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31 Jan 2006 : Column 63WH—continued

Local Education Authorities

1.30 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister famously promised that the top three priorities of a Labour Government would be "Education, education, education," and in our first two full terms in government, up until 2005, a high legislative priority and very large budget allocations helped to deliver on that early promise.

Substantial progress was made. For instance, we were all delighted to see the disgraceful backlog of capital works shrink rapidly, along with oversized classes in our primary schools. In the 2001 and 2005 elections, there was no doubt that education and the economy were key electoral pluses in North-West Leicestershire and elsewhere. I was therefore somewhat surprised to find myself in front of the Parliament square cameras late last year, expressing major reservations about the then newly published White Paper, "Higher Standards, Better Schools for All—More Choice for Parents and Pupils", which is very much a Janus of a document.

The progressive parts were perhaps written by the Secretary of State and deal, inter alia, with personalised learning and school discipline. The bonkers bits may have been written by a shadowy, unelected, privately educated marketiser who, for security reasons, we will call Lord A. It launched trust schools and effectively bade farewell to local education authorities.

A major debate on those Government proposals, which have met such substantial flack from across the party, is under way. The proposals have drawn fire from the most surprising quarters and from the previously most loyal of colleagues. It is that unjustified and irrational abandonment of LEAs that I wish to deal with next.

I must first declare an interest: I am a parent of four daughters, all educated entirely in local state comprehensive schools—none of which were bog-standard, in Alastair Campbell's unfortunate phrase. As a school governor for 25 years, and as someone who worked for a long time for the local county council, although not in the education sphere, perhaps I have the edge over metropolitan peers, who have none of the advantages that such experiences can offer. The White Paper's flaws are rooted in its metropolitan analysis, which does not apply to much of the rest of the country. Its proposals may have a resonance in London, but they are doomed to fail in the shire counties.

My local LEA has never been controlled by my party, so my appreciation of its achievements is driven not by partisan considerations but by a real assessment of its successes over the decades. It was not well funded by successive Administrations; however, its portfolio includes fine comprehensive schools, first-rate community education, top-quality accessible music and the arts, and good special needs provision. The list goes on. For such a body to become an educational eunuch after being a prolific producer of initiatives and ideas is unacceptable.

So what are the White Paper proposals intended to achieve? They are all of a piece with the general philosophy for the reform of public services that was
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spelled out starkly by the then Cabinet Office Minister, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Speaking in Washington in October 2005, he said:

Contestability is the current euphemism for competition. When we came to power, the real powers-that-be must have concluded that the previous Government's marketisation was not changing the schools system fast enough, and that further central intervention was not achieving the desired results. Two additional organisational drivers are apparently needed. One is more competition, which is achieved by breaking up the LEA system into individual competing schools, driven by consumer choice on the part of parents and performance league tables. That, of course, tends to reinforce middle-class advantage—surely not a conscious political strategy. The other driver— following specialist schools and academies—means external sponsors and trust schools, both subjects for other debates.

Let me turn to the rationale for the enfeeblement and ultimate marginalisation of local education authorities. Our Prime Minister said that we needed:

The "from provider to commissioner" policy is not new. It has been Government policy since the Department for Education and Employment paper, "The role of the Local Education Authority in school education" was published in 2000; it was as long ago as that, as the Minister will know. For years LEAs have had to outsource many of the services they previously provided to schools, as a result of enforced delegation of budgets. That has created a profitable market for edubusiness companies, although the associated quality of the delivered services has not always lived up to reasonable expectations. It is now surely impossible to obtain further outsourcing without either more enforced delegation to schools or new legislation. Which is it to be?

Some critics suggest that the Government have pursued a consistent programme of centralisation of control. Often under the guise of local empowerment, programmes can have precisely the opposite effect. Passing responsibility to levels beyond which people have the resources, knowledge and skills to exercise it effectively gives greater control to the state. Governors in general, and parents in particular, are often not able to administer schools effectively. As a result, schools are controlled through the national curriculum, Ofsted and funding arrangements. I hope that that criticism will be answered by the Minister today.

Let us consider the presently mooted reorganisation of local government. By moving powers away from local government on education and the police, for example, and fragmenting local government, particularly by splitting up counties, central Government may
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undermine effective local government—a level of government that can be a bulwark against, and an effective critic of, the occasional excesses and incompetence of all central Governments.

Current suggestions for further fragmentation of local government appear to be along the same lines. Part of the White Paper is taken up with rather weak pseudo-statistics and anecdotal examples that do not add up to a substantial case. If the Government think that those form the basis for "evidence-based change"—a favourite phrase—they have started to inhale their own press releases.

On the White Paper, the criticisms that the proposals will primarily benefit the middle classes and that there will be the effective introduction of more selection are probably relevant, but almost certainly a distraction in this context. The fundamental premise of the planned Bill seems flawed, unless the intention is to boost meritocracy, put more public money into private pockets and increase central Government control.

The White Paper is summed up in its annexe on resource and legislative implications; there is not much merit in some of the proposals therein. The idea that parents know, let alone generally have the competence to carry out, what is best for schools can be off beam—parents organisations have said so.

After decades of being a governor at a number of schools, I can say that the availability of governors, and of the time and knowledge to undertake the sorts of roles envisaged by Government in this White Paper, is patchy to put it mildly. The role of local government, far from being enhanced, becomes increasingly an arm of central Government administration.

Education does need reforming—it needs constant reform, to reflect the needs of society, technology and all the other things that are happening in the background. It needs reforming to a system in which central Government give up most of their interference, hand back the development of education to the professionals and the experts, and give oversight to a level of local government that has the skill and resources to represent local interests.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Taylor : The hon. Gentleman has not indicated in advance his intention to intervene, which is the normal practice, so I am afraid that I will not take the intervention.

I now turn to the question of fair admissions. I commend the powerful submission by Comprehensive Future to the Education and Skills Committee inquiry into the White Paper, which contains many references to, and commitments about, fair admissions.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

David Taylor : I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend, who mentioned to me earlier that he might intervene.

Jeff Ennis : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on
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securing this timely and important Adjournment debate. As a member of the Education and Skills Committee, he will know that we have suggested an enhanced role for local education authorities and schools admissions forums in monitoring closely schools admissions policies in the future. We also suggested the facility for LEAs to set benchmarks for all secondary schools in terms of all schools taking their fair share of children on free school meals and children of parents who receive working families tax credit. Does he agree that we need to examine those issues seriously if we are to take the White Paper forward?

David Taylor : We certainly do need to take these issues seriously. I will come on to that point shortly.

Comprehensive Future correctly points out that if all schools were to become self-governing—either as trust, foundation or voluntary-aided bodies—there would be about 24,000 admission authorities, each of which would be able to set its own admissions criteria. It further states that, unless there is a clear division of responsibility for admissions between schools, local bodies and central Government, that is likely to lead to fragmentation on a grand scale. It will make the possibility of fair admissions even more unlikely than it is at present.

If the promise of fair admissions—I accept that promise; the Minister is an honourable person—in the White Paper is to be a reality, there must be changes to permitted admission criteria, the regulations covering the code of practice, admission authorities, admission forums, the adjudicator and, particularly in the context of this debate, the role of local authorities. In 2004, for the first time, local authorities were required to co-ordinate the secondary school admissions process for their areas. From this year, local authorities will also co-ordinate primary admissions.

Co-ordination has made it easier for parents to exercise the choice already available to them by cutting down on the number of forms that they have to complete and by introducing a common timetable for each area. It has ended a system under which different schools made offers on different dates, and some parents received several offers and some received none. In the first year of operation, a greater number of children received an early offer of a school place than in previous years. Co-ordination has also made it easier for local authorities to identify and follow up cases in which no application has been made for a child. Those improvements flow straight from the good work of local education authorities, the powers of which will disappear if the Bill becomes an Act.

The e-admissions national project is an example of how, when LEAs are given responsibility for administration, systems can improve. To avoid the fragmentation that the White Paper will encourage, the local authority should administer admissions for all local schools, including the publicly funded independent schools—academies and city technology colleges. The local authority must assess how applicants for places meet the admission criteria for schools in its area and run the admission process.

The shadow White Paper, "Shaping the Education Bill: Reaching for Consensus"—to which I have given some support, although I would like to see it go
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further—also expresses real concern that there is the potential for pupils from poorer areas to be disadvantaged as popular schools expand and as wealthier and better informed parents set up their own schools, operating their own admissions policies. It, too, states that local education policy must continue to be democratically accountable.

The White Paper talks about local authorities acting as champions of parents and learners, but many have always tried to do just that. Moreover, Sir Jeremy Beecham, the leader of the Local Government Association's Labour group, has said of the White Paper:

Will the Minister say something about the impact of school expansions on pupils from poorer areas and about the democratic accountability of local education policy in a constituency such as mine, where there are more than 50 schools, or in a county such as mine, where there are substantially more than 300? Does he agree that the development of a body of self-regulating schools must encompass an effective system of accountability or measures to ensure that the interests of all pupils are protected and advanced? Without the measures proposed in the shadow White Paper, is it not almost certain that the present Government proposals would deliver enhanced choice for some, and reduced or restricted choice for many others? In short, would not disadvantaged pupils lose, rather than gain, from the projected policy?

Like the Local Government Association, which I contacted before the debate—I do not support all of its responses, but I do support some—I believe that the Government's schools Bill must give local authorities more control over admissions, commissioning, strategic leadership and the 14-to-19 phase, to ensure that they are able to fulfil their role as champions of parents and pupils effectively.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. What role does he see for surplus places being at the discretion of local education authorities in order to enhance parental choice?

David Taylor : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I will deal with it in a little more detail in correspondence. Briefly, a local education authority is in a good position to have a strategic overview of the schools in its area. It can encourage initiatives, projects and approaches that will remove surplus places without the necessity for school closures.

The current admission system does not work for our most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. Local authorities, which we must now call them, must be given the power to ensure that all schools' admission policies are fair and that they cannot cherry-pick the best pupils. We need a system in which local authorities not only co-ordinate local admissions policies but set them in consultation with the admissions forum. Every admissions authority then has to abide by that policy.
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The Government must provide more detail on how the council's commissioning role will work. Local authorities must be able to specify services and hold schools to account beyond standards of academic achievement and behaviour, in particular against the five outcomes of the document "Every Child Matters". Decisions on expanding popular schools and new sixth forms must be strategic decisions made by the local authority based on demographic change, greater efficiency and the needs of the whole community. Like the Deputy Prime Minister—perhaps I do not say those words often enough—I disagree with the presumption that popular schools should necessarily expand as set out in the White Paper.

Local authorities must have sole strategic responsibility for the 14-to-19 phase of education. The current system of shared leadership with the Learning and Skills Council is confusing and complicated. It does not work in the best interests of children and young people. The Minister and I have much in common. We are east midlands MPs who were elected in 1997. He is looking very nervous at this point. We are both great believers in the centrality of manifestos and stood on Labour manifestos in 1992 when we were not successful, and in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Last year's manifesto highlighted the need to continue to raise standards and bring in new provisions

However, among the numerous things that it did not mention was removing the role of local authorities and neutering them in many areas. I ask the Minister what has changed in the past few months and why on earth we are doing what we are doing.

1.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to his work on behalf of his constituents in promoting their interests and I thank him for setting out his concerns so clearly. I have also been impressed by the excellent work that is carried out in Leicestershire to promote the interests of children and to raise standards.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend began his remarks with a recognition of the record investment and the record results for 11, 14, 16 and 18-year-olds—the best ever results in this country as a result of eight years of investment and reform to date. As he knows, we have more to do. For example, we still have a low post-16 staying-on rate. Some of the most disadvantaged young people from low-income families are still not achieving what we might expect them to achieve. That is why we need to do more to take matters forward.

I almost wholeheartedly disagree with my hon. Friend's description of the future role of local authorities, which he described as enfeebled and marginalised. Yes, the role of local authorities is obviously changing, but it is certainly not diminishing. Indeed, for the wider background to the debate, he focused on the schools White Paper. I want to preface my response to his remarks by reminding him of the bigger picture of the important role that local authorities now play.
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My hon. Friend will know that the Children Act 2004 underpinned the creation of the new children's trusts, which importantly amalgamated education and social services departments to create new directors of children's services and lead members. They are driving forward the development of a holistic and joined-up approach for children and young people throughout the area of the local authority. That joining up is especially important for the most disadvantaged in our society.

The children and young people's plans will be introduced in April, when local authorities will ensure that all the services for children and young people are brought together. They are playing a crucial role in making that happen. The plan's delivery will be a vital part of the local authority improvement cycle and it will help to reduce bureaucracy by reducing duplication and over-prescription of some seven statutory and 12 non-statutory plans.

The directors and lead members of children's services are already making a difference. The children's trust partnerships that they support are enabling partners from many areas to work together to provide the best services for children. Indeed, that is why we now refer to local authorities. We want to reinforce the move to integrated children's services at local level so that we think in different ways and break down the barriers to joint working in the interests of children. I say again that the local authority has a crucial role in taking the lead to enable full partnership working to happen.

Turning specifically to local authorities and schools, let me remind my hon. Friend of the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who spoke eloquently of the role of local authorities. At the Local Government Association conference last year, she talked about councils continuing to play a vigorous role—not an enfeebled role—in boosting standards and intervening decisively where there is failure or poor performance. She talked about local authorities challenging hard and using new school improvement partners to raise attainment in every school. She said that local authorities will need to give strong leadership to raise standards, empower citizens and put responsiveness and choice at the heart of service delivery. She said that local authorities must have a desire to respond proactively to the views of citizens, to address problems, to pre-empt difficulties and to give users a real choice over the services that they need. She described local authorities as the champion of the user, expanding their choice and responding to their concerns, with an increasing emphasis on commissioning, rather than delivery.

I should also mention the central part played by local authorities in taking forward "Every Child Matters: Change for Children" and in the delivery of the 10-year child care strategy. The schools White Paper, which I shall discuss in detail, the youth Green Paper and the 14-to-19 implementation action plan are all part of that wider direction of travel and of the enhanced role for local authorities. I dare say that my hon. Friend has been involved in negotiating the new local area agreements, and I know that Leicestershire is taking part in phase 2. Those agreements are being led by local authorities to help secure the best possible outcomes for children, young people and their families by pooling budgets and negotiating new freedoms and flexibilities.
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The 14-to-19 implementation plan, which was published in December 2005, gives a lead role to local authorities, working in collaboration with local learning and skills councils. I emphasise that point because my hon. Friend made it towards the end of his contribution. Local authorities and learning and skills councils will work collaboratively together with schools, colleges, training providers, employers, universities and the rest to integrate and improve services for children. That, then, is the 14-to-19 implementation plan, which relies on collaboration led by the local authorities and learning and skills councils together.

On the relationship between local authorities and schools, I emphasise that my hon. Friend's caricature of the role that local authorities will play is fundamentally misplaced. The local authority has a key role to play in ensuring that parents have a broad choice of high-quality school places. We will make local authorities the key decision maker as regards the overall pattern of provision by abolishing the school organisation committee, as my hon. Friend recognised. Our proposals strengthen the local authority's role as a commissioner of services. Local authorities will become champions of parents and pupils in their area; indeed, some of them already are, and he is right to emphasise that we are building on best practice. They will have a new duty to promote choice, diversity and fair access, as well as enhanced powers to ensure high standards. I should also stress that schools will have to have regard to the new children and young people's plans so that everything fits together in a strategic way when local services undertake their own planning.

I want in particular to emphasise the role that local authorities will play for the most vulnerable children. The White Paper contains a range of measure to help schools to support low-attaining pupils, including those with special educational needs. However, there will be a new duty on local authorities to identify children missing from education—those who, for one reason or another, might be falling through the gaps. That is a critical job for the local authority. I will say more about admissions, but we will ensure that looked-after children—they are often looked after by the local authority—will have first priority in admissions to all categories of maintained schools. That is a major step forward for those children and will ensure that they get the education that they need.

On the relationship between local authorities and schools in their area, we very much welcome the support that the Select Committee on Education and Skills, of which my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) are members, gave to including the option of schools becoming self-governing trusts, free to develop their own distinct identity and ethos, and with freedom over their assets, management and staff, as described in the White Paper. That option is right for raising standards in such schools. The Conservative view that schools must be compelled to become trusts—a more centralising measure one could not imagine—represents a contradiction within the Opposition, and we do not support it.

Trust schools will be able to set their own admission arrangements in the same way as foundation and voluntary aided schools do, but that does not mean that trust schools will be able to do what they like. They will
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have to comply with relevant legislation, including the school admissions code of practice, which is enforced by the statutory adjudicator. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire is right to suggest that the role of the admissions forum locally will play a critical role in establishing school planning arrangements locally.

We know—my hon. Friend was right to say this—that parents value the right to choose a school for their child. However, we also know the importance of ensuring that fairness is a key element in the system, too. I want to tell him something that is directly relevant to the role of local authorities: there will be no free-for-all in school admissions; there will be no return to school selection by the front door, back door or any other door we care to name; and legislation rightly prevents schools from introducing selection as part of their admission arrangements.

The existing system also ensures that local authorities can object to any arrangements that they think unfair. The vast majority of cases referred to the adjudicator are upheld, and we will reinforce that by making such judgments binding for three years, rather than one year as at present.

Jeff Ennis : The choice adviser will play a key role. Will he promote all schools in his particular local authority, or will he promote only trust schools for future expansion?

Phil Hope : My hon. Friend raises a good question, but with the limited time available, I cannot go into too much detail. He is right: we want to give parents better information. We know that in any number of ways, parental involvement is a critical part of a child's success at school. We want those parents in particular who have taken less interest in their child's education, which does not therefore succeed, to obtain information and to become more aware of the options available to them in all schools. When the parent chooses which school to send their child to, they will know all the options available to them and make informed choices about all schools in their area.

David Taylor : I am grateful for the considered and careful way in which the Minister replies. Will he
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acknowledge that although "parent power" as a phrase has been abandoned, for which I am grateful, there is an assumption in the White Paper and in legislation that there will somehow be a pool of willing, able and committed parents sufficient to involve themselves in the running of schools in their community? It does not exist in large parts of Corby, in east Northamptonshire or in North-West Leicestershire.

Phil Hope : I am rapidly running out of time, but the real challenge for all of us is to engage parents right across the board. Many parents get involved, but there are many who do not. They do not have, or do not seek out, the information, or they do not have a voice, or they do not feel that they have the chance to air their views, so they do not get involved in the way that we know is so important to the future of their child's education. The White Paper describes a range of ways of providing parents with more information, giving them a greater voice in the system, getting them involved in how schools are run, and supporting them at home, so that they can provide the support for their children that is so vital to their success at school.

I am sorry that I cannot address all the points, and I shall write to my hon. Friend. However, I emphasise that we see a major and changing role for local authorities in relation to schools and throughout services for children and young people. The White Paper enhances and strengthens the strategic role of local authorities—something that the Select Committee itself mentioned. We have seen its recommendations, and we shall consider them seriously and carefully as we move forward.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Before I adjourn the sitting, it may help if I clarify the position about giving notice to Members who have half-hour Adjournment debates, because there are two relatively new Members present. If a colleague wishes to make a speech in a half-hour Adjournment debate, the convention is that the permission is sought of both the person whose debate it is and the Minister, and the Chair is then notified. Whether or not there are interventions is entirely in the gift of the person who has the floor at the time.

Question put and agreed to.

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