Education Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 24th February 2005.

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Votes in this debate

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour

moved Amendment No. 55:

After Clause 45, insert the following new clause—

"Exclusion of children: duties in relation to pupils

(1) Section 52 of the Education Act 2002 (c. 32) (exclusion of pupils) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (5) there is inserted—

"(5A) It shall be the duty of all persons and bodies exercising functions under this section—

(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child that is proposed to be excluded, and

(b) to have regard in particular to the child's educational achievement.

(5B) Regulations shall make provision for compliance with the duty under subsection (5A) and in particular to ensure that pupils that are proposed to be excluded or have been excluded under the provisions of this section—

(a) have a proper opportunity to make representations in relation to their exclusion or proposed exclusion, and

(b) receive all information that might be relevant to such representations.""

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour

My Lords, in Grand Committee I moved a similar amendment, although the wording was slightly different for reasons which I shall explain.

The intention of the amendment was to ensure that the pupil's rights in respect of exclusion decisions and the hearing of exclusion appeals by the governors and independent appeals panels are adequately safeguarded. Current statutory guidance in England does not enforce the statutory involvement of a child in the exclusion process.

Guidance on school exclusions in England states that in situations where the governing body of the school reviews the exclusion,

"they should normally allow the excluded pupil to attend the meeting and speak, if the parent requests this".

As regards appeal hearings, it states that,

"an excluded pupil . . . should normally be allowed to attend the hearing and to speak on his or her own behalf, if he or she wishes to do so and the parent agrees".

However, not all schools make provision for children and young people to make representations at disciplinary committees or appeal hearings. Furthermore, the current guidance does not cover the provision of relevant information to children and young people regarding their exclusion. As a result, children are not always in a position to make representations at hearings, even if they are permitted.

In Grand Committee I referred to recent research undertaken by Save the Children, which indicated that children often feel a sense of injustice and disempowerment because they are not given the opportunity to put their side of the story. One young boy stated, "You don't get given your chance to say what happened. How are they going to know what happened?"

The research demonstrated that children and young people often felt that the exclusion process was something that happened around them but did not directly involve them. A number of young people told the researchers that had they been given a voice in the exclusion meetings they could have explained their behaviour and the reasons behind it—perhaps difficulties such as living in care or family problems.

There is currently an explanation that all parents and carers have the information and capacity to represent the best interests of the child throughout the process, but that is by no means always the case. One young man explained to the researchers that he wanted to appeal but his mother prevented him doing so because it would take too much time.

It was clear that most felt that exclusion was a very severe punishment which could well affect their future lives, including their opportunity to secure good employment. Many said that absences from school over a period meant that they became "thick"—in their words—and that they did not want that to happen.

I have provided a copy of the research conducted by Save the Children to my noble friend the Minister, since she seemed to be sympathetically inclined to the case that I made in Grand Committee, although not willing to accept the amendment. I have altered the wording at the request of a number of organisations interested in the issue. I have included that:

"It shall be the duty of all persons and bodies exercising functions under this [clause] . . . to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child that is proposed to be excluded", in addition to having regard to the child's educational achievement.

Since Grand Committee, I have received a letter from my noble friend the Minister, for which I am very grateful, from which I gather that the Government do not want to accept an amendment, but are prepared to redraft the guidance which is already available. There are a couple of points that I should like to raise in connection with the proposed guidance, which I must say moves very largely in the direction of this amendment. I said earlier that I am very glad that that has happened.

The draft guidance indicates that the agreement of the parent for the involvement and participation of the pupil is required. As the Save the Children research indicates, the parent's co-operation may not always be available—like the young man who said that his mum would not let him appeal because it would take too much time. Therefore, why is it necessary always to have the parent's agreement for participation of the child?

Secondly, the Government seem willing to amend the guidance but not the regulations. Why is it not felt necessary or appropriate that the regulations should be amended?

Having made those points, I am very glad, as I said earlier, that the Government are prepared to move very largely in the direction of what we were asking for in Grand Committee, following no doubt the submission of the research that I provided. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I rise to support the spirit of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. I think that we are all agreed that we must always listen to the voice of the child. I, too, welcome what the Government are doing to bring forward better guidance and regulations to ensure that that voice is always heard.

I echo the noble Baroness's words that we cannot always rely on the parents. We all know that the vast majority of parents have the good of their children and their welfare very much in mind, but a few parents either cannot or will not support their children in the very stressful situation in which a few children find themselves. It might be in the interests of the parent to prevent the child's voice being heard.

It is a matter of basic human rights that, in this particular situation when the whole future of their education is at stake, children's voices should be heard. So, while welcoming what the Government have already agreed to do, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, in urging them to do even more.

Photo of Baroness David Baroness David Labour

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden. The common picture of the excluded pupil is one of a young adolescent out of control, very difficult to educate, abusive, uncooperative, and who has a disregard for authority. Such children are demonised by society and, with their parents, are frequently criticised by the leaders of society. For example, on Tuesday BBC News published a news item about a speech from David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers, criticising the extreme use of procedures at appeal panels which he said put heads "in the dock". He went on to criticise appeal panels for reinstating pupils on "flimsy grounds" which damaged the "law-abiding majority" of children. He said:

"Too often LEAs [local education authorities] are intimidated by lawyers, barrack room or real, or by self-appointed pressure groups, waving the civil libertarian flag and threatening damages or other mayhem. This spreads to independent appeal panels which are still reinstating on flimsy groups".

Is there any research evidence that supports this view? I suspect the majority of excluded pupils are frightened, greatly concerned about losing the familiar parts of their lives, including their friends, and worried about their future. They are not supported by lawyers, barrack room or real, or by self-appointed pressure groups. We know an increasingly large number of excluded pupils are from the primary sector.

Last year, Parliament approved a new Children Act which puts a duty on a range of bodies to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. One body which was not included was the Independent Appeal Panel, which parents can appeal to on behalf of their children when they have been excluded. I support the amendment, which brings those bodies in line with others which have responsibilities to children. I also support the second part of the amendment, which gives a voice to the child at the appeal hearings. At present, only parents and their representatives have the opportunity of saying what happened. It is right that children should also have a voice, and that the appeal panel can hear the child's words on any incident at the school which resulted in the exclusion. If the Minister is redrafting the guidance, I hope she will pay attention to what has been said in this short debate.

Photo of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Labour

My Lords, I urge the Minister to consider seriously the amendment of my noble friend. Justice is tested in that small number of cases of extraordinary fact. The voice of the child must be heard where the parent will not agree to the case either going to appeal or being heard by whatever procedure is available. If that is so, the state should not test which are the extraordinary cases; it should be open to the child to be heard in such a serious matter.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, very briefly, I also welcome the Government's receptiveness to the amendments. In Committee, I qualified my support because I had not had an opportunity to speak with practitioners. Since then, I have spoken with Professor John Adams of the National Association of School Governors, and with a well respected primary teacher who has had to exclude pupils in the past and whose husband is a governor. They both strongly support the principle of involving children as far as possible in the procedures. I am glad to see the Government's receptiveness to that.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we are at one with the intention of the amendment, and I am sorry the noble Baroness has had to wait so long to arrive at this point—she was very patient with us the other night. We did debate an earlier version and I promised we would reflect in the light of the issues. We have done so, not least in relation to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. We were grateful that the noble Baroness drew attention to the research project commissioned by Save the Children Fund, and we have looked at it closely. I am not aware of any other research, but we will look at that.

With her involvement in the Children Bill as it was going through this House, I think the noble Baroness will agree with me how serious we are about articulating and amplifying the voice of the child. We are getting better at that in government. We are fully supportive of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which she quoted. It states:

"State parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child".

I agree with that absolutely. We have therefore decided, as she says, to look hard at the guidance, and to amend and strengthen it in that respect.

My noble friend asked me why it was not proper to amend the exclusions legislation in the regulations. The problem is that those regulations were amended as recently as March 2004. With great respect, we believe that schools and local authorities should be left alone to embed and work out those regulations. Frequent changes are unsettling; we are often asked in Government to give schools periods of stability. We intend to do that, but we have decided that we can strengthen our guidance in several places to emphasise the importance we attach to the child having a voice in the exclusion process. That guidance has the force of law. We are proposing that head teachers should not only allow pupils to give their version of events, but also—the significant change—positively encourage them to do so. Guidance on review by governing bodies and appeal panels will be enhanced so that in each case pupils should be encouraged to attend. If they do attend, they should be sent copies of the paper. Therefore, we shall make it clear that an excluded pupil under the age of 18 should be allowed and encouraged to speak on his or her own behalf at governing body meetings and independent appeal hearings, if he or she wishes to do so.

We have been asked why there is still an element of parental agreement involved. We have already changed that from the parent requesting the child be involved, to the parent agreeing. That is a significant change, but we would also like to reflect on the involvement of the parent in that context as part of our wider policy of review on parenting. I can send that signal to the House. On the detail of how the guidance will be changed, I will write to my noble friend since we are under pressure of time today, setting out the details.

On the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, we are sensitive to the concerns he has expressed about the position of looked-after children. It is extremely important that their views are taken into account, and that they are given as much confidence and support to express them as possible. The exclusions guidance will make specific note of the particular circumstances of those pupils. It will advise them that whenever a looked-after child is excluded, anyone defined as a parent has the right to make representations and appeals, and that those children will be allowed and encouraged to participate more fully at all stages of the exclusion process. As my noble friend Lord Wedderburn said, those are cases where justice is involved, and it is important that everyone's rights, particularly the child's, are observed.

My officials are currently involved in dialogue with Save the Children. We have had warm and positive support for the changes we want to make and for how the guidance will be worded to make clear there are proper opportunities. We are taking careful note of their proposals, and where possible we will incorporate their recommendations into revised guidance. We also need to consult informally with other parties. On the timescale, again we are aware of the need to act quickly. The guidance can be changed online easily and quickly. Erratum slips can be inserted in printed versions of the guidance until our current stocks are exhausted in about three months' time. Then, in the next print runs, we will make the necessary amendments.

I hope that noble Lords—my noble friend in particular—feel that her assiduousness has been well rewarded by the Government, and that the changes will be to the huge benefit of the children whom she is trying to protect.

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very detailed response. I am glad that, in principle, a lot of what has been said on the topic both in Grand Committee and today has been accepted by the Government. I wait with interest for the letter she says she will write to me, and I am glad that consultation is proceeding with Save the Children, which has of course been responsible for research upon which we have based the amendments. In the circumstances—I know that time is a problem at the moment—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 5 [Sixth forms requiring significant improvement]:

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

moved Amendment No. 56:

Page 77, line 38, leave out from "England," to ", and" in line 40 and insert "section 12(1) to (1B) of the Education Act 2005 (duty of Chief Inspector to send draft report to governing body or proprietor, to consider their comments and to state opinion in report)"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

moved Amendment No. 58:

Page 30, line 11, after "governors" insert "after consultation with any person prescribed for the purposes of this subsection in relation to the religion or religious denomination that is specified in relation to the school under section 69(4) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998"

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, this group of amendments is tabled in response to the representations made by the right reverend Prelate in Committee. I am pleased that we are now able to table government amendments to meet requirements set out by him and others and to provide for other faith groups. The amendments will enable the Secretary of State, for England, and the National Assembly, for Wales, to specify the appropriate body for each faith group that must be consulted by the foundation governors or the governing body when choosing the inspector for religious education. Officials are currently engaged with other faith bodies to determine the appropriate body, where applicable, for each group. I beg to move.

Photo of The Bishop of Coventry The Bishop of Coventry Bishop

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for his response to the points made by my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, who, unfortunately, is unable to be in his place today. The amendments extend to the authorities responsible for all faith schools the powers that the right reverend Prelate's amendments would have given to Anglican and Roman Catholic schools. We welcome that.

The lawyers who advise us on educational matters have expressed concern about the force of the term "consult", as opposed to our earlier formulation, which would have required governing bodies to have regard to the advice that they receive. I understand that government lawyers have suggested that "consult" is stronger in force and therefore more appropriate. We have our doubts, and would welcome assurances that guidance and regulations will make it absolutely clear that diocesan authorities and other appropriate religious bodies will be able to have a strong influence over the appointment of inspectors and the raising of the quality of the inspection system, and thus of the education offered in Church and other faith schools. If the Minister can give assurances about regulations and guidance, we shall welcome the amendments unhesitatingly.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I am happy to give that assurance. I am strongly advised that "consult" is legally stronger and that the measures that we have tabled will achieve what the right reverend Prelate seeks: that the relevant diocesan authority will have a good and proper influence on those issues. That is exactly what we want to achieve.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

moved Amendment No. 59:

Page 30, line 12, at end insert "after consultation with any person so prescribed"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 48 [Procedure for inspections under section 47]:

[Amendments Nos. 60 to 61 not moved.]

Clause 49 [Inspection of religious education: Wales]:

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

moved Amendments Nos. 62 and 63:

Page 31, line 16, after "governors" insert "after consultation with any person prescribed for the purposes of this subsection in relation to the religion or religious denomination that is specified in relation to the school under section 69(4) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998"

Page 31, line 17, at end insert "after consultation with any person so prescribed"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 9 [Further amendments relating to school inspection]:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

moved Amendments Nos. 65 to 72:

Page 93, line 29, at end insert—

"1A In Schedule 4 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, omit the entry beginning "Registered Inspectors of Schools Appeal Tribunals"."

Page 96, line 7, leave out "subsection (2)" and insert "subsection (1B)(a)"

Page 96, line 23, leave out "section 12(2)" and insert "section 12(1B)(a)"

Page 96, line 34, leave out "subsection (2)" and insert "subsection (1B)(a)"

Page 97, line 5, leave out "section 12(2)" and insert "section 12(1B)(a)"

Page 97, line 8, leave out "section 12(2)" and insert "section 12(1B)(a)"

Page 97, line 16, leave out "section 12(2)" and insert "section 12(1B)(a)"

Page 97, line 24, leave out "section 12(2)" and insert "section 12(1B)(a)".

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

moved Amendment No. 73:

Before Clause 63, insert the following new clause—

"ARRANGEMENTS FOR SCHOOL ORGANISATION PROPOSALS INVOLVING THREE OR MORE SCHOOLS

Sections 63 to 65 do not apply in England to proposals about three or more schools in the same local education authority area when published simultaneously by the local education authority and the governing bodies of aided and foundation schools or the promoters of new aided or foundation schools."

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 77. We now move to Part 2 of the Bill and to some of the more contentious clauses that concern school organisation. The purpose of the amendment is to exclude new school proposals from the competitive requirements when they involve proposals for reorganisation resulting from falling rolls. The management of falling rolls was one of the major educational debates in the late 1970s and 1980s. There was then a 25 per cent fall in the number of secondary school pupils and the loss of almost 800 secondary schools out of a total of about 3,000 between 1984 and 1994.

Secondary school rolls have been rising steadily since 1990, but the DfES website states that the number of pupils in secondary schools peaked last year—in 2004—at 3.33 million and is expected to start falling again. The DfES website does not estimate the speed or depth of the decline, but the Scottish Parliament website states that the fall is likely to be about 15 per cent during the next 10 years. That is substantial and it is therefore clear that the country needs to plan for significant falls in secondary school rolls.

From the past, we know that there will be a different effect in different areas because of the variable rates of economic growth in different regions. The south-east is still expecting growth and there has been much debate in the south-east about the need for extra housing, and often extra schools. That is partly as a result of people moving to the south-east from other areas, rather than because of an increase in demand in the south-east itself. Therefore, there are knock-on effects and a further decline in other areas when people move from there to the south-east.

The purpose of the amendment is to exclude from the competition rules those LEAs that have to manage wholesale secondary school reorganisation. Typically, an LEA may have to reorganise between three and 10 secondary schools at any one time. It is interesting to contrast the approach taken in the 1970s and 1980s with today's approach. In the late 1970s, the Government funded a study on falling rolls in secondary schools, which was published in 1980 by the NFER. The principal author was a former chief education officer with long experience. An advisory board for the research was chaired by an HMI, with representation from the then Department of Education and Science.

The study considered how the school staff and LEA managed the change in 20 secondary schools in a dozen LEAs. It was clear that, for no difference in the quality of education, schools could lose significantly different numbers of pupils. Two of the schools' intakes halved in three years, and half of the schools lost a quarter of their intake. The effect on schools of such a sharp drop in roles can be devastating, and even more so today, when we have shifted to the "money following the pupil" funding policy.

The present Government's answer to the problem of falling rolls is to make secondary school reorganisation even more difficult by lengthening the process and introducing competition over who should run the schools emerging from secondary reorganisation. That is mainly because the Government have signally failed to understand the difference between the requirements of the Education Act 2002 involving additional schools where new schools are required to meet growing numbers, and the arrangements involving replacement schools proposed by the Government in this Bill. Additional schools do not involve a living school with staff and pupils; replacement schools do.

As soon as a school reorganisation is mooted and becomes inevitable, staff want to know whether they have jobs and parents want to know about the continuity of their children's education. They really do not want to be involved in a lengthy competition, the result of which will be unknown in terms of the religious character, or not, of the school and whether the staff and pupils will be able to continue with the existing provision. If they have any sense, teachers will leave, which will increase the anxiety of parents and students.

I regret to say that it appears at present that the Government are going to wash their hands completely of the consequences of the Bill. In a Written Answer on 4 February 2005 to my noble friend Lady Walmsley, who inquired about the effect of such delays, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, stated:

"Local authorities will need to factor the new arrangements into their planning cycle when considering any reorganisation of secondary education in the area".—[Hansard, 4/2/05; col. WA 74.]

In other words, the Government are pushing through the legislation to suit their ideological ends, and they expect local authorities to pick up the pieces. Where is the consideration of the effect of the new arrangements on increasing the time to complete secondary school reorganisation? Where is the consideration of the effect on children's learning or on staff cohesion? At the moment the answer is, "Nowhere". A responsible government would at least have gone to the trouble of thinking through the issues and would have worked with the LEAs and teachers to map the effect of their policies. By restricting competitions to small-scale reorganisations, the amendment should limit the damage caused to schools.

I turn briefly to the second amendment in the group, Amendment No. 77. The amendment would require the Government to publish guidance for school organisation committees on matters to be taken into account in making decisions on competitions for new or replacement schools. I remind the House that Schedule 10, referred to in Clause 65, sets out details of how the competitions required under Clause 65 will be run. Schedule 10 paragraph 4 sets out the procedures to be followed by the school organisation committee when considering the proposals, and paragraph 4(6) says that, in taking decisions on the proposals, the school organisation committee must heed the advice from the Secretary of State.

We say that, as this is a new situation—school organisation committees have not had to consider issues of competition before—and in those circumstances the Secretary of State should set out his guidance. The Bill makes provision for the school organisation committee to have responsibility for decisions on proposals in competitions for a new or replacement school, instead of the old situation in which the Secretary of State made those decisions. That is new territory for the school organisation committees, which previously have considered school organisation plans, school closures and some new school proposals in relation to the local authority.

As the school organisation committees are untested in the expanded process of having to judge the competitions between the proposals, the amendment would ensure that they were sufficiently robust in the role, with guidance setting out the matters to be taken into account when making decisions. We are looking for robust guidance from the Secretary of State on how those decisions should be taken. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I fear that this will be a matter on which we shall not agree. That is exactly because the Government's policy is that increased choice of new providers, when there is to be a new school either as a result of an increase in the need for places or as the product of a reorganisation, is in the interest of parents and pupils. That is the explicit reason why with the Bill we have widened the existing legislation, which requires competitions only for additional schools, and widened the circumstances about which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has spoken.

The Bill would require a local authority to invite proposals in a far wider range of circumstances. That would involve a reorganisation in an area where some schools were being closed and others changed to meet changing demands. Of course, that would not apply in a situation where an existing school was moving to a new building—that would simply be an existing school continuing in new premises—but it would apply when there was reorganisation, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp.

The Building Schools for the Future programme is intended to provide a stimulus for local authorities to examine the shape of provision in the area and to decide where schools will be needed in the future. Often, secondary education reorganisation and the associated competitions will be carried out in the context of the BSF programme.

Many local authorities will take the opportunity to augment the facilities of schools and relaunch them technically as new schools. That is particularly likely where provision is being rationalised and some schools may be closing. We think that competitions where proposals need to be published for new secondary schools are a good thing and will encourage greater choice for parents and greater contestability in the system. The more that schools are involved, the greater the opportunity for new providers to become involved and the greater the need for as many options as possible to be explored. This part of the Bill is trying to achieve that—more good schools from which parents can choose. Where a local authority believes that a new secondary school is needed, whether to meet a demand for new places or as a result of reorganisation, it will need to publicise the fact and invite interested parties to make proposals to meet the need for the new school.

Potential promoters should have the right to be told about opportunities for new schools and to compete on a level playing field—I emphasise a level playing field—but the local authority will still decide when it needs to reorganise, where the school should be and its size and range. The local authority is in charge strategically of deciding the pattern of education in its area. It will retain its role as the commissioner of educational provision, but the provision may be provided by another provider, if that is what the local school organisation committee decides is best for the area. The legislation will not remove any powers from the local authority, but it will ensure that other providers are aware of the need for a secondary school in the area and aware of the opportunity to submit a proposal.

On Amendment No. 77, we agree that guidance to decision makers on competitions for new secondary schools will have to include the factors to be taken into account if more than one proposal is received. It will be for the school organisation committee or the adjudicator to decide the proposals on their merits, and it would be utterly wrong for the guidance to be so prescriptive as to attempt to override that.

We shall consult interested parties thoroughly on draft guidance in the normal way before it is issued, but some of the factors that are likely to be included are: whether the proposals improve the standards, quality, range or diversity of educational provision; whether they advance national and local transformation strategies; whether the proposals will deliver a broad and balanced curriculum; the parental demand for the type of school; whether the proposals represent a cost-effective use of public funds and so on.

Later we shall discuss the processes by which parents can express their views on that. We believe that it is in the interests of parents and pupils that there is opportunity for a wider diversity of suppliers. Therefore, we do not agree with the amendment for the reasons that I have stated.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply—I suppose I am grateful. It is clear that there is no meeting of minds on the issue.

I believe that the Government underestimate the hurt and harm that can be caused to a community when one is trying to reorganise schools and thrown into the midst of that reorganisation is the lengthy process of a competition between schools. Trying to amalgamate three schools into two is difficult enough. If, on top of that, one says, "The whole thing is up in the air, and we don't know what schools are going to be established or where, as that is up to the competition", incredible turmoil is created for pupils. For a couple of years, the lives of those pupils can be disturbed by uncertainties about what will happen to their school.

We are asking the Government to allow local authorities to pursue their function as a strategic planner in this area, so that they do not have to worry about setting up the competitions and losing control. Effectively, the Government are asking local authorities, in setting up independent schools—academies are defined as independent schools, and foundation schools can go their own way to a considerable extent—to pursue a strategic role.

The Government are uncomprehending of the realities of life at the coalface of local education authorities. They have no idea what it is like, and they are pursuing a totally ideological agenda for their own purposes. It is a remarkably Thatcherite agenda for a Labour government, and I am amazed to find a Labour government pursuing such an agenda. If that is the way they want to go, the electorate will, in the not too distant future, have a chance to judge the Government. I shall withdraw the amendment and leave the electorate to make up their mind about what they want. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 64 [Publication of proposals with consent of Secretary of State]:

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

moved Amendment No. 74:

Page 38, line 20, at end insert—

"( ) When considering whether to grant consent to publish under subsection (2), the Secretary of State shall have regard to any representations made by the local education authority for the area in which the school is proposed, and any other local education authority likely to be affected by the proposal."

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, as we have heard, the Bill extends the circumstances in which new secondary schools will be subject to a competition. If LEAs or promoters want to establish a new community, foundation or voluntary school without going to competition, they have to receive the consent of the Secretary of State. The effect is that no community school can be established without the Secretary of State's consent or until after external promoters have first been invited to submit their proposals.

It is now clear that we have strong reservations about the principle of opening for competition the establishment of new secondary schools. It should be the School Organisation Committee—with the appropriate sources available to it—and the LEA which have responsibility for ensuring a coherent pattern of provision without the distractions or pressures from individual lobbies which can have an influence out of proportion to the general need to ensure sufficient secondary school places.

This amendment to Clause 64 was laid to ensure that, when considering whether to grant consent, the Secretary of State will have regard to representations made by the LEAs affected by the proposal. Given the long list of important roles outlined by the Minister in debate on the previous amendment, that seems to be only right. The amendment supports the strategic commissioning role that the Government have themselves set out as being their vision for local authorities in the future enabling them to ensure that any proposal is considered alongside existing planning arrangements for all schools. It would help to avoid unnecessary disruption of local schools and their communities in the "cat among the pigeons" situation outlined by my noble friend Lady Sharp.

Any proposal for a new school should fit with local need. The amendment should encourage proposers to make contact with the local authority so that they become familiar with the school organisation plan to ensure that their proposals fit into the local audit of need for the local communities. It is hoped that that will prevent the proposer putting forward a proposal that could create an isolated learning institution.

I see a parallel here with something that was beginning when I myself was teaching and is happening to a much greater extent nowadays. Many organisations are trying to get involved in education now and many of them are providing very high quality teaching materials for use in the classroom, which relate the curriculum to everyday life and are a practical application of learning. When that first started to happen in the classroom, the materials were not really related to the curriculum. Very soon, those organisations cottoned on to the fact that, if they did not relate those learning materials to the national curriculum, they would not be any use in the classroom. In the same way, it is absolutely vital that proposers of new schools understand the context into which they are making their proposals. This amendment will help.

It is particularly important, as the agenda for children, young people and families requires greater collaboration and joined-up working in response to the Children Act 2004 in which local authorities are the strategic lead. It is very important that potential new providers are part of that process. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I broadly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that it is essential that the Secretary of State listens to representations made by the local authority in the circumstances that she described. I sought to indicate as much in Committee and I am happy strongly to reaffirm that commitment now. It is good policy, good practice and, to buttress the point, any Secretary of State who did not behave in that way would be open to a judicial review. Secretaries of State are strongly advised by departmental lawyers not to go there for obvious and good reasons.

In deciding whether to give her consent to promoters to publish proposals, the Secretary of State would take into account a range of factors. Those would include the strength of the case made by the proposers about their capacity to establish a school which would add to the quality and diversity of provision; any representations made to her by third parties, including the local authority where it was not the body seeking consent; and the opinions of the department's own advisers. If she considered that she lacked any evidence on which to base a decision, she would seek such further information as she felt necessary to make a fair and proper decision.

I recognise the strength of feeling in the House about the importance of adequate consultation. We share that and we are bringing forward separate amendments on that subject. With regard to this particular amendment, it may be helpful if I explain again what opportunities stakeholders would have to make their views known if the Secretary of State gave her consent for the proposals to be published under Section 28A.

First, the promoters would be required to consult interested parties—including, of course, any local authority likely to be affected. Secondly, once the proposals were published there would be a statutory period during which interested parties could make representations about the proposals. Finally, the proposals would be decided by the local school organisation committee, not the Secretary of State, which would take into account any comments or objections made, including any from the local education authority itself. If there were concerns about the proposals, the committee could either reject them, or ensure that they were sent to the independent schools adjudicator for decision.

I hope that that information is helpful and that it clarifies that what the noble Baroness is seeking to achieve by her amendment will, I am certain, be achieved for the reasons that I have given.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that clarification, especially for confirming the procedures available to local authorities and, in particular, the possibility of judicial review challenge. In that case, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 65 [Proposals for new secondary schools in England]:

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

moved Amendment No. 75:

Page 39, line 22, at end insert—

"(3A) Before publishing a notice under this section, the local education authority must consult any prescribed persons, and such other persons as appear to the authority to be appropriate, about such of the relevant matters as may be prescribed or (if none are prescribed) about such of the relevant matters as appear to the authority to be appropriate.

(3B) In subsection (3A) "the relevant matters" means the matters to be specified under subsection (3)(a) and (c) in the notice.

(3C) Regulations may prescribe requirements to be met by the local education authority in relation to consultation under subsection (3A)."

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, the Government are tabling these amendments in the light of discussions in Committee about consultation on proposals for new schools. Both the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, sought reassurances that local people would be consulted about proposals for new schools. I undertook to consider the matter.

I refer the House to the illustrative regulations which have been made available. Schedule 1 to those regulations sets out the matters to be set out in a notice. It includes matters such as the school's size; its age range; the number of pupils to be admitted each year; whether the school will be single-sex or mixed; whether the school will make designated provision for children with special educational needs; and the estimated capital costs of providing the school. A further consideration would be whether the school should have a sixth form.

We expect local authorities to consult on any plans to set up, close or alter schools; and in many cases, a local authority will decide that a new school is required following consultation on a wider reorganisation. But we are satisfied—particularly in the light of points made in Committee—that there should be an explicit requirement for consultation on the face of the Bill.

Amendment 75 provides for regulations to specify the persons to be consulted, the matters to be consulted on, and other requirements in relation to consultation, which might include the timing of consultation. We shall be seeking views on what provision should be made in regulations for consultation.

Turning to Amendment No. 76, we recognise the importance of raising public awareness of proposals. Amendment No. 76 is in response to points raised in Committee and provides that regulations may prescribe other steps that local authorities should take to promote public awareness of those proposals.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, referred in Committee to meetings which local people could attend. I agree that there is value in such meetings as part of the process and we intend to consult widely on what provision it would be appropriate to make in regulations for promoting public awareness of proposals.

With regard to Amendment No. 80, the timing of the publication of a preliminary notice will be a matter for the individual local authority. However, the illustrative regulations which we have already placed envisage that this prescribed interval should be four months, to give promoters sufficient time to develop their proposals. The regulations also envisage that the local authority should publish all proposals received within three weeks of the expiry date in the preliminary notice, following which local people would have a period of six weeks to consider and make representations about those proposals.

I am happy to state for the record that the illustrative regulations which have been made available to the House will be amended to make clear that, where consultation is required prior to the publication by a local education authority of a notice inviting proposals, it should be timed to give interested parties a proper opportunity to respond. Similarly, regulations will make clear that any activities to promote public awareness of proposals should be undertaken at such time as to give local people a full opportunity to consider the proposals and make representations about them. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that it would nullify what we all want to happen if, for example, proposals were published close to a major series of public holidays when the public could not engage. I hope that these government amendments are helpful in responding to the important points raised in earlier parts of our proceedings and I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister and the Government for bringing forward the amendments. It is very rewarding when the Government listen to debates in Committee. It is important that the public are consulted, are aware and have enough time to make their views known.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for his response. We put down our Amendment No. 80 as a fall-back position, because we were not clear at that point precisely what proposals were coming forward. I am grateful to the Minister for his reassurance that the guidance will make it clear that these proposals should not be published just before public consultation without making due allowance for an extension to the length of discussions. There should be a reasonable length of time for public consultation on these amendments.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

moved Amendment No. 76:

Page 39, line 37, at end insert—

"(6A) Regulations may require the local education authority to take prescribed steps for the purpose of promoting public awareness of any proposals published by them under this section."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 10 [Proposals under section 65 for establishment of secondary schools: supplementary]:

[Amendment No. 77 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

moved Amendment No. 78:

Page 100, line 15, at end insert—

"( ) The first publication of the regulations and guidance given under sub-paragraphs (4) and (6) must be approved by Parliament."

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 78, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 79. Both amendments were moved in Committee and we return to them today because we believe they raise issues serious enough to merit another airing on Report.

Both amendments are concerned with increased openness, transparency and public scrutiny. We believe this is an important and significant undertaking. Under this part of the Bill, the Secretary of State is free and able to give school organisation committees guidance to inform their acceptance or rejection of proposals put forward as a result of a competition. The guidance that is to be given to these bodies will affect the entire shape of school provision in England.

It is essential, therefore, that Parliament is given the opportunity to subject to full and proper scrutiny any regulation made under this critical part of Schedule 10. That is the intention of Amendment No. 78. If we are going to tell school organisation committees how to operate, it is extremely important that Parliament is given a chance to scrutinise the regulations being placed on them.

The Minister commented in Committee that parliamentary agreement to guidance of this kind has never previously been considered necessary. That may be so. However, when such guidance involves a distinct shift in policy, affecting what happens to the structure of our schools, we on these Benches believe it is imperative that Parliament has a proper opportunity to scrutinise such guidance.

In Amendment No. 79, we are seeking to ensure that criteria are set out to determine when cases should be sent to the adjudicator. Despite the assurances of the Minister in Committee, it is still unclear in what circumstances the result of a competition should be referred to the adjudicator. It is essential that the regulations are workable and proportionate. We would not want referrals to the adjudicator to exacerbate local community uncertainty about proposed decisions. The role of the adjudicator, and the criteria on which he will operate, require more detailed consideration.

I hope the Minister is able to provide us with a fuller and more detailed answer to these questions today. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I shall try to do the impossible of being fuller and clearer, and succinct at the same time. These are not necessarily simple issues.

I think there is a broad agreement that we do not wish to return to the old days when proposals were decided either by the Secretary of State or simply by the local authority itself. We have set up a system of local decision-making, designed to enable a range of stakeholders to consider proposals affecting the organisation of schools. The Bill gives the power to decide all proposals for new secondary schools to local decision-makers, which we believe is right.

Turning to Amendment No. 78, I shall explain the purpose of the regulation-making power contained in sub-paragraph (4) of paragraph 4 of this schedule. It is intended to enable the Secretary of State to make regulations modifying the application of paragraphs 4(1) and 4(2) where proposals for a new school are related to other proposals. These might consist of proposals published under Sections 28, 29 or 31 of the 1998 Act, or proposals by the Learning and Skills Council under Section 113A of the Learning and Skills Act 2000.

The regulation-making power contained in sub-paragraph (4) of paragraph 4 of Schedule 10 is comparable to that existing power in the schedule. Regulations made under sub-paragraph (4) might provide, for example, that the school organisation committee should not decide proposals for a new school until a decision had been made on related proposals, for good reason. The SOC would then decide the proposals for the new school in the light of the decision on the related proposals. Alternatively, it may be that proposals for a new school have been submitted to the SOC which are related to proposals before the adjudicator, and it would be appropriate for all of the proposals to be considered together. In this case, regulations might provide for the proposals for the new school to be referred to the adjudicator, with the SOC's observations, rather than be decided by the SOC.

Whether proposals for a new school should be regarded as being related to others will depend on a range of circumstances. It would not be feasible to attempt to make provision in regulations for the different circumstances that might arise. Hence the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance to SOCs on this matter. Guidance is a more appropriate vehicle than regulations as it is more flexible and can be updated easily when required.

Due to the pressure of time, it has not been possible to have the illustrative regulations under sub-paragraph (4) available to the House at this point. I can assure noble Lords, however, that when we consult on regulations made under this part of the Bill, those regulations will include provisions made under sub-paragraph (4). The regulations will, of course, like all regulations, be subject to the negative resolution procedure. It would be utterly inappropriate for guidance, which is largely technical in nature, to be subject to parliamentary approval.

With regard to Amendment No. 79, there is a need for transparency here, so that everyone will know in what circumstances proposals may be referred to the adjudicator. That is why the schedule refers to proposals being referred to the adjudicator in "prescribed cases".

Regulation 14 of the illustrative regulations made available prescribes the cases. They are: if the school organisation committee has voted on the proposals, but two groups could not vote because of a conflict of interest; if they are related to other proposals; or if the committee has failed to reach a decision within two months.

I hope that rather long and highly technical explanation is utterly transparent and that the mind of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, is at rest as a consequence.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very detailed reply. I am not sure about it being succinct and clear, and I shall have to read it in Hansard.

We support the idea of setting up new schools and wider diversity of supply. However, we believe that more light should be shed on the accountability of how this is going to happen. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 80 not moved.]

Clause 66 [Rationalisation of school places in England]:

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

My Lords, Clause 66 introduces Schedule 11, which contains provisions enabling the Secretary of State to direct local education authorities in England, or the governing bodies of maintained schools, to bring forward proposals for the rationalisation of school places.

I suspect we will never be able to agree on the particular requirement of the Secretary of State to possess such a power, or for the justification of Clause 66 to exist. However, I should like to take this opportunity to remind your Lordships why we on these Benches are opposed to such a power. The Secretary of State has, and should have, no role in this matter. It is a matter for local discretion and local decisions. This is a centralising, anti-local democratic measure that has never been used and, I suspect, never will be. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, said in Committee, either we believe in local accountability or we do not.

We on these Benches believe that if this Government were truly serious about their claims of localism and decentralisation, they would be happy to remove this power from the Secretary of State. In Committee, the Minister said that he would like to reflect on what was said. I hope that he has had the opportunity to do so, and has come to the conclusion that such a power is unnecessary, centralising and is capable of stifling parental choice. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, your Lordships may have noticed a few wry smiles on these Benches while listening to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton. I very much welcome the conversion of the Conservative Benches to the idea of local accountability and criticism of centralisation, given what happened in 18 years of Conservative government. However, we are dealing with this Government at the moment.

What often strikes me when I talk to local councillors is that they feel that there is often a call for more high-quality, intelligent, well motivated people to take part in local government, with the very great burdens of work and responsibility that that entails. Yet they get elected, they have the work to do and they are immediately put into a strait-jacket right, left and centre by this Government. That is what grieves me very much. Clause 66 is another example of that tendency. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, is absolutely right: the Secretary of State should not have this power at all. We very much support her amendment.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, to one extent I would argue that the fact that the powers have never been used shows that they are very effective powers. It is desirable that they are there in the cupboard as a long-stop, ensuring that people pay attention in the rare circumstances when school rationalisation might be at risk of being fudged or ducked because of local political difficulties.

The noble Lords, Lord Dearing and Lord Sutherland, spoke clearly, powerfully and from experience on these issues when we discussed them in Committee. The broad thrust of their points was that things do go wrong at times, and you hope that you will not need to intervene, but to throw away any power of intervention is foolish if you have at heart the interests of parents and children. We must strike that nice balance between leaving as much as possible to local discretion, local leadership and local schools while not completely abdicating responsibility, so that if things did go seriously wrong you could intervene.

For those reasons, the powers are necessary and useful. They are utterly unburdensome, as is illustrated by the fact that they have not actually had to be switched on. But I know for a fact that officials from central government have at times drawn aside officials in local government to remind them that there was a need to reflect on these issues, because there was that reserve power just in case. The powers are necessary and not burdensome, so I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, not to press her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I believe that I spoke in Committee about the necessity of trusting people to get on with the job at local level. That also involves trusting them sometimes if they do not always get it right. Sometimes Secretaries of State do not always get it right. I am afraid that I should like to test the will of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 81) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 94; Not-Contents, 105.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Education Bill [HL]

Aye: 92 Members of the House of Lords

No: 103 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

moved Amendment No. 82:

After Clause 69, insert the following new clause—

"ABOLITION OF INDEPENDENT APPEALS PANELS

Subsections (3)(c), (4)(a), (6) and (7) of section 52 of the Education Act 2002 (c. 32) (exclusion of pupils) shall cease to have effect."

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

The intent of Amendment No. 82 is clear for all to see. It is similar to an amendment that we moved in Committee. I hope that our drafting has improved significantly since that time and that we are now referring to the correct sections of the Education Act 2002. We had a discussion about the independent appeal panels during an earlier debate today, and at that stage there was a lot of unease about some of the ways in which the appeal panels operate. The appeal panels are rather discredited and unpopular, and they are not trusted by parents or pupils. We had a debate earlier in the day about pupils. Reforming the system is therefore a priority.

We saw a case recently where two boys were expelled from Glyn Technology School in Surrey after making death threats against a teacher, only to be reinstated by the appeal panel. I said in Committee that this sort of situation was not acceptable. Then last month we heard that a pupil from Hurst Community College in Tadley, Hampshire, had been reinstated by an appeal panel following an assault on a teaching assistant. As I said in Committee, all sides of the equation—parents, children, and teachers—are unhappy with the functioning of the appeal panels. They are rather secretive in operation, confusing and often intimidating, which is another reason why the system cannot continue in its present form.

Additionally, we return to the philosophy of how best to run our education system and how best to run schools. Interestingly, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, said earlier that regulation should be left to the LEA and the schools. This issue should also be left to LEAs and schools. Expulsion is the last resort for head teachers, but it is crucial that they have that option. Going back to our debate the other day about discipline in schools, one needs to be able to support schools in the operation of discipline. The decision of the head teacher, with the support of the governing body, should be the main factor, rather than the decision of the appeal panel. Perhaps we should have another debate on it today. We feel strongly about it; they are not operating well. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am pleased that the noble Lord has found the correct section of the Act. I wish that I could say that having done so, we have changed our mind, but I cannot. I do not want to reiterate too much of what I said in Committee, but I want to make it clear that he and I are completely at one about the importance of an orderly and safe environment in schools as an essential condition for effective learning.

Work is in hand in the Government to tackle the causes of exclusion and improve standards of behaviour. We have made it clear on a number of occasions that we are committed to backing head teachers' authority when pupils' behaviour warrants exclusion and that heads can permanently exclude pupils who are very disruptive or violent. Our guidance states that we do not normally expect independent appeal panels to reinstate such pupils. It is important to put that on the record.

Having said that, I must make a few short points about why the amendment is wrong in principle and would not be helpful in practice. First, there are the rights of parents. In a matter as serious as exclusion from school, with all its implications, it would be against all notions of justice if parents had no right of appeal to an independent body that is in a position to review the school's decision impartially.

I am puzzled—given the concern that it has shown for parents' interests and has so powerfully deployed in other debates—that the party opposite does not share our view about the rights of parents in that respect. It is a matter of striking the right balance between the orderly conduct of a school and the rights of parents and pupils. Essentially, there is an issue of natural justice here. Let me put it in perspective. In the academic year 2002–03, 9,290 pupils were permanently excluded in England. Some 990 appeals were heard, and of those 209 were decided in favour of the parent and pupil. Only 149 pupils were reinstated.

We have achieved the right balance between the needs of the individual child to get the education that they need and the health and effectiveness of the school and the learning community as a whole. We are committed to seeing that excluded pupils get the most appropriate education and to tackling patterns of poor behaviour, so that where possible they can be reintegrated into mainstream education, which provides the most inclusive and effective setting. But they will be readmitted to a school only when they are ready to return. We do not expect all permanently excluded pupils to be reintegrated into a mainstream school—that does not happen now, and it will not happen in future.

We have made further changes to help schools to deal with the admissions protocols. On 1 February 2005, the Secretary of State announced that admissions protocols for hard to place pupils in England need not apply to previously excluded pupils until 2007, if the schools in an area do not consider that they are ready to take them. We expect admissions protocols, which may include other hard to place children, such as those who are in the care of a local authority, to be in place by September this year. We have listened to what school and LEA representatives have had to say about the arrangements, and we have taken into account their concerns about the availability of support. We do not believe it is fair to expect schools to take in potentially disruptive pupils without appropriate support, and this should enable most schools to agree to a protocol for most hard-to-place pupils. That is why we have made an exception for previously excluded pupils.

There is the very practical argument that abolishing appeals panels would not help schools to cope with disruptive pupils or reduce their numbers. Indeed, the loss of appeal rights would inevitably lead to a sharp increase in legal action by parents against schools. There would be more stress for teachers—and more stress for governors, parents and pupils.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has said that he feels the appeals panels have been discredited. The majority of pupils would not say so. Indeed, I can give evidence about the majority of parents, for a survey last year found that 60 per cent of parents in England wanted to keep appeals panels. Indeed, of the 1,000 exclusion appeals in each academic year, there are only a handful of cases in which parents seek a judicial review. The risk of legal action being taken, however, would increase significantly if parents did not have recourse to a school's decision—and costs would increase to everybody around.

Finally, given the cases to which the noble Lord referred, I must say again that we have responded to take account of contemporary classroom conditions and improved the composition and the support available to panels. Following the case that the noble Lord mentioned, in January 2003 the composition of panels was changed to ensure that they better reflect the realities of school life. A three-member panel now comprises a serving or recently retired head teacher—or, in Wales, another education practitioner—with a serving or recently serving governor, and a lay member. We have also changed the option, in exceptional circumstances, of a panel overturning an exclusion without reinstating the pupil. Another change is that panels are now required, in deciding whether to reinstate, to balance the interests of the excluded pupil against the interests of all other members of the school community. This has also been done in Wales. We have also improved guidance and training provision.

We have done all we can in recent years to ensure that we have protected the human rights of parents and pupils. However, for the system to be made as responsive and reflective as possible, it needs to balance the various interests involved. I hope that noble Lords opposite will not be pressing this amendment.

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. One has obviously thought quite a lot about this. The independent appeals panels are relatively new in their establishment. There was obviously a situation before them in which I was closely involved. I am probably the only Member of the House to have been involved in literally hundreds of such situations. I have, over many years, met parents and children and worked with head teachers regarding some of these difficult children. This was when I was involved on a day-to-day basis with the education service.

The system was better before the appeals panels. When the decisions were made there was always some kind of panel, but they were mainly made up of local authority representatives—who obviously took the interests of parents and had a particular interest in schools. They worked well with head teachers to try to find a solution to the problem—finding another school for a young person, for example. They could do such things by being involved in the local education authority. Although I say so myself, the situations I was involved in over the years are rather better than what we have now. Therefore I would rather go back to the good old days before we had the panels and allow it to be done more on a local basis. As with our approach in other areas, it would go back to letting local people devise a system to an extent.

We all believe in natural justice, and we shall all have situations where parents and young people may be involved. Yet there needs to be some support shown for the schools—and the schools do not like these panels. It was, as I say, better previously. On this matter, I would wish to go back to those good old days, so I am afraid that I am going to test the opinion of the House today.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 82) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 54; Not-Contents, 141.

Division number 2 Education Bill — Abolish Independent Appeals Panels — rejected

Aye: 52 Members of the House of Lords

No: 138 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 513 Members of the House of Lords

Absents: A-Z by last name

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

[Amendment No. 83 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

moved Amendment No. 84:

After Clause 69, insert the following new clause—

"CLOSURE OF SPECIAL SCHOOLS IN ENGLAND AND WALES

(1) No special school in England shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Secretary of State.

(2) The Secretary of State shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow him to comply with his powers under this section.

(3) No special school in Wales shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Assembly.

(4) The Assembly shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow it to comply with its powers under this section."

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, the closure of special schools is an emotive and sensitive area. Nevertheless, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the issue, following the conversation last week between the Prime Minister and Mrs Maria Hutchings. Wearing my other hat as leader of Essex County Council, as I often have to do, I am happy to give Mrs Hutchings and the Prime Minister a firm assurance that there are no plans at all to close the school that she was frightened might be closed—Cedar Hall in Thundersley. That incident perfectly sums up the strength of feeling around the issue. In moving the amendment, I am attempting to safeguard the future of special schools throughout England and Wales by securing an inbuilt safeguard against the closure of some schools.

Since 1997, more than 70 special schools have closed, yet the numbers of children with the most severe needs who are in mainstream schools have gone up by 49 per cent. It is rather doubtful that the policy of including more and more children with special educational needs in mainstream schools is always extremely successful. We are also aware that around a quarter of all pupils will suffer from some form of special needs, whether a passing behavioural problem or a more severe and permanent disability, during their schooling.

Teachers in mainstream schools find that they have to cope with an increasing number of pupils with special needs. Many head teachers recently surveyed said that the number of children with special educational needs had risen over the past year, and included an increase in pupils with behavioural problems. That goes back to several debates that we have had on the Bill. If you are to include those children in mainstream schools, there have to be sufficient resources and support to do that.

The Government support a policy of inclusion—we all support it where that is the right thing to do—under which people with physical disabilities or behavioural problems can be taught in mainstream schools. I repeat that inclusion can be achieved only with the right resources and for the right young people. A number of head teachers have said that parents of children without special needs have voiced concerns about the levels of time that teachers have to devote to children with special needs. I go back to my county of Essex. I recently received a deputation from parents on both sides—those wanting to keep their children in a special school, and those of children at another school who were concerned about its performance because they felt that there were too many children with problems and not enough support in it.

There is a danger that the policy of inclusion has gone too far too fast. We on these Benches want to ensure that disabled children are not suffering educationally from the policy. Far from believing in diversity of provision, the Government have constantly pursued a "one size fits all" ideological obsession with inclusion. I repeat that we should assess every young person on what they require.

We are under no illusion about the sensitivity of the question; I live with it a lot of the time. We have a moral obligation to do everything that we can to ensure that children with special needs receive the best care and education that they can. However, there must be a realisation that some of those young people, given the severity of their condition, will never be able to be incorporated into the mainstream, and nor should they be. That is why it is so important to do all that we can to protect the continuing provision of special schools in this country. That is why we tabled the amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench

My Lords, I would like very strongly to support this amendment. There is often a difficulty where children with special needs are lumped together as if their needs were all the same. That is far from true. It has also become very much the habit of the Government to talk of special schools with a kind of qualified respect as suitable for children with very severe and complex needs.

There is a large number of children for whom inclusion in mainstream schools is totally unsuitable. Those are children who really can flourish only in small schools, in an intelligible and stable environment. The danger is that if a local authority finds, as it will, that a small school is an expensive school, there is a temptation to close that school and go along with the current thinking of inclusion. That may be severely damaging to some children—not those with the most obvious educational difficulties, but those who are, for example, somewhere along the autistic continuum and who cannot survive, except just physically, in a mainstream school.

I feel very strongly that the policy of any government ought to be to look seriously at the different needs of children with special educational needs and to retain schools that are suitable for those children. This amendment is therefore essential.

Photo of Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Crossbench

My Lords, I wish to support the remarks that have just been made. I have had experience of the very high quality work that can be found in special schools. I stress the point made about the variety of needs. The implication is that provision will be in small pockets, whether in individual schools or across the country. Therefore, the logistics of a very sensible policy of inclusion where appropriate—and I do not detract in any way from that policy—will carry the risk of local closures that are not in the national interest , where there has to be nationwide provision for the particular needs for which these schools cater.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, from these Benches we support the Government's inclusion agenda where it is suitable for the child. We also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that inclusion is not suitable for every child. The needs of the individual child must be catered for properly, but that creates problems.

Special schools do a wonderful job with so many children, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how their great expertise can be used, not just for the children who attend those schools but for the wider community of schools that also have children with some of the same problems for whom mainstream schooling is suitable. However, although we are usually in favour of letting local authorities make these decisions, in this special situation there is a need for somebody to take a strategic review of provision.

Special schools often serve children in adjacent local authorities. Therefore a decision to close one school by one local authority may have a profound effect on children from another LEA. That is why a strategic view must be taken, and the Secretary of State is probably the right person to do that.

The break-up of the county of Berkshire by the Conservative government into a number of unitary authorities meant that Addington School, which deals with children with profound disabilities, ended up in the Wokingham LEA area. However, it also takes children from another authority—Reading. If Wokingham decided to close the school, that would affect Reading. What recourse would Reading have in that situation? There has to be some recourse and some strategic planning for such specialist provision, which is of such a high quality in most cases and is so important to particularly needy children.

We support the general thrust of this amendment, although we feel that the wording might need working on to some extent. Local government has been changed enormously over the past 10 years and that has produced anomalies. It is because of these anomalies that a strategic view must be taken.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, urges government intervention then I am very impressed and persuaded. From my own experience, while inclusion is right in principle for some children, children with severe learning disabilities need special provision. I know, for example, a school where the learning difficulties are multiple, severe and complex. The principle of inclusion can be pushed too far. While I am not saying that this amendment is right, what it seeks to achieve is right and I hope the Government can accommodate the intention behind the amendment.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Sure Start, Early Years and Childcare) (also Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I would genuinely welcome a proper and full debate on special education needs at some stage in the Chamber, mainly because it is one of my day job responsibilities, which I am pleased to have, but also because that would be more appropriate than having it on a passing Education Bill which is essentially about the inspection system. I shall have difficulty in being brief, given the importance and complexity of these issues, but I shall do my best.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. She is absolutely right when she says that the diversity of children's special needs means that it is not easy to have a simple set of solutions or procedures. It requires much more individuation than that. There are also a lot of myths about the Government's stance on special schools and what inclusion means.

The numbers of places in special schools have not changed much over recent years. The Government are clear that special schools play a key and important part of the overall provision available for children with special educational needs. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, many of them have done an outstanding job in nurturing the talent of the most disadvantaged children in our society.

We firmly believe that special schools have an important, ongoing role within the overarching frame of provision for children with special educational needs, both in terms of educating pupils with severe and complex learning needs in their own school and also providing outreach support to mainstream schools. That is exactly the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was interested in. In other words, where a special school is a centre of expertise but is also a support in terms of specialist teaching to other schools and is also a place where, for part of the week or a day, a child might come from a mainstream school into the special school and vice versa. In this way there is much more sophisticated movement as well as the teaching support of the special school for the mainstream school.

That pattern happens in many authorities, but we are keen to promote it further. That is why we announced in December that we would be using the specialist school status and the funding that goes with it to validate very good special schools and support them in their outreach work and their relationship with mainstream schools. I hope that we will be able to take this forward in coming years so that we will have many more specialist schools working in partnership with mainstream schools.

Clearly, the needs of many children with SEN can be met in mainstream schools, but they will often need support from specialist schools. That is why it is necessary to see the relevance of special schools as part of the provision. We want to promote this by encouraging special schools to participate in federations, cluster and twinning arrangements. Capital grants can help in this process.

I do not pretend for a second that these issues are easy, or that all local authorities have got it right. Some local authorities have reorganised special schools in their area. It is an incredibly delicate issue. Parents feel passionately about their child, and for good reason. They are passionate because they fear that the system will not deliver for them and therefore they have to battle the system, because the system does not always deliver. Any move by a local authority to change the pattern of provision of special schools in an area is therefore fraught with intense difficulty.

That does not mean to say that the local authority should not do it and it certainly does not mean that it always gets it right. There are examples of local authorities around the country which have carried out complicated restructuring of their special school provision. They believe that they can give better learning to the children within and a better pattern of support between special and mainstream schools. They have done that with little parental objection. Other local authorities have done it and produced what looks like a small civil war in their area.

We in government are acutely interested in how we provide an appropriate policy framework and appropriate support and guidance to local authorities in grappling with those issues. We are also addressing the need for local authorities to look wider than their usually narrow area and to look at the pattern of provision in a sub-region. That issue was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland. I give the House my undertaking that I shall explore that specifically in discussions with officials. It seems to me a right and proper issue. However, it seems to me foolish to believe that the right answer is to say that all these decisions should be taken by the Secretary of State.

Without going into our discussion on localism and centralism, which we have had throughout the morning—we seem to change ends of the tennis court on this—there is a local process. The system provides an objective balance between proposals put forward by the local authority and the needs of the local community. There must be consultation. Parents must have a full opportunity to give their views and, ultimately, the school organisations committee, not the local authority, makes the decision on whether the closure of a special school should take place.

The local authority can propose, but it cannot determine on this: the school organisations committee does so. If the committee is not agreed on the matter, it goes to the local adjudicator. Again, there is the possibility of a body, which is not the local authority, hearing the views of parents and others as to whether these decisions are right and to make a final decision.

It would be nice if one could think that the Secretary of State, remote from local reality, was best placed to make those decisions. However, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that that was the right answer. Therefore, we are interested in how we encourage thoughtfulness by local authorities on good provision; better processes for involving parents and others in the discussions about why change is necessary rather than it being felt that it is forced; ensuring that there are systems for looking wider than the local authority's narrow patch; and that there is proper strategic planning with the involvement of parents in the locality.

I am not being flippant. This is a crucially important agenda and we are putting a lot of time into it. We hope to be making further announcements on it before the Summer Recess. If it were as simple as saying, "Let the Secretary of State make all these decisions", it would be wonderful, but it is not and it would not add much value. I am not being dismissive because I understand the motivation behind the amendment, but that is not the answer. Unfortunately, the answers are more complex. We are working on them and I look forward to discussing them with the House at a better opportunity than now.

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and I thank noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. It is an important issue. Part of the Bill is about schools' organisation, although we discussed special needs. This is an opportunity to look at how decisions are taken on organisation and we must not forget that.

We have talked a lot about young people but the parents, too, need considerable support. Special schools support the parents very well, but mainstream schools are unable to do so because they are too big. That is why parents like much of what special schools offer and I see that every day. I do not like to go back to personal experiences, but I knew a single mother who had particular problems and was suicidal. She used to ring me at three o'clock in the morning to talk about it, which is the sort of thing one has to do. I have therefore seen how much the system has supported parents through difficult situations.

I have heard what the Minister has said and I believe that the Bill provides an opportunity to look at the way in which decisions are taken on organisation. I want to reflect on that before the Third Reading and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

moved Amendment No. 85:

After Clause 69, insert the following new clause—

"CLOSURE OF RURAL PRIMARY SCHOOLS

(1) No primary school located in a rural area in England or Wales, as defined by the Office of National Statistics under its Rural and Urban Area Classification 2004, may be closed without the approval of a majority of parents of registered children of that school.

(2) The appropriate authority shall organise, fund and conduct a ballot to determine the views of registered parents, and shall inform the parents of their right to participate.

(3) The results of the ballot shall be communicated by the appropriate authority to each registered parent, governing body and the Secretary of State or Assembly.

(4) Any ballot shall be invalid unless fifty per cent of the registered parents participate.

(5) No further ballot may be held within 7 years of the first ballot being held."

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

My Lords, with this amendment we return to the continuing survival of small rural schools. This issue was debated at some length in Committee, so I hope to be able to keep my comments succinct. However, it would be helpful to remind your Lordships of the objective of the amendment and the reasons why we believe it is necessary.

The amendment is designed as an additional safeguard against the closure of small rural primary schools as defined by the Office for National Statistics under its rural and urban classification 2004. One change from our previous amendment is that it now incorporates such schools in parts of Wales as well as England.

The amendment would require that a ballot of registered parents be held before such a school was closed. A ballot either way would be a simple majority vote which would need at least 50 per cent of the registered parents to participate in order for it to be valid. I cannot stress enough the importance that schools play in the continuing viability of all communities. But this is felt all the more keenly in small, possibly isolated areas which have precious little in the way of amenities and services. How many times have we read about the closure of the village shop, post office or, increasingly, the village pub? Sadly, this has become all too common an occurrence in recent years.

Once such facilities have been removed, they seldom return. The lifeblood and viability of the community is literally sucked out. All too often, the only thing left is the village school. Such schools have a value far beyond a simple place of learning and education. They serve as a focal point for the whole community providing facilities which would otherwise not exist. Indeed, we are aware of the usual ways in which such facilities can be used by members of the community. However, where no adequate meeting space is available, where no local centre for minor medical matters, clinics and prescriptions is available, even where no post office exists, it is well within the realms of possibility that some such provision can be made based on the existing public plant the school represents.

The modifications needed to provide such services, mainly space, could also incorporate the additional space which many small schools need for private meetings with parents, improved library facilities, a staff room, office and a medical room for sick children. Modern technology also considerably enhances the potential of small schools to work together and overcome the traditionally alleged isolation which many can suffer, although there has been little evidence that this has consistently been disadvantageous in itself. The same technology is also available to promote wider links between communities.

As mentioned in Committee, the Government have proclaimed a presumption against closure in regard to such schools. This is also to be welcomed, but it does not stop them from closing. I believe that it is time to go one step further. This amendment would give parents a clear role in the continued future of small rural primaries.

The debate is only just starting. We are only just waking up to the fact that village schools are central to the proper concerns of the countryside. The school provides a dynamic focus and it brings together families across the social spectrum. And no debate about housing, employment, conservation or services is complete without proper reference to the school.

Ofsted, in its report on small school performance in tests and inspections, not only confirmed their educational credentials but argued that when taken together with their community virtues there was a place for the small school in national provisions. Now we need only to exploit those virtues and capitalise on the massive potential that such schools represent. They serve as a fitting example of a quality of life and purpose which can serve as an example in all schools and all communities. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords, Education & Skills

My Lords, I rise briefly to endorse some of the sentiments expressed from the Opposition Benches. We on these Benches love rural primary schools. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, we recognise the role that they play within the community. We recognise that many villages have lost their shop, the post office and a regular vicar, and schools play a vital part in pulling the community together.

Nevertheless, we have reservations about the amendment. There are difficulties in putting the power totally into the hands of parents. Each school must be considered according to its circumstances. Yesterday, someone gave me the example of a place in Wales where, if the rural school were closed, children would have to travel 40 miles each day to school and back again, and therefore closure would not be a sensible move. In those circumstances, it would probably be sensible to try to keep the school open in one form or another. I know that residents of some of the Scottish islands are using e-learning very positively in those circumstances, and so there are innovative ways of helping in such a situation.

However, in other cases, the amendment would not be sensible. It might be feasible to use a school which is only three miles away. But we must bear in mind that ideally primary schools should be within walking distance and that it is not always easy to provide transport.

At present, we do not feel that this is the right amendment. We must bear in mind that currently Section 6 of the Education Act 1980 means that decisions must not be prejudicial to the efficient use of resources. Perhaps I may remind the Opposition Benches that that was a Conservative Education Act and they were very concerned about the efficient use of resources. Such matters must be borne in mind. We feel that a pragmatic decision must be reached on whether it really is sensible to keep a school open. The danger with the amendment as it stands is that a small group of parents could blackmail the education authority on this issue.

Photo of The Bishop of Coventry The Bishop of Coventry Bishop

My Lords, I resonate very much with what the noble Baroness has just been saying. This is a very thorny issue for all of us who are in any way concerned about the viability and well-being of local rural communities. In many cases, it seems that there is no obvious right or wrong answer.

I have now been a Bishop for nearly 11 years and during that time I have been involved in the closure of two rural churches. I am afraid that, in addition to those two churches, I have also been guilty of taking away a few vicars and therefore selling off a few vicarages. I could almost write in advance the kind of letter that I receive on such occasions. They contain a catalogue of what has been happening to the local community and the church is usually the fourth on the list. The community has lost the post office, the pub and the school and it is now threatened with losing the church or the vicar. All those things militate against community cohesion in small rural communities, and that is something that we need to take very seriously.

When I went to Coventry nearly seven years ago, I was most grateful to my predecessor for a number of things—not least the fact that a huge swathe of reorganisation of church schools in the diocese had taken place by the time I arrived. By all accounts, there was a lot of blood on the carpet. Of course, in that process of reorganisation all the obvious arguments were put forward, some of which have been rehearsed today. It became apparent that once those closures and the reorganisation had taken place, it was not all loss.

One reason why I shall abstain if the amendment comes to a vote is that I believe we have to be very clear about what is in the best interests not simply of local communities and certainly not of parents but of the children themselves. There is an educational argument that once you no longer have the critical mass which makes a school viable in terms of the interactive learning that we would expect, the school is probably no longer able to fulfil its function. It is that kind of issue—that is, the question of what is in the best interests of the children—that should be paramount in our discussions.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Spokesperson in the Lords, International Development, Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs

My Lords, the word "Wales" brings me to my feet. With responsibility for education being devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, on these occasions we need to have a separate Bill for Wales. Of course, we have our own opportunities in Wales—the opportunities of language and sometimes of remoteness—that need to be dealt with in a specific way.

I shall not delay the House for long but, speaking of small communities, I think of one village in the Conwy valley—Penmachno. At the end of the war, it had 39 shops and seven places of worship. Every shop has now gone, as have six of the seven places of worship. The one thing that remains is the school. So we must ensure that we can resource the existing schools, either at Assembly level or any other level, because they fulfil a community responsibility.

Finally, I turn to the idea of holding a ballot of parents. Let us imagine that there is a small school with eight children and four sets of parents. In a way, those parents would be able to hold the whole community to ransom on this issue. Let us remember that those eight children will not be there in four or five years' time. With such a turnover of children and parents, we cannot leave this matter to a vote by the parents. Of course, their views should be considered, but there is the wider community to take into account, and we must get to grips with this matter somehow. In Wales we have community councils, which might be able to express the views of communities in a more effective way, and there are parish councils in England. We certainly understand the sentiment behind the amendment but, as my noble friend Lady Sharp has already said, it is not in a form that we would be able to support.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Deputy Chief Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, I am sorry to interject on this matter. I have a great deal of sympathy for the amendment, yet there is something about it which cannot be right.

The important point in this issue is what I might call the "last public place". In the ward that I used to represent, three libraries in three villages will be threatened in the budget this spring by the council at Calderdale. It is worrying if everything—the post office, the library, the church and the school—goes from a rural place. It is very important that some public place should remain because that can give a village an identity and a sense of community. Whatever the last public place is—if that is the way that things are going in rural areas—it is important that it has a multiple purpose and, if it is the school, that it can be used for other things. If that place is the library, it should be used for after-school clubs and so on. What I have been speaking about—the last public place—is very difficult to legislate for but it is a very important matter.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we have had a short but excellent debate. Noble Lords have spoken eloquently and very succinctly, and I shall certainly try to be succinct. In particular, I want to pick up on the motif introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, concerning the last public place. I also want to speak about the interests of the children being paramount. The Government absolutely agree with that sentiment. We now have great scope for developing rural schools so that they become the heart of the community to a greater rather than a lesser extent. That is a huge opportunity for us and I hope to be able to explain how supportive the Government are of that idea.

However, although we completely agree with the sentiment behind the amendment, we believe that it would be damaging in several ways. Perhaps I may start by picking up what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said with regard to her reservations about the amendment. Essentially, responsibility lies with the local authority to ensure that the whole community and the best interests of the child in the community are served. But the amendment would cut across that. Local authorities have a pragmatic responsibility to ensure that education is of a high quality and properly resourced and that it is suitable for all children and provided for all pupils. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, pointed out that the interests of parents, although powerful, are transient. Without wishing to diminish the great feeling that parents continue to have for the role of local schools, we ought to bear that in mind.

But the interests of parents are a key consideration, and we have clear and widespread protocols for informing and consulting them about all proposals. Noble Lords know from their own experience what one has to go through in order to make sure that parents are informed.

As I said, bearing in mind the importance of the local school in a rural community in England, we have given statutory guidance to decision-makers that makes it clear that there should be a presumption against closure. This has been very successful. I want to put on the record that the rate of closure of rural schools has been reduced from an average of 30 a year to five a year.

This amendment has swept up Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, made some very powerful arguments about the difference in Wales and about small communities such as Penmachno, which is a typical North Walian community with seven chapels and 39 houses. There is no similar presumption against the closure of rural schools in Wales. But let me allay fears: one of the reasons that there is no presumption is because of the density of rural education in Wales and the issues that cluster around that. Almost 14 per cent of primary schools in Wales have fewer than 50 pupils on the roll.

When the local authority is making its decision, it has to look at best interests. Evidence suggests that we have got the balance right in Wales. If there are objections to a closure, the issue is decided by the Assembly Minister, rather than the school organisation committee as in England. One third of rural school closures in Wales have been unopposed, and therefore decided by the local authority itself. As the right reverend Prelate said, all is not lost when closures are made because we have many examples of parents changing their minds when they know what the alternatives are in terms of the critical size of the school, the extracurricular activities that can be offered and the richness of the environment.

In some ways, we see the 50 per cent ballot as not being an additional safeguard because, in a school of only 80 parents, we would expect every parent to be consulted and to insist upon having their voice heard. We feel that a 50 per cent ballot could even have unintended perverse consequences because, having made their voices felt, parents might then not take part in the ballot, thinking that they had already made the decision. In Wales, we have had only 22 closures since 1999, 16 approved by the Assembly Minister and six by the local authority.

I shall pick up the point about journey times. The guidance in Wales is that local authorities should have regard for the welfare of children and if journeys exceed 45 minutes, we would be considerably worried. But of the 16 closures, it seems that the greatest travel time to school is 30 minutes. These things are being reconciled in practical ways.

Having brought Wales into the frame, we have to be very careful because this impacts on the principles of devolution and that is something that I know the noble Baroness would want to bear in mind. Having gone through the arguments, at a fair pace, I hope that I have convinced the noble Baroness that the Government are fully onside, that we have the safeguards and the presumptions in place and that we recognise the pragmatic needs of the local authority and the need for full accountability to parents. I am sure that that is what all noble Lords want.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her thoughtful reply and for the contributions of other noble Lords in an excellent short debate. I have raised this issue in an honest attempt to highlight and draw attention to the plight of many rural schools. We feel that we have to go slightly further than the presumption against closure. We have no illusions: this is a complex issue involving many factors and outside forces. For that reason, it perhaps cannot be addressed in a single amendment and, possibly, not in this amendment. We need to reflect on this further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.