Education and Inspections Bill

– in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 18th July 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

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

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD SPEAKER in the Chair.]

Clause 7 [Invitation for proposals for establishment of new schools]:

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords (Further & Higher Education), Education & Skills

In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to AmendmentsNos. 59, 60, 61, 121A, 125A, 125B, 125BA, 125C, 125D and 182. This set of 10 amendments aims, on the one hand, to probe the process of competition for the setting up of trust schools, asking in particular what kinds of bodies the Government are looking for as sponsors for such schools and, on the other, to put forward the notion of the community-sponsored trust—or, as we have called it, the "community foundation"—as an alternative to a private sector sponsor. Finally, Amendment No. 182 probes the whole question of the schools commissioner.

The first set of amendments deals with the process of competition. Amendment No. 58 asks that the time period specified for preparation and submission of proposals in any competition should be reasonable. When a similar amendment was proposed in the Commons, the Government made it clear that they were sympathetic to the need to have balance between speedy competition and adequate time to prepare the proposal but did not think that the addition of the word "reasonable" was needed. We are concerned that inadequate time will favour the corporate sponsors—the Edisons of this world who will perhaps have a ready-made proposal that they can pull off the shelf—over, let us say, a local parents' group. I believe that the Government are anxious that such groups should put forward proposals. If those groups are to make such a proposal, they will need to find professional help, and the money to pay for such help in putting their proposal together. We feel that it is reasonable that "reasonable" should be included on the face of the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 59 and 61 seek to prove the kinds of qualifications the Government have in mind for sponsors of trust schools. Perhaps we might put alongside Amendments Nos. 59 and 61 Amendments 121A and 125A, which seek to establish a register of institutions regarded as suitable to establish such foundations. Similar amendments were tabled on Report in the Commons. In response, the Secretary of State said:

"Allowing schools to choose a trust partner only from a register would fetter the freedom of governing bodies to decide what is best for their schools, in light of their individual circumstances. It would lead to additional bureaucracy and delay, especially when schools were considering local, community-based trusts that would not benefit from a centralised process for formal approval".—[Hansard, Commons, 23/05/06; col. 1358.]

During the Committee stage, the draft guidance on trust schools was circulated to MPs serving on Standing Committee E. This guidance singled out as unsuitable to become partners in running a trust school companies involved in tobacco, alcohol, gambling and adult entertainment. It stated that governing bodies should,

"ensure that 'trust' partners are not involved in activities that may be considered inappropriate for young people".

However, there is concern that any attempt to set out a list of inappropriate organisations will not address widespread concerns about trusts because of the organisations that the guidance fails to proscribe.For example, nothing in the guidance would necessarily protect young people from religious extremists,extreme political groups, pressure groups or fast-food manufacturers.

The guidance makes it clear that the list is not exhaustive and that decision makers must have particular regard to the strength of parental and other local opinion about the appropriateness of trust partners' activities. It goes on to list positive examples of trust scenarios. These include a top-performing school taking over a weaker school, universities or colleges linking up with schools to improve the take-up of higher education and groups of schools banding together to share computer or financial management facilities. I suppose that that would extend to a group of schools already federated. We are very happy with those examples, but, significantly, there is no mention of faith groups or private companies in that list of positive examples.

At Second Reading in the House of Commons, the then Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, sought to address concerns regarding trusts. She said:

"I can tell the House that there will be very strong safeguards to prevent the acquisition of inappropriate trusts. That is essential. As a result, they will be regulated by the Charity Commission as well as by the local authority. They will be funded by the local authority, which will be able to object on educational grounds to any trust that it thinks will damage children's educational standards. However, perhaps the most important safeguard will be the common sense of the parents and governing bodies. They will decide whether it is in a school's interest to adopt a particular trust".—[Hansard, Commons, 15/3/06; cols. 1464-5.]

The mention of common sense—

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but could noble Lords opposite either talk outside or not talk, because it is very difficult to concentrate?

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords (Further & Higher Education), Education & Skills

Mention of common sense brings me rather neatly to the only other amendment in this first set that I have not so far dealt with—Amendment No. 60. If common sense is to be the arbiter of who might be a suitable partner, parents will be looking for a sponsor who will improve provision in their area. Therefore, it is utterly reasonable to ask, as Amendment No. 60 does, that those seeking to establish trust schools should specify how they would improve provision in the area and especially provision for the disadvantaged, since trust schools are to be established particularly to ensure that the disadvantaged get a reasonable share of the pie.

That first set of amendments deals with the process of competition and, in particular, selection of sponsored partners. The second set of amendments in this group of 10 includes Amendments Nos. 125B to 125D. Their purpose is to promote the Liberal Democrat alternative to the Government's vision of the trust school. We would call it a "community trust", or, in the words of the Bill, a "community foundation". We have throughout argued in favour of viewing education from a community perspective. In this series of amendments, we propose a foundation run by a local authority or a grouping of local authorities. For example, a grouping of local district councils and the county council might form what we have called the community foundation.

Amendment No. 125B specifies that the foundation will consist of one-third elected local authority members, one-third parents and one-third other community representatives. I am afraid that the gremlins got into the drafting of the amendment, which is incorrect on the Marshalled List. However, a new version of it has been circulated. Amendment No. 125C seeks to provide that such a community foundation would embrace all the schools in a given area, and would require that they all collaborated and worked together. Amendment No. 125D is consequential to those two amendments.

It is notable that, in their evidence for Second Reading, both the General Teaching Council and the Association of School and College Leaders strongly endorsed the idea of encouraging schools to collaborate according to the concept of the local federation. The Government have been promoting such federations of schools at a local level, and the amendments seek to capture some of that enthusiasm and to translate it into what we believe to be acceptable—a local and locally accountable community foundation. I make no bones about the fact that we are not enthusiastic about foundations run as national chains of schools, whether they are run by Edison, Chris Woodhead or the United Learning Trust. We are not enthused by a model that separates out local schools and sets school against school and parent against parent, which we feel will happen under the Government's proposals, as I made quite clear in our discussions on earlier amendments. I repeat that we are anxious to see local schools working together for the good of their local community.

Finally, Amendment No. 182 is designed to probe the role of the schools commissioner. Is he there just to supervise the work of the local choice advisers? Is he there to encourage the growth of new trust schools nationally? Is he there to ensure that the right people are setting up trust schools? We suggest that this is where he might perform quite a useful role if we really are to have another level of highly paid official to ensure that the Government's agenda is working properly. I believe that the post has already been advertised, so the Government are already moving to appoint a schools commissioner. It would be a great responsibility for schools to have to vet anyone who comes before them with proposals to turn the school into a trust school. Small schools in particular often do not have the resources to probe the background of such people, so the Secretary of State may well delegate the task of vetting those people to the schools commissioner.

By publishing an open register, as the amendment proposes, we would avoid the need to have to use the freedom of information legislation, as now, to find out who has applied to form a trust. An open register would give parents and schools confidence in a system that is very new and highly suspect, in the view of many of our fellow citizens. It is therefore in the Government's interests to go along with this idea. Although local authorities should be able to decide what sorts of people are acceptable locally, there should be some sort of national standard of what is acceptable, otherwise undesirable people might simply go from one area to another until they find one that is not so choosy. The standards should be much more detailed than simply ruling out pornographers and tobacco manufacturers.

The Government might say—indeed, they do say—that the Charity Commission will vet potential trustees, but the Charity Commission cannot do so for two reasons. First, it does not have the capacity to deal with the expected volume. Secondly, it would need to change and extend the checks that it already carries out on charity trustees in order to make them fit for purpose for this educational task. It is much better for the Secretary of State to delegate this task to the new commissioner. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

I strongly support my noble friend's arguments in favour of this group of proposals. Let us be very direct: if we believe that the Bill gives parents new powers, new strengths and a new influence, it is vital that those parents are properly informed about the decisions in which they will participate. My noble friend has pointed out that parents will not know exactly who is proposing to be part of trust schools or to start academies, or what their qualifications and standards are. It would be simply foolish in the light of a good deal of information that has emerged in the past few months to pretend that we are certain that all those people who put their names forward will be likely to contribute substantially to the standard, the quality and, if I may say so, the moral integrity of our education system.

There are already some worrying examples. For instance, although Mr Bernie Ecclestone was not successful in his bid, we know now as a result of the Freedom of Information Act that he put in for running one of the academies in Sheffield. I am not in a position—nor would I wish—to make personal remarks about Mr Bernie Ecclestone, but he would not immediately leap to mind as an ideal figure for sponsoring a new school. In the case of the academy recently started in Peterborough, to take another example, we know that all three of the governing bodies of the schools to be replaced protested that there was no reason to believe that the sponsor had any particular interest in education. Other examples spring to mind. One of the most troubling is the possibility that arms manufacturers might be involved in starting up a trust school in the south-west of England. Arms manufacturers may well have a legitimate role, but again they do not leap to mind as an ideal model to be in charge of sponsoring a major new school. Perhaps one would want someone with a rather wider view of the needs of our globalising world.

For such reasons, it seems to me that we should support the concept that my noble friend has put forward: a register giving the names and qualifications of those seeking to become trustees or sponsors of trust schools, which should be made available to those who are most interested and concerned—either the parents of children who may go to that school or the parents of children registered with schools that are being replaced by the potential trust school or academy.

I register with pleasure the Government's intention in the Bill to make parents play a much larger part in the education of their children, but there are two huge weaknesses in the Bill. The first is the absence of adequate information for those parents to make up their minds and the second—which we will come to later and to which I will make no further reference at the moment—is the absence of a proper system of balloting so that we know exactly the wishes and preferences of parents. The principle is fine, but the devil is in the details. So far I for one am not satisfied that the details bear out the Government's stated wishes for the Bill.

There are two other things worth adding. One is the point made by my noble friend about the ability to check up on the sponsors of schools at a later stage. Not only do we know that the Charity Commission does not have the capacity to do that, but the truth is that it does not do it. The recent answers that were given on the assessment of academies indicated that the Charity Commission does not regard this as a central part of its duties—indeed, it would not be expected to do so, given its functions.

The question again emerges: who is responsible? Who guards the guardians? The answer may lie with the schools commissioner or with the local authority, but it is not at all clear where the responsibility lies. My noble friend has pointed to a real hole or gap in the Bill. She is endeavouring to fill it in a way that the Government, if they want the best possible outcomes from sponsored schools, should respond to favourably. Frankly, I do not think that the answers given in another place to the arguments put forward on this front for one moment hold sufficient water. Ruth Kelly, when she was Secretary of State, referred to the "common sense" of parents. I agree with her about the common sense of parents, but parents who are uninformed and not given the information that they need to reach proper opinions and make proper decisions cannot be blamed if they get it wrong. It is the responsibility of the Government in the Bill to make sure that as far as possible parents are given the information to enable them to get it right.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Shadow Minister, Education, Shadow Minister (Education) 3:30 pm, 18th July 2006

I should like to speak to some of these amendments and explain why we will not be supporting them. I refer in particular to Amendments Nos. 121A, 125A and 182. So far as we can understand, Amendment No. 121A would mean that trusts for trust schools would have to be centrally registered. I do not see the purpose of this since the governing body already has to have regard to guidance on the acquisition of trusts which makes it clear that unsuitable trusts may not run schools. Under the Bill the foundations already have to be charitable. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, evidently believes that registered charity status, together with the additional restriction on persons who may act as charity trustees for a foundation, is insufficient to ensure that trusts are suitable. I also doubt that any school would truly opt to acquire a trust that was actually as unsuitable as she and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, have suggested.

Amendment No. 182 goes further and underlines the opposition of the Liberal Democrats to the concept of a school driven by parents. While it would prevent non-approved foundations proposing new schools without first registering with the Schools commissioner, it would also apply to groups of parents or any other private promoter. Furthermore, it would require local authorities to seek approval from the schools commissioner if they wish to establish new schools, which I am not sure is the intention here. This would mean an awful lot more bureaucracy with unintended consequences. Indeed, it is interesting to note that while the Liberal Democrats have spent so much time both here and in another place criticising the Government and the Opposition for imposing central control from Whitehall, here they propose an unnecessary central layer of bureaucracy from Whitehall.

Turning to a redefinition of the word "foundation", set out in Amendments Nos. 125B to 125D, we see that Amendment No. 125B redefines foundations where a local authority is represented on the foundation. It would mean that a,

"majority, but no more than 33 per cent., of its members shall be members", of the local education authority. However, it should be noted that members of local education authorities are currently prohibited from acting as charity trustees under the draft education regulations 2006 covering the requirements as to foundations. I am not sure what a "majority, but no more than 33 per cent.," means. Perhaps the noble Baroness meant plurality, although perhaps not since it also specifies that a second 33 per cent would be represented by parents. The remaining third would be represented by the community. I am not sure of the purpose behind this amendment. However, it would prevent a number of possibilities, including the possibility of a local authority entering into partnership with a philanthropic organisation such as an educational charity or livery company for the purpose of running a school, which would be a great shame—in fact, it would be a disaster.

I hope that Amendment No. 125C is unnecessary since I imagine that trusts could already act in the way envisaged in the amendment. Amendment No. 125D would remove new Section 23(b) of the School Standards and Framework Act, which will allow the Secretary of State to remove charity trustees. This was raised in another place, at the end of which Sarah Teather MP said that the then Minister had addressed most of her concerns. At the time the Minister made it clear that the removal of a charity trustee was a fallback position to be used in exceptional circumstances and gave compelling reasons for having such a power, particularly that it is impossible to set out in regulations all possible future circumstances. Paragraph 7 of the draft regulations shows that the power can be used only where the Secretary of State is satisfied that the person has acted in any way incompatible with the objectives or purposes of the foundation or the person is likely to bring into disrepute any school to which the foundation appoints governors. I believe that when we are dealing with children in education, it is vitally important to protect them from unsuitable persons. If Clause 125D were accepted, I fear it risks undermining the safety of children by preventing the Secretary of State acting in cases that fall short of the criteria listed in regulations.

Perhaps I may add a point on the absence of information for parents to act on when choosing a school. We look forward to seeing the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, who I know is keen on having some form of information pack. Indeed, he goes further than that by suggesting information centres to give parents the opportunity to gather information easily on the different schools and choices available to them within their area.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

Amendment No. 58 seeks to ensure that the time for promoters for submit proposals should be reasonable. We agree, but I am glad to say that in fact the regulations concerning this provision, which I have now circulated, lay down that the period must be at least four months. As those regulations will be in place, that will be an absolute requirement. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and other noble Lords will agree that four months is a reasonable period, including for community groups that may take longer to put proposals together.

On Amendments Nos. 59, 61, 121A, 125A and 182, we agree that there need to be appropriate safeguards against unsuitable partners being involved in the running of schools. That is why we have a proper process in place for governing bodies to publish proposals in respect of trusts and to take decisions in relation to them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, recognised, substantial guidance is being made available to schools on this, which I think meets the points raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Williams. I have circulated the draft guidance to the Committee. I quote from page 128 of it:

"In determining the suitability and appropriateness of a particular Trust, a governing body should therefore:

"Consider whether and how the acquisition of the particular Trust will support the school in raising standards, improving the quality of teaching and learning and improving delivery of the five 'Every Child Matters' outcomes for all children;

"Consider how the Trust fits with the school's character and ethos and how it will develop the culture of the school further;

"Consider what perspectives, experience and skills the Trust will bring to support the school's mission;

"Consider the potential impact of the partnership on other schools in the locality and on any other organisations or bodies likely to be affected;

"Take into account the local authority's and parents' view of the potential Trust and the nature of the partnership with the school;

"Take into account the Trust's previous track record of involvement in schools and education more generally, as well as the experience and expertise of the proposed Trustees;

"Consider whether particular Trusts should be considered unsuitable on the grounds of inappropriateness—for example, ensure that Trust partners are not involved in activities that may be considered inappropriate for children and young people (for example, tobacco, gambling, adult entertainment, alcohol etc.)".

I believe that that meets the points raised in that regard.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to the noble Lord. Of course, as he suggests, the recommendations and advice given in the document that he has circulated are extremely acceptable, and anyone would recognise that.

The big question is why parents per se are not given an opportunity to contribute to that decision because they know the names and qualifications of those involved. Why do they have to go through the governing body to do that, and why is it a matter only for the governing body to determine how far their views are taken into account?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

The governing body will need to take into account the views of parents. We shall debate later the noble Baroness's precise amendments on ballots of parents. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments, but this is the standard procedure for schools taking decisions of the utmost gravity affecting them in many other areas, including a whole range of other characteristics concerning the future of the school. We do not believe that, in qualitative terms, this is any different.

However, over and above the requirements on the school governing body both in terms of how it makes the decision and the factors that it must take into account, we have given a power to local authorities to refer proposals to the adjudicator when they are concerned about the implications for a particular trust of standards at a school. The adjudicator will then make a professional and impartial judgment, which, of course, will override that of the governing body in the event of that judgment being different. We do not think it necessary to regulate further than that. In particular, we believe that the creation of a national register would act as a barrier to innovation and fetter the freedom of governing bodies to decide what is best for their own schools, subject to oversight by the adjudicator.

In so far as the register proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, is intended to be illustrative and informative to encourage the development of appropriate trusts, this function will indeed be performed by the national schools commissioner, who will keep a record of all trusts established and make it available on his website. Therefore, there will be no need TO use the FoI Act, as the noble Baroness feared.

With regard to the kinds of trusts that may come forward, we expect that they will include higher and further education institutions, existing successful schools and bona fide education and business foundations. A particular concern of the noble Baroness is whether they can include community trusts. If she means trusts that have local authority engagement within the provisions of the Bill as it stands, they absolutely can. We will give strong encouragement to local authorities to be engaged in trusts alongside other local community groups and organisations which can make a substantial contribution to improving schools.

Amendment No. 60 would require a notice published by a local authority inviting bids in a competition to specify in what ways proposals would improve education in the area, especially those from disadvantaged homes. I believe we have covered that. The illustrative regulations that I made available to the Committee require the notice setting out the invitation to partners to come forward to provide a new school; to explain why the new school is considered necessary; the reason for the choice of sites; the size and age range of the school; and any extended or special needs provision. The notice can also specify other matters, including objectives specifically in respect of disadvantaged pupils or communities. Furthermore, local authorities will judge the competition unless they choose to enter their own proposals, in which case it will be the adjudicator. That will enable local authorities to ensure that the successful proposal meets the needs of the disadvantaged and demonstrates the right characteristics.

Amendments Nos. 125BA and 125C seek to enhance the influence of the local authority over trusts and trust schools. As I say, we support the concept of a community trust. If that means a trust as set out under the provisions of the Bill, of course it can proceed. The 20 per cent level for local authority engagement in trusts, as set out in the Bill, gives local authorities the flexibility to play a valuable role in brokering those relationships and supporting the formation of trusts in their communities. The 20 per cent figure is also consistent with provisions in local government legislation about local authority involvement in companies and trusts more widely.

However, we do not believe that it is right to increase that proportion beyond 20 per cent, which will get close to making local authorities the dominant force in a trust. If a local authority wishes to have that level of control over a trust, it anyway has the option of promoting a community school and exercising this control directly, provided that its track record is good enough. When taken in the round, our policy on trusts is balanced, proportional and workable. Our policy on collaboration is enabling and not prescriptive. I hope that I have met the concerns that have been raised.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson in the Lords (Further & Higher Education), Education & Skills 3:45 pm, 18th July 2006

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I should like to clear up one or two misconceptions on the part of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, before replying to some of the points that he has made. I should make absolutely clear that we are not opposed to trusts being established by groups of parents. Essentially, we would very much like to see that. The concept of the local community trust is the local authority and local groups of parents getting together to promote a local community of schools. I am sorry that the noble Baroness did not read Amendment No. 182 to mean this, but that is what we meant.

I also think that the noble Baroness misread another amendment. The clean version which has been circulated in manuscript today makes it quite clear that we are looking at members of local authorities. We are specifically looking to a situation where it might be the district council, which is not an education authority, participating in the local community trust. We feel that this is a question of trying to get local community and democratic representation within the concept of the trust. So far as the trust is concerned, schools will be spending a considerable proportion of money. It is appropriate that there is democratic accountability within the governance of the system. A situation such as one has with academies where the only accountability is with the Secretary of State is not one that we feel to be thoroughly satisfactory.

In relation to the other set of amendments, we accept, as the Minister says, that four months is reasonable. As I have suggested, in so far as it would be a group of parents proposing to do this, it would take time to get together, particularly if proposals have to be put forward in full legalistic form. It takes time to find the appropriate legal expertise and to raise the money to pay for the expertise that one has to lay on in the circumstances. The Minister made it clear that it is up to the school governing body to be discriminatory among those who might be suggesting themselves as sponsors of trusts, particularly if it is a small primary school, However, it is also important to remember that it is not always easy for such a governing body to be particularly knowledgeable and in this sense I am pleased to hear that as far as he is concerned they will have the help of the schools commissioner in being able to discriminate between what one might term good and bad sponsors. The framework of regulations as he says lays that down but nevertheless they have to be interpreted and implemented by the governing body and it is not always easy for a governing body to be able to discriminate in this way. It could be useful to have a register in such circumstances.

I am delighted that the Minister is as positive ashe is about the concept of community trusts or foundations. From these Benches this is very much our vision of the way in which we would like to see the provisions working. We have made it clear that we are not enamoured of the private sector sponsors and would prefer to see such foundations emerging from the local community, but with the reassurances that he has given us I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 59 to 64 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

moved Amendment No. 65:

Page 7, line 19, at end insert-

"( ) The Secretary of State may not refuse consent under subsection (5)(b)(ii) in any case in which the request by the authority for such consent is shown to be supported by parents in such numbers and in such categories as may be prescribed by regulations."

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

The heart of this group of amendments concerns ballots and their consequences and the expression of parental opinion in a clear majority with regard to the establishment of new schools and the laying down of proposals for the establishment of new maintained schools. The essence of the Government's view of the Bill as I mentioned a moment or two ago is that the role of parents should be given the fullest possible width and that parents should be involved in the maintenance and establishment of schools to the limit that is possible within a system.

The earlier group of amendments that we discussed was intended to give the maximum possible information about future sponsors of schools to parents. This group of amendments concerns the right of parents to make their views known about the establishment of a new community school or a new community special school in certain circumstances where it is clear according to regulation that parents have established that they have a majority wish to go ahead with the establishment of a new community school that should override any attempt to limit that, for example, by requiring the Secretary of State's consent.

To put it simply, either the Government believe that parents should have the decisive voice in the establishment of one type of school or another, or they do not. We have therefore indicated in this group of amendments the circumstances in which parental opinion should be decisive. One of those is with regard to an attempt put forward by a local authority to establish a new community school where it is clear after consultation with parents that the majority of parents wished that to happen. We do not believe it is right that there should be additional sets of bureaucratic requirements that would override that wish of parents.

We have also indicated that where a local authority puts forward proposals for a new community school, those proposals should be published if again it is the wish of the parents of children registered at school or registered at feeder schools that the proposals should be considered and should go ahead. Some years ago, parents were largely excluded from the education process. That changed rather dramatically in 1976 with the Taylor commission, which was the responsibility of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, who is I am delighted to say a Member of this House. The commission proposed that one-quarter of the governors of the governing bodies of maintained schools should be elected by parents and should represent them.

One concern that we have about this Bill is that with trust schools and academies the role of parents is decisively reduced. We find that hard to associate with a Bill that is intended to give parents a larger not a smaller voice. Therefore, to put it straightforwardly, on the crucial issue of changes in category of schools and on the proposals for establishing new maintained schools, and for putting forward those ideas, we believe that a ballot should be held. The ballot should turn on a majority of parents having their voices heard and their opinions made known, which should be a decisive factor in deciding whether to establish a new school of a maintained community nature or, for that matter, in putting forward such proposals.

I remind the House what the former Minister, Ruth Kelly, said in another place, when she referred to the common sense of parents. My noble friend quoted her remarks. But if we do not know what parents want, referring to their common sense does not add up to very much. I pay tribute in that respect to the previous Conservative Government, who insisted that there should be a ballot before a school became a grant-maintained school. Some 2,000 ballots were duly held, after the establishment of the idea of grant-maintained schools, on which the Government made it plain at the time that parents would be given the opportunity to express their views. One-third, or about 800 of those 2,000 ballots, went against the proposal for the grant-maintained school, and that was respected by the Government, who did not go ahead with imposing grant-maintained status on schools whose parents did not wish it. In two-thirds of the cases—that is, some 12,000 ballots—the parents agreed to the establishment of grant-maintained schools, which duly went ahead. We on these Benches would profoundly regret a reduction in the influence and voice of parents, and we cannot believe that that is what the Government intend, as it is not what they have said.

So what is the argument against ballots, in straightforward terms? The strangest one that I have heard so far, which was put forward in another place, was that ballots would in some way restrict the likelihood of foundation schools being allowed to go ahead and restrict the innovatory prospects for academies and CTCs, so that it would not be wise to give parents this major part in the system. One thing that has emerged clearly from discussions on the Bill, from beginning to end, in discussing children with special educational needs and those who are disadvantaged and whose parents do not take a full part in concern for their education, is that it is crucial to a good education that parents are involved from the beginning to the end. It is crucial that their association with their child's future and school and with their own responsibilities in that respect should be considered as a primary purpose of legislation.

Sadly, we live at a time when there is not a great deal of trust in the political system and when more and more people argue that they are not consulted and listened to and that their views are not taken fully into account. There is a simple mechanism for taking those views fully into account—a mechanism that has been tried and tested over many decades in this country and which, above all, should apply to schools. It has been much welcomed by parents, who have enthusiastically taken part in ballots of this kind. Indeed, the grant-maintained school ballots attracted turn-outs of 67 per cent and more on average, far above the level of turnout that one associates with local government and roughly level with what one associates with general elections. There is no evidence whatever that parents are apathetic about this kind of question; indeed, they feel very deeply involved.

Not to prolong the discussion—although I believe it to be central to the whole nature and quality of this Bill—we must ask whether we believe that parents should be fully involved. If so, why do we not trust them to make that decision on the basis of a properly organised ballot on the crucial issues of changing a school from one category to another and of whether a school should continue when there is a proposal to discontinue it? Surely, we should listen to the parents and, when they are of suitable age, the pupils. I beg to move the amendment, and I do so with very strong feeling about how much is at stake.

Photo of Lord Gould of Brookwood Lord Gould of Brookwood Labour 4:00 pm, 18th July 2006

I am strongly in favour of empowering parents; I am in favour of empowering everyone. That is the basis of my politics and that is why I support this Bill. I want parents to have the chance to choose the school that is right for their children; not just a good local school, but the best possible school for them. This Bill is about empowering parents and about giving them choices, voices and access, as the noble Baroness said, from the beginning until the end. That does not mean a compulsory one-off ballot; it is not about that. It is about a continuing process of engagement and participation through school choice, parental councils, schools that respect and listen to the views of parents as mandated by the Bill, real rights of redress and a real involvement over time on a continuing basis. Some 72 per cent of parents want more involvement in their schools, and the Bill enables that to happen.

The question that we have to ask is whether the amendment mandating balloting takes the cause of empowerment forward or back. Compulsory ballots are a cumbersome, time-consuming and rather intimidating procedure that is intended to slow down the pace of reform and to make genuine parental participation less likely rather than more. That is not to say that ballots should not be held if the governing body wishes to hold them; but it is to say that one-off, compulsory ballots do not help the cause of greater parental empowerment but are likely to slow it down. One-off compulsory ballots are not genuine participation; they are a device to get in the way of genuine participation, and they should be resisted.

The metaphor of politics has been used. Just as it is true to say that a general election every four to five years no longer represents participation and no longer represents involvement, it is true to say that a compulsory ballot, held possibly once in the life of a parent, does not begin to offer the participation that we need. This Bill is about real empowerment and real involvement over a period of time from the beginning to the end, as the noble Baroness said, and the compulsory balloting procedure is an attempt to get in the way of that, not to assist it.

Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative

I did not expect to agree so completely with the words of the noble Lord, who is one of the gurus of the Labour Party, but I do. I find the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness unconvincing. I thought that the amendments were confused, and I wanted to hear her explanation. I now am clear where she starts from; as I understand it, she wants the views of parents to predominate. That is her main consideration. I agree with that, but I do not think that this is the way to do it.

The Government clearly expect from this Bill something corresponding to the Scandinavian pattern where, as a result of allowing communities to come together, there will be a welling-up of the parental opinion saying that they want a new school. They will put forward their proposals, and the parents will be very committed. I do not think that there will be an absence of parental commitment to fulfilling the objectives of the Bill, and I support that.

Let us suppose the parents in a town such as south Bolton came together and said that they wanted a new school. Who should vote in that ballot? All the parents in south Bolton? All the parents of primary school children in south Bolton? All the parents of secondary school children in south Bolton? It is a totally impractical suggestion when you are considering a new school. You could not devise the electoral list on which a ballot could take place.

But what of a ballot in a school which already exists? This was the problem with which I was faced when I introduced grant-maintained schools. Back in 1988, if I had left it purely in the power of the governing body to create a grant-maintained school, I could not have got the Bill through. I could not have got it passed either by the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Many Conservative local education authorities would have burnt my effigy and said that it was absolutely unforgivable. So I introduced the complicated arrangements of ballots, and I did so to break the mould. I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken. If they were introduced now, they would be used as a delaying device by the local education authorities, because in nearly all those grant-maintained-school ballots, pitched against the wishes of parents was the local education authority, which would spend vast sums of public money on publicity in an effort to prevent schools becoming grant maintained. Many local education authorities will not embrace the idea of new community schools being established. They like to maintain their hegemony and their monopoly. I do not believe that their attitudes have changed at all.

Therefore, the proposals of the Liberal Democrats in this matter are not at all feasible as regards new schools and are unnecessary as regards established schools. They would have a delaying effect. As I have said, I did what I did to break the mould. The mould is broken. Parents are now much more involved in the running of schools than they were back in the 1980s. They are very committed, not only in the leafy suburbs but also in the inner cities. The amendments are unnecessary and would be harmful to the Bill.

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

I rise in response to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Gould. If this Bill is really about empowering parents, why not give them a vote in the most important decision to be made about any school, which is its governance? Why are the Government frightened of parents? The noble Lord, Lord Gould, talked about one-off compulsory ballots as if they were the only way in which we on these Benches wanted to have parents involved in schools. Of course, that is not the case. There is no reason why a one-off compulsory ballot should preclude all the other, very desirable ways in which good schools should involve parents. It is like saying that you can have four or five years of focus groups, but that you cannot have a general election at the end of it. Does the noble Lord assume that the results of the ballots will get in the way of the expansion of trust schools? In objecting to the amendment of my noble friend Lady Williams, he seemed to be assuming that parents will vote against the establishment of trusts. If the Government really believe in the common sense of parents, why not allow parents to express that common sense in democratic ballot?

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

It is encouraging to hear such unanimity across the Committee on the importance of parents. Let us be sure when we consult parents that we consult all parents and not merely those who are accustomed to public speaking and those who have a voice; we must listen also to those who are deprived and disadvantaged.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

The amendments would amend the process by which schools are established and, in some cases, interpose another statutory layer, the parental ballot, into the local decision-making process.

Parental ballots were the subject of long debates and, indeed, a ballot in the elected House of Commons, which voted by a huge majority of 291—that is, 412 votes against 121—against proposals similar to these. The Government's arguments against these proposals have not changed: first, a ballot may be an appropriate form of consultation in some circumstances—I am strongly in favour of local ballots in appropriate cases, including local referendums conducted by local authorities—but both governing bodies and local authorities have powers to conduct such ballots at present. It would be disproportionate to require ballots for a change to trust status to take place. Secondly,if ballots are to be mandatory, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, the precise electorate for the ballots would need to be set out either in primary or secondary legislation. It would be highly problematic to do so and it is not attempted in any of the amendments before us.

Thirdly, it is fairly obvious from the debate so far that the essential motivation behind these amendments is one of antipathy to trusts and trust schools. This is shown by the fact that there is a whole range of other equally—if not more—fundamental decisions affecting the character of schools and local educational provision, in respect of which no amendments requiring ballots have been tabled. For example, there are school closures—including the closure of special schools, the single most emotive issue for parents that crosses my desk as a Minister—changes to admissions arrangements, the addition or subtraction of 6th forms—another highly emotive issue for parents—the addition or subtraction of special needs provision, the change to specialist status, the choice of specialism, the relocation of a school and the move in a locality from a three-tier to a two-tier system.

All those are hugely difficult and often controversial issues of educational policy for individual schools and local provision, and there are no amendments down to ensure that these are subject to ballots. Nor do I recall the Liberal Democrat amendments to the Children Bill which would have required ballots on the setting up of children's centres, or the judging between, for example, proposals put forward by existing state schools as against those put forward by private and voluntary sector providers.

Fourthly, there are, however, substantial requirements as to consultation in all the changes of school status and organisations set out in the Bill, and on proposals put forward by local authorities. These are in accord with established consultation procedures for the other kinds of change of status and provision I have just mentioned. They are satisfactory. Furthermore, in the case of a school wishing to acquire a trust, there is a further specific power in the Bill for local authorities to refer such plans to the adjudicator when the local authority believes there has been inadequate consultation, including with parents. These amendments are neither necessary nor desirable. That concludes our case.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

Briefly, I will not push these amendments at present, but I shall make a couple of points. First, we have specifically called for a ballot on the discontinuance of a school, one of the areas the Minister referred to. We have indicated that, where a school is to be discontinued, there should be a ballot of parents because they are profoundly affected by it. We proposed, in a new clause, that there should be a meeting of parents before any final decision is made. That goes some way to refute the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Gould of Brookwood, who suggested that we were only pressing for a single ballot once there was to be a change in the nature of a school, or the advancement of a new school. That is not the case: we specifically called for a parental meeting.

The Government are using the argument that this will delay everything in an extraordinary way. Surely what matters most, as has been central to our discussion of this education Bill, is that there should be the highest possible quality of schooling and that children should be secure in a well organised, accountable and responsible school. That is what concerns us. As we have often argued from these Benches, there should be a level playing field. Parents should have a strong voice in the choices to be made. Whatever our views may be on a particular trust school one way or the other, our crucial responsibility is to ensure that parents are given the choice of the kind of education they want for their child. Frankly, without a ballot or a requirement for a parents' meeting, it is difficult to see why governing bodies should think they know what parents' wishes might be better than the parents themselves. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

House resumed.