Clause 6

Children, Schools and Families Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 2nd February 2010.

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Parental satisfaction surveys

Amendment proposed: 86, in clause 6, page 7, line 17, leave out ‘shall’ and insert ‘may’.—(Mr. Laws.)

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I understand that there was a widespread and lengthy debate on the first group of amendments to clause 6. There are more groups to follow so it is not my intention to allow a clause stand part debate. I hope that we can make progress accordingly.

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

I beg to move amendment 140, in clause 6, page 7, line 24, leave out subsection (3).

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 141, in clause 6, page 7, line 26, leave out subsection (4).

Amendment 188, in clause 6, page 7, line 39, at end insert—

‘(c) children of different descriptions.’.

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

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Betts. Your predecessors have made steady progress on the Bill. As you will have noticed, we have only made it to clause 6 so we hope that, under your wise chairmanship, we shall be able to make speedier progress today. We had a good debate on parental satisfaction surveys last week in which we set out some of our worries about them. We discussed whether they were likely to prove value for money and whether it was sensible for the Government to impose them on local authorities.

Amendments 140 and 142 tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole express our concern about how the Government intend to impose the parental satisfaction surveys on local authorities. As well as imposing the surveys, whether or not the local authorities want them and whether they think that they will be good value for money, under subsections (3) and (4), the Government seek through regulations to prescribe in detail how the surveys are carried out. The amendments would delete those subsections. They are unnecessary. We question whether it is sensible to have the surveys imposed in such a way, but if they are to be, surely there should be some flexibility whereby local authorities can decide the issues on which they want to consult parents. There also needs to be something more flexible than the blueprint that the Government have so far set out.

Amendment 188 is a probing amendment about the scope within the surveys to look at different aspects of the provision of education that might be of concern to some parental groups. It was inspired by the Special Educational Consortium, which would like a power to be created to allow local authorities specifically to seek the views of parents of children with special educational needs or disabilities. The SEC says that that large group of parents often has particular issues and worries about the provision of special educational needs not only in one school but in a whole group. We have serious reservations about the system; we would like it to be more flexible. However, within the constraints imposed by that system, we want to test whether the Government are willing to give local authorities the power to raise other issues rather than simply test parents’ views about education in a simplistic way, without specifying issues that might cause concern.

There is a further purpose to amendment 188, which the Special Educational Consortium encouraged us to table. Many other groups dealing with special educational needs would like to understand better the Government’s own interpretation of the words “different descriptions” in clause 1(7), which states that the parent and pupil guarantees can be applied differently for pupils of different descriptions. That is also the wording that we use in amendment 188. We want to hear from the Minister how he envisages using this particular discretion and whether he envisages that the pupil and parent guarantee should be watered down for young people with special educational needs, or whether additional provision and support should be available for those young people over and above that for other pupils.

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

Good morning to you, Mr. Betts, and to the Committee. I, too, welcome you to the Chair.

Amendment 146 would remove new section 19J(3), which provides a delegated power to make regulations about the arrangements made by a local authority for  the purposes of carrying out a parental satisfaction survey. This section enables us to prescribe that authorities should carry out separate surveys for parents and pupils in different age groups if we so wish. It also ensures that we can outline to authorities the practical steps they should take to prepare for the annual survey.

Initially, we intend to prescribe that local authorities must survey parents of year 6 children about secondary school provision. However, were we to extend the duty—for example, to primary school provision—we would need this delegated power to enable us to require authorities to carry out separate surveys. That is because, if we were to seek views on primary school provision, it might be appropriate to have a different format for such a survey than for secondary school provision. It must be right that the legislation is flexible to provide that any such additional survey is fit for purpose.

Amendment 141 would remove new section 19J(4), which allows for regulations to specify matters relating to the provision of schools on which parents' views are to be sought and the manner and form in which this should be done. In formulating this policy, we piloted it in local authorities and asked parents about how and when they would like to be invited to share their views on local school provision. The DCSF customer voice research on parent focus groups was published on 26 November 2009. Feedback from authorities in the trialling of the duty last autumn was that a level of prescription would be welcome—at least in the short term—with an agreement to review as the duty is embedded. Although that does not totally meet what the hon. Gentleman wants, there is a commitment to review it and see how it works in practice once the duty has commenced.

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

Will the schools to which the amendments relate, which are defined in the Bill as “relevant schools”, include academies? In other words, will local authorities also be surveying people’s views on academies?

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

So if there is dissatisfaction with schools, including academies, and further action needs to be taken to deal with that, will that be a matter for the local authority or for the Young People’s Learning Agency?

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

It will be a matter for the YPLA and the local authority. They will both need to consider how to respond to that.

Regulation-making powers will enable us to apply the lessons from the trial and future consultation in order to specify the format of the survey: short, tick-box questions with an optional comments box. The survey will be issued to parents residing in the local authority, alongside the admissions pack—a framework within which to respond to the questionnaire. The local authorities must make the survey available to parents both in paper form and online, which will ensure that parents’ opportunity to influence local authority planning is maximised, and that local authorities up and down the country do not each have to reinvent the wheel and design their own survey processes and forms.

Our policy aim is for local authorities to seek the views of all parents of year 6 pupils in the first instance. Amendment 188 is therefore unnecessary, as it would be needed only for the purposes of clause 6 if we wished to  limit the survey to parents of children of a prescribed description. However, we do not wish to limit the survey in that way. Our underlying principle is to give all parents an equal voice and influence in the planning of local schools. Our early work with parents last year showed that they are keen to respond. We will undertake a formal consultation in 2010 on the regulations to underpin clause 6, including the delegated powers and proposed level of description to include more detail about arrangements for the survey, parents’ consent to the questionnaire and how local authorities would analyse the outcome and the matters to be dealt with in the response plan. Should any parent of a child feel that our proposals do not adequately provide for their specific needs, we would welcome their feedback as part of the consultation process. It is vital to ask that all have a real voice in the planning of school provision.

I know that the hon. Member for Yeovil is specifically concerned to ensure that the survey has due regard for parents of children with special educational needs and allows their children to share their views. I acknowledge that such parents and children are likely to have particular views, needs and aspirations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will undertake a full consultation on the content of the survey to ensure that the important point made in his amendment is addressed as we put together the regulations underpinning clause 6. I hope that on that basis, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendments.

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

I am grateful, as ever, to the Minister for his response. We are pleased to hear that there will be a consultation on the nature of the survey, which may enable some of the views and concerns raised by the Special Educational Consortium to be taken into account. I fear that I am not entirely satisfied, however, by the response, given our concerns about the clause, in particular, the Minister’s undertaking that new section 19J(3) means that the measure may be extended to primary schools, and therefore the Government want to leave further flexibility to expand on the surveys in the future. It is something that concerns me because it implies even more costs, and potentially, more waste of public funds. I am surprised to hear that the feedback he has received from local authorities indicates that they welcome prescription. I would have thought that they would argue the case for local discretion. If that feedback from local authorities is not currently published, will it be possible to make some of it public?

I was also interested to hear that the YPLA, which does not appear to be mentioned in the Bill, will be one of the enforcement mechanisms in responding to parental satisfaction surveys. It is important because, although local authorities will be the ones responsible, presumably, for carrying out the parental satisfaction surveys, it is quite clear that the body with strategic responsibility for the quality of education will be required to make a response. I do not understand how, if for example, there are problems with academies, the matter will be dealt with by local authorities. Will the Minister write to the Committee at some stage to set out how the YPLA will be involved, or whether the local authority will be involved, where there is concern about the performance of academies?

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

If it is helpful, I will write to the Committee. The local authority will be responsible for commissioning a place, but of course it will consult the YPLA. On the  point that the hon. Gentleman made about local authorities and flexibility, the local authorities said to us that in the first instance—the point I made in my remarks—they would like some certainty, but that they would like a review once the duty is embedded.

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

At the very most the Minister can claim certainty about the surveys being opposed in the first place, which is what we heard from the local authorities when we heard the evidence offered by the Local Government Association. However, I am grateful that the Minister is willing to write to us, not about the commissioning of the surveys so much as the YPLA’s role after feedback has been given.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 10:45 am, 2nd February 2010

I beg to move amendment 149, in clause 6, page 7, line 33, at end insert—

‘(d) state a minimum participation rate of at least 40 per cent. of eligible parents for the survey to be regarded as having been carried out.’.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 142, in clause 6, page 8, line 11, after ‘area’, insert

‘and provided that the response rate to the survey is over 20 per cent. of parents surveyed’.

Amendment 232, in clause 6, page 8, line 21, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

‘(4) The local authority shall not be required to prepare or publish a response plan if less than 20 per cent. of the parents consulted have responded to the parental satisfaction survey, save that in so far as a response plan relates to a particular school, a local authority shall be required to prepare and publish a response plan provided only that at least 20 per cent. of the parents of that school have responsed to the parental satisfaction survey.’.

Amendment 174, in clause 6, page 8, line 34, at end insert—

‘(7) “Material” for the purposes of this section, is at least 25 per cent. of the parents who responded.’.

Amendment 175, in clause 6, page 8, line 34, at end insert—

‘(7) “Material” for the purposes of this section, is at least 10 per cent. of the parents who responded.’.

Amendment 176, in clause 6, page 8, line 34, at end insert—

‘(7) “Material” for the purposes of this section, is at least 5 per cent. of the parents who responded.’.

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

I welcome you to our Committee’s proceedings, Mr. Betts. It is very good to see you here. As the hon. Member for Yeovil said, I hope that we shall make a bit more progress than under your two predecessors—not that the blame lies entirely with the Chairs of Committees such as ours.

We need to ascertain three figures from the Government if we are to understand the provisions of clause 6 properly. We should all understand the provisions before  approving the clause. The first figure we need to know is what turnout or participation will be or should be regarded as sufficient for the local authority to rely on the survey as an accurate reflection of the opinion of the parents polled.

The second figure we need to know, in terms of percentages, is what the following phrase, in paragraph 9 of the policy statement, means:

“Where LA analysis shows a majority of parents are unhappy with the provision locally”.

The statement begs two further questions—what constitutes “unhappy” and what area is meant by “locally”—but, for now, the question is: what is a majority? Is it 50 per cent. plus one vote, is it 51 per cent., or does the Minister envisage a higher level such as 60 per cent. or 75 per cent.?

The third figure we need is the one referred to in paragraph 16 of the policy statement:

“Where a particular proportion of parents do not consider that the plan addresses their concerns, LAs will be required to refer the plan to the Schools Adjudicator. We will consult on this threshold for referral.”

Appendix B is not clear about how that response plan will be sent to parents. Can the Minister confirm that he intends local authorities to send the response plan, together with an invitation to respond, to all the eligible parents in the original survey? Perhaps he has in mind a wider population of parents receiving the plan. Can he also confirm that those parents will be told that, if a certain percentage of them are unhappy with the plan, it will be referred to the schools adjudicator? The question remains: what percentage of unhappiness with the plan should trigger a referral?

Amendment 149 seeks to apply a minimum participation rate of 40 per cent. The amendment is probing, to elicit from the Minister his current thinking. There needs to be a de minimis and it could, frankly, be a de minimis that is lower than the 40 per cent. proposed in the amendment. In the parental responsiveness pilots, the response rates were 4 per cent., 14 per cent., 4 per cent., 20 per cent. and 4 per cent., which all appear to be low, and too low—I would have thought—to be relied on. Will the Minister expand further on his thinking?

Amendments 174, 175 and 176 seek to define “material” for the purposes of proposed new section 19K(2) in the Education Act 1996. The amendments, again, are probing. The proposed new section says:

“If those results demonstrate material parental dissatisfaction with the provision of relevant schools in their area, the authority shall prepare and publish a plan”.

The policy statement implies that “material” means a majority—either 50 per cent. or 50 per cent. plus one—but what if there is a sizeable minority of parents, say 25 per cent., who are deeply unhappy with their local school? What if that minority all related to a certain location? What if 10 per cent. of parents is a significant bloc because of the sheer size of our larger local authorities? Reports on the parental responsiveness trial showed that 48 per cent. of parents were unhappy in local authority area 1, while there was a 32 per cent. unhappiness rate in another local authority area. Those figures are significant, but they might not be significant enough to trigger further action. The amendments are intended to enable the Committee to debate such issues, but they  apply also to proposed new section 19L of the Education Act 1996 to determine what is meant by “not sufficiently favourable” under proposed subsection (2).

If parents’ representations in respect of the plan are not sufficiently favourable, the plan has to be referred to the schools adjudicator. What percentage does the Minister have in mind? The policy statement says that he will consult on the matter, but surely if 25 per cent. of the responses come back as “unfavourable”, that should be sufficient to trigger a referral. I look forward to hearing his comments.

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

We have similar concerns to those expressed by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. The parental satisfaction survey is not a one-off survey that will inform the views of either local authorities or the Government, but potentially the beginning of a long, bureaucratic and costly process that will require the local authority, if there were material dissatisfaction, to reconsider its plans and consult again. Referral could happen beyond the local authority and the democratic process, as well as re-referral to the local authority, which is required to redraft its plans and put them to the local population again. All of that could be extremely expensive and time-consuming, and make changes that sometimes have to be made in school organisation extremely difficult. We therefore need a clear idea from the Government whether there is a participation hurdle beyond which we start to take the results seriously, and that is the purpose of amendments 149 and 142.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton for questioning what constitutes “material dissatisfaction”. It is not defined in the Bill, and we are not yet clear what it means. As for the minimum participation rate, amendment 149 tabled by the hon. Gentleman would put in place a 40 per cent. minimum participation rate, while amendment 142 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole would provide a 20 per cent. threshold. There is a further refinement in amendment 232, which would provide an opt-out from the requirement to take the survey seriously if participation were less than 20 per cent. However, it allows for action to be taken and a requirement for a response from a local authority if it turns out that there is a particularly high response from one particular school.

In other words, although parents might be very happy with most of the schools in their area, they might be particularly concerned about one part of the area, and it is crucial that we know the thresholds that will trigger such a hugely bureaucratic process. I do not have the relevant documents in front of me, but we know from the pilot we debated last week that the Government were expecting a response rate of about 65 per cent., yet the five pilots, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, have had extraordinarily low response rates. The rates he quoted were 4 per cent., 4 per cent., 4 per cent., 14 per cent. and 20 per cent., with a combined rate of about, as I recall, 6.5 per cent., which was therefore one tenth of the Government’s expected response rate. Should those response rates really be taken seriously when forming a view about the quality of secondary school provision?

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

Does the hon. Gentleman find a certain replication in the results and those that were part of the foundation  hospital elections to the boards, when the figures of 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. recurred regularly? Does it show to him, as it does to me, that people want us to get on with it instead of continuing to weigh the pig in this way?

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

It may well reflect the fact that sometimes, top-down, imposed consultation and involvement is not as successful in improving public services as Governments would like to think. Many people want responsive public services, but they do not necessarily want to spend all their time running the services themselves.

We reflect that the response and information are on the basis of a pretty crude survey, which asks only one question—the happiness question—about the provision of secondary schools in an area. The question asks:

“Thinking about the secondary schools in your area, how happy are you...?

Very happy.

Happy.

Neither happy nor unhappy.

Unhappy.

Very unhappy.”

On the basis of that, and on a potential response rate of 4, 6, 14 or 20 per cent., we would have to start the hugely bureaucratic and expensive process. Therefore, we need a clearer indication from the Government of what participation rate would trigger such surveys to be taken seriously, particularly because some of us are unsettled by the information reported in the Government’s assessment of the pilots, which said that some local authorities were quite impressed that the response rates from parents were as high as they were. Goodness knows what kind of response rates they were expecting if they think that 4, 6.5 or even 14 per cent. are good response rates—they are certainly a lot lower than the Government were suggesting, and we need a clear answer on that.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has invited us to answer an equally difficult question: even once we have set the hurdle for the participation rate, how will we decide whether the requirement that there should be material dissatisfaction, which is set out on page 8 of the Bill, has been met? In the spirit of the survey form that was sent out—or supposed to be sent out—to parents, the hon. Gentleman has provided his own multiple choice range of possibilities in amendments 174 to 176—three different thresholds—for the Committee to choose from. I am not sure why he has not produced as many different options as the survey form itself, but we are certainly grateful to him for the range of choice he has provided. It is not clear whether he thinks the 10, 5 or 25 per cent. threshold would be the right one.

The hon. Gentleman raises some serious concerns. How do we, if we have five sets of data for “very happy”, “happy”, “neither happy nor unhappy”, “unhappy” and “very unhappy”, decide on the level of material dissatisfaction that would trigger an intervention? If many people are neither happy nor unhappy and some people are happy, but there is a large core of “very unhappy”-ness—if that is correct jargon—would that be enough to trigger the whole bureaucratic process; or would it only be enough if the net “very unhappy”-ness and “unhappy”-ness was much greater than the “very happy” and “happy”?

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The hon. Gentleman is making an amusing speech on the subject of parental satisfaction surveys. Does he find it odd that the Government are talking about action after surveys that get low participation rates already in the pilot areas, and may in future? The hon. Gentleman is trying to find out at what level the Government will base their response. However, in the Badman review’s consultation, 95 per cent. of people who responded said they were opposed, but the Government’s action following a vast response from that community was to proceed with the exact proposals that everyone said they did not want. The hon. Gentleman is right to have a lack of confidence in whether the Government respond genuinely to what the people say.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

Order. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not be drawn down that particular road.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a very effective and interesting point. As you can see, Mr. Betts, he is champing at the bit under your chairmanship for us to motor even faster towards schedule 1. However, he will have to hold himself back for a few more moments. Serious concerns have been raised. I am sure the Minister has all the answers to set our minds at rest. It is now time for him to give those answers.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 11:00 am, 2nd February 2010

I thank the hon. Member for Yeovil for that note of confidence in my answers. I try to answer questions, although answering them to everyone’s satisfaction is perhaps beyond me.

I appreciate the nature of the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Yeovil and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton—they are not only probing but question some of the meat on the bones. As an aside, I tease gently the hon. Member and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton: I do not believe that he would oppose parental satisfaction surveys, for obvious reasons. Essentially, notwithstanding the detail, the clause sets out to give parents a greater voice in how the school system is operating in their area. This goes back to a point of principle that I have expressed about other clauses, and which has rightly been expressed by Opposition Members and my hon. Friends: as always, the devil is in the detail. It is right to ask how things will work in practice—what does this or that element mean? It is all very well for a Minister to talk about regulations, but he needs to give some indication of what they mean if the Committee is to support the measure.

I go back to my first point: essentially, the Government are allowing parents the opportunity to respond to the local authority and to comment on the provision, initially, of secondary school places in their area. That is an important task, and I am sure the hon. Member for Yeovil would agree that it is an important public policy objective. He may disagree on the question of how we achieve it, but the context of empowering parents—giving them a say and involving them in provision in their areas—is important and is what I start with. This is an important policy reform.

In preparing for the Bill we sought the views of a small group of parents, piloting in five local authorities with, as hon. Members have said, mixed results. We  brought parents from across the country together in autumn 2009 to explore whether they would be willing to share their views about school provision in their areas. The majority said they would be willing to fill out a questionnaire if they believed they could make a difference to their children’s school experience, even if improvement took place over a period of time. As I said, we ran a pilot with five local authorities—as the hon. Member for Yeovil mentioned—which found the survey easy to run, although they were concerned about their capacity to meet parental expectations. We therefore concluded that the setting of figures for a minimum response rate and the level of parental dissatisfaction that would trigger the duty for a local authority to produce a response plan is too important to fix without first undertaking a full consultation, which we shall do.

Getting to the heart of the amendments, we expect to consult on the basis of material parental dissatisfaction, which, for the purposes of the clause, is defined as a minimum response rate to the survey of at least 51 per cent., with at least 51 per cent. of those responses being dissatisfied with the provision—two of the thresholds sought by the hon. Gentlemen through their amendments. We have deliberately set a high threshold level to overcome particular difficulties. As I said, and for the avoidance of doubt, we are talking about a minimum response rate to a survey of at least 51 per cent., and at least 51 per cent. of those responses being dissatisfied with the provision.

The figures I have just quoted for a minimum response rate and for parental dissatisfaction are higher than those proposed in amendments 149, 142, 232, 174, 175 and 176, but I believe that we are right because, in introducing such a significant reform of public policy, it is important to tread carefully and to consult widely. In my view, placing a trigger level in the Bill is too prescriptive. However, I hope that what I have said makes our policy intention clear.

As well as low response rates, another concern is that if we do not have a reasonably high trigger level, a small group of parents with a particular perspective could skew the survey results. That would not be helpful. While trying to give parents the right to respond and to have a say about secondary school provision, we must ensure we do not cause other problems.

I would also like to take this opportunity to clarify an aspect of the Government’s policy intentions to illustrate why amendment 232 is too prescriptive and would disfranchise parents. The survey will be sent to all parents of year 6 children as they apply for secondary school places for their children. They will do that through the normal admissions process. The survey will ask for parents’ views on school provision as a whole in their area—whether they are happy with the range and quality of secondary school places available to them. It is not intended as a route for inviting parental views on individual schools, and authorities will not be able to name individual schools in their questionnaires. It will therefore be meaningless to set a minimum response rate based on the response from parents whose children attend a particular school. The parents surveyed will have children attending primary school, but their views will be sought on the range and quality of secondary school places.

A further consequence of amendment 232 would be to disfranchise a broader group of parents of primary school age children who would most likely be affected  by any response plan that a local authority would be required to produce. The subsection that the amendment seeks to replace will enable us to prescribe in regulations the parents we think a local authority has a responsibility to consult on plans for future secondary provision. We intend to consult on the basis that local authorities will need to consult parents of key stage 2 children—year 3 to 6, which is children aged seven to 11. The response plan would go to those parents, although the initial survey would be for year 6 children, because of their legitimate interest in future secondary school provision.

Regardless of the outcome of our consultation and how material parental dissatisfaction is defined, when a response plan is triggered by the survey we want local authorities to listen and act. Our intended definition of material parental dissatisfaction would mean that there is a strong evidence base for requiring an authority to produce a response plan. That plan would then be sent to the parents of the wider age group—age seven to 11—because they have an interest in future secondary school provision in their area.

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

The Minister has provided two figures—a figure for the participation rate, and a figure for the dissatisfaction rates. Is he now going to give us a figure for unhappiness with the plan?

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

I was not going to give an actual figure. We will consult on that. If 51 per cent. respond, and more than half of those who respond are dissatisfied, the authority will, of course, need to produce a response plan to give to parents. We will consult on what the trigger level should be, in terms of the number of parents who feel that the response plan is inadequate; the response plan can then be sent to the adjudicator. We will consider that in the consultation. I would expect a reasonably high figure, because we want to ensure that a response plan cannot be undermined by a few particularly vociferous parents.

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

If it is clear that there is material dissatisfaction, and the local authority has to give parents in the area an opportunity to have their view on the response plan, what form will the consultation with parents take? Will it be another survey, or will people write letters?

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

We will consult on how that process will take place. That will be part of the consultation determining what regulations will come forward. The process might take the form of another survey; it might take place online; it might be a letter that is sent out. In the consultation, we will look at the best way for parents to respond to a response plan, and what level of dissatisfaction with the response plan would trigger a referral to the adjudicator. With those comments, I hope that 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)

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole suggested mischievously that I ask members of the Committee whether they were happy, very unhappy or neither happy nor unhappy with the Minister’s response.

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

A show of hands might be possible. I am both happy and unhappy, but I notice that there is not a box for such a position. I am happy because the Minister has been more frank and candid than I thought he would be. He set out clearly what is in the Government’s mind with regard to the response rate and defining material dissatisfaction. He has not set too low a threshold, which would clearly raise major worries. However, in being so helpful and clear, and in ensuring that we avoid problems as a consequence of low take-up, he drew attention to the issue of whether the plan will be an even bigger waste of money than we thought.

If the response rate is set at 51 per cent., and that is the benchmark for taking the process seriously, it must be extremely worrying that in the pilots, we had a response rate of only 6.6 per cent. The Minister will probably say that there are other things that we can do, but that is a big gap. We often put out our own surveys inviting views of all types from our constituents, and we know that getting a 51 per cent. response rate is very difficult. The Minister told us the other day that it was possible that not all local authorities would be required to implement the plans; presumably, they would not have to if they were doing well. However, when we look at the impact assessment and the Government’s estimates on cost, we see that they presume that all local authorities are likely to implement the plans. That is the basis from which the Government derived the cost.

It seems that the Government have been moving in a slightly more pessimistic direction, as regards their expectation of parental response. The impact assessment was based on a 65 per cent. response rate; we assume that that was the Government’s best estimate of the likely response rate at the time. We know that in the pilots, the response rates have been much lower.

So although the Minister has made us feel much happier by giving us the idea that we will not be forced into making all sorts of decisions, and will not have to go down a very bureaucratic route, on the basis of a 2 per cent. response rate or on the basis of an ambiguous definition of material dissatisfaction, he has really raised the issue of whether the Government will end up compelling 153 local authorities to go through this expensive process, which they estimate will cost £22 million.

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

To be fair, the hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. Does he agree that the response rate will be helped by the fact that the parental survey satisfaction form will be sent out with the admissions form? That did not happen in the pilot. I think that that will help, but it is difficult to quantify.

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

That method might be of help, but it needs to help by quite a lot. At the moment, we are at a response rate of 6.6 per cent. None of the local authorities in which the pilots took place had a response rate greater than 20 per cent. The Minister has some motoring to do if he is to persuade parents to respond.

If what we have before us is the final form that is to be sent out—there is one question, which asks parents if they are very unhappy, happy, neither unhappy nor happy and so on, and a blank sheet is attached for other questions—a lot of parents will consider it pretty tokenistic, and many will put it in the bin. I am not convinced that the response rates will be all that high. What will the  Government do then? If we do not get any response rates above 51 per cent., how long will we go on imposing a vast cost on local authorities to achieve responses that we are effectively putting in the bin? In an environment where we do not have much scope for spending additional money from the public purse, we need clearer answers about what will happen even if the Minister gets more than his 51 per cent. threshold, and even if we end up with 51 per cent. of respondents materially dissatisfied.

We would then end up in the zone described in proposed section 19L on page 8 of the Bill, where the local authority that has failed to satisfy parents has to prepare a response plan, on which eligible parents have to be consulted. The Minister horrified some of us, including perhaps one or two Labour Members, by saying that the Government had not yet decided how parents would respond to the plan—whether that would be in the form of just a few letters or a petition, or whether it might trigger the requirement to send out yet another ballot paper, with all the expense that that would involve. All that is in the context of an impact assessment that forecasts that the cost of carrying out such surveys will be greater than the benefit that even the Government estimate.

Finally, another concern that we have is about whether the surveys will be meaningful. In many parts of the country, people have only one local secondary catchment school, and when they express their views, it will be fairly clear which school they are referring to. However, in many other parts of the country, there may be two, three, four or five different secondary schools that people could send their children to. It is possible that parents might have a major concern about one of them; it might be the catchment school that they would naturally have sent their children to. They might be dissatisfied with that school, but very happy with two or three of the other schools. They might send, or plan to send, their children across a town or city, one or two miles away, to access a good secondary school.

One would have thought that if such surveys, with all the huge bureaucracy and cost involved, were going to be of any value, they might at least aspire to pick out circumstances where one school was doing badly, and others were doing well. However, if I heard the Minister correctly, the survey will not do that—it will not name any school that is picked up as a particularly bad performer. The purpose of the survey, as I understand it, is simply to allow a judgment to be made about secondary education as a whole. That raises serious concerns about how parents respond to a survey of the type that we are discussing if they have a bad local school and anticipate sending their children out of the catchment area to attend another school.

If we are to go through all the bureaucracy involved in the scheme, surely we want to allow for circumstances where the bureaucracy might find intense dissatisfaction with one school, but not with some of the other ones. I do not think that we can do that with the survey. I stick with my view that although we have had a good and clear answer from the Minister that set some concerns to rest, our major concerns about the clause are still in place.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 11:15 am, 2nd February 2010

It has been an illuminating debate. The Minister was clear about his thinking on the participation rate and the dissatisfaction level that will trigger a requirement to produce a plan. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil that 51 per cent. appears to be a high response rate. If 150 surveys were sent out, in line with the requirement in the Bill, and none had a participation rate above 50 per cent., that would be a huge amount of money spent to no effect.

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

May I just be clear about what the hon. Gentleman is saying? Is he, as the main Opposition spokesperson in the Committee, in favour of parental satisfaction surveys, but worried about the thresholds? Does he think that 51 per cent. is too high, and that the rate should be lowered? Or should it be higher?

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

I am happy to respond to the Minister. Parental satisfaction surveys are a good idea, but I am concerned about the clause because of how the policy is crafted. The system is highly bureaucratic; the survey triggers a response plan, which has to be produced and then sent back to parents for consultation. If they are unhappy, that plan is referred to the schools adjudicator. What has a schools adjudicator got to do with education policy in local authorities? I thought the schools adjudicator dealt with admissions. Such an approach to assessing public opinion seems bureaucratic. Far better simply to publish the results of the parental satisfaction survey so that local people can take action as a consequence.

I am also concerned about the participation rate. I accept that there needs to be a de minimis to prevent the surveys being hijacked by a small minority of vociferous parents, although in my view bureaucracies too often dismiss a group of parents with, “Oh, it’s that group of parents.” My view is that when 25 parents come to see me with a concern about a school, that should be taken seriously. Those 25 parents have made the effort to see someone about it, and they are probably the tip of the iceberg. I do not dismiss such vociferous groups of parents; I take the opposite view, which is that they represent an important shade of opinion in the locality. However, 51 per cent. is a high threshold, and I think that it would be better to use a participation rate nearer 40 per cent.

I am even more concerned about the dissatisfaction rate of 51 per cent. It shows a low expectation as regards the standard of education that we should be happy with in our local authorities. If 49 per cent. of parents are unhappy with school provision in a local authority area, that should be a cause of concern.

In the parental responsiveness trial, we had one local authority in which 48 per cent. of the parents who responded were unhappy, albeit that the response rate was only 4 per cent. In another—where, again, the response rate was 4 per cent.—32 per cent. of respondents were unhappy. Even in local authority No. 4, where the response rate was 20 per cent., a quarter of the parents who responded were unhappy. Even that is, or should be, a cause of concern.

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

The schools adjudicator has had responsibility for school admissions and school organisation since 1998. Logically, he is a reasonable figure to refer a response plan to should a significant number of parents be dissatisfied with it.

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

Again, school organisation is not to do with school standards or school behaviour. Those are the issues that concern parents, not whether there are six secondary schools in a given area or five. The standard of a school is the issue, and that is an issue of policy. I thought that we had passed the policy to local councils—to the councillors, the representatives of the public on that council—and/or the Government, with Ministers accountable to Parliament. To palm off policy matters on to unelected figures is a dangerous process, which distances the public from influence over policy. I am not sure that the Government ought to be travelling in that direction. I am concerned about that 51 per cent. threshold for dissatisfaction.

The parental survey process is very unnuanced in terms of the geographical location of the parents who respond. The draft form that is being consulted on has some scope for geography, with a box for the postcode of the responders, which indicates that the Government are concerned about geography. When the results are analysed, there may well be pockets—large pockets—in large local authority areas where the dissatisfaction rate is more than 50 per cent., but other pockets where people are satisfied because the two local comprehensives are very good. In another area the three local comprehensives may be weak. Some action should be taken if half the population in a certain part of, say, West Sussex are unhappy with the schools, but people in the northern part of the county are happy. It does indicate that the trigger to take action should take into account the three comprehensives in the southern or eastern part of the county.

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

I want to go a little further on the question of putting down postcodes. The hon. Gentleman understandably speaks of county matters. In a borough such as mine—8 miles by 8, with more than 100 schools—there is nothing to stop someone living in WV7 or WV1 going to a WV13 school and commenting on the school their children go to rather than the school in their area, making it almost impossible to identify a serious trend in people’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction on an area basis.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about densely populated urban areas. When I discus education policy with people around the country, they often make the criticism that it is too urban-centric and that we take too little account of more rural or sparsely populated parts of the country. I am cognisant of that when thinking about education issues. An area such as West Sussex has urban and rural areas; it is a very large local authority. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there are very large urban and rural authorities, and there can be different qualities of schools in a large geographical area. The survey could skate over that by melding the dissatisfaction rates from one part of the authority with another and coming up with a figure below the trigger percentage that the Minister indicated. The dissatisfaction rate of 51 per cent. is high and should be significantly lower. A rate of 25 per cent. should be a cause for concern in a local authority. Failing that, we could try to nuance the response so that dissatisfaction rates take into account different local factors.

The purpose of the amendments was to have this debate. Members of the Committee have expressed  their views on the various percentages. Given that we have had such a wide debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 143, in clause 6, page 8, line 37, leave out ‘shall’ and insert ‘may’.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 190, in clause 6, page 8, leave out from line 39 to end of line 13 on page 9.

Amendment 144, in clause 6, page 8, line 40, leave out ‘shall’ and insert ‘may’.

Amendment 145, in clause 6, page 9, line 35, leave out ‘shall’ and insert ‘may’.

Amendment 146, in clause 6, page 9, line 39, leave out ‘shall’ and insert ‘may’.

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

Mr. Betts, you are probably wondering what will happen if there is a parental satisfaction survey, the participation threshold of 51 per cent. is passed and material dissatisfaction is expressed by 51 per cent. or more of individuals. That is what the amendments are about. As the Bill is currently drafted, a local authority in England will have to prepare a response plan to address local parents’ concerns and then consult on it. We do not yet know what that process of consultation will be. The Government do not seem to have decided whether every parent will be consulted, whether letters will be sent in or whether there will be some other form of consultation. We know that if parents are still dissatisfied with the response plan, the local authority will be required to refer it and the complaints about it to the adjudicator. The adjudicator—not a democratically directly elected individual—has to look at the response plan from the local authority, consider the parental representations and decide what to do. The adjudicator, as set out on page 9, can

“approve the plan...approve the plan subject to specified modifications...or reject the plan.”

The amendments would take away some of the compulsion in the Bill in relation to what must happen if the adjudicator does not like the local authority’s response to the initial complaints and rejects the response plan. New section 19N(1) makes it clear that if the adjudicator is unhappy with the plan and wants modifications, they can require the local authority to implement them. However, if the adjudicator decides to reject the plans under proposed new section 19M(2)(c), the local authority is obliged to withdraw the plan and prepare and publish—one might have guessed it—a further plan, called a “further response plan”, which it will have to consider.

It is not entirely clear—although I hope that the Minister will make this clear—whether there will be a further process of consultation with local residents. If the local authority’s plans are rejected by more than 51 per cent. of parents, the response plan is unsatisfactory and the adjudicator is not satisfied, will another form, a further survey of parental views, be sent out to decide whether to press on? We are concerned because it sounds like an immensely bureaucratic process, seemingly  without end. It may, in some cases, highlight concerns—although if they are that great, I suspect that the local authority will be well aware of them anyway—but it may make it difficult for local authorities to take decisions about reorganising schools.

Proposed new section 19N will certainly take away from a democratically elected local authority—even one that has consulted parents, has published a response plan, has been ticked off by the adjudicator and is willing to take the flak—the right to stick with the plans that it wants, which is why we have tabled the amendments. Under the proposed new section, the local authority “shall make modifications” to the plan if the schools adjudicator specifies, and the local authority “shall withdraw” the plan and prepare and publish a further response plan if the adjudicator decides to reject the plan in its entirety.

Here, we are concerned not only about the bureaucracy but about a major intrusion into the freedoms of local authorities by someone who is not democratically elected. I do not say—I said this the other day—that local authorities always get it right; sometimes some of them have got it badly wrong in the past, and they need to be held to account. However, by the time that they get to this process in the Bill, the views of parents will have been clearly highlighted, and they will have been forced to respond. It would be extremely incautious if it simply ignored the views of an adjudicator, which would presumably be made public. If after all that, the local authority still wanted to press on with its plans, I would allow it to do so. It would be wrong for an unelected schools adjudicator to be able to dictate to a local authority, which would have to pay the penalty for being seen to ignore the views of the adjudicator and, presumably, of parents. That is why we wish to amend the wording of the proposed new subsections to give the local authority flexibility to respond to the adjudicator if it thinks that that is right. However, if a local authority thought that it was right to ignore the adjudicator, with all the penalties in terms of public opinion, we think it is the right balance between democratic accountability and scrutiny by an outside body that is not democratically accountable that it should be able to do so. I hope that the Minister will respond on the issues of democratic accountability and let us know whether the Government envisage that, if a local authority is obliged to overturn its existing response plan and publish a further plan, there will be a further survey of parents, and what form that would take.

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

I assume that the Minister is saying that even he eventually reaches the end of a process of consultation and decides that there is no point in going further. I assume that he is saying that, even if an adjudicator says that the response plan is not good enough and rejects it, it is possible for a further response plan to be put together with perhaps a minor tweak. Is that where the process ends?

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

Will the process really be worth it? The Minister says that even he will give up on the ludicrously bureaucratic process at some stage. When the adjudicator  has made the momentous decision that the response plan is a load of rubbish and has to be changed, the local authority will be able to tweak a minor detail and re-title it as a further response plan, and nothing will happen even if the parents are still dissatisfied.

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

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He chided me in the nicest possible way about whether there would be further consultation. I said no, and thought he would be satisfied with that. Now, he seems to be criticising me because there is not further consultation.

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

I shall have it both ways. It is usually a bureaucratic process. It can just run out in the sands of the Government’s impatience for consultation. By that time, goodness knows how much money we will have spent on it, goodness knows how fed up parents will be of being consulted and goodness knows what their views will be about why the local authority is not spending money on improving schools rather than on surveys. Given that schools already consult parents and parental consultation has to take place at Ofsted inspections, we are establishing under clause 6 a pretty pointless, bureaucratic process, which, even in the Minister’s view, will eventually run out after consuming a huge amount of public money.

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

The promoters of the clause have serious questions to answer. There is some agreement between both Front Benches that the surveys are desirable and, as a result of that political connotation, it behoves the rest of us to ensure that they actually know what they are doing and bring real light on the subject. It is a vexed question of how we measure what schools are doing. We have tried many different ways, and the clause might be seen in a benign fashion as one more way of looking at how to ensure that children receive the best from the education service.

I want to deal with the democratic mandate of a local authority, and what is happening seriously to undermine it. The political culture of Britain is that we vote in people who are charged with fulfilling their manifesto pledges. We do that at European level, national level, local and parish council levels. That is our culture. It has worked well for us. We are not a nation who depend on plebiscites to govern our country or neighbourhoods. The surveys that have been shown to elicit poor responses of 4, 3, 5 or 20 per cent. leave some serious doubts in my mind about the efficacy of the policy.

On a democratic matter, I now have the opportunity to correct the record. I mentioned on Thursday that, when asked about his favourite form of governance, the director-general of the BBC replied, “Despotism tempered by assassination”. That is the policy that we are considering. I suggested that he was being interviewed by Roger Freeman, who was a distinguished Conservative MP. In fact, the director-general was interviewed on a programme called “Face to Face” by John Freeman, who was an equally eminent Labour MP at the time. He interviewed one of Wolverhampton’s famous schoolboys, Gilbert Harding, and reduced him to tears many years ago.

Why not go directly to the adjudicator? Why bother with all the flim-flam of a 4 per cent. turnout, and say, “Do a plan.” Let us say that the plan does not suit  everyone, so someone complains. Another plan is done, and that is not very good. The adjudicator says, “Well, I’m going to give you the final word on this”, followed by, “It’s okay”, “It’s not okay” or any combination of those—because we are into alternative vote systems now, are we not, totting up the responses of what can be and cannot be?

It is wrong that one person can gainsay the opinion of a local authority, the members of which have been elected—if perhaps by no more than 30 per cent. of the electorate. In my city, let me make no bones about it, 30 per cent. or 25 per cent. would be a good turnout in a local election. However, should that council then be gainsaid by one person, who we may or may not have any confidence in? Who is this adjudicator? What will he or she know? What is their experience? Have they ever served on such bodies? Are they a parent? Are they a teacher? It becomes impossible.

I suggest that a great deal more work is needed—if the two Front Benches are to combine in support for the principle, they must get the detail right. Otherwise, in particular as we have already heard with the 50 per cent. hurdle, the provision is a dead letter. If 51 per cent. have to vote before anything can be done, it is a dead letter. The hon. Member for Yeovil is absolutely right: we can conduct any number of surveys, all reaching 40 or 45 per cent. participation, with perhaps even 70 per cent. of those responding not satisfied with their school, but that is a recipe for real unrest and disaster. I make a plea to the two Front Benches: for goodness’ sake, we have to get the detail right before we go an inch further.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow the passionate and well-informed speech of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, who summarised in one phrase what I want to say. His phrase supports my amendment 190, which seeks to remove—at least from proposed new section 19L—any role for the adjudicator. The hon. Gentleman said that it is absolutely wrong for one person to gainsay the elected local authority. He rightly expressed passion about how we live in a democracy, in which elected representatives, whether on parish, town, district or unitary councils, represent their local people when making decisions on policy matters. It is entirely wrong for the local authority to be gainsaid in such a way.

To put the mind of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East at rest on one matter, my Front Bench does not believe that we should have any such massive bureaucracy. I believe my Front Bench favours parental surveys: local authorities and schools should use them to ensure that they listen to parents in the local area. What is not wanted is any of the paraphernalia—including the adjudicator, in particular—that will remove local democratic controls. I hope that, having spoken so passionately and no doubt having influenced his colleagues as he did me, we might see a serious effort to defeat those particular aspects of the Bill.

The proposal is one further step in enfeebling and infantilising local authorities. They are there to respond to local demand and not to be pushed around by an adjudicator, of whatever eminence. When we have constrained budgets, we shall be spending a fortune on bureaucratic procedures that are designed to remove the democratic say-so of the local authority.

The final point I would like to look at is how the system will work in particular places. How will it work in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the largest unitary council by area in England? At 933 square miles, it stretches from Goole in one corner up to Bridlington and down to Withernsea. Those three towns have the greatest pockets of deprivation in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but there are 933 square miles between those towns, with Beverley adorning—certainly in my mind—a central point. How is it possible to get a snapshot across that whole area from such surveys? Or we could look across the border from the East Riding to the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, where the local authority has regularly—I am afraid to say—been at the very bottom of performance league tables for GCSE. How will the surveys trigger change? They are surely unlikely to trigger major change in places such as the East Riding, which I am proud to say has delivered significant year-on-year improvements in educational outcomes under Conservative control, despite being one of the lowest- funded local authorities in the country. In Hull, there has not been such support. There are pockets of excellence in Hull, there is a lot of good practice there and lots of good people work there. None the less, the overall educational performance of the local authority has been poor.

What difference will this proposal make? How will it trigger change? Is the local authority in Hull not bothered about educational standards? I say to the Minister that it is bothered about school standards. I struggle to see how this process, with the paraphernalia of the adjudicator, will change or improve matters in places such as Hull. If it does not make a difference in such places, what is the point of it?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 11:45 am, 2nd February 2010

I am absolutely amazed by what the hon. Gentleman just said. He is putting the case for local authorities determining school places in an area, but the policy of his Front-Bench team is to free the system up, to allow the market to rip, to let everyone who wants to set up a school do so and for parents to have a completely free choice among the schools in their area. That has nothing to do with the local authority.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

Order. We are getting very wide of the mark and moving into a debate about general education policy. Could the hon. Gentleman concentrate on the amendment in hand?

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I would like to think that I have kept my focus on the amendment, Mr. Betts. I do not know why the Minister wanted to ride wider.

My point is that as the democratically elected body, the local authority should be responsible for providing services, not the adjudicator. To have a free school system, which I will not go into in too much detail, would be to pass the power down from the democratically elected local authority to parents, giving them choice. That would allow communities in places such as Hull to tackle and challenge the failure and poor provision of many years. This Front-Bench team is in favour of the revolution of bringing power closer to the people, whereas the tendency of the Government Front-Bench team, as  we see in the Bill, is always to move power away from people, even away from democratically elected local representatives, and to put it for ever in the hands of bureaucrats, doubtless based in London.

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

I apologise if I strayed beyond the amendment, Mr. Betts.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, as I have said throughout our consideration of the Bill, not only on this clause, that the devil is in the detail and that we must be careful about how the detail works out. I will reflect on his concerns. I understand the point about democratic accountability.

The point made by my hon. Friend and the hon. Members for Yeovil and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton on determining the response plan will have to be considered in the consultation. The regulations will have to address how a local authority should respond to a parental survey with 51 per cent. dissatisfaction. It will have to be considered whether the 51 per cent. is concentrated in one part of the local authority and what that means for the other 49 per cent. Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend said regarding postcodes, it will sometimes be possible to identify pockets of real dissatisfaction and pockets of real satisfaction. That issue will have to be addressed in the consultation.

Another matter for the consultation is the point made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about the 51 per cent. threshold not being reached. Even with a threshold of 40 per cent., 39 per cent. of respondents could still be dissatisfied. Whatever the level of the threshold, a significant minority of people could be dissatisfied even if it is not reached. If, however, the local authority is used as the constituency on which to base the survey, as seems sensible, there is then an issue of what to do if there are pockets of dissatisfaction. That will need consideration and further thought in terms of the response plan, even if the threshold is not met.

The response plan will be produced by the local authority. I think that most local authorities will produce a response plan that will command the respect and support of people in the area, but it is appropriate to discuss ensuring how, if the local authority produces a response plan that does not address the concerns raised by the consultation, some independent voice might consider it and comment on it. As I said in earlier debates, we need to decide what the trigger point should be for the response plan, but there should be an independent voice.

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

May I just finish this point?

On democratic accountability, the adjudicator will not be able to compel a local authority to have a particular response plan. We expect that the independent voice of the adjudicator will lead the local authority and that, should its original plan be deemed inappropriate or not up to the standard expected, the local authority will listen to the adjudicator and change it. However, there is no compulsion.

Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

When the response plan is put together, surely the local authority must, in recognising the dissatisfaction, have some idea what that means from the “happy/super happy/absolutely damn miserable” checklist. Are people unhappy with the results achieved? Are they unhappy with the discipline in schools? There are 20 different points.

When the local authority responds, having worked out that conundrum, it must identify which schools are not performing to an acceptable standard. If the case is then referred to the adjudicator, he or she will have to recognise that certain schools tick every box and others tick none. It seems almost impossible to write up a generic plan for a city or county that takes into account the enormous complexities of people’s decision to vote “ecstatic” or “miserable”. How on earth will it ever add anything to the education process? It is totally defeating. I call on the Minister again to recognise that the detail will be critical if people are not to lose confidence in a process that might set out with the best intentions but whose unintended consequences may well undermine a great deal of what is good in the Bill overall.

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

I will again give my hon. Friend a commitment to consider the detail. As I have said, the objective is to ensure that parents can make representations about whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with schools in their area. With the adjudicator, we have tried to build in independence, but democratic accountability will rest with the local authority, because the local authority will not be compelled to accept what the adjudicator says. That is why I said that it will reach an end point.

Mr. Lawsrose—

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

I will give way to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, if the hon. Member for Yeovil will hang on for a minute.

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

Does the Minister not think that the whole policy is very bureaucratic? I refer to the idea that a plan can be produced on a 20-side report that will somehow solve poor school performance in a local authority area that might have been performing poorly for a number of years. Such schools might require a very nuanced and careful approach to policy development, such as replacing the head teacher or governing bodies, and putting more resources into one school or another. The plans are more likely to end up being a restructuring of where schools are located than any real attempt to deliver higher standards of behaviour and higher academic standards. Should the Minister not consider putting a local authority into special measures if 51 per cent. of parents in its area are unhappy with school provision?

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

All sorts of tools can be used. In addition to restructuring and reorganising, the response plan might try to improve standards at particular schools or school organisation—it can be broad. We are trying to give parents a voice. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that: the issue is how we do it. It does not necessarily have to be bureaucratic, and we will get the detail right to ensure that we minimise bureaucracy.

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

The Minister said three times that there is no element of compulsion. Will he reflect again on this subsection, because it is clear that there is compulsion? It states that the local authority “shall withdraw the plan” and shall “prepare and publish” a further response plan and that

“the authority shall have regard to the adjudicator’s determination”.

All of that sounds like compulsion to me.

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

Of course, I will reflect on that. The intent is not for the adjudicator to compel a local authority to follow a particular course of action. Rather, it is to require a local authority to consider what the adjudicator has said. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, I will reflect on his point, but it is not the intention of the Bill.

To have no recourse to an adjudicator and simply to leave a matter with the local authority will mean that there is no independent challenge to the response of the local authority. In some instances, that response might not be appropriate or adequate, in which case somebody should be able independently to challenge a local authority. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s amendment because it says that a local authority can ignore the matter if it wishes. On that basis, I hope that he will withdraw it.

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

As ever, I am grateful to the Minister for his response to our concerns, but I do not accept his description of what is in his Bill. At least three times, the Minister claimed that there was no element of compulsion, that local authorities will not be compelled to do what the adjudicator says. He says that the adjudicator will not be able to compel a local authority and that there is no compulsion. He said that the local authority does not have to do what the adjudicator wants and that all he seeks to do is to ensure that the local authority is required to consider the adjudicator’s view. With respect, that is not what the Bill says. The Bill says that an adjudicator can look at the matter, make a determination and reject the plan. If he rejects the plan, proposed new subsection 19N(2) states that a local authority shall

“withdraw the plan, and prepare and publish a further plan (a ‘further response plan’)”.

Proposed new subsection 19N(3) states:

“In preparing a further response plan, the authority shall have regard to the adjudicator’s determination within section 19M(2)(c).”

That could be on an issue that is very clear-cut and on which the local authority simply cannot ignore the adjudicator’s opinion. If the Minister is seeking to do what he says—that the local authority should merely be required to consider—then he can happily sign up to our amendments, because what we are doing is requiring the local authority to consider, but we are saying that it may or may not take action as a consequence. It is clear that the speech that the Minister has given and the Bill that he is presenting are not compatible. If the speech that he has given is the Government’s position, he should support the amendments.

At best, this aspect of the Bill goes nowhere, because the Minister has already admitted that if the further response plan is published and ignores the adjudicator’s response, nothing will happen. At worst, however, it is an extremely centralising and undemocratic measure that says that the adjudicator will have power to direct a  local authority and that makes it clear, in proposed new section 19N(3), that a local authority shall have regard to that and will have to withdraw its previous plan.

It is clear from the comments that we have already made that we will want to divide on the clause. However, I am encouraged by speeches that we have heard in support of amendment 143, including from the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, so I am inclined to press it to a Division.

Mr. Gibbrose—

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 12:00 pm, 2nd February 2010

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind appellation.

We are in favour of the notion of parental surveys; we believe that local authorities should be responsive to the views of parents and local people, and to other users of their services. However, the very bureaucratic, expensive and unresponsive approach that the Government intend to take leads me to take the view that we will support the hon. Gentleman on amendment 143. We also now believe, as a result of our debates on the amendments, that we will oppose the clause as a whole.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting out clearly his party’s position. I wish to press amendment 143 to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

As I said, given the wide-ranging debate on the amendments to clause 6, I shall not be allowing a stand part debate.

Question put forthwith (Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89), That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.