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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Perhaps I was not entirely clear in my reply. The noble Baroness is right to say that the power to withhold grants applies under the regulations. The regulations relate to plans to reduce class sizes, where necessary, in infant schools. The grant will be withheld where no proposed arrangements by the authority have been approved; in other words, not when no application has been submitted but when it is not satisfactory.

Baroness Blatch: Again, I am grateful to the noble Lord. As I understand the policy, there is no long-term proposition that a local authority can continue not to have a policy. If its plans are unsatisfactory and not approved by the Secretary of State--or worse, if the local authority does not provide the Secretary of State with such plans--then, as I understand the noble Lord and the Minister this evening, he will issue a direction to the LEA and that direction will be accompanied by the funding to produce and pay for whatever the direction is; for example, teachers, the building of premises, and so on. I understand that that direction will be accompanied by the resources to meet it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Yes. I repeat the assurance that my noble friend Lady Blackstone and I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour; namely, that a direction would be sought under Section 497 of the 1996 Act. Of course, a direction which required expenditure would be accompanied by funding.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful for that because now I understand that the withholding of grant is a technicality. It is withheld because plans are unsatisfactory, or for other reasons. On a direction of the Secretary of State the funds would flow. Eventually the children in that authority would still receive the benefit of the application of this policy.

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The noble Lord missed completely my further point in his answer. I said right at the outset that I understood that the revenue and capital were separate. The noble Baroness has said that on previous occasions, and I have read every word that the Minister for School Standards in another place has uttered there on this Bill. However, the promise has always been that the savings from the assisted places scheme will meet the revenue costs of this pledge. We have reservations about that. Where in any year the costs that are needed to meet the pledge exceed the money saved from the assisted places scheme, there should be a specific grant and a regulation should come before Parliament so that the issue is exposed for Parliament to consider.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I can repeat only what I have already said. We shall provide through specific grant the costs of meeting the limits on class sizes. That undertaking is not limited by savings from the assisted places scheme.

Baroness Blatch: I press the Minister further. Is he giving a further pledge that if the assisted places moneys are not adequate they will be topped up by the Treasury? That question has to be posed because this is an open policy; whatever the costs may be, they will be met. If the revenue costs exceed the savings from the assisted places scheme, will they be met by the Treasury? If, and when, that is the case, is there some mechanism the Minister can offer that Parliament would be informed or that regulations would be drawn up? Or, is the noble Lord not giving the guarantee that if the assisted places scheme savings do not meet the revenue costs the Treasury will meet the additional costs?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The undertaking that I gave was quite clearly not related to receipts from the assisted places scheme. I said that we shall provide through specific grant the costs of meeting the limits on class sizes. If the noble Baroness wants me to say that we expect the receipts from the assisted places scheme to meet those costs, we do indeed expect that. However, the undertaking I have given is independent of that expectation.

Baroness Blatch: I accept that. I am grateful that I have obtained that undertaking from the Minister. It may be that I am asking about a hypothetical, theoretical, stratospheric occurrence. If, and when, the costs exceed the savings from the assisted places scheme, could we as parliamentarians be informed of that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The reason we are not able to calculate now the exact costs local education authority by local education authority and in aggregate is because local authorities have to submit applications for their solutions to solve the problem that we have set them of reducing class sizes. We do not know what solutions they will find; we hope that they will find economical as well as satisfactory solutions but we are dependent on them--subject to the guidance we give them about the submission of those applications--to produce the solutions which are most appropriate to their local areas.

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Therefore it is not, and never has been, possible for us to give the total sum that will be required for this purpose over the period of this programme until September 2001. However, we have said that we will meet these costs.

Baroness Blatch: When we reach the next stage of the Bill I shall not have this opportunity to keep pressing the Minister for detailed answers. I understand and agree with everything that the noble Lord has just said in that I accept he cannot say at this moment what next year's costs will be, or those for the year after that. That is not the point of my amendment. What the noble Lord can quantify are the savings that come on stream in any given financial year from the assisted places scheme. That will be a definitive sum of money that is made available to the department. Is the Treasury prepared to make provision that where the costs cannot be met from savings from the assisted places scheme--which was the pledge made by the Government--the Treasury will undertake to top up these sums? As the noble Lord has said with great confidence, he does not even envisage this happening. I am simply saying that if and when it does happen, can Parliament be informed? I shall leave the noble Lord to answer another time, unless he particularly wants to come back now.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: It now seems to me that the noble Baroness is asking for something for which I had hoped she would not need to ask. The amounts which will be spent on fulfilling this pledge and fulfilling the programme under this part of the Bill will be transparent. In other words, they can be known to Parliament. When we allocate specific grants we will advise the allocations to the local education authorities and that information will be available to this House.

Similarly, as was made quite clear during the passage of the Act which introduced assisted places, the savings which will arise from the abolition of the assisted places scheme are not secret; they are available and they will be available to this House as necessary.

Baroness Blatch: The noble Lord and his colleagues opposite made an explicit statement that this would be an assisted places scheme revenue paid policy. We will extrapolate the information ourselves if the Government are not prepared to present it in the form that I have asked for in this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment Nos. 18 to 21 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 22 not moved.]

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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 23:

Before Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

("Chapter IA
General duty of secretary of state

.--(1) The Secretary of State shall ensure that his functions relating to the provision of education in schools under sections 10 and 11 of the Education Act 1996 are exercised with a view to promoting high standards of attainment.
(2) The Secretary of State, in fulfilling his duty under subsection (1), shall not require any school to alter its status if it is performing within the top third of schools or is consistently improving its performance in national performance tables for National Curriculum tests or GCSE examination results.").

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 23 requires that it shall be a general duty of the Secretary of State to ensure,

    "that his functions relating to the provision of education in schools under sections 10 and 11 of the Education Act ... are exercised with a view to promoting high standards of attainment".

I put emphasis on the word "attainment" because I believe that is a rather clear way of making a judgement about schools. There are all kinds of other things that can be measured but, for the purposes of my amendments, I wish "attainment" to be added to the words "high standards".

The second part of my amendment asks that:

    "The Secretary of State, in fulfilling his duty under subsection (1), shall not require any school to alter its status if it is performing within the top third of schools or is consistently improving its performance in national performance tables for National Curriculum tests or GCSE examination results".

I feel particularly strongly about this amendment. I was about to say, "If the Government are genuine"; I shall rephrase that. I do believe that the Government are genuine in wanting to see high standards. I think it would be wrong of me to doubt that when the Prime Minister, even before the election, said that "Education, education, education" is a priority he actually meant it, that the Ministers in the department mean it and that the Ministers in government mean it and are supported by Cabinet colleagues, members of the party and members of the Government. I do not wish to call that into question.

I simply wish to call into question the ways of achieving it. It does seem to me particularly pernicious--I do not use the word lightly--when one looks across the piece at education to see what is working out there and to see where good education resides out there in the community. We know that our grammar schools are performing well. One has only to look at the performance tables produced each year. We also know that the majority of our grant-maintained schools are performing very well.

I have some colourful memories of a particular grant-maintained school. It was going through a traumatic time when overcoming the hurdles to become a grant-maintained school. I was visited by the chief education officer of the relevant local education authority who pleaded with the department not to allow the school to become a grant-maintained school. I was fascinated by the case put by the representatives. They said they wanted just a little more time because they felt that the school was not quite ready; its performance was

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not all that it should be. They had real doubts about whether the school could manage its own affairs. I was rather sucked into the case being made until I considered that that local education authority had had that school for decades, probably a century, and it was still underperforming in its eyes. Given that a good case had been put, I took the view that if the school were to be grant maintained it would be responsible for its own future, its performance, and the way in which the school was run within the family of state-funded education. I was not wrong. The school almost flew when it became free and independent but within the state sector.

There is something rather distasteful about insisting that these schools should have their status taken away in the way prescribed in the Bill. With grant-maintained schools, the parents themselves voted to take that road. Many went through a great deal of difficulty in doing so--opposed by the local education authority, opposed by the LSI (which I understand has now become an organisation called TEN), opposed by the Labour Opposition at the time, opposed by Labour councillors up and down the country, and, I admit, opposed by some Conservative councillors who have since realised how successful the policy was. It was because local authorities saw it as somehow losing their fiefdom.

As someone who came up through a local authority, I always took the view that the situation is rather like that of one's own children. When one grows up one has one's children; one is very attached to them, worries about them and nurtures them. One is concerned about their future. There is that dreadful moment when they start to seek their independence and to move away. Parents become nervous about that. But the joy of seeing one's children standing on their own two feet, being independent and taking their own decisions, is something to be grateful for. The fact that they can stand on their own two feet is to be celebrated. I see that as a simple analogy with schools. I used to say to colleagues on local education authorities, "Why don't you see it like this? Where schools become independent within the family of state education, reflect on and celebrate the fact that they are able to shine as schools." And shine they have.

It seems particularly pernicious not to give those parents an opportunity to vote the other way. At a stroke of the pen, when the Bill becomes law, with the massive majority in another place, it will see the end of grant-maintained schools and probably the end of grammar schools--all that works out there.

Another aspect of the same picture of good education is this. Given the opportunity, those schools on day one would like the opportunity to become foundation schools. It is the same argument. The Government began with a policy that they could become grant-maintained schools when the policy was implemented. Because the teacher unions--or some body--have now persuaded the Government otherwise, they have now put a hold on the time during which those schools could exercise their choice to change their status. I and my colleagues feel strongly about this. I do not doubt the intentions or the policy aims; I support them most strongly. But I think

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that it would be quite wrong to take away the status of grant-maintained schools and to return them to local authorities.

I have read these documents very well. Irrespective of LEA relationships and the code of practice, there are so many clauses in this Bill which give local authorities a window of opportunity to intervene in relation to grant-maintained schools. Indeed, the Secretary of State also has powers to intervene.

I therefore plead with the Government to think again on this policy. These are good schools. The amendment provides enough flexibility even for schools which are not achieving highly in the performance tables but are nevertheless making seriously impressive improvements year on year, starting from a very low base, and doing all that the Government want them to do and are exhorting schools up and down the land to do. Why not give them this opportunity? It is possible that some of them will, overnight, want to become foundation schools. I should be the first to say: give them that opportunity too. Where they have democratically voted for that status, it is only fair that they should be given a democratic opportunity to determine their own future. In the meantime, if schools do not wish to change their status, they should be left alone--particularly when they are performing so well and when some, while they may not be very high in the performance league tables, are making impressive improvements year on year. I beg to move.

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