Clause 66 - Proposals for new secondary schools in England

Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

This is an important clause, and I shall discuss it in connection with the accompanying schedule, which touches on some significant territory. I shall attempt to identify some significant flaws in the legislation.

The legislation may be largely academic in some respects, as falling school rolls across the country mean that there may not be that many new schools   opening. However, any new schools will have to follow a particular process, and it is the weaknesses of that process on which I wish to dwell.

The basic concept is that local authorities are not the generators but the promoters of schools. They decide that there is a need for a school and put out advertisements indicating that the need exists. Various providers, including local authorities themselves, are then allowed to come into the frame. They may be anything from Wackford Squeers to the most exalted academy, but they all can come into the frame. The process is rigorously controlled by exacting rules and so on, but, none the less, it is a kind of beauty contest to decide what best fits the model that the local authority originally decided that it wanted.

A process is mapped out by which the decision goes to the school organisation committee, which has wide powers to consider the proposals. It can reject the proposals, approve a proposal without modification, approve a proposal with modification, or, if it is unable to do any of those three things, send the whole process to the adjudicator and let him make the decision. If it dallies for some time, not making the decision once the process is under way, the Secretary of State has power to intervene and send the process to the adjudicator anyway. However, the decision-making bodies are the school organisation committees and the adjudicators. They decide what best satisfies the concept of a new school that the local authority originally envisaged.

I do not understand what is wrong with the local authority making that decision. The local authority is a representative, democratic body. I see no reason to prefer that the school organisation committee or adjudicator should take the decision. There may be cases in which the local authority is incapable of making the decision, but that is a fairly unlikely contingency.

There is a downside to letting the school organisation committee make the decision, rather than leaving it with the local authority, as it traditionally would have been: the school organisation committee will not, ultimately, have to fund whatever it recommends. The local authority will probably be involved as a funder or at any rate as a landlord for any new establishment, whether it is an academy or any other educational institution that the school organisation committee chooses.

The problem, which I tried to clarify in the Chamber, is that where a number of schools are promoted by the local authority and chosen by the school organisation committee in a specific area—let us suppose that an authority is undergoing a major process of configuring its secondary schools—it is likely that there will be some kind of result. However, whereas the local authority has a specific duty to ensure that an equal offer is made to all children in its area, that there is an equity of outcome and that all children receive their entitlement, there is no guarantee that the activities of a school organisation committee, however well intentioned, will achieve that result. The committee may, for example, recommend schools with   admission arrangements, which to some extent conflicts with most local authorities’ laudable objective of ensuring that all children get a fair deal.

That is the crux of the matter. It cannot be said that the procedure will not achieve a highly desirable outcome whereby every child receives the same type of educational entitlement. I am not saying one size fits all—a phrase that I hate; it has been used so many times, by so many Ministers and in so many circumstances that I thought that I would never utter it myself. Unfortunately, it has slipped out, so I shall have to check myself in future. If the local authority is empowered to deliver certain laudable social objectives and to ensure that every child who is represented through it achieves everything that their parents would aspire to, but are in no way disadvantaged by whatever educational arrangements transpire, it does not seem to me that an arrangement whereby the matter could be decided by the school organisation committee or by the adjudicator, or delayed and then decided by the adjudicator, will necessarily produce that outcome.

There is a strong suspicion that the intention behind the procedure is to generate a plethora of academies throughout the country. There has been criticism recently of what the project of academies is delivering. Intellectually, I cannot see that intention in the Bill, because although an academy can be a response to a local authority promoting a school or putting out a prospectus for one, there is no onus on the school organisation committee necessarily to choose that project. In fact, there is a further hitch in getting an academy proposition going, as the Secretary of State is necessarily involved in the complex of arrangements that are associated with delivering an academy in an area.

There is no credible case for saying that the provision is just about academies, full stop, but there is a case to be answered on how the arrangement ensures that there will not be myriad different admission arrangements in a local authority area that do not provide equity of outcome for each child. That is my fundamental objection, and nothing that the Minister has said so far in the debate has convinced me that it is other than a fairly solid objection. I may well get a nice letter in a few days’ time, explaining to me how wrong I am.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 3:45 pm, 22nd March 2005

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making the points that he has made. It is important to note that the clause is intended to improve the diversity of provision. As to the question why the school organisation committees will take the decisions, rather than local education authorities, part of the reason is that local authorities may publish their own proposals for community schools, alongside any received from other promoters. It would not accord with what we want to achieve if those authorities, as organisations that might be presenting such proposals, also took the decisions.

The school organisation committee is an independent body, which is well represented in the community. It is also worth pointing out that not all schools are LEA schools. In view of that fact, the   importance of the committee’s independent take on such matters and the fact that the local authority may be able to make its own proposals, the Government think that it is most fitting for the school organisation committee to make the decisions.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Minister must at least accept that school organisation committees throughout the land are still in a fairly rudimentary form. If we carried out an examination of who was serving on those committees, how long they had been there and what they understood their task to be, I think that we would be surprised at how unprepared they were for some of the quite onerous tasks ahead of them. That is clearly a matter of concern.

The Minister referred to the need for an independent decision maker if the local authority were in the frame, but that argument is slightly weakened by the fact that local authorities are among the major representatives on the school organisation committees. Even though his approach provides an advantage, that does not offset the disadvantages, because it would after all be the local authority that saw a need for a school in the first place.

If I may make one more point, because I do not want to make another speech out of this intervention

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is making an intervention on the Minister’s reply to him, and that we should observe the proprieties. We are running in a fairly relaxed mode today, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can bear it in mind that interventions are supposed to be brief. We have quite a lot of latitude for dialogue in Committee, but I ask him to keep his intervention brief.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The intervention concludes on the point that my argument has never been against diversity; it is about which is the appropriate decision-making body.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from in that respect, but the fact that LEA can itself put forward proposals is a key part of the argument.

The Department has dealt with correspondence in a relatively small number of cases in which concerns have been expressed about procedures followed by the school organisation committee or the LEA, and we found no evidence of abuse or any cause for the Secretary of State to intervene. As I mentioned before, and as the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks, it is possible to appeal to the adjudicator.

I should like to reassure the hon. Gentleman. We are keen to push forward on the matter of diversity and to ensure that the best local decisions are made. We shall keep a close watching brief on how the matter develops, and I hope that he will be satisfied with that assurance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 10 agreed to.