Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: As a shareholder?

Mr. Turner: Yes, as a shareholder in a company. I have mentioned that before. The officials from the Department for Education and Employment—as it then was—who told Southwark that targets were needed, were very concerned that it stuck to the targets for unauthorised absence. However, I and other members of staff of the education department at John Smith house—for that is where I worked at the time—[Interruption.] It was great fun. They understood that one cannot teach children unless they are in the classroom. Whether they are absent for good or bad reasons is irrelevant. We had some difficulty persuading officials that the private companies competing for the contract would accept such targets and difficulty persuading them that it was appropriate to go beyond the targets already required by the Government. We were successful in persuading three or four private companies to compete for the contract; the one that was successful accepted the contract and the targets to reduce all absence, not just unauthorised absence. In the end, the Department for Education and Employment was happy and gave considerable assistance to the council and to the private company to ensure that the contract bore fruit.

I am pleased that the Government are following in my footsteps and I am happy to support the proposal.

Mr. Lewis: One is always struck by the modesty of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I hate to think what John Smith might have been thinking.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised important issues. There is a often a direct relationship between the stresses and strains of living in difficult circumstances, whether they are due to family income, mental health problems or physical disability, and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the responsibilities of young children who care for sick or dependent parents. When considering school attendance, society does not give enough attention to the strain and pressure on young carers. Their contribution in caring for their relatives is not always conducive to their good health or to their best interests. We often talk in a negative way about young people, but those youngsters are fulfilling what they regard as their responsibility for someone they care for.

The hon. Gentleman may be reassured to know that the Government will report in September on the current in-depth research into the causes of truancy and absence. I will speak to the commissioning officials to ensure that special regard is paid to the role and responsibilities of young carers in that research. I hope that that will allay the hon. Gentleman's anxieties.

Clause 50 allows the Secretary of State to ask schools to consider the issue of authorised absences, which is as important and valid as that of unauthorised absences. As the hon. Gentleman said, a debate could be conducted on the subject of lengthy holidays during

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school time; although they may be authorised, it does not make them right. Head teachers are sometimes under tremendous pressure to authorise such absences, even when they think that they are not in the interests of the class or the individual pupil.

The hon. Gentleman asked what the penalties would be for not meeting the targets. I reassure him that there will be no penalties as such but there will be a requirement, or expectation, that those schools will work closely with local education authorities to consider why they have difficulties in meeting their targets. They will be encouraged to ask questions about their procedures, to see whether they can improve their strategy on absence, and the processes that operate in the school. There will be no negative consequences for not meeting targets in that area, but if a school does not meet its targets that would identify issues that it should examine. We would expect the local education authority to support the school in considering and resolving such problems. On that note, I urge hon. Members to support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 51 to 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Clause 54

Power of lea to provide for governing body to consist of interim executive members

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

4.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner: I want to elicit further information from the Minister. I would like to know what an interim executive member of a governing body is, as distinct from an appointed member of a governing body. I particularly want to understand the use of the word ''executive'' in this instance. In most schools, executive responsibilities belong to the head teacher. I would have thought that such powers should rest with head teachers, in accordance with the new head teacher and governor code of practice.

Mrs. Laing: In the interests of time, I have not asked any questions on the preceding four clauses. I am concerned that we should use the time to hold Ministers to account for the more contentious elements. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend has asked some important questions about the clause. By a clever process of osmosis between us without looking at each other, most of his questions pre-empted mine. For the sake of brevity I shall not repeat them, so as to leave time for the Minister to answer those questions, and to explain further some of the later clauses that we must rush through.

Mr. Willis: I am sorry if I ask this at the wrong time, but it is important that the Minister responds. Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Secretary of State had powers to intervene if schools were recommended for special measures. The Bill will allow her to intervene if schools show signs that give

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cause for concern. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain why those additional powers are necessary. What evidence does he have that they are needed, and what proportion of schools give serious cause for concern? Will the Minister clarify his views on that? I apologise to him for not raising the issue through a formal amendment.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): Clauses 51 to 54 have two basic objectives—to allow more rapid intervention by overcoming delays in the original mechanism and, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, to increase the focus on schools with serious weaknesses. Local education authorities could intervene previously, but under these powers the Secretary of State will be able to intervene if schools have serious weaknesses and special measures are required.

The number of schools needing such measures has significantly fallen: 303 at the end of last year compared with 515 in 1997. The process of turning a school round is also faster now than when we first started, so we can focus more attention on the next tier of schools—those with difficulties but are not actually failing. That is the rationale behind the proposed changes. The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of problem schools. About 500 schools have serious weaknesses, so they fall within the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Willis: The Minister is right, and the whole Committee is delighted that fewer schools now attract special measures, and that the speed at which schools can be turned round has improved. However, the reality is that local authorities are turning round 97 per cent. of those schools. What evidence does the Minister have that local authorities are not doing a good job, and why are these extra powers needed?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman is right that local education authorities are doing a good job. I expect the bulk of the work envisaged in the Bill to continue to be carried out by local education authorities. The issue is acutely highlighted by the clause, which deals with appointing an interim executive board, which the hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked about. The difference between that and what came before is that in the past an LEA could appoint additional governors, whereas clause 54 allows us to replace the governing body altogether if necessary—hence the interim executive board.

I expect it to be rare for an LEA to take this step--I expect perhaps only one or two interim boards to be set up in a year--but I expect it to be even more unusual for the Secretary of State to exercise the power given her under clause 55. I hope that that explains the position to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. Clause 54 provides for the appointment of the relevant people by the LEA.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 55 and 56 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Schedule 6

Governing bodies consisting of interim executive members—Schedule to be inserted in Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 as Schedule 1A

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 118, in page 139, line 27, after 'authority', insert

    'including the headteacher of the school who should be a governor ex officio'.

This is a simple amendment to which I hope that the Minister will agree. It states that one of the bodies should include the school's head teacher, who should be a governor ex officio.

Mr. Timms: I shall try to be brief and helpful. In some cases, the school's leadership will have been the problem—the governing body and the head teacher. The head teacher may have been an ex officio member of the governing body being replaced, and as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that individual may have been a significant part of the problem. In those circumstances, rapid changes to the school's senior management may be needed, and one of the first challenges facing the interim executive board may be to replace the head teacher. That would be much less easily achieved if the head were a member of the board as of right, so I cannot accept the amendment. On reflection, the hon. Gentleman will probably accept that. However, we expect the interim executive board to involve and work closely with the head teacher in improving the school. That will be made clear to the boards through guidance.

In circumstances that are not as I described—this will be made clear in guidance—I expect the head teacher to be a member of the interim executive board, as in normal circumstances heads would be members as of right of the governing body. I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, in certain circumstances, it would not be appropriate to extend the as-of-right membership of a governing body to an interim executive board, for the reasons that I explained.

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