Previous Section Index Home Page

I am slightly concerned about the separation of foundation special schools from other foundation schools. It seems that the amendments would allow a
2 Nov 2006 : Column 534
local authority to change the type of special educational needs for which a school has been organised. I do not imagine that a charity specialising in one form of special education would sponsor a trust school if there were a risk that the local authority would change the type of SEN that it offered. However, this is an improvement on the Bill’s original wording, which implied that a local authority could end SEN provision altogether at a special school. I hope that the Government will make it clear, in guidance and regulations, the circumstances in which changing the type of SEN provision in a school would be acceptable.

Lords amendment No. 13 restricts the right of governing bodies to publish foundation proposals in the case of voluntary schools or existing foundation schools. That ensures that schools ask permission from their faith groups, foundations or dioceses before they propose to become foundation schools, or change the instrument of government to allow a majority of governors to be foundation governors. The amendment therefore strengths the oversight of faith groups and existing foundations over the control of the schools that they serve. It means that no existing voluntary school could become a trust school without seeking proper permission. Given the historic role that the Churches have played in the development of such schools, that seems a reasonable proposition. Lords amendment No. 90 supplements it by specifically amending the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure.

Lords amendments Nos. 17 to 23 concern the removal of foundations under clause 24. Lords amendment No. 20 ensures that the governing body makes arrangements for the transfers of assets and lands when a foundation is removed before publishing proposals to remove the foundation. Clearly if a trust provided a school with resources, it would be extremely unwise for the school to attempt to remove the trust if it would lead to the return of all those assets to the original owners. The amendment will make schools think carefully before removing the foundation by ensuring that they are fully aware of the financial consequences. Again, we support the amendment.


Clause 32 imposes certain requirements on the foundations of trust schools. In particular, it ensures that the foundations are charitable and it allows for charity trustees to be disqualified in accordance with the regulations that we saw in Committee, such as when trustees have criminal convictions, or when teachers are on list 99. Lords amendment No. 24 clarifies which type of school this clause applies to. The clause applies to any foundation school or foundation special school with a foundation, subject to three conditions, A, B and C.

Amendment (a) in the name of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) amends condition B. Condition B states that the section applies to a foundation school with a foundation where it acquired the foundation under this Bill, or where it is an existing foundation school with a foundation whose instrument of government is altered under this Bill to provide for the majority of governors to be foundation governors. Is that clear so far?

The amendment would replace the words “the majority” with “a component”. I believe that the
2 Nov 2006 : Column 535
amendment is probably technically flawed. It is clear from subsection (1) of the Government amendment that clause 32 applies only to foundation schools having a foundation. Such schools will already have “a component” of foundation governors on the governing body. There is no question, therefore, of an alteration of the instrument of government leading an existing foundation school with a foundation to “become” such a school. If anything, this amendment removes existing foundation schools with a foundation from the requirements of clause 32 where they decide that a majority of the governing body should be foundation governors. So there we are.

Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 28 relate to parents councils. Amendment No. 27 in particular allows parents to invite people other than parents of current pupils on to the parent council. It also provides that parent members must consent to the appointment of a non-parent member, and that parents must still form a majority on the council. This is a welcome amendment, because it recognises the role that schools can play within communities and communities can play within schools. In faith schools, in particular, it would be extremely beneficial if representatives of the faith within the community could play a meaningful role on the parents council, particularly where, for religious reasons, such people may not have children of their own.

Amendments Nos. 48 to 51 propose that the Secretary of State consult the local education authority and the governing body of the school before deciding to appoint additional governors. Again, this is welcome. Originally, the Secretary of State would have to have consulted only in the case of voluntary aided schools, and in this case only the Diocese or the person who appointed the foundation governors. Now the Bill will make it clear that the Secretary of State should consult in all cases, and should also consult the local authority and governing body of the school.

According to the Minister in the other place, this already reflects best practice on the part of the Government. I welcome this amendment, which will mean that the foundation of a trust school is given the same rights as the foundation of a voluntary aided school.

Sarah Teather: I wish to speak to our amendment to Lords amendment No. 24, which takes us neatly off the subject of God, which has occupied us all afternoon. I hope that we will be able to be a lot quicker now.

The Government, and the whole House, will be aware that throughout the passage of the Bill we have opposed measures that allow a foundation to appoint a majority of school governors and, therefore, to reduce the component of directly elected parent governors. We see this as a question of accountability and principle. The Government’s position seems to fly in the face of much of their rhetoric about parent power. We entirely accept the analysis of the school swot from the Conservative Front Bench, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), that our amendment is not perfect and does not achieve all the things that we seek. But we are bound by the rules of this stage of the legislative process, which mean that we can amend only the amendments that are in play. We have sought to do that because it is an issue of
2 Nov 2006 : Column 536
considerable principle to us and because we want the Government to respond to our concerns.

The Government’s answer to our protests about the decrease in the number of elected parent-governors is usually twofold. First, they argue that foundationscan appoint parent-governors. But it should be transparently obvious, especially in a place such as this House, that appointment is not a good enough solution, in contrast to a directly elected democratic mandate, which is always preferable and much more powerful.

The Government’s second answer is usually that the school will be required to set up a parent council. but, of course, such councils are advisory, not decision making. However, perhaps the greatest irony is that, within the group of amendments, the Government are allowing parent councils to appoint people other than parents.

I accept the point of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about the need to involve the community and people of other faiths in the governance of a school, but I am unsure whether a parent council is the place to do that. That is surely a matter for the governing body or other users or advisory panels. The parent council has that name because it is supposed to involve parents at the school.

I understand that the Government recognise the difficulties that many schools find in appointing the right number of parents to a parent council, but they cannot then argue that the measures in the Bill meet our other concerns.

Jim Knight: The crucial point on this amendment is that the parents will decide who those other people will be, so it is still the parents council, because they decide who sits on their council.

Sarah Teather: That is a welcome clarification, although I am not sure that it meets my original concern about the lack of directly elected parent governors involved in the governance and decision making of the school. My point is simply that the Government normally make the argument that all of our concerns are met elsewhere in the Bill, and they are not met elsewhere in the Bill. If anything, with the passage of time, this situation has got worse.

I will not test the opinion of the House on this matter, because I accept that the amendment does not meet all the objectives that we are trying to achieve. But I want to put it on record again that we are unhappy with the reduction in accountability to parents. That is unacceptable.

Jim Knight: I think that we have discussed all the necessary points, and I urge the House to support the Government.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Clause 39

Role of admission forums

Lords amendment: No. 33.

Jim Knight: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

2 Nov 2006 : Column 537

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 34 to 45, 75 to 77 and 237.

Jim Knight: I shall discuss amendment No. 33 shortly, but first let me say that amendments Nos. 42 and 77 fulfil the commitment that I made on Report to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), to whom I pay tribute. If the adjudicator or the National Assembly for Wales decides to reduce the proportion of children selected by a school with pre-existing selection, it cannot later return to 1997-98 levels. The same restriction will apply if an admission authority voluntarily decides to reduce the proportion of children selected. This is consistent with the intention of the original legislation.

Amendments Nos. 33, 34, 36, 76 and 237 require schools designated as having a religious character—the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) will be appalled that I am returning to religion, and I apologise—to consult an appropriate body or person representing the religion or religious denomination on their proposed admission arrangements. They also give such groups the power to refer to the adjudicator orthe National Assembly for Wales an objection about determined admission arrangements in schools of their particular faith. We will consult each faith group before prescribing in regulations which body or person should be consulted. This provision will contribute to ensuring that admission arrangements of faith schools reflect the churches’ stance on fair admissions and comply with the school admissions code.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 75 clarify existing legislation. As admission authorities for community and voluntary controlled schools, local authorities make decisions about which children should be admitted. Although it is implicit in existing legislation, there is no express statutory duty on the governing bodies of those schools to comply with such decisions. These amendments put the position beyond doubt.

Amendments Nos. 37 to 41 enable the schools adjudicator to consider whether his determination on an objection to admission arrangements should be binding for the full period permitted by regulations, or whether a lesser period is more appropriate. That gives him the flexibility to make sensible determinations that take account of local circumstances.

Finally, following earlier consideration in this House, I made a commitment to amend the Bill by requiring the consent of the governing body to the introduction of pupil banding to its school’s admission arrangements. Amendments Nos. 43, 44 and 45 fulfil that commitment.

Mr. Gibb: This group of amendments relates to admissions, as the Minister said, and many of them are technical. However, amendment No. 35 ensures that the governing body of a community or voluntary controlled school carries out the admissions decisions of a local authority. At present, as the Minister said, although local authorities are the admissions authorities for such schools, there is apparently—this was news to me—no statutory duty on governing bodies to comply with these decisions.

Amendment No. 36 will ensure that the governing body of a foundation or voluntary school consults its faith schools before determining their admission
2 Nov 2006 : Column 538
arrangements under section 90 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. It will also give faith groups the new power to refer an objection about admission arrangements to the schools adjudicator. This new power follows representations made to the Government by the Church of England and the Catholic Church. I recognise the value of this amendment in ensuring that faith schools implement the views of their faith’s hierarchy in respect of admission decisions. At present, many faith schools are run predominantly for the benefit of members of the faith. For instance, under the Roman Catholic code of canon law, Catholic parents have a duty to choose schools that can provide a Catholic education, and no school may be called a Catholic school without the permission of a competent ecclesiastical authority.

It is clear that religions and denominations should play a key role in determining the admissions policy of their schools. Amendment No. 36 would, for example, allow faith groups to disseminate best practice with respect to admissions, and to encourage their schools to adopt common admissions frameworks. It would help to back up the Church of England’s recent commitment to ensuring that 25 per cent. of the pupils admitted come from non-Christian backgrounds. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that that is a great example of social responsibility, but without this amendment the Church of England would have no recourse against its own schools if they decided to defy the policy of its hierarchy.

Amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 40 enable the schools adjudicator to consider whether his decisions should be binding for the full period permitted by regulations, or, as the Minister said, whether a shorter period would be more appropriate. This is a sensible amendment, which we support, as it prevents the need for a school to seek permission for trivial changes following an adverse judgment from the adjudicator.

Amendments Nos. 43, 44 and 45 relate to pupil banding.

Clause 49 amends section 101 of the 1998 Act, which currently permits banding in cases where schools make their intake representative of the ability range among applicants for admission. The Bill extends this by allowing schools to band in order to have a different range of abilities that are representative of, say, children at several different schools, all children in the local authority area, or children throughout the country. However, if a local authority wanted to introduce this new form of banding to one of the schools for which it was an admission authority, it would need to seek the consent of the governing body. These amendments extend this requirement to the existing form of banding.

This issue was overlooked when the Bill was drafted. We raised it in Committee, and I am very pleased that the Government decided to take on board our concerns and to introduce these amendments. We were concerned that, while banding can be a useful tool where schools want to ensure a genuine all-ability intake, if imposed on schools, banding risks becoming a tool for social engineering and could severely hinder parents’ ability to choose schools for their child. We were particularly concerned that local authorities might use the duty in clause 1 to promote fair access as
2 Nov 2006 : Column 539
a pretext for imposing banding across a wider area. We were also concerned that some local authorities might seek to promote banding more widely because of an obsession with a school’s intake, rather than a focus on school standards.

4.15 pm

In my view, it is teaching and leadership that play the pre-eminent role in ensuring school quality, not intake. Education should be primarily concerned with ensuring that each child fulfils his or her potential, not with ensuring a particular mix of abilities in a school. Parents will not have confidence in the education system if it requires their child to be bussed across town simply to satisfy an arbitrary quota on ability range, especially when that is imposed contrary to the wishes of the school. Schools need to be free to decide to adopt banding when that suits the school’s ethos and circumstances, and it should not be used to push social agendas that lack the support of parents. Therefore, we welcome the amendment and will support it and the others in the group.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his prompt action in providing for Lords amendment No. 42, which is essentially the amendment I moved on Report, but put into what I hope is foolproof draftsman’s language. As he says, the amendment would close a loophole in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that allowed adjudicators to increase, as well as decrease, levels of selection at partially selected schools, provided that they did not increase them over the 1998 level. He is right to say that that was never the Government’s intention in that Act, which was confirmed to me by his predecessor, Stephen Twigg. The Act was intended to allow adjudicators to reduce selection, but not increase it again.

The amendment would amend a ruling by Mr. Justice Collins in the High Court in 2004 that the wording of the 1998 Act would actually allow an adjudicator to raise selection at a school back to the level at which it had been in 1998. When I say that I hope that the amendment is foolproof draftsman’s language, I am aware that this precise wording will be examined in the courts. The words in the amendment

leave very little room for doubt. They establish that we are talking about a ratchet, not a seesaw. Once selection has been reduced, it stays reduced.

I know that no adjudicator has yet used the loophole to raise the level of selection at a partially selected school, but an adjudicator in my borough certainly considered an application from parents who wanted to raise the proportion of selected pupils and said that she had the power to do so. In the event, she did not, but there is no need to wait for a loophole to be used before it is closed. Once it has been identified by the courts it is best to close it before it is used, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on doing just that.

Sarah Teather: This group of amendments deals largely with issues peripheral to our main concerns in the earlier part of the Bill. It includes some welcome additions, in particular amendment No. 42, to which
2 Nov 2006 : Column 540
the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) has just spoken. I am a little bemused, given that the Government have made it clear that they do not want to increase selection, why they did not adopt the elegant solution proposed by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), which would have made the issue clear and led to an overall reduction in selection.

Jim Knight: I am happy with the consensus that has returned to the Chamber and it remains only for me to ask hon. Members to support the amendments.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Next Section Index Home Page