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23 May 2006 : Column 1342

The Bill also puts parents at the heart of the system. Clause 3 gives local authorities a duty to respond to parental concerns, and we have published illustrative guidance which sets out how this duty should be met. Clause 35 requires all governing bodies to have regard to the views of parents, and any proposals relating to new schools or the acquisition of trusts must be subject to full consultation with parents and the wider community.

We believe that these provisions provide the right degree of rigour, tempered by local flexibility. For that reason, we think that compulsory local ballots are an unnecessary red herring, whether they are designed to trigger competitions, as the Opposition suggest in new clause 19, to approve proposals within competitions, as proposed by my hon. Friends in new clause 17 and amendment No. 5, or to approve proposals to become a foundation school, as proposed by my hon. Friends in new clause 16. Compulsory ballots or petitions on any of these issues would be unnecessarily bureaucratic, requiring expensive procedures and precise definitions of process and electorates that would in many cases be inappropriate.

In respect of new clause 16 and the proposition to ballot parents if a school plans to become a trust, I remind the House that a governing body that wished to hold a ballot would be entirely free to do so as part of locally determined arrangements for consultation, but that should be its choice, not a requirement dictated from Whitehall. Where there is controversy, it may make sense to hold a ballot. It is certainly important that we ensure that parental views are adequately taken into account through consultation. Where a school decides to acquire a trust, the local authority has the power to refer that decision to the adjudicator if it believes that the consultation process has not been followed properly or that adequate attention has not been paid to the views of respondents. That is an extremely important check on the autonomy of the governing body.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that it will not be regarded as a poor consultation process if a governing body decides not to conduct an indicative ballot, and that that therefore will not be grounds for the local authority to refer it to the schools adjudicator? Can he confirm that he will put nothing to that effect in the guidance when he firms up the draft?

Alan Johnson: I can, in the sense that not holding a ballot would not be failure to consult, but if the local authority was aware that there was a very strong body of opinion among parents or a demand among parent governors for a ballot, and that the outcome of the consultation in some way conflicted with that view, it may then refer the matter to the adjudicator. The local authority must make sure that there has been adequate consultation with parents, and if that consultation has taken place, that the parental views are reflected in the outcome. What we say is that to insist in legislation that on every occasion, irrespective of circumstances and regardless of how controversial the change may be—and I predict that most will not be controversial—the only method of consultation must be a ballot is too dictatorial and unnecessarily prescriptive.

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Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Ballots are mandatory when a change is in prospect from a grammar school to a community school, so why should the same principle not apply to a change from community school status to foundation status?

Alan Johnson: Because this is not a change from a grammar school to a community school. We set out the arrangements when we were in opposition in 1996, and we set them out again when we entered government in 1997. Incidentally, the matter is different from grant- maintained schools, for which ballots were also required. We are discussing a school that remains part of the local authority, that continues to pay the same terms and conditions to its teachers and that is funded in exactly the same way as any other community school by the local authority. If the governing body wants to move to trust status, it will be required to consult parents; incidentally, consultation with parents in feeder schools is also part of the procedures and guidance. It is unnecessarily bureaucratic to insist prescriptively that there must be a ballot in all circumstances.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has mentioned grant-maintained schools. Does he agree that one of the many failings of grant-maintained schools concerned the issue of the ballot in which the parent whose child was just about to leave the school had the same vote as the parent whose child was going to spend another five years at the school, while the parent of the child who was just about to join the school had no vote at all? The ballot raised more problems that it solved. Because schools have many partners these days, it is important that consultation goes wider than simply parents.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right. I believe that grant-maintained schools had to hold a ballot every year, but Conservative Members know more about that than me. All I know is that that was a bad policy which it would be bad to replicate, particularly in relation to ballots, where the problems that my hon. Friend has mentioned were apparent.

I am more sympathetic to new clause 44 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). In practice, however, I believe that many governing bodies will hold the sort of public meeting required by his proposed new clause, and I do not think that we should make such a meeting an absolute requirement.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The change from a community school to a trust school is fundamental. Will my right hon. Friend indicate how he can ensure that adequate consultation is carried out involving all the people who could be affected by the potential change?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend will know that we have set out guidance on that matter, which is available in the House of Commons Library. The proposal is that the governing body must agree, and if it does not agree, then the matter will go no further. If the governing body believes that the proposal should be put to consultation, then it must be consultation not only with parents at that school, but with parents at
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feeder schools, too. That consultation must be meaningful and real, which is why we have introduced the back-stop of the local authority being able to refer the issue to the schools adjudicator, if it believes that the consultation has not been done properly. There are many ways to consult, and my point is that a ballot is not the only one.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I have a different problem. Will the Secretary of State explain why the governors of, for example, Banbury school should want to change to trust status? Given all those caveats, what is in it for the parents and children of a school such as Banbury school in my constituency to acquire trust status? It may be that I am being particularly stupid, but I have not got that yet.

Alan Johnson: I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman of being particularly stupid. A school would take that decision to give it more control, to introduce autonomy and to federate and co-operate with, for example, a university, a successful school, a further education college or a business trust. Such arrangements exist at the moment, but they are precarious. Sometimes they depend on one or two head teachers or local authority leaders being particularly forceful, but when such people move on, the federation falls apart. The provision will establish such federations on a more permanent basis. For all those reasons, particularly that of having more control and more decision making locally at the school, it is a very good proposition.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Could the Secretary of State help me with something that has slightly amazed me? This morning, I received by fax a letter about this group of amendments and the Bill in general that urged me to vote against the amendments and against the Bill on Third Reading. It came from the West Chelmsford Labour party. Why does he think that it has done that?

Alan Johnson: I have spent many happy hours deliberating on how the West Chelmsford Labour party reached its decision, but I still have not managed to fathom it out.

4 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Like some of my hon. Friends, I do not think that there are enough powers for foundation schools. Would it be possible to extend under order the powers that are available to them if they are a success?

Alan Johnson: There are no plans to move further than what is currently in the regulations. We now have a real opportunity to learn from what works best and to apply that. At the moment, schools can opt for various strands, including being a specialist school or an academy, but a whole host of bureaucracy is associated with all of them. The formulation of trusts maintaining those schools within the local authority family of schools is a very attractive proposition, which is why I think that it will be widely supported.

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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Does he agree that the attributes that he ascribed to new foundation schools are precisely those that applied to grant-maintained schools, except that they did not have a ballot or benefit from some of the unusual funding arrangements from which foundation schools may benefit? None the less, in view of the very successful grant-maintained schools in my constituency, I welcome the foundation schools that he is introducing.

Alan Johnson: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Grant-maintained schools could select, had more money, were outside the local authority family, and could pay their staff on the basis of different terms and conditions. There is a world of difference between our proposals and grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I have a very simple question. How many schools does the Secretary of State believe will go for trust status, say, by the end of this Parliament?

Alan Johnson: If I were to hazard a guess—I may be making myself a hostage to fortune—I would say a great many.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the new clause does not prohibit a school from federating or otherwise forging a link with a private university? I ask that because the University of Buckingham, an outstanding institution in my constituency, is the only independent university in the United Kingdom.

Alan Johnson: It is also the only university that does a two-year degree. There would be nothing to stop a school federating with that university.

Trust schools will provide the drive and innovation of new approaches and new partners. In some cases, the governing body might wish the trust to appoint a majority of governors where it believes that a charitable foundation can strengthen the leadership and governance of a school. We are therefore resisting new clause 26, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, which would prevent that possibility. Majority governance is not at the expense of parental engagement. Parents will continue to make up one third of the governing body in trust schools, as in all maintained schools. Furthermore, a trust that appoints the majority of governors will be required to establish a parent council.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): But surely the point is that there would be a reduction in the number of elected parent governors. It is not adequate to substitute a parent council where there is a duty to consult. As elected politicians we should be supporting the right to have that kind of democratic decision making.

Alan Johnson: It is a matter for the governing body to decide. It can decide whether to become a trust, and then decide whether to allow the trust to have a majority. That happens in a voluntary-aided school in my constituency, and it has worked successfully for many years. If the governing body makes that decision,
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parents must make up the same proportion of the governing body. As for whether they are elected parents or appointed parents, they are parents. The safeguards in the Bill maintain the voice of parents. New clause 26 would take away the right to have that majority.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that the Select Committee recommended that all parent governors on a trust should be elected. How can he argue that parents on a trust represent parents with children at a school unless those parents have a right to elect their representatives?

Alan Johnson: I believe that governing bodies that decide to have a majority trust—I stress that it is governing bodies’ decision—will predominantly be of successful schools that federate with unsuccessful schools and try to raise the standards in the unsuccessful school. When part of the reason for the former’s success is the quality of its governing body, I believe that the preponderance of governors from the trust, including parents, will try to replicate that in the unsuccessful school. However, that can be done only with the complete agreement of the governing body. If the governing body decides not to take that route, it still has a trust, but not majority trust representation on it.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): If a governing body decided go for trust status, would it be required, before it was granted that status, to declare its attitude towards parent representation?

Alan Johnson: No, it would not. The other important point to bear in mind is that, if the circumstances that I have described occur—that is, there is a majority on the board of governors from the trust—a parent council must be set up. It will be an important voice in the way in which the school is run. All trust school governing bodies would still be required to have at least one elected parent and many would have more.

I am confident that many schools will use the opportunity of trust status to put existing collaborative arrangements on a more secure footing. However, forcing new schools to be part of federations, for which amendments Nos. 88 to 92, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), would provide, is unnecessarily restrictive. For example, it would be unreasonable for a prospective new school to have to receive the agreement of at least one other school in the area that they would have a single governing body before it could be established.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has expressed reservations about including a requirement for federation in the Bill. It is therefore incumbent on him to spell out a little more precisely how he envisages collaboration, which, he says, is already inherent in the process, working between trust schools and other schools in the local authority area. Will he do that?

Alan Johnson: Once we have established the schools commissioner, his role will be to act as a broker for schools interested in forging trusts with universities, colleges, business trusts, charities and so on, and setting
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up the arrangements. We greatly favour encouraging federations. The problem with amendment No. 88 is that it is prescriptive and would provide that there must be a federation on every occasion. Some schools will want to have the benefits of being a foundation without having a federation. The vast majority will not, especially given the 14 to 19 factors, which will put vocational education back at the top of the agenda, where it should have been probably 62 years ago.

Mr. Marsden: My right hon. Friend mentioned the schools commissioner. Does he envisage the schools commissioner playing a key role in brokering collaboration between trust schools and others in a local authority area?

Alan Johnson: Yes, as would the local authority.

We are firmly persuaded that trust schools represent an important step in our ambition to raise standards for all. Good governance allied to effective leadership, high quality teaching and a flexible curriculum need to be a feature of every school. We have listened to the representations of, among others, the Education and Skills Committee. Consequently, we have agreed that, in some circumstances, a new community school could make sense in a specific area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), who is now the Chief Whip—and whose wisdom and sagacity we have all long admired, even before she became Chief Whip—set out in Committee the criteria that we intend to use in determining whether a local authority should be allowed to enter a community school into a competition. We have now tabled amendment No. 42 and new clause 33 to give effect to those commitments.

The criteria would allow local authorities with an annual performance assessment—APA—score of 4 automatically to enter a community school proposal. There are 11 authorities in that category at present. Conversely, some authorities would not be allowed to enter a community school proposal until their performance improved. That group would comprise authorities with an APA score of 1, and those with an APA score of 2 and either more than 15 per cent. failing schools or fewer than 15 per cent. voluntary and foundation schools or academies for the relevant phase. At present, 10 authorities fall into that group at secondary level.

The majority of authorities will need to apply for consent. Each case will be considered on its merits, but I would expect to approve requests from local authorities that have an APA score of 3 and either a lower than average percentage of failing schools or a higher than average percentage of voluntary and foundation schools or academies. This presumption would also apply to authorities that have an APA score of 2, a high percentage of voluntary and foundation schools or academies and no failing schools. Some 90 authorities would benefit from this presumption at secondary level.

For the remaining minority of 40 or so authorities, I would like to make it clear that all applications will be considered on their merits, and that there will be no presumption against consent. In particular, no authority will be ruled out simply because it has no, or only a few, faith schools. I recognise that there is more to diversity than labels and governance structures. Schools may
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have different curriculum specialisms and different approaches to education that give them a distinct character or ethos. So, while I am committed to retaining the simple, objective test of diversity, as I have just set out, I will consider a much wider range of factors relating to diversity in reaching a decision on whether to give consent for those authorities that want to enter a competition.

Helen Jones: The key here is surely the way in which we define diversity. The Secretary of State has talked about diversity in terms of structures, and he will be aware that I have tabled an amendment that picks up on much of what he has said. It would allow local authorities to satisfy the diversity criteria by maintaining a range of specialisms in their maintained schools. What is the Government’s attitude to my amendment?

Alan Johnson: I shall come to that in just a second, if my hon. Friend will be patient.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the criteria should act as a spur to local authorities not only to develop their strategic capacity, but to deliver excellence in our schools?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend has made a crucial point. In places with a long history of failing schools, we really need to galvanise people’s attention. These measures will give a real incentive to local authorities in that regard.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that our right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) was extremely generous when she considered the criteria in Committee and examined the number of local authorities that would be able to enter schools for competitions? Will the Secretary of State also confirm that there are now many more, following the representations of Labour Back Benchers?

Alan Johnson: That was as a result of the representations of not only Labour Back Benchers, but the Local Government Association, which is not particularly dominated by members of the Labour party. The LGA made a number of very important points on this matter. We have therefore come to an arrangement that strikes the right balance.

Sarah Teather: Does the Secretary of State recognise that the annual performance assessment relates to the overall performance of a local authority? A council’s ability to collect rubbish might not necessarily relate to its ability to run schools.

Alan Johnson: The ability to collect rubbish is very important, but we depend on educational attainment in regard to this particular score.

Tom Levitt: Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough(Ms Smith), can the Secretary of State spell out his answer, given that that there is no reason why, five years down the line, every education authority should not be a grade three or grade four, thus effectively relieving him of an obligation to use the veto?

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