Previous Section Index Home Page

The Government clearly saw the schools commissioner’s role as promoting trust schools and acting as their champion. In my view, that is a worthy endeavour and one that I fully support, particularly if one considers the educational forces ranged against the success and spread of trust schools. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has outlined some of the forces that are ranged against the success and spread of trust schools.

Evidence taken by the Education and Skills Committee on the White Paper demonstrated to me the considerable clout of the educational establishment. Its knee-jerk response is to oppose anything that might weaken its iron grip on what happens in schools or that increases its accountability to parents and children. I was thoroughly disheartened by some of the witnesses, who utterly failed to have an open mind about the progress and change that the White Paper and Bill could bring. Many of them simply see trust schools and the commissioner’s role as a threat to the status quo, which would be a reasonable or even worthy position, if the status quo had not failed so many of our children. My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has pointed out that 23 per cent. of schools are failing, which involves 1 million children, and that a similar percentage of schools are coasting.


23 May 2006 : Column 1400

The local education authorities and unions that we saw in the Education and Skills Committee were a particular disappointment, and it is likely that both will do all in their power to block progress to reforming and widening choice and diversity. We must not allow them to prevail, which is why I included a section in the Select Committee minority report on the White Paper calling on the Government to allow the schools commissioner to promote trust schools. As hon. Members will see from new clause 62, I believe that we must go further against the powerful educational forces ranged against the success of trust schools.

7.15 pm

I have not changed my view on the schools commissioner, and I am delighted that Conservative Front Benchers are thinking along similar lines. However, we may need to do more in government than appoint a single champion if trust schools are to succeed. I am therefore delighted that Conservative Front Benchers have tabled new clauses 21, 56, 57 and 58, which support the original thrust of the White Paper and should have been introduced by the Government. They would support and encourage a state-run independent school system. That was Lord Adonis’s original vision, which the Prime Minister clearly endorsed in the foreword to the White Paper:

That vision should not have been watered down, as the original approach in the White Paper would quickly have destroyed the appalling comprehensive system with which this country has been saddled for far too long. The watering down will mean that it will take longer to change that system, but I hope that the result will be the same. I also hope that Conservative Front Benchers push some of the new clauses to a vote tonight.

As I have said, we might require more than a champion to ensure that trust schools take root and flourish, as the odds are stacked against them. New clause 62 attempts to redress the balance with the LEAs and unions, which will do all that they can to stop trust schools succeeding and multiplying. The opposition from those groups could be formal or informal, like the opposition to grant-maintained schools. For example, we all know how some governing bodies are heavily influenced by LEA appointees—councillors and others who have similar objectives and motives.

If there are schools that are coasting or that are providing unsatisfactory education to pupils, why should not the Secretary of State order governing bodies to acquire foundation status? That process would not have to be undertaken in one school at a time. After bedding in, if the trusts are working, the Secretary of State may want to cut a swathe through underperforming schools. Trust schools would then largely replace bog standard comprehensive schools, and schools independent of the LEA would largely replace community schools. I want to see trust schools perform as it is hoped they will. There is every prospect that they will perform well, and we should therefore encourage and support them on their way.


23 May 2006 : Column 1401

Anne Snelgrove: Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the schools in the Reading authority—Kendrick, St. John’s, Caversham, All Saints and Churchend— that received outstanding Ofsted reports in the 2005-06 school year are bog standard? I do not think so. His LEA has worked very hard to improve all those schools in order to reach that level.

Mr. Wilson: I think that the hon. Lady should do her homework, as reciting grammar schools in support of her case is probably not the most intelligent thing for a Labour Member to do. I will certainly encourage and support schools in my constituency in setting up trust schools and improving choice and diversity among schools open to all pupils. Clause 56 will stop poor performing and backward-looking LEAs such as Reading from using surplus places as an excuse to prevent good schools from expanding or new schools coming into an area.

Finally, I turn to my amendment No. 111. New clause 33 sets out the conditions that an LEA must meet if the Secretary of State is not to veto its proposals for a new community school. Councils have the right to enter competitions to open a new community school, but they have to earn that right. Even those modest proposals are being opposed by the Local Government Association, along with Labour rebels and unions. I would rather that the Government had stuck to their original White Paper commitment that LEAs will be

That splitting of responsibility, which gives LEAs a role to champion parents and promote choice, was right when the White Paper was launched, and it is right now. I know that Labour attack dogs have needed to be thrown a bone, but weakening the commissioner-provider split in responsibility was not the right one to throw. The Secretary of State should accept new clause 57, which would restore the Bill to the position of the White Paper, but he has already said that he will reject it. The only saving grace is that the Secretary of State will have a veto, which at least tries to retain the integrity of Lord Adonis’ original thinking—after all, that is the essence of the Bill. I certainly cannot foresee any circumstances in which a new community school will be agreed by a Conservative Secretary of State—nor, I hope, a Labour one.

If the Government were to accept my amendment, which would reinforce their new clause 33, that would go some way towards ensuring that there is little likelihood of a new community school being set up. That would allow LEAs to focus on their tasks of promoting choice and diversity, mapping out what is needed in their area, ensuring that sufficient places are available, focusing efforts on school improvement partners, and running the competitions for new and replacement schools. Schools could then manage and run themselves while LEAs got on with less influential administration matters, which would mean that they were unable to damage our children’s educational prospects as they have previously.

I believe that that is what the Government ultimately want to achieve, but cannot say so as it will upset too many of their core supporters, not least a sizeable number of Labour MPs. However, the Government do want an end to a bog standard comprehensive education
23 May 2006 : Column 1402
system, just as much as Conservative Members do. That is what they want, and that is what they will ultimately get.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Wilson: I am just finishing.

However, the Government may wish to dress it up for the rebels and the educational establishment.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman clearly does not intend to give way.

Mr. Wilson: I wish the Bill every success.

Jon Trickett: I want to remind the House of precisely what happens when a community school becomes a trust and why it is so important that we agree to the new clauses on ballots, particularly new clause 23, which stands in my name.

When a governing body decides that a community school should become a trust, it is effectively a one-way street with no way back; it remains an irreversible decision in perpetuity. That is spelled out in clause 17. When a governing body decides that a community school should become a trust school—or a foundation school, as it is described in the Bill—the school that is established is removed from the local authority family in terms of admissions. As a result, a marketplace will begin to exist. That is the fundamental philosophical underpinning of the Bill. Parents and children will be turned into consumers as opposed to citizens in an active democracy.

The foundation school will determine its own ethos and, to some extent, curriculum. That again means moving away from the local authority family. Competition will develop between schools for those parents who are more mobile than others. A marketplace will come into existence and some schools will be seen to be successful while others fail. A discourse will come about whereby we begin to talk about mergers and acquisitions, profitable schools, failing schools and bankrupt schools. The language and practices of the stock exchange and the marketplace will enter into our state education provision. That is Labour Members’ fundamental objection to this operation. It will be a socially, ethnically and religiously divisive process whereby some schools and some generations of children, particularly from working class communities, will be left in schools that are destined to perish. I should have thought that that was anathema to any Labour education principle.

The assets—property, buildings, land and playing fields—that lay within the remit of the local authority will be removed from it and go into the foundation. It may interest Members who have not studied the Bill to know that local authority duties are covered in six lines which simply say that the local authority will promote diversity and parental choice, while 27 pages are to do with assets, property and buildings. That tells one about
23 May 2006 : Column 1403
the priorities that lie behind the Bill. Frankly, it is about asset disposal and a form of privatisation. That is a further reason why I believe that why we should support amendments that weaken it and reject it on Third Reading.

As I said, the process of moving from a community school or comprehensive to a foundation school is a one-way street with no way back. Indeed, the Bill expressly forbids the possibility that a trust, once established, can ever revert to being a community school. The Secretary of State accepted that in his impressive maiden speech in that role. Let us reflect on that irreversible process and how it is produced. How will a community school become a trust, or foundation, school? In the final analysis, it will be done by a simple majority vote of those governors present. I could have asked the Secretary of State what he thinks is the quorum for a governing body of a comprehensive, but I did not want to set him that test in case he did not know the answer. In fact, a third of the governing body comprises a quorum. It is therefore possible—almost probable—that in a governing body of, say, 24 people, with a quorum of eight, five governors could dispose of a comprehensive school that has served the community for 10, 20 or 30 years.

I accept that the Bill provides for obligations to consult but, ultimately, the decision is for the governing body, by simple majority. It is wholly inappropriate to allow five members out of a governing body of 24 to make an irreversible decision to put land and property outwith local authority use and take on an admissions policy in perpetuity to determine the ethos and character of the school. The least that we can ask from the Secretary of State is for a parental ballot so that it can be determined whether the 2,000 or probably more parents with children at the school want that irreversible process to begin. With all deference to the Secretary of State, five members of my hypothetical governing body could not outweigh the votes of thousands of parents.

7.30 pm

What arguments have been used this afternoon against holding such a ballot? The Opposition’s arguments have been a disgrace. I do not know if all my hon. Friends were present to hear it said that, if a ballot were held, groups of left-wing people might come together and argue the case. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is no longer in his place, developed another argument, which was that most parents would vote for the status quo, not many ballots would be won and we should not therefore hold them. There was an anarchist slogan, “If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it.” That argument has been reversed this afternoon. It was argued that, because parents would vote for a community school in a proper, organic relationship with its community rather than an ideological experiment in education, ballots should not be held. That argument is in Hansard for all to see.

Mr. Gibb: Of course, 1,100 ballots were won for the grant-maintained system. We oppose ballots for foundation schools because they will drive away many potential funders of trusts who do not want to engage in a highly politicised local campaign. They simply want to benefit schools and raise the standard of education.


23 May 2006 : Column 1404

Jon Trickett: The hon. Gentleman had another argument. He claimed that a ballot was divisive and would politicise the process. I shall deal with that shortly. However, if the substance of his argument is that we should be afraid of giving parents a choice in case the vested private interest, charitable interest or religious sect that may take over their school will be horrified at the prospect, that is fallacious. If those interests are so afraid of parents expressing a view about their appropriateness to govern the school, why on earth should we, as legislators, have any faith in their capacity to manage a school?

Mr. Gibb: I have every confidence that the ballots would be won. That is why 1,100 ballots were won in the process towards grant-maintained status. We are worried that the people who fund the charitable trusts do not want to engage in a campaign. It is not that they fear the result, but that they do not want to go through the process of having to engage in a highly politicised campaign that will drive away many charitable trusts.

Jon Trickett: If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, we should either keep those organisations in the dark, in some obscure room, so that a ballot can take place, or there cannot be a ballot because they have to be brought into the full light of day. If those private interests, sometimes backed by profit-making organisations, are so afraid of the light of day and holding a debate about their character and what they will bring to the school, why should we have any confidence in their capacity to govern the school?

Ian Stewart: My hon. Friend should not to listen to the siren voices on the other side of the Chamber who claim a great victory for 1,100 ballots for grant-maintained schools. There were many thousands of schools and the only reason why 1,100 voted for grant-maintained status was the previous Conservative Government’s use of a money bribe.

Jon Trickett: My hon. Friend makes the point and I do not need to add to it.

Other arguments have been presented against democracy and the ballots. It has been claimed that democracy is divisive, expensive and, worst of all, bureaucratic. I am ashamed to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State fell—I am sure by accident—into using some of those arguments. I am sure that he has a stronger case than the one that we heard. However, all those arguments were used against working men having the vote in the 19th century and against women having it in the 20th century. None of them stacks up in the 21st century, which must be about democracy, citizenship and devolution of power.

Helen Jones: One of the arguments against giving women the vote was that they were incapable of understanding the issues. That is exactly the argument that has been used about parents today.

Jon Trickett: Indeed. The same arguments were used to refute arguments in this place for the abolition of slavery.


23 May 2006 : Column 1405

Paul Farrelly: I am not sitting with my hon. Friend because I do not want to be called left-wing, which I have been labelled for the first time tonight. Labour Members have dealt with the objections about parents and the ballot. If the new clauses are viewed as establishing the principle of the ballot, it is clearly open to the Government to table amendments in the other place. However, worries have been expressed about the composition of governing bodies, and especially about whether parents are elected or co-opted governors. The Secretary of State has introduced a safeguard of 33 per cent., but when local authorities and properly independent governors are limited to 20 per cent, the safeguard may not be enough, especially in a case in which a trust in a failing school tries to cling on and manipulate matters so as not to admit failure. A ballot is an important safeguard of making the right choice in the first place.

Jon Trickett: Of course. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The three new clauses on ballots allow the Secretary of State to draw up regulations. If he was minded to accept the overwhelming arguments in favour of democracy, it is in his power to say so in his reply or reflect upon it and have amendments tabled in another place.

I feel that a spirit haunts the Chamber—that of the late, great right honourable Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I can imagine the expression on his face when he realised that there was another case of Members of both Front Benches agreeing. His face was a picture whenever that happened. He would say that

when Members of both Front Benches worked together. When their views coalesce around the idea of refusing democratic principles, one has to worry.

Meg Hillier: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jon Trickett: I shall not give way to a Member who has just come in.

All the arguments for citizens rather than consumers and for strategic planning rather than marketised distribution of services are arguments for a modern, social democratic state.

I urge all my hon. Friends to use their informed judgment on this matter. Many of them have sat here for hours making loyal interventions, but I would ask them to think about the arguments that have been made. The case against ballots has not been made. For once, for God’s sake, vote with your conscience.

Tom Levitt: The conventions of the House quite rightly allow that, in a debate on Report, those who have tabled amendments are called to speak first in the Back-Bench debate. I am sure that that is the only reason why we are four hours into the debate before the first speaker who is not supporting any of the amendments has been called. I accept that convention, but I think that it is worth putting that on record.

Jon Trickett: I tabled new clauses 17 and 23, and that is why I was called to speak.



Next Section Index Home Page