New Clause 8 - Abolition of School Organisation Committee

Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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‘(1)Sections 24 to 26 and Schedules 4 and 5 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (c. 31) shall cease to have effect.

(2)The Education (School Organisation Committee) Regulations 1999 shall cease to have effect.

(3)The Education (Schools Organisation Plans) Regulations 1999 shall cease to have effect.

(4)The Education (References to Adjudicator) Regulations 1999 shall cease to have effect.’. —[Angela Watkinson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause would abolish the school organisation committees. That is because the Conservative party wishes new schools to be established wherever it can be demonstrated that there is parental demand, and new schools to be opened by faith groups, charities, voluntary organisations, the private sector or groups of parents. In those circumstances, the functions of the school organisation committees would be redundant.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am fairly unenthusiastic about school organisation committees and adjudicators, but I am also fairly unenthusiastic about educational anarchy. Opening schools willy-nilly strikes me as not being the most prudent use of public resources. None the less, it is fair to say that, were the new clause to be passed, some hurried consequential amendments would have to be made in many of the clauses that we dealt with earlier. Since that work has not been done, I throw the ball back into the Minister’s court to respond.

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

As the hon. Lady said, and we agree, the new clause would effectively abolish the decision makers for changes to schools in England—the local school organisation committees and schools adjudicators. It would remove the duty on local authorities to establish school organisation committees and the Secretary of State’s power to appoint school adjudicators.

In passing, I note that adjudicators decide cases of contentious admissions arrangements that are referred to them, as well as deciding school organisation issues. The new clause would, therefore, disadvantage parties with an interest in admissions in the area, including parents. In particular, it would no longer be possible to refer to the adjudicator objections to school admission arrangements as provided for in section 90 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

As hon. Members know, before the decision-making arrangements were introduced by the 1998 Act, decisions on statutory proposals were commonly taken by Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills. We took the view that such decisions should be made at local level by the key stakeholders who understand local issues and are able to take a balanced view of the competing arguments. That would also secure local ownership of the important decisions that affect the local community. That local knowledge and the ability to balance competing arguments would be important when it came to deciding between a number of different proposals.

The constitution of the school organisation committee was carefully designed to give equal representation to all the local stakeholders—the local authority, which has a statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient school places, schools themselves,   through members of their governing bodies, the local Church of England and Roman Catholic dioceses and the Learning and Skills Council. We think that the system works well and is a sensible middle way between a complete free-for-all and centralised decision making in Whitehall.

We owe it to our children to do our best to ensure that the school system delivers equity and quality for all. The system that has been devised offers a means of achieving that. There is no evidence of a clamour for change, although we are not complacent and will continue to monitor arrangements, taking account of the extent to which they deliver good outcomes for local communities. I hope that hon. Members will agree that some such arrangements are necessary and that it is simply not practical for schools to be set up without proper consideration of their viability and the educational and social needs of an area.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the Minister therefore wish to retain the surplus places rule, which prevents popular schools from expanding or new ones setting up because there is sufficient capacity in the area as a whole?

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

That rule does not exist any more. The Bill enables popular schools to expand. We are keen on that policy.

Hon. Members will be aware that, in the contestability arrangements for new secondary schools, we are proposing to extend delegation further to ensure that decisions that, under the present arrangements, are taken by the Secretary of State will be taken by the local school organisation committee or, in some circumstances, the schools adjudicator.

The sections of the 1998 Act that require the publication of proposals for changes to schools will still remain. They require the proposals to be sent to the school organisation committee for a decision. Those proposing such changes could not decide on the proposals themselves. If the new clause were accepted, no alternative decision maker would exist. I hope that the hon. Lady will accept my arguments on that point.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

I do not altogether accept the Minister’s arguments but, as I am without troops, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.