Education Bill [Lords]

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Angela Watkinson: It is difficult to know how justified the Minister’s comments are without knowing how many members the agency will have, but I should like to make it clear that I believe that someone with expertise in special educational needs, and a representative of denominational schools, should be included in the agency. With that caveat, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.30 pm

Clause 77 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 13

The Training and Development Agency for Schools

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Thirteenth schedule to the Bill.

Angela Watkinson: I glanced quickly through the schedule as we discussed clause 77, and seek clarification from the Minister of the supplementary powers that the schedule confers on the agency. The agency’s powers are wide ranging. It can

    “acquire and dispose of land and other property . . . enter into contracts . . . invest sums not immediately required for the purposes of the discharge of their functions, and . . . accept gifts or money, land or other property.”

There is one caveat in paragraph 1(2):

    “The Agency may not borrow”.

I am interested to hear more, particularly about the acquisition and disposal of land and other property. I felt, as I glanced through that list of supplementary powers, that they were quite draconian. I wonder how the Minister envisages that they might be used.

Mr. Pickthall: It may be my misunderstanding, but paragraph 5 states that

    “The Agency . . . must pay to their members such salaries or fees, and such travelling, subsistence and other allowances, as the Secretary of State may determine”.

I take it that “members” means board members. Am I right? Paragraph 6(2) states:

    “The Agency may pay to their employees such remuneration and allowances as the Agency may determine.”

Paragraph 6(3) states:

    “The employees are to be appointed on such other terms and conditions as the Agency may determine.”

Am I right in identifying what appears to be a contradiction, in that paragraph 5(1)(a) refers only to board members?

I shall make a wider point while I am on my feet. I am concerned that the schedule and the relevant clauses seem to contain an open-ended budget for the TTA. How and when is the overall budget for it determined? I hope that the agency will have to limit its expenditure, because the schedule and some previous clauses contain many sentences that suggest that it can spend whatever it likes on this and on that. What is the overall budget likely to be?

Column Number: 65

Mr. Stephen Twigg: I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that there is no suggestion of the agency having an unlimited call on public funds or on the resources of the Department. It receives a budget, as will any other agency with which the Department works. It works to a remit letter from the Secretary of State, which sets out the terms of its functions, such as the new role that has just been discussed in our debates on previous clauses.

I absolutely assure the hon. Lady that the change made by the schedule is modest. The provisions are taken largely from previous legislation such as the Education Act 1994, except in three respects. The schedule entitles a representative of the National Assembly for Wales to attend meetings and to take part in discussions for the first time. The representative may not, however, vote when members take decisions. The change simply regularises a long-standing and formal arrangement under which a National Assembly official has attended meetings. Paragraph 1(1) makes a provision similar in effect to that found in the 1994 Act, but in a different form given the breadth of the new powers conferred on the agency under clause 83. The new power includes the ability to borrow money—the hon. Lady referred to this—but only with the consent of the Secretary of State. The change is intended simply to allow the agency to make use of the Government procurement card, a service that offers greater purchasing efficiency to bodies in the public sector.

Consideration of the schedule in another place also brought to light the fact that a number of technical changes were needed to take account of developments in Government accounting practice since 1994. Those modifications have now been incorporated into the schedule. Beyond that, it simply re-legislates the provisions of the 1994 Act. I hope that the Committee will agree that they are sensible and proportionate provisions and that the schedule should be agreed to.

Mr. Pickthall: May I ask for confirmation of whether my analysis of the meaning of the word “members” was right?

Mr. Twigg: I apologise. I nodded vigorously when my hon. Friend was speaking, but that will not be shown in the record of the Committee’s proceedings. His explanation was certainly right; the first part refers to the members of the board; the others are employees of the agency.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 13 agreed to.

Clauses 78 to 98 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 14 agreed to.

Clause 99 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 15 agreed to.

Clause 100 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 64 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Column Number: 66

Clause 65

Publication of proposals with consent of Secretary of State

Angela Watkinson: I beg to move amendment No. 22, in clause 65, page 39, line 3, at end insert

    ‘, including schools wholly rebuilt as part of Building Schools for the Future’.

The amendment would be added to the end of subsection (2) of proposed new section 28A of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The provision is about the publication of proposals with the consent of the Secretary of State. It states:

    “Any persons (referred to in this Part as “promoters”) may with the consent of the Secretary of State publish under this section their proposals to establish (otherwise than pursuant to a notice under section 66 of the Education Act 2005) a new foundation or voluntary school which is proposed to be maintained by a local education authority in England.”

The amendment would add the phrase

    “including schools wholly rebuilt as part of Building Schools for the Future”.

Derek Twigg: The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) asked on Second Reading whether schools build under the “Building Schools for the Future” programme would be subject to the competition requirement set out in clause 66. Local authorities will be required to hold competitions whenever statutory proposals are required to establish schools, except where the Secretary of State consents to the publication of the proposals under clause 65.

We believe that there is a positive relationship between the diversity of secondary provision and higher standards. We want to extend the opportunities available for alternative providers of secondary education to set up schools. It is particularly important to create increased choice at a time when local authorities are taking a strategic view of their provisions and planning reorganisations as part of the “Building Schools for the Future” programme. The programme offers local authorities an opportunity to reorganise provision in a way that fulfils the long-term vision for education. We expect all authorities, in developing their plans for “Building Schools for the Future”, to undertake a root-and-branch review of the nature and pattern of provision in their area to ensure that it meets the needs of communities.

The programme is designed to drive innovation and transformation in education. To secure their participation in the programme, local authorities, working with other stakeholders, must come forward with bold plans that demonstrate their commitment to those objectives. We therefore expect that local authorities’ plans will entail the closure of some existing schools and the establishment of new ones. As I have already explained, local authorities will normally have to hold competitions whenever proposals are required to establish a school.

More generally, “Building Schools for the Future” guidance requires local authorities to consider how to secure a diverse range of schools in their areas. We expect local authorities fully to explore the options for introducing innovative approaches to school
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management, including an evaluation of academy options. Local authorities will also wish to consider other ways of involving new partners in providing new schools. Clause 66 allows local authorities to hold competitions voluntarily, even if they were not required to hold one.

The Department and our delivery partner for the programme, “Partnerships for Schools”, challenge local authorities to show how their proposed capital investment will translate into demonstrable educational benefits. Authorities are not allowed to proceed with their plans until they have done so.

The Government have a joined-up approach to promoting diversity in the provision of schools. The school organisation provisions of the Bill mean that local authorities will not normally be able to set up schools without inviting a range of providers to make proposals. The programme challenges local authorities to reorganise provision in their areas and provides resources to fund new schools. Together, the measures will guarantee that new providers have many opportunities to establish schools and to increase the choice of schools available to pupils and parents.

There are, however, some circumstances in which it would not be appropriate to require a local authority to hold a competition, such as if a local authority, having undertaken the thorough review required to secure inclusion in the programme, decided that an existing school should be rebuilt or transferred to a new site. I hope that hon. Members agree that it should be possible for a good school to be rebuilt without a requirement for a competition. To introduce such a requirement would be bureaucratic and unnecessary.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the Minister for that explanation. We on this side—there is the royal “we” again—support the expansion of school provision by a range of providers. As that is, in part, the same aim that the Minister described, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 66

Proposals for new secondary schools in England

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

Dr. Pugh: This is an important clause, and I shall discuss it in connection with the accompanying schedule, which touches on some significant territory. I shall attempt to identify some significant flaws in the legislation.

The legislation may be largely academic in some respects, as falling school rolls across the country mean that there may not be that many new schools
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opening. However, any new schools will have to follow a particular process, and it is the weaknesses of that process on which I wish to dwell.

The basic concept is that local authorities are not the generators but the promoters of schools. They decide that there is a need for a school and put out advertisements indicating that the need exists. Various providers, including local authorities themselves, are then allowed to come into the frame. They may be anything from Wackford Squeers to the most exalted academy, but they all can come into the frame. The process is rigorously controlled by exacting rules and so on, but, none the less, it is a kind of beauty contest to decide what best fits the model that the local authority originally decided that it wanted.

A process is mapped out by which the decision goes to the school organisation committee, which has wide powers to consider the proposals. It can reject the proposals, approve a proposal without modification, approve a proposal with modification, or, if it is unable to do any of those three things, send the whole process to the adjudicator and let him make the decision. If it dallies for some time, not making the decision once the process is under way, the Secretary of State has power to intervene and send the process to the adjudicator anyway. However, the decision-making bodies are the school organisation committees and the adjudicators. They decide what best satisfies the concept of a new school that the local authority originally envisaged.

3.45 pm

I do not understand what is wrong with the local authority making that decision. The local authority is a representative, democratic body. I see no reason to prefer that the school organisation committee or adjudicator should take the decision. There may be cases in which the local authority is incapable of making the decision, but that is a fairly unlikely contingency.

There is a downside to letting the school organisation committee make the decision, rather than leaving it with the local authority, as it traditionally would have been: the school organisation committee will not, ultimately, have to fund whatever it recommends. The local authority will probably be involved as a funder or at any rate as a landlord for any new establishment, whether it is an academy or any other educational institution that the school organisation committee chooses.

The problem, which I tried to clarify in the Chamber, is that where a number of schools are promoted by the local authority and chosen by the school organisation committee in a specific area—let us suppose that an authority is undergoing a major process of configuring its secondary schools—it is likely that there will be some kind of result. However, whereas the local authority has a specific duty to ensure that an equal offer is made to all children in its area, that there is an equity of outcome and that all children receive their entitlement, there is no guarantee that the activities of a school organisation committee, however well intentioned, will achieve that result. The committee may, for example, recommend schools with
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admission arrangements, which to some extent conflicts with most local authorities’ laudable objective of ensuring that all children get a fair deal.

That is the crux of the matter. It cannot be said that the procedure will not achieve a highly desirable outcome whereby every child receives the same type of educational entitlement. I am not saying one size fits all—a phrase that I hate; it has been used so many times, by so many Ministers and in so many circumstances that I thought that I would never utter it myself. Unfortunately, it has slipped out, so I shall have to check myself in future. If the local authority is empowered to deliver certain laudable social objectives and to ensure that every child who is represented through it achieves everything that their parents would aspire to, but are in no way disadvantaged by whatever educational arrangements transpire, it does not seem to me that an arrangement whereby the matter could be decided by the school organisation committee or by the adjudicator, or delayed and then decided by the adjudicator, will necessarily produce that outcome.

There is a strong suspicion that the intention behind the procedure is to generate a plethora of academies throughout the country. There has been criticism recently of what the project of academies is delivering. Intellectually, I cannot see that intention in the Bill, because although an academy can be a response to a local authority promoting a school or putting out a prospectus for one, there is no onus on the school organisation committee necessarily to choose that project. In fact, there is a further hitch in getting an academy proposition going, as the Secretary of State is necessarily involved in the complex of arrangements that are associated with delivering an academy in an area.

There is no credible case for saying that the provision is just about academies, full stop, but there is a case to be answered on how the arrangement ensures that there will not be myriad different admission arrangements in a local authority area that do not provide equity of outcome for each child. That is my fundamental objection, and nothing that the Minister has said so far in the debate has convinced me that it is other than a fairly solid objection. I may well get a nice letter in a few days’ time, explaining to me how wrong I am.

Derek Twigg: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making the points that he has made. It is important to note that the clause is intended to improve the diversity of provision. As to the question why the school organisation committees will take the decisions, rather than local education authorities, part of the reason is that local authorities may publish their own proposals for community schools, alongside any received from other promoters. It would not accord with what we want to achieve if those authorities, as organisations that might be presenting such proposals, also took the decisions.

The school organisation committee is an independent body, which is well represented in the community. It is also worth pointing out that not all schools are LEA schools. In view of that fact, the
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importance of the committee’s independent take on such matters and the fact that the local authority may be able to make its own proposals, the Government think that it is most fitting for the school organisation committee to make the decisions.

Dr. Pugh: The Minister must at least accept that school organisation committees throughout the land are still in a fairly rudimentary form. If we carried out an examination of who was serving on those committees, how long they had been there and what they understood their task to be, I think that we would be surprised at how unprepared they were for some of the quite onerous tasks ahead of them. That is clearly a matter of concern.

The Minister referred to the need for an independent decision maker if the local authority were in the frame, but that argument is slightly weakened by the fact that local authorities are among the major representatives on the school organisation committees. Even though his approach provides an advantage, that does not offset the disadvantages, because it would after all be the local authority that saw a need for a school in the first place.

If I may make one more point, because I do not want to make another speech out of this intervention—

The Chairman: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is making an intervention on the Minister’s reply to him, and that we should observe the proprieties. We are running in a fairly relaxed mode today, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can bear it in mind that interventions are supposed to be brief. We have quite a lot of latitude for dialogue in Committee, but I ask him to keep his intervention brief.

Dr. Pugh: The intervention concludes on the point that my argument has never been against diversity; it is about which is the appropriate decision-making body.

Derek Twigg: I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from in that respect, but the fact that LEA can itself put forward proposals is a key part of the argument.

The Department has dealt with correspondence in a relatively small number of cases in which concerns have been expressed about procedures followed by the school organisation committee or the LEA, and we found no evidence of abuse or any cause for the Secretary of State to intervene. As I mentioned before, and as the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks, it is possible to appeal to the adjudicator.

I should like to reassure the hon. Gentleman. We are keen to push forward on the matter of diversity and to ensure that the best local decisions are made. We shall keep a close watching brief on how the matter develops, and I hope that he will be satisfied with that assurance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 10 agreed to.

Column Number: 71

Clause 67

Rationalisation of school places in England

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

Dr. Pugh: I do not have a particular objection to the clause; I merely want to make sure that I have understood it properly. I prefaced my remarks on the previous clause with the suggestion that we did not need to worry too much as very few schools would be opening because of demographic trends. Plenty of schools will close because of demographic trends, and the process is often heart-rending and difficult. Their lordships have tried to qualify that process in later clauses.

Will the Minister assure me that my understanding of the procedure is correct? Essentially, I understand that he will recommend that the local authority take action where the Department for Education and Skills has identified excessive provision, examined the figures on surplus places and decided that it is time for action. The Department can then require the local authority to take action, and the authority will have the job of preparing a plan that will presumably go through the school organisation committee and possibly on to the adjudicator, with all the upset and upheaval that that customarily involves.

That is more or less the current procedure, and there is nothing novel about it. The Minister gives various signals or sometimes the local authority reaches conclusions for itself because of financial strictures and so on, and the process begins with that format. However, there seems to be one novel provision in the legislation. Where the local authority drags its feet and does not exercise its power, the Minister is given powers to intervene and do the job for it. In other words, if provision is not rationalised, the brave Secretary of State will step in and take all the odium upon himself. That is very noble of him, and local authorities will be pleased that he is playing backstop, although I understand that in the first instance he will not name particular schools.

At some point as the Secretary of State works through the process, however, the local authority may find it unbearable. Metropolitan authorities have particular problems with local elections every year, and nothing is more guaranteed to gain adverse publicity and an adverse reaction from constituents than going round the place deciding to close schools. It strikes me that many local authorities will be slightly pleased with the clause, and the Minister may live to regret it, but if I have not understood it correctly, that will not be the case.

Angela Watkinson: Most of us will know that it takes a brave local authority to undertake rationalisation where there are small but popular schools. It has recently happened twice in my local education authority area, although, thankfully, not in my constituency. Schools have had falling rolls and have been down to barely one form at entry level, but they have still been extremely popular, and they have been defended to the death by local families, with vocal
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protest meetings and petitions. Such was the pressure put on the local authority it decided not to go ahead with school closures, despite the fact that the schools had more than 25 per cent. spare capacity. There may well be local authorities that welcome the intervention of the Secretary of State to take that responsibility off their shoulders.

Derek Twigg: We might be able to provide some useful information to enlighten the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Southport about the powers and what has happened in the past. That will give them a better understanding of where we are and what we are doing.

The reserve powers have not yet been used. In practice, we have found that LEAs are usually happy to work with the Department to explore the options for reducing wasteful surplus places. The powers have proved useful for demonstrating our commitment to the proper supply of certain school places and for requiring action if it is not taken voluntarily. It is not always the case that local authorities uniformly put in place best practice or that they will always do so in every area of their activities. It would be irresponsible not to have the powers if they were ever unfortunately needed. I stress that the provisions give the Secretary of State power not to decide the proposals, but only to require that they are brought forward. Even in extremis, if she were to bring forward the proposals, they would still be decided by the local school organisation committee, and if it could not agree, they would pass to the schools adjudicator.

Angela Watkinson: Where a school has a seriously falling roll and is recommended for closure because it is no longer viable, but house building is about to take place in the vicinity, only children who are in the area at the time can currently be taken into consideration when calculating the need for places. When it is clear that new housing is going to mushroom in the vicinity and that school places will be needed again, can that be taken into consideration after the school has closed?

4 pm

Derek Twigg: Having been involved myself over the years in a few school reorganisations and closures, I understand the hon. Lady’s point. The LEA can do that now and tell the council what future needs will be in its area.

The powers are firmly in the context of the existing structures: they do not impose any central control, but merely enable the Secretary of State to initiate the debate, with consultation in the area, the publication of a notice describing the proposed changes, and the opportunity for local people to comment or object. They are part of our approach to local decision making, which involves local people rather than sidelining them.

Dr. Pugh: To come to a specific situation, let us suppose that there were no community consensus in a particular area about rationalisation. If various schools were spoken of, but it had not been decided which were the right ones for closure, there would be
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what one might call a “council paralysis”. If the council officers or the cabinet member for education failed to come to any conclusion, and therefore failed to put anything before the schools organisation committee, would the Secretary of State’s powers apply, so that the cabinet member of a particular local authority could be coerced into putting recommendations before the schools organisation committee? In that way, the committee would still have a role, but the missing step is not that it would be unwilling to decide, but that the council itself would duck out of the responsibility of producing a recommendation.

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