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Federations of Schools

Lords amendment: No. 23.

Mr. Miliband: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Government amendment (a) in lieu of the Lords amendment.

Mr. Miliband: I know that the whole House will agree that there must be strong partnerships between parents and schools. That is important for children, for schools and for parents. A good and open relationship between home and school can make a huge difference to a child's progress. Annual parents meetings are one means to that end: a positive and productive partnership between parents and schools that contributes to raising standards. Of course, meetings can be particularly important where parents have concerns that they want to express.

Currently, governors are obliged to hold meetings once a year. They are intended to be an opportunity for all parents to influence the running of schools, and at present they are subject to considerable regulation. When we

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introduced the Bill, we proposed to re-enact the existing requirements essentially as they are. On reflection, however, we accept the Lords' view, expressed in amendment No. 23, that there is no need for detailed regulation of the meetings. Since they were introduced, they have been prescriptively regulated, but we agree that the detailed arrangements can perfectly well be left to schools.

We want to retain the current exceptions from the general duty to hold parents meetings, as I shall explain in due course. We are ready to go further and to consult on whether there are circumstances in which the requirement could be further relaxed, especially where schools can demonstrate that they have involved parents thoroughly in the life of the school throughout the year. Although we cannot accept the Lords amendment, because it would leave us with a clause that does not legally serve its purpose, we very much accept its thrust.

There is an important principle here that will be supported across the House. Governors should give parents the opportunity to hold them to account for what they are doing. The requirement left in the Bill by the Lords does not quite do that job, because it does not specify the purpose of the annual meeting. As it stands, there would be no requirement on governing bodies to allow parents to present their views on how their child's school was being run, or might be run in future. Schools would be able to claim that they had fulfilled the duty to hold an annual parents meeting by inviting parents to a party, a sports days or a school play. I hope that the House agrees that we need to tidy up the matter.

The removal of the regulation-making powers would also put some schools in a worse position than they are in now, because it would remove the possibility of exemption from that duty, to which I referred a moment ago. For example, at present special schools established in hospitals, or maintained schools where at least 50 per cent. of the pupils are boarders, do not have to hold annual parents meetings if the governing body of the school concerned does not think that it would be practicable to do so. Many of those schools would find it extremely difficult to persuade any parents to attend annual parents meetings. We do not believe that they should be required to do so in future.

8 pm

As we have said throughout, we believe that if schools have held a meeting to discuss an Ofsted report, they should be exempt from a requirement to hold a further meeting. We want to ensure that parents have an annual opportunity to hold the governors to account, but we do not want that requirement to be more burdensome than absolutely necessary. As I have said, we are prepared to look further to see whether there are other circumstances in which it would be right to relieve schools of that duty. We will invite suggestions on that when we come to consult on the draft regulations and guidance. I do not want to revisit a previous debate, but this issue might be one in which we can achieve a measure of deregulation that is welcomed by both sides of the House.

The Government amendment closes the unintended loophole created by the Lords amendment, so that only a meeting in which the governors can be held to account is counted as an annual parents meeting. It also ensures that there can be exemptions where it does not make sense to

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hold a meeting. The annual parents meeting is a backstop, and it is important that we keep it; but I hope that the House will join me in supporting the Government amendment, which accepts the thrust of the Lords amendment while ensuring that the basic principle of parents meetings and the current exemptions are retained.

Mr. Brady: Given the consensual tone in which the Minister has presented the Government's response to the Lords amendment, I do not want to be too strongly controversial or party political—the Minister knows that that is not in my character anyway. However, I am tempted to make the observation that if only the Government had not, at earlier stages of our consideration of the Bill, denied the House of Commons the chance properly to scrutinise the Bill, we might have saved both ourselves and another place considerable effort. The clauses relating to annual parents meetings were among those many clauses that, sadly, fell victim to an extremely arbitrary timetable and the use of so-called knives throughout the Bill's Committee stage. It is sad that on a matter on which, as the Minister has shown, there is room for agreement across the House, as well as room to make sensible improvements to legislation, the use of procedural devices should have prevented consideration that might have enabled those things to happen.

In Committee, I tabled an amendment that would have had a slightly different effect from the Lords amendment. The detail of that amendment was to provide that a school would not need to hold a parents meeting annually unless there was a requirement or demand to do so from a certain number—a small number—of parents. The objective was to provide the sort of backstop that the Minister rightly says is important. Unfortunately, because of the timetable and the use of the knife, the Committee was unable to debate not only my amendment but this entire part of the Bill. Had Members of Parliament been given an opportunity to do their job properly, we might already have arrived at the sensible agreement towards which we are now moving.

The Minister has spoken of a desirable removal of unnecessary regulation. On the previous group of amendments, we were seeking precisely such an example of where it might be possible to remove some elements of unnecessary regulation without damage. The other place has made a sensible proposal that is designed to remove unnecessary regulation of the way in which parents meetings are held—how they should be publicised and their precise format. I am sure that most hon. Members on both sides accept that that is unnecessary detail for primary legislation.

The Government amendment specifies the minimum regulation necessary for the meetings, providing only that they must take place and that they must be an opportunity to hold the governors and school to account, and stating that in certain circumstances exemption from the obligation to hold a meeting is possible. The Minister mentioned the circumstances in which a meeting to discuss an Ofsted report has already been held. As I read it, new subsection (3) would create the sort of regime that I sought at an earlier stage of consideration, but would do so by regulation.

I would welcome clarification of whether, under new subsection (3), the circumstances in which there is no need to hold an annual meeting could be extended to

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include a presumption that an annual meeting may not be held unless certain circumstances prevail. I simply wonder how much latitude there is in the new subsection; it seems on the face of it that the provision could be interpreted quite broadly. I have no difficulty with that, so long as a backstop position remains—a guarantee that parents will have an opportunity to hold the school to account when there is a need to do so.

We want to avoid meetings being held unnecessarily—perhaps a meeting has already been held, or the school's experience is that when an annual meeting at which governors and the head teacher can be held to account is convened, no parents attend. It is a question of finding a sensible way forward.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that it is important that the Minister gives us a clue as to the likely nature of the regulations issued under new subsection (3), so that we have some idea of what he has in mind?

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for his helpful intervention, in which he tries precisely to pin down the Minister on the key point. The Opposition have no difficulty in principle with the fairly broad provisions of the permissive new subsection (3), which states that regulations may specify

However, if regulations are to be the instrument used, it is not only appropriate but, as my hon. Friend suggests, necessary and important that at this point the Minister puts a little flesh on the bones of what the Government envisage those circumstances being.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my hon. Friend agree that the provision on annual parents meetings was a necessary part of previous education legislation? It was part of either the 1986 or the 1988 Act—I cannot remember which—and was designed in an era in which parental choice was far more restricted than it is now and there was far less parental representation on governing bodies than there is now. None the less, it is necessary to provide that such meetings should be held until we reach that fortunate position in which there is total parental choice and schools that do not respond to their market as they should do not need to be prompted by means of meetings, but are instead prompted by means of the exercise of parental choice.

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