|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
There are two points. I shall come back to the local point in the moment, but all the way through these discussions-the hon. Gentleman, to his credit, has been in the Chamber for many hours of the debate on the Bill-I have pointed out significant and substantial differences between the academies programme pursued under the last Government and the academies programme and model proposed by the Bill. Our model concentrated on areas of educational underperformance and social disadvantage. That was the key driver for the
use of the academy model. The Bill turns that on its head and says we will allow schools that are doing well under the current system to become academies, with all the worries and concerns that have arisen.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has been involved in this area and has worked hard in his constituency on the issue of school reorganisation. However, in virtually every circumstance in which academies have been agreed-that includes the 200 that were agreed and the number that were to go forward in September with secondary school reorganisation attached to educational transformation-the local authorities were key partners in those decisions. Some of those decisions were difficult. We have not tabled the amendments to say that any of this is easy, that there is a panacea or that someone can wave a magic wand to bring about school reorganisation in way that is never controversial or painful. We are saying that under our model, local authorities and local partners were specifically included. There were still difficulties, and sometimes tough decisions had to be made, but local authorities and local decision makers were involved. The way that the Bill is drafted specifically excludes those people from being involved other than in the way that a wish list of good practice would say that they should be involved.
Ian Mearns: Does my hon. Friend accept that under the previous Government's academy proposals, the local consultation that took place was subject to an adjudicator's ruling in the last instance if that was necessary?
Vernon Coaker: I was going to make that point: schools adjudicators have been involved almost as a final route of appeal. I know from my experience as a Minister-if the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) becomes a Minister he will find this out-that even when one thinks a decision is right, it can be completely thrown out of the window because the schools adjudicator prevents something from going ahead. That happened to me a couple of times in relation to the closure of a school.
Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does the Minister accept that there have been examples of Labour-held local authorities being given the opportunity to set up academies but rejecting it without consulting parents at all? I refer specifically to the offer by Goldman Sachs several years ago to set up an academy in Tower Hamlets. The local authority there gave parents not a jot of consultation.
Vernon Coaker: Some local authorities have been a problem, but not just Labour authorities-Conservative local authorities have also stood in the way of academy development. One pays a price for local democracy and involving local authorities: sometimes it means that people pursue educational options in their area that one does not agree with. That is the point I was making when I asked the Minister whether localism is fine only as long as it goes along with the Government's policy objectives.
There are all sorts of unanswered questions about consultation, many of which the hon. Member for Portsmouth South has laid out. What happens to local authorities? What happens to the money? What happens regarding special needs? Who is vetting the consultation
that takes place? Who knows what is going on? How will the school funding proposals that have been published today affect what is going on? There are all sorts of issues to be discussed.
Bill Esterson: May I take my hon. Friend back to the primary capital programme and the democracy in that process, which the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) asked about? In the Tory-run authority in which I was the opposition spokesman on children's services, there was a lot of opposition to some proposals and only a thorough consultation process brought up that opposition and showed the flaws in the plan. The council rejected them and the adjudicator, whose role my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) has mentioned, had to get involved. The checks and balances were in place in that process as they were in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.
Vernon Coaker: My hon. Friend makes a self-evident and good point, and identifies some of the problems regarding the difference between what happened before and what will happen under the Bill's measures. There are a huge number of questions that the Minister needs to answer.
On consultation, it would help if the Government and the Minister answered named day written questions, including a large number that are specifically relevant to this whole process and our discussions on consultation. I have 11 named-day questions for last Monday that have not yet been answered by the Department. Not all of them are relevant to this debate- [ Interruption. ] The Front Benchers are now debating who is responsible; I am afraid that it involves both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers. Some of those questions are specific to today's debate on consultation, so for the Department to talk about consultation, procedure and correct processes when I still have not received the answers to questions for which the named day was last Monday- [ Interruption. ] The Minister says that I have had a holding response: on Monday 19 July, for 11 of my questions, I received the reply, "I will reply as soon as possible," from him and his colleagues. I do not know whether anyone else has experienced this problem, but given that the measures are being pushed through Parliament at significant speed, all hon. Members need the answers to their named day questions so that information that might inform our discussions is available.
I want to talk about consultation in relation to my experience as an opposition spokesman for children's services, particularly in relation to pre and post-decision consultation and three academies that the council pushed through. The Tory-run council in Medway decided not to consult until decisions had been taken, which caused consternation and all sorts of problems with the wider community, not just parents. I think that was a precursor to what is happening with this legislation. It was only the involvement of the then Ministers with responsibility for schools standards, including my hon.
Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), that enabled us to have proper consultation before decisions were finally taken and to ensure that the assurances that the local community sought were addressed. My concern is that the proposed measures will cause what happened in Medway to be repeated across the country.
Dan Rogerson: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the situation he describes happened under legislation that was pushed through by a Labour Government and that the Bill does say-thanks to amendments that were passed in another place-that consultation must take place?
Bill Esterson: I confirm that it happened under the legislation-that was why the checks and balances were eventually put in place. The point I was making is that the Tory-run council in Medway tried to push things through using the same procedure that will be introduced by the Bill. The hon. Gentleman mentions the amendments that were made in the other place, but, like many hon. Members, I have grave concerns that leaving it to the governing body to decide not just who to consult but whether to consult is a fundamental problem that will not be overcome by any checks and balances further down the line.
My experience and that of many people in Medway shows that allowing consultation at any time up to the signing of an academy agreement will not work and will make the process completely inadequate. That is why the amendments are so important. If they are not accepted, not only Members, but schools, children, staff and parents across the country will regret the lack of a requirement for the sort of proper consultation that is detailed in many of the amendments and that was in the 1998 Act. That guidance on how to consult different groups is extremely thorough and works extremely well when it is followed.
Andrew Percy: I am failing to get my head round the arguments of Opposition Members. There was plenty of consultation-admittedly under the previous Government-on Building Schools for the Future and on transforming our primary school agenda, and it threw up thousands of names on petitions from parents who did not want their schools closed, yet their schools were still closed. Where was the consultation? The failings the hon. Gentleman is outlining are exactly those that took place under the last Government.
Bill Esterson: Consultation is not a referendum; it will not necessarily produce the answer that the majority are pushing for, but there is a fundamental difference between holding a consultation and not holding one at all. The problem with the Bill is that unless the governing body agrees, there will be no consultation at all.
Andrew Percy: I think I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly and that he was saying that the Opposition are arguing that they want consultation simply so that they can say they have had it, but they are not all that bothered about the outcome.
One of my concerns about leaving it to governing bodies to decide about consultation is that they, understandably, feel that it is their duty to support head teachers. Sometimes, however, the head teacher gets their own way through strength of personality and the governing body may not apply the degree of scrutiny and challenge that it should, although I am not saying that is always true because many governing bodies work extremely well in genuine partnership with their head teacher. The reason I support the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) is that the situation I described, together with the potential for financial benefit for head teachers, could create the possibility for conflict of financial interest, which would be wholly undesirable. There is concern about the potential for financial gain for head teachers and the lack of scrutiny in some governing bodies, although by no means all-I stress that point. It is important that we get the legislation right at this point, before things go wrong, rather than rushing it through with the danger that such problems might arise.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) and the former Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), made important points about schools being a key part of their community. Although governing bodies are representative of certain parts of the community, they do not represent the wider community, which is why the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act are a good guide. The fundamental problem with the Bill is that if consultation is not held until after the initial decision, it will be apparent to the local community that there has been a fait accompli. The danger is that once the train has left the station, it will be very difficult to put the brakes on.
Mr Gibb: This group of amendments deals with consultation. We have always made it clear that we expect schools to consult on their proposals for conversion to academy status, which is why we were happy to amend the Bill in the other place to put that provision on the face of the legislation. As Lord Adonis said, during the passage of the Bill in the other place,
"it is very unlikely that an academy proposal will be a success if it does not have a very wide measure of support from the parental body, the staff body and the wider community."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 21 June 2010; Vol. 719, c. 1230.]
As a result of persuasive arguments put in the other place, principally by Liberal Democrat peers, the Government tabled the amendment that led to clauses 5 and 10. I pay particular tribute to Baroness Walmsley for her determination to put consultation on the face of the Bill.
Amendment 8 would require that if any member of a school's governing body objects to the school's application for academy status, the parents of children at the school must be balloted. The purpose of the Bill is to allow schools that wish to do so to apply for academy status. The Bill is permissive rather than coercive. The arrangements for governing body decisions are set out in the School Governance (Procedures) (England) Regulations 2003, which state that every question to be decided at a governing body meeting must be determined by a majority
of votes of those governors present and voting, and no decision can be taken without due discussion. Furthermore, at least a third of the membership of the governing bodies of all maintained schools is made up of parents. That means that the views of parents will clearly be considered during the governing body's discussions. In addition, clause 5 requires a school's governing body to consult on its proposals to convert to an academy. In practice, we believe that means that parents will be consulted and will have the chance to make representations about the proposals.
Dan Rogerson: The Minister is setting out his vision for the Bill and talking about the role of governing bodies. We did not have the opportunity to reach that clause last week because time defeated us. Is he able to confirm whether he has looked at the issue of how many parent governors there should be on future academy governing bodies?
Mr Gibb: I am happy to do so. We shall be coming to the relevant clause later in the debate, but I have been persuaded by my hon. Friend's arguments, and as a result of his representations, and those of other people, we intend to amend the model funding agreement to raise the number of parents on governing bodies from one to a minimum of two.
Vernon Coaker: I welcome the concession the Minister just made. The Committee has run very well without being churlish about such things, and there are many other aspects we agree with, but that is an important step forward.
Caroline Lucas: At the risk of being churlish, why is the democracy such an issue? The point was made that if you were to-[Hon. Members: "He"]-if he were to have a proper election, it would-I am sorry. A moment ago, the Minister said that if you were to increase the governors-
Mr Gibb: I think I have taken the hon. Lady's point. Requiring a ballot of all parents of pupils at the school would unduly politicise the process and would enable those who are ideologically opposed to academies-I do not accuse the hon. Lady of that-to use the process either to agitate against the proposals or to try to delay the implementation of the decision. That would place unnecessary burdens on the governing body of the school.
Amendment 10 relates to the financial interest of governors. I reassure the Committee that there are restrictions on people taking part in the proceedings of governing bodies of maintained schools. They are clearly set out in the well-known School Governance (Procedures) (England) Regulations 2003, which provide that where there is a conflict between the interests of any governor, associate member or head teacher and the interests of the governing body that person must disclose the interest,
withdraw from the meeting and not vote. If one of those individuals has a financial interest in any matter, he or she must disclose it, withdraw from the meeting and not vote. If there is any dispute as to whether a person must withdraw, the other governors must decide on the matter.
There are important safeguards that apply both before and after conversion to academy status. They mean that there is no need for an amendment specifically to disallow a governor from leading the consultation, as under existing law governors cannot participate in decision making on issues that concern their remuneration or benefit. That is a fundamental principle of charity law, and all academies are charities. I can also confirm that the model articles of association ensure that no governor can make any financial gain in his or her role as a governor.
Mr Gibb: Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. The type of people who become school governors are motivated by one issue only-the school of which they are governors; they want to raise standards and are concerned about that school.
Several amendments-including amendments 78, 77, 9 and 86-would require the governing body of a maintained school to consult on their proposals to become an academy before applying for an academy order. Clause 5 requires, as I have said, that the governing body of the school
"must consult such persons as they think appropriate"
on the proposed conversion. The consultation may take place before or after an application for an academy order has been made in respect of the school or after an academy order has been granted. This will allow each school to determine when it has sufficient information on which to consult and at what point during the application process it wishes to do so. Schools are, after all, in the best position to determine when and how consultation should best take place, and they may not want to approach parents or others until they have firm proposals.
The only requirement is that the consultation must be held before the funding agreement is signed, since at that point the school will be legally committed to the conversion process. Academy orders, though a step along the way, are not irreversible and we therefore believe that there is still value in a school consulting after an order has been made. At that point, the school is in no sense bound to convert, so it is not the case that any consultation of parents or others would either be not meaningful or too late, as the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) suggested it would be in last week's debate.
Mr Leech: I thank the Minister. I seek some clarification of the provision he cited, which makes reference to consulting "such persons". Does he assume that "such persons" would include the parent body of the school?
Mr Gibb: Of course, and it is up to the school to decide. I was going to come on to the guidance later. It is published on the departmental website and it sets out precisely what guidance the governing bodies should adhere to. It states:
"It will be for the Governing Body of the school to determine who should be consulted, although schools should consider involving local bodies or groups who have strong links with the school."
It sets out various elements such as: information on the school's website, a letter to all parents explaining the proposal, a meeting for parents, a newsletter for parents and asking for views from parents to be sent in writing to the school.
Ian Mearns: My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) pursued this issue earlier, when he spoke about the ability of schools in the list to go ahead and become academies in September. If the Bill is passed-we assume it will be, given the parliamentary numbers-orders will be made and consultation will have to take place before the funding agreement is in force. If schools are to become academies in September-assuming this idea has not been completely abandoned-it means that the consultation will happen all through August. Is my understanding correct?
Mr Gibb: It is possible for an academy order to be issued in September, while the details of the funding agreement are still being negotiated. These things are very complicated, and it might take several weeks after the academy order is issued before the funding agreement is signed, so the consultation process can continue after the academy order has been issued.
"The Secretary of State expects that a significant number of Academies will open in September 2010".
Mr Gibb: The school can continue with an academy order made. That is the point. The academy order can be made in September, but the funding agreement might take several additional weeks afterwards- [Interruption.] No, the school will be open; children will be able to attend a school and an academy order will have been made.
Sammy Wilson: I thank the Minister for giving way and for his further clarification of the purpose and usefulness of consultation after the order has been made, but does he not accept that once an order has been made, many of those who might have had an interest in the consultation might well deem that there has been a done deal so that the consultation is meaningless? I say that despite the Minister's assurances today, because the flag locally will be whether or not an order has been made to declare a school an academy.
Mr Gibb: I am grateful for that intervention, as it enables me to repeat that the deal is not done until the funding agreement is signed. That has always been the case: it was the case under the previous Administration and it is the case today. It is the funding agreement that is key.
Let me turn my attention to amendments 78, 4 and 18, which seek to prescribe with whom the school must consult. The Government believe that the individuals who lead schools-the governors and the head-are best placed to make decisions about their schools. They are the ones who know the local area, the local circumstances of the school and how it relates to other schools in the area. We do not intend to be prescriptive over whom schools should consult, as schools will have different views and the level of information they want or can make available at the time of consultation will depend on the point at which they do it. If they consult at the very beginning of the process, they may consult only on the principle of conversion itself. If they consult at a much later stage, they may want to consult on a wide range of additional matters-the curriculum, governance arrangements or a specialism for the academy, for example-on which they may by then have firmer views.
We trust the school to determine how to consult and whom to consult, and we do not intend to provide an inflexible checklist, which would not, in itself, ensure that consultation were any more meaningful. This includes consultation with the local authority, as amendment 18 would require. We do not intend to give local authorities a role that could, in some areas of the country, undermine the Government's policy-as we know, this has been the case in the past. We do not want to provide local authorities with an opportunity to delay or frustrate applications via the consultation process. The Department's website, as I mentioned earlier, includes guidance on good consultation practice.
New clause 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), would allow schools that have become academies to return to maintained status if 10% of the parents of the pupils at the academy vote in favour of it. Of course, the academies programme is about freedoms and lack of prescription, so an academy could choose, if it wished, to run itself like a maintained school. The academy could willingly act in such a way that for all intents and purposes, it would be a maintained school, operating with all the restrictions and requirements that apply to them-including the academy buying back services from the local authority and choosing not to use its curriculum or staffing freedoms. Therefore there would be no need for it to change its status for it to be run in a way that is equivalent to a maintained school.
We expect all schools that apply to become an academy to be fully committed to the academies programme. Before becoming an academy, the governing body of the predecessor school will have taken account, as I have said on numerous occasions, of the views of the parents and pupils at the academy.
Let me deal briefly with some of the comments made during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) raised the issue of the new politics, which he said that he, like me, supports. I believe that
the coalition involves discussion, concessions and change, which we have seen during the passage of the Bill. The coalition is delivering the kind of politics demanded by the public. Today, the coalition has delivered its promise to introduce a pupil premium. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) has today tabled a written ministerial statement announcing a consultation process on the implementation of the pupil premium.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) took us back to the halcyon days of Lady Thatcher, which I know he likes to do from time to time, as do we all. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to trust teachers and head teachers and that we need to give parents a genuine choice that will serve as a powerful force to raise standards.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) is right to point out that it is the funding agreement that is the key and the binding moment in the conversion process towards academy status. Schools wishing to convert in September had to apply by 30 June and we expect that those schools most keen to convert in September will already have embarked on consultation. That is what the Department has advised. There is nothing to stop such enthusiastic governing bodies from continuing to consult through July and the summer holidays, and it is inconceivable that they will have kept such matters from parents, when parents are represented to the tune of one third of governors on such bodies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) is absolutely right that the governors of a school, particularly the parent governors, take their responsibilities very seriously. They care deeply about the school and would not take forward the process of acquiring academy status without taking into account the views of the community, whether or not a particular part of the community were represented on the governing body.
The hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made the important point that schools are at the heart of the local community, and we agree that they should be, which is why the funding agreement specifically states that academies should be at the heart of the community and share facilities with it. She also raised the issue of the risk to governing bodies of a legal challenge, but clause 5(1) requires them to consult those people whom they think appropriate, and to a large extent, therefore, it is up to the body to decide whom it should consult. Provided that its decision is reasonable, it is unlikely to face a legal challenge.
The hon. Member for Gedling asked for the number of schools that have applied. Those that want to convert in September must have applied to do so by 30 June, but that does not mean that others will not also have applied by that date, and we do not believe that all those that have applied will necessarily be in a position to convert by September. We want to ensure that the process is right, and we will not allow conversions until all issues have been resolved.
The hon. Gentleman also asked where we are with the TUPE negotiations. Employers of staff at schools seeking to convert will be at different stages, depending on when they intend to convert, but TUPE requires the consultation on the transfer of employment to be sufficient, and it will apply outside the Bill in any event. Any
proposed September convertors will have been advised to begin a TUPE consultation some time ago, at the outset of their consideration of the application.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the details of the academy order. It will state that a named school will convert to an academy on such date as is specified in the funding agreement. It is a very short document, and with those few remarks I urge hon. Members and my hon. Friends, when asked, to withdraw their amendments.
Dr Pugh: I shall say a few words before putting amendment 8 to the vote. Ministers have been fairly quiet throughout the large part of this debate, and I cannot be alone in sensing a certain embarrassment about some aspects of this legislation and the manner in which it has been pressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr. Hancock) said to me during my earlier contribution that the real reason for weak consultation and no balloting is that it is all about making the establishment of academies easier, and at the time I said that that was uncharitable. Having listened to the counter-arguments, however, I am not sure that he was not after all right and me a little naive.
The ministerial argument against ballots was that they would politicise, but one does not need to be very bright to realise that that is a general argument against any ballot, any time, any place. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) suggested that we would know the parental view from informal soundings, and to some extent that is correct, but he was unable to explain how that could happen before September, when schools are closed for the holiday. Indeed, if that is such a good, sure-fire method, why do we persist with ballots before changing a grammar school's status? People were completely unable to answer that, or why primary, secondary and special schools should not have the same privileged legal position.
No one answered the comments from the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), the Chair of the Education Committee, even though they were repeated. I shall repeat them again: he described the consultation arrangements as appearing like a charade. I recall working for a boss who used to listen to his heads of department, gather them all around, very carefully solicit their views and conclude by saying, "I hear what you say." After that, he would do precisely what he wanted to do in the first place.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) suggested that parents will be able to vote not necessarily by ballot but with their feet. I describe that as the Burmese school of democracy: "If you don't like it, you can get out and go somewhere else." He was quite right that governors generally and usually have a good awareness of and good contact with parents, and that they are likely to know quite a lot about how they might feel and react, but the clear point is that that is not invariably the case. Were it invariably the case, every grant-maintained ballot would have been won, but many were lost. Indeed, the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and I come from an area where all the grant-maintained ballots were lost.
If Members wish to disempower parents, if people in this Chamber genuinely believe in post hoc consultation, and if they object to rational amendment in the Commons, they should vote against my amendment. I can do nothing about that, but if they think differently I should like them to agree to amendment 8.
'(1A) Before making an application for an Academy order, the governing body shall consult relevant parties on whether to make such an application.
(1B) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance as to how governing bodies should conduct such a consultation with parents, pupils, teaching and non-teaching staff and their representatives, neighbouring schools and the local authority and such other parties as he may think appropriate and such guidance must also specify the information to be made available to consultees in relation to the proposed arrangements for Academy status.'.- (Mr Coaker .)
'(3A) The Secretary of State shall publish criteria which he will apply in deciding whether to make Academy orders, which shall be in such form and shall contain such particulars as may be prescribed in regulations.'.
Vernon Coaker: I will be interested to hear why the Minister thinks that the amendments are unacceptable. Before that, it is important to say that, in the previous debate, there was a massive change in Government hope and expectation for their flagship academies policy. They have retreated from claiming that hundreds of new academies will open in September to saying that hundreds or a large number of academy orders will be agreed. The Secretary of State did not outline that as part of a flagship Government policy, which was for significant numbers of new academies to open. The policy is chaos, confusion and a complete shambles. Hon. Members of all parties will find it unbelievable that we now have a Government commitment to a significant number of academy orders, with consultation to follow. Significant progress has therefore been made as we have exposed the flaws in many aspects of the Bill. However, a Minister coming to the Dispatch Box and admitting that the Government's aims and objectives will not be realised is astonishing.
Mr Gibb: The amendments would collectively have the effect of increasing the burden of regulation associated with the academy conversion process. They propose several sets of regulations as well as a requirement that academy orders be made by statutory instrument. Hon. Members will recognise that that would take the Government's policy in the opposite direction from our proposals. We want to deregulate when regulatory burdens are not only stifling innovation, but costing time and therefore money to achieve compliance. We want to give schools freedoms to allow them to focus on raising standards. Adding bureaucracy to the process is the last thing that we want.
Amendments 81 and 82 would introduce regulations that prescribed the contents of applications for academy orders and the criteria that the Secretary of State applied when deciding whether to make them. We do not believe that it is appropriate to regulate the contents of applications for academy orders. The Department already provides clear guidance on its website about the conversion process and the various steps that a school needs to take. The website also includes an application pro forma, which covers all the necessary information to enable a decision to be made. The Government have made it clear that they will apply a rigorous fit and proper person test in approving any sponsors of an academy.
The Secretary of State will consider applications from schools that wish to become academies and, in each case, confirm whether he is content for the conversion proposal to proceed to the next stage. If he is, he will make an academy order. In doing that he will, of course, take account of the relevant information before him, but he expects to approve most applications from outstanding schools. Those schools will make up the first wave, and we will publish the criteria for other applicants-the next wave-on the Department's website.
Before issuing an academy order, the Secretary of State will undertake checks to ensure that the school is in a position to become an academy. That is important because academies operate with greater autonomy than other schools and need to be in a secure position to do so. We will check whether there has been any significant change since the school's last outstanding Ofsted rating.
Mr Mike Hancock: Does my hon. Friend anticipate the criteria being changed from those that are currently applied to the raft of academies that is going through the process and the academies that he expects to go through shortly? Will the basic criteria be changed for future academies? He suggested that they would be published, but how different will they be?
Mr Gibb: The criteria will be different because the fast-tracking is confined to schools that are graded outstanding. When they have gone through the process, we will relax the criteria to enable other schools to do so. My hon. Friend will recall that the Secretary of State sent letters to all schools in the country. The criteria that I just mentioned apply to fast-tracking. There will be different criteria for the process once the first wave has gone through.
Issues that the Secretary of State will check include whether the school has a substantial budget deficit, whether there are PFI arrangements relating to the school and whether the school is already part of reorganisation proposals. Depending on the outcome of discussions, that may have a bearing on whether and when the Secretary of State can approve an outstanding school's progression to the next stage. When an academy order is made, the Secretary of State must give a copy to the governing body, the head teacher and the local authority. If the application is rejected, the Secretary of State is required to inform the governing body, the head teacher and the local authority of his decision and the reason for it. It will therefore be transparent and clear why and when a school will be permitted to convert and when it will not.
However, the first stage of the process-the academy order stage-is just that: it permits a school to convert, but does not require it to do so. We need to be clear that, for many proposals, the greater detail and the final stage of the process will come later, when the Secretary of State decides whether to enter into a funding agreement with a proposed academy. It is only on signing the funding agreement that the conversion becomes legally binding. We therefore believe that prescription of the form and content of academy orders in secondary legislation is unnecessary and too bureaucratic.
An academy order is the means whereby a school's conversion into an academy is enabled. The intention behind amendment 83 is that an academy order be made by statutory instrument, which would have to be laid before Parliament. Academy orders are intended to be the legal means whereby an individual school converts to academy status. They will contain key pieces of information that are pertinent to the conversion, but are highly specific to the circumstances of each school. It would not be a good use of Parliament's time to require each order for each and every school to be tabled. The use of the negative resolution procedure would also be highly disruptive to any school, since the period of 40 days during which the order could be prayed against in this House or the other place would leave the school with no certainty about whether the conversion could go ahead.
In any event, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) will be interested to know that the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee issued a report on the Bill, dated 17 June. I am sure that he knows it well, given that he has been so assiduous in scrutinising the Bill and all the accompanying documents. As he predicted, it states about the provision:
"this seems to us to be reasonable. Each order affects only one school and there is provision for those affected to be provided with copies. We agree... that these Orders are not really legislative in character and we see no reason why Parliament would want to have any control over them."
Vernon Coaker: It is a very good job that the Minister has persuaded me that statutory instruments of any sort-negative or affirmative-are unnecessary, otherwise he would not be able to announce academy orders in September. I intend to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I return to a point I made earlier. I provoked the Minister at the beginning of this debate, but in both this debate and the debate on the previous group of amendments, I note that he has not put any figure at all on the number of schools that he expects to become academies. That now seems to have gone down to almost nought, because the aspiration now is to introduce large numbers of academy orders.
We will wait and see what transpires in September, but interestingly, the Government have today announced a huge retreat on their expectations for the Bill. They have gone from saying, "Hundreds of academies are expected to open," to saying, "Maybe a few will open on the basis of the ones that the previous Government approved earlier in the year." However, the Minister's and the Government's aspiration as announced today is
to have significant numbers of academy orders, with consultation to follow. We will see where we are in September, but with those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Hoyle. I think that this is the first time I have served under your distinguished chairpersonship, to use a gender-neutral phrase. Notwithstanding the fact that you and I come from different sides of the Pennines, I am sure that you will exercise justice and mercy if I happen to cross the line from time to time-if that is possible between people from different sides of the Pennines.
Amendment 54 is a probing amendment, and a similar proposal was discussed, albeit briefly, in the House of Lords, where the Minister prompted more questions than he gave answers. I shall be brief because I know that we have other important matters to debate tonight.
We now know that the Government have effectively given the Secretary of State the power to change the status of schools by order-by fiat or administrative measures-notwithstanding the fact that we seek some form of accountability to local communities, which the Government have denied. Members of the House will know that I was against academies and that I voted against them when they were introduced by my own party. However, at least the previous Government had the merit of saying that schools should be accountable and responsible to local communities, and that their facilities should be as widely accessible as possible.
The concept of the extended school-a school that reaches out into the community, and a community that reaches into the school-was very much at the heart of Labour's schools provisions. It occurred to me that I should like to know what will happen to schools' assets that are associated with that community provision. The idea of the extended school is that the school is a facility for the whole community. After all, in the African phrase, it takes a whole village to educate a child-sometimes it takes a child to educate the village, too-so the interaction between the community and the school is important, and lies at the heart of modern educational thinking.
I am pleased that over the years of the Labour Government, many schools in my area developed a series of community activities, and I shall highlight two-I am sure that every hon. Member could talk about what happens in schools in their areas in the same
way. At Minsthorpe community college, a gym provided by the Labour Government, the Labour council and the college is open to everybody. A brand new sports hall that was built at the cost of millions of pounds in 2009 is also open to the community at subsidised cost. The college might become part of the Olympic preparations, because it is an Olympic-recognised site, which is a very proud achievement for our whole community. The school also has AstroTurf, which is used by local football clubs, a training and conference centre, beauty training, adult education, and crèche facilities on site and in the local village of Upton. The youngest pupil at the college is three months old, and the oldest is 80 years old. That is the school's range of provision.
Hemsworth arts and community college has also had millions of pounds spent on it, and it opens every single day in one form or another. Cherry Tree House, a multi-agency drop-in centre, is available to the whole community, the police, the health service and others, and an on-site sports centre is open all year. There is an Ofsted-registered day-care nursery, an adult education learning programme, and a programme of arts that works with all kinds of community groups, which use creative skills that were unimaginable even a few years ago in Hemsworth. There are outreach programmes with local Churches, the skills centre and so on and so forth. That is a description of two schools, but I am sure that every school in every community provides similar facilities.
By tabling amendment 54, I am asking the Government: what do they intend to happen to all that community outreach? I propose that there should effectively be two further aspects to the Bill. First, there should be no less provision to the community than there is on the day of transfer, and secondly, those provisions should be available on at least the same advantageous terms as they are now, meaning that there should be no increase in price or decrease in accessibility. It is a simple proposal.
Tens of thousands of people use community schools in my constituency and throughout the country. The question is: what will happen to those community facilities? After all, they were provided not by the school, but by the whole community, through council tax and central taxation. The Bill ought to make it clear that that community provision should continue-that should be the underlying philosophy of the nature of the relationship between educational institutions and the people who live in a community-and that the pricing should not change.
"charge persons who are not registered pupils at the Academy for education provided or for facilities used by them at the Academy".
I guess that the Minister will say that that is simply a measure to give academies a legal power to charge. However, there are fears, including in the schools that I mentioned and among the people who use them, whom I represent, that fees will increase rapidly, and that the community will be seen as a cash cow. Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, I represent many deprived communities. They, too, are seriously worried about the intentions of some academies.
"We therefore entirely agree with my noble friend"-
"that it is important for a school to be at the heart of its community and that it should, as far as possible, encourage the community to make use of school facilities in the evenings and at weekends. The place to impose obligations on an academy is through the academy arrangements-either the funding agreement or the terms and conditions of grant. We therefore resist the imposition of this in the Bill but entirely sympathise with the intentions of the amendment."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 28 June 2010; Vol. 719, c. 1620.]
There are two ways to deal with this community access issue. One would be for the thousands and thousands of academies-if that is how many are eventually created-to each have their own funding agreement, which would have to be policed separately. If constituents come to my surgery and say that the fees that they used to pay to do French or learn IT, or to use the sports or beauty facilities, have suddenly tripled or quadrupled, where will I turn if the amendment is not accepted? I will have to turn to the Minister and his civil servants, who will have to look at the funding agreement and make a separate enforcement order. This is not releasing schools from red tape, as was suggested a few moments ago by the Minister. It is nationalising the education system and the schools because, instead of schools being accountable to the local authority, or regulated under an amendment of the type that I propose, the Minister will have to take separate enforcement orders for every academy. How can that be the case for a Government who claim to believe in freeing up institutions and the education system?
If the Government are determined to go ahead with the system proposed in the Bill and if they agree with the philosophy that schools should be part of their communities, it would be simpler, more direct and cheaper to put something in the Bill so that each principal and governing body of an academy will understand from the beginning that they have taken over community facilities that the council helped to build, that they have inherited pricing structures, and that they have to honour them. The amendment is not an earth-shattering one, but I want to test the Government's commitment to their expressed desire to release people rather than bind them up in red tape. The Minister's answer in the other place opened up a Pandora's box of national control over an education system that we have always been proud of it being administered locally. The Bill is a reversal of that trend.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) because he makes a very important point. We have had a helpful debate on all the issues over the three or four days of consideration of the Bill, and it has been remarkable how much common ground has been found, even by those who are diametrically opposed to the idea of academies. Several of us have seen the merits of some of the issues, and the debate as a whole has been fair and frank. I suspect that the Minister has also found some of the comments helpful in framing the final form of the legislation and the detail that is provided to future academies.
I support the amendment, because the effect of a large secondary school on the social fabric of a community-with possibly an increased role in the future-is important for social cohesion. I had hoped that we would consider new clause 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), because that talks specifically about the importance of social cohesion. If that obligation were in the Bill, there would be no going back on the school's commitment to the community. I have been a governor of schools where the local authority put in money for community facilities-such as a nursery-and bit by bit those services, which were additional to the school, disappeared, because of the weight of numbers. First, we lost the community room, and then the nursery. Those community facilities are not paid for by the education budget, but by the general rate fund-and in large council estates by the housing revenue account-but the pressure of numbers at the school means that they are lost to the community.
The investment needed to make real social cohesion work in large secondary schools, in both rural and urban areas, but especially in large schools in densely populated urban areas, is important not only to the school, but to the whole community. I want to see our academies, and all our schools, used seven days a week, with proper facilities being offered and without the restriction of governors saying that they do not want strangers in the building. Social cohesion means that the school can be used on a Sunday afternoon if someone is prepared to put the money in to pay the caretaker, not that the facilities are jealously guarded by the school as if they are only for its use. If this is going to work, we have to accept that these schools are an integral part of community provision. Sadly- [ Interruption. ] I thought that the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) wished to intervene. He was either yawning or mumbling about his leadership bid.
Mr Hancock: The amendment is very important because it places pressure on the Minister to spell out exactly what he believes social cohesion should mean, how schools can be best used and whether any concession will be made by the Government in this area. I hope that there is, and I expect that the hon. Member for Hemsworth feels the same.
If academies come into being, the chances of local authorities-which may have "bought into" new schools in the past-to buy facilities in schools will be remote and will not happen very often. It will be important for academies to start to sell themselves to the wider communities, saying what is on offer and inviting people to use it. We do not want to start with the idea that the use of facilities will be restricted. I would hope that Ministers will give us a concession tonight that would lead people to believe that schools will have a newly awakened sense of their responsibility to make a greater effort to bring the community in.
Dan Rogerson: I apologise to you, Mr Hoyle, and to the Committee for not being here for the start of the debate on this group of amendments. I was startled by the efficiency and economy with which the Committee dealt with the previous one.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) has raised this issue. It is right that people should look to their local schools for more than the education of young people-or even the education of people throughout their lives. In constituencies such as mine, the rural primary schools are at the heart of the small villages and offer much in terms of facilities and a focal point for much of what happens in the community. In the towns and bigger urban areas, secondary schools offer a similar facility, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) said. I completely understand the concerns that the hon. Member for Hemsworth has raised, on behalf of his constituents and people across the country watching this debate, about facilities that they are accustomed to having access to, for a whole range of purposes, perhaps being affected.
I do not have an academy in my constituency, so I bow to the experience of hon. Members who do as to how academies can continue to be at the heart of their communities. However, I would hope that we could have a response from the Minister to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Hemsworth, to reassure people that there will be something in the funding agreement-as we have heard, Government spokespeople in the other place suggested that that would be the way forward-if not in the Bill itself, to ensure that there is a duty on those schools to continue to engage with their local communities.
We have provision in the Bill not just for the transition of existing maintained schools into academies, but for new schools. We have already had a debate about whether some capital resource might be available to help those schools get under way. I hope that that could be kept to a minimum and that where people come forward wishing to provide those services, they would bring with them the determination to provide such facilities themselves. However, if there is a drawdown of money from the state system, as it were, the relevant duties and responsibilities must lie with those people, because they will be wanting to make a contribution to the education of young people in their communities, and I would hope that they should also be at the heart of those communities.
Amendment 54 seeks to place that commitment in the Bill, particularly with regard to facilities. I hesitate to get into a debate on the new clause standing in my name, which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South mentioned-we may reach it this evening; I am not sure-but there are related issues, which I hope you will permit me to mention, Mr Hoyle, that go wider than just the facilities. My hon. Friend referred to social and community cohesion, on which I hope the Minister will have had a chance to reflect.
With regard to the use of the facilities that the hon. Member for Hemsworth has set out in his amendment, there is a concern that if schools that are considering going down that route are to be held in law to be responsible for providing them following a change, they might seek to reduce such facilities or run them down. I hope that they would not, because all schools, whether
they are undergoing the process or not, will want to be at the heart of their communities. However, behind the amendment is a concern that a school might wish to restrict access a little. My concern is that accepting the amendment as drafted, with all the caveats that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) will no doubt raise on Report-perhaps I can cut in now, before we get there-will mean that schools would be encouraged to run down the community activities that they offer, because they would want to keep to a minimum what they would have to do afterwards. The amendment might therefore have the opposite effect.
Also, the courts would presumably then become the final arbiter of whether a school was keeping its swimming pool open-if it had a swimming pool-for the same number of hours as it had been a little while ago. We could have schools repeatedly going back to court. I know that that is not the intention of the hon. Member for Hemsworth. I am merely saying that his amendment is a chance to probe the Minister's intentions and insist that, wherever possible, we should have as much in the guidelines or the funding agreement, which is probably the way to do things, to reassure people that schools will continue to be at the heart of their communities, no matter how they receive their state funding-whether through a maintained set-up or the newer, academies option.
I hope that the Minister will indicate his support for that, but also place on record the fact that it will apply to any new academies, as well as to those formed by existing schools transferring across.
I will be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) have said all that needs to be said about amendment 54. I welcome the amendment, which was tabled by my hon. Friend. He has rightly expressed the concern about the risk that community facilities-provision that could and should be used by partnering schools or the wider community-could be stopped as a result of an academy order. All three hon. Members who have spoken in this debate have said how important such facilities are to social cohesion.
A further point is that in times when public finances are tight, the potential saving from having extended schools with those provisions is immense. There could be savings to the NHS, from having that social network in place, to the Home Office and police budgets, from early intervention, or to the social care budget. Those savings could be huge, and they all stem from the idea of an extended school that opens out into the community, providing an open and collaborative range of offers. However, there is nothing in the Bill that might safeguard that. I am concerned about that, which is why I welcome the amendment. I know that it is a probing amendment, as my hon. Friend said. However, I hope that the Minister can reassure the Committee that what is in the Bill will safeguard what is available for the community, because the whole of society can benefit as a result.
Amendment 54 seeks to ensure that each academy order contains provisions that make the school's facilities available for community use once the school
has converted to an academy. We agree on the importance of schools being at the heart of their communities. We would want to encourage the community use of school facilities. That is why the model funding agreement, which has been made available in the Libraries of both Houses and on the Department's website, requires academies
"to be at the heart of their communities and to share their facilities with other schools and the wider community".
That could include a wide range of initiatives-for example, making the school's sports facilities available for local groups to use, offering adult education after hours, and engaging staff in outreach work across other local schools. It is clear from the provisions in academy arrangements that we are committed to academies being a central resource to their local communities. That is also borne out by our expectation that all outstanding schools commit in principle to working in partnership with a weaker school, as part of their applications to become academies.
However, it would not be appropriate for every academy order to make such provision. Academy orders are intended to be the documents that confirm a school's conversion, and will contain key pieces of information pertinent to the conversion, depending on the circumstances of each school. We believe that the place to impose obligations on an academy is through the academy arrangements, in either the funding agreement or the terms and conditions of grant. That is consistent with the approach of the previous Government.
The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) talked about the gym and the sports facilities in his local school, and asked whether it could be made a requirement that there should be no less provision to the community than existed at the date of the transfer. He wanted to put that in the Bill, which I have explained would be excessive. He also raised the issue of the fees charged for those sports facilities. Again, his fear is that an academy would raise those fees in order to raise further funds for the academy or the school. However, all the issues that he has raised are issues for the funding agreement. There is no reason why those facilities cannot continue. If the issue is shared facilities between the school and the local authority, these will be subject to discussion as part of the conversion process. On the wider issue of charging, charging that is allowed is limited, as he knows, and will be equivalent to the money that maintained schools are also entitled to raise for out-of-hours-type activities.
I suppose that the issue at the back of the hon. Gentleman's mind is the concern that somehow academies will be less community-minded than the maintained schools that they replace-that somehow they will gouge out those facilities used by local residents or the out-of-hours evening classes that they attend. I see no evidence from the academies that I have visited around the country that that is their attitude. They are just as much a part of the community as the maintained schools that they are replacing.
The hon. Gentleman should be assured, certainly on the basis of the statements that I am now making to the Committee, that it is not the Government's intention that academies should become islands unto themselves, charging the maximum that they can to raise funds for their facilities. They will continue to be part of the community, concerned about the community, and wanting to share their facilities with the community.
I want to turn now to the points raised tangentially by my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). They both raised the issue of community cohesion. It is our view that the funding agreement will already include that requirement, using the phrase that I have just read out about being at the heart of the community and sharing facilities with the community. I am also able to help my hon. Friends by adding to the funding agreement an explicit requirement that academies will be required to be at the heart of their communities, to promote community cohesion and to share their facilities with other schools and the wider community. I hope that, in the light of those few words and the arguments that I put forward earlier, the hon. Member for Hemsworth will withdraw his amendment, which he described as a probing amendment.
Jon Trickett: I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has presented his case to the Committee, and I do not wish to press the amendment to a vote. He has had the opportunity to put the Government's views on record, and they will no doubt form part of any future debate when academies begin to operate. I predict, however, that the monitoring system he is introducing will be more expensive, more bureaucratic and more top-down than the present system of accountability of schools to their local communities through the local authorities, and that is deeply regrettable. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
(3) Before making an Academy order or an Academy arrangement with an additional school the Secretary of State must have regard to the impact assessment in subsection (1) made by the local authority.'.
Mr Wright: With this amendment and new clause 7, we return to a subject that we have discussed time and again in this brief Committee stage. One of the most fundamental weaknesses of the entire Bill is its wholly inadequate provision for consultation. Clause 4 sets out the process for the Secretary of State to consider and approve an academy order. It also sets out the criteria by which an application may be considered. The two criteria are that the governing body has applied or that the school is eligible for intervention. This provides no role for the local community or for parents to ask for intervention, however. Time and again this afternoon, the point has been raised about the lack of consultation for local stakeholders, especially parents. We believe that local authorities, communities, teachers, trade unionists and, most importantly, parents should have a role in calling for intervention.
Inherent in the Bill is a massive risk of creating a two-tier system that will divide rather than unite communities, and that will set deprived communities against affluent neighbourhoods. As I said in Committee last week, the Bill could ensure that the most important relationship was between the individual school and the Secretary of State, rather than between the school and its local community.
We have just been discussing amendment 54. One of my concerns is that the Bill, as it stands, is a highly centralising piece of legislation whose focus is firmly on the school and the Secretary of State, rather than on the wider area. There is also a risk that the Secretary of State intends to use the freedoms that academies allow to give only successful, prosperous schools the flexibility and resources to thrive. Those freedoms could well be provided at the expense of the vast majority of schools, which could face cuts to support services and experience severe disruption. The fragmentation of our schools system would be a real step backwards for social progress and social cohesion.
Amendment 79 would ensure that, before making an academy order in respect of a maintained school, the Secretary of State would be obliged to consult the local authority, teachers and other staff at the school, parents and pupils of the school and the other schools in the community, and any other such persons who are considered appropriate. In addition, he would have to consult other local authorities that might be affected by an academy order. This is most common, although not exclusively so, in London, where pupils in a particular school may be drawn from a wide variety of local authorities. Demand for places at a school in a particular local authority, especially a popular school, can affect the demand, and hence the viability, of schools in other boroughs. Surely the Minister accepts that it is right for those affected local authorities to be consulted as well. Proposed new subsection 8(b) would ensure that any other local authority that might be affected by the making of an academy order was consulted. For those reasons, we believe that amendment 79 offers an important means of injecting more challenge, scrutiny and consultation into the proposed legislation.
We believe strongly that local authorities have a strong role to play in helping every child to succeed. They do not, and should not, run schools, but they can provide a strategic function, and commission provision across an area that is relevant, suitable and in keeping with the local authority's vision for the shape of their economy.
Local authorities can ensure that local services are of a high quality and meet the needs, ambitions and aspirations of children and young people. The actions or, at times, inactions of local authorities can also be held to account by local people in a truly democratic fashion, as a means of securing effective, efficient and fair local public services.
We on the Labour Benches and, I suspect, some on the Government Benches, believe that local authorities are best placed to facilitate partnerships across different schools and drive forward improvement and rising standards. I said "I suspect", but it is fair to say that all Liberal Democrats subscribe to that view. I quote page 37 of their 2010 general election manifesto, which states:
"Local authorities will not run schools, but will have a central and strategic role, including responsibility for oversight of school performance and fair admissions. They will be expected to intervene where school leadership or performance is weak."
"We will ensure a level playing field for admissions and funding and replace Academies with our own model of 'Sponsor-Managed Schools'. These schools will be commissioned by and accountable to local authorities and not Whitehall".
That is an important commitment, on which every Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament was returned to the House. It is important that the Committee has the opportunity to vote on the matter, so that Liberal Democrat Members can support their manifesto commitments to a level playing field on admissions and funding and on social cohesion. On that basis, I give notice that I want to test the Committee's opinion with regard to new clause 7.
Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): What did the hon. Gentleman think about the provisions under discussion when the Labour Government introduced academies? As far as I know, none of the provisions apply to the current academy system.
Mr Wright: I do not want to return to the Second Reading debate, but the purpose and definition of academies under the Bill differ fundamentally from those of the academies introduced by the Labour Government. We gave freedoms and flexibilities to poorly performing schools in deprived areas. The Bill is a completely different kettle of fish, and I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me.
Under new clause 7, before a school can make an application for an academy order-or arrangement with a free school-local authorities would be asked to assess the impact of such an order or arrangement on admissions, the funding between all state-funded schools and social cohesion in an area. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) ably articulated, social cohesion with regard to education is vital. There is a huge risk inherent in the Bill that social cohesion will be threatened and compromised. The new clause addresses that.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD):
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case, referring to Liberal Democrat party policy. In new clause 7(1)(a), he refers to the admissions policy and the impact on admissions to schools. Were he successful in getting the new clause accepted, what would he envisage as the best solution in
circumstances in which, inevitably, parents will be disgruntled that their child is unable to gain admission to a local school?
Mr Wright: In my constituency, parents want to get their children into certain popular schools. It is important that the local authority sets out a clear procedure by which admissions will be considered, that there is a good appeals process, and that the schools adjudicator is part of that process. It is important that local authorities are in the driving seat: not running schools, but with borough-wide thinking on admissions. The approach has worked well and can continue to do so.
Earlier today, my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Education and the shadow Schools Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) wrote to every Liberal Democrat Member, expressing the wish that we work together to amend and improve the Bill by supporting new clause 7. If Liberal Democrat Members feel that they must support the Bill as a whole in keeping with the coalition agreement, I can understand and respect their position, but I hope that there can be cross-party support for new clause 7.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously pining for the day on which there is a Liberal Democrat majority Government- [Interruption.] I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman. Given the way in which his party has conducted itself in opposition, he and his hon. Friends may well be working towards such an arrangement even now.
Let me say, in all seriousness, that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to suggest that if the Liberal Democrats had been the majority party, we would have proceeded with the sponsor-managed schools option. However, we are not in that position. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we are in a coalition Government with a coalition agreement, and it is clear that some policies emanate from one partner in the coalition and some from the other. That is the way it works in coalition agreements all over the world, in countries where arrangements such as this are far more common than they have been in the United Kingdom, at least for several decades.
I do not think that academies are the answer. I did not think that they were the answer when the hon. Gentleman's party was in charge of the policy, and I do not think that they will necessarily be the answer for all schools now. However, following the coalition agreement, the Bill contains a series of provisions enabling communities, where there is a will, to allow schools to adopt academy status. It remains to be seen how many will take up the option and what use they will make of it. Amendments were made in another place, notably with regard to the provision of additional schools-which I know concerned the hon. Gentleman in earlier debates-and assessments of the impact on the surrounding area.
Consultation is vital. We have already engaged in a full debate on that issue, and I shall not go over the ground again. I will say, however, that the hon. Gentleman spoke of commitments by a political party in a set of circumstances prior to a coalition agreement which has been published and is available for everyone to examine
and discuss. Believe me, people in my constituency and others have been discussing it, and we have had many debates on it. That should not come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman.
I had the honour of serving in the last Parliament, when the hon. Gentleman stood at the Government Dispatch Box ably standing up for-it must be said-the sometimes slightly dodgy policies that his party was producing. He must have seen us sitting on the Opposition Benches below the Gangway-where his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) is sitting now-talking to some of his hon. Friends who were then sitting on this side of the Committee. They were sorely tempted to join us. Lord McAvoy, as he now is, would have been there, casting his eye over Labour Members and making sure that that did not happen.
It could be said that we are now in similar circumstances in terms of the way in which this place works, but it can only work, and a Government can only work, when there is an agreed programme. We have an agreed programme, and the Government are proceeding with it. However, I am pleased that the Minister was willing to listen-as was his noble Friend Lord Hill-to Members of our party and our side of the coalition, and to other noble Lords and hon. Members, and to make provision to allay some of the concerns that have been raised.
"social cohesion in the local authority area where the school is situated."
Under the Bill, as part of the funding agreement, if a pupil is excluded from an academy during the year, the academy will keep the funding as if the pupil had not been excluded, but the local authority-or someone else-will have to provide the funding for that excluded pupil somewhere else. It is because of such provisions in the Bill that some of us consider an impact assessment to be vital. Otherwise, when a pupil is excluded, the academy will keep the money and the pupil will become the responsibility of the local authority, which will have no funds with which to carry out that responsibility.
Dan Rogerson: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I am sure the Minister will want to respond to it in respect of how the funding agreement will work as the academies come into being. However, the hon. Gentleman said earlier that he thinks that academies are a good thing and that if Labour had continued in government, they would have increased in number. [Interruption.] Well, the issue of variance that has arisen between the Government's proposal and that of the hon. Gentleman is how the academies come into being. Until now they have undoubtedly had an effect on their local area, but there is an issue of critical mass, as many Opposition Members have said: there must be a tipping point at which there is a sufficient number of academies to have a particular effect on the local authority. That would have happened under the hon. Gentleman's vision for expanding the number of academies as well as under the Government's, so that is a separate question; it is a question about how many academies we have and what effect they have collectively.
I was tempted to rise and respond to the question of whether the model under discussion is the same as that which the Liberal Democrats have advocated throughout
history. It is not of course, but real progress has been made in that the Government have now introduced a Bill that includes a provision to allay a lot of the concerns that many of us have raised, but which also opens a way for communities that feel they want to go in this direction.
I am concerned that scare stories are being told that everybody will want to go for this in a big rush, but I do not think that will be the case. I think that many governing bodies, schools and groups will want to- [Interruption.] Well, the Secretary of State has talked about the huge amount of interest in this programme and I am sure that that is true, but I think that many people will want to see what happens and how things develop before deciding whether to take advantage of the provisions.
Andrew George: My hon. Friend has said that his concerns have been allayed. He will have heard my intervention on the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) in respect of the impact of these proposals on the admissions policies of each of the academies and what will happen when parents are unable to find a place in their local school which happens to be an academy-from whom they can seek redress in those circumstances if they have a justifiable reason to take the matter a stage further. I wonder how my hon. Friend might allay my concerns, given that his concerns in respect of the admissions policy have been allayed. This point is particularly important if we bear in mind the fact that the first academies are likely to be the outstanding schools-those that all pupils would wish to go to.
Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He has intervened on both the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and me, and he will no doubt want to raise his question with the Minister when he responds-indeed, the Minister may well wish to do address it in any case. When talking about fears being allayed, the particular point I was addressing was to do with community cohesion, which is very important. It is about the way in which the existing maintained schools, the new academies that have transferred over and other new school provision that is offered will interact and relate to the surrounding community. There has been a bit of progress on that, which I welcome.
On the tempting invitation from the hon. Member for Hartlepool to support the Labour amendment, I must say that their conversion comes a little late on some of these issues. As my party colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Andrew George) and for Redcar (Ian Swales), have already said in this brief debate, in respect of how the relationships emerge most of the provisions were in existence and operation under the previous academies programme. I do not think there is any huge difference therefore. The only difference is that this is someone else's academy programme, not that of the hon. Gentleman.
Amendment 79 would require the Secretary of State to consult all those listed in the amendment before making an academy order in respect of a maintained school. As I have mentioned a number of times, clause 5 already requires the governing body of a maintained school wishing to convert to academy status to consult
on its proposals. That provision was included in the Bill in response to concerns raised in the other place and in order to demonstrate the importance that this Government attach to consultation. I believe, therefore, that it is unnecessary and inappropriate, not to mention impractical, for the Secretary of State to consult on those same proposals. It should be the school's decision to become an academy, except in those cases where the school is eligible for intervention. It is our aim to reduce any unnecessary bureaucracy surrounding the academy conversion process, and I believe that potentially duplicating consultation would fall into that category.
We have made it very clear that we believe that schools are in the best position to determine how best consultation should take place. That includes deciding who should be consulted, although some guidance is provided on the website as to who is consulted, and when and how that should be done. We do not intend to provide an inflexible checklist, such as that proposed in this amendment, which would not, in itself, ensure that consultation was any more meaningful.
New clause 7 would mean that before a school makes an application for an academy order or an academy arrangement with an additional school, a local authority must be asked to assess the impact of academy status on admissions, on funding between all publicly funded schools and on social cohesion in the local authority area where the school is situated. It would also mean that before making an academy order or an academy arrangement with an additional school, the Secretary of State would be required to have regard to the impact assessment.
Clause 9 requires the Secretary of State, when deciding whether to enter into academy arrangements with an additional school-an entirely new or "free" school-to take into account the impact of such a school on the existing schools and colleges in the area. We believe that requiring the local authority to consider the impact of an additional school as well is unnecessary and will simply result, again, in the duplication of work. The clause does not include provisions for the Secretary of State to assess the impact of schools that convert into academies. We are clear that schools should convert "as is"; in most cases, it will be the same head, the same staff, the same parents and the same children in the school, but with additional freedoms to innovate and raise standards. Furthermore, the requirement for converting schools to consult means that those other schools in the area may have the chance to make representations on the proposed conversion. Where schools convert "as is" we do not believe, therefore, that the nature of the change is such that there is any need for an impact assessment.
Andrew George: The Minister will have heard my two interventions about the availability of an appeals process where an admissions policy excludes potential pupils from a school before they have been able to gain admission to the school. Under the current arrangements, in most areas the parents can appeal to the local authority if they feel that the decision is unacceptable. What arrangements will apply where an academy has been set up?
My hon. Friend will know that the admissions code will apply just as much to academies as to maintained schools, that the admissions appeals code will also
apply just as much to academies as to maintained schools and that the co-ordination arrangements will apply too. So the local authorities will hold the ring on admissions in the same way as they do at the moment.
Mr Iain Wright: I may be pre-empting what the Minister is going to say. He has been talking about existing maintained schools converting to an academy, using the phrase "as is" and he mentioned that schools would have the same head, the same estate and so on. New clause 7(1) states:
"Before a school makes an application for an Academy order or"-
"an Academy arrangement with an additional school".
We believe that the impact of an increase in academies and the freedoms they provide will lead to improvements in standards across the education sector as the best heads and the best schools drive improvements and expertise. The noble Lords were concerned about schools changing their age range and the Bill was amended to allay those concerns. Subsection (4) of clause 9 makes it clear than when a maintained school becomes an academy under the current school closure processes, further to the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and not further to an academy order, when the age range is not like-for-like, the school would be classed as an additional school, so the Secretary of State would be required to evaluate the impact. That would include, for example, an academy created as a result of the amalgamation of two or more schools or an 11-to-18 academy that replaced an 11-to-16 maintained school, if that involved a closure rather than a conversion. Any school wishing to add a sixth form would need to follow the relevant statutory provisions.
The problem with the shadow Minister's speech in moving the amendment was that it was written, I think, before he heard of the Government's intention to put in the funding agreement an explicit requirement to promote community cohesion. On top of that, it already requires academies to be at the heart of the community. He cited the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment that local authorities will not run schools. That is a view common throughout the coalition and we also agree that local authorities should be the champion of parents and pupils, championing school improvement and challenging rather than defending underperforming schools. In an old politics kind of way, he is trying to drive a wedge into fissures in the coalition where no fissures exist-and he is doing so unsuccessfully.
The point made by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about excluded pupils is wrong. He alleged that the funding for an excluded pupil stays with the academy. The funding follows the pupil when the pupil is excluded and that is a requirement in the academy agreement.
Mr Iain Wright: I apologise to the Minister on the subject of the concession that he has made on social cohesion and community cohesion in the funding agreement. I had meant to mention that, but I was wrapped up in helping Liberal Democrats. I apologise; that is a welcome concession.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) went so far in tempting me to think that he does not agree with academies, but then he pulled back considerably. He mentioned, rightly, that coalition-like all politics-is a question of compromise and negotiation, but I think that the Liberal Democrats are getting a bit of a raw deal in the coalition agreement when it comes to education policy. I will readily admit that today there has been the announcement on school funding and the pupil premium and I am pleased to see the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), on the Treasury Bench. I pay tribute to her for pushing that forward.
In every other sense, the emphasis has been on Conservative party policy, with an emphasis on free markets. There has been a rush to the markets and a lack of consultation with and consideration for the wider community that is at odds with what the Liberal Democrats want. I shall still provide the hon. Member for North Cornwall and his hon. Friends, who seem readily poised to join us in the appropriate Lobby, with the opportunity to ensure that the commitments that were made in the Liberal Democrat manifesto in the general election, only a matter of weeks ago, can still be fulfilled.
(3) Before making an Academy order or an Academy arrangement with an additional school the Secretary of State must have regard to the impact assessment in subsection (1) made by the local authority.'.- (Mr Iain Wright.)
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|