Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.15 pm

The final point that I want to raise is the question of non-school members. That is an important issue on which the Minister can provide clarification. What was the reasoning, for instance, behind the reduction in the House of Lords from 25 per cent. to 20 per cent? It would be useful to put on record that rationale. Will the Minister explain why head teachers and governors are important school members, but teachers and support staff are non-school members? I find that insulting to teachers and non-teachers, who somehow do not even qualify, for the sake of the school forums, to be recognised as part of the school community. If a formula can be devised for the proportion of head teachers or governors on the school forum, surely the same courtesy can be extended to the very people who have an important interest in their schools—the teachers and support staff.

In an earlier debate, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole), who has left his place, raised the issue of the burdens on governors. Most governors apply to join a governing body or—shall we say—are encouraged to do so because they want to become involved with that particular school. That is their real interest. When they get there, they find that they have all sorts of other duties as well. Representing other schools is difficult both for individual governors and for individual head teachers. Head teachers, by definition, as chairmen of governors, have a real interest in their own school and community and have a duty to fight for the best interests of their school and their school community. It is difficult for them to make objective decisions about budgets et al, across a whole authority, without having all the other information. If we want governors to play a key role, as the schools forum legislation clearly envisages, we are putting yet another huge burden on school governors.

At the end of the day, this is an issue of local democracy. As a party, we are fundamentally supportive of the whole principle of local democracy and local decision making. We believe that the balance is just about right between increased autonomy and increased ability to innovate for schools, and local authorities that have become light-touch authorities. They are absolutely essential, however, in terms of making sure that all the machinery fits together. They have key roles to play. All we are saying to the Government is this: why invent a whole area of bureaucracy that is totally unnecessary, when, by simple regulation, using existing provisions, the Minister can have exactly what he wants—advisory bodies including governors and head teachers?

Mr. Andrew Turner: The reason why I asked the Minister how many people had responded to the consultation was that the Government's consultation

15 Jul 2002 : Column 112

record on the Bill, and on a whole range of issues related to it, is excellent, but that the response has been tiny. The Minister kindly gave me the figures. Of the 200 or so responses to the consultation, 90 were from LEAs and 20 from other bodies. I therefore assume that about 110, being from neither LEAs nor other bodies, were from schools. Those 110, of course, represent 110 of 25,000. A provision that was designed originally to give schools a key role in determining their budgets was, therefore, sufficiently popular for only 110 of those schools to respond to the Government, let alone say yes—the Minister did not tell me how many said yes.

Rather like the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), I find it hard to understand what the clause's purpose is any more. I understood what its purpose was when the Bill left this House for the other place. The Government were then determined that schools should get it right when LEAs got it wrong, and that schools should be given the opportunity to get it wrong even if LEAs had got it right. The Government do not trust LEAs, and it does not matter what kind of LEAs they are. I am not a great fan of LEAs, but even the budgets for grant-maintained schools were set according to the formula—admittedly with knobs on—determined by LEAs.

When the Bill left this place, the clause enabled LEAs to be overtaken by schools in determining school budgets. As far as I can see from reading the proposed new section 45A in clause 39, schools could determine the size of the school budget as well as how it should be disposed. Schools could decide that money should be spent on schools rather than on old people's homes, transport or roads. That was the Government's absurd purpose, and their lordships rumbled it and got rid of clause 41.

The Government accepted the need to remove the worst bits of clause 41—the power of schools to override LEAs, which, for all their faults, are democratically elected—yet they still think it necessary to keep the rest of the absurd framework. They want to put into statute something that many LEAs do already and that many groups of schools could do even if their LEAs did not want them to. It is not unknown for head teachers and governors to meet outside the arrangement made by an LEA.

It is extraordinary that the Government think that the only things that happen are provided for by legislation or regulation. The Minister shakes his head, and I do not blame him. He is on the new side of the Labour party that does not believe that, but I regret to say that this clause confirms my belief that the Minister shares the Government's outlook that the only things that happen are determined by regulation and legislation. That is not the case, so there is no need for the statutory framework. Unlike the Government, I do not disagree to the Lords amendment.

Mr. Miliband: I begin with a matter of no significance. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), wants the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) to know that, although my hon. Friend may look like a year 12 in a suit, he is actually only a year 6. He is at least two years younger than me, so he does not want any aspersions cast in his direction. He is very much young Labour, and is coming up sharply alongside us.

15 Jul 2002 : Column 113

I shall deal with three points in my response to this interesting debate: the purpose of the changes, the role of LEAs and the nature of the proposals. It is important to recognise that LEAs are already required to consult on the funding formula and on the scheme in the financial control document that they issue. The quality of the consultation that takes place as a result of the encouragement that is given to LEAs to form the partnership with schools that we want should be honoured in the breach as well as in the observance.

The amendment tries to remedy the problem that, in some LEAs, schools feel that they have insufficient chance to have a proper dialogue with the LEA about the organisation of a school's budget. The forums have received much support from organisations representing head teachers and schools. Notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said about the consultation, I was impressed by the seriousness of purpose demonstrated by the respondents. We are trying to solve the problem that some schools feel disempowered when the LEA formulates its plans.

On the role of the LEA, the Conservative party cannot decide whether it loves LEAs or loathes them. In the course of a single day, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has gone from loving them to loathing them and back again. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made a passionate plea to get rid of them completely. The Government believe that LEAs have an important role, but it is not one of running schools. Their role is to support schools in school improvement, to provide the services that cannot be provided by schools alone and to support the drive to rise standards.

I must tell the Liberal Democrats that the role that the Government have set for LEAs is standing the test of time. It is a proper role that is designed to enhance what schools do, not to replace it.

Mr. Redwood: The Minister misrepresents my view. I said nothing about the abolition of LEAs. However, how much will the forums cost? Why can he not find a better way to take account of the views of schools without creating more expensive bureaucracy?

Mr. Miliband: I am sorry if I misrepresented the right hon. Gentleman's views. They seemed clear to me, but I am happy to hear that he, too, loves LEAs.

Costs depend on how LEAs decide to develop the forums, which are the mechanisms for consultation. LEAs that already have meetings with head teachers and others can simply extend those to include the forum. We have designed clause 41 to encourage LEAs to exercise maximum flexibility on how they undertake their responsibilities.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked who should be represented on the forums. That is a matter for local authorities. We are not trying to create a schools parliament and I would hesitate before inviting a cavalcade of people to come along to the meetings. However, if LEAs think that members of the local schooling community have important points to make, they can invite them to the forums. Heads and governors are referred to as key players because they control school budgets, and it is the purpose of the forums to discuss school budgets.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of the learning and skills councils. It is significant that the Chancellor mentioned in his statement today the need to develop

15 Jul 2002 : Column 114

serious relationships at a local level between LSCs and the bodies with which they work. Part of that could involve discussing how the serious dialogue at LEA-school level can be extended to the LSC. The impression from my local experience is that in its first 18 months of operation, the LSC has made serious efforts to be a genuinely open and consultative body, although I take the hon. Gentleman's point that it is not democratically elected.

The Government amendments need to be set in the context of the arrangements that we are introducing to separate the budgets of schools and LEAs. Although LEAs will retain ultimate responsibility, it is time to give schools a sense of collective responsibility, in their partnership with an LEA, for the way in which their budgets are managed. What is the best way to dispose of resources? How are different priorities to be addressed and met? Is it better to spend money at school or LEA level to do best by pupils? Schools have an opinion on those questions and it should be heard clearly in LEAs.

We should not replace the mechanisms that work well, but we should put in place mechanisms if they are missing. The Lords amendment shows a distrust of schools, which is wrong. I hope that the House will vote against it and instead favour the Government amendments.

Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 315, Noes 169.

Next Section

IndexHome Page