Clause 1

Children, Schools and Families Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 28th January 2010.

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Pupil and parent guarantees

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

I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 1, page 2, line 25, at end insert

‘, the signing of which shall be a condition of admission to the school;’.

Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 43, in clause 4, page 6, line 33, at end add—

‘(12) Section 111 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 is amended as follows.

(13) For subsection (4) there shall be substituted—

“(4) The governing body of a school to which section 110(1) applies or the local authority where it is the admissions authority for such a school may—

(a) invite a parent or carer to sign the parental declaration at a time when the child in question has not been admitted to the school; and

(b) make it a condition of a child being admitted to a school that the parental declaration is signed in respect of the child. and in this subsection “admission authority” has the meaning given by section 88(1).”.

(14) Subsection (5) shall be repealed.’.

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

Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Amess. Amendment 39 amends clause 1(5) on parent guarantees, paragraph (b) of which introduces the guarantee of a home-school agreement. It would change the provision so that such a home-school agreement

“shall be a condition of admission to the school”.

Amendment 43 would amend clause 4 on home-school agreements and would enable a school or admission authority to make them a condition of admission. The Bill acknowledges that home-school agreements have not been an effective means of ensuring compliance with school rules or of ensuring good behaviour. They are good in that they set out the ethos of a school and what is expected of pupils, but because schools are not permitted to make the signing of such an agreement a condition of admission, they lack enforcement.

According to the explanatory notes, clauses 4 and 5 explicitly acknowledge that, by tying the

“discharge by parents of their responsibilities under home-school agreements to parenting contracts and orders”.

They say that the legislation will be amended so that, in every parenting contract,

“there is a statement by the parent that they agree to discharge their responsibilities set out in the home-school agreement”.

The concern about the effectiveness of home-school agreements was made even clearer in the impact assessment, which states on page 8 that

“existing HSA legislation is ineffective in underpinning parent/school relationships.”

As the hon. Member for Yeovil said on Tuesday, the assessment goes on to say that

“HSAs are largely ineffective at present: bureaucratic process with few real benefits.”

It is clear that the Government share our view about the lack of enforcement provisions of home-school agreements, but their proposals to tackle the problem seem extreme and unlikely to be realised.

Invoking the parenting contract and parenting order legislation when parents or pupils fail to comply with the home-school agreement seems to be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Paragraphs 2.8 and 2.9 of the White Paper state:

“At the moment, all schools have a Home School Agreement, but not all parents sign on. So we will now strengthen Home School Agreements so that all parents and pupils understand their responsibilities to follow the school rules and support good behaviour from the outset.”

So far, so good, but the White Paper goes on to say that

“We will therefore ensure that when applying for schools for their child, all parents will receive each school’s behaviour policy as it will appear in their Home School Agreement. In applying for a school place every parent will now agree to adhere to these rules. If parents have difficulty understanding the requirements, we will ensure that they get the support they need.”

That sounds like a requirement to sign a home-school agreement, as a condition of admission, except that it then states:

“It would be wrong to make signing the Home School Agreement a condition of admission, as this could unfairly deny a child a school place. However, once their child is in school the parents will be expected to sign the Home School Agreement each year, and parents will face real consequences if they fail to live up to the responsibilities set out within.”— that is all very tough, but—

“We will bring forward changes to the law so that parents’ unwillingness to sign up and support their school’s behaviour policy can be used by schools to support applications to the courts for Parenting Contracts and Parenting Orders.”

So the Government do not want to make signing a home-school agreement a condition of admission to a school, but if a parent refuses to sign the agreement, the school should take those parents to court. That is an extreme approach to take.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Let us envisage a hypothetical situation. If it were made an absolute condition of admission to a school that a home-school contract should be signed, what school would a pupil go to if a parent refused?

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

I shall come on to that, but I shall touch on it now to the extent of saying that that is a sign, is it not, of a problem with parenting. The Government’s approach is rather bizarre. Surely it is more sensible to make signing a home-school agreement a condition of admission to a school. That would encourage the vast majority of parents to sign and would make all the parents fully cognisant of the fact that their child’s continued place at the school depended on their fulfilling the obligations in the agreement, including on behaviour and homework.

If the parents refused to sign, thereby, as the White Paper said, unfairly denying their own child a place at the school, that would surely be the point at which to question their parenting skills—not when a child swore in class or acted out in the school.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I accept the point about parents, and the necessity for parental responsibility. No one would disagree with that. I am raising the sheer practicality of making it an absolute condition for admission to a school that the parent should sign the home-school contract. What would happen if the parent had not signed it by the time the child was due to start school?

It is all very well to say that the parent should have done so, but that does not overcome the point that a child would have been prevented from going to school by his parents’ failure to sign a home-school agreement. That would be the consequence of the amendment, even though we all agree about the necessity for responsible parenting.

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

That is the advantage of the independent sector over the state sector at the moment. If parents do not sign up to the ethos of the school, the child cannot go to it. That means that the leadership of those schools has real power in enforcing the school rules.

The Minister raises a good point in asking what would happen to the children of parents who refused to sign. There is no reason why they should not sign. Why should they refuse to sign the home-school agreement? If they do not sign, it is an early warning sign of parenting problems in those schools.

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

Yes, in a moment.

The Government’s approach is to say, “You do not need to sign, but when you get into the school you are expected to comply with the agreement; and then we will go to court to seek parenting orders and parenting contracts when a child or parent disobeys the rules in the home-school agreement. However, that is a very large task.

Many children, including children of parents who have signed the home-school agreement, will breach the rules by messing up in class, not doing their homework, or persistently behaving poorly; and the Government’s approach means that court action will be taken to obtain parenting contracts in relation to thousands of children. That seems extreme and onerous; and consequently it will not happen. Head teachers will not do that in the numbers envisaged.

It is far better to say, “We expect parents to sign the home-school agreement as a condition of their children coming to the school”; 99 per cent. of parents will do that. It would then be possible to isolate a tiny minority of parents who refused to sign the agreement. Why do they refuse to say that their child will behave in class, or that their child will do their homework on time? It is an early indication of problems.

It is better to focus the resources of the state on the tiny minority of parents who clearly show early signs of poor parenting.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a considerable difference between the attitude of parents who are in a position, and willing, to spend thousands of pounds on a private education, and the small proportion of parents who are likely to be in the group we are talking about, whose children go to state schools and, for all sorts of reasons, perhaps including mental health reasons, may not be willing to sign the agreements?

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

Of course there is a difference; but the key similarity is that the ability to refuse admission to a child due to problems with behaviour will be the same in both sectors. That will level the playing field to some extent between the state and independent sectors. The hon. Gentleman made a good point. If there is a minority of parents—and there will be—who refuse to sign these agreements, we have to find out their reasons and tackle them. Whatever the problem with a child’s learning—be it dyslexia or other learning difficulties—it is better to identify it early. In that respect, phonics is a good way of teaching children to read, because it identifies children with problems early on, and the same is true here. If we require parents to sign a home-school agreement before their child is admitted to the school, and they refuse for mental health reasons or simply as a result of poor parenting, we will have a good way of picking up problems early.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

The hon. Gentleman may not agree, but we had a short debate earlier in the week about home-school agreements including an individual learning plan, so it would be difficult in practical terms for parents to sign the more general home-school agreement in advance if they have not had an opportunity in school to discuss how the personalised plan will work alongside it. I know that the hon. Gentleman is against including a personalised plan, but it is part of the debate, and if it goes forward, it is difficult to see how parents could sign in advance. However, I agree that they should sign, and they should sign quickly.

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

I do not agree with that approach to home-school agreements, so the right hon. Lady answered her own question. That is one reason why they should not be personalised. Personalising a child’s pastoral  care is an issue for the personal tutor to decide on a one-to-one basis with the pupil; it is not an issue for the home-school agreement, which is about the school’s general ethos, rules and behaviour policy.

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

Before the debate goes any further, I want to be clear about what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. He seems to be suggesting that no child whose parent has not signed an agreement should be admitted to a state-funded school.

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

Yes, indeed. There is no reason why they should not sign. What is the reason why they should not sign? The hon. Gentleman cites mental health difficulties, but if the parent’s mental health problems prevent them from signing a contract, what else are they preventing them from doing in parenting their child? A refusal to sign the agreement will be a good early indication to the social services that they need to keep an eye on the family and perhaps help them and give them support.

If the parents refuse to sign because they simply do not agree that their child should turn up on time for school, complete their homework and behave in the class, there are, again, problems with their parenting. Those parenting problems should not be foisted on the school and left for staff to sort out; they need to be sorted out by those in the system who have specialist knowledge and expertise in helping parents with parenting skills.

We have covered the arguments in favour of the amendments. The key point is that the Conservative approach to admissions will enable social services to give the tiny minority of parents who refuse to sign an agreement the help and support that they need. The Government’s approach would condemn tens of thousands of parents to parenting orders and parenting contracts and to involvement in the courts, simply because their children would not adhere to the school ethos. That is an absurd way of conducting home-school agreements in our education system.

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

Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I am afraid that my colleagues and I cannot support these two linked amendments, because we are concerned that they would have a very adverse impact in a small number of cases. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, who is a pleasant, charming and responsible person, assumes that everybody else in society is the same. There is a small minority of parents whose behaviour is not so bad or damaging that their children are taken out of the family home and into custody, but who are not always responsible and who may, for reasons that he and I cannot predict, decide that they will not sign the agreement. I have seen a small number of people at my advice centre recently who have custody of their children, but who have mental health and other problems that mean that their approach to parenting is a good deal further from what the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps I, would like. Nevertheless, they have custody of their children, and it is extremely unlikely in those circumstances that social services would take the children out of their custody.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman think that such problems should become the school’s problem, given that schools are staffed by teachers, who are academics  and are not trained in improving parenting skills? I realise, as he says, that such problems are not sufficiently serious to warrant taking children out of their parents’ custody, but none the less, ought they not more properly to be dealt with by people with the right specialism, namely, social services?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 9:15 am, 28th January 2010

The hon. Gentleman’s proposal would make it less likely that the problems were dealt with, because the children would then not be in a school environment and would not receive direct support from the school and linked services. He will know that this Government have tried—so far, the aspirations have not been met on the ground, but at least we are moving in that direction—to establish more services for children in order to deal with the absence from their home environment of precisely the support that he wants. However, I fear that if we exclude a small number of children from education because their parents—for whatever reason, however irrational it might seem to him—are not willing to sign the contracts, it will condemn those youngsters to even greater disadvantage.

The hon. Gentleman gave a couple of linked reasons for objecting to the Bill as it stands. One, which does not stand up, is the suggestion that if a young person is effectively excluded from school, at least something will happen to trigger communication with their family in order to get to the bottom of the problems. I agree that early warning signs of parental irresponsibility are important, but paragraph 25 of the Government policy statement that has been issued alongside the Bill gives a clear indication that the Government intend that action will be taken if a parent decides not to sign an agreement. Paragraph 25 specifically says:

“If agreement cannot be reached, and the HSA was not complied with by the parents or the child, the school would trigger further discussion, for instance through a Parent Support Adviser, and then possibly early intervention by other professionals if there was cause for concern.”

That is precisely the type of intervention that the hon. Gentleman is trying to trigger through his suggestion that the child be excluded from school, but it will not lead to the draconian effect of excluding a child from education from which they could benefit. Such a thing might leave children in a home environment in which I do not think that he would want them to be left, particularly if the parent was not prepared to sign the agreement for reasons that would appear irrational to him and me.

This is the critical issue raised by the amendment. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there are concerns about whether home-school agreements are effective. However, if they are to be effective, there must be a mechanism for taking action against breaches, and that mechanism should surely apply equally to parents who have and who have not signed. I agree that it would be totally wrong if parents who were irresponsible enough not to sign the agreements could not be held to account in the same way as parents who had signed.

Paragraph 44 of the Department’s policy statement says:

“In cases where children misbehave, or their attendance is poor, there will be an explicit link between non-compliance with the HSA, and parenting contracts and orders. It will be a legal requirement for a parenting contract to include a statement by the parent that they will comply with the provisions of the relevant  HSA and the school will provide support to the parent to help manage the child’s behaviour. Non-compliance with an HSA will be something that a court can take into account when deciding to make a parenting order.”

Will the Minister clarify whether that means that the courts will be able to act more effectively and decisively and with greater strength when an HSA has been signed than when it has not? I suggest that if the powers are equivalent, it should give us comfort, although it raises the question of precisely what is the point of signing the agreements. If a failure to sign made it more difficult for the courts to take action, there would be a loophole. That would require an amendment to the Bill, albeit not along the lines proposed in amendment 39, to ensure that the irresponsible minority of parents were not able to make it more difficult to enforce home-school agreements, and parenting contracts and orders. We look for some reassurance from the Minister that irresponsible parents who fail to sign will not be in an advantageous position when it comes to taking action.

For the reasons that I have given, we would be unwilling to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. The amendment makes an assumption about the world out there, but we cannot legislate on the basis that everyone is as nice, responsible, reasonable and sensible as the hon. Gentleman without taking serious risks.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

Whenever I see such amendments, I am instinctively attracted to them, because it would be nice to think that everything could be so straightforward. At present, the vast majority of parents sign home-school agreements without quibbling, but things sometimes go wrong. Most of this morning’s debate has been about the parents who wilfully choose not to sign such agreements, but we need to address the underlying issues, and that will have to be done somewhere along the way because children leaving year 6 will sooner or later have to attend another educational establishment.

The other aspect of the debate is that mistakes can be made—people lose forms or do not send them in. I would be worried if parents who, to all intents and purposes, were well-meaning and wanted to do the best by their children had someone from the school or the local authority chasing them for a form. That could lead to them being wrapped up in a series of official consequences, but it would be due to nothing more than a mistake or an oversight in the hustle and bustle of real life. Can any member of the Committee honestly say, as an MP or otherwise, that they have always filled in forms correctly—that subject has been quite topical over the past year or so? We are all vulnerable and frail.

The important thing, however, is what happens when the child enters school. Schools can support parents who, for one reason or another, decide that they do not want to sign the forms. Some people might not sign because they do not care enough about the ethos of school or their role as parents, while others might be anarchists who do not want to sign such forms.

Supporting schools is important. I would say to my hon. Friend the Minister that throughout these debates, we must remember that we want schools to have a greater idea of what action they can take on home-school agreements. Some forms might not be signed, but the more worrying problem for schools is that although most people sign them, not all abide by them.

I have said to my hon. Friend before that there seems to be ignorance among head teachers—ignorance is a not sin—about how to use the current powers on parenting orders, and perhaps a cultural unwillingness to use them. We set benchmarks and rules, but people ultimately end up wringing their hands because they want someone else to take a decision or more affirmative action to deal with the problem. We should not forget that when such problems occur in schools, it is not just about a single family, because the negativity often has an impact on other children in the class and elsewhere.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will deal with those matters. Although I am attracted to the simple way forward suggested by the amendment, it is fraught with problems. However, once a child enters a school, it is important that the home-school agreement is discussed with parents, whether they have signed it or not. We should also remember that people can just sign things and then put them to the back of their mind, never thinking about them again until a crisis emerges. I hope that that will not happen.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Good morning to you, Mr. Amess, and all members of the Committee.

We have had an important little debate, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley hit the nail on the head. The idea of not signing a home-school agreement probably does not seem reasonable to any of us. In an ideal world, we would all come together, discuss the home-school agreement and sign it, but in the real world, although we all want that to happen and we have to take every action to try to ensure that it happens, it simply does not happen, for some of the reasons given by the hon. Member for Yeovil and my right hon. Friend. For those reasons, Ian Craig, the chief schools adjudicator, has said:

“I welcome your intention to strengthen...such agreements, and also your continued view that the statement in section 1.55 of the current School Admissions Code that ‘admission to school must not be conditional on parents signing home-school agreements’ must remain in force. I am certain that the ‘outlawing’ of conditionality is essential to ensure that the admissions system remains as fair as possible, and readily accessible to all parents and carers.

That is the nub of the debate, although we can go round and round on this. No one disagrees with the intent behind what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is trying to do. He says that he wants parents to take responsibility—that this is about parenting skills. That is absolutely right. I agree with him and share the frustration that he, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and all of us have about some parents’ unwillingness to support the school or work with it in a way that we would think acceptable.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is right to say that the system should try to address problem and that there are other issues that need to be considered, but we come back to two central points. First, I do not know the figures, but let us say that we got to a point where the parents of x number of children in this country simply refused to sign a home-school agreement. If the amendment were accepted, it would then mean that x number of children in this country would not be able to go to school.

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

Does the Minister think that local authority social services should keep an eye on parents who refuse to sign a home-school agreement, and perhaps intervene  and pay a visit to that family, or does he think that they should leave them alone and the consequences should be left to the family?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I do not think that such parents should necessarily just be left alone, but it is a good job that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness is not here when his colleague is talking about keeping registers of people who have not signed home-school agreements and the question of whether they could be the subject to home visits and checks. I shall keep schtum, however. I will not share what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said with the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, and nor will I mention it when the home-education debate comes up.

However, I take the serious point made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. It might be that the issue under discussion should be taken into account. We are trying to say that we cannot predict all the different reasons why people do not sign. There might be wilful non-signing, and some people might have an objection in principle. All I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is that his proposal would mean that a number of children would not have a school place, and I would also be concerned that some schools might use such a measure as a back-door method of selection.

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

Can the Minister imagine what social services departments throughout the country would say to the proposal that they should be tracking children whose parents are not abiding by and signing home-school agreements? Social services departments can barely do their existing job of child protection and already concentrate on the very small proportion of children with welfare concerns. The idea that they can extend their role into education when, in my view, they are not even able to do their existing child protection job is simply not realistic.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 9:30 am, 28th January 2010

There are practical consequences to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but part of the thrust of the Government’s agenda is to try to ensure a greater joined-up delivery of services between schools, social services, children’s services, health, police and so on. We ought to use all the information that we get to try to ensure that the different parts of the system work together to address the problems. Parental responsibility is important for society, but simply requiring someone to sign a home-school agreement is not the right way to generate such responsibility. We all share a frustration when some people do not act reasonably.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

As we are discussing the role of social services in education, will the Minister say what role home-school agreements will play when an education supervision order is made?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The education supervision order is one aspect of the system; alongside it will run the home-school agreement—an agreement between the school and the parent. The supervision order aims to enforce certain requirements. The home-school agreement is valuable, but there will be no legal requirement for parents to sign it.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous in accepting interventions. The hon. Member for Yeovil spoke of social services being involved when parents do not abide by the home-school agreement, but they would be involved in only a tiny minority of cases when a parent refuses to sign a home-school agreement. The hon. Gentleman implied that, because social services departments are stretched and lacking resources, responsibility should pass to schools, which do not have the expertise in parenting and dealing with families who are in difficulty. That would be an absurd way for our system to function. If there are problems in social services departments, and they have capacity constraints, we need to deal with them and not pass responsibility to head teachers.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I think that the hon. Gentleman answers the point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil. Of course schools will not always have the expertise necessary to deal with the problems that a parent or family might have, which is why we need to ensure greater clarity about the different roles in the system and that they are better joined-up. That is the point of the schools agenda.

The hon. Member for Yeovil made a point about non-compliance. Parenting contracts and parenting orders are available for any parent. As my right hon. Friend for Don Valley said, someone can sign a home-school agreement, but not really mean it—they can just tick it and comply for an easy life. Parenting contracts and parenting orders will be available for anyone to deal with any parent, but the courts should consider them when deciding whether to grant a parenting order. That is not the case at the moment.

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

Is the Minister therefore saying that, in trying to enforce the home-school agreements or taking action against parents who are not abiding by them, it would not in practice make any difference whether the home-school agreement had been signed or whether the parent had refused to sign it? Would the enforcement powers and the attitudes of the court be exactly the same under both circumstances?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

We are saying that parenting contracts—the voluntary agreements—are available to schools, local authorities and others. Parenting orders are available to the courts, irrespective of whether someone has signed a home-school agreement. The fact that the parent has not signed the home-school agreement may be a consideration for the court in determining whether to grant a parenting order or what its terms should be. The home-school agreement aims to put some teeth into the system by saying that there may be a consequence for parents who do not sign the agreement.

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

I am still a bit confused, because I assume that the point of the parent signing the home-school agreement is to give it some greater enforceability and meaning, and to provide for follow-through if it is breached. If, however, somebody refuses to sign them, does that make it more difficult to achieve the enforcement that the signature is designed to reinforce?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

No, the actions of the parent, including whether they have signed the agreement, will determine whether a parenting contract or parenting order will be pursued. If a contract is not signed, the court might want to take that fact into account in determining whether to impose an order.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

I am sure that my hon. Friend has many grandparents coming to him, as I do, about problems with their grandchildren, because the parents are on drugs. Parents on drugs will not sign any form, because they will not understand it. Is there provision in the Bill that I have missed whereby grandparents can sign instead of parents and can effectively act as a parent? The Bill certainly says that a child can sign an agreement if the school is satisfied that the child understands what they are signing. I want to ensure that we will not take parents to court just because they are under the influence of drugs, when there is a perfectly adequate set of grandparents who can sign the agreement for them.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that point. The people who sign the home-school agreement have parental responsibility for the child or young person, but a parenting order is the last step; before that, there would be a parenting contract. The court does not have to grant a parenting order because somebody has not signed a home-school agreement.

One would expect the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes to be dealt with in other ways. If parents are under the influence of drugs and therefore are not caring for their child, one would expect that grandparents to step in and all sorts of other things would happen.

This measure is not about trying to penalise those people who are trying to deal with difficult circumstances and who are trying to bring up their children properly. It is about trying to deal with people who are wilfully not seeking to work with a school to improve standards of behaviour and support the ethos of the school.

Mr. Lawsrose—

Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. I am listening very carefully to the exchanges, but the debate is getting very wide of the amendment.

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

I hope that my question is related to the amendment, Mr. Amess. The amendment covers what happens if the home-school agreement is not signed. My assumption is that these measures are in the Bill to try to give home-school agreements greater enforceability, through the requirement for a parent’s signature. However, the problem is that the Minister implies that, if people do not bother to sign the agreement, it makes no difference to the ability to enforce the agreement. Will the parent’s supposedly compulsory or semi-compulsory signature improve the enforceability of home-school agreements, compared with the present situation?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Of course it will and the expectation is that the vast majority of parents will sign and that schools will work closely with parents who will not sign. There might be different reasons why some people do not sign, but the home-school agreement has been broadly welcomed. Everywhere I go, head teachers, teachers and parents of pupils who sign the agreement welcome the fact that an attempt is being made to try to deal with parents who do not sign, not for the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, regarding those who have mental health problems or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley mentioned, issues with alcohol or drug addiction, but because they refuse to work with  the school or seek to undermine the school’s ethos. We are trying to make available a measure to deal with that problem.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. This is the first time I have intervened in this Committee, and, rather than go another day without appearing in Hansard, I would like to ask how the important question of parental responsibility will apply to children in care. Will the placing authority be responsible for signing the contract for the child? Will it be a foster carer if the child is in foster care? In special guardianship orders, who will have the ultimate responsibility to sign and maintain the agreement?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I understand that it will be the person or body that has responsibility for the child.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

What about special guardianship?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Whoever has the parental, day-to-day responsibility for the young person will be responsible for the agreement. If that is not correct, I will correct myself in due course.

I believe that the amendments are well intentioned, but they would have unintended consequences, so I ask the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to withdraw them.

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

This has been an illuminating debate, but, the Minister has not answered the key question that is in the White Paper. It states that during the application process,

“all parents will receive each school’s behaviour policy as it will appear in their home-school agreement. In applying for a school place every parent will now agree to adhere to these rules.”

I cannot see the distinction between what it says in the White Paper and amendments 39 and 43, which simply say that unless a parent signs the home-school agreement their child will not be admitted to the school. I do not see the difference between that and a school uniform policy that says that unless the child turns up in school uniform, according to the school rules, they will not be admitted to the school. Schools have those rules, and they need to be obeyed by parents and the pupils attending the school. The amendments shift the balance back to the head teacher and teachers. The power to instil good behaviour and the ethos of the school should rest with the head teacher and teachers.

In the past 10 to 20 years, for all kinds of reasons, that power has shifted from the head teacher and teachers, particularly in schools serving the most deprived and challenging parts of our country. The amendment, which reflects a wider Conservative approach to education policy, will help schools in the most challenging areas the most, as they, generally speaking, have the poorest behaviour policies, which let down children in those schools to a greater extent—although I could give examples of schools in leafy suburbs that have equally or more difficult behaviour problems.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the number of permanent exclusions has gradually declined, but the number of repeat suspensions has increased alarmingly. There are now almost 14,000 children a year who are suspended from school five or more times in a single year. Those children are not being helped—they are not receiving  specialist help. All that is happening to them is that they are spending five or six days roaming the streets before going back to the school and repeating poor behaviour.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I confirm that, for children in care, the person with parental responsibility will sign—for example, the local authority. A guardianship order gives parental responsibility, and the guardian appointed by the court signs. Under all circumstances, the person with parental responsibility signs the home-school agreement. Having checked the matter, I confirm that what I said was right.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 9:45 am, 28th January 2010

I am grateful for that intervention, which will reassure Opposition Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

Tackling poor behaviour in our schools must be the primary objective of any education policy today. There is not too much difference between what we and the Government want to achieve in clause 4, but I do not believe that the Government’s approach will work. Head teachers do not want to become involved in issuing parenting orders and parenting contracts wholesale in the courts. The reality is that the provision will not be used if it gets on to the statute book, so we will be in the same position as we are now. Given the importance of the issue, I would like to withdraw the amendment so that we can debate the issues more fully later and with a wider cross-section of Members of Parliament. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 155, in clause 1, page 2, line 45, after ‘person’, insert

‘provided that the bodies added do not include private schools.’.—(Mr. Laws.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment 40, in clause 1, page 3, line 3, at end add—

‘(11) A pupil or parent guarantee shall not be capable of creating any obligation in respect of whose breach any liability arises in contract or tort.’.

Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 154, in clause 1, page 3, line 3, at end add—

‘(11) A parent who believes that a pupil or parent guarantee is not being delivered may appeal to the head teacher in the first instance, and if not satisfied to the governing body, and  thereafter to the local authority within whose area the school is located. There will be no further appeal to the Secretary of State or to the Local Government Ombudsman, and no obligation shall arise from the guarantee whose breach would create the basis for a challenge through the courts.’.

Amendment 128, in clause 3, page 3, line 28, leave out subsection (1).

Amendment 118, in clause 3, page 3, line 29, leave out from ‘after’ to the end of line 35 and insert ‘subsection (1) there is inserted—

“(1A) A failure by the headteacher of a school to comply with any requirement (including a requirement to have a regard to guidance) imposed on the head teacher by virtue of subsection (2) of section 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 (pupil and parent guarantees) shall not be a complaint to which this Chapter applies;

(1B) A complaint to which subsection (1A) applies shall be made to the governing body of the school about which the complaint arises.”’.

Amendment 119, in clause 3, page 3, line 36, leave out subsections (2) to (5).

Amendment 129, in clause 3, page 3, line 36, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment 156, in clause 3, page 5, line 20, at end add—

‘(6) The Local Government Ombudsman will not investigate complaints relating to the Pupil and Parent Guarantees which are regarded by the Ombudsman as unreasonable or vexatious.’.

Amendment 181, in clause 3, page 5, line 20, at end add—

‘( ) Any complaint made about the performance of a pupil guarantee or a parent guarantee shall be considered taking into account the resources made available to the school or the local authority to be able to comply with the guarantee.

( ) It is not intended to grant the pupil or parent a right to monetary compensation for any failings to comply with, or comply fully with, any pupil guarantee or parent guarantee.’.

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

Amendment 40 would make it clear in the Bill that pupil and parent guarantees are not intended to create legal obligations that can be enforced in the courts under tort or breach of contract. The amendment’s wording is lifted from section 111(6) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which was Labour’s first key education legislation after the 1997 election. Subsection (6) prevented home-school agreements from being enforceable in the courts, and it makes sense to add such a provision to the clause that introduces pupil and parent guarantees.

The biggest fear of all the critics of pupil and parent guarantees is that people will end up in the courts. One union, the Association of School and College Leaders, said in its brief to the Committee:

ASCL believes that the creation of these guarantees will open the flood gates for increased litigation against schools.”

The National Union of Teachers told us:

NUT head teachers are concerned that without adequate resources or provision for staff training these proposals may leave schools vulnerable to litigious parents or over-eager lawyers who have misinterpreted the Government’s intentions. The NUT is concerned that any breaches of the guarantees should not be treated as akin to breaches of statutory duty in the health and safety sphere granting persons distinct rights to legal action and monetary compensation.”

In his evidence to the Committee last week, John Dunford, the ASCL’s general secretary, said:

“Our main concerns about the Bill are around the guarantees and potential in an increasingly litigious society for parents to take up an awful lot of head teachers’ time in disputing what are  rather uncertain and woolly guarantees.”——[Official Report, Children, Schools and Families Public Bill Committee, 19 January 2010; c. 4.]

Mick Brookes said:

“I think that some of the measures, if we are not careful, will give licence to vexatious parents or parents with frivolous complaints. That is one danger if the measures stay.”

Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said:

“Where we have worries...is on what the rights mean when they are translated into legislation.”

She went on to say:

“It is important that we do not get what John Dunford called a whinger’s charter or serial complaints.”——[Official Report, Children, Schools and Families Public Bill Committee, 19 January 2010; c. 29-30, Q38.]

It would be far better if we could make it clear in the Bill that court action is not possible as a result of the guarantees introduced by clause 1.

Amendments 118 and 119 would direct complaints about the school under the pupil and parent guarantees to the governing body. When I complain about a service provided to me it is the board of directors of the company to whom I ultimately complain, and the amendment parallels that approach and would avoid the consumption of vast amounts of head teachers’ and courts’ time.

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

Having had to diverge from the views of the hon. Gentleman on the previous group of amendments, I am pleased to say that I am back on side with him on the present group, many of which were tabled by Liberal Democrat Members. We are very concerned about the complaints mechanisms that will be established as a consequence of clause 3.

The hon. Gentleman has quoted many of the observations of professional bodies and teaching unions about clause 3 and the powers given under clause 1. He will be pleased to know that I was going to use exactly the same quotations. However, in his brief speech he missed out the contribution of the Local Government Association, which gives me something to say, because it is very concerned about the proposed complaints mechanism. It said that the proposals

“will create an extensive system of rights of appeals for parents and pupils against head teachers, governing bodies and local councils if they feel they have not complied with the requirements of the guarantees.”

It continued:

“The LGA would like to be assured that these rights will actually help schools improve and will not just create unnecessary additional burdens for schools and councils.”

It goes so far as to say it would like the removal of subsection (2), right to the end of the clause, and has explicitly supported amendments 118, 119, 156 and 177. I think that the last of those is not in the group.

It is worth stepping back for a second and thinking about the complaints mechanisms for parents. A parent or pupil who is concerned about whether the guarantees are being observed by a school will presumably be able to complain to the class teacher, as the first point of contact, and then to the head teacher about the same issue, if they feel that their concerns have not been dealt with.

If they are not happy with the head teacher’s response they will be able to complain to the governing body. If they are not satisfied with its response they can presumably  still exercise a right to go to the local authority, if the school in question is under its strategic oversight. If they are not satisfied with the response of the local authority they will, under the new proposals, be able to go to the local government ombudsman. If the ombudsman supports the parents and pupil but is not successful in securing from the school the changes they desire, there will be a further potential appeal to the Secretary of State, who may then underpin the recommendation of the ombudsman. In addition to all that there is the potential threat of legal action.

There are six or seven potential layers of complaint. We all want complaint mechanisms for people who use and depend on public services and who feel that they are getting a raw deal. It is right that there should be complaint mechanisms; it would be wrong to assume that we should have a take-it-or-leave-it system of public services where people cannot do anything about poor quality of service. However, there must be some balance and proportionality. To have six or seven layers of appeal is hugely time-consuming and potentially expensive, and there is a worry that the new complaint mechanisms might make vexatious complaints difficult to palm off.

The Minister and I had this debate in the context of the last education Act, so I will not rehearse it entirely, but I suggest that the standards of evidence collection likely to be required by an ombudsman service and the extent of ombudsmen’s inquiries into complaints are of a different order of magnitude and involve much less discretion than the complaint mechanisms of schools, head teachers, governing bodies and local authorities.

I do not say that the idea has no value, because many people clearly feel that their complaints are not taken seriously at “lower” levels, but considerable bureaucracy and cost will be involved. Schools will be extremely nervous at the prospect of having complaints investigated by an ombudsman and will feel compelled to collect much more evidence to show that they have attempted to deliver the guarantees, which are often vaguely phrased, making it difficult to prove that they have been met. The prospect of being taken to court will be an even greater concern.

All that could make schools extremely cautious and could lead them to keep vast amounts of records and documentation, try to anticipate potential problems and complaints early on and spend a lot of their time fending them off or preparing to do so. The proposed complaints mechanism could run out of control and prove counter-productive for schools, parents and pupils, the vast majority of whom will probably not need to use it.

The amendments would prevent complaints about pupil and parent guarantees from moving up to higher levels. We do not want them to go to the local government ombudsman. We expressed concern during debate on the last education Bill about involving the local government ombudsman in school complaints, and we opposed measures to do so. We do not want these complaints to go to the local government ombudsman either. We think that in many cases, the ombudsman will struggle to understand what the guarantees are and establish meaningfully whether they have been met. We certainly do not want vexatious complaints to be pursued. I am sure that the Minister will agree with that; I hope that he will agree to put it on the face of the Bill, because it would reassure many people.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I will restate this in my remarks, but it is already in legislation that the local government ombudsman has the power not to hear complaints that he considers vexatious, so we do not need to put it in the Bill.

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

I am grateful to the Minister. He has reminded me that the same issue arose when we debated the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. I need to reflect whether it needs underlining in this part of the Bill. I think that people would be reassured by it, but they will also be grateful to hear from the Minister that the previous Bill covers the issue.

The amendments also seek to deal with the potential for court challenges. I am not sure whether that is what the Government want, but we need to be clear about it. Amendment 40 would make that clear, as would amendment 154 by removing the potential for appeals going to higher levels. Amendment 128 would have a similar effect. Amendment 118, which we and the Local Government Association support, is a Conservative amendment and would also achieve that result, as would amendments 119 and 129.

Amendment 156 is supported by the Local Government Association. It would give the local government ombudsman greater flexibility when deciding which complaints to pursue relating to the pupil and parent guarantees. It would allow him not to pursue complaints that he regarded as unreasonable or vexatious.

I should be grateful for the Minister’s clarification, because I cannot remember whether the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 covers unreasonable as well as vexatious behaviour. There is clearly a difference between the two and, given our concerns about the way in which complaints may multiply under the new system and the cost, we want the widest possible flexibility for the ombudsman not to have to pursue complaints that fall into those categories.

Finally, amendment 181 would ensure that any investigations into complaints about the pupil and parent guarantees would be required to consider the resources available to local schools and the local authorities in question, and would prevent complaints from leading to monetary compensation. Both matters are important, and it would be sensible if the ombudsman, the courts and any other bodies involved could take into account the practical ability of schools to deliver on some of the guarantees that the Government have already planned to put in place—of course, the guarantees could change in the future. It is possible that a Government might get carried away with the guarantee concept, if it were successfully implemented under the Bill, and could then put in place all sorts of proposals that it might not be possible to fund, particularly if the school budgets are cut by a future Government. Many people would therefore welcome such reassurance.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 10:00 am, 28th January 2010

I shall first comment on the debate and follow that with an explanation.

I agree with the sentiments of the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and for Yeovil. None of us wants the sort of problems to occur for head teachers, schools or local authorities that they have outlined, whatever our view about the necessity for guarantees and whether they are good or a bad thing.  We do not want to create the problems to which both hon. Gentlemen have alluded. I will reflect on the points made, but I ask the hon. Gentlemen not to press the amendments. I have put on record that we will look at the issue and see whether we need to deal with the points more directly.

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

The amendments raise a range of different issues from vexatious complaints to the complexity of the ombudsman making judgments. Will the Minister explain which parts of the amendments he feels more and less sympathetic to? As he has said, the ASCL Act already includes the ombudsman mechanisms, so I assume that he is not planning to delete that in respect of the guarantees.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Not necessarily. I want to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point about the ASCL Act, but I cannot do that during this sitting because I need to go away and properly reflect on it. He made a reasonable point when he asked whether the ASCL Act, as currently drafted, includes the word “unreasonable”. Luckily, I have the Act with me and it does not mention the word “unreasonable”. It states:

“A Local Commissioner may in particular decide not to investigate a complaint...if satisfied that the complaint is vexatious.”

I will need legal advice on any difference that adding the word “unreasonable” would make. However, I have heard what he has said and I have also taken on board the points made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. I need to reflect on them, take advice and then come back, if necessary, with the reassurances that the hon. Gentlemen seek. The Government might need to clarify the position to prevent the problems highlighted by Opposition Members, which Labour Members would not want to occur either.

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

Is it the Minister’s view that the guarantees in clause 1 will not create any obligation or liability in tort or contract that could be challenged in court?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Yes; the legal advice that I have been given is that that is the case.

I would not normally do this, but because this is a legal argument, I shall read my script, as it is important to ensure that there is clarity. My statement will answer one or two of the points made by the hon. Gentleman in respect of contractual obligations, and by the hon. Member for Yeovil in respect of compensation. I put it in context, not only because it will answer the questions, but because it is extremely important for those who read our deliberations. Before reading this statement, I want to say that I have taken on board the comments made by both hon. Gentlemen. I will reflect on them and, if necessary, we will make changes to the Bill on Report. I wish to take proper account of their points and ensure that the situation is clear.

The guarantee document does not create a contract between parents or pupils and the school, because it is a public law document. Guarantee documents can impose public law duties on local authorities, governing bodies and head teachers. A redress mechanism for breach is contained in the Bill. The Bill is not intended to create private law rights on which parents or pupils could sue. The guarantees do not affect existing common law duties.

The guarantees create public law benefits as part of the education system. We consider it extremely unlikely that they would create the kind of rights that parents or pupils could use to claim compensation through the courts. The courts would regard these as public law entitlements. It must be remembered that quite a number of them are already statutory duties.

Many of the entitlements contained in the document are pre-existing and could, in theory, already be the subject of litigation. Some of them are the subject of complaints to the Secretary of State, but the Secretary of State is not judicially reviewed by these parents. Judicial review might be available for breaches of mandatory duties imposed by the document, or against the local government ombudsman, but that would be expensive, and the vast majority of parents do not do that now. The existence of a redress mechanism makes that less likely, not more. Any public law duty could in theory give rise to litigation, but rarely does so in practice. The guarantees are no different from any other duties imposed by legislation.

The amendments would challenge or amend the system of redress available beyond the individual school level. Clause 3, to which the majority of the amendments relate, provides for the system of redress that supports pupil and parent guarantees by putting the guarantees within the scope of the parental complaints service created under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. If pupils are not receiving their clearly defined entitlements, and if that cannot be resolved with the school or other provider, we believe that it is right to have a straightforward route of redress. A guarantee without the possibility of redress is no guarantee at all.

Amendment 40 would ensure that the guarantees would not form a contractual relationship between schools and their pupils and parents that would enable parents to take action in the courts, and would not otherwise expose schools and local authorities to civil claims such as for breach of statutory duty. As I said, I am pleased to agree with the sentiment behind the amendment, and I make it clear that it is not the Government’s intention for the guarantees to create new obligations that might lead to parents or pupils suing in the county courts.

The Bill, together with the ASCL Act, sets out a clear route for pupils and parents to seek redress through the local government ombudsman for the failure of a school to deliver the guarantee; or, for academies, through the Young People’s Learning Agency. Rather than seeking to encourage litigation of any sort, the provisions intend the opposite. They offer a mechanism for redress that keeps such matters out of the courts.

Parents and pupils are unlikely to want, or be advised, to take public law claims to judicial review when they have such a mechanism, even in the limited circumstances where that might be available. I confirm that the guarantees will not lead to contractual relations between schools and parents that could found claims. In our judgment, it is exceedingly unlikely that any other claim would arise in tort, in the absence of a pre-existing duty of care. On that basis, we consider the amendment to be unnecessary.

Amendment 154 would remove the system of redress that supports the pupil and parent guarantees. It would also prevent parents from complaining to the Secretary  of State, which they currently have the option of doing, or taking a case to court if they believed that a duty outlined in the guarantees document had not been fulfilled. Our expectation is that schools and local authorities will take seriously their legal responsibilities to deliver the guarantees. We expect that almost all complaints under the guarantees will be resolved at school level, as at present.

However, the role of the LGO and the YPLA in the case of academies provides a final, transparent point of redress where the pupil or parent does not receive that to which they are entitled. That form of redress places the guarantees firmly within the scope of the parental complaints service created by the ASCL Act. The ombudsman’s powers work effectively as he deals with local authorities at present, and he will bring those powers and knowledge to the schools sector. He will have the power to investigate complaints, to report and to make recommendations in cases in which he believes that there has been injustice resulting from a failure by the head teacher, governing body or local authority to comply with the requirements of the guarantees. Even if the amendment were passed, parents and pupils would still be able to complain to the LGO about acts of governing bodies by virtue of the existing ASCL Act.

We consider it unlikely that parents will take a litigious route with their complaints, even when that might be possible. Even when judicial review might in principle be available, it would be unlikely that the time or expense would be justifiable. As I have said, the guarantees will not create contractual relations between schools and parents that found claims.

Amendment 156 relates to vexatious complaints. In considering any complaint, the ombudsman will think carefully about whether an individual has genuinely suffered an injustice before taking action and whether there is merit in the complaint. In fact, the ombudsman already has the ability, under section 207(5) of the ASCL Act, to decline to investigate or to discontinue an investigation into a vexatious complaint, or one on which the governing body has satisfied the LGO of its proposed action. Therefore the amendment is unnecessary, but as I have said, I will consider the issue again in the light of the comments that the hon. Member for Yeovil has made. The ombudsman himself is clear that he will investigate cases only if he believes that there has been an injustice to an individual, and he has processes in place to ensure that over-persistent complainants are identified and are not allowed to tie up his or others’ resources indefinitely.

Amendments 128 and 118 would prevent parents from escalating complaints about a head teacher to the LGO under the ASCL Act, meaning that they could not seek redress with anyone beyond the school’s governing body. The only exception would be where a head teacher’s action was already prescribed for the purposes of the parental complaints system. Pupils and parents need to be able to make effective complaints that relate to a head teacher, because a number of the guarantees relate to parts of education where the duties fall on the head teacher rather than on governors. Those include guarantee 3.5, which entitles every secondary pupil to a personal tutor, and the guarantees about the introduction of the new home-school agreements.

The way in which schools handle complaints is also relevant. Complaints in most cases start with the child’s  teacher, personal tutor or subject head, and they will then be escalated to the head teacher before reaching the governing body. The governing body will make a judgment about whether the school, including the head teacher, has complied with the guarantee. A school’s head teacher is the leader of that organisation and a vital decision maker in the way in which complaints are handled. We must not discount the contributions that heads make by excluding them from the guarantees.

Amendment 118 would provide that complaints about the head teacher should be handled by the governing body—we endorse that view. School governing bodies have a vital role in handling complaints, and we will encourage the development of a link governor for handling complaints. We have put on record a number of times that our expectation is that most complaints under the guarantees will be resolved at school level.

Amendments 119 and 129 would leave out clause 3(2), leaving a gap in the ombudsman’s power to investigate complaints from pupils and parents about local authorities. Subsection (2) is essential for ensuring that there are no gaps or anomalies in the way in which pupil and parent guarantees operate. It amends the Local Government Act 1974 so that pupils and parents will be able to make complaints about local authorities in connection with the guarantees. The subsection expands the powers that the LGO has had since 1974 to investigate acts of the local authority.

Amendment 119 would further omit subsections (3) to (5). These subsections restrict the operation of the Secretary of State’s direction-making powers so as to prevent the Secretary of State from giving a direction to a local authority on the basis of a breach of a guarantee, unless a complaint has first been made to and disposed of by the ombudsman, or the circumstances are such that the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to give a direction without the process being followed.

For the sake of simplicity, clarity and efficiency, there should be a single route of redress for pupils and parents to follow when they have a complaint, and that should be through the local government ombudsman. Subsections (3) to (5) will avoid the possibility of the Secretary of State being asked to determine complaints about the guarantees or, worse still, being asked to do so at the same time as the LGO. By omitting subsections (3) to (5), which would remove any qualification on the Secretary of State’s direction-making powers, amendment 119 would open the way to confusion.

The first provision in amendment 181 would reduce the strength of the pupil and parent guarantees so that all decisions arising from complaints relating to the guarantees would be subject to considerations about resources. That would dilute the mandatory effect of the individual guarantees. Where we have specified that governing bodies, head teachers or local authorities “must” do something, it is because we believe the actions ought to be an entitlement for every pupil or parent, not just the ones in schools that choose to honour the guarantees. Having said that, we believe that schools should have flexibility in the way in which they allocate their resources and organise themselves to provide for their pupils, and the pupil and parent guarantees are framed with that in mind.

The second provision in amendment 181 relates to an important point made by both the hon. Members for Yeovil and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. It sets out that pupils and parents would not have a right to monetary compensation if there was a failure by a governing body, head teacher or local authority to comply with any element of the pupil and parent guarantee. The ASCL Act does not include a right for the ombudsman to award financial compensation in relation to the acts of head teachers and governing bodies, and that is therefore also true for the guarantees. However, the ombudsman has a long-standing power to require local authorities to provide financial compensation, and he would be able to do so in relation to a breach of any of the guarantees when it is the local authority’s responsibility to deliver. We expect the ombudsman to be sensitive in the way in which he uses that power, but it would be inconsistent if the ombudsman did not have the power to require local authorities to award financial redress for an issue relating to a guarantee when he did in all other matters. For the local authorities, there is an existing power.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 10:15 am, 28th January 2010

This is very interesting, because the Minister is effectively saying that he expects there to be awards of monetary compensation for breaches of the guarantee from time to time.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am saying that the local government ombudsman has the power to require compensation as legislation currently stands. That power simply continues. The LGO’s existing power with respect to local authorities does not apply to schools or governing bodies, and we do not intend to give the LGO that power under the Bill.

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

Ah. Will the Minister clarify his second point? I thought that he said that the power already exists and will continue to do so. Will he confirm that the power will continue in so far as the guarantees are concerned? If monetary compensation can be awarded against a school for breaching one of the guarantees, will he issue revised guidance in relation to the financial management of schools stating that schools would need to consider whether, if the measure goes on to the statute book, they would need to make provision in their accounts for the possibility of having to pay out compensation awarded against them?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The situation is that the LGO has a power to order the payment of compensation by local authorities relating to their remit, which he has had since 1974. The ASCL Act, however, does not allow him to use that power for schools. We took the view that schools should not be subject to financial penalties.

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

The Minister is being extremely helpful, and I understand his point. Will he clarify, in relation to the guarantees, which aspects of the existing proposed guarantees the Government think are the responsibility of local authorities, and therefore on which compensation might end up being paid?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

One-to-one tuition might be a particular guarantee, but I will return to the hon. Gentleman after checking some of the specifics. The principle is that where the local authority is responsible for ensuring that something is provided under a guarantee, the local  government ombudsman has the power to go down the compensation route, but he does not have that power with respect to schools, and we do not intend to give him that power.

I will conclude my speech now. I am sorry to have taken such a laborious route, but I hope that the Committee will understand why, given that a lot of what we have been discussing is legal, technical and extremely important. I have just been informed that the provider of last resort for one-to-one tuition is the local authority. In that sense, there is an obligation, so I was correct, even if the hon. Member for Yeovil does not agree. In the light of what I have said, I would ask hon. Members not to press their amendments.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful reply and conciliatory tone. My colleagues and I will certainly not press our amendments, given that he has undertaken to look at some of these matters. However, I am aware that he has signalled an intention to look at certain issues and not others, and I fear that we might need to bring back some of the substantive amendments.

My understanding is that the Minister does not want the guarantees to be legally enforceable, that he does not want vexatious complaints to be pursued, and that he is considering whether unreasonable complaints might also not have to be pursued. His comments on those issues were helpful. However, he is giving no ground on the proposals in amendments 118 and 119 to exempt guarantees from the local government ombudsman process. We still have considerable concerns about that, because the ombudsman is not qualified to enforce and oversee guarantees, particularly when they are so vaguely defined. That is what we are most concerned about, because we believe that the process could be expensive and bureaucratic.

I was also disappointed that the Minister gave no indication that he has considered the fact that we have to see the guarantees in the context of available resources. If a future Government cut education funding but were not willing explicitly to drop the guarantees, because that would be politically embarrassing, schools and local authorities might be obliged to deliver guarantees because of the potential penalties against them, but without the money to do so. Surely that would not be fair.

In that regard—this is my last point—I was relieved for a while that there would potentially be no monetary compensation awards against schools, which would be even more serious if schools did not have the resources to deliver the guarantees. However, I was worried when the Minister said that what is in many ways the most important guarantee—the one-to-one tuition guarantee, which is surely most closely linked to funding—will be enforceable against local authorities, even though a lot of the money will presumably be disbursed directly to schools. I think that that will also worry local authorities, given the spectre over the next few years of considerable cutbacks that might mean that authorities do not have the resources to implement some of the guarantees. I say that particularly in light of the potential change of Government.

At this stage, however, my colleagues and I will not press our amendments. We are grateful for some of the Minister’s conciliatory indications, but some of our biggest concerns are still in our minds, and we will need to return to them on Report.

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

I was pleased that the Minister started by saying that he agreed with the sentiments behind the amendments that my colleagues and I tabled, as well as those tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil. I was also pleased when he said that he would reflect on what has been said.

The Minister said that the guarantee document was a public law document and that its redress mechanism was contained in the Bill. As such, he said that it did not, in his opinion, give rise to private law rights. He then said that he would confirm that guarantees would not lead to contractual obligations. However, he also said that they were unlikely to lead to liabilities in tort. We therefore need explicit reassurance, confirmation and clarification in the Bill that the guarantees in clause 1 will not lead to such liabilities. The same issues apply to the home-school agreements introduced by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Given that it was felt in 1998 that there was an advantage—

The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.