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We need not get bogged down by whether we are in favour of or against grammar schools; I am not interested in that. All I am interested in is that schools be allowed to hire and fire, select and deselect and run their budgets as they please. That does not mean that there will be a rush of new super-selective schools. Many people, not just the middle classes but people stuck in working-class ghettoes, favour diversity. To refer again to the US, where voucher schemes are being introduced in many
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states, it is often black parents in poor neighbourhoods who favour education credits and vouchers as a means of escaping from the ghetto.

I realise that I have not yet persuaded my Front-Bench colleagues to adopt education credits but I live in hope that that day will come, because it is an obvious and inescapable way of breaking down the social apartheid in education. Why does this country alone among European countries have such a large private education sector? It does not exist in France, Germany, Italy or Spain, so does not that lead Labour Members to question the economic rationale? Private education is not illegal in France, Spain or Germany, so why do as many as 50 per cent. of parents in some of our boroughs feel that the only way to obtain a decent education for their kids is either to get a chit from the parish priest so that the child can go to a faith school or to pay for independent schools?

Why do the conservatives sitting on the Labour Benches below the Gangway believe that so many parents want to opt out of state education or want to escape from community schools to faith schools? What is the reason? Education is failing in this country because we do not have sufficient trust and faith in the ability of head teachers to run schools as they want. All my amendments were tabled in the hope of achieving that. None of them will be accepted, but one day I believe that we shall win that crusade.

Mr. Chaytor: I support new clause 16, proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) in favour of ballots, and I want briefly to speak in support of the three amendments tabled in my name.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a powerful case in his opening statement for the Bill as it now stands. I shall support it on Third Reading because it is in much better shape than we were led to believe would be the case when the White Paper was published. Its long-term and short-term effects will actually be slightly less than its most fervent advocates hoped and its fiercest opponents feared. It will not be earth-shattering legislation but it has many important provisions, especially on school discipline, the reform of the curriculum, school travel and school meals, quite apart from the changes in governance and structure, which will be beneficial.

I shall support new clause 16 because I tabled an amendment on similar lines in Committee; it was not put to the vote, but the arguments were valid. However, I approach the question of ballots from a slightly different point of view. I start from the Education Reform Act 1988. It is interesting that a number of Conservative speakers, including Front-Bench Members, now accept that their ballot system, introduced under that Act, was a mistake. But had that legislation not included provision for ballots, what would have been the position of the Labour Opposition at the time? Would we have accepted that it was entirely legitimate for a simple majority in a governing body to opt out of the local authority, with the huge additional resources that went with that, without further consultation with parents? Of course not.

We thought that the ballot process in the 1988 Act was necessary. We participated in many ballots across the country and ensured that fierce local debate took
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place. We also ensured that when the result of the ballot had been announced it settled the issue, because the ballot conferred legitimacy.

I take a slightly different view because I do not fully accept the argument that new clause 16 would reduce the number of schools that will opt for trust status. The advantage of a ballot is that it would encourage much better-informed debate about the implications of transfer to trust status. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who made an interesting speech, pointed out that people are naturally conservative and reluctant to change. That is a reasonable generalisation when the status quo is acceptable, but when it is not, and when parents are conscious of difficulties in respect of their children’s education or the capacity of their school, they are very open to alternative ways forward. That is why the use of a ballot would provide far better-informed local debate and would not necessarily result in a reduced number of schools taking that route.

In the short term, I do not think there will be a huge wave of new trust schools. I am not opposed to the concept. We already have foundation schools, although few people seemed to know that they existed before the White Paper was published, and nobody has ever argued that we should abolish them, so I can see no great objection to having more of them, if it is the outcome of serious local debate and there is general agreement that they are a useful way forward.

It has been argued that the ballot is a distraction or somehow not legitimate, and that other forms of consultation are preferable. Of course, it is important that there are other forms of consultation and that the ballot is not free-standing. My reading of new clause 16 is that the ballot would be a precondition for transfer to trust status but that it would not inevitably result in such a move, precisely because there would be other forms of consultation. The local authority would have the right to be consulted and to refer the matter to the adjudicator and neighbouring schools would also have the right to be consulted.

It is important that we maintain the basic principle of one parent, one vote, but that there is also another set of procedures for consultation. As I said in Committee, in response to Conservative amendments that would have allowed 50 parents to demand that a new school be built, I am not at all in favour of small numbers of parents, who may not be representative, sidetracking or hijacking normal democratic procedures. However, where such proper procedures are built into the system, they give greater weight to decisions.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to one of my proposals, new clause 44, which provides that before a decision on trust status is taken, there should at least be a parents’ meeting. He expressed interest in that suggestion, so I hope that he might accept the new clause when he responds to the debate. However, it seems ironic and illogical that at precisely the moment at which we are relieving governing bodies of the burden of holding an annual parents’ meeting—because we know that the experience of annual parents’ meetings has been less than satisfactory and that the attendance is almost derisory—we are arguing that an annual parents’ meeting is a better means of resolving the issues than a ballot. I see the parents’ meeting as another part of a package of measures that would make
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up the consultation procedure. That package would include a ballot and consultation with the local authority and neighbouring schools.

6.30 pm

Ms Angela C. Smith: One of the most controversial and difficult decisions that a school governing body ever has to take is the decision to close a school. That is also a situation in which parents become conservative and resistant to change. Does my hon. Friend recommend ballots in those situations as well? Is that not the logical conclusion of his argument?

Mr. Chaytor: In the case of school closure, it is entirely reasonable that a ballot should be part of the overall decision-making process. We are not talking about school closures at the moment, but, yes, I agree. Denying parents a vote on an issue of central importance will inevitably lead to greater division and a lower level of legitimacy for the final decision. The weakness in the argument that schools or governing bodies may choose to have a ballot, but it will not be mandatory, is that we then face the prospect of a series of different kinds of ballot being held according to different kinds of rules. If we have a democracy, everybody should play by the same rules. We cannot have school A holding a ballot with a particular definition of the electorate and according to a particular procedure, and school B, a mile down the road, doing things differently. That would be a recipe for chaos and would lead to challenges. It would be a huge job creation programme for the schools adjudicator’s office. There will be hundreds of appeals to the adjudicator if we do not ensure that consensus is at the heart of the process and if we allow a comparatively small number of people on a small governing body to have the final say—perhaps by a tiny majority.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Does my hon. Friend agree that many of us already have experience of consultation without ballots in the context of the establishment of academies in our constituencies? I know from my own experience that that so-called consultation involved professional consultants, a lot of money and a professional selling job. I hope that he would agree that that sort of consultation is based on no real understanding of the issues and no real say for parents, and that there is really no alternative to proper information, proper debate and a vote.

Mr. Chaytor: That is the heart of my argument: the ballot process ensures that the decision is made on the basis of the best possible information. It ensures that everything is on the table and that, after the decision has been taken, nobody can say that they were not consulted or that the arguments were not presented properly.

New clause 38 deals with the question of the Secretary of State’s veto and simply requires that the Secretary of State has to have regard to standards as the key criterion before giving his or her approval. New clause 33 deals with many of the concerns that Labour Members, in particular, had about the Secretary of State’s role and veto. The model put forward of local authorities in different categories being able to make their own bids for new community schools is absolutely
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right. As I think was said earlier, we hope that, as time goes by, more local authorities will move out of the lowest categories, so logically there should be less need for the Secretary of State to exercise the veto. I am therefore comparatively happy that the Secretary of State has responded to those concerns.

I want to say a word or two about new clause 48, which relates to the register. Having listened to what was said earlier, I am not sure that there is very much difference between a register that is compiled in advance and a website compiled retrospectively. The two sides are moving very close together. However, just as the ballot ultimately serves to legitimise the policy and to protect those who argue the case for it, the register serves to legitimise the policy by giving a guarantee—as far as the Government can give that guarantee—that a trust on the register is a suitable trust. The register also protects the Government.

I ask the Minister to think of the tabloid hysteria in the week before this year’s municipal elections. What would happen if, in the week before next year’s municipal elections or the general election in three or perhaps four years’ time, we had similar tabloid hysteria because one individual in one trust that had not been properly vetted in advance by the Department, but had nevertheless formed a relationship with a school, had been involved in one of the activities that the guidance proscribes? I am talking about tobacco, gambling and various other things. If we found ourselves in that situation, not only would the trust policy be undermined, because it would be seen to have led to inappropriate people becoming involved in schools, but the Government would be undermined. The argument for the register is that it protects the Government as well as the policy.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: My intervention relates to ballots. Will my hon. Friend explain why, in the context of the decision, he is giving so much weight to local parents who currently have children at the school? They may have a child at that school for only three, four or five months. Why do their views outweigh the desires of the wider community, including child care partnerships, the local authority and parish councils?

Mr. Chaytor: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, there are limitations with any electorate. The reason for being part of that electorate can be greater or lesser. However, although some parents at the school may not have a long-term interest in it—having said that, parents of children in year 11 may have children about to join the school in year 7—the same argument could equally apply to the governing body. There will be people on the governing body who may no longer be governors in three or six months’ time. We have to accept that, whoever is given the job of taking the decision, there will be some difficulties and anomalies of the kind that she has identified.

Margaret Moran: Will my hon. Friend explain how the parents of children in schools in my constituency that feed into South Luton high school, which has been a failing school for many years, can have the influence that they want to improve that school, either as a trust school or as an academy? Surely those parents have a
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right to influence the decision. Their children will be going to that school and those children’s future education is at stake.

Mr. Chaytor: I entirely agree, but it then becomes a matter for the governing bodies of the feeder primary schools to decide whether they wish to hold a ballot and provide that level of consultation with parents. My argument is that no one group should have a veto or supreme power. The issue is about getting the right checks and balances between the rights and responsibilities of parents, school governors and the local authority, and of parents and governors in neighbouring schools. I return to my point that, as I read new clause 16, the ballot is a precondition for the move to trust status, but does not automatically lead to trust status, because that decision will be dependent on the wider forms of consultation, as well.

Paul Farrelly: I am glad that my hon. Friend supports the new clause in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), which will be put to a vote later. I have carefully read the new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and they are excellent. They are well drafted and make powerful points. They have attracted a great many signatures from Labour Members. Which out of new clause 38, new clause 44, new clause 48 and the consequential amendment No. 96 does he intend to push to a vote later tonight?

Mr. Chaytor: None of them, for the reasons that I gave earlier.

Let me make my final point on new clause 16. When a school has been in difficulties, we must assume that its governing body has not been entirely effective—I do not want to make any stronger criticism than that. We know that many governing bodies throughout the land, of both primary and secondary schools, are not entirely effective. Is it not completely illogical that the decision about a transfer to trust status should be put in the hands of the people who were responsible for the decline of the school in the first place? We must return to the point that no one group of people should either have a veto, or be solely responsible for taking the decision. Such a decision could have an impact on many people and, perhaps, throughout a whole local authority because other schools would have to be involved. We must consider current parents and future parents with children coming through from primary schools. All voices must be heard, but a requirement to hold a ballot of parents in the school that is most directly and immediately involved should be paramount.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): It was a pleasant and unusual experience to speak on Second Reading, because I was able to support an education White Paper that had been put forward by a Labour Government and vote in favour of a Bill that largely, although not entirely, lived up to the expectations of that White Paper. It was certainly most unusual to find myself voting in a parliamentary majority of well over 300 for an education Bill because, regrettably, education has probably been one of the most divisive political topics that the House has contemplated over many years. I could not help reflecting on how much
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the Ministers who embarked on the process of public service reform in various areas during the late 1980s and early 1990s would have wished for such an emerging consensus on the principles that we were progressing. We would no doubt have got a lot further by now if we had not had many years of dispute and—when the Labour party first got back into office—retreat, before getting back more or less to where we started.

Despite the consensus, when the Bill went into Committee I was worried about how much the Government would retreat from what they had put forward. Of course, I welcome parliamentary discussion of a Bill’s details. I always welcome it when Governments of any complexion make concessions in response to arguments that have persuaded them, but the process for this Bill was must unusual. Governments are normally most inclined to make changes to legislation when their usual parliamentary majority is squeezed, and they thus feel under pressure and in need of restoring support. However, the proposals that the Prime Minister wished to get through the House of Commons were supported by an overwhelming majority, but the Government were obliged to enter into horse-trading with, and to make concessions to, a significant minority of their Back Benchers, most of whom opposed the principles of reform as a whole.

After considering the amendments, I share the judgment of my right hon. and hon. Friends who speak from the Front Bench that the Government have not retreated too far and the essential virtues of the Bill remain, so I will continue to support it. However, new clause 33 shrieks of compromise and is a long way away from the Prime Minister’s stated preference, which I take to be that set out in the White Paper—that local authorities should steadily move towards encompassing more of a commissioning role and stop thinking of themselves solely as the providers of services. But there we are—the proposal looks workable and no doubt the guidance and regulations could be amended by a future Government if it turns out to give rise to practical problems, so I am quite content.

As I have agreed with everything that has been said by Conservative Members, I will confine myself to making the point that induced me to participate in the debate. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to continue until the end of the Bill’s legislative process to resist strongly the arguments in favour of ballots that are supposed to determine the extent of progress. I like to look forward on these subjects, so I will try not to burden the House too much with my past experience—but I think that I was one of the Ministers who were right in the middle of what I regard as the experiment of balloting on such changes that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The experience was unhappy and divisive and did this country’s education system no service, so I really do not think that we should go back to it.

Ian Stewart: Why is it that Members who argue against balloting do not have the eyes to see, or the ears to hear, that what was divisive was the principle of the proposals in the first place?

6.45 pm

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: It turned out that balloting was used as an excuse to try to wreck the principles underlying the reform, as I shall briefly explain. I will
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not repeat the principles on which the majority consensus in the House agrees. We are looking for a better form of localism in so far as structure is relevant to improving the quality of service, although I agree with all those who have expressed reservations about whether structural reform in itself can guarantee success. There are more important factors, but such reform is an important contributor nevertheless. We are moving back towards a situation in which we are striving to give people who deliver services at the local level more autonomy, discretion and control over what they can provide. We are trying to determine whether we can introduce a greater diversity of providers and have some competition among them, because we think that the process will thus become more consumer-oriented and, in the case of education, that parents will get used to the feeling that they are able to exercise more choice and real influence over the schools that they choose when they get into the education system.

Kenneth Baker—now my noble Friend Lord Baker—embarked us on such a process in 1988. However, that was part of a whole package of reform. We had grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges. In the health service we had NHS trusts and GP fundholding practices. We also had housing action trusts. All those things followed the same underlying principles of localising and moving towards more local discretion and a greater diversity of supply. We did not have ballots for most of those proposals—when we started out, we were not advocating local ballots for any of them. We had ballots on housing action trusts and grant-maintained schools, but my recollection is that that was not the intention of the Government in whom I served when we first put the proposals forward. I recall that we were defeated in both cases by the House of Lords, which insisted that when setting up housing action trusts, which took the management of housing out of local authority control—they achieved great improvements in many cases—or allowing schools to take up grant-maintained status, the matter should be subject to a ballot.

I am sure that the arguments that then appealed to their lordships were very similar to the reasonable-sounding arguments that have been put forward by the hon. Members for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan). The arguments are, “We’re all democrats. Why can’t we have an intelligent local discussion? If the reforms are so attractive, surely you’ll find that the proposals will be carried forward by the people who will benefit from them. What are you frightened of?” Their lordships were attracted by that democratic appeal—such appeals usually attract them on any argument except that concerning their own status and composition—and we were rather unsure whether we had an adequate majority to overturn them, so away we went with ballots built into the proposals.

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