Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 8 July 2003
[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]
Education (School Organisation Proposals) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2003
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Education (School Organisation Proposals) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2003 (S.I., 2003, No. 1229)
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Education (School Organisation Plans) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2003 (S.I., 2003, No. 1201)
Mr. Brady: It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mrs. Adams. The two orders have considerable implications for schools and for the organisation of education in this country. It is an unfortunate indication of the way we sometimes conduct our business in this House—of course, I do not blame you, Mrs. Adams, or the Minister for this—that these orders were made on 1 May, laid on 9 May and came into force on 1 June, yet only now on 8 July does the Committee have the opportunity to address their implications. That is regrettable.
The Opposition have considerable concerns about the operation of school organisation committees and school organisation plans. The Minister is intending to enlighten the Committee on the detailed difference between those two in due course. Our first and foremost concern is that a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy and complication is being applied to the provision of education. As often as not, that not only duplicates current good practice but adds to the cost and the time that must be taken by schools and those seeking to run effective, popular schools. It is ironic that this additional burden on schools—or, at least, this alteration in the burden—is being implemented at a time when, in the Chamber, Ministers are trying to persuade the House that their proposals will give more freedom to hospitals. There is a dichotomy between the approach that the Government are taking, at least in rhetoric, in their health policy and the policies that they are pursuing in practice in education, where additional intervention, bureaucracy and new regulations are constantly being introduced.
I have several detailed points to make. The Committee will note that S.I. No. 1201 on school organisation plans proposes to add a new sub-paragraph to the Education (School Organisation Plans) (England) Regulations 1999. New regulation 3(2)(c) will add a number of responsibilities to the functions of a school organisation committee and various new stipulations on what purposes a school organisation plan must serve. They are set out as sub-paragraphs (c)(i) to (v), and are ''the raising of
Column Number: 004
standards'', securing ''improved outcomes for all'', securing
''greater diversity in the type of schools'',
increasing ''collaboration between schools'' and achieving something called ''greater community cohesion''.
I hope that the Minister will accept that (i) and (ii) must be delivered by schools themselves. Raising standards and improved outcomes for all are surely the essential function and responsibility of those who run our schools.
Similarly, on the fourth point, schools collaborate when it is in their interests to do so and when it facilitates a better and more efficient provision of education in a locality. We all know from constituency experience that schools collaborate and work closely together. Heads and governors are frequently in close touch with one another without a need for regulations saying that they must collaborate or prescribing the manner of collaboration. Placing the responsibility to secure collaboration on school organisation plans is bizarre. By its very nature, collaboration must arise from schools working together and not being told what to do.
The Government also take an odd approach in respect of the obligation to secure diversity through planning. Surely it is wrong to impose diversity from above. Would not it be better to allow diversity to develop from greater freedom and flexibility for schools to seek ways to diversify and provide greater choice, rather than once again falling into the old trap of planning and directing everything from the centre?
As for community cohesion, I shall say only that it is perhaps a pity that that is set out as an objective as though it is separate from the education process. Surely the purpose of educating our children is to create a civilised cohesive community that does not need direction from school organisation plans or elsewhere.
Regulation 4 stipulates the timing for drafting school organisation plans, which I should like to explore with the Minister. First, there is the rather odd requirement for school organisation plans to be prepared in draft
''every year up to and including 2003''.
That is odd, given that we are reflecting on regulations that were made on 1 May 2003, laid before Parliament on 9 May and came into force on 1 June. Surely they should not refer to that which took place in years prior to 2003. It is odd to have retrospective legislation that expects school organisation plans to be prepared in previous years.
There is also the requirement to provide a further draft plan every third year thereafter. That seems welcome because it is designed to reduce some of the burden of bureaucracy and intervention that has been introduced through the school organisation committees and requirements for plans. It is sensible that one does not need to plan every year once a plan is in place and clearly operating effectively, but—unfortunately, there is always a ''but''—new regulation 4(4) makes it clear that there must also be
Column Number: 005
a draft plan in any year when a plan is not otherwise required if there has been any change of policy or local circumstances. ''Any change'' is an extraordinarily broad phrase to put in legislation.
What exactly does the Minister have in mind? Perhaps he can tell the Committee whether the following would constitute any change, or whether he has other things in mind that may also count: a change of numbers in different age cohorts; planning approval for, or the construction of, a new housing estate; a change of admission policy for any school in the area; the creation of a specialist school, and such schools are rightly being created throughout the country all the time at the moment; a school coming into, or going out of, special measures; an apparent shift in parental preferences for schools; and a shift in the number of applicants that different schools in an area receive.
We hope that schools will not have the funding problems in future years that they have had this year in particular, but we fear that they may. If they have to make staff redundant or put pupils on a four-day week, would those changes constitute relevant changes, each requiring a new plan? If so, does the Minister accept that in effect we would see a requirement for a new draft plan every year, not every third year, as in the regulations. For these purposes, what relevance is attached to decisions taken by the learning and skills council, such as the removal of a sixth form or the establishment of a sixth form college?
Paragraph (5), inserted by regulation 4 (b) requires this year's draft plan to be available by ''1st August 2003'', but that plans should be available by ''1st June'' in subsequent years. First, this begs the question why the order has been presented too late to require a 1 June deadline this year, if that is the appropriate deadline in any other year. If, on the other hand, 1 August allows sufficient time for consideration of a school organisation plan to be published, why has it been considered necessary to shift the date back to 1 June for future years? If the time is insufficient, are not we in danger of placing an unrealistic burden on schools and others this year, given that a shorter period of time will be available to them to consider the plan before implementation is necessary?
On regulation 6, why is 11 weeks allowed for comment this year and why is the time reduced to two months in future, even though the date for publication will be earlier in future years? I am sure that the Minister has good reasons for all those decisions, and I know that the Committee looks forward to hearing them—I certainly do.
I have several detailed questions on the second of the orders, No. 1229, the Education (School Organisation Plans) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2003. Regulation 3(a)(i) contains an adjustment from the previous description of 16–19 education. The phrase ''relevant age group'' is substituted. It would help to know from the Minister—[Interruption.] I shall try to proceed at a slightly more modest pace, if it helps the Minister. As I read it, the definition of 16–19 education is replaced by a reference to ''admission number'', which is defined as
Column Number: 006
''the number of pupils in any relevant age group that it is intended to admit''.
It would help the Committee to know whether that change is intended to facilitate proposals yet to appear for 14–19 education.
Another point of definition, on which it would be useful to have some clarification, concerns regulation 3(a)(ii). Why is the definition of ''city academy'' to be omitted and not replaced with a definition for ''academy''? The schedules appear to be clear that the references to city academies will be replaced by references to academies, but it is not clear why it is not considered necessary to define the latter term.
Regulation 3(a)(iii) refers to the use of the ''net capacity assessment'' to arrive at an indicated admission number. On a previous occasion we had a fascinating discussion about net capacity assessment and the Minister was kind enough to send me a splendid document that set out the means by which an assessment of net capacity can be arrived at to find an indicated admission number. In that regard, will the change go any way to facilitating the reduction of net capacity in an unpopular school, perhaps by allowing the use of buildings to be changed, to allow investment in oversubscribed schools in the locality? Many hon. Members encounter a problem in their constituencies, where the surplus places rule gets in the way of the expansion of popular and effective schools, because of the proximity of less popular, less successful schools. If the regulations do anything to assist in that process, I and other members of the Committee would be profoundly grateful, but we need to know.
Regulation 4 applies to alterations for which proposals must be published. In new regulation 3(1)(b), that applies to alterations proposed
''by the governing body of a foundation or voluntary school.''
The Minister should make it clear whether the new regulation and the requirement to publish will circumscribe any of the freedoms of the governing bodies of foundation or voluntary schools. Will the act of publishing proposals have the effect of allowing matters to be referred to the adjudicator that would currently not fall in that area?
Can the Minister say why the consultation period specified in regulation 7(b) is to be reduced from two months to six weeks? Why, unlike in S.I. No. 1201, is no special provision made for this year, given the later date for production of draft proposals?
Regulation 8 refers to the formation of federations of schools. Will the Minister update the Committee on the progress of that? It would be helpful to know whether any issues that the new regulations might ease have arisen from the contemplation of federation by schools. Will he confirm that no school organisation proposal could replace the role of individual schools in admissions? Will he also confirm that the school organisation plan can make no link between admission, or failure to achieve admission, to one school and admission to another school in a federation?
Regulation 10 inserts a group of new measures. Regulation 10A limits the powers of the school organisation committee to refer concerns to the
Column Number: 007
adjudicator. The adjudicator is a creature of the Secretary of State and yet there is no appeal against his or her decisions, about which we have raised concerns in the past. Given that, we should perhaps welcome any reduction in the role of the adjudicator. Will the Minister explain clearly the powers that will change and the circumstances in which something that at present falls within the remit of the adjudicator will no longer do so?
On regulation 10B, will the Minister also explain the limit on the power of the local education authority to refer a matter to the school organisation committee? Again, there is a shift of responsibility and powers of referral and appeal, which are not clearly explained in the regulations.
Regulation 10C gives powers to governing bodies of both certain popular schools that are not grammar schools and certain grammar schools to refer matters to the adjudicator. By implication, those powers do not currently exist. They come into play only when the alterations are of a ''prescribed description''. Will the Minister elucidate what alterations would fall within the ''prescribed description''? Will the popular school provisions allow schools to expand even if the school organisation committee or local education authority is opposed to the expansion, if the proposal is upheld by the adjudicator? If so, what funding will be available to the school to effect that expansion?
Regulation 11 requires the school organisation committee to send proposals relating to sixth forms to the learning and skills council. Is a reciprocal requirement placed on the LSC to send early notification of proposals affecting schools to the school organisation committee?