Previous Section Index Home Page

23 May 2006 : Column 1349

Alan Johnson: That is an important point. If the Bill allows that to take place, it will be beneficial to every Member’s constituency, as there are some constituencies that have very good schools but that still have too many failing schools nearby.

4.15 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about the way in which he will approach diversity, as he has extended considerably the number of local authorities that can reasonably expect to be able to enter the competition. Will he confirm that he would expect the adjudicator, in adjudicating on the competition, to take a similar approach to the question of diversity?

Alan Johnson: Yes, the adjudicator will do that, as that will be part of the regulations that we will produce.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Following that last point, as my right hon. Friend has mentioned faith schools, will he specifically instruct the adjudicator that diversity of faith is not one of the criteria in determining whether a local authority has diverse provision or, in a competition, whether a particular school should be allowed to go forward in a particular form?

Alan Johnson: I repeat: the fact that a local authority does not have a faith school, or has few faith schools, would not be a factor for me to veto that application. That would be the case with the schools adjudicator, too, as we would be working from the same regulations. Those factors will be incorporated into regulations that will be made under the proposed new clause. Clearly, this secondary consideration is a more subjective test than the percentage of different categories of school, which remains the prior test. Therefore, it will be for the authority to set out in its application how a new community school would build on existing diversity in the area.

I assure my hon. Friends who have tabled amendment No. 7, including my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) who just intervened, that the wider definition of diversity would extend to clause 2. Therefore, there is no need to set out its meaning in the Bill. The arrangements will enable high-performing authorities and those with diverse provision to publish proposals for a new community school. We also want to demonstrate to the weakest and least diverse authorities that they should open up opportunities to other providers, on which my hon. Friends have made points in interventions. It will then be for the schools adjudicator to consider all proposals submitted and to make the final decision on which proposal should be approved.

We believe that that approach strikes the right balance. We do not accept amendment No. 15, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, which would allow all local authorities to publish proposals for new community schools. Nor do we accept new clauses 57 and 58 and amendments Nos. 101 and 102, tabled by the official Opposition, which would mean that no local authority would do so. As ever, between those two extremes, we are taking the third and most sensible way. Similarly, amendment No. 111, submitted by the hon. Member
23 May 2006 : Column 1350
for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), would prevent all but the best local authorities from proposing new community schools outside competitions. As set out in Committee, we would relax the need for a competition only where there were good reasons for doing so, such as in the case of the amalgamation of an infant and junior school or to facilitate a fresh start in that school.

John Bercow: The Secretary of State referred a few moments ago to regulations that were imminent or to be published in due course, which is something of a legislative hobby horse of mine. Can he tell the House whether those regulations are to be subject to the negative procedure of the House or to its affirmative counterpart? Are they available now in draft form? If so, can we see them? And if not, given their importance and centrality—I ask in the politest possible way—why not?

Alan Johnson: First, they will be subject to the negative procedure. Secondly, we tried hard, as Members who served on the Committee will accept, to get guidance and regulations published in draft form so that they could be scrutinised in Committee. That has not happened, and the hon. Gentleman will know, from the nine years that we have been in the House together, that that does not happen on every Bill. We have tried hard, and we will try hard in relation to those regulations as the Bill goes through the Lords, to make sure that Members have the benefit of that information.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his predecessor on making the new skeleton admissions code available to the Standing Committee for scrutiny: it helped us greatly to understand how much tougher the protections against bad admission practices would be.

Amendment No. 41 gives local education authorities an extra duty to ensure

How does my right hon. Friend think that that will work in practice? He skated over it quite quickly at the beginning.

Alan Johnson: I expect it to operate in the context of admissions forums. I hope to say more about that later, but if my hon. Friend thinks that I have not dealt with it adequately, I will allow her to intervene again.

Judy Mallaber: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alan Johnson: I will take one more intervention. Then I must make some progress.

Judy Mallaber: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he just said that if an infant school and a junior school amalgamated to form a primary school, they would not have to be subject to a competition?

Alan Johnson: Yes. That is the kind of provision that clause 9 makes.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I hope very much that the Secretary of State will join us in making
23 May 2006 : Column 1351
a robust case for the Government’s school reforms, and I look forward to working with him on that.

The Secretary of State just described one of our new clauses, which provides for new schools not to be community schools, as extreme. Will he confirm that our new clause is based on the Government’s own schools White Paper, which states:

When did he decide that the Government’s own White Paper was extreme?

Alan Johnson: Last time I was at the Dispatch Box talking about higher education, the hon. Gentleman and his party were supporting a policy that the hon. Member for “Have I Got News For You” recently described as “bonkers”. I am pleased that Conservative Members have come down from the planet Zog and engaged in a proper debate about education.

As part of that debate, let me mention that very few published White Papers end up in a perfect form, so that every chapter and verse and every dot and comma are reflected in the ensuing Bill. The whole point of a White Paper is to precede consultation, and our consultation has been very fruitful—not just the consultation among Labour Members, but consultation with Members in all parts of the House and, as I have said, with the Local Government Association. I believe that there are two extremes, and that as a result of our consultation we have found a perfect third way.

We believe that the approach I have described is preferable to new clause 38, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, which would require a local authority to work up its proposals before knowing whether it would be given permission to enter them. I believe that that could lead to a significant amount of unnecessary work.

While we accept that there may be a role for new community schools, we do not agree that there should be a mechanism allowing foundation schools to revert to community status. We have included provisions that enable the governing body to remove a trust, and if a foundation school is failing, the local authority will be able to intervene and can, if necessary, close the school and trigger a new competition. For those reasons, we shall resist new clause 23 and amendments Nos. 12 to 14.

Anne Snelgrove: Is this not one of the issues that put clear red water between us and the Opposition? We have examined the strategic role of local education authorities, and have strengthened it. We are bringing trust schools into the family of schools within LEAs. Grant-maintained schools removed money and set school against school; our trust schools will not be like that.

Alan Johnson: I agree. If we examine the strategic role of local authorities in the context of “Every Child Matters”, the Green Paper on youth issues and the 14-to-19 agenda, we see an exciting new role for commissioners of education rather than providers, which entrenches the part played by those authorities in a much more meaningful way.

23 May 2006 : Column 1352

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to new clause 23, which I tabled, and to subsequent amendments. Will he confirm that he has just told the House that the move from comprehensive to trust status is an irreversible, one-directional process? A comprehensive school can become a trust school, but once it is a trust school it cannot revert to being a comprehensive.

Alan Johnson: Let me make it absolutely clear: if the governing body of a trust decided that it wanted to leave the trust, only a third of governors would be needed to trigger that process. At least two thirds of governors have to vote in favour of maintaining the trust for it to continue, so there are important safeguards and trigger mechanisms in the system.

Several hon. Members rose—

Alan Johnson: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).

Ms Angela C. Smith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that trust schools will not be community schools, and that they will remain comprehensive schools?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; indeed, the only voluntary aided school in my constituency uses banding—and has done so for many years—which is pure comprehensive intake. She has made a really important contribution in dealing with the misapprehension that a trust school will not be a comprehensive school.

Paul Farrelly rose—

Alan Johnson: I will give way one more time and then make some progress.

Paul Farrelly: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the safeguard concerning the removal of a majority of governors or of a foundation that is not performing. But if he is not going to provide a safeguard concerning the proportion of parents who are elected governors, how can we guarantee that there will be a sufficient proportion of independent governors to trigger the safeguard that he has installed?

Alan Johnson: At least a third of governors will have to be parents, and in the circumstances that my hon. Friend envisages, where there is a majority trust, there would be the parent council. Teachers and the local community would also be represented on the trust. The local authority, moreover, must be represented on the governing body, so I believe that enough safeguards are in place.

We believe that there needs to be a clear distinction between provider and commissioner in relation to trust schools. Therefore, while it is appropriate that local authorities play a part in trusts, the extent of their role should be limited to 20 per cent. of the membership or voting rights. That is consistent with provisions in local government legislation on local authority involvement in companies. We are therefore resisting amendments Nos. 9 to 11, which would grant local authorities 50 per cent. membership of trusts.

23 May 2006 : Column 1353

Of course, the key role of local authorities will be their ability to take strategic decisions about the provision of school places across their area. They will decide, taking on board the views of local people, when new schools are required and how best to use the record capital investment that we are making available through the building schools for the future programme.

New clause 18, tabled by the Conservatives, would fetter local authorities’ discretion by requiring them to establish new schools if certain conditions relating to the number of failing schools or a lack of diversity were met. I am sympathetic to the aim of the new clause—to create more choice for parents—but I do not believe that such a mechanistic approach is appropriate. On new clause 56, also tabled by the Conservatives, I can confirm that there is no surplus places rule that would prevent a local authority from running a competition, or from agreeing proposals to expand a good school, simply because there are more than enough places available. Capital support for authorities is now formula-based and there is no bar to its use, whatever the state of surplus in a given area.

Mr. Redwood: Does the Secretary of State share my anger at the fact that some people have absolutely no choice and have to send their children to a very unsatisfactory school, whereas the rich have an enormous amount of choice? What is he really going to do to narrow that gap?

Alan Johnson: I hesitate before saying that I share the right hon. Gentleman’s anger, but I do think it a matter of considerable concern that in all our constituencies—certainly in mine—this lack of choice dogs many constituents. Provisions in the Bill such as free transport will help to provide such choice, but the biggest guarantor of the educational choice and diversity that we want to see is the record levels of investment that we are putting into our schools.

On new clause 56, which is entitled “Abolition of surplus places rule”, as I said, there is no such rule. Let me reaffirm something that my predecessor made clear on Second Reading. No school will be forced to acquire a trust or to become a foundation school. New clauses 21 and 53, proposed by the Conservatives, are designed to place duties on the Secretary of State and local authorities to encourage schools to become trust schools. There is a danger that such statutory duties could lead to an undue amount of pressure being applied. We firmly believe that trust status has to be a decision freely entered into by a governing body. The only exception is for failing schools, where local authorities will be able to use their new intervention powers to force collaboration. However, we do not accept new clause 62, tabled by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), which would allow the Secretary of State to impose a change of foundation status. It has to be a local decision that meets local needs.

4.30 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): On the day after Second Reading, the previous Secretary of State confirmed that schools choosing not to go down the
23 May 2006 : Column 1354
trust route would not be disadvantaged in any way. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that and tell me exactly where in the Bill that is made clear?

Alan Johnson: I can confirm that. Perhaps my hon. Friend and I could have a chat afterwards, so I could point to the various clauses that insist that local authority maintained schools receive their funding on exactly the same basis, with the same pay and conditions for teachers, as other schools. There are several additional safeguards. I can happily give my hon. Friend the affirmation that he seeks.

The role of the schools commissioner will be to provide support and encouragement to schools. New clause 61, tabled by the hon. Member for Reading, East, would establish the schools commissioner as a statutory office. While I agree with the role set out in the new clause, it is not necessary to define every facet directly in the Bill. The different facets have been included in the job description for applicants for the schools commissioner post. I reassure Members that the commissioner’s annual report will be made available to both Houses of Parliament and to the Select Committee on Education and Skills.

Mr. Marsden: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for confirming that the schools commissioner will have a role in reporting regularly both to Parliament and to the Select Committee, but there is an important omission in his predecessor’s letter to the Standing Committee, which defined the role. It did not include reference to children with special educational needs. Can my right hon. Friend confirm today that that will also be part of the schools commissioner’s remit in ensuring fair admissions?

Alan Johnson: I can confirm that. I am aware that my hon. Friend has had discussions about children with special educational needs. We intend to deal with the matter in a separate tranche of measures, so I can give him the assurance that he seeks.

Support provided by the schools commissioner and by local authorities may include consultancy advice to groups of parents wishing to set up a new school or to enter a competition, but I cannot accept the strictures of the Conservatives’ new clause 22, which could lead to a local authority having to expend considerable resources supporting proposals that would ultimately fail. Our guidance to local authorities in clause 3 sets out a much more proportionate approach for responding to parental demands about the provision of schools.

On the important matter of safeguards, my predecessor said on Second Reading that there would be

She added that

Next Section Index Home Page