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23 May 2006 : Column 1406

Tom Levitt: That was exactly my point. I was not arguing against the convention. It is quite right that the people who have tabled amendments should speak first. I was simply explaining why it had taken four hours to call someone who had not tabled an amendment. So I am not getting at my hon. Friend —not yet.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the intervention made on him by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) was pretty fatuous. The hon. Gentleman said that the trust backers would not want a ballot because they would not want to be involved in a campaign. But trusts do not have to have funds. In fact, we do not anticipate that they would have them, so that argument does not arise.

Equally, the scenario that my hon. Friend described for half his speech about five governors making an irrevocable decision about the future of a school could not arise either. One of the things that many Labour Members have been doing—either front of house or backstage—over the past few weeks is to try to get back into the Bill greater authority and responsibility for the local education authorities. And one provision that we have got back into it is that the local authority would have to decide whether the consultation had been legitimate and genuine. I cannot imagine any local authority in the country accepting as legitimate or genuine the scenario that my hon. Friend has been describing. It would therefore be ruled out. My hon. Friend is not listening to me, but he can read what I have said in Hansard tomorrow.

I want to tackle the issue of ballots head on. Contrary to the impression that some hon. Members have given, the Bill will not ban ballots. It will not prevent schools or governing bodies from holding ballots if they wish to do so. Nor does it say that, if they do hold ballots, they should organise them in a particular way. I remember only one such ballot being held. There was only one ballot on a grant-maintained school in my constituency, and only one primary school in my constituency became grant maintained. The ballot had a majority of one. That was one of the last schools to become grant maintained so, fortunately, it had one of the shortest careers as a GM school. However, the ballot was binding, and it was carried by a majority of one parent, making that school become grant maintained. That could not happen under the provisions of the Bill, because the local authority will now have a veto if it does not consider the ballot to have been properly conducted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) told us in an intervention that a ballot would protect us from the organisations with the most money, the most eloquence and the most force dominating the debate. That could not possibly happen in a ballot, could it? Yes, of course it could, and it happened in GM ballots time after time.

Helen Jones: My hon. Friend is missing the point that the new clauses include a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations on ballots. It would therefore be possible for the Secretary of State to regulate the amount of spending and the amount of material that could be put out.

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Tom Levitt: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I think that my hon. Friend has unintentionally misrepresented the point that I was trying to make earlier. I said that, without ballots, it is possible—as I have seen in an academy in my constituency—to employ very well paid professional consultants to carry out consultations. My point was that that kind of so-called consultation is no more than a selling job, and that, when important decisions are taken about the educational structure that will govern the schools in which our children are educated, we want properly informed debate and, at the end of the process, a vote.

7.45 pm

Tom Levitt: Apart from that last clause, I accept the point that my hon. Friend has made. Indeed, I also accept the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) made earlier. However, their points do not detract from my argument, because schools considering trust status could still hold ballots if they so wished.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North mentioned regulations. In a sense, that is where the problem arises. In an earlier intervention, I asked who should be balloted. There seems to be consensus that it should be the parents of the children currently in the school, because that is the easiest way of doing it. It is not necessarily the right way, but it is the easiest. So the ballot would include the parents of children who were just about to leave, yet it would exclude the parents of children just about to join the school. Why not include the parents of children at the feeder schools? Why not include the children at the school in the consultation, particularly if it were a secondary school? Why not include all the stakeholders in the education system? In my constituency, every secondary school is already a specialist school, and there are partners—in some cases private sector partners—to be considered as well. Their opinion also needs to be taken on board.

However, at the end of the day, under the Bill, it will be the local authority that decides whether the consultation was appropriate and valid, and whether the conclusions drawn by the governors were consistent with the process and content of the consultation that has taken place.

David Taylor: I am listening with interest to the points that my hon. Friend is making. Is he about to refute the fundamental principle of the new clauses, and to describe why the requirement for a ballot—and for the governing body to observe its result—is so fatally flawed?

Tom Levitt: I have explained why a ballot should not be binding. As I understand it, new clause 16 does not require the ballot to be binding. There are many types of ballot that could be used, to ballot different stakeholder groups and so on, but whatever type of consultation is used, the local authority will have an obligation to decide that it has been demonstrably valid, inclusive and appropriate.

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Some of us have fought long and hard, behind the scenes as well as in front, to re-establish the role of local authorities in the Bill, in a way that it was not on Second Reading. I think that we have done a good job, and that Ministers have listened and been sympathetic. A requirement that ballots should be binding flies in the face of that progress because it would undermine the role of the local authority envisaged in the Bill. It would give the local authority less power to implement the obligations that the Bill places on it to improve schools, which is its prime function. If the local authority were cut out of that process, as the amendment proposes, the procedure would simply not be worth doing.

I remind colleagues on the Labour Benches that we have received a letter today from the Labour group of the Local Government Association, which says:

That letter does not advocate support for any particular amendments that have been tabled. I urge Members to get behind the Bill. It is a far better Bill than it was, so let us ensure that it gets on to the statute book without any unnecessary division.

Barbara Keeley: Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), I want to speak briefly against the proposals to make parental ballots compulsory.

The method of consulting stakeholders, including parents, should be decided locally, subject to the guidance of the Secretary of State or the regulations described in clause 8. I say that from my experience as the council cabinet member with responsibility for education in Trafford. The time that I served in that capacity led me to understand that the range of those who should be involved in the establishment or change of status of a school is necessarily wide. Of the local schools, the feeder schools especially have a key role, and leaving them out of the decision making would not be appropriate. As for schools in nearby local authority areas, Trafford was particularly affected by children coming in from Manchester and Salford. Sometimes the borders were such that a catchment area of a quarter or half a mile took one into Manchester or Salford. The effects of such boundaries are an important consideration. Organisations such as dioceses, learning and skills councils, FE colleges and child care organisations, as were mentioned earlier, all have a role to play, especially as schools develop their functions. They ought to be consulted and weight should be attached to their views.

It is not right that a parental ballot should be either compulsory or the major deciding factor. That could leave the development of a school open to campaigns by small but vocal groups. Other Members have reflected on the fact that parents have an interest in a school only for the period that their child is at the school. In response to the trust model in the Bill, the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations stated:

It continued:

Having spent several years as a local education authority governor in both a primary and secondary school, I always found that the parent governors with whom I worked tended to have that narrow focus. That is not appropriate. It is not a wide enough body of people to make a decision about a change of status. The focus of that governing body is too short-term to take a long-term decision about a change in a family of schools. Those who should be involved in such decisions include affected feeder schools, schools in neighbouring authorities, dioceses, FE colleges and staff. They should all have a say, because the decision is important to all of them.

As for the main thrust of school changes, young people aged 11 to 16 cannot wait, yet there has been much debate about process and things that would take many months to implement. On behalf of those young people, and particularly the children in my constituency, I want to see improvement from which they can benefit start soon. One high school in my constituency achieved GCSE pass rates this year of 74 per cent. Another school in my constituency, however, has been in special measures, and achieved a pass rate of only 20 per cent. I want to close that gap. I want to see improved and better-performing secondary schools in my constituency and generally.

With other Labour Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), I recently visited schools in Stockholm. We visited a municipal school and a free school. The latter is similar to a foundation or trust school as defined in the Bill. We felt—and I am sure that most Members would agree—that both schools seemed to work well. The young people at both schools were confident and enjoying their schools. The schools were different, however, and would probably suit different types of children. Stockholm’s council cabinet member, in reply to our questions, said that the Social Democrats there would not change back from the system of free schools, as they had brought innovation and choice, which had caused improvements in the municipal schools in response.

We need the possibility of innovation and improvement in our secondary schools. That must be accompanied by wide consultation, which will develop the consensus required. That is the way forward.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): As I have listened to the debate, I have felt like an outsider intruding on a family row. The debate has really been between the two warring factions of the family on the Labour Benches.

However, while the Bill will not apply to Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland has not had trust schools, it has had a body of schools with some degree of autonomy—voluntary grammar schools. Those have
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been subject to some local control, with the greatest control resting with the boards of governors and the headmasters who run those schools. That flexibility has been beneficial in making decisions. On Second Reading, the Democratic Unionist party supported the Government in their aim to increase the degree of diversity and autonomy where schools decided that they wished to have that. I am pleased that the Prime Minister and the Government have not been influenced by the forces on their Back Benches who wish to see substantial changes made to the Bill.

As the debate has progressed, it has become clear that the argument about the local ballot has really been an argument about how those who know that they are likely to lose today’s debate can find some way of thwarting the main elements of the Bill when it is implemented locally. The ballot is seen to be the means by which that will be done. [Hon. Members: “It is called democracy.”] Hon. Members may say that, but in what system of democracy would such fundamental change, especially that which is designed to improve the quality of education for youngsters and have a dramatic impact on their lives, be subject to such a veto? Let us not forget that the argument about the ballot is really about placing a veto in the hands of one narrowly defined group of stakeholders—the parents of youngsters currently at the school. That is what would happen were the new clause to be accepted. Such a small group of people should not be handed the right to exercise a veto on something that would lead to such fundamental and, I believe, advantageous change.

As some Members have pointed out, should not parents of children who might attend the school in future be involved? Should not parents of children who have not currently chosen the school but who might choose it were there a change of status also be involved? Why are they excluded? Why should we focus on such a narrow group of people and give them a veto? The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) did not tell us the reason why a veto should be given to people to change the nature of a school when the same veto would not be given to people on a more dramatic decision such as the closure of an unsustainable school. We would not dream of giving parents that veto, and it would not be practical to do so. However, those Members who tabled the amendments say that a veto should be given on a decision much less fundamental than that.

Paul Farrelly: The hon. Gentleman is speaking from long experience of wielding a veto in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that if the principle of a ballot of parents—which is not perfect, for many of the reasons that have been advanced—is conceded, it is open to the Government to table further amendments in the other place that address all the consultees that my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) has mentioned? That would infinitely improve the process.

Sammy Wilson: According to my understanding of the Bill, parents will have the right to be consulted, as will others. The result of all that consultation must be collated, and a final decision must then be made. First, it must be established that a proper consultation process has been undertaken. Secondly, it must be established that all the arguments have been weighed
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up. After that, the change can be effected. In my view, that constitutes a much better safeguard than a provision allowing one narrow stakeholder group to have the right of veto.

8 pm

My second point was made earlier by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). This will become a battleground. I do not want to intrude on another family embarrassment for the Labour party, but already, whether we like it or not, difficulties will have arisen for people who would have made money available for academies and the like. Those backers will already be reluctant to support some of the trust schools. Why should we place yet another barrier in their path, in the form of a fight over whether the status of schools should be changed?

If this is indeed a good change, I want as few barriers as possible to be placed in the way of it. I think that the ballot would be divisive. Whether we like it or not, there are substantial forces ranged against the change. As usual, the teachers unions are on the wrong side of the argument. Local authorities, who will have a stake in the issue, will take a particular view. The argument will tend to be one-sided in many areas, and much more resources will be available to those who do not want change. Many of those who wish to engage in the foundation system will simply want to improve youngsters’ education, rather than becoming involved in a political debate or a political fight.

David Taylor: Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the views of the great and the good on the governing bodies should override hundreds, perhaps thousands, of views expressed by parents? I used to chair the governing body of a large school before I became an MP. The views of 1,600 students and possibly 3,000 parents might provide an overwhelming feedback on a trust school application, but it might be ignored just as though they were bolshie police authorities that did not want to be reorganised.

Sammy Wilson: That is an exaggeration, for the simple reason that the views of parents must be collected. The governing body’s views will of course carry some weight as well, but, as has been said, the local authority will also be able to adjudicate, and to decide whether the balance of the argument has been correct. There is already a safeguard. Ultimately, however, if a governing body has identified deficiencies in a school that it has not been able to remedy with the existing resources and within the existing structure, of course it should have a large say in whether there should be a move to a new arrangement that could solve the school’s difficulties.

Earlier, we heard the enticing argument that a ballot somehow conferred a veneer of respectability and allowed an element of democracy to become involved. I do not believe that that will apply in this case. I do not believe that democratic rights should be handed to one particular group. For that reason, we shall be voting with the Government on the Bill.

Alan Johnson: I shall be brief. We have had a vigorous and extremely interesting debate on an
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important group of new clauses and amendments. I believe that we have established a satisfactory procedure for community schools. I hope that my points about diversity, which have been written on to the record and will be in regulations, will satisfy Members—including my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), who I know feels strongly about the issue.

The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) raised some important points about safeguards. She said that the nine safeguards that I had listed were not in the Bill. Some are not in the Bill, but they are in statutory guidance and in regulations, which makes them very important. Four of them are in the Bill. The community cohesion provision will be there, if our new clause is carried. The provision for trust schools to be maintained schools is already there. The provision for trustees not to be involved in inappropriate activities is in statutory guidance, and the fact that trusts are incorporated charities, with all the safeguards that that involves, is in the Bill.

The hon. Lady mentioned governors, and in particular, Criminal Records Bureau checks. Certain categories of person are disqualified from being school governors and will be disqualified from being trustees—for instance, those who have been banned from working with children or young persons—and enhanced checks will apply in all those cases.

Let me now deal with what has become the central issue—ballots. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) made an entertaining and good-natured speech about that. I believe that it has been blown up out of all proportion to the issue with which I was trying to deal when I tabled our new clauses and amendments. Talk about Wilberforce and slavery and women’s suffrage suggests that we have gone just a teeny bit over the top.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) is not present, but in an intervention earlier he paraphrased Neil Kinnock, saying that a Labour Secretary of State would disgracefully overrule an elected local authority by referring matters to the schools commissioner. That will not happen: nothing will be referred to the schools commissioner. While we are on the subject, let me add that local authorities will take on new powers as a result of the Bill. When the schools organisation committee, which currently makes a number of decisions, is disbanded, those decisions will be made by the local authority.

The main issue, however, is whether in all circumstances trusts must ballot parents, and whether that is really central to the democratic process. Unlike Opposition Members, I do not argue that it will be open to left-wing groups to influence debate. My argument is perfectly rational: it is for the local governing body to consult. It must ensure that the consultation is fair, and the local authority will have a role in ensuring that it has been conducted properly and has reflected the views expressed. It may or may not decide to do that by means of a ballot.

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