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23 May 2006 : Column 1379

Mr. Marsden: I am pleased to speak to new clause 35, tabled by myself and my hon. Friends, and to comment on some other amendments dealing with federations.

I shall explain from the outset the genesis of our concern about putting some clear definition of the schools commissioner’s role directly in the Bill. It started when I and my Select Committee colleagues became worried about the initially narrow way of envisaging the role and the extent to which the schools commissioner would be accountable in discharging it. When the former Secretary of State came before the Select Committee, we pressed her quite hard on the narrowness of the role of acting as a cheerleader for trusts and asked her how it was possible for the schools commissioner to be both poacher and gamekeeper at the same time, if I may put it that way.

As was made clear and as the Government have continued to make clear, the position of the schools commissioner is that of a career civil servant. In proposing the new clause today, my hon. Friends and I are concerned to get more movement in the direction of the schools commissioner being not just a civil servant, but having a far wider and more independent remit to oversee educational provision. We believe that it should include overall monitoring of admissions policies.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend not accept that the guidance that has been issued about the schools commissioner goes a long way towards addressing his concerns? Will he clarify what exactly is missing from the guidance?

Mr. Marsden: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The letter that was issued on 2 May to members of the Select Committee on Education and Skills did indeed give some clarification about the schools commissioner’s role. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said further helpful things in connection with the schools commissioner’s role in fair admissions for children with special educational needs, but we need to tease out further things from the Government: other hon. Members have already alluded to an important principle about the extent to which we rely on letters and guidance, as opposed to regulation and things stated in the Bill.

Nothing lasts for ever. As I have said on a previous occasion, not even Labour Governments last for ever, and it is therefore important that we should tease out to the maximum extent whether the schools commissioner will have the role of promoting co-operation and fair access, not of being merely a cheerleader for the trusts. I say that advisedly, because concern has been expressed not just by me, my colleagues on the Select Committee and those hon. Members who support the new clause, but by other organisations in commenting on the Bill.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said in its initial response that the role of the schools commissioner, as originally defined, was far too narrow and could be used simply to promote trust schools, and it still has that concern. It is also important that the schools commissioner has a strategic role in overseeing admissions policies across the whole local authority area—again, something that the letter of 2 May does not make
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absolutely specific. So my hon. Friends and I will be looking for further guidance and clarification from Ministers—picking up the Secretary of State’s welcome words earlier—about how the schools commissioner will carry out that broader remit. That is important, particularly in the context of the collaboration issue.

Many of the concerns that Labour Members have expressed about the Bill’s structure and the direction of travel have been caused by doubts about whether trust schools might act in an atomised fashion—in fact, in the sort of fashion that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) so enthusiastically endorsed only a few moments ago. Welcome clarifications of the Bill’s direction of travel have been provided by the Secretary of State and, indeed, by the letter that his predecessor sent to the Chairman of the Select Committee. However, it would be helpful to Labour Members, especially those who have continuing concerns about the collaboration issue, if Ministers were able to give more chapter and verse about how the schools commissioner will operate in that respect, and how he or she will be answerable to Parliament and to the Select Committee. However, I accept that we have already seen significant movement on that.

6 pm

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to federation and said that the amendments on that subject were either too drastic or over-prescriptive. Again, the issue is direction of travel. Many Labour Members and organisations involved have been concerned about what force lies behind attempts to get trust schools to collaborate, not just with other trust schools, but with other schools in their local authority. That is why I welcomed the comments by my right hon. Friend earlier. However, we have to consider delivery. The Association of School and College Leaders said in its response to the Bill that it was concerned that trust schools would reinforce a hierarchy of schools, instead of the focus being on making every school a good school.

The Government need to provide stronger incentives to encourage collaboration and partnership work. After all, we have models for that in previous education legislation and in the excellence in cities programme. The whole specialist schools programme is predicated on the principle of sharing and spreading good practice across local authorities. The Institute of Education regrets the fact that the Government have not made federation the chosen model for trust schools, which they could have done on the face of the Bill, given the rhetoric about encouraging federation and collaboration. If Ministers will not accept prescriptive amendments on federation, my hon. Friends and I hope for stronger assurances that further attention will be paid to how the collaborative process will work. The issue goes beyond the narrow confines of the Bill and is a question of—if hon. Members will excuse the pun—trust in trusts. We need to trust trusts not to operate as rogue elephants but as central providers across a local authority area and to do so in conjunction with the new and expanded role for local authorities.

I welcome some of the reassurances that have been given, but I want to see further progress. I also want further detail, because—as always—the devil is in the detail, on how the assurances about co-operation and collaboration will operate in practice.

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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I wish to speak briefly to new clause 64, which I tabled, and other amendments. I hope to be brief because I sat through 55 hours of the Bill in Committee and listened to debates on numerous amendments—some 500 were tabled, but only a handful were accepted. I do not need to detain the House at any great length, partly because I am confident that new clause 64 will not be accepted either. However, I throw bouquets to Ministers in the hope that one of them may be picked up.

The Secretary of State spent more than an hour trying to reassure Labour Members about the Bill. It is in everybody’s interests, certainly of Front Benchers on both sides of the House, to claim more for the Bill than it contains. It is in the interests of the Prime Minister, because he wants to show that he can still bring in something radical, that he is not a lame duck and that he believes in the state being the enabler, not the provider. It is in the interests of those who oppose him on the left of the Labour party. I accept that they have strong principles on this issue, but they also want to burnish their belief that the Prime Minister is some kind of closet Tory—I do not think that he is. It is also in the interests of my Front Bench colleagues to claim more for the Bill than it contains because they want to set out their stall as a constructive Opposition—an understandable and correct point of view.

The truth is, as everybody knows, that the Bill will not make much difference to the educational establishment in this country. Indeed, the Secretary of State assured us that these radical new schools—which according to some opponents of the Bill will allow middle class parents to opt out of the system—will remain in the local authority family. Numerous clauses in the Bill will enhance the powers of local authorities, the Secretary of State and local adjudicators. It is nonsense to suggest that the new schools will be anything like the grant-maintained model, and I see no reason why anybody has anything to fear from them. A fair number of schools may take up the offer to change status, but given that some 63 per cent. of schools are already community schools, the Bill will not amount to an historic change. My Front-Bench colleagues have made the point, and I agree, that this Bill is not an historic change like the education legislation in 1944 or 1988, but we still need to have this debate.

The speech by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) was excellent and he put his finger on the issue. It is in the interest of those who support more schools having independent status not to have ballots. If we are honest about it, we do not want ballots because they favour the forces of conservatism. People do not like change. Those who were opposed to grant-maintained schools on any basis whipped up sentiment against them, but parents could be persuaded because they are conservative and do not want change. That is why the Secretary of State does not want ballots and why my party does not favour them. We recognise that we made a huge error in introducing ballots for grant-maintained status, because it led to the politicisation of the system. It was only because of opposition in the House of Lords, which certainly represents the forces of conservatism—radical Conservatives like me are always worried about it—that we introduced ballots.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does not the hon. Gentleman think that if
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parents perceived that their children would benefit from a change in the status of their school, they would vote accordingly?

Mr. Leigh: Yes, I must not exaggerate my argument. Nearly 20 per cent. of schools became grant-maintained after the arguments had been set out. No doubt if we had ballots, some would be won by the governors and those who support the new model. However, the trouble with introducing the equivalent of grant-maintained schools is that people will say that they will be given special treatment and funding, as well as other benefits and advantages that are not available to other schools. If all schools were first foundation schools and then grant-maintained, it would be difficult to argue against them on the basis that they were taking more resources than they were entitled to. The one accurate argument that the Labour Opposition had against grant-maintained schools, and it was true—although denied at the time—was that they were given better funding arrangements in certain circumstances. That was unfair, but the simple way to overcome that argument would be to make all schools grant-maintained. Deep down, that is where the Government are coming from and I suspect that the Prime Minister has been frustrated by the lack of progress in state education.

Despite our differences, all hon. Members should be very frustrated about what is going on. We know about the independent report from the National Audit Office that says that 23 per cent. of schools are underperforming. That affects 1 million kids. We all know that something radical needs to be done, so why deny the elementary truth that the Prime Minister has cottoned on to—that there must be radical change in our education structure? That is what lay behind the White Paper and the excellent notion that local authorities should be commissioners and not providers. It is a pity that we have not managed to sail along more with the Prime Minister in the direction that he wanted.

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow, but does he accept that the NAO figure of 23 per cent. includes schools that have been described in this debate as “coasting”? Will he confirm that it would be inaccurate for the House to believe that 23 per cent. of schools were failing?

Mr. Leigh: I do confirm that, and am sorry to have given the opposite impression, but is not a school that is merely coasting still failing its students? I think that it is. We want all schools to be excellent, although that may not be possible in the real world. However, it is a matter of serious interest if 1 million children are in coasting or under-performing schools. Presumably, that is what prompted the Education White Paper, and why the Prime Minister felt that we needed these radical proposals. It is a pity that he cannot use his massive parliamentary majority to get his way in this matter.

I have tabled my amendments because the Bill places all sorts of obstacles in the way of schools. For example, a school that decides to become a new foundation school has to publish a proposal, then consult the LEA and other schools, parents and teachers in the area, and then consult any national faith
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group that provides the school. If the proposed foundation school does not have a religious character, it must consult the trust or foundation that provides the school. If proposals affect the provision of full-time 14 to 19 education, the Learning and Skills Council must be consulted. Local MPs must also be consulted, as must local district, parish and community councils. The school must also consult any other person considered to be appropriate by the governing body, and any other interested party. Special schools must consult the local NHS primary care trust. All proposals must be published, in a newspaper and at all the school’s main entrances, and they must also be sent to the LEA and the Secretary of State. The list of requirements goes on and on.

Ian Stewart: What is the hon. Gentleman’s problem with democracy?

Mr. Leigh: I have no problem with democracy, but the requirements amount to a fig leaf for the Government. They want to reassure their supporters that there is no need to worry, as comparatively few schools will go down that route. Already, 63 per cent. of schools are community based. It is possible that another 100, 200, 300 or even 500 schools will choose to become one of the new foundation schools, but what difference will that make, when there are more than 20,000 schools in this country?

That is the reality. I am not afraid of democracy, but I want the debate to be honest. So far this afternoon, the debate in this Chamber has not been honest.

Mr. Andrew Turner: My hon. Friend asks what difference 500 schools choosing foundation status would make, but the fact is that a very small number of schools can make a considerable difference to how even this Government try to reorganise our education system. It is clear that Lord Adonis has recognised that from day one.

Introducing this Bill is not the seminal act by this Government. The seminal act was when they passed the Education Act 2002. Section 2 of that Act allowed innovation and deregulation, and gave the Secretary of State the power to suspend any statutory requirement in response to the wishes of a governing body or LEA. That is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That has been a long intervention.

Mr. Leigh: But it was an excellent intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Lord Adonis is one of my heroes, and he faces an uphill struggle. However, I may have been unfair to the Government. I may have listened too much to what has been said in this Chamber, when I should have paid more attention to the subtext. Perhaps representing foundation schools as beacons and gradually giving them more independence will do the trick and cause good practice to spread. Even so, all sorts of problems remain with the model proposed.

Paul Farrelly: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extremely important for the future of children’s education that trusts and trustees should be properly
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vetted? Is not consultation an integral part of that? The debate has focused on secondary schools and large academies, but the Bill reaches down to the smallest village school. It is very important that no Tom, Dick or Harry—or Roman Abramovich—is able to take over a school without being properly vetted. That is another argument in favour of ballots, as local parents know what is going on in their area.

6.15 pm

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman identifies a fundamental difference of opinion between us, which leads me on to my final point. Last Friday, I attended a debate at the Harvard Business School. Professors spoke about educational problems in America and described precisely the same problems that have been identified this afternoon. In America, one option is known as the Edmonton model, by which schools are given complete independence to do as they like. The other model gives much more control to school boards. Under that model, outsiders have to be vetted carefully in exactly the way set out by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly).

In its wisdom, the Harvard Business School has determined that structure makes much less difference than the quality of a given head teacher. That may be the only element of my speech to find general agreement around the House. So why are we so obsessed with structure, when we know that it makes very little difference?

If we agree that the quality of the head teacher is crucial to a school’s success, why do we lack the confidence to give head teachers the power to run their schools as they want? They are the professionals: why do we in this Chamber think that we must always second-guess them? Why can we never trust the people who have been trained, at such expense, to run our schools?

Helen Jones: A school’s head teacher is crucial to its success, but he or she will not get every decision right. No human being does, so is that not why we need a series of checks and balances in the system? That includes giving parents a right to have a say, as it is their children’s future at stake. If there is to be a fundamental change in a school’s character, parents should be consulted. That is what I would want if my son’s school were involved, and I am sure that the same is true for other parents.

Mr. Leigh: Of course that is right, and it is why I want head teachers to be subject to governing bodies. I should be happy for those bodies to be elected by the parents of children attending the school, but I should also like the head teacher who reports to that governing body to have maximum freedom. I do not see why that statement should be regarded as too radical, or simply wrong.

The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) is right: head teachers are human and they will make mistakes, but we should let them. However, if a school does not deliver what parents want, those parents have some power. If a school’s success depends on students wanting to attend it—and I hope that we still believe in allowing money to follow the pupil—people
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will vote with their feet and the school will have to reform its ways. That is what real consumer choice is all about. It does not lie in this Chamber but in the millions of decisions that ordinary citizens make.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that head teachers already have considerable freedom in how they run their schools? That was started by the previous Conservative Government, but it has been continued by this Labour Government. Does he agree that the Bill offers head teachers new freedoms to bring in external partners to help them and the governors improve their schools still further?

Mr. Leigh: That is the hon. Lady’s third or fourth intervention, and all have been excellent and very loyal to the Bill. I wish her well, but she asks a question that is not my business. I am in favour of anything that gives head teachers more independence or more power to bring in external partners, and I approve of anything that gives them power to federate. I have no problem with any of that but, to get the Bill through the House, the Government have given more power to the Secretary of State rather than less. That is something that we should be worried about.

Annette Brooke: The hon. Gentleman and I both had the honour of attending the Harvard Business School lecture. He might also have pointed out that leadership at district level was identified as the most important factor. The role of the local education authority is critical in the Bill.

Mr. Leigh: It all goes to show that one’s views of a lecture are always subjective; one’s innate prejudices affect one’s approach. I thought that the lecturers presented two arguments: the Edmonton argument, to which I referred, of complete independence for schools, and the argument that local school boards should have a lot of control in achieving collaboration. At the end of the day, however, there was no overwhelming evidence that changing structures changed very much. I think that that is what the lecturers said, but if I am wrong I apologise to the hon. Lady and to them, although I am sure that they will not mind if I misquote them—they are very unlikely to read these words in any case.

In Committee and on Report, I have tried to set out my alternative structure for education. I realise that the Government will not pick up on it, but as my hon. Friends work out their education policy over the next 18 months, I hope that they might move towards a policy of all schools becoming independent charitable trusts, to fulfil the Prime Minister’s vision that all state schools should be genuinely independent.

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