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Mr. Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as I was throughout Committee, for his helpful and knowledgeable contributions. He is right that the circumstances or ground rules have changed since the provision was introduced. I set out to be helpful and accommodating to the Government, but he brings me back to the formula which I sought to float in Committee: there should be a provision to allow parents to require an annual meeting to take place if one would not otherwise take place. I should be grateful for the Minister's elucidation on whether, in any regulations that he may introduce, if an exemption is granted, it would be appropriate to set out the circumstances and a mechanism by which parents could overturn it. If there has been a meeting with Ofsted to

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discuss an Ofsted report in general terms, it may not be necessary to hold a further parents meeting. There may be a material change in a year in which a meeting has already taken place, in which case parents should have the opportunity to require another meeting. I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister on that point.

No debate of the provisions of this unusual Bill would be complete without looking at the huge scope of powers to make exemptions under part 1, particularly the ability to make exemptions for the purposes of innovation. As we know, part 1 allows for exemption from any requirement in education legislation. In Committee, we clarified the fact that the provisions to make an exemption from the requirements of education legislation are self-embracing—they include measures in the Bill. I therefore urge the Minister to consider in what circumstances a school may seek to deviate from the regulations provided for under Government amendment (a). Is he prepared to give a clear and definite answer this evening about whether he would exclude exemptions for the purposes of innovation from measures on parents meetings, or are there circumstances in which he would be prepared to contemplate allowing a school to make its own amendments to the regulations?

Finally, throughout the progress of the Bill, there has been agreement between Members on both sides of the House about reducing the burden of regulation on schools. I welcome the fact that at this late stage in consideration of the Bill, Ministers are prepared to accept that there is room for movement and scope for relaxation of the law. We can therefore make progress on removing an irksome, if minor, aspect of regulation that impinges on schools. I welcome the extent to which the Government have changed their position, but I wish that the problem could have been dealt with earlier, as clearing it up would have saved us and another place time.

Mr. Mole: I, too, welcome the reduction in the prescriptive arrangements for annual parents meetings. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) asked whether I had met any head teachers recently. I was a governor until just after my election at the beginning of this year, which is pertinent to our debate because, like many governors up and down the country, I have spent many happy evenings sitting with my colleagues, consuming small mountains of peanuts, Twiglets and cheese and small lakes of wine and coffee as we waited for parents to come to meetings, the agendas for which were prescribed under the previous Government, as the Opposition pointed out.

8.15 pm

That was a dispiriting experience for my governor colleagues. We have talked about the challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers, but there also remains a challenge about recruiting and retaining school governors. Dry, prescriptive agendas for things like annual parents meetings tend to put governors off. Occasionally, however, it is right that there should be an opportunity for governors to hear parents' voices. When, under the previous Government, the school where I was last a governor wanted, for sensible budgetary reasons, to change the

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number of days of swimming that it could offer during the year, a sizeable number of parents managed to come and register their concerns.

Mr. George Osborne: The hon. Gentleman's experience as a governor is illuminating. Could he throw some light on his point about the retention of governors by explaining why he ceased to be a governor?

Mr. Mole: When I became MP for Ipswich, I did not believe that I would have enough time in my constituency to attend governors meetings. I should be interested to know how many Members retain such a role and believe that they do it justice.

The annual parents meeting provides an opportunity for parents to raise issues with governors. I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister has said that the framework introduced by the previous Government was carried over into the Bill, but accepts that it should be looked at again, thus giving schools a welcome flexibility on things like school plays, cheese and wine evenings and fairs or any opportunity that allows the schools to bring parents in and hear their views.

Mr. Brady: My understanding was that the Minister was concerned that schools should not count a school play, sports day or cheese and wine evening as the annual meeting.

Mr. Mole: I did not hear the Minister say that, nor was I suggesting that he did. We want such events to provide an opportunity for the annual parents meeting to be held at the same time. My understanding is that such an arrangement may have been prescriptively precluded by the previous framework.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although the framework may preclude holding the annual parents meeting at the same time as a play, it does not preclude holding it before or after a play, or before or after a social event? Many governors, governing bodies and head teachers have exercised considerable ingenuity in trying to attract parents to annual meetings by running them alongside, or at the beginning or end of, other functions.

Mr. Mole: The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) asked what interests school governors in remaining school governors. I suggest that they are motivated by the chance to raise standards and improve opportunities for the children in the school, not by the challenge of finding creative ways of circumnavigating the prescriptive legislation introduced a number of years ago by the Government whom the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and his hon. Friends supported.

I welcome the Minister's suggestion that he will look for ways of giving schools new flexibility to strengthen the partnership between parents and governors. We all know that the most successful schools are the ones where there is that tripartite, if not a quadripartite, partnership, primarily between heads, governors and parents, but also with the local education authority. I welcome the proposals.

Mr. Willis: We on the Liberal Democrat Benches wholeheartedly support the amendment. We consider it a

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sensible compromise that takes us forward. On the previous set of amendments, we discussed the need to get rid of bureaucracy. The current arrangements are a classic example; they clearly have not worked and need to go.

I had to organise a set of annual parents meetings, and I did so with great dread. I remember that in one round of parents meetings in 1996 in Leeds, the average number of parents who came was 10, and in some cases, we did not get a single parent attending the annual parents meeting, so I welcome the changes. However, they do not remove one of the great challenges facing all of us: how do we engage parents in the schools?

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) made a number of references to the prescriptive nature of the previous Conservative Government. I believe that the existing provisions were a genuine attempt to engage parents in what was happening in school, but it did not work. My worry is that we are in danger of saying, "Phew! That's that out of the way. Let's fall back and not engage our parents." One of the sadnesses, to me, is that whenever we have formal meetings with parents, it is usually because there is a crisis over the swimming or over something that has occurred because of an Ofsted report.

I am reminded that when I was recently in the United States, in North Carolina, the head of one school was talking about parents meetings and said about public meetings, "Few people ever come with affirmation in their minds." There is some truth in that. We need to encourage parents to come into school with affirmation and with questioning in their mind.

I support subsection (3) and we look forward to those regulations. Will the Minister give the House a guarantee that he will consider the annual report to parents? The requirements for that are incredibly prescriptive. I can remember the first year that I did an annual report to parents. I covered all that the Government said we had to do, and it ran to about 15 pages. When I started to condense it, it became a meaningless document, rather like an "In Touch" leaflet from the Conservatives. I ask the Minister to include—possibly when the matter returns to the House of Lords—a simple additional subsection deregulating the annual report to parents. We welcome the initiative.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I, too, support the broad thrust of the Government's proposal in respect of annual parents meetings. It is important not to allow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) to fail to take credit where credit is due. In my experience, an annual parents meeting that is badly attended is a sign of a well run school, and a sign that parents in general are happy with the way in which the school is being managed, and with the way in which the governors and head teacher are conducting affairs.

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