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6.45 pm

Mr. Dorrell: I want to speak principally to amendment No. 88, which belongs to this group of amendments but which I shall seek, with your consent, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to put to a separate decision by the House. Its purpose is to tease out exactly what the Government think an education action zone will mean.

Like the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), when I first heard about education action zones, I found the idea rather attractive. It was certainly presented as an important new part of the Government's armoury for improving the delivery of service by our schools. At the north of England education conference at the beginning of this year, Professor Barber trumpeted it as an important step forward in introducing a new perspective--it would be an opportunity for new management and new ideas in areas where, for whatever reason, the Secretary of State felt that there were inadequate new ideas.

It seemed, originally, that the education action zones would be targeted at problem areas in the school system, but it became clear in Committee that the Minister wanted them to be established not only in areas of low educational attainment, but in any part of the country where he felt that improvement in service delivery by maintained sector schools was possible--he was looking for opportunities to introduce new structures and fresh ideas to any part of the country where significant improvement was possible.

All that seemed a rather attractive idea. When I was asked for my reaction to the proposal at the north of England conference, I said that I was receptive to the idea and would look forward to Ministers sketching out the detail. However, in Committee, when we considered the details of what the idea would mean in practice, the excitement started to fall away. It became obvious that the Government were unclear about their intentions for education action zones.

It is important that we should be clear about the Bill's provisions. When the Secretary of State has determined that an area should be an education action zone, individual schools' governing bodies will be responsible for deciding whether to participate. I agree with that--a school's participation should be voluntary.

When Professor Barber launched the idea, he made it clear that it was explicitly intended that the private sector should be able to play a role in the new structure, to bring

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in new ideas for the delivery of service. I understand that, at the north of England education conference, he speculated publicly that one of the companies that could be introduced--not only as advisers on a governing body or to provide tangential, relatively detailed advice, but as mainstream managers of the delivery of the schools service--was Procter and Gamble.

I admired the provocation that Professor Barber clearly enjoyed introducing to the argument. It was a piece of iconoclasm, although it is perhaps less provocative to those who recognise that Procter and Gamble already runs charter schools in the United States, where it picked up the concept--it is charged with delivering a specialist improvement in the schools service in different American cities. When I heard that the concept was part of the Government's idea, I thought that it was attractive. The name Procter and Gamble is provocative, but a more home-grown company is Nord Anglia, a British company with experience of employing teachers, managing schools and delivering a schools service.

The purpose of amendment No. 88, tabled by me and of my hon. Friends, is to probe the Government on whether they intend to create the opportunity for Nord Anglia and Procter and Gamble to manage and deliver a school service in an area where improvement is possible. When we came to this section of the Bill in Committee, it became pretty clear that at the very least there was a question mark over the idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) asked the Minister for School Standards:

It may be the Government's vision that Nord Anglia, Procter and Gamble or anyone else should have the opportunity to deliver a new schools management service, as defined by proper public authorities, but it will be hard for a company to do so if it is not allowed to employ teachers.

The Minister's response in the Committee was rather depressing. He said:

I do not understand how we deliver the objective that Procter and Gamble certainly delivers in some charter schools in America.

Mr. Byers: I shall deal with this issue at greater length in my reply to the debate, but I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to Government amendment No. 85. He will see that we intend to give legal powers to the forum. That was not the case when we debated the matter in Committee. We recognise that we need to have clarity and that is why we intend to put the education forum in the position of employer. That was not the case when we debated the matter in Committee.

Mr. Dorrell: I have seen that amendment and I understand that it is relevant, but in a sense it compounds the problem. The Government envisage that a manager will take over the management of a school where there is a problem--whether it is of low attainment or, to take the Minister's argument from Leafy Lane high, of low expectations, and there is an opportunity for improvement in a school that is complacent. Whatever the purpose of

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taking a school into an education action zone, if a company such as Nord Anglia or Procter and Gamble is to have responsibility for delivering the improved service that the Government say that they seek, it must have the power to manage all the necessary resources.

Government amendment No. 85 merely underlines the timidity of the response offered by the Minister in Committee and repeated by the Under-Secretary. I gave the Government a second chance to deal with the question. The Under-Secretary confirmed that at that stage

The Government's amendment says that the teacher contract can be converted to an EAZ contract, but that still does not allow an EAZ to decide that a bidder for the delivery of a school service offers to the children of a district the opportunity of a better education that meets their needs better and offers them a better start in life.

The Minister will acknowledge that the EAZ concept is based loosely on the ideas that have been shown to work in some very difficult city schools in the United States. I hope and believe that the Government are trying to learn those lessons. I do not believe that they will achieve that objective if they do not give the enterprise with the responsibility for managing the school the power that it needs to deliver its objectives in what will often be difficult circumstances. That is why our amendment makes it clear that, although not in every case--I do not say that this should apply in every EAZ--where a bidder wants to employ, manage and be responsible for all the resources in a school, and the EAZ is convinced that that is the best way of delivering the service in that area, that power should be available.

I appeal to the Government to have the courage of their convictions to embrace their own idea and not to run away from their own radicalism.

Mrs. May: I shall concentrate my comments on amendment No. 88, but I shall make passing reference to amendment No. 121, tabled by the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). It refers to the role that the LEA should play in bringing forward an education action zone. That proposal is interesting. It shows yet again that the Liberal Democrats constantly come back to the role of the LEA as the single deciding body to be involved in every aspect of education.

The Liberal Democrats do not simply suggest that where the LEA is not making an application, schools that wish to bring forward an EAZ should show that they have discussed or referred the matter to the LEA. There might be some sense in saying that schools within an LEA, or under two or three LEAs where schools wish to group together, should alert their LEAs to the fact that they are proposing an EAZ. The Liberal Democrats are saying that the schools must refer to the LEA with a view to its being a partner in the EAZ. They intend to remove the considerable flexibility that the Government have built into the Bill. That is why I am concerned. As in so many debates in Committee, the Liberal Democrats seem unable to envisage the provision of any aspect of education without a central and determining role for the LEA.

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Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), I was interested in the concept of EAZs when it was first introduced. I seem to recall that the concept raised considerable interest not only among Conservative Members, but in a number of national newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph, which said that the Government had come up with a radical and forward-thinking idea--very new Labour. However, as with so many new Labour ideas, including several in the Bill, the words and the practice tend to differ considerably. A radical message was put out to the press that the Government were thinking outside any confines about how they provided education, that they would innovate and that EAZs were one of the ways in which they would do so. Suddenly we see that the restrictions placed on the development of EAZs in the Bill mean that they are not as innovative as the Government would have people believe.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood made specific reference to EAZs, and we dwelt on them in Committee. It was not clear initially exactly what the Government's proposals were on employment. I accept that the Minister said that the Government were introducing their own amendment on the employment aspect of the operation of EAZs under the education action forum, but they are still shying away from the true concept of the EAZ as it was first expressed and understood when the Government proposed it. It is important to go back to that point.

There have been other misunderstandings. In the initial stages, it was expected that the Government intended to use EAZs purely as a way of helping failing schools to find another way of coming together to produce innovative ideas, to get over their problems. However, it has been made clear, and I hope that the Minister will reiterate it for the record today, that the Government do not intend to put in place EAZs purely as a structure for failing schools. It is a structure that any group of schools can request from the Secretary of State, even schools that are not underperforming, such as Leafy Lane high in the example that we were given in Committee. Schools that are performing well may want to be removed from the rigours of LEA control, to look for new ways of providing education. They will be able to come together with a proposal to set up an education action zone and an education action forum.

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