Education (Additional Secondary School Proposals) Regulations 2003

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Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I received a copy of the statutory instrument much earlier than 4.30 pm, but to make things fair I read it much later. I therefore have no great advantage over the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. I, too, missed hearing an exposition from the Minister of what we are doing here; having such an explanation leads to better-placed questions later.

The Education Act 2002 describes a procedure for establishing new secondary schools, or for touting for them. I believe that it contains a schedule indicating how the procedure is to be regulated. These regulations specify the form that the procedure will take. The process can be begun by a local authority, or, if the local authority drags its feet and does not respond to the fact that it has insufficient capacity, by the Secretary of State. Does the Secretary of State know that this is now the only conceivable way in which an additional secondary school can be established under the 2002 Act, or has a local authority residual powers to take another route?

My second question concerns the process. It seems to be in four stages: advertisement and response, objections, reference to the school organisation committee and reference to the Secretary of State, who can either reject, modify or accept proposals. The regulations leave it unclear as to whether the school organisation committee, which is asked to comment on the proposals, needs to produce fully fledged proposals for the Minister's inspection, or whether

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the Minister will find himself hold a beauty contest between various proposals that are differently weighted. That should be clarified, because schedule 8 of the original legislation seems to indicate that the Secretary of State will be confronted with a proposal, not a set of alternatives. If either is possible, can the Minister indicate how the Secretary of State would proceed, and by what criteria he would evaluate the claims of different proposals?

A list of conditions for the initial advertisement is given in paragraphs (2)(a) to (h) of regulation 5. They are fairly onerous, and some are of a catch-all nature. For example, paragraph (g) says that notices inviting proposals shall be published

    ''by being sent to any other body or organisation that in the opinion of the local education authority is likely to be interested.''

The presupposition appears to be that the dominant religious organisation in any area will be either the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church. That is not the case in some areas. Will there be a legally binding requirement to inform, say, representatives of the Jewish or Muslim faith in a particular area?

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that, in stipulating the size of a school, it is possible for a local authority to bias the process in favour of the large schools that it alone can provide. In requesting information about the size of the school, do the regulations intend a definite number, such as 1,000 or 800, to be given or could a range be specified? That would allow for greater flexibility.

I have read the instructions for the proposals, and I suspect that they are put together so as to eliminate almost at stage one the more eccentric proposals that might arise. An enormous amount of detail is required. Some of it relies on the usual buzz words such as diversity and inclusiveness. I wonder how that requirement will be dealt with, either by the school organisation committee or by the Minister. I know that the Government are awfully keen on diversity, but there must come a point in the history of a local authority at which it has successful institutions and would like to replicate them, rather than producing diverse and exotic variations on the educational spectrum. Will the concept of diversity favour some establishments and not others?

Similarly, community cohesion might be regarded as a criterion that will work against the establishment of denominational schools. Because they are selective with regard to religion, they will necessarily be less community cohesive than a straightforward school on the comprehensive model. All schools and all proposals are, according to paragraph (6)(b) of schedule 2 supposed to

    ''further the aims of inclusiveness and partnership working''.

I am a little unclear what the ultimate ambitions of inclusiveness and partnership are. I know that they are buzz words, but the vagueness of the criteria enables the Committee to rule out proposals of a certain kind almost at first base.

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Assessment of demand for denominational schools should also be taken into account. I am sure that the Minister will freely agree that ''assessment of demand'' is fairly subjective and may vary depending on who is asked. A Catholic parish priest will undoubtedly say that there is horrendous pent-up demand. One may not find the same result, however, if heads are counted.

Finally, paragraph 12(f) of part 1 of schedule 2 contains the suggestion that a school could involve the annexe of an existing school. It states that information should be specified on

    ''whether the site is currently used for the purposes of another school which will no longer be required for the purposes of that school''.

Presumably, using such a site is not ruled out of the equation. Is it possible, within the remit of these rules, to advance a proposal that could incorporate and extend an existing school? If, for example, a strong denomination believes that it has the capacity or the ability to take over a failing school, could that involve a proposal for an additional secondary school, or is that something altogether different?

2.51 pm

Mr. Horam: I am obviously missing something. I am still puzzled by the Minister's remark about a second regulation. I am not aware of a second regulation, and I know that you tried to explain the position, Mrs. Adams.

The Chairman: I will try to clarify the matter for the hon. Gentleman. There was simply a mistake on the paper that I was given. The regulation was laid before me as being under the affirmative procedure instead of under the negative procedure. Only one regulation is being considered, which is the one that I read out.

Mr. Horam: With respect, Mrs. Adams, the Minister referred to two regulations, the second involving the change of one word. I have not seen that regulation, which is what puzzles me. I fully understand your explanation that there was a change of procedure, but nothing before us refers to a second regulation.

The Chairman: I will read out the title again: ''Education (Additional Secondary School Proposals) Regulations 2003 (S.I. 2003, No. 1200)''. That is the only regulation that we are considering. It refers to ''regulations'', but it is one statutory instrument.

Mr. Horam: If I understand you correctly, Mrs. Adams, the Minister was wrong: there are not two regulations, but the one regulation that we are considering.

The Chairman: We are considering one regulation today.

Mr. Horam: Thank you, Mrs. Adams. I hope that the Minister will apologise.

2.52 pm

Mr. Miliband: I am delighted to have the chance to complete my remarks. I will follow my script and say that I listened carefully to the points made and will respond to them one by one. I apologise if I misled the Committee about the grammar of the regulations. I take Mrs. Adams's word for it on such matters.

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It may help Members to know what we are talking about. We are considering the need, as a result of demographic change, for extra places that may constitute new schools. This is about quality. We believe that when a new school is required, it makes sense to consider a range of providers who might want to open a school, rather than simply assuming that only the LEA can set up a new school. The regulations therefore require the LEA to run a competition before it can publish the final proposals for brand new secondary schools. The regulations do not prevent the LEA from publishing proposals, but they ensure that all providers have an equal chance of making the provision so that the local community has a choice. There is no suggestion that one category of school—whether it is a community school, a foundation school or a voluntary-aided school—is more valuable than another. The regulations do not favour or discriminate against the LEA if it wants to advance a proposal, nor do they favour or disfavour academies that want to set up a new school to meet demand. They will be able to do so at any time.

For the sake of clarity, I should underline the fact that we are talking only about additional secondary schools. We are not talking about the replacement of existing schools, which is a different matter.

I will run through other points made by hon. Members. One at least may have been rather more illuminating than the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West wanted it to be. He raised the question of the publication and availability of the regulations. I signed them on 1 May, and they were laid before Parliament on 9 May. I do not understand why he should have had trouble gaining access to them; perhaps my departmental colleagues can find out whether the problem was at our end, but I hope that it was not.

The hon. Gentleman referred to an article in The Sunday Times. I did not read it. I make it a policy not to read the Sunday newspapers, as I prefer my fiction in novel form. He said that the voucher scheme floated in The Sunday Times should be explored. As we always thought, the hon. Gentleman's allegiance to the assisted places scheme lives on. He thinks that we should use public money to subsidise people who chose to send their children to the private sector.

Some 7 per cent. of a school-age population of 6.5 million use the private sector, as is their right and choice; the hon. Gentleman suggests that we should pay between £2,500 and £3,500 to them so that they can carry on sending their children to private schools but at a lower cost. Those hon. Members who have a maths degree rather than merely a double maths A-level—which is all that I have—will quickly be able to calculate the cost of doing that.

We shall certainly look into the hon. Gentleman's interesting proposal. I do not know whether he has cleared his policy with the Opposition Front Bench team, but I imagine that his Treasury colleagues would be rather concerned at such a spending commitment. However, I am sure that he would be pleased if we made it our business to ensure a full debate on those proposals.

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