Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I welcome the statement the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made that there is no magic wand for the academies. It was always going to be the case that some of them were going to struggle with the situation they took over from failing schools. None of us wants to support failing schools to carry on failing but the PricewaterhouseCoopers and the report that he quoted

18 July 2006 : Column 1168

were looking only at the academies themselves. They were not comparing them with similar schools that were given the same amount of money. If any scientist had tried to publish a paper on this basis, the peer review would laugh them out of the profession. If you are going to say that the success of these schools is down to the form of governance they have been given, you must be jolly sure that all the other factors are the same and that the only difference is the system of government. Otherwise it is just hearsay.

I have been accused of inconsistency in tabling both of these amendments. As I mentioned earlier, Amendment No. 66 asks for proper study and proper proof but we accept that even in your Lordships’ House, the wisdom of our remarks is not always accepted and that we may not get that amendment accepted. It is therefore perfectly consistent to ask in Amendment No. 88 that if the programme is not halted pending further proof, each academy application should be accompanied by the local authority having proper regard to the effect on other schools of the establishment of that academy.

I have one or two very small points to make.The Orange Book is blue-sky thinking and does not represent Liberal Democrat policy. Also, we have been criticised for continuing to put pressure on the Government but that is our job. As an opposition party, we are here to put the Government under pressure. If they are going to put a lot of public money behind something, we must ask them to prove that the money is well spent. That is the job we have to do as an opposition party, rather than just lie down and have our tummy tickled like some domestic pet. That is the job for an opposition party and that is what we will carry on doing. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 67 and 68 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Proposals under section 7 relating to community or community special schools]:

[Amendments Nos. 69 to 72 not moved.]

Lord Adonis moved Amendment No. 73:

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 94 to 101, 104, 109, 117 to 120, 124, and 133 to 136. I have written to noble Lords about these amendments so I hope I can be brief.

I turn first to Amendment No. 73, Clause 8 deals with proposals under Clause 7 relating to community schools. The effect of this amendment is to make it clear that regulations may prescribe matters which the Secretary of State will take into account in deciding whether or not to consent to the publication of proposals for a new community school in a competition.

The clause as originally drafted referred only to the educational standards of authorities and individual schools and the extent of diversity among the schools. This amendment will allow a wider range of factors

18 July 2006 : Column 1169

to be specified in regulations than would be appropriate on the face of the Bill, and for these to be more easily modified following consultation if this is felt necessary.

Regulation 7 of the illustrative regulations made available to the Committee indicates the kinds of factors we have in mind. These will include the range of curricular specialisms and the range of extended services offered by schools, as well as the general standards of attainment and the range of special educational needs provision.

Government Amendments Nos. 94 to 98, 100, 104 and 109 are technical and remedy deficiencies in the drafting of the Bill. The only amendment of substance which I should just say a word about is Amendment No. 97, which provides that a local authority may publish proposals for an increase in the number of pupils admitted to a school. As it stands, the Bill provides only for a local authority to propose an increase in the physical capacity of a school. There may be circumstances in which a local authority wishes to increase the number of pupils admitted to a school without having to enlarge the premises significantly. This amendment brings the Bill into line with existing legislation governing school organisation, which recognises this distinction between a physical enlargement and an increase in the number of pupils admitted to a school.

Amendments Nos. 99, 101, 117 to 120, 124, 133 to 136 are to protect the assets and the role of existing foundations that support schools. They follow extensive discussions, in particular with the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which account for the majority of such trusts. They give these trusts broadly the same protection as applied before the Bill. I beg to move.

6 pm

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough: I am grateful to the Minister for speaking to these technical amendments. As he said, some of them are in response to points that I made at Second Reading in relation to how the proposals would affect Church schools. I simply express the thanks of the Church of England, and indeed the Roman Catholic authorities, for how he has responded by introducing the amendments, which we believe address the points that I raised. My AmendmentNo. 125 was originally in the group. I have withdrawn it from the Marshalled List because, from conversation with the officers of the department and in the light of reassurances that we have been given, I do not think it is necessary to press it.

Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister, particularly for putting his name to Amendment No. 104; it was originally our amendment, but he has brought it back as a government amendment. We have before us a group of 20 amendments, so I would like to use this opportunity to make a few comments about how the Bill is being handled.

The Government have got themselves into a mess. To extract themselves, they are trying to import the practices of another place into your Lordships' House without any discussion or vote about the matter. When asked how many days we needed for Committee on

18 July 2006 : Column 1170

this very contentious Bill, we on these Benches said six. The Government then imposed their own timetable and set four. They added another half day, as they began to see that we were right. They are so anxious to finish Committee before the Recess that they have imposed their own guillotine, without any opportunity for your Lordships to vote on the matter. They have tried all sorts of devices to curtail proper discussion of the Bill, such as wanting to postpone Committee-style discussion of certain sections until Report; wanting the House to sit until midnight, which is totally contrary to what it has voted for; and putting together enormous, unwieldy and often non-homogenous groups of amendments. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has degrouped his amendments from the group of 16 amendments beginning with government Amendment No. 158.

We are told that we are not doing very well. That does not mean that we are not making good arguments, raising important issues or doing our job of scrutinising the Bill; it means that we are not getting through the business fast enough. It is like, “Never mind the quality, feel the width”. The Bill was not fully scrutinised in another place, despite the time that it took over it. Whole sections were dismissed in an hour on the last day. These Benches will play our part in helping this House to carry out its traditional role of scrutinising every part of the Bill, and looking into every corner to ensure fairness and that vulnerable people are protected and human rights upheld. That is what this House does well and, until it ceases to be our job, that is what we will continue to do.

I hope that the Government will consider the considerable co-operation that we have already given and any co-operation that we may or may not give over the next few days as not establishing any precedent that rides roughshod over the rights and procedures of your Lordships' House.

Baroness Warnock: I am not clear whether Amendment No. 97 means that the local authority will have the ability to insist on the enlargement of a school, or whether the school will be able to refuse to take more pupils. Perhaps particularly in the case of schools mentioned under Clause 19(2) for pupils with special educational needs, it seems important that the governing body and the head determine the size of the school. It seems a great danger to think that, if a school is successful, therefore it ought to enlarge its numbers, because a school’s character may be determined by the fact that it is small. Will the Minister kindly clear that up?

Lord Adonis: I think that I need to write to the noble Baroness to give her the categorical answer to her question. I shall speak from my knowledge of decision-making, not from a note, which may be slightly hazardous. My understanding is that, where the school is a community school, the local authority has the power to publish proposals and decide on them. However, where it is another category of school, if the school is not amenable these matters could not be decided by the local authority unilaterally. I shall come back to her.

18 July 2006 : Column 1171

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 8, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Publication of proposals with consent of Secretary of State]:

[Amendments Nos. 74 to 78 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Publication of proposals to establish maintained schools: special cases]:

Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 79:

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 79, I shall speak to another large group of amendments, Amendments Nos. 80, 82, 85, 86, 90, 93 and 102. Amendments Nos. 79, 80, 82, 85 and 86 relate to aspects of school closures, mergers and consultations about mergers and closures, whereas Amendments Nos. 90, 93 and 102 deal with issues arising from alterations and expansions. I would like to speak first to that first half of the group, and then to move the second half.

Amendments Nos. 79 and 80 relate to the special case of when two primary schools merge, and seek to probe the Government’s thinking on whether that requires a competition to set up a new school. To reduce the tensions that can result from the merger of an infant and junior school, both schools are often closed and reopened as a new school with a new name, rather than one school simply being taken over by another. That matter was raised in a letter dated10 May 2006 to the new Minister for Schools,Jim Knight, by Vernon Coaker MP on behalf of one of his constituents. In his letter of response dated31 May 2006, Jim Knight explained the proposed regulations governing the establishment of a community school and the criteria governing the Secretary of State’s consent. He concluded:

The letter was written after the current version of the Bill was published on 25 May, and it is assumed thatit should have referred to Clause 11 rather than Clause 9. Whichever clause was intended, it would be helpful if the Minister could provide further reassurances about the reorganisation of primary schools in that regard.

Amendment No. 82 relates to Clause 15(4). At present, that subsection relates only to rural primary schools and largely re-enacts Section 70 of the Education Act 2005, which we argued over at some length in this Chamber about 18 months ago, just before the last general election. Section 70 of that Act was the result of a government defeat in this House and required that, before making a proposal to close a primary school, the relevant body—the local education authority—must take account of the effect of the closure on the local community and on transport.

18 July 2006 : Column 1172

We argue that these criteria should be applied not just to rural schools but to any local school. The knock-on effects of closure need to be considered. There needs to be wide consultation, not only with parents but also with local district town and/or parish councils.

Amendments Nos. 85 and 86 relate to Clause 17 which is concerned with the closure of special schools and seeks to extend the consultation required should the Secretary of State avail himself of the powers granted by this clause to shut a special school. Amendment No. 8 would provide that the consultation should be extended to the parents of children attending the school. Amendment No. 86 also provides that whenhe gives notice of his decision under subsection (4) he sets out the reason for his decision.

In Committee in the other place the Minister argued that both amendments were unnecessary and that Clause 17(3)(d), which states that consultation should take place with,

might be expected to include parents and children attending the school. We respond that “might be expected” is not good enough. Given the emphasis that the Government are putting on parents’ views and preferences, and that they also regard the voice of the child to be an important aspect of consultation, we feel that both should be on the face of the Bill as consultees.

The Government also argued that having to set out the reasons for his decision—as provided in Amendment No. 86—was an unnecessary bureaucratic burden on what might need to be a hasty decision in the interests of the health and safety of the children involved. Again, the amendment does not demand any lengthy report but merely that the reasons for the decision are given in at least summary form when the notice is issued. For a Government who produce so many unnecessary pieces of paper—not to mention unnecessary legislation—I believe that this is not too much to ask.

Amendments Nos. 90, 93 and 102 deal with the issues arising from alterations and expansions in schools. Amendment No. 90 is a probing amendment to clarify that Clauses 18 to 23, which come under the heading of “Alterations to schools”, include the physical alteration of the school premises to accommodate more pupils and to add a sixth form. Those cited in subsection (2) and (4) of Clause 18 are all alterations to governance structures, but since much has been made of encouraging successful schools to expand, it is to be assumed that such expansions are indeed covered by these provisions. What has not been generally publicised is that any such expansion requires—as I understand from subsection (2)—a community school to become a foundation school. I seek clarification from the Minister if that is the case. As we have made clear elsewhere, we have little sympathy with this element of government policy and regret in particular the shift away from governors representing the local community, including elected parent governors, to a governance structure which reflects the aims, aspirations and preferences of those running the foundations.

18 July 2006 : Column 1173

We also seek further assurances from the Minister about the role of Building Schools for the Future. When I asked in Committee last week whether they would be using Building Schools for the Future as a lever to encourage schools to become foundation schools and to require them if they were to participate in the programme to become foundation schools, the Minister said very firmly that that was not the case and that there was no intention to use that programme in order to push schools into foundation status. I should be grateful if the Minister would reiterate that statement because it is an important one.

Amendments Nos. 93 and 102 argue a similar cause. In arguing the case about closures and the need for consultation, I quoted previously the Ofsted report of October 2003, The influence of school place planning on school standards and social inclusion. I do not wish to repeat what I read out previously. In particular, the report warned that allowing popular schools to expand to meet parental demand risks sending an already struggling school into a spiral of decline. Perhaps I may repeat the warning contained in the report: losing a school does not enhance a community. Amendments Nos. 93 and 102 provide that, when expansion is considered, the overall provision of education within the community as a whole should be considered, not just the narrow interests of the particular school or one section of the community. Clause 1 puts the duty on LEAs to promote fair access to educational opportunity and to enable every child to fulfil their educational potential. Yet allowing a free-for-all expansion of popular schools, allowing other schools to wither on the vine, does not necessarily promote fair access and can result in the most disadvantaged being even more disadvantaged. Amendments Nos. 93 and 102 ask, therefore, that when proposals for expansion are being considered, the impact of that expansion on the overall provision of education by the LEA as a whole and by other schools in the area is taken into account.

There are two important aspects regarding further education colleges: the provision of specialist vocational courses for 14 to 16 year-olds; but also for 16 onwards. Those further education colleges often provide a vital facility. Schools do not have the specialist facilities to provide vocational courses such as construction or hairdressing. It is important—I know that the Government are sympathetic to this—that where schools want to provide such specialist courses they should collaborate with the further education colleges rather than duplicate the facilities. Two sinks stuck in the corner of a domestic science room and the taking on of a part-time hairdresser are not enough to offer a course in hairdressing. It is important that those children are trained using the good facilities which often exist at further education colleges.

Many who move from school to further education colleges do so because they have not enjoyed school. What is surprising is how often they speak highly of the courses they study at the further education colleges where they retake their GCSEs, study for A-level and often do surprisingly well. In that sense, further education colleges are a very important second-chance saloon

18 July 2006 : Column 1174

for some of the students at our secondary schools. Proposals to expand sixth forms can have knock-on effects on the local colleges—both sixth form and further education colleges. It is important that those knock-on effects are taken into account in considering the expansion of schools. I ask the Minister to confirm the promise that his colleague gave in the other place. On 25 April, Jacqui Smith said:

The next paragraph states:

that is my honourable friend Sarah Teather, the Member for Brent East—

I should like an assurance from the Minister that that will be set into regulations.

Will the Minister confirm that any expansion plans will be considered within the overall context and implications for the community? Secondly, will he specifically confirm that consultation with FE and sixth-form colleges will be included within the statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State? I beg to move.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: Before the Minister replies, I simply add my voice in support of Amendments Nos. 85 and 86. The discontinuation of a special school is, in many ways, a very special case. Parents of children with special educational needs often put great weight on their relationship with the school and put a great deal of work into trying to make that school and their child meet one another’s needs. While it may well be possible that the Bill will deal with the issue of consulting parents, I see no real reason why it should not say so. It would obviously be satisfactory and on the whole comforting to parents if it did.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page