Education Bill

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Mr. Laws: We have confidence in LEAs because they are locally elected bodies—that is as good a reason to have confidence in them as it is in the Secretary of State—and it is our intention to allow them to decide how education and education policy should be organised in their areas.

Mr. Turner: In that case, the hon. Gentleman is extremely naïve. He may have confidence in his LEA, or in that of the adjoining LEA in Dorset, which is now run by the Conservatives, but he cannot possibly—

Mr. Laws: To clarify, I have confidence in local electors to take such decisions and to elect people who will put in place the policies that they favour.

Mr. Turner: In that case, the hon. Gentleman's party has never consulted the electorate in the London boroughs of Hackney, Haringey, Southwark, or Lambeth. Gloucestershire education authority, which is under Liberal Democrat leadership, is in danger of being recognised as a failing LEA. Some LEAs are not even as good as those run by his party—

Chris Grayling: I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that in many cases the issue is not the quality of the LEA but the tensions between adjoining LEAs on school admissions policies. In my constituency, the London borough of Sutton intervened with the schools adjudicator to overrule a decision taken in the borough of Epsom and Ewell for the benefit of that borough's pupils. It is not simply about ability, but about cross-border tensions.

Mr. Turner: It is indeed. The hon. Member for Yeovil seems to be driving us towards a situation in which an LEA under the control of, for example, Surrey county council, could say, ''Yes, let us have a city academy close to the border with Sutton.'' However, Sutton, being an antediluvian Liberal Democrat-controlled local education authority, which is hostile to choice for parents and the improvement of standards by the adventurous means that the Government propose, will say, ''No, not on your nellie.'' In the words of the late Lord Hailsham, that is stark, staring bonkers.

Mr. Brady: Does it occur to my hon. Friend that when the hon. Member for Yeovil says that he has confidence in the local electorate to take decisions that are right for the area, he is providing for the local electorate in a neighbouring authority to take decisions for those for whom they have no responsibility and whom they do not represent?

Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend explains the position with greater clarity than I could have achieved. The hon. Member for Yeovil made it clear that he does not like innovation.

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Mr. Laws: No.

Mr. Turner: The hon. Gentleman denies it, but he believes—

Mr. Laws: If the hon. Gentleman was listening to my earlier comments—I am sure that he was—he would have heard me say, especially in relation to the previous clause, that my concern was that the Government were not creating an overall structure for schools that allowed enough innovation and local decision making. They were concentrating on wheezes to set up programmes that would affect a small number of schools throughout the country but would not put in place a coherent structure for the whole country.

12.15 pm

Mr. Turner: That is exactly the problem. The hon. Gentleman uses the derogatory term ''wheezes'', some of which are jolly good, but he does not appear to understand that we cannot impose a national programme of innovation. Even the Government understand that such a programme cannot be imposed equally throughout the whole country at once. One thing for which I in my small way applaud the Government is their understanding in introducing the Bill that out of little acorns, great oaks grow; the Liberal Democrats do not seem to understand that at all.

If it had not been for the small acorn of city technology colleges, we would not have specialist schools and technology schools. If it had not been for the small acorn of grant-maintained schools, we would not have many of the proposals to allow earned innovation and the development of grant-maintained status by another means. If it were not for proposals that we introduced in a small way in our time in government—I fully accept that they did not percolate through to every child; would that they could have in the time available—those innovations could not have benefited children throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that the local education authority, however incompetent, stupid, failing or barmy, should have a veto. I hope that I need only utter the name ''Hackney'' for hon. Members on both sides of the Committee to understand the sort of LEA to which I am referring. That is a wholly ridiculous position.

Mr. Timms: I think that the hon. Member for Yeovil accused me of responding to amendment No. 415 when I was supposed to be thinking of amendment No. 409. I shall defend myself against that charge, because amendment No. 409 also refers to the LEA's role in the decision process and appears to imply that an academy should not go ahead if the LEA in whose area the school is to be situated, or any other LEA in whose area a significant proportion of the pupils at the school are likely to be resident, did not think that it should. That is why I responded to that point when dealing with the hon. Gentleman's previous amendment. He is right that this amendment covers rather similar terrain.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether an LEA has ever not wished to proceed with an academy. In

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reality, nine times out of 10, it is the LEA that approaches the Department with a project. The LEA may or may not have a sponsor in mind at that stage, but it will usually have a school or possibly more than one in mind when it makes the approach. We take the matter forward on that basis. Many LEAs may have had discussions and decided that they do not want to proceed with an academy arrangement, but we deal all the time with approaches from LEAs that want to take the process forward and see it as a great opportunity for them as I described.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether I envisaged the funding under discussion being provided to LEAs for them to use for completely different purposes. I am aware that he has not been present for all our debates, but we have already discussed earned autonomy and the power to innovate. In addition, there is funding for schools that face challenging circumstances. There is the excellence in cities programme and excellence clusters for schools in disadvantaged and rural areas. All those initiatives give schools and LEAs additional resources to raise standards in their area. I do not see how anyone could envisage the funding under discussion being used for those purposes, because an ambitious and full array of initiatives is already in place so that we can raise standards throughout the secondary system and in particular give extra help in areas where the challenges are greatest. The academy programme is part of that and, for the reasons I have outlined, the amendment would not help.

Mr. Laws: I detect a certain lack of support for the amendment. I may not, therefore, press it to a vote. After my earlier promises, I am not sure that I should be drawn into a long debate. I simply note, with some concern, the lack of confidence that some Conservative and Labour Members show for elected local government and the competence of local electors to choose their representatives. On behalf of my party, I wish to express concern that the initiatives that the Government are introducing with every good intention are targeted towards a small proportion of schools and do not give those powers and delegated authorities to enough schools.

Chris Grayling: It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to put in an occasional appearance in Committee and then accuse the other two parties of showing no interest in local education authorities. The point that hon. Members on both sides have been making is that the issue is about the right of veto. Does he recognise that one can be supportive of local education authorities without suggesting that they should always, in all circumstances, have a power of veto over this matter?

Mr. Laws: I shall not prolong the debate. I am glad to have stirred things up on these Benches and on the Isle of Wight. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: We now come to amendment No. 466. I should point out that there is a misprint. It should read:

    ''after 'at' insert 'unless this is contrary to an order under section 2(1) (a)' ''.

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Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 466, in page 42, line 36, after 'at' insert

    'unless this is contrary to an order under section 2 (1) (a)'.

I am grateful to you Mr. Griffiths, as I am largely dependent on the amendment paper this morning. In dealing with the last amendment both the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell were a little hard on the hon. Member for Yeovil who has clearly been the victim of a hit and run attack. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) drafted the amendments and left him to carry the can. The Committee has treated him a little severely. I would seek to be more generous to him. He did a good job in difficult circumstances.

Having proposed amendments earlier that were intended to be entirely and hugely helpful to Ministers, I have a small confession to make. This amendment is not quite as helpful as my previous offerings. It is intended to draw attention to an inconsistency in the Government's approach. All hon. Members would agree that the academy is a slightly odd creature in so far as it is defined by legislation as an independent school and yet is intended to be dependent upon funding from the Department for Education and Skills, rather in the manner of a maintained school. I make no criticism of that. If I did, the Minister would immediately draw my attention to the origins of this approach and this structure in earlier legislation.

Quite properly in the context of an independent school that will derive its income from the state, the legislation seeks to set out certain limitations and requirements that apply to those independent schools, which go far beyond the restrictions that apply to other independent schools that derive their funding through a different route. New section 482(4) specifies:

    ''An agreement under this section shall make any payments by the Secretary of State dependent on the fulfilment of—

    (a) conditions and requirements imposed for the purpose of securing that no charge is made in respect of admission to (or attendance of) the school or, subject to such exceptions as may be specified in the agreement, in respect of education provided at the school;''

That is a clear statement on state funding for academies that are independent—I will not say independent state schools. The requirement is clear that no charge should be made for admissions or education.

There are interesting contrasts. Because of funding pressures in many parts of the country, schools are increasingly finding it necessary to seek financial contributions from parents. Under current legislation, parents may be invited to make a financial contribution to a school, but they may not be required to make such a contribution. Members of the Committee will be aware of the celebrated incident when the London Oratory school sought a voluntary contribution from parents of some £350 a year. The Prime Minister refused to reveal whether he had put his hand in his pocket along with other parents. That incident was a stark illustration of the extent of the practice of asking parents for voluntary contributions, and of the significant sums of money that can be involved.

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I recently visited the Islamia primary school, which also seeks a voluntary contribution. The school serves a mixed community of often not wealthy parents, a large percentage of whom cannot meet that contribution, which is nevertheless requested. From memory, the sum is in excess of £400 for those who can make the annual contribution to the cost of educating their children.

The legislation appears to place a harsher requirement on an academy, which is an independent school, albeit one that is funded by the state. Does the Minister believe that the requirement goes beyond that which applies to maintained schools, which are constrained from making a compulsory levy on parents but not from seeking a voluntary levy on parents?

The amendment refers to another inconsistency. We encountered in debates on earlier clauses the dramatic scale of the powers, freedoms and flexibilities that Ministers seek to take under the legislative authority. We briefly discussed the potential implications of that wide discretion. Clause 2(1)(a) gives the Secretary of State the power to confer on the applicant exemption from any requirement imposed by education legislation. The Minister was good enough to confirm that that extended to the ability to give exemptions from those sections of the Education Act 1996 that constrain matters for which charges may be levied legitimately. The 1996 Act sets that out in considerable detail: for example, whether a school trip takes place in school hours, partly outside, wholly outside, whether it is relevant to the curriculum and so on. It is concerned with the relevance to the curriculum of a particular music lesson, for example.

12.30 pm

The Minister said that he had no intention of giving maintained schools the power to innovate, or introduce charges. Many maintained schools are seeking to levy a voluntary charge from parents. Under the powers to innovate, they may seek to suspend the prohibition that prevents them from making those charges compulsory. Clause 2(1)(a) might allow a maintained school to introduce charging for places at the school. It is the starkest possible illustration of the wide scope that Ministers are taking.

A completely different approach is taken in clause 62. The Minister said that it was absurd to amend clause 2 to prevent charges from being introduced in maintained schools. He said that his Government would not do it, and he invited me to say that the Opposition have no intention of introducing charges in maintained schools, which I happily did. He thought it was absurd to incorporate a prohibition of charging for maintained schools, but the Bill does precisely that for independent schools funded by the state. No charge is to be made for admission to, or attendance at, the school. The prohibition, which apparently does not need to be applied to maintained schools, is clear.

I have tabled the amendment to challenge the Minister to revisit his earlier reluctance to include a

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prohibition in clause 2. I have also tabled it to raise the question of voluntary and compulsory charges by maintained or independent state schools. I have previously tabled a written question seeking detail from Ministers about those schools that do want to levy a voluntary charge on parents, the sums of money that are sought and how much is raised by the schools. It is one of many important aspects of the daily experience of parents in the schooling of their children in maintained schools for which Ministers do not have an answer. They say that the information is not collected centrally, and the Government do not apparently even need to be aware of where levies are charged. It is something in which Ministers should take an interest, because it is of increasing concern for parents in many parts of the country.

When responding to amendment No. 466, I invite the Minister to address those concerns and explain the extent to which he expects new section 482(4)(a) to apply. He should flesh out the extent of exceptions that he has in mind, which might be specified in the agreement about education provided at the school. Does he expect that any exception should be in the relevant sections of the 1996 Act, which he is prepared to see potentially disapplied by clause 2? Is he merely acting in the short term and saying that this is how the exceptions will be defined, or does he have in mind a different definition of the exceptions to the charging regime? Is he considering a harsher regime than that implied by the clause—no charges under any circumstances—or an exception that would permit the levying of a voluntary or means-tested charge? Where does the Minister see this part of the Bill taking the academies, and why is there a contrast between their treatment and that of other maintained schools, particularly those with powers to innovate?

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