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Baroness Blatch: That final statement makes it absolutely clear. Are serious talks going on in the department with a view to a company taking over a single school? An answer to that question would be enormously helpful. The noble Baroness says that there is no question that a company could take over a single school. I accept that as a statement of fact now it is on the record. Are talks going on in the department to that effect?

Baroness Blackstone: I do not think that that has much to do with the amendments. If we are to make progress at half-past 10, it is right to try to stick to the amendments on the Marshalled List rather than

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introduce issues that do not really relate to them. Discussions go on between the department and organisations, across government and outside it all the time. As a Minister in the department I cannot comment on every conceivable discussion that may be going on. As a former Minister, the noble Baroness will be aware of that and, no doubt, is sympathetic to it. As far as I know, there is no discussion about a private firm taking over a single school.

Baroness Blatch: I understand the point that the noble Baroness has just made: she cannot be responsible for everything going on in the department. However, it seems that the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Mirror and all the other newspapers know about it.

Having said that, I am afraid that I find it almost offensive that the Minister said that that has nothing to do with the amendment. The amendment seeks precisely to allow a single school to be taken on by a third party--voluntary, private and/or public--in order to address failing schools. This part of the Bill--albeit only four clauses--is about addressing failing education. The Minister rightly said that education action zones represent more than one school and that they will be established in areas where education is failing. However, having seen some of the applications, I regard that as a loosely defined criterion. The Minister said that this matter has nothing to do with the amendment and that we should move on to matters more pertinent to the amendment. My remarks could not be more pertinent to the amendment, which relates to a single school being taken on by a third party. However, in view of what the Minister said and in the light of the unfolding saga, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Hooper): I apologise for having assumed that this amendment had been moved prior to my taking the Chair. Is it your Lordships' pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?

Noble Lords: No.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: Is it your Lordships' pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?

[Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.]

[Amendments Nos. 50 and 51 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 52 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 52A:

Page 9, line 42, at end insert--
("( ) The Secretary of State shall extend any disapplication of statutory provisions or regulations granted to schools in education action zones to other individual schools or groups of schools which apply to him for such a dissaplication.
( ) Where a disapplication of statutory provisions or regulations is granted to an individual school or a group of schools without education action zone status such school or group of schools may also be granted the status of the employer of all teaching and non-teaching staff at the school or group of schools.").

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The noble Baroness said: As we understand it, the policy is that action zones should be located in areas of the country where education is failing. It seems to me that if one can disapply the national curriculum and pay and conditions agreements in an area where education is failing, there must be an even stronger case for saying that where a school can convince the Secretary of State that it is delivering good education which is entirely satisfactory to the Secretary of State, the disapplication provisions should apply. I cannot think of a reason why the provisions could be disapplied for failing schools in areas where education is failing but could not be disapplied in areas where education is succeeding and where good and successful schools would like to innovate further in order to be even more successful. I hope the Minister will consider that point.

Turning to the second subsection of the amendment, referring to who employs the teachers, we seem to have the worst of all possible worlds in that in come the third parties--whether that is the LEA plus a consortium of people or a private concern plus the LEA plus a consortium of people--to manage an education action zone with the LEA as the employer. If education development plans apply, and if intervention powers apply to the quality and monitoring of education within those schools, those who are innovating and who are in the business of improving standards of education in those schools are not being given a great deal of freedom if they are not given the power to hire and fire staff, both teaching and non-teaching. It is, sadly, a fact of life that where education fails that is not always because the children cannot or do not learn or because not all families are supportive. Sadly, it can sometimes be because the quality of the staff is not what it should be.

We were all depressed by the Answer the other day to a Question about the fast-tracking procedure for removing seriously incompetent members of staff. According to that Answer, it seems that that policy is some way from being implemented. It appears to be very much part of a package. If one has responsibility for running schools one must have the power to exercise that responsibility; in other words, one must not tie the hands of these people behind their backs. The very thing that they cannot do is reorganise the staff in such a way that education in those schools is improved. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone: Perhaps I may take the amendment in two parts. The first seeks to extend action zone freedoms to other areas; the second seeks to change the employer of staff. I very much welcome the support for some of the principles of education action zones which is implicit in these amendments. I, too, am keen to encourage creativity and innovation throughout the education system. My concern, however, is to ensure that change and experimentation in schools are introduced with proper care. Action zones will be test-beds for the schools of the future and as such will be expected to go beyond the many existing flexibilities that are already available to other schools. I say without hesitation that the success of zone schools will inform

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future education policy. We shall be keen to ensure that the lessons with which they provide us are widely disseminated to other schools around the country.

As to disapplication of the teachers' pay and conditions Act, this will help to provide models for how recruitment and retention can be improved--which is terribly important if we are to raise standards in schools--and how schools in challenging areas can have more of the best teachers than they currently attract. It is a rather sad fact that many of the best teachers are not teaching in some of the particularly challenging and difficult areas of the country. We hope that we can attract more such teachers to those areas. The education action zone experiment will, among other things, provide valuable evidence for the school teachers' review body.

But action zones are pilot programmes and are intended to be areas of controlled innovation. They are to be targeted where support is most needed. For these reasons, it is surely only prudent to monitor and evaluate progress and select them very carefully on the basis of need and the quality of proposals put forward. I am sure that the Committee agree that that is the right way to proceed.

Schools in all areas of the country were invited to apply for action zones and many of them took up that challenge. This is an important and exciting initiative and we do not want to rule out any future useful contributions. That is why, subject to the comprehensive review, we hope to expand the programme during this Parliament to include other groups of schools and other areas. I am sure that the expansion will provide us with an even wider range of new ideas and valuable lessons, but it must be managed carefully.

Turning to the second part of Amendment No. 52A, the Committee may well be aware that in practice all governing bodies act as the employer of their staff, unless they have had that privilege removed for failing to provide an adequate education or because of unfortunate financial mismanagement. In practice, this would make very little difference to an individual school. Where a group of schools applies I fear that this can lead to confusion over who actually is the employer, unless the group has a separate legal entity. However, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that the quality of staff is very important. For those reasons, we have decided that if an education action zone wishes to suspend normal teachers' pay and conditions it can do so. Governing bodies would know that they are losing their employment powers. That would reduce the number of governing bodies wanting to take part. Given that participation is voluntary, it is important that those governing bodies have a choice. Otherwise, there may be a reduction in the number of schools applying. If they want to cede that right, that is fine and is provided for in Clause 12(2)(b). However, it is for them to decide whether they want to cede it.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: I was extremely interested in the Minister's reply to the amendment. She has told us carefully that the Government are concerned to take

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proper care in setting up education action zones. We have made it clear that we support the aim of education action zones but throughout we have been rather concerned about how they will operate and how democratic accountability will be maintained.

My concern this evening, particularly on this amendment, is to keep democratic accountability. The Minister was obviously more concerned not to go ahead too quickly and was being cautious. But I did not hear her mention anything to do with democratic accountability.

Earlier on this evening, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was talking about the merits of local education authorities and how they could best deal with money for buildings and so on. There were several occasions on which she was singing their praises. This measure seems to me to work against keeping good democratic control through local authorities. That is one real concern which some of my colleagues and I have about education action zones. It is a matter which we shall pursue on the next set of amendments which deal with them.

I am disappointed that the Minister does not recognise that there is a problem, if we are not careful, in relation to where that leads us in the democratic process in the future.

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