I am annoyed and furious that yet another in this continual stream of legal and educational duties is being placed on schools. They all bring unintended consequences.
Our concern about the amendment is not based on the objective of encouraging schools to consult pupils on important matters affecting the school; rather, it is the fact that it is a statutory requirement. This is yet another statutory burden imposed on schools that are already creaking under the weight of fortnightly initiatives emanating from this Government. For that reason, I hope that all hon. Members will join us in the No Lobby to vote against Lords amendment No. 171.
I pay tribute to Dr. Bernard Trafford, who will be well known to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who I see in his place. Dr. Trafford is the former head of Wolverhampton grammar school, who has taken a national lead on the issue of democracy in schools and the question of schools councils. In fact, he wrote a very informative booklet on the matter, which I have read and would recommend to right hon. and hon. Members.
I would like a little further clarification from the Minister: although I am not nearly as sceptical as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), I am still somewhat sceptical. I appreciate that what would become, under amendment No. 171, section 29A(1) of the Education Act 2002 includes the word must, as the hon. Gentleman has just explained. The full provision would read:
The governing body of a maintained school must invite the views of pupils about prescribed matters.
That brings us on to what those prescribed matters are. That is explained in subsection (4), where we find that they may be prescribed by the Secretary of State in England, and Welsh Ministers in Wales. That may be is therefore permissive. However, paragraphs (a) and (b) seem to be so widely drawn in respect of the matters that the Secretary of State may prescribe that I would like the Ministers reassurance. Paragraph (a) refers to
the exercise, or proposed exercise, of a function of the governing body of a maintained school relating to the conduct of the school,
the exercise, or proposed exercise, of such a function in a particular way.
The function of a governing body of a schoolI speak as someone who was a governor of a secondary school in my constituency for four yearsis basically to run the school. If the Secretary of State may prescribe what the governors do, my understanding is that anything may be prescribed down to the last jot and tittle or the last comma in the running of a school. I hope that that is not the Governments intentionI would appreciate my right hon. Friends reassurance on that, particularly with respect to hiring and firing.
the governing body of a maintained school must consider any relevant views of registered pupils,
which suggests something contrary to what I understood my right hon. Friend to state in his opening remarks. It seems to suggest that the school must, on any number of issues that may be prescribed under subsection (4), consult every pupil in order to find out whether they have a relevant view or not. If the pupil does have a relevant view, the governing body, in exercising its functions pursuant to the regulations, must decide how much weight to give to it. How does it discover whether pupils have a relevant view or not? One assumes that the governing body has to ask them.
As I said, I may be misreading the amendment, but contrary to what I understood the Minister to say, there is a how about these matters because they cover everything. If my interpretation is correct, everything in a maintained school is coveredincluding hiring and firing. I understand the desire to make pupils feel included, particularly if we are going to move to compulsory education or training up to the age of 18that means we are dealing with near-adults whose views should be taken into account; indeed, it is important to take account even of primary school pupils views through school councilsbut how much weight we accord those views, particularly when it comes to hiring and firing, can be an immensely delicate matter. I thus seek my right hon. Friends reassurance that the Secretary of State, in making regulations under proposed new section 29A(4), will not include issues of hiring and firing in them.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I promise that I shall not attempt to speak any longer than I did last Wednesday, but I would like to make a couple of brief points. I speak not only as the MP for South Staffordshirethe hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) was kind enough to refer to thatbut as someone who was a schoolmaster for 10 years before I entered the House. Any good school has to have proud pupils; otherwise, it is not a good school. Proud pupils are those who like to take part, insofar as they can, in discussing with their teachers and others the running of the school. That is fine. However, to make that opportunity prescriptive and statutory is going a step too far.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and I do not doubt the good intentions of those who moved the amendment in the other place. I am sorry to find myself at odds with, for example, the noble Baroness Howe, for whom I have the highest possible regard, but on this issue, she and those who support her are just plain wrong, because they have gone too far.
My parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, made an admirable brief speech in which he pointed out some of the problems that will follow if we make this provision statutoryparticularly if we allow future Secretaries of State to determine through future regulation what pupils must be consulted on. Nine times out of 10, anyone who goes into any school nowadays and asks what the head wants of Government will be told To be left to get on with the job and run the school as I would wish to run it with my colleagues and my governors, without interference.
Over the last 10 years, the schools of this country have become burdened with excessive legislation. That is not entirely the fault of the present Government; the previous Conservative Government were also guilty of passing too many laws, in relation to health as well as education. We saw the absurdity of that tonight when we were discussing earlier amendments. It became clear that part of an Act that was passed in 2006 was effectively being repealed by this Bill although it had never been brought into force. Other examples, for instance in criminal justice legislation, demonstrate a similar legislative diarrhoea which has led to a rather unpleasant illness.
No one doubts the good intentions behind the amendment, but I ask the Minister to listen to the teachersunion leaders and otherswho, over the weekend, described it as a step too far, and asked for it not to be made statutory. I hope that the thoughtful and sensible words of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West will ensure that we enter the same Lobbyif, that is, the Government persist with the amendments. It would be far better for us to disagree with the Lords and, while encouraging schools to have their councils and other forms of consultation, refrain from putting pupils into the driving seat and introducing the utter absurdity of involving them in what the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West described as issues of hiring and firing. That would be entirely wrong.
Mr. Laws: Although I enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), I noticed that he was somewhat more reticent than usual when it came to allowing interventions. That may have been because the force of his argument against the amendments was somewhat undermined by the fact that they had enjoyed the support of his party in another place and, moreover, by the fact that he did not quote in full Lord Eltons words from the Third Reading debate on 11 November. He spoke of the noble Lords reservations, but omitted the most important part of the quotation. Lord Elton said:
I am glad to see the flexibility written into the amendmentthe variety of ways in which consultation can take place.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 11 November 2008; Vol. 705, c. 572.]
It is clear from those comments that although Lord Elton may have been concerned about the implications of too great a degree of prescriptiveness, he felt that the degree of flexibility in the amendment was quite acceptable.
Because he is assiduous in these matters, the hon. Gentleman will also know that, to some extent, the Liberal Democrat amendment was prompted by Lord Eltons amendment. He did not take quite enough credit for the role played by the Conservative party in another place in originating these proposals. Lord Elton tabled amendment No. 61, which sought to place a duty on the governing body of a maintained school
to have due regard to the ascertainable views of the pupil on matters that affect him or her, taking account of his or her age and maturity.
A governing body of a maintained school must establish a democratically formed school council or other collective mechanism, the purpose of which is to enable pupils to discuss matters relating to their school and their education and to make representations on these to the government body and the head teacher.
The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the prescriptive nature of the amendment tabled by my noble Friend Lady Walmsley. What did she actually say when she had to comment on Lord Eltons amendment? She hesitated to support it, and also, she said,
hesitated to be too prescriptive about the way in which the voice of the students should be collected.
We devised our own amendment that did not specify a school council because we did not want to be too prescriptive; we wanted to give schools the opportunity to be creative and respond appropriately to their own circumstances, devising their own ways of gathering students views.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2008; Vol. 703, c. 228-29.]
When we look at what actually happened in another place, we discover thatrather contrary to the impression given by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehamptonthere was an extremely prescriptive Tory amendment, followed by Liberal Democrat criticism of the extent of the prescriptiveness and by a Liberal Democrat amendment featuring much more flexibility, which was commended by the Conservatives and which they supported when it became a Government amendment and was accepted by another place as a whole.
There was another interesting aspect of the views of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and, perhaps, his reservations about pressing his points too strongly. He quoted from various publications, including The Times Educational Supplement, which had reported some of the things that teachers leaders had said over the last week or so. I noted that one quotation was missing. The hon. Gentleman smiles modestlysheepishly, even. That is because he knows very well which quotation I mean. It is the quotation from his favourite principal of his favourite school, which he mentions frequently. I refer to Mossbourne academy in Hackney, which the hon. Gentleman cited with appropriate reverence earlier. He was referring to an excellent school, but why did he not refer to the quotation from Sir Michael Wilshaw, its head? According to the front page of this weeks TES, he said that
schools would not have to alter what they were already doing for pupil voice,
because so many are already, in very appropriate ways, consulting the pupil body, and presumably the academy as well. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Education Act 2002, which already places obligations on schools to consult.
Mr. Gibb: This is the point, is it not? Schools are probably already doing that, but what burdens heads and other teachers is the introduction of more statutory obligations to read and understand, and the requirement to assess whether their schools are fulfilling those obligations. That is the problem with putting requirements such as this into law.
Mr. Laws: Surely the issue, as Lord Elton put it, is whether there is sufficient flexibility in the amendment. Presumably it was the fact that Lord Elton and his noble Friends were persuaded of the existence of such flexibility that caused the Conservative party in another place to give a fair wind to the proposals. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) was rightly anxious for the responsibilities to consult with the student body not to become too onerous. I have no doubt that he has read Lords amendment No. 171, which is framed in very modest terms. It suggests that the governing bodies should invite the views of pupils and consider them. It is not prescriptive in relation to how that should be done, or about the acceptance of those views.
Sir Patrick Cormack: The point is that this must be done. It will become a legal obligation. It is yet another legislative burden that we do not need to place on hard-pressed people whose sole aim is to run good schools.
Mr. Laws: We all note the clear divisions in the Conservative party between the views expressed in this place and another place. I simply draw the hon. Gentlemans attention to the view of his noble Friends that there is enough flexibility in the amendment to allow for his concerns. He will also know that on 11 November Baroness Morgan put on the record in another place the specific areas in which there would be a requirement on schools to consult in different ways with pupils, and those certainly excluded issues such as staff appointments [Interruption.]
I also invite Members to take reassurance in one other respect. The significance of the amendment will be heavily dependent on the regulations that are brought forward by the Minister on this point, and it will be quite possible for the Minister to make sure that they are drafted in such a way as to ensure the flexibility that all Members would wish for. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that when the regulations are brought forward, they will embed the flexibility that all Members of this House want, and that ensured there was unanimity on this amendment in another place.
The hon. Gentleman has made the case very well, and I do not need to detain the House for long. We have yet another U-turn from the Conservative party. It is not quite as rapid a U-turn as that which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) made on standard assessment tests, but it is extraordinary: Baroness Verma, who led for the Opposition
on this in the Lords, said on 30 October that the amendment responded to the concerns of her noble Friend Lady Morris:
The amendment has been tailored to meet that small concern and I am happy to offer my support for it[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 October 2008; Vol. 704, c. 1743.],
I give the reassurance to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) that we will consult social partners, schools and unions on what should be in the regulations. We have already said we do not intend to be prescriptive on matters such as staff or terms and conditions. This will be at a high level. The amendment will retain the flexibility everyone has been asking for, and it is bizarre and inflexible of the Opposition to want to vote against it.