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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Education Bill

Education Bill

Column Number: 391

Standing Committee G

Tuesday 15 January 2002


[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Education Bill

10.30 am

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. At this morning's sitting it is likely that, once again, we will fall into the trap whereby important and controversial clauses to which a number of amendments have been tabled might not be reached because of the knife that is due to fall at 1 o'clock. I want to make it known that, through the usual channels, Conservative members have sought a Programming Sub-Committee this morning. Although the Government frequently say that they are willing to offer more time, they are, again, showing no flexibility over the guillotine, which we believe to be the origin of the problem. It is regrettable that we have not reached an agreement about it. We shall do our best to ensure that the important clauses are dealt with this morning, but it is important to record the fact that there has not been agreement on the way in which we should proceed.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order. It is should be dealt with through the usual channels.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): Further to that point of order, Mr. Griffiths. Although I made it plain last week that any Opposition request for extra time would probably be accepted as long as it was received in time, by last night we had had no such request. As a result, the Minister suggested that it would be useful to have extra time on Tuesday night in order to advance the work of the Committee. I gave a note to that effect to the Opposition last night. At 9.20 pm we were told that they had a proposal. I said that if that were put to us, we would consider it. However, I cannot see the point of convening a Sub-Committee until I know what the proposal is.

The Chairman: Now that we have discussed that, we can get on with the main business.

Clause 62


Mr. Brady: I beg to move, amendment No. 476, in page 42, line 9, after 'may', insert

    ', and where section [Parents' Demand for Additional Schools or Academies] applies, shall'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following:

Amendment: No. 477, in clause 66, page 43, line 31, after 'may' insert

    ', and where section [Parents' Demand for Additional Schools or Academies] applies, shall'.

Amendment No. 478, in clause 66, page 44, line 13, after 'may', insert

    ', and where section [Parents' Demand for Additional Schools or Academies] applies, shall'.

Column Number: 392

New clause 7—Parents' demand for additional schools or academies:—

    '(a) Where the conditions in subsection (b) apply the prescribed person shall consider the establishment of a school of a description in section 66(2).

    (b) The conditions are:

    (i) that an initial proposal, generally conforming to a form prescribed by regulations, for a new school has been published;

    (ii) that a number of parents of pupils likely to be eligible for admission to the school have indicated in writing their support for the initial proposal;

    (iii) that the initial proposal and the indications of support shall have been delivered to the prescribed person.

    (c) The prescribed person is (in the case of an Academy) the Secretary of State and (in the case of a community, foundation or voluntary school) the local education authority.

    (d) The Secretary of State shall by regulation, to be approved by positive vote of both Houses, set out the content of the form of initial proposal mentioned in subsection (b)(i) above, that content not to require the provision of information not generally available to members of the public.

    (e) Where a initial proposal has been considered the prescribed person shall either give in writing his reasons for the rejection of the proposal (which must be from among those set out in subsection (f) below),or use his best endeavours to establish a new school or academy broadly conforming to the initial proposal.

    (f) The reasons for rejection are:

    (i) that there are sufficient places available for pupils of the age and number mentioned in the initial proposal in schools within reasonable travelling time of the pupils' homes, such schools not being in special measures or having serious weaknesses, and

    (ii) that there are sufficient places available for pupils of the age and number mentioned in the initial proposal in schools of the character mentioned in the initial proposal within reasonable travelling time of the pupils' homes, such schools not being in special measures or having serious weaknesses, or

    (iii) that insufficient parents have indicated their support for the initial proposal to make a school of the size and character mentioned in the initial proposal reasonably viable, having regard to current patterns of expenditure on schools in the area, or

    (iv) such other reason as the Secretary of State may add by regulations to be approved by both Houses.

    (g) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to assist in the development of initial proposals under this section.

    (h) ''Proposals'' in this section does not have the meaning in section 66.'.

Mr. Brady: I thank you for your guidance, Mr. Griffiths.

The amendments and the new clause are simply to probe the Government's thinking. They seek to obtain an explanation as to why, on the establishment of additional schools or academies, the Minister once again, deems it to be necessary for sole discretion to be in the hands of the Secretary of State. Clause 62(1) states:

    ''482 Academies

    (1) The Secretary of State may enter into an agreement with any person under which—'',

and in subsection (4) we learn that the Secretary of State must consult but

    ''shall make any payments dependent on the fulfilment of—''

Column Number: 393

conditions imposed. Of course, those conditions are imposed by the Secretary of State. The whole import of the clause turns entirely on ministerial discretion.

The contention of the amendments is that there are circumstances, other than ministerial whim or diktat, whereby the need for additional schools or academies may be accepted.

The amendments and the new clause consequent on them propose a transfer in the balance of power. Amendment No. 476 would add a provision about parental demand. Its point about parents in the locality wanting additional schools or academies is picked up by amendments Nos. 477 and 478. New clause 7 effectively seeks to set conditions that would require the establishment of new schools or academies. At the least, it would set out a process that would be more automatic and transparent, and would again take some discretion away from Ministers. It seeks to provide a clearer process for the establishment of schools and academies where there is a need or demand for them.

The amendments are intended to be probing so as to draw out the Minister's thinking, and we will be interested to hear what that may be.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I apologise to hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), for arriving in the middle of those remarks. I was able to hear that he had not progressed so far as the detail of new clause 7, and I want to add a little flesh to its bones. As he said, it would put more power into the hands of the consumers of the education service, and in certain circumstances would require the Secretary of State or the local education authority to take note of the desires of parents, as surrogates for the pupils, for the provision of additional school places.

There may be two different reasons for that desire. First, many local authorities are seeing a rapid increase in their school populations. Traditionally, most local authorities have coped with that not by creating new schools, but by adding a few forms of entry to individual schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) told me this morning in conversation that that is the position in his constituency, and he asked me to draw it to the Committee's attention. The consequence is that some comprehensive schools become extremely large. He foresees the time when three or four of the comprehensive schools that serve his area will have 1,750 pupils.

I taught in a comprehensive school with a similar number of pupils. Such a school presents different challenges from a school of 700 or 1,000 pupils, although those challenges vary depending on the area and the quality of the management and internal organisation of the school. The challenges to organisation are one thing, but the challenges to the pupils are entirely different. In many cases, pupils find it difficult to adapt, especially when they have been in small, rural primary schools. It is hard to move rapidly from a primary school of, say, 60 pupils to a

Column Number: 394

comprehensive school of 1,750 pupils, however good its internal organisation.

With 12 forms of 30 or so pupils each, there would be more than 240 pupils in a year group. Such a group would be far bigger than a child aged 11 would be used to coping with. Not unreasonably, parents believe that they should have a choice when such a choice can be realistically provided, and that there should not simply be a constant bolting-on of more permanent classes, let alone temporary ones, to existing schools. That is one reason why it would be right to enable parents to express a view about the need for new schools or academies to be provided, which is why we have tabled the new clause.

The second reason is the quality of the schools available. I have detained the Committee for far too long with stories from my experience to want to go over them all again, but the quality of education is not what it ought to be in some areas. Parents in those areas have to hope to be lucky enough to get their children into faith schools, because they do not have sufficient confidence in the community schools available to express first preference for any of them. In parts of London and, for all I know, other parts of the country, there are simply not sufficient places available that parents are prepared to put as their first preference. As a consequence, we have seen an efflux of pupils from inner London to the outer London boroughs. There is congestion in the schools of outer London boroughs, as well as serious traffic problems and severe dissatisfaction with the education available.

Some local authorities seem prepared to respond to the problem, but others do not. I welcome the fact that some seem able to respond, but we cannot simply leave the problem to local authorities if they are unwilling to respond to the demand of parents for adequate education. Nor, realistically, can we leave schools that are not satisfactory, and in which parents do not have confidence, in the hope that they will improve. Of course they should do so, but we cannot leave the problem until they do. A school that takes three years to improve takes three years out of the education of even those pupils who join it once the need for improvement has been recognised, let alone those who attended it beforehand.

Think how difficult it must be for parents in inner London boroughs who know that they are not of the Catholic faith and cannot apply to Catholic schools, know that they do not live near to perhaps the single community school that is not failing, does not have serious weaknesses or does not lack the confidence of the local community, and are not fortunate enough to gain admission for their children to city academies. I welcome the Government's creation of such academies in inner London boroughs and elsewhere, in the model of our city technology colleges. Think how difficult it must be if one is forced to send one's child to a school in which one does not have confidence, and if the only hope on the horizon is that three or four years down the line, the school will go through Ofsted inspections and special measures and drag itself up.

There is a serious weakness in the supply of good quality schools. It is a supply issue, so the demands of parents have to be realistically taken into account. I

Column Number: 395

genuinely welcome the Government's proposals for city academies, and their work to provide new schools in some areas with the support of sensible local education authorities, but not enough has yet been done. The new clause is designed to set out a procedure whereby parents can draw the need for additional schools to the attention of the local education authority in respect of schools, or of the Secretary of State in respect of academies. We suggest that when a small group of parents puts together an initial proposal, which must not be too detailed or onerous a task, when several parents have shown support for that proposal and when the proposal has been delivered to one or other of the prescribed persons—the Secretary of State or the local education authority—those authorities should be required to consider whether the proposal is realistic.

10.45 am

People should be able to say when they are not satisfied with what the council is providing and that they want a school of their own, as parents did in Bermondsey at the beginning of the last academic year, supported by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I am glad that the council in that area was prepared to work with the hon. Gentleman, and helped to provide a school to tide over those parents until the Government's proposal for a city academy came on stream. In some areas, however, people will not be so fortunate. They may not be represented by a Member of Parliament who believes that they are right to take up such a cause. They might not have such a responsible local authority or a Secretary of State with her ear as close to the ground; one reason why her ear was so close to the ground in this case is that Southwark is only five miles from this place. People in other parts of the country do not have such an intimate communication with the Secretary of State, either through their councillors or through other means, but they should be able to bring to the Secretary of State's attention the need for an additional school. The Secretary of State or local authority should consider the proposal and, as we suggest in subsection (e) of the new clause, either reject it in writing, giving reasons so that those who made the proposal understand its rejection, or use their

    ''best endeavours to establish a new school or academy broadly conforming to the initial proposal.''

As we have said, we are not referring to the kind of proposal found under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998; it is not a formal proposal on which consultation is carried out. That is a job for the authorities, but the authorities would then have to use their best endeavours to create a new school or academy in line with the rest of this part of the Bill.

We set out the reasons why the Secretary of State might, rightly, consider rejecting the proposal. He does not have to reject the proposal in those circumstances, but he can do so. As always, we have allowed the Secretary of State latitude to introduce additional reasons for the rejection of proposals, given that we may not have been quick enough to include them in the amendment. Subsection (f)(iv) says that

    ''the Secretary of State may add''

Column Number: 396

other reasons

    ''by regulations to be approved by both Houses.''

Our proposal is an imaginative attempt to enable parents, when they are seriously dissatisfied with education provision, to ask the Secretary of State or local authority to take their concerns seriously and think about establishing one of the new schools of the kind that the Government are proposing. They should be able to ask the Secretary of State or local authority to do for them what was done for the constituency of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey with the support of Southwark council. That is how to satisfy parents.

I am convinced that it contributes greatly to the success of a school if the pupils want to be there, if the school has the confidence of the parents and is a community effort. The school should not have to act in isolation with a group of pupils who are there reluctantly, however good the school is, because they could not get into the school of their choice.


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Prepared 15 January 2002