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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill

Learning and Skills Bill

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 23 May 2000


[Mr John Maxton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Schedule 7

Inadequate Sixth Forms

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 339, in page 78, line 43, after `(1)', insert

    At the end of the period prescribed under paragraph 34 above.—[Mr Clappison.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 340, in page 79, line 8, at end insert

    including the parents of pupils at the school concerned.

No. 341, in page 79, line 30, after (1) insert Subject to paragraph 36A.

No. 342, in page 79, line 45, at end insert—

    36A. No proposals may be implemented unless they have received the approval of a majority in a ballot of parents at the school concerned.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): I welcome you to the chair Mr. Maxton.

Before we adjourned, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) set out his case for making the amendments, but I must disappoint him. I know that he hoped that we would be able to accept them, but we cannot and I want to explain why.

I have some sympathy with the argument for amendment No. 339. A school organisation committee will not be able fully to consider any proposals from the LSC in respect of inadequate sixth form provision until the end of the prescribed objection period. Until that point, local parents, the local education authority, members of staff and anyone else may be preparing and registering their objections to the proposals, as is their right under paragraph 34 of schedule 7.

The Government believe that decisions on school organisation should be taken at local level, so we do not want to undermine the views of interested local parties, many of which will have particular expertise and evidence that is extremely relevant to the decision-making process. Thus far we are in sympathy with the motivation behind amendment No. 339. However, it would afford no more support for the principle than the provisions in schedule 7 as drafted. Indeed, it might even prove damaging and cause delay. For example, a school organisation committee might wish to take a preliminary look at the LSC's proposals before the end of the objection period to check that the required information was available. A requirement that a committee might not start to consider the proposals until after the objection period would delay, perhaps considerably, the decision-making process. That would be in no one's interests.

The safeguard for which the hon. Member for Hertsmere is arguing is already provided in schedule 7. Paragraph 35(2)(c) places a duty on the school organisation committee to have regard to any objections made within the prescribed objection period and not withdrawn. Paragraph 35(7)(b) provides that the same duty is placed on the schools adjudicator if the proposals are passed to him or her for decision. If the committee or the adjudicator reached a conclusion on the proposals before the end of the objection period, they would, by definition, be in default of those duties. We believe that that affords an adequate safeguard.

I turn to amendments Nos. 340 to 342. The hon. Gentleman asked for assurances on the involvement of parents. Parents and their children are at the very centre of the Government's drive to raise education standards and achievements both in schools and, with the new arrangements in the Bill, in all post-16 learning. The principle of involving parents at every stage, from supporting their children's learning to having a say in where and how they learn, is important. We all agree on that.

The principle of parental involvement is already clearly reflected in paragraph 34 of schedule 7, which provides that any person may register objections against LSC proposals to discontinue inadequate sixth form provision. Paragraph 35(2)(c) also places a duty on a school organisation committee, when considering LSC proposals, to have regard to any such objections. Parents are an obvious example of a group that may wish to exercise a statutory right to object. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State's guidance to the LSC, prepared under paragraph 16(3) of schedule 7, will state that parents should be consulted by the LSC before it publishes proposals.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere): I do not think that the Minister disputes the fact that the need to consult parents is not yet provided for in the Bill, but paragraph 35(3) requires a school organisation committee to consult

    such persons as may be prescribed

Which people do the Government intend to prescribe under that requirement?

Mr. Wills: I should be happy to come back to that in a moment, but I should like to proceed from where I was in explaining why we will resist amendment No. 340 as well. The amendment proposes that a school organisation committee should be required to consult parents before a proposal is approved with modifications. We shall, of course, consult on our proposals for regulations under schedule 7, but our current intention is that consultation by a school organisation committee on any modifications to LSC proposals that the committee may oppose under paragraph 36(2)(a) should be limited to the LSC, the maintaining LEA and the governing body of the school in question. We can rely on these parties, together with the committee itself, to consider carefully the effect on pupils of any proposed modifications. It would be unreasonable for a school organisation committee to modify the proposals in order to bring forward the date of implementation.

As for amendments Nos. 341 and 342 and the suggestion that the implementation of LSC prosposals approved by the school organisation committee or the school adjudicator should then be conditional on a parental ballot, the hon. Gentleman's good intentions are misplaced. As we have already pointed out many times, the LSC will be able to make proposals to close LEA sixth form provision that has been found inadequate only after a thorough process, following two consecutive inspection reports over a typical period of two years. There will then follow a carefully thought through local decision-making process—earlier today it was called cumbersome. That will balance the need for swift action against the requirements for a fair and full consideration of the merits and demerits of the prosposals and the views of people in the local community, including parents.

At the end of that process, most parents would wish, above all, for a clear conclusion and decisive action. Let me remind the Committee again that we are talking about sixth form provision that has been demonstrated to be inadequate over two years and after two consecutive inspections. At the end of such a process, conclusive and decisive action is necessary. The interests of parents and their children will not be best served by the requirement that a further hoop be jumped through after such an exhaustive process.

The hon. Gentleman, perhaps inevitably, drew a parallel with our policy of parental ballots on grammar schools. Although I am sure that I do not need to do so, for the sake of clarity I will point out to him that there is a world of difference between a parental ballot on future admission arrangements of a grammar school and the proposal for a parental ballot on the future of a sixth form that has, as I have said been demonstrably shown over two years to be failing their children. The former is a matter of individual choice. It is not driven by the same need for urgent and decisive action for the sake of the children and the community concerned. Parents will have had several opportunities to register their views, as will other interested local parties.

Mr. Clappison: The Minister talks about urgent and decisive action. Will he give us his best estimate of how long it will take to go through all the procedural steps in schedule 7, from the inspector's report being received to the sixth form being closed?

Mr. Wills: I had hoped that I had already made it clear that urgent and decisive action was necessary.

Mr. Clappison: The time.

Mr. Wills: I shall come to the time. What is important here is that when we have been through a process that everybody sees to be fair and thorough in weighing up all the different interests involved after two consecutive inspections, there is a need for urgent and decisive action. It will depend on the circumstances. I will not make a specific commitment about the time schedule for that process, which will be thorough. At the end of it, urgent and decisive action will be necessary. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that. I hope that he now understands that there is a difference between our policy on parental ballots for grammar schools and the reasons that we have given for rejecting the amendment.

I have genuinely tried to reassure the hon. Gentleman. We recognise his concerns and the paramount need for parents to be and feel involved in the future of their children's education. That lies at the heart of what we are talking about. I hope that, with the reassurances that I have been able to give today, the hon. Gentleman will feel able, albeit slightly reluctantly, to withdraw the amendments.

Mr. Clappison: I cannot even bring myself reluctantly to withdraw the amendments because I am simply not persuaded by what the Minister said. I was slightly more reassured by his reply on amendment No. 339—although not the first part, when he told me that it would prevent the school organisation committee from considering proposals at all. Paragraph 35 makes it clear that it has to do so and come to one of the decisions listed under (a), (b) or (c). Those things have to be done together.

I noted what the Minister said about his interpretation of the later paragraph. If he is telling me that the time for objections will have run out by the time the school organisation committee makes its decision, I will accept his assurance. This was suggested simply as a modest, common-sense amendment.

I am unhappy about the Minister's response on the other amendments. I shall be grateful if, in due course, he will let me have in detail the Government's latest thinking on who will be prescribed for consultation—first by the Learning and Skills Council when it publishes the proposals under paragraph 16(3) and by the school organisation committee, under paragraph 35(3). As I have already observed, the Bill contains no requirement for parents even to be consulted, let alone for them to take a decision or have any part in it. I cannot see a world of difference between the doctrine enunciated earlier today, that decisions about a school's character should be taken by parents in grammar school ballots, and that concerning sixth forms.

The Minister says that the sixth forms in question will have been found to be failing and that we shall need to take urgent and decisive action. Why, then, is it necessary to go through this cumbersome process, during which it is possible at a number of points, to decide that a sixth form should not be closed? It is not inevitable that a sixth form will be closed; it is perfectly possible for a school organisation committee, for example, to come to a unanimous decision that it should not be closed. After that, an adjudicator may decide that the sixth form should not be closed. Parents are excluded from this process, as are local education authorities.

The Minister's exposition about the position of parents in all this reminds me of a French revolutionary leader who expounded the doctrine that authority should come from above and confidence from below—in other words, parents should accept what they are given and do as they are told. That is another example of the democratic deficit. The Minister is unable even to tell us exactly how long the process will take. I would be grateful if he would write to me about that.


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