If the Government were minded to accept the amendment, a Report stage could, if necessary, be arranged for tomorrow afternoon. Nothing in the rules states that the summer Adjournment debates must take place at a particular time on the last day before the recess, as long as they do take place. The business could be changed so that both Report and Third Reading could take place tomorrow. There would be nothing to prevent that, if good will existed in relation to bringing parents into the debate about academy status.
I think it important to spread the franchise. I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southport that one governor should be able to intercede, to object and to force a parental vote. I believe that the issue is more important than that. Although I personally oppose academy status, I wish existing academies all the best, and if people have a choice and decide in favour of academy status, so be it. However, a determined effort must then be made if the arrangement is to work, and it will not work if feeder schools, and the parents of children at those schools, are not involved in the process. I believe that one of the ways to make an academy really work is to lock it into an all-through, all-embracing system involving the feeder schools and the secondary school, but those wishing to adopt such a system would have to carry a lot of parents with them.
The questions that we should be asking are "Is this really so good for education?" and "What will an academy do for children that a local authority working with a school cannot achieve today?" Those fundamental questions are lost time and again in our debates in the Chamber. There has been no proper analysis here of the direct benefits that academy status will apparently bring to schools. Will all academies be a success? Are we brazen enough to say that no academy will ever fail? I hope not; that is to say, I hope they will not fail, but I also hope our thinking is not so flawed that we believe every academy will succeed. The problem is, if an academy does fail, who will pick up the pieces afterwards? Parents must be able to engage in a proper, informed debate themselves.
The suggestion that all that can be sorted out in time for some academies to be in existence by September is mind-boggling.
The hon. Gentleman is more deeply rooted in his community and his constituency than almost anyone I know, but I hope he will not mind my saying that he is slightly missing one point. Under the last Government, Building Schools for the Future and academies were not just about improving schools, but about transforming the communities in which they sat. That was at the heart of what the last Government were doing, and that is what the present Government seem to be missing. Transforming the community is what a great school does.
I agree. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, it is not just about the parents of children attending a school; it is about the wider community having a say. Academies were supposed to be at the very heart of the community, and they were supposed to be seven-days-a-week establishments offering a range of activities that the whole community could embrace. If that is what we will have, we should share it with the population and encourage them to become involved; but to suggest that we can create academies from scratch by September is pushing against a door that has already been slammed in our faces. It might be possible in the case of schools that have partly completed the process, but I think it highly unlikely that any academy created from scratch could succeed. I do not even know whether the governors would meet between the passing of the Bill and the time at which it would be possible to begin the process of setting up an academy.
How quickly will the Government be able to agree on the financial basis? What will happen to the role of local authorities that have already budgeted for the coming year? What will happen to the existing budgets in schools? That brings me to a point at which I have to declare an interest yet again, Ms Primarolo-Primarolo- [Laughter.] It is difficult for a person who has had a speech impediment for 60 years and then mastered it when someone comes along with a name that contains a P and an R too close together, with an O at the end. I am trying to fight this as best I can. I hope you will bear with me, Ms Primarolo. Are you looking for inspiration from above?
I was thinking about a problem that local authorities face. I must declare an interest at this point: I am a member of a local authority that is a local education authority. This morning we were discussing what to do now. We already have one academy and, as I have said, it is a pleasure to see the transformation that is taking place particularly in the parents, who were heavily consulted, and the pupils. Everyone is optimistic and looking for an improvement in the school's academic record in one year. So even though I am against this measure, I have seen how it can start such a process.
As I said, this morning we on the Portsmouth executive were discussing what to do now in respect of the legislation before us. How will we deal with the other schools? Will we try to talk to them about having a federation? Should we think about helping one school? We have a very good single-sex girls' school but it is sometimes difficult to see where its future will lie. I would very much like for it be maintained, but we also have a single-sex boys' school that is not in such a good state of health, and the question therefore arises of how we work with them. I do not want local authorities to be left with a rump of schools that are difficult to manage.
We asked other questions, too. How do we cope with staff? How do we cope with low achievement in schools? How do we maintain parents' confidence that their children will get an equal share of the resources? The Government did not address that problem during our discussions last week but it is fundamental, because if parents are not going to be involved in the creation of an academy they really ought to be told what the effects will be on those children who will not be fortunate enough to get into an academy.
I ask the Minister to talk about the confidence that the Government have to be able to give to parents in order to be sure that all of them believe their children will get equal opportunities at school. Under the Bill in its current form, there is a degree of unfairness that could easily and very quickly be exposed in cities such as mine-densely populated urban areas with schools very close together where it is difficult to regulate catchment areas fairly and properly because people live so close by. Where schools are located is also an issue in this respect. Some of them came into existence as secondary schools somewhat late in the day. We had to build two new secondary schools in our city in the last 10 years to cope with the rising numbers of children, and we had to build them where we could, rather than in the right place, so to speak. We had to build them on the available sites which were not necessarily in the right areas. That also makes the catchment areas issue very difficult.
Parents therefore rightly have a number of fears, and teachers certainly do too. The amendments before us are about making sure that parents have the opportunity to know both a lot more than is currently available about what an academy can achieve and the downsides of academies. The Minister would be foolish in the extreme if he were to suggest that some parents would not want the downsides of an academy to be explained. That is particularly the case in respect of parents of children who are not fortunate enough to get into them. What will happen to the rest of the children?
I hope the Minister will also respond to the points raised by Dan Rogerson. My hon. Friend asked two or three questions that are worthy of a specific on-the-record comment from the Minister, because this Committee needs and demands that. We cannot allow legislation to be passed so quickly without proper scrutiny and with questions left unanswered. The Government cannot have it both ways. If they are not prepared to give us the time to scrutinise the Bill properly, they should be able to put a sustainable and maintainable position on the record by saying, "This is the way it's going to be." Anything short of that should be seen by this House and the country as totally unacceptable.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Ms Primarolo. It has been an interesting debate so far and, clearly, more Members wish to contribute to it.
The Government are in a mess on consultation. There are all sorts of worries and concerns on both sides of the Committee about consultation and what it actually means in practice for both local communities and individual schools across the country. This is a live issue for the Government, because we are supposed to be in an era of new politics, which is about localism-involving, talking to and empowering local people and communities-yet the Government are unclear about what that means in respect of schools.
Under the Bill in its current form, a governing body and head teacher can, effectively, apply to become an academy and be fast-tracked through that process if they are outstanding, and it is the Secretary of State who makes the final decision. This is therefore a hugely centralising measure that completely bypasses the local community, the local authority and anyone of influence in a local area. The Government can state clearly in the Bill that that is not their intention and they do not wish that to happen.
I take on board the point that there are many good governing bodies and that we should not impinge on individual governors and head teachers who work extremely hard, but they operate on the basis of what they consider to be best for their individual school whereas it is incumbent upon us here to pass laws that not only look towards the interests of individual schools but address such issues within the context of the education system as a whole. The Government's intention is that thousands of schools will become academies and hundreds will be fast-tracked through the process but, as I said last week, I think we will simply be taking a leap in the dark, with no real idea where this will end up.
The Minister must tell us how many schools have applied to become academies and how many he anticipates will be academies in September 2010. The press release the Department for Education sent out at the beginning of this process on
The Government have not stated what consultation they expect the schools that are being fast-tracked to academy status to be involved in. They have not set before the Committee what the process will be by which they as a Government monitor that, other than to say that there is a point of contact at the Department for Education. What on earth does that mean-a phone call, perhaps, or the odd letter, or a couple of e-mail exchanges? What evidence will be collected to ensure that the measures in the Bill-even the measure on this limited consultation-are followed? The issue of legal challenge was rightly raised. There will be a legal challenge if the Department cannot give adequate explanations-other than what it has given so far, which is extremely woolly-in respect of even the limited consultative process in the Bill, with the pre-commencement later on in it. If it cannot do that, there is a real problem.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees with me about what is happening in a school that is outside but close to my constituency, which may affect children in my constituency? The head teacher and a small number of governors have made an application for academy status and it is being fast-tracked, but the head teacher is retiring on
I agree with that. The point that we have made on numerous occasions is that even if the Government think that this is a good Bill-they clearly do-and are determined to push forward with it, the rush to put the legislation in place will have unintended consequences of exactly the sort that my hon. Friend describes. I am not trying to be smart when I predict that individual Members from across the House will have individual schools coming to them about problems with this process and the adverse consequences that it is having for their area, and that will be as a result of having rushed this legislation through.
May I help the hon. Gentleman by saying that schools that do wish to convert this September must have submitted their applications by
I am afraid that the Minister is just asserting things; there is no fact in what he just said. How many schools are going through this process? What are they actually doing to consult? Are they sending a letter to every parent? Are they holding parents' meetings? Are they going out into the community? Are leaflets being sent round? Are other schools involved in this? Are other governing bodies involved? Is the local authority involved? What does what the Minister has just said mean? The reality is that none of us knows.
In view of what the Minister has just said, is the hon. Gentleman not slightly mystified, as I am, why the Government cannot tell us the number of schools that have indicated since
Absolutely. The point that the Minister missed was that the Secretary of State has made great play of the fact that some schools will become academies not by Christmas or through the autumn, when the consultation is going to be by, but by September 2010; the whole reason we are rushing this Bill through is that the Secretary of State was telling us that all these schools were queuing up to become academies by September 2010. The Minister may have been saying in his intervention that a lot of schools signed up by
I hope that the Minister will tell us the exact number of schools that have applied, not the number that have expressed an interest-I hope he will give the exact number for primary schools and secondary schools. I know that this is not going to happen in special schools until 2011 and I cannot remember whether that is also the case for primary schools, but it certainly will happen in secondary schools. How many schools are actually applying? How many of that number does the Minister expect to open in September 2010? I hope he will outline for us exactly what consultation process those schools will be expected to have gone through and that he will explain to the Committee how the Department is ensuring that that has taken place, so that when the Secretary of State decides whether to give an academy order he can say, "These are the criteria I used." The Committee deserves to know that, but we have so far been given no answer..
Can the shadow Minister explain why he thinks so many head teachers and governing bodies might want to drive something like this through against the wishes of the local community and parents or without bothering to find out what their views were? I would have thought that the first thing any head teacher would do when considering this would have been to ensure that they had support.
What we are saying is that we are legislating for a process and we expect it to set out exactly what should happen. It is for the Government to determine what that process is. At the moment, they have no real idea about it. I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that what we are also trying to do-this is the point made by Mr Hancock-is find out how many of the 1,000 schools that the press release says have applied will become academies in September. The Minister has failed last week and this to give a categorical answer to the question of how many academies the Department expects to open in September. I, too, will be interested to hear that answer.
I am sure that we will all be interested in that answer. However, the shadow Minister has given me no answer on the point that I asked. He is not saying that he knows of lots of head teachers and governing bodies foolish enough to try to drive this through against local opinion. Can he not understand that the whole idea of localism is that we need to trust these people more and give them more scope to act? They will decide how to consult and how widely they need to consult depending on the mood.
But who will decide? It will be the head teacher and the governing body of the school. The right hon. Gentleman tells us not to worry because some consultation will take place, and he asks what head teacher would drive this through against local opposition. I just say to him that if parents-if all of them-are so important, why does the word "parents" not appear in the Bill? I ask him that to test him, because none of us can find a reference to them and I find that astonishing. He asks what head teacher would possibly go against the wishes of parents and against the wishes of anybody, but why is the word "parents", which the right hon. Gentleman has just prayed in aid when he said that the Government were all for localism and for people empowering the local neighbourhood, not contained in this Bill? There may be one or two such references but I cannot find them.
I make a prediction to the right hon. Gentleman and to some of the hon. Members on the Government Benches who are saying "Hear, hear". I predict that the Government will produce amendments in the Bill that they are introducing in the autumn to clarify the situation and that hon. Members will, at some point, be writing to the Minister asking whether he could intervene in respect of particular schools in their community where it looks as though the consultation has not taken place and other schools start complaining about the schools that have been fast-tracked to academy status. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, because he has been here longer than I have, when we legislate in this House, we do so in a way that lays out the process that we expect to be followed in order for a process to happen. The process in this Bill is confused, and people do not know what it is supposed to be. He knows as well as I do that confused legislation provides the opportunity for judicial review. All I am saying is that the fact that this reference is not in the Bill is astonishing.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is as concerned as I am about the proposals on consulting parents. Unless we receive some advice to the contrary, it appears that under clause 1(6)(d) up to 49% of the pupils in a new school do not have to be
"drawn from the area in which the school is situated."
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that. Of course what Lord Hill said in another place was that if we were to consider the grammar schools that become academies, we might find that that area is significantly broader. What that "area" meant was very difficult to define.
My hon. Friend Mr Sheerman, the former Chair of the Select Committee, drew attention to the fact that the Government are not averse to ballots because they have introduced them for local planning decisions. Of course, the Minister will know, as we heard in the statement that took place before our discussions in Committee started today, the Government are introducing ballots for locally elected police commissioners. The principle of ballots, such as that proposed by Dr Pugh, is something to which the Government are not opposed.
We think that we should lay out the details that are set out in amendment 78 rather simply leaving it to people to do what is appropriate. Parents should be consulted and, as many people have said, it is essential that the pupil voice should be heard. In answer to an earlier question from a Member on the Government Benches, of course that would be done in a way that is appropriate. The amendment refers to guidance that should be given to schools on how they should consult pupils.
What are the teachers and non-teaching staff going to come back to in September? The Minister needs to answer the question about what is happening with the TUPE negotiations about the transfer of teaching and non-teaching staff for those schools that want to become academies.
The shadow Minister is making a point about the form of the consultation. In fact, if he examines the remarks he is making now he will see just how difficult it will be to be prescriptive about the form of consultation, even though that is what he seems to be seeking. One would consult pupils in a different way to teachers, and parents in a different way to teachers, too. It might not be possible to get them all under one roof. Is he seeking a prescriptive method of consultation or is the fact that the Bill makes it clear there should be consultation on a question mentioned in the Bill and that it must take place with the appropriate people not sufficient detail for him?
I do not think that it is sufficient. The hon. Gentleman is right: of course one would consult teachers, non-teaching staff and pupils differently. That is why our amendment states:
"The Secretary of State shall issue guidance as to how" that is done. Of course the consultation will be carried out in different ways, and that is why we have included the word "guidance".
On the need for consultation with neighbouring schools, the Bill does not require good and outstanding schools that become academies to partner schools that are in difficulty or need support. I know that in the other place it was believed-many of my hon. Friends believe it too-that such a provision should be on the face of the Bill. Merely stating that they should do engage in such consultation is not sufficient. Many of us have made the point time and again that the complete elimination of local authorities from this situation is not acceptable at all.
Let me talk about amendment 77. The Chair of the Select Committee, Mr Stuart, was quoted by the hon. Member for Southport. If hon. Members think that I am making too much of the idea that a consultation should take place before, not after, the giving of an academy order, they should listen to what the Chair of the Select Committee said during one of the debates last week-it bears repeating. On the subject of consultations that took place after an academy order was made, and not before, he said:
"Those consulted in such circumstances would have good grounds for feeling that they were participating in a charade. I ask those on the Government Front Bench to consider that."-[ Hansard, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 49.]
In his reply, the Minister needs to explain why it is not a charade and why the Chair of the Select Committee is wrong or misguided in making that comment. Is he wrong? Has he got it wrong? Does he not understand the process? Of course he understands that the making of an academy order comes before an academy agreement is signed-everybody understands that, and we have all read the Bill. We are saying that the discussion of, and consultation on, an academy order-by the way, I can find no example of what an academy order would actually be-should take place before it is made and not afterwards. Perhaps the Minister-in answer to the Chair of the Select Committee, if not to me-can tell us what an academy order will contain. What will it look like? What will be in it? Will we have the opportunity for some sort of consultation on what an academy order should be?
I accept the points made in the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), but I hope that they agree that amendment 78, tabled in my name, pulls the amendments together in the way that we would all want.
Let me say something more about new clause 1. Caroline Lucas makes an important point about the fact that the whole process is one way. If we believe that head teachers and governing bodies will consult local people in their desire to become academies and if we believe in localism, why should not those people have the opportunity to revert back and say, "We don't want to stay as an academy. We've decided that it does not work for us, and we're concerned about the situation"? Let us take the Government's process as part of this example. If the head and the governing body make an application to the Secretary of State that they wish to be a local authority maintained school, what is wrong with that? I would be interested to hear the Minister's response. Does localism work as long as it agrees with Government policy or does localism really mean localism, even if it does not agree with Government policy? That is the point.
It is difficult to support new clause 1 to the extent of voting for it, because it has flaws, but the hon. Lady's point is nevertheless one of principle. There should be the opportunity for schools to revert from academy status back to being local authority maintained. As for the point about whether the limit should be 10% or whether some other procedures would have to be put in place for it to happen, if the Government agreed with the principle behind the proposal-of course, they would not say so if they did not agree-they would normally say in Committee, "This is an important point. We will take it away and consider whether there is a way in which it can be put into effect and we will come back with a Government amendment on Report." That cannot happen today, because of the process that we are going through.
That is a problem. I agree with the principle of the new clause and I await with interest the answer to the question that I posed about localism and what it means to the Minister. It is a fundamental question, so I shall repeat it. Do the Government support the localism agenda as long as people agree with them, or, as soon as those people disagree, will the Government say that they do not really agree with the localism agenda?
I agree with the shadow Minister that there should always be a way back, but I fail to understand the following fact. When his party were in government, there were plenty of forced mergers and forced school closures through the transforming our primary schools programme and the surplus places legislation. There were thousands of names on petitions against irreversible school closures. Where were the democracy and localism in those decisions?
There are two points. I shall come back to the local point in the moment, but all the way through these discussions-the hon. Gentleman, to his credit, has been in the Chamber for many hours of the debate on the Bill-I have pointed out significant and substantial differences between the academies programme pursued under the last Government and the academies programme and model proposed by the Bill. Our model concentrated on areas of educational underperformance and social disadvantage. That was the key driver for the use of the academy model. The Bill turns that on its head and says we will allow schools that are doing well under the current system to become academies, with all the worries and concerns that have arisen.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has been involved in this area and has worked hard in his constituency on the issue of school reorganisation. However, in virtually every circumstance in which academies have been agreed-that includes the 200 that were agreed and the number that were to go forward in September with secondary school reorganisation attached to educational transformation-the local authorities were key partners in those decisions. Some of those decisions were difficult. We have not tabled the amendments to say that any of this is easy, that there is a panacea or that someone can wave a magic wand to bring about school reorganisation in way that is never controversial or painful. We are saying that under our model, local authorities and local partners were specifically included. There were still difficulties, and sometimes tough decisions had to be made, but local authorities and local decision makers were involved. The way that the Bill is drafted specifically excludes those people from being involved other than in the way that a wish list of good practice would say that they should be involved.
I was going to make that point: schools adjudicators have been involved almost as a final route of appeal. I know from my experience as a Minister-if Andrew Percy becomes a Minister he will find this out-that even when one thinks a decision is right, it can be completely thrown out of the window because the schools adjudicator prevents something from going ahead. That happened to me a couple of times in relation to the closure of a school.
Does the Minister accept that there have been examples of Labour-held local authorities being given the opportunity to set up academies but rejecting it without consulting parents at all? I refer specifically to the offer by Goldman Sachs several years ago to set up an academy in Tower Hamlets. The local authority there gave parents not a jot of consultation.
Some local authorities have been a problem, but not just Labour authorities-Conservative local authorities have also stood in the way of academy development. One pays a price for local democracy and involving local authorities: sometimes it means that people pursue educational options in their area that one does not agree with. That is the point I was making when I asked the Minister whether localism is fine only as long as it goes along with the Government's policy objectives.
There are all sorts of unanswered questions about consultation, many of which the hon. Member for Portsmouth South has laid out. What happens to local authorities? What happens to the money? What happens regarding special needs? Who is vetting the consultation that takes place? Who knows what is going on? How will the school funding proposals that have been published today affect what is going on? There are all sorts of issues to be discussed.
May I take my hon. Friend back to the primary capital programme and the democracy in that process, which Andrew Percy asked about? In the Tory-run authority in which I was the opposition spokesman on children's services, there was a lot of opposition to some proposals and only a thorough consultation process brought up that opposition and showed the flaws in the plan. The council rejected them and the adjudicator, whose role my hon. Friend Ian Mearns has mentioned, had to get involved. The checks and balances were in place in that process as they were in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.
My hon. Friend makes a self-evident and good point, and identifies some of the problems regarding the difference between what happened before and what will happen under the Bill's measures. There are a huge number of questions that the Minister needs to answer.
On consultation, it would help if the Government and the Minister answered named day written questions, including a large number that are specifically relevant to this whole process and our discussions on consultation. I have 11 named-day questions for last Monday that have not yet been answered by the Department. Not all of them are relevant to this debate- [ Interruption. ] The Front Benchers are now debating who is responsible; I am afraid that it involves both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers. Some of those questions are specific to today's debate on consultation, so for the Department to talk about consultation, procedure and correct processes when I still have not received the answers to questions for which the named day was last Monday- [ Interruption. ] The Minister says that I have had a holding response: on
With that, I shall simply say that we will support amendment 8 if the hon. Member for Southport pushes it to a vote, and I give notice that we would like to put amendment 78 to a vote.
I want to talk about consultation in relation to my experience as an opposition spokesman for children's services, particularly in relation to pre and post-decision consultation and three academies that the council pushed through. The Tory-run council in Medway decided not to consult until decisions had been taken, which caused consternation and all sorts of problems with the wider community, not just parents. I think that was a precursor to what is happening with this legislation. It was only the involvement of the then Ministers with responsibility for schools standards, including my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker, that enabled us to have proper consultation before decisions were finally taken and to ensure that the assurances that the local community sought were addressed. My concern is that the proposed measures will cause what happened in Medway will be repeated across the country.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the situation he describes happened under legislation that was pushed through by a Labour Government and that the Bill does say-thanks to amendments that were passed in another place-that consultation must take place?
I confirm that it happened under the legislation-that was why the checks and balances were eventually put in place. The point I was making is that the Tory-run council in Medway tried to push things through using the same procedure that will be introduced by the Bill. The hon. Gentleman mentions the amendments that were made in the other place, but, like many hon. Members, I have grave concerns that leaving it to the governing body to decide not just who to consult but whether to consult is a fundamental problem that will not be overcome by any checks and balances further down the line.
My experience and that of many people in Medway shows that allowing consultation at any time up to the signing of an academy agreement will not work and will make the process completely inadequate. That is why the amendments are so important. If they are not accepted, not only Members, but schools, children, staff and parents across the country will regret the lack of a requirement for the sort of proper consultation that is detailed in many of the amendments and that was in the 1998 Act. That guidance on how to consult different groups is extremely thorough and works extremely well when it is followed.
I am failing to get my head round the arguments of Opposition Members. There was plenty of consultation-admittedly under the previous Government-on Building Schools for the Future and on transforming our primary school agenda, and it threw up thousands of names on petitions from parents who did not want their schools closed, yet their schools were still closed. Where was the consultation? The failings the hon. Gentleman is outlining are exactly those that took place under the last Government.
Consultation is not a referendum; it will not necessarily produce the answer that the majority are pushing for, but there is a fundamental difference between holding a consultation and not holding one at all. The problem with the Bill is that unless the governing body agrees, there will be no consultation at all.
The hon. Gentleman is trying to put words into the mouths of many Members. I think he is talking a load of nonsense on that point, but it was a nice try.
One of my concerns about leaving it to governing bodies to decide about consultation is that they, understandably, feel that it is their duty to support head teachers. Sometimes, however, the head teacher gets their own way through strength of personality and the governing body may not apply the degree of scrutiny and challenge that it should, although I am not saying that is always true because many governing bodies work extremely well in genuine partnership with their head teacher. The reason why I support the amendments proposed by Dr Pugh is that the situation I described, together with the potential for financial benefit for head teachers, could create the possibility for conflict of financial interest, which would be wholly undesirable. There is concern about the potential for financial gain for head teachers and the lack of scrutiny in some governing bodies, although by no means all-I stress that point. It is important that we get the legislation right at this point, before things go wrong, rather than rushing it through with the danger that such problems might arise.
Mr Hancock and the former Chair of the Select Committee, Mr Sheerman, made important points about schools being a key part of their community. Although governing bodies are representative of certain parts of the community, they do not represent the wider community, which is why the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act are a good guide. The fundamental problem with the Bill is that if consultation is not held until after the initial decision, it will be apparent to the local community that there has been a fait accompli. The danger is that once the train has left the station, it will be very difficult to put the brakes on.
This group of amendments deals with consultation. We have always made it clear that we expect schools to consult on their proposals for conversion to academy status, which is why we were happy to amend the Bill in the other place to put that provision on the face of the legislation. As Lord Adonis said, during the passage of the Bill in the other place,
"it is very unlikely that an academy proposal will be a success if it does not have a very wide measure of support from the parental body, the staff body and the wider community."-[ Hansard, House of Lords, 21 June 2010; Vol. 719, c. 1230.]
As a result of persuasive arguments put in the other place, principally by Liberal Democrat peers, the Government tabled the amendment that led to clauses 5 and 10. I pay particular tribute to Baroness Walmsley for her determination to put consultation on the face of the Bill.
Amendment 8 would require that if any member of a school's governing body objects to the school's application for academy status, the parents of children at the school must be balloted. The purpose of the Bill is to allow schools that wish to do so to apply for academy status. The Bill is permissive rather than coercive. The arrangements for governing body decisions are set out in the School Governance (Procedures) (England) Regulations 2003, which state that every question to be decided at a governing body meeting must be determined by a majority of votes of those governors present and voting, and no decision can be taken without due discussion. Furthermore, at least a third of the membership of the governing bodies of all maintained schools is made up of parents. That means that the views of parents will clearly be considered during the governing body's discussions. In addition, clause 5 requires a school's governing body to consult on its proposals to convert to an academy. In practice, we believe that means that parents will be consulted and will have the chance to make representations about the proposals.
The Minister is setting out his vision for the Bill and talking about the role of governing bodies. We did not have the opportunity to reach that clause last week because time defeated us. Is he able to confirm whether he has looked at the issue of how many parent governors there should be on future academy governing bodies?
I am happy to do so. We shall be coming to the relevant clause later in the debate, but I have been persuaded by my hon. Friend's arguments, and as a result of his representations, and those of other people, we intend to amend the model funding agreement to raise the number of parents on governing bodies from one to a minimum of two.
Requiring a ballot of all parents of pupils at the school would unduly politicise the process.
I welcome the concession the Minister just made. The Committee has run very well without being churlish about such things, and there are many other aspects we agree with, but that is an important step forward.
At the risk of being churlish, why is the democracy such an issue? The point was made that if you were to-[Hon. Members: "He"]-if he were to have a proper election, it would-I am sorry. A moment ago, the Minister said that if you were to increase the governors-
I think I have taken the hon. Lady's point. Requiring a ballot of all parents of pupils at the school would unduly politicise the process and would enable those who are ideologically opposed to academies-I do not accuse the hon. Lady of that-to use the process either to agitate against the proposals or to try to delay the implementation of the decision. That would place unnecessary burdens on the governing body of the school.
Amendment 10 relates to the financial interest of governors. I reassure the Committee that there are restrictions on people taking part in the proceedings of governing bodies of maintained schools. They are clearly set out in the well-known School Governance (Procedures) (England) Regulations 2003, which provide that where there is a conflict between the interests of any governor, associate member or head teacher and the interests of the governing body that person must disclose the interest, withdraw from the meeting and not vote. If one of those individuals has a financial interest in any matter, he or she must disclose it, withdraw from the meeting and not vote. If there is any dispute as to whether a person must withdraw, the other governors must decide on the matter.
There are important safeguards that apply both before and after conversion to academy status. They mean that there is no need for an amendment specifically to disallow a governor from leading the consultation, as under existing law governors cannot participate in decision making on issues that concern their remuneration or benefit. That is a fundamental principle of charity law, and all academies are charities. I can also confirm that the model articles of association ensure that no governor can make any financial gain in his or her role as a governor.
Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. The type of people who become school governors are motivated by one issue only-the school of which they are governors; they want to raise standards and are concerned about that school.
Several amendments-including amendments 78, 77, 9 and 86-would require the governing body of a maintained school to consult on their proposals to become an academy before applying for an academy order. Clause 5 requires, as I have said, that the governing body of the school
"must consult such persons as they think appropriate" on the proposed conversion. The consultation may take place before or after an application for an academy order has been made in respect of the school or after an academy order has been granted. This will allow each school to determine when it has sufficient information on which to consult and at what point during the application process it wishes to do so. Schools are, after all, in the best position to determine when and how consultation should best take place, and they may not want to approach parents or others until they have firm proposals.
The only requirement is that the consultation must be held before the funding agreement is signed, since at that point the school will be legally committed to the conversion process. Academy orders, though a step along the way, are not irreversible and we therefore believe that there is still value in a school consulting after an order has been made. At that point, the school is in no sense bound to convert, so it is not the case that any consultation of parents or others would either be not meaningful or too late, as Vernon Coaker suggested it would be in last week's debate.
I thank the Minister. I seek some clarification of the provision he cited, which makes reference to consulting "such persons". Does he assume that "such persons" would include the parent body of the school?
Of course, and it is up to the school to decide. I was going to come on to the guidance later. It is published on the departmental website and it sets out precisely what guidance the governing bodies should adhere to. It states:
"It will be for the Governing Body of the school to determine who should be consulted, although schools should consider involving local bodies or groups who have strong links with the school."
It sets out various elements such as: information on the school's website, a letter to all parents explaining the proposal, a meeting for parents, a newsletter for parents and asking for views from parents to be sent in writing to the school.
My hon. Friend Vernon Coaker pursued this issue earlier, when he spoke about the ability of schools in the list to go ahead and become academies in September. If the Bill is passed-we assume it will be, given the parliamentary numbers-orders will be made and consultation will have to take place before the funding agreement is in force. If schools are to become academies in September-assuming this idea has not been completely abandoned-it means that the consultation will happen all through August. Is my understanding correct?
It is possible for an academy order to be issued in September, while the details of the funding agreement are still being negotiated. These things are very complicated, and it might take several weeks after the academy order is issued before the funding agreement is signed, so the consultation process can continue after the academy order has been issued.
We really need clarity on this very important point. As I mentioned earlier, paragraph 7 of the explanatory notes states:
"The Secretary of State expects that a significant number of Academies will open in September 2010".
Is the Minister now suggesting that academies will open without a funding agreement being in place?
The school can continue with an academy order made. That is the point. The academy order can be made in September, but the funding agreement might take several additional weeks afterwards- [Interruption.] No, the school will be open; children will be able to attend a school and an academy order will have been made.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for his further clarification of the purpose and usefulness of consultation after the order has been made, but does he not accept that once an order has been made, many of those who might have had an interest in the consultation might well deem that there has been a done deal so that the consultation is meaningless? I say that despite the Minister's assurances today, because the flag locally will be whether or not an order has been made to declare a school an academy.
I am grateful for that intervention, as it enables me to repeat that the deal is not done until the funding agreement is signed. That has always been the case: it was the case under the previous Administration and it is the case today. It is the funding agreement that is key.
Let me turn my attention to amendments 78, 4 and 18, which seek to prescribe with whom the school must consult. The Government believe that the individuals who lead schools-the governors and the head-are best placed to make decisions about their schools. They are the ones who know the local area, the local circumstances of the school and how it relates to other schools in the area. We do not intend to be prescriptive over whom schools should consult, as schools will have different views and the level of information they want or can make available at the time of consultation will depend on the point at which they do it. If they consult at the very beginning of the process, they may consult only on the principle of conversion itself. If they consult at a much later stage, they may want to consult on a wide range of additional matters-the curriculum, governance arrangements or a specialism for the academy, for example- on which they may by then have firmer views.
We trust the school to determine how to consult and whom to consult, and we do not intend to provide an inflexible checklist, which would not, in itself, ensure that consultation were any more meaningful. This includes consultation with the local authority, as amendment 18 would require. We do not intend to give local authorities a role that could, in some areas of the country, undermine the Government's policy-as we know, this has been the case in the past. We do not want to provide local authorities with an opportunity to delay or frustrate applications via the consultation process. The Department's website, as I mentioned earlier, includes guidance on good consultation practice.
New clause 1, tabled by Caroline Lucas, would allow schools that have become academies to return to maintained status if 10% of the parents of the pupils at the academy vote in favour of it. Of course, the academies programme is about freedoms and lack of prescription, so an academy could choose, if it wished, to run itself like a maintained school. The academy could willingly act in such a way that for all intents and purposes, it would be a maintained school, operating with all the restrictions and requirements that apply to them-including the academy buying back services from the local authority and choosing not to use its curriculum or staffing freedoms. Therefore there would be no need for it to change its status for it to be run in a way that is equivalent to a maintained school.
We expect all schools that apply to become an academy to be fully committed to the academies programme. Before becoming an academy, the governing body of the predecessor school will have taken account, as I have said on numerous occasions, of the views of the parents and pupils at the academy.
Let me deal briefly with some of the comments made during the debate. My hon. Friend Dr Pugh raised the issue of the new politics, which he said that he, like me, supports. I believe that the coalition involves discussion, concessions and change, which we have seen during the passage of the Bill. The coalition is delivering the kind of politics demanded by the public. Today, the coalition has delivered its promise to introduce a pupil premium. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend Sarah Teather has today tabled a written ministerial statement announcing a consultation process on the implementation of the pupil premium.
My right hon. Friend Mr Redwood took us back to the halcyon days of Lady Thatcher, which I know he likes to do from time to time, as do we all. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to trust teachers and head teachers and that we need to give parents a genuine choice that will serve as a powerful force to raise standards.
My hon. Friend Dan Rogerson is right to point out that it is the funding agreement that is the key and the binding moment in the conversion process towards academy status. Schools wishing to convert in September had to apply by
My hon. Friend Andrew Percy is absolutely right that the governors of a school, particularly the parent governors, take their responsibilities very seriously. They care deeply about the school and would not take forward the process of acquiring academy status without taking into account the views of the community, whether or not a particular part of the community were represented on the governing body.
Lisa Nandy made the important point that schools are at the heart of the local community, and we agree that they should be, which is why the funding agreement specifically states that academies should be at the heart of the community and share facilities with it. She also raised the issue of the risk to governing bodies of a legal challenge, but clause 5(1) requires them to consult those people whom they think appropriate, and to a large extent, therefore, it is up to the body to decide whom it should consult. Provided that its decision is reasonable, it is unlikely to face a legal challenge.
Vernon Coaker asked for the number of schools that have applied. Those that want to convert in September must have applied to do so by
The hon. Gentleman also asked where we are with the TUPE negotiations. Employers of staff at schools seeking to convert will be at different stages, depending on when they intend to convert, but TUPE requires the consultation on the transfer of employment to be sufficient, and it will apply outside the Bill in any event. Any proposed September convertors will have been advised to begin a TUPE consultation some time ago, at the outset of their consideration of the application.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the details of the academy order. It will state that a named school will convert to an academy on such date as is specified in the funding agreement. It is a very short document, and with those few remarks I urge hon. Members and my hon. Friends, when asked, to withdraw their amendments.
I shall say a few words before putting amendment 8 to the vote. Ministers have been fairly quiet throughout the large part of this debate, and I cannot be alone in sensing a certain embarrassment about some aspects of this legislation and the manner in which it has been pressed.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hancock said to me during my earlier contribution that the real reason for weak consultation and no balloting is that it is all about making the establishment of academies easier, and at the time I said that that was uncharitable. Having listened to the counter-arguments, however, I am not sure that he was not after all right and me a little naïve.
The ministerial argument against ballots was that they would politicise, but one does not need to be very bright to realise that that is a general argument against any ballot, any time, any place. Mr. Redwood suggested that we would know the parental view from informal soundings, and to some extent that is correct, but he was unable to explain how that could happen before September, when schools are closed for the holiday. Indeed, if that is such a good, sure-fire method, why do we persist with ballots before changing a grammar school's status? People were completely unable to answer that, or why primary, secondary and special schools should not have the same privileged legal position.
No one answered the comments from Mr. Stuart, the Chair of the Education Committee, even though they were repeated. I shall repeat them again: he described the consultation arrangements as appearing like a charade. I recall working for a boss who used to listen to his heads of department, gather them all around, very carefully solicit their views and conclude by saying, "I hear what you say." After that, he would do precisely what he wanted to do in the first place.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole suggested that parents will be able to vote not necessarily by ballot but with their feet. I describe that as the Burmese school of democracy: "If you don't like it, you can get out and go somewhere else." He was quite right that governors generally and usually have a good awareness of and good contact with parents, and that they are likely to know quite a lot about how they might feel and react, but the clear point is that that is not invariably the case. Were it invariably the case, every grant-maintained ballot would have been won, but many were lost. Indeed, Bill Esterson and I come from an area where all the grant-maintained ballots were lost.
If Members wish to disempower parents, if people in this room genuinely believe in post hoc consultation, and if they object to rational amendment in the Commons, they should vote against my amendment. I can do nothing about that, but if they think differently I should like them to agree to amendment 8.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed: 78, in clause 3, in page 3, line 11, at end insert-
'(1A) Before making an application for an Academy order, the governing body shall consult relevant parties on whether to make such an application.
(1B) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance as to how governing bodies should conduct such a consultation with parents, pupils, teaching and non-teaching staff and their representatives, neighbouring schools and the local authority and such other parties as he may think appropriate and such guidance must also specify the information to be made available to consultees in relation to the proposed arrangements for Academy status.'.- (Mr Coaker .)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House divided: Ayes 227, Noes 310.
I beg to move amendment 82, page 3, line 11, at end insert-
'(1A) An application under subsection (1) shall be in such form and shall contain such particulars as may be prescribed in regulations.'.
'(3A) The Secretary of State shall publish criteria which he will apply in deciding whether to make Academy orders, which shall be in such form and shall contain such particulars as may be prescribed in regulations.'.
Amendment 83, in clause 4, page 4, line 3, leave out subsection (6).
I will be interested to hear why the Minister thinks that the amendments are unacceptable. Before that, it is important to say that, in the previous debate, there was a massive change in Government hope and expectation for their flagship academies policy. They have retreated from claiming that hundreds of new academies will open in September to saying that hundreds or a large number of academy orders will be agreed. The Secretary of State did not outline that as part of a flagship Government policy, which was for significant numbers of new academies to open. The policy is chaos, confusion and a complete shambles. Hon. Members of all parties will find it unbelievable that we now have a Government commitment to a significant number of academy orders, with consultation to follow. Significant progress has therefore been made as we have exposed the flaws in many aspects of the Bill. However, a Minister coming to the Dispatch Box and admitting that the Government's aims and objectives will not be realised is astonishing.
I do not want to take up too much of the Committee's time on the amendments. I should simply be grateful if the Minister explained why he thinks that they are unacceptable.
The amendments would collectively have the effect of increasing the burden of regulation associated with the academy conversion process. They propose several sets of regulations as well as a requirement that academy orders be made by statutory instrument. Hon. Members will recognise that that would take the Government's policy in the opposite direction from our proposals. We want to deregulate when regulatory burdens are not only stifling innovation, but costing time and therefore money to achieve compliance. We want to give schools freedoms to allow them to focus on raising standards. Adding bureaucracy to the process is the last thing that we want.
Amendments 81 and 82 would introduce regulations that prescribed the contents of applications for academy orders and the criteria that the Secretary of State applied when deciding whether to make them. We do not believe that it is appropriate to regulate the contents of applications for academy orders. The Department already provides clear guidance on its website about the conversion process and the various steps that a school needs to take. The website also includes an application pro forma, which covers all the necessary information to enable a decision to be made. The Government have made it clear that they will apply a rigorous fit and proper person test in approving any sponsors of an academy.
The Secretary of State will consider applications from schools that wish to become academies and, in each case, confirm whether he is content for the conversion proposal to proceed to the next stage. If he is, he will make an academy order. In doing that he will, of course, take account of the relevant information before him, but he expects to approve most applications from outstanding schools. Those schools will make up the first wave, and we will publish the criteria for other applicants-the next wave-on the Department's website.
Before issuing an academy order, the Secretary of State will undertake checks to ensure that the school is in a position to become an academy. That is important because academies operate with greater autonomy than other schools and need to be in a secure position to do so. We will check whether there has been any significant change since the school's last outstanding Ofsted rating.
Does my hon. Friend anticipate the criteria being changed from those that are currently applied to the raft of academies that is going through the process and the academies that he expects to go through shortly? Will the basic criteria be changed for future academies? He suggested that they would be published, but how different will they be?
The criteria will be different because the fast-tracking is confined to schools that are graded outstanding. When they have gone through the process, we will relax the criteria to enable other schools to do so. My hon. Friend will recall that the Secretary of State sent letters to all schools in the country. The criteria that I just mentioned apply to fast-tracking. There will be different criteria for the process once the first wave has gone through.
Issues that the Secretary of State will check include whether the school has a substantial budget deficit, whether there are PFI arrangements relating to the school and whether the school is already part of reorganisation proposals. Depending on the outcome of discussions, that may have a bearing on whether and when the Secretary of State can approve an outstanding school's progression to the next stage. When an academy order is made, the Secretary of State must give a copy to the governing body, the head teacher and the local authority. If the application is rejected, the Secretary of State is required to inform the governing body, the head teacher and the local authority of his decision and the reason for it. It will therefore be transparent and clear why and when a school will be permitted to convert and when it will not.
However, the first stage of the process-the academy order stage-is just that: it permits a school to convert, but does not require it to do so. We need to be clear that, for many proposals, the greater detail and the final stage of the process will come later, when the Secretary of State decides whether to enter into a funding agreement with a proposed academy. It is only on signing the funding agreement that the conversion becomes legally binding. We therefore believe that prescription of the form and content of academy orders in secondary legislation is unnecessary and too bureaucratic.
An academy order is the means whereby a school's conversion into an academy is enabled. The intention behind amendment 83 is that an academy order be made by statutory instrument, which would have to be laid before Parliament. Academy orders are intended to be the legal means whereby an individual school converts to academy status. They will contain key pieces of information that are pertinent to the conversion, but are highly specific to the circumstances of each school. It would not be a good use of Parliament's time to require each order for each and every school to be tabled. The use of the negative resolution procedure would also be highly disruptive to any school, since the period of 40 days during which the order could be prayed against in this House or the other place would leave the school with no certainty about whether the conversion could go ahead.
In any event, the hon. Member for Gedling will be interested to know that the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee issued a report on the Bill, dated
"this seems to us to be reasonable. Each order affects only one school and there is provision for those affected to be provided with copies. We agree... that these Orders are not really legislative in character and we see no reason why Parliament would want to have any control over them."
For those reasons, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
It is a very good job that the Minister has persuaded me that statutory instruments of any sort-negative or affirmative-are unnecessary, otherwise he would not be able to announce academy orders in September. I intend to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I return to a point I made earlier. I provoked the Minister at the beginning of this debate, but in both this debate and the debate on the previous group of amendments, I note that he has not put any figure at all on the number of schools that he expects to become academies. That now seems to have gone down to almost nought, because the aspiration now is to introduce large numbers of academy orders.
We will wait and see what transpires in September, but interestingly, the Government have today announced a huge retreat on their expectations for the Bill. They have gone from saying, "Hundreds of academies are expected to open," to saying, "Maybe a few will open on the basis of the ones that the previous Government approved earlier in the year." However, the Minister's and the Government's aspiration as announced today is to have significant numbers of academy orders, with consultation to follow. We will see where we are in September, but with those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.