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6.30 pm

Ms Estelle Morris: I have to admit that I have never understood the problems that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) seems to have with this matter. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and I both made it clear where the responsibility for target setting lies. I am happy to reaffirm our commitment to setting targets as an important part of the agenda of raising standards and to reiterate my words in Committee. Ownership of targets by schools is important. The role of the local education authority is crucial. The hon. Gentleman referred to comments made by my hon. Friend that were made in the debate in which Leafy Lane and Park View schools were born. We had a long and interesting debate and those schools stayed in existence until the end of the Standing Committee, with hon. Members on both sides referring back to them at suitable points in our exchanges.

My hon. Friends referred to Leafy Lane, Park View and all the rest, because target setting is not merely about ensuring that schools that do not get good results improve, but about ensuring that schools that get what appear to be adequate results improve as well. We commented that there was much under-performance in Leafy Lane schools that needed to be challenged. The crucial role of the local authority in this matter is to provide comparative information about schools' performances in similar circumstances--similar in prior attainment, in the backgrounds of children and in the environments of the schools--which means that, when schools set targets, they cannot hide away and loiter in the middle of the school performance table. That is the role of local authorities--to challenge the target-setting progress of schools and point out to them that they may be happy to set X, but that a school with similar circumstances in the borough has set X plus Y.

From our experience of local authorities setting targets on a local authority-wide basis, we know that schools want to meet the best target that other schools in similar

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circumstances are meeting. The qualitative information that local authorities provide will be helpful to schools in setting targets.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards said, and as I repeated later:

I am happy to repeat again that the responsibility for setting targets must lie with the bodies that will primarily be responsible for ensuring that the targets are achieved--schools. It is right that that should happen, but it is also right that schools should listen to what local authorities say.

In the vast majority of cases, there will not be a dispute. Schools will welcome the information that local authorities can bring. They will benefit from the exchange of information that they and their governing bodies will have with the local authority. The result will be that the targets set will be sufficiently challenging to do their job of raising standards.

Mr. Don Foster: Does the Under-Secretary accept that there is a possibility of a dispute between a local education authority and a school only if there has been consultation on the issue between them? Will she confirm that it will be a requirement for schools to consult the LEA before they finalise their targets? That is all that the new clause would ensure.

Ms Morris: I do not want to avoid the question, but that depends on what the hon. Gentleman means by "consult". If he is asking schools to consult local education authorities and defer to their opinion, the answer is no. If he is asking them to talk to the LEA about their targets, the answer is yes. The real difficulty is--perhaps this has been the source of our debates--that, if the school and the LEA cannot agree, the local authority's targets stand, but the fact that there has been a dispute can be recorded in the plan that goes forward. What is the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the word "consult"? Does it mean bargaining and schools having to do what they do not want to meet the needs of the local authority? No. Schools must set their own targets. If consultation means talk, we can find accord with that.

I do not think that there is a million miles between us on this matter and, my having given him those assurances, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will see fit to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Foster: Towards the end of the Under-Secretary's remarks, we were beginning to get a clear assurance that she would expect consultation of the type which she described--not a one-way consultation in which the LEA is determined to have its way, but a two-way consultation between the school and the LEA.

The Under-Secretary wonders why I have continued to be somewhat confused about the Government's position. If she reads in Hansard her contribution to the debate on new clause 14 on special educational needs, she will find that she continued some of the confusion. If I noted it correctly, in her reply to that debate she said:

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    The confusion about who is responsible for setting targets is part of the reason for my confusion.

Ms Morris: I would hate the hon. Gentleman to continue to be confused after this debate. Perhaps I was not clear in my use of words. I was referring to the documentation that is sent to the Department for approval, in which we are asking for targets school by school. The word "for" refers to the fact that LEAs must record the targets for special schools, not that they must do it on their behalf.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for acknowledging that her words were somewhat unclear. I pressed the issue because of that lack of clarity, but given the clear undertaking that the hon. Lady has given about the need for consultation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1

Power to set limits on infant class sizes

Amendment made: No. 79, in page 1, line 9, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

Clause 3

Payment of grant in connection with reductions in infant class sizes

Amendment made: No. 80, in page 3, line 1, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

Clause 10

Establishment of education action zones

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 121, in page 10, line 7, leave out from 'purpose' to the end of line 9 and insert--

'(a) with the consent of the governing body of every school which it is proposed should be a participating school, and
(b) where the LEA is not making the application, with evidence that it has been consulted by the proposers, with a view to being a partner in the Education action zone.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: Government amendment No. 85.

No. 88, in clause 12, page 11, line 13, at end insert--

'(3A) In discharging any function transferred to it under the provisions of subsection (2) of this section an Education Action Forum may enter a contract for the performance of that function with any party, whether from the public or private sector, who, in the opinion of the Education Action Forum, is a fit and proper party to discharge the function or functions covered by the contract.
(3B) Any party with whom the Education Action Forum enters a contract under the terms of subsection (3A) of this section (hereinafter referred to as "the contractor") shall be responsible for delivering the service defined in the contract with the Education Action Forum to the standard defined in the said contract and shall be permitted to acquire, employ, and manage, on terms to be

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determined by the contractor, such equipment, staff and other resources as he believes to be necessary to perform the duties defined in the contract.'.

No. 122, in clause 13, page 11, line 35, after 'them', insert

'and where the employer is the local education authority, consult with that local education authority,'.

Government amendments Nos. 86 and 87.

Mr. Foster: The amendment is similar to new clause 15 in that it deals with the relationship between local education authorities and schools, but in this case it deals with schools forming part of an education action zone.

I must take this opportunity to place on record in the House what I said in Committee. We Liberal Democrats are very supportive of the Government's proposals for education action zones, at least in principle. In Committee, we had discussions about some of the detailed operations of the zones and had the opportunity to press some concerns.

Education action zones are an important feature of the Bill. We hope that, when the Minister examines the bids for the first few zones, he will find himself inundated with exciting proposals for new forms of partnership in education, which will bring together not only schools but other interested bodies, including private businesses and other representatives of the local community, as well as further education colleges and perhaps even universities. We believe that EAZs will above all offer an opportunity for some exciting thinking about how education can develop to meet the needs of children in the next millennium.

Because it is so important that EAZs are successful partnerships, we must ensure that all possible partners are involved. In Committee, I tabled amendments to ensure that the local education authority would have the opportunity to be a partner. As was clear from our discussions, the Government expected that, in the vast majority of cases, LEAs would be partners, although, as was rightly pointed out, there might be cases in which it would be unhelpful for the LEA--perhaps because it was deemed to be failing the schools in its area, or because it wanted to propose a different EAZ consortium--automatically to have the right to membership of the EAZ.

As I was able to demonstrate in Committee, all the Government's documentation showed that, until the last minute, the Government clearly intended that LEAs should participate in all EAZs. I think that we now understand why they shifted their position slightly. Nevertheless, it is vital that the LEA is at least consulted about the applications for each EAZ, so that it can decide whether to become a partner.

Unlike the amendments that I tabled in Committee, amendment No. 121 does not insist on a guaranteed role for the LEA in the education action forum; it merely suggests that there should be clear evidence that the LEA has been consulted on whether it wants to be a partner in the EAZ.

I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of that, as he knows that the LEA will continue to have responsibilities, many of which are specified in the Bill, for the schools in any EAZ that is established. Those responsibilities include setting targets, operating early warning systems, reviewing special educational needs

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arrangements and providing for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties and for those who are educated out of school.

There are many other reasons why the partners in the EAZ will need to understand an LEA's work, not leastin relation to local management of schools budget arrangements, the LEA services which are available, the requirement for continuing professional development, the relationship between a school's organisation committee, the LEA and the forum, and the general interrelationship of the LEA and more general local authority educational services.

Given that the LEA will carry out many functions that will affect schools in an EAZ, and given the need for schools in an EAZ to know about the work of the LEA, it is obvious that the LEA must be involved in some way in all EAZs. At the very least, the LEA must be consulted about plans to establish an EAZ and given the opportunity to become a member. I hope that the House will agree to the amendment.

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