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6.30 pm

Their Lordships, in their wisdom, were addressed on the matter by Lady Seccombe, and as we are now allowed to quote from the Hansard record of the proceedings of another place, I shall dip briefly into her speech. She reminded their Lordships:

I am not surprised by that, because St. Alphege is one of the most successful schools in Solihull, which has many successful schools.

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Baroness Seccombe continued:

I appreciate the fact that you have been most indulgent to me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to pay a tribute to a greatly respected lady from my constituency. You have also enabled me to talk in some detail about the schools group of St. Alphege. I shall finish by saying that St. Alphege school in Solihull has got it right, and their Lordships got it right too. Even now, the Government could get it right, and if they had the grace to reconsider, I would heap praises on their head.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): After today's performance, it would be interesting to hear a Conservative heaping praises on the Government's head. We wait to hear that. I do not wish to pay tribute to the lady that the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) mentioned, although it is good to hear tributes paid in the House to former colleagues and to teachers who have given their lives to education, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's tribute will be well received.

We support the way in which the Government are investing powers in governing bodies and giving them, together with heads, the ability to run schools efficiently and effectively, making decisions as locally and as swiftly as possible. Indeed, we do not think that the exception to the rule will be needed in many cases. It amazes us that on such a small detail the Government wish to force the issue and insist that every school have an individual governing body. I do not believe that that is necessary.

The vast majority of schools would want their own single governing body anyway, because they would want the special relationship with the parents and the community--and, indeed, with their local education authority representatives, when they turn up. To force that on everybody seems a little over the top, and goes against the thrust of the rest of the Government's policy, which is based on standards, not structures. Here we are told that the structures come first and the standards will follow later.

I must admit that in my time in teaching I have had only one experience of being on a joint governing body. When I first moved to Leeds, the high schools were all grouped together with a single governing body. That system was an utter disaster. All that happened was that, once a term, the home economics departments, as they were then called, vied with each other to provide the best tea for the governors. Little business was done, except that a report was presented. The whole thing was not only a sham but a shambles.

I am not arguing for the Lords amendment on the basis of having had any good personal experience of joint governing bodies. However, the hon. Member for Solihull

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has given us an excellent example of a single governing body, operating for what are now two schools, working effectively.

Mrs. Browning: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, may I declare an interest as the president of the Institute of Home Economics? I hope that, with his passing reference to the excellent teas that the home economics departments provided, he will not leave the House with the impression that those departments are somehow ancillary to the teaching in our schools. We need more home economics teachers, and a greater appreciation of their work.

Mr. Willis: When the hon. Lady left the Opposition Front Bench, it was a great loss to the House. Her intervention is most timely. It was a disgrace that the home economics departments should have had to make the tea for the governors. They had far more important things to do, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would accept that their job should have been in the home economics classrooms--but I digress, down the path along which the hon. Lady has led me.

Although I had a poor experience of a joint governing body, I can see occasions when it would be advantageous to have a single governing body overseeing a group of schools. The hon. Member for Solihull has given us an example of a junior school and an infant school with a long tradition, now on different sites but with a real sense of association.

There are many examples. For instance, many Church schools throughout the country have expanded, and are now faced with the same scenario as the hon. Member for Solihull described. Of course, there are also junior and infant schools on the same site that were built and intended to operate as separate schools, yet have come together to form a single governing body because that is the most effective and efficient way to run the organisation.

All that we are arguing for, and all that their Lordships were arguing for, is not to defeat the Government and create a crisis--heavens above, I hope that this does not become a constitutional crisis. We are simply saying that there are exceptions, and that it is important to allow flexibility.

In an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned education action zones. She was right. The Minister will know that the Liberal Democrats supported the introduction of those zones. We feel that they have much to offer, provided that they are successful. A new way of looking at school organisation and bringing schools together with the business community is an exciting experiment, which we hope will work.

If it is a good idea to have a single governing body for a group of schools in an education action zone, it cannot be argued that it is not a good idea to have a junior and an infant school continuing with a single governing body on the same site. That is illogical. Furthermore, the Minister said that that would dilute the parental or community involvement. That is exactly what is happening with a single governing body in an education action zone, where sometimes there are as many as 20 schools. That may be a price worth paying in this brave new world of moving away from traditional structures. Clearly, that issue must be examined.

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I wish to refer to beacon schools. On Monday, I went to the beacon school in my constituency, St. Aidan's--one of the finest schools I have ever had the good fortune to be involved with. I talked to the head, the staff and the governors about the other schools that the school will support, and it was exciting to see how the new system would work on the ground. However, it was clear then--it is clear again today--that there may be a requirement for those governing bodies to work together. It might be perceivable that it would be worth while to have a single governing body--particularly, as in this case, where one of the schools that St. Aidan's is going to work with is another Church school. I can see advantages in that. If we throw out the Lords amendment, we will cut off a route--that is all.

The vast majority of schools will want a single governing body, and that is right and proper. There will be few exceptions to that rule, but let us leave in the Bill an opportunity for that to happen.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I am privileged to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) who, to those of us who are junior Members of the House, gave an excellent example of how a Member of Parliament can show up a vital issue in his own constituency. It is a timely reminder of the vital link between Members of Parliament and our constituencies--one which we would be well advised to retain in the future.

The Education Select Committee recently commenced a study into head teachers. One of the ideas that we intended to look at was whether there could be one head teacher for a number of schools: the corollary of that would be one governing body for a number of schools. It is frankly perverse that the Government oppose the Lords amendment while Labour Members have actively toyed with the revolutionary concept--some are rather in favour of it--of one head for a number of schools. There are a few cases where that happens already. I believe that there are a cluster of schools in Dorset where one head has overall control. I am not aware of whether there is one governing body that might be affected by the changes that the Government are seeking to put back in the Bill.

The thrust of the Government's approach to the amendment is typical of their approach almost from day one of the Bill. It is the approach of a party that is hungry for power. Once it acquires that power, it becomes consumed with the determination to accrue as much of it as possible for the centre and for the Departments, and to take away as much discretion as possible from every other aspect of the education system--particularly from the local education authorities.

It should not be a matter for central Government whether a number of governing bodies that are responsible for more than one school exist in a particular education authority. That should not detain the House, but it does when the Government elevate it above its normal importance.

Recently, as part of the study into head teachers, the Education Select Committee visited Zurich. We were told by the canton of Zurich that, in Switzerland, there are 26 cantons, so there are 26 education systems. One can imagine the brainstorm that the Minister would have if he had to contemplate 26 different education systems in this country, yet for the people of Switzerland, that is par for

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the course--it is part of their way of life. Out of that flexibility, they have managed to develop a fine education system.

One of the features of the Swiss education system is that the country does not have schools at all--it has "school houses". The canton of Zurich does not, at present, have head teachers, but those concerned were talking about proposals to introduce them and to move towards the UK model, which was developed very much by the last Government. We asked how big the schools would be. We were told that that would depend on how many school houses they decided to include under the umbrella of one school.

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