Clause 194

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Complaints to which this chapter applies

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment 72, in clause 194, page 111, line 35, at end insert—

‘(2A) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance as to which of the powers and duties of a head teacher shall be regarded as “prescribed functions” for the purposes of subsection (2).’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 73, in clause 194, page 111, line 37, at end insert—

‘(aa) a decision relating to the disciplining of a pupil or any other matter relating to pupil behaviour or the enforcement of the published rules of the school;’.

Amendment 74, in clause 194, page 111, line 37, at end insert—

‘(aa) a decision about whether to suspend or exclude permanently a pupil;’.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The clause is important. It gives parents and pupils the right to complain against a school when they believe they have suffered an injustice because of the actions or omissions, as it says in the explanatory notes, of the governing body or the head teacher exercising, or failing to exercise, certain specified functions. Amendment 72 would require the Secretary of Sate to issue guidance setting out precisely which powers, duties or functions of the head teacher would be regarded as  prescribed functions—those that the parent or pupil could complain about to the local government ombudsman.

The decision to create a new system for school complaints has not been greeted universally with acclaim. The Association of School and College Leaders said in its briefing to members of the Committee:

“The complaints service proposed has the potential to be expensive, bureaucratic and, as it will have an interest in justifying its own existence, may be liable to increase rather than diminish whatever problems there may be.”

It went on to say:

“We are also extremely concerned that the effect of formalising the complaints system, in the way set out, has the potential to make schools more defensive thus fundamentally altering the home/school relationship. Even for concerns that initially appear minor, in order to protect themselves, schools will start recording all conversations and parental concerns and logging them with senior staff...Any increase in administrative time spent by teachers...will result in a reduction in available teaching time.”

In a similar vein, the NUT has also expressed its concern to the Committee, saying:

“There is concern among teachers and head teachers that this provision is at best unnecessary and at worst may further complicate existing complaints structures.”

NASUWT expressed scepticism and pointed out a number of potential problems with the system. It is not convinced that a complaints procedure of this nature is necessary. It would be helpful if the Minister could respond to the concerns of all those trade unions that have expressed their view. Will the new procedure result in schools becoming more defensive and cautious, perhaps by setting up a rather bureaucratic system to log complaints and concerns?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The hon. Gentleman is putting very forcefully the comments made by the NUT and the ASCL. Does he believe that this local complaints commissioner is unnecessary, and would he have a preference for another solution?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am not unconvinced that it might work. It might be a good system to enable parents to have more say over a school. I have cases in my own constituency where parents have complained to the head teacher at a school and have taken their complaint to a school governor and have received no satisfaction. Then they have come to me and I have written to the director of education or of children’s services and nothing has happened. I have then referred the complaint to Ofsted and, again, nothing has happened.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

On what areas has the hon. Gentleman received complaints? On what type of issues did he not get satisfaction?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I have a particular incident in mind. I will not name the school, but a parent had been concerned over a number of years about the amount of homework being given to her daughter. She was complaining that it was not enough and that the daughter did not receive any homework in some subjects, which did not comply with the homework documents that she had received from the school. She experienced that problem over a period of years and received no redress. I do not know  whether this provision will ensure that such complaints are dealt with effectively, which is why I am asking such questions. I want to ensure that the system does not become defensive and bureaucratic. It must be able to deal with the genuine concerns of parents, if those concerns are not being met. Our education system must be much more responsive to parents’ desires about the quality of education that their children receive.

Does the Minister expect the change to result in an increase in the number of complaints, or does he believe that the overall total will remain the same? Amendment 72 requires the Secretary of State to specify which powers and functions of a head teacher would fall within the scope of a new complaint system.

The ASCL has asked for clarification on whether prescribed functions mean functions prescribed directly in legislation, or powers given to head teachers by virtue of other legislation. It says that if it were to be interpreted as the latter, it could have most unfortunate results. In its briefing, it cites an example:

“schools have a power (but not a duty) to act on poor behaviour away from the school site. However, if school staff take up this power, for example by patrolling an area away from the school and disciplining pupils who misbehave a school could be seen as assuming a duty of care to prevent all misbehaviour and bullying in the patrolled area. The school could then potentially become liable in tort if something happened, that could be shown to be foreseeable, to one of its pupils in the area even though the school has no power to give orders to pupils unless they are either on the school site or under the lawful control of the school.”

It would be very helpful if the Minister could address that very specific example.

Amendment 73 relates to complaints about the disciplining of pupils, pupil behaviour and the enforcement of published school rules, and proposes that such matters should be specifically excluded from the remit of the complaints procedure. As it stands, the Bill only takes out of the procedure issues about admissions decisions and matters about which the complainant already has a prescribed right of appeal, but there is a strong case for taking out behaviour issues.

Amendment 74 would exclude decisions about temporary and permanent exclusions from the remit of the complaints procedure. Both amendments are important. There is a growing sense that poor behaviour among pupils is a very serious problem in our schools that has significant implications for the wider success of the education system. Poor behaviour undermines the education of pupils and impacts on the quality of their school life. It is a major cause of stress for teachers and school staff. If pupils are poorly behaved, teachers are forced to spend more of their time on crowd control rather than teaching, and that causes some to leave the profession.

A survey in March 2008 by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that nearly a third of all teachers— 29 per cent.—had been punched, kicked or bitten by pupils. Nearly one in 10 teachers said that they had been injured by an aggressive or violent pupil, and two thirds of teachers had considered leaving the profession.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I have a lot of sympathy with all of these amendments. None the less, amendment 74 would exclude from the process permanently excluded pupils. Is not that already one of the exempt areas in relation to complaints?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Page 106 of the explanatory notes says that permanent exclusions will be outside the remit of the local government ombudsman. It is important to include temporary exclusions, which is why the amendment is worded in such a way. Such matters of discipline and management should be left to the school. If teachers expect that they will have to justify themselves on such matters before an ombudsman, they are likely to resort to recording the process in ever greater detail, which may even serve as a deterrent to schools taking action that they would otherwise take. Therefore, in our opinion, the Bill should be amended to ensure that the ombudsman’s powers are not extended to this area.

Actually, that is also the view of the ASCL, which is concerned about the system of independent appeals panels. It is the Conservative party’s policy to abolish them—they have provided a huge disincentive to head teachers to expel or exclude pupils permanently because of fear of the stress and expense of having to go through the independent appeals process.

The ASCL says that it is imperative

“that the local commissioner will not be able to substitute his...judgment for that of the school”.

It also says that without that, and without a means of enforcing it, we may see a rising tide of complaints as parents seek another roll of the dice when trying to obtain what they want. That has been the experience of independent appeals panels for exclusions and omissions. In particular, there is a real danger that this well-meaning provision will significantly undermine schools’ capacity to maintain good order and discipline. We agree with the ASCL that anything to do with behaviour and discipline, whether or not there is already a prescribed right of appeal on it, should be taken out of the Bill, which is the purpose of amendments 73 and 74.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

On a point of order, Mr. Chope. I seek your guidance on when you want me to make my main speech on this aspect of the Bill, in the hope of a courteous response.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We will have a stand part debate on the clause, so if the hon. Gentleman wishes to speak to this group of amendments, he can do so, or he can wait for that debate.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I know that you will stop me if I get this wrong, Mr. Chope. Our concerns underlying clauses 194 and 195 are similar and they would complement the discussion on amendments 72 to 74. With your permission, I will speak to the amendments now and not repeat myself when we discuss clause 195 or during any stand part debate on clause 194.

Our attitude to this part of the Bill is one of deep scepticism. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton made the point very effectively that parents in our constituencies want to ensure that when they have complaints about a school, they have some mechanism for getting them heard. Of course, at the moment, there is a mechanism in any school to discuss issues with a head teacher. A discussion that probably began with the classroom teacher can be escalated to include the head teacher and the governing body. Frequently, in my experience, it will be escalated to the local authority. At that point, it can be escalated finally to the Secretary of State.

I understand why the Minister and his colleagues want to remove the right of appeal to the Secretary of State, because it seems somewhat excessive. I am not sure whether we obtained from the Minister in the evidence session an idea of how many of the complaints that the Secretary of State receives are investigated rather than simply dismissed as things for which he does not have responsibility. It would also be interesting and useful to know how many of those complaints have been upheld. Will the Minister—now or in the future—tell the Committee how many complaints have been received in the past three years, how many of those were investigated, and how many were upheld?

My impression is that the types of complaint that are likely to work their way up to the Secretary of State will often be vexatious, although I will not address that issue now as we have amendments that specifically deal with that. My impression is that many of the complaints tend to be issues that will not be pursued and that probably reflect a frustration with the decisions that were originally made. I am horrified, as are the ASCL and the NUT, by the thought that in many of the areas described so eloquently by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, there could be the process of appeal not only to a head teacher, but to a governing body, potentially to a local authority and then to this ombudsman function.

The Committee will know—in some senses this is a commendable thing—just how rigorous and detailed the ombudsmen process is, and how expensive it is. There is even a section in—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 12:00 pm, 26th March 2009

Order. These are quite specific amendments. The hon. Gentleman has already referred to the fact that he has tabled a separate group of amendments. We will also have a clause stand part debate. It would be much more helpful if he directed his remarks specifically to the amendments before us.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am quite happy to do so, Mr. Chope.

It is my wider scepticism about whether the Bill strikes the right balance between the rights of parents and having a practical complaints system that makes me strongly supportive of amendments 72 to 74. Amendment 72 essentially seeks to clarify and pin down the details in relation to prescribed functions that apply to the powers and duties of a head teacher. Amendments 73 and 74 address our concerns and those of the ASCL and the NUT about the types of issues that are likely to be referred to the ombudsman service. Amendment 73 would exclude issues relating to the disciplining of a pupil or breaches of school rules, while amendment 74, as we heard, would ensure that issues relating to permanent exclusion or temporary exclusion are also left aside from the job of the local commissioner.

We think that that is extremely sensible. After a parent has exhausted the head teacher, the school and the governing body process, and arguably has even gone via a local authority on the way, expecting a local ombudsman to deal with the issues of detail that relate to the disciplining of a pupil and decisions to suspend and permanently exclude would place an onerous administrative burden on schools. It could lead to a  very expensive, prolonged and protracted process. It could significantly increase the number of complaints beyond the number received through the existing process. My suspicion is that the appeal to the Secretary of State is enough to deter many people, even if they are aware of it, from going through this process. If we had a local commissioner or ombudsman process, I have little doubt that the number of complaints that would be referred of the type that amendments 72 and 73 deal with would escalate quite rapidly.

The evidence given to us by the ASCL and the NUT showed clearly that their concern was not about just having the judgments on discipline of the teaching force of the school and the governing body overturned and questioned in a way that could be very damaging and undermining. They are also worried that to meet the evidential criteria that an ombudsman service is inclined to use, as opposed to the governing body or a head teacher, there would be a real risk that the amount of information that would have to be kept by a school could increase enormously compared with what is kept today. It is not just that that information might have to relate to the incident that may have led to the decision to discipline, permanently exclude, suspend or temporarily exclude, but that a series of incidents, perhaps over a prolonged period, often are taken into account in a judgment made by a head teacher and a governing body. If we have these more onerous criteria and the new mechanism, which is likely to be used more and to be more demanding of evidence than the existing systems, schools will inevitably feel obliged to keep much more information at an early stage about problems with individual pupils so that when decisions are looked at by a local ombudsman, they can be upheld.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has referred to a decision on discipline in schools, and recently a similar decision in my constituency was challenged. The school has already been asked to account for the series of decisions, in discussions with parents over some time, that had led to the ultimate decision. I appreciate that the Minister has already indicated in the explanatory notes that a permanent exclusion will not be challengeable through the complaints mechanism because there are already appropriate appeal rights, but it would be useful to have that in the Bill. It would also, however, be useful to exclude from these provisions wider disciplining powers and the powers to suspend, because otherwise I fear that we will, at this very late time of the night—or very early morning—be casually imposing on schools an enormous bureaucratic burden that they and we might regret for many years.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The clause describes who can ask the local commissioner to investigate their complaint and the types of complaints that he may consider. The functions of a head teacher that can be the subject of a complaint will be set out in regulations under clause 194(2), and we will consult with stakeholders on what they might include. That addresses one of the points made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. He also asked whether schools would become more defensive and cautious. I do not believe so. We expect that, over time, complaints will go down to the local government ombudsmen, as those ombudsmen  work with schools on their complaints process and we use our powers to issue guidance to schools on how complaints should be handled. At the moment, schools need to have a complaints process for parents, but there is not much guidance on what it should include and it is not very consistent. We can firm that up and make it more consistent, and have in place the teeth of an ombudsman process at the end of it.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I understand that the guidance for schools issued every year by the Minister’s Department contains the same amount of text as the complete works of Shakespeare. How effective has that guidance been?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

This statutory guidance will be effective because schools will have to abide by it. There are different types of guidance, and they have differing effects, but I am confident that we can make improvements. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the number of complaints would increase. Currently, around 2,200 cases a year come through to the Secretary of State. Others go through to local authorities, even though there is no statutory basis for that, and over time those numbers might decrease. One reason for piloting the new complaints service is to test some of those things and properly understand them.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Minister has helpfully given us the figure of 2,200 annual complaints to the Secretary of State under the elements covered by this clause. How many of those were investigated, and how many of the investigations upheld the complaint?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Naturally, if the Department receives a complaint, the bar for the use of the Secretary of State’s powers will be set very high. He will have to judge whether any other governing body could reasonably have come to the same conclusion—it is a test of reasonableness. The numbers currently being upheld are negligible because the bar is so high, which is why we think that we should set up something in between the school complaints process and the Secretary of State to give parents confidence that their complaint will be heard independently of the school.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Minister says that the number being upheld is negligible, but can he give us a figure? Is it less than one tenth?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise figure, but I think that “negligible” is an extremely good adjective to describe it. If, at some point, I am able to provide him with a figure, I shall be happy to do so, but I suspect that it hovers around single figures.

Hon. Members clearly disagree with the inclusion of matters relating to behaviour and exclusions. Schools will continue to agree their own behaviour policies, to determine their school rules, and to fulfil their existing duties in relation to behaviour and discipline. They are the best bodies to do that, and nothing that we are doing will prevent them from continuing to do so.

Statutory guidance already states that head teachers must keep formal records on the length of temporary exclusions, so the Bill will not add further bureaucracy there. The local commissioner will, of course, look at a  school’s policy when reviewing a complaint, and will consider how well the policy has been followed, as well as whether the policy itself was sound. However, if it is reasonable and lawful, it would not be expected to change. We are not asking good schools to do anything that they are not doing already, but asking all schools to continue to strive to make improvements. That means learning lessons from previous formal complaints. We must accept that not all schools will get everything right, and when they get something wrong, an independent review process will ensure that parents and young people have access to effective redress. There is evidence that those very elements that the Opposition want to exclude from the new service are not working as well as they could and should.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Newspapers sometimes report cases of, for example, a head teacher who bans pupils from wearing earrings and an irate parent who goes to the newspaper about it and causes a big fuss. If the complaints procedure does not exclude the enforcement of behaviour policies and school rules, is there not likely to be a flood of such complaints? At the moment, they are usually dealt with effectively by the head teacher. Under the proposals, there might be a flood of complaints to the local government ombudsman from irate parents who want their children to wear earrings, have long hair or wear trainers instead of black shoes or whatever, which would be a big problem and discourage head teachers from properly controlling their schools and enforcing their rules.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I do not believe that such an increase would result. The process will be smartened up, so that schools have in place a more consistent internal complaints procedure that parents can follow, whether in respect of earrings, short hair, long hair, black trainers, white trainers, or whatever trainers they are interested in. If parents then feel that the complaint has not been properly followed up, they could go to the local government ombudsman, who will make a judgment first about whether the complaints process was sound and then about whether it was followed. They will consider the merits of the case in order to make those judgments. The local government ombudsmen are extremely skilled in weeding out vexatious complaints very quickly.

I shall give some examples of when the system might not work as well as it should. Just over a year ago, the Children’s Commissioner submitted a report to the Secretary of State on the way that schools deal with complaints about bullying. The commissioner found that although the majority of schools are to be commended for their focus on anti-bullying policies, some families felt that their complaints had not been dealt with effectively. The commissioner also found that, in some cases, those who have taken unresolved bullying disputes through the system thought that it lacked transparency, accountability and effective redress. For example, a child with special educational needs might have disciplinary action taken against them for bullying, but their parents might think that those needs were not taken properly into account by the school when disciplining the child. That might give the parents cause to begin a complaints process. I see those sorts of cases in my surgery every now and then, and I am sure that other members of the Committee see them too. It is those sorts of cases that can be addressed.

Last year’s Ofsted TellUs3 survey found that 44 per cent. of children and young people who were asked thought that their school dealt with bullying “not very well” or “badly”. That may be a perception; we know that many schools tackle bullying and other behavioural matters properly. However, I am concerned about the cases that fall through the net and the effect of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton would be that those young people and their parents would not be able to approach the local commissioner.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 12:15 pm, 26th March 2009

Could the Minister clarify that legal concerns are not in any way behind this shift in policy and that it is not for a legal reason in relation to parental rights that the Government have put the measure in the Bill? That is not what he is indicating at the moment, but I just wanted to clarify matters.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Certainly, when I made the judgment about whether we should introduce the measure my decision was not informed by any of the legal concerns that the hon. Gentleman referred to. As the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton either said or implied, it is really important that parents and pupils, as consumers of a service, feel that they have the right to complain, and complain independently, if that service is not being properly delivered.

I turn to exclusions. We are not proposing to transfer the hearing of complaints about permanent exclusions to the ombudsman, because there is already a well-tested system. However, we want to look at temporary exclusions. Complaints about the operation of the fixed-term exclusion process by governing bodies and management committees currently come to the Secretary of State. We are proposing that dealing with those complaints is brought into the remit of the new body. That is in line with our approach that unless there are effective processes in place to deal with complaints, the power to deal with them should transfer to the new body.

Again, I stress that the system does not undermine good schools, which are doing what they should be doing. For exclusions, we have not put in place any new rights of appeal that do not exist already. Furthermore, the measure does not prevent head teachers from suspending unruly pupils, which is particularly important for the well-being and safety of other pupils. We will continue to back the authority of head teachers when a pupil’s behaviour warrants exclusion, permanently or otherwise.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Could the Minister explain why it is more sensible for the local authority to exercise oversight of appeals in relation to permanent exclusions, rather than the new body doing so? Why has he decided that the local authority is the right route for the permanent exclusion appeal rather than giving that power to the new organisation?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

We consulted on the proposal and the local authority option was one of the options that we consulted on. However, people came down very strongly in favour of the local government ombudsman as a properly independent body for a complaints service. I think that is the right judgment.

I hope that on the basis of those arguments the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I appreciate that these are the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, so I will not delay the Committee for too long, other than to say that the longer the Minister spoke the less convinced I became that the Bill, as it stands, is sensible. Indeed, I became more convinced of the excellence of the amendments and of the need to amend the Bill even further.

We have just heard from the Minister that of the 2,200 complaints that get through to the Secretary of State each year only a negligible number are upheld. That rather supports my view that there is probably not a great problem that needs to be addressed.

I think the Minister indicated that he expected the number of complaints received by the local commissioner to go down over time. I was not clear if he meant that there would be an initial surge of complaints of the type that I certainly anticipate. However, I am certainly not confident that he is right to predict that the number of complaints will go down. It is far more likely that the number of complaints will go up significantly, as people began to realise that they have this new power.

The Minister confirmed my fears about school bureaucracy, when he said that schools would start to need a more rigorous complaints procedure and would need to write everything down in more detail. That is precisely what I was worried about. Furthermore, he succeeded in horrifying me when he mentioned bullying and said that we will give a local commissioner the duty of mounting investigations into the way that schools deal with bullying policy.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I will give way to the Minister if he wants to correct me, but he did refer to bullying and concerns about the way that bullying is dealt with in schools, in relation particularly to the local commissioner.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

What I said, more than once, was that the job of the ombudsman will be to look at the process of complaints, to establish if that process has been followed.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

And the Minister mentioned bullying in relation to that. If the measure is really needed only to check if due process has been followed, why on earth do we need a local commissioner? Why do we need that individual to have the power to recompense individuals who have to be involved in the investigations in relation to this part of the Bill? Surely, if it is only about examining “process”, not only could the governing body do that but, at worst, the local authority could take five minutes to figure out whether due process has been followed. Instead, I fear that this part of the Bill could be used precisely for some of the challenges to the policy of the school that are anticipated in amendments 72 to 74. That is why I would support the amendments strongly, if the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton decided to push them to a Division.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I was reassured by the Minister’s response to amendment 72, when he said that he would consult on which functions of the head teacher or governor could be complained about. I think that will reassure some of the trade unions and the Association of School and College Leaders.

Like the hon. Member for Yeovil, I was less convinced by the Minister’s response to amendments 73 and 74. The Minister’s answer to the question about whether the measure would make schools more defensive was that he doubted that it would, because he will be issuing guidance. It is to be very special guidance that teachers will be forced to read and abide by, and they would introduce wonderful new complaints procedures in the school. The Minister said that will satisfy all parents who may have problems with the complaints about the behaviour of their children and the punishments applied to them.

I do not really buy that argument. Based on my constituency experience, I think that unless we take out issues such as behaviour and obeying school rules, there will be a surge of complaints. I am sure that if the Minister thought carefully, he might concede that point, based on his own experience as a constituency MP.

Such a surge of complaints would be a pity, because it would overwhelm the system and undermine the genuine attempt in the clause to provide a route for parents’ genuine complaints. For example, I have a constituent who has a problem with her daughter’s school, which is not providing enough homework. She seems to have failed to get redress, and I too have failed to get redress despite writing on her behalf to Ofsted and the Secretary of State.

I am minded to press the amendment to a Division, just to test the views of the Committee, because it is important to take out of the right of appeal any decision relating to the disciplining of a pupil, or any matter relating to pupil behaviour or the enforcement of the published rules of the school. It is very important that head teachers have the power to impose school rules, and they should be supported by the local authority, Ministers and the public when they try to enforce their school rules, because unless we get behaviour right in our schools, standards in education will not rise.

To support head teachers in their determination to instil discipline in schools, I want to test the views of the Committee about amendment 73, when we come to it. I would like to press amendment 73 to a vote, but in the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 72.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 73, in clause 194, page 111, line 37, at end insert—

‘(aa) a decision relating to the disciplining of a pupil or any other matter relating to pupil behaviour or the enforcement of the published rules of the school;’.—(Mr. Gibb.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I beg to move amendment 425, in clause 194, page 112, line 7, at end insert—

‘(5A) A person making a complaint under subsection (1) or, where the complainant is a parent, a pupil who the complaint relates to, has the right not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by the respondent on the grounds of the complaint.’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 149, in clause 194, page 112, line 13, after ‘school,’, insert ‘an Academy’.

The previous debate extended more widely than anticipated so I give notice that although we will discuss the specific amendment, we will not have a separate stand part debate.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am very happy with that, Mr. Chope. As you rightly said, the previous debate extended quite widely and I anticipate that we may have to touch on similar issues when we discuss amendments 2 and 71 to clause 195.

The Minister will have realised by now that I am not a fan of this part of the Bill. I would prefer it to be deleted altogether and that the powers of oversight on complaints were given to local authorities rather than the Secretary of State. However, if we are to end up with this part of the Bill, there at least needs to be consistency in the way that complaints are dealt with across different schools. One weakness that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked me to mention relates to the existing complaints mechanism. There can be difficulty pursuing complaints in relation to foundation schools, where I believe that the appeals mechanism does not even go beyond the governing body.

In a similar spirit, I am concerned that academies seem to be left out of the list of schools covered by clause 194. I cannot understand what mechanism there will be for pursuing complaints in academies beyond the governing body of academies. I would like clarification from the Government on whether there will be a consistent mechanism for complaints relating to academies. Amendment 425 deals with protection for those who complain, to make sure that any complaints that they make are not held against them.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

On Amendment 425, I would not expect any school to subject a parent or pupil to negative treatment simply because they had approached the new service. However, I realise that some parents might be concerned that their child would receive negative treatment as a consequence of their taking a complaint to the commissioner. I want to allay those fears.

In the statutory guidance on handling complaints—in which some people do not have confidence—we will make it clear that parents or pupils who complain must  not suffer any kind of negative discrimination. I stress that it is the route for complaints that will change, not the right to complain. Parents and young people already have that right and there is no evidence that anybody complaining at present suffers adverse treatment. Finally, where a complaint qualifies for consideration, a commissioner will oversee the process, making sure that it is dealt with impartially, objectively and professionally, to ensure that parents and pupils have no fear of adverse treatment simply because they have made a complaint.

Amendment 425 would bring complaints from parents or pupils in academies into the remit of the local government ombudsman. Clause 207 allows the Secretary of State to make an order amending the definition of a qualifying school, which will enable us to bring academies into the service in future, if we choose to do so. However, we have good reasons not to include them in the early stages of the pilot; there will be a gradual roll-out of the new service across England.

There are schools facing particular issues. Many schools face challenging circumstances, but academies are often the solution for those with the most entrenched problems and the most disadvantaged areas. Such projects dismantle existing structures and processes, and start from scratch to rebuild the school from the bottom; to deliver, from the moment of opening, a transformed educational experience for pupils. I cannot overestimate the challenge that represents for the academy leadership. It will not be helpful to add to that challenge by asking academies to help us iron out the processes and structures in the service during initial stages of the roll-out, when we intend to evaluate the processes in a small number of local authorities.

It should also be borne in mind that the very nature of a phased approach, where we test the mechanics of the service before the full roll-out, means that the current complaints process for schools under sections 496 and 497 of the Education Act 1996 will still apply in many local authority areas, and therefore for many complaints. Academies will need to have their own complaints process for parents, and the pupil entitlements covered by funding agreements will allow the Secretary of State to ensure that pupils in academies are not disadvantaged by the different arrangements that will apply to them during the pilot.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 12:30 pm, 26th March 2009

I have two questions for the Minister. First, in the interim period, what is the appeal mechanism for complaints that are not satisfied by the governing body? Secondly, is it his clear intention, if the trial period is continued, to have academies treated in the same way as all other state-funded schools regarding the roll-out of such a flawed complaints procedure?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Academies have a robust complaints procedure in place, regulated by legislation on independent schools standards. That means that if parents or a young person were not satisfied with the response to their complaint—made in writing—provision would be made for the complaint to be heard by a panel, which would include one person who would be independent of the management and running of the school. So we have that in place at the moment, and I have not yet made the judgment on whether I definitely want academies to  enter the complaints service. We want to get the pilot up and running and see how well it is working before we make a decision for academies. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the Minister for that run-through on the two amendments. The more I listened to his response on amendment 425, the more convinced I was that the Government have carefully taken the matter into account, and that there is no need for the amendment; the reassurances that have been given would satisfy any reasonable person. However, on amendment 149, the same is not the case. Some schools across the country will be slightly irritated to hear, for example, that academies will be exempted from the trial period because they are serving particularly deprived and disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am reluctant to intervene, because it only prolongs the pain. It is not because the academies are in disadvantaged areas, but because they are dealing with a very difficult and challenging set of circumstances in turning around the school. It is the beginnings of a service, and while we are getting it up and running, I do not want to distract them from the difficult job that they are doing.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

That is a useful clarification, but perhaps the Minister can tell me how many of the schools still in national challenge are academies and how many are not, and whether he intends to exempt the schools in national challenge that are not academies. He is sitting back—I am not sure whether he is thinking or sighing, but what he is certainly not doing is offering to intervene to explain the glaring inconsistency between the treatment of the majority of schools in national challenge that are precisely in those difficult circumstances and academies that are in exactly the same challenging circumstances, but will be exempted from it.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

There are different sorts of schools in national challenge, some of which are making good progress, and they will cross the threshold without any problem. But there are some that need a significant structural intervention, and it is likely that they will be academies, which means that they are likely to be exempted—certainly for now—from the process.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I simply do not believe that that is true. There are a huge number of schools in national challenge; some of them are improving rapidly—some of them are academies, and others are not. Many of those that are not academies may need serious intervention from their local authority. Indeed, I thought that that was what the previous clauses we have been discussing were all about. I am not convinced at all by the reasons for leaving academies out of this. If the Minister was saying that he was going to leave out all schools in similar circumstances, the Government would have a more coherent position. I understand why he might not want schools with those challenging problems to be going through this pilot, but my complaint is about the lack of consistency between different schools in the same challenges.

I was also somewhat surprised that the Minister maintained that, even if the pilots were successful and the process was rolled-out across all maintained schools, he might still be open to the possibility of not including academies. That simply underlines what we have had to come back to time and again throughout consideration of the Bill: the totally inconsistent way in which the Government treat academies compared with other schools. More importantly, there is a lack of any serious intellectual case for treating academies in such a way. I have a feeling that I will not on this occasion manage to persuade the Minister to amend this part of the Bill, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 194 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I suspend the sitting until 1.10 am. I understand that, during that period, there will be some discussion about possible progress. However, I particularly ask the usual channels to have regard to the fact that there are people in this building who were led to believe that matters would have been concluded for today by now. It is important to bring some certainty to bear on matters and, from the Chair, I implore that something definite is made apparent by the time we reassemble at 1.10 am.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I made a plea before the sitting was suspended for half an hour for some certainty regarding the proceedings. Around three hours ago, I received a communication from the Government Whip stating that she would regard getting to clause 215 as reasonable progress. On that basis I informed, through the Clerk, the Refreshment Department and other workers in the House. It now seems that, despite the relatively steady progress made since then, the Government wish, or may wish, to go beyond clause 215.

I offered to chair this afternoon’s sitting because my co-Chairman chaired a long sitting on Tuesday and was likely to have a reasonably long one today. Nobody notified my co-Chairman that proceedings were likely to carry on as late as this, but if she was still here, as was the original intention, she would have been in the Chair throughout, which would have been equivalent to around two and a half times more than a normal sitting for one day. I appeal to the usual channels to bring some clarity and reasonableness to bear on the situation. The Bill can be considered on Tuesday and I was earlier informed that the Programming Sub-Committee might meet—I do not know the full details—to enable that sitting to go on until midnight.

I appeal to all members of the Committee to think about what is happening to other people in this building. The Refreshment Department was given no notice of what was happening, and there are also police officers, Badge Messengers, Clerks and shorthand writers to consider. We should do what is reasonable. I cannot dictate things from the Chair; all I can do is appeal to the better nature of members of the Committee, and I  am doing that publicly because it would be unreasonable for us to sit beyond the time necessary to complete clause 214. If we get to that stage and the Government or anybody else insist on proceeding further, I will consider what action I can take.

I make a plea for reasonableness on the issue. There have been a number of incidents today, most of them when I have not been in the Chair—there was a period, for instance, when there was not even a quorum. We need to get down to business, but I hope that when we start debating the extra amendments on the amendment paper, we also have discussions behind the scenes and through the usual channels to bring some much-needed clarity to bear before it is too late. It is now quarter past 1 and people are entitled to know whether the Government plan for the sitting to continue until breakfast time or whenever.

As Chairman, I do not have the privilege of being able to go for a kip or whatever, so I am certainly not going to sit in the Chair without a significant break if the plan is to continue until breakfast. If the Government want to go on until then, we will consider that, but we need to be able to plan accordingly. I have said enough, so we will now move on to consider further amendments.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 1:15 am, 26th March 2009

On a point of order, Mr. Chope. I hear your plea and am certainly mindful of the strains that sitting so late puts on you and the staff to whom you have referred, and to whom we are extremely grateful for the service they are providing to us. We have sat for six hours extra this evening, but have made progress only from clause 184 to clause 195. Six hours is longer than we would have been sitting next Tuesday, so that is not reasonable progress, and we feel that it is important now to make reasonable progress.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Chope. I would like to clarify whether your comments, with which I very much agree, are directed at the usual channels. I think that you have made it clear that you are in no way suggesting that the scrutiny of the Bill should be compromised, and you will understand that we are keen to ensure that we scrutinise it rigorously, because it is extremely important and could place onerous responsibilities on all the institutions involved. I support what you have said, but note that it is directed at the usual channels, not at the scrutiny being undertaken by those on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I will make one further comment on the points of order. If it was thought reasonable at 10.30 pm that the Committee should adjourn when we reach clause 215, it does not now seem reasonable that we should adjourn after getting beyond clause 215, bearing in mind the time that has elapsed since then. I will say no more on that, other than that I hope that constructive discussions will take place while we consider further amendments.