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5.15 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman was a member of the Education and Skills Committee and signed up to the report quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). When he was a member of our Committee, he was not known for giving the impression that all the schools up and down our country were underperforming, miserable places where children do not get a proper chance at education. I thought that he agreed that many fine community schools do a very good job for their children. Is he not doing himself a disservice by making a speech redolent of the Chris Woodhead philosophy, rather than the philosophy that he held only a few months ago?

Mr. Gibb: I still hold the philosophy to which the hon. Gentleman refers. In my time as shadow education spokesman, I have visited many good community schools and state schools around the country. I am not talking about all schools; I am talking about the 23 per cent. of schools to which the National Audit Office has referred, and the similar percentage of coasting schools. We must tackle those schools.

Clauses 3 and 7 are significant, and they are the principal reasons why we support this Bill. They enable parents to make representations to the local authority calling on it to establish a new school because they are dissatisfied by the quantity or quality of existing provision. We hope that over the next few years we will see the establishment of a large number of trust schools with greater autonomy and independence in their day-to-day running.

The Thomas Telford city technology college in Telford, Shropshire, is not a trust school—it is a CTC, which is similar to the academy model—but the principle of autonomy in the day-to-day running of the school is similar. The principal of that school, Sir Kevin Satchwell, has told me that one of the great advantages of CTC status is that heads do not have to attend interminable meetings with the local authority, which means that they can stay in school and focus on raising standards. That is why at the Thomas Telford school, which has an intake of all abilities and in which 11 per cent. of pupils are entitled to free school meals, 100 per cent. of pupils achieve not only five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, but 12 or more GCSEs or equivalent at grades A* to C. Even when one strips out the GNVQs, it is still the best performing comprehensive school in the country—as I have said, 100 per cent. of pupils achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and Maths. That is what autonomy can achieve, which is why the Conservative party is so serious about the benefits of the Bill and so excited about the prospect of hundreds of trust schools being established in the years ahead.

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It became clear in Committee that the Government, too, are serious about promoting new trust schools and helping parents.

Frank Dobson: In view of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the school in Telford, does he believe that if every school in and around Telford had similar status, they would all achieve the 100 per cent. ratings that he has discussed?

Mr. Gibb: That would be an exaggeration. The Thomas Telford school has high-quality leadership, but it would help if schools were given autonomy. Some 66 per cent. of pupils in schools with CTC status achieve five or more good GCSEs at grades A* to C, which, while it is not the same as the 100 per cent. rating at the Thomas Telford school, is significantly higher than the national average and higher than the average for community schools.

In Committee, it became clear how much in favour of promoting such schools the Government are. Paragraph 30 of the draft guidance on clause 3 states:

Paragraph 34 says:

Paragraph 35 goes on to say:

We regard that guidance as very helpful, which is why we incorporated it into new clause 22.

I cited those paragraphs not to annoy those on the left who believe that local authorities should run all schools directly, and that all schools should be the same homogenous bog standard, but to assure my hon. Friends—

Angela Eagle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: Not at the moment.

I want to assure my hon. Friends that this is a Bill and a policy that we can and should support, not because it is perfect—it is far from perfect—but because it goes a long way towards implementing an education model that helps parents and non-profit and charitable groups to establish independent-type schools within the state sector without fees. It is the very model that has formed the basis of Conservative education policy in recent years, and which we believe will lead to higher standards and a higher quality of education in our schools.

To push that principle a stage further, new clause 19 proposes that where parents of 100 or more children of school age in a local authority area make representations to a local authority for a new school, the local authority must—not may—publish a notice under clause 7 inviting proposals for a new school. That would add to parent power and, as in the American model, make involvement in the community real and effective.

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Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): My hon. Friend talks about parent consultation. Where a school changes status to, say, a trust school, is he equally in favour of parents being formally consulted through a ballot? We all know that “consultation” is a weasel word that can often be skewed in the wrong way.

Mr. Gibb: I hate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but I think that those are matters for the governing body of a school. I would be opposed to any formal intervention that required a ballot.

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Gibb: I am going to make some progress, if I may.

Our amendments Nos. 105, 106 and 107 would make it easier for a foundation school to become a trust school and easier for a trust school to enable the foundation to appoint the majority of governors of a foundation school. The amendments would prevent the local authority from stopping or delaying the proposals by referring them to the adjudicator. It would simply be a matter for the governing body of the school. We want to make it as easy as possible for governing bodies of schools to create trust schools. The amendments would prevent local authorities hostile to the whole concept of trust schools from being able to scupper the proposals.

The amendments contrast sharply with new clauses 25 and 26, tabled by the Liberals. New clause 26 would prevent a trust school from having a majority of its governors from the trust. Being able to appoint a majority of governors is a key component of the reforms in the Bill. Without that possibility, it is unlikely that any charitable trust or group of parents would want to establish such schools, as the Liberals well understand; that is why they tabled the new clause. They are fundamentally opposed to reform on the model established by the Bill. For them, localism extends only as far as the local council, not down to the level of the local school, which they want to remain under the direct day-to-day control of local councillors.

Similarly, new clause 25 is a reflection of the Liberals’ hostility to the reforms. It would require the school commissioner to establish a list of potential trustees—a bureaucratic and unnecessary impediment.

Sarah Teather: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not keener on that new clause. It would make it easier for schools to become trust schools, because instead of having to go through the whole bureaucratic process of checking the guidance themselves, they would have a ready-made list.

Mr. Gibb: I do not accept that. As we witnessed in Committee, all the Liberal amendments are designed to thwart the reforms.

Paragraph 13 of the Government’s draft guidance, entitled “Decision Makers Guidance on Acquisition of Trusts”, sets out detailed guidelines that schools should follow, including unacceptable types of industry, which the funders of a charitable trust should avoid. They
23 May 2006 : Column 1370
include, as the Secretary of State said, tobacco, gambling, adult entertainment and alcohol. That guidance should be enough for the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who tabled new clause 48, which would establish a register of approved institutions.

There comes a point when one has to rely on the good judgment of people in decision-making positions. No governing body will acquire a trust funded by Ann Summers. Governors are as keen as, if not keener than the hon. Member for Bury, North to protect and enhance the reputation of their school. With all the other protections that the Bill contains about the character of individual charitable trustees, enhanced by Government amendment No. 46 and the specific requirements of Government amendments Nos. 43 and 44 that the purpose of a foundation must be the advancement of education, I believe that new clause 48 over-eggs the pudding and is designed mainly to thwart the reforms.

Thwarting the reforms is the main purpose of rebel new clauses 16 and 17, which seek a ballot before any school can become a foundation school. Doubtless the hon. Members whose names are attached to those new clauses will argue that their proposals simply the follow the model that the previous Conservative Government used for grant-maintained schools—and they would be right. However, most Conservative Members now believe that the requirement for a full-scale ballot before a school could become a grant-maintained school was probably a mistake.

Mr. Marsden: Does the hon. Gentleman’s reluctance to accept the principle of the ballot have anything to do with the fact that, outside London and the south-east, few ballots for grant-maintained schools were won?

Mr. Gibb: That is not true. I oppose the ballot because in the case of grant-maintained schools, it led to the politicisation of the process, with local left-wing groups and others who opposed the concept mobilising to prevent the change.

The prospect of fighting such a campaign will put off many, or at least some, potential governors, especially people who become governors simply because they are interested in running a school and providing education and have no interest in politics or engaging in a political campaign with the hon. Member for Bury, North.

Despite such hurdles, some 668 schools became grant maintained, but that was out of approximately 3,500 secondary schools. In 1998, grant-maintained schools became foundation schools. Their results, compared with those of community schools, show how much more successful they are. In 2004-05, 38 per cent. of pupils in community schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, compared with 44 per cent. in foundation schools, 49 per cent. in voluntary-aided schools and 66 per cent. in city technology colleges. That answers a question that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) asked earlier.

The amendments try to place in front of foundation schools the same hurdles that applied to grant-maintained schools to frustrate the policy direction of the Bill. If the new clauses are pressed to a vote, I urge hon. Members of all parties to reject them.

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Frank Dobson: When the old Etonian Leader of the Opposition goes around saying that he wishes to hand power to parents, why is he not willing to give them the power to vote for or against a trust?

Mr. Gibb: Because the ballots would not be used for that. They would be used by people such as the right hon. Gentleman, who will set out to oppose any initiatives, even those of parents, which clause 3 allows. He will be out there, campaigning against those parents.

We are worried about some of the comments that the Secretary of State made about ballots. In his “Dear Colleague” letter, which someone helpfully sent me, he stated:

The Minister for Schools repeated that on the “Today” programme this morning. Nothing in the Bill provides for that, the draft guidance contains nothing about it and there is no wording to that effect in the draft regulations. I was reassured by the Secretary of State’s comments, in response to my intervention, that he will not include that wording in the guidance, and that he will not refer to an indicative ballot in the regulations.

I was also reassured that it is not the Government’s intention that a consultation process would be regarded as inadequate simply on the ground that an indicative ballot of parents had not taken place, thus presenting grounds for a local authority to refer the proposal to a schools adjudicator. If it had been the Government’s intention to make reference to an indicative ballot in either the guidance or the regulations, it would have been very damaging to the successful implementation of the proposals.

5.30 pm

Helen Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: I will not give way to the hon. Lady. I am just coming to the end of my speech.

Ian Stewart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: I am sorry, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Our amendments and new clauses are designed to make the structural changes in the Bill more effective. Unlike the amendments tabled by the Liberals and the Labour left, they are supportive amendments designed to take the Bill back towards the original vision of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. They are designed to increase the quality of the education offered in our schools, and I urge hon. Members to support new clause 53 if the Government refuse to accept it.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), and I want to engage with some of his arguments. After sitting on these Benches for nine years, I want to make one last effort to impress by speaking to these amendments and new clauses. After all, we now have a new Chief Whip.

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I want to speak to a series of radical, reforming and modernising amendments tabled in the very best traditions of new Labour. After all, new Labour started around the principle of one person, one vote. I remember helping to organise the Prime Minister’s internal election campaign in Yorkshire, when he stood for the leadership, and that was very much one of our principles. What is so wrong with one parent, one vote? That is the principle behind new clauses 16, 17 and 23, and I urge those on my Front Bench to resist the forces of conservatism. They must not be hidebound by the past; they must reach out to the future and involve parents in the fullest possible way.

New clause 16 would allow for a ballot in the case of a community school moving to a foundation school. New clause 17 would allow for a ballot when a local authority proposed to establish a foundation school. New clause 23, tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), deals with the situation in which a foundation school might want to revert to being a community school. In the interests of parental choice and freedom, that should surely be a possibility, and a ballot would be a means of legitimising the process.

I have listened carefully to the arguments against ballots, and some of them have shocked me. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said recently in The Sunday Times:

My right hon. Friend has a proud tradition of advocating democracy in trade unions. Let us therefore imagine that quote, but with the following words substituted: “The union executive has to make a decision. The union executive decides whether there is to be a strike. If it does, there has to be consultation with members. But turning that into a ballot strikes us as unnecessary.” I am a great admirer of my right hon. Friend—he is a rising star and I am sure that he has further to rise—but when he put forward his argument for rejecting ballots, it was not his finest hour.

Alan Johnson: The rule books of most unions—including mine—state that there must be a ballot of members before a strike can take place. My union rule book also gives a great deal of discretion to the executive to decide on other measures. Indeed, an argument is taking place at the moment in one trade union in the higher education sector about whether the executive should put a pay offer to a ballot or agree to it. It is up to the executive to decide in all those circumstances. My hon. Friend is right in regard to strike action, but wrong in regard to many other aspects of trade union law.

Mr. Grogan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that clarification. I think that a school’s decision to become a foundation is a fundamental one. It is interesting to consider some of the other arguments. It has been stated that a ballot would be too expensive, and the Minister for Schools has said that it would be unnecessary bureaucracy. A consultation will involve a good deal of expense, possibly more than a one parent, one vote ballot.

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