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Baroness Blatch: I rise briefly to support my noble friend. The flexibility which he proposes is entirely within the aims of the Government. The Government want to see education changed and standards raised. If the forum has determined that it would like to take this route, and if it is to be trusted to raise standards and to retain the responsibility for seeing that that happens, there is nothing to fear and everything to gain by accepting the amendment.
Lord Whitty: This amendment deals with the leasing out of schools already covered by an education action zone. Action zones are partnerships which cover whole areas. We are building those partnerships between all the schools in the zone, between the wider partnership with business, with parents, with the voluntary sector and with the local authority and other aspects of the public sector. This proposition effectively sees us hiving off one school out of this partnership and asking it to work to a different set of rules without the support of its neighbours in the zone. Having established the zone with a coherent approach and a partnership base, it seems to me that what is proposed would have a negative and divisive effect.
Having said that, I think that some of the objectives alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, can be achieved within the existing proposals. We do not want unnecessarily to restrict the freedom of the forum to take decisions to improve the management of particular schools. Clearly, there will be many situations where they wish to improve the management and other forms of expertise available to those schools. If the governing bodies of an action zone have chosen to cede their powers to the action forum, that forum itself will already have the authority to subcontract strands of work within its schools to a private educational consultant. That could include an educational management consultant. But the point is that under our proposals all the schools would remain within the action zone and the consultant would work directly to the forum rather than manage a hived-off school. In those areas where the governing bodies have not ceded any of their powers, a private educational body could still be hired by the forum to act on its behalf either across the zone or in one particular school. Of course, where the governing body retained its powers the consultant's powers would be more limited than in the first example. Nevertheless, they could be brought in to improve the management and the leadership of the particular schools and schools in general.
The ability of the forum itself to bring in expertise is a better solution already available within the rules we are proposing than the idea of leasing out, hiving off or pushing away from the forum's general approach to a separate organisation as suggested in the amendment. There is already substantial flexibility in the rules and
Lord Skidelsky: I appreciate that reply which is sympathetic to the purposes I put forward. Has the Minister considered at all seriously what has been achieved by charter schools in the United States? Has he looked at what has happened in Springfield, Massachusetts, and East Harlem where spectacular results have been achieved by exactly the method I have been talking about? That success has been achieved precisely because they have been able to bring in fresh energy and commitment by groups of people to a single school. That is worlds away from the language that the Minister used about bringing in management consultants and that kind of thing.
As explained to me, not in this House, but outside, one of the main philosophies of the education action zones seems to be to rationalise services across the area. That is why a company like Capita is involved in so many of the bids. I am sorry; I am revealing something. I know that to be the case. It is a management consultant body and believes that one should rationalise services across the forum such as financial, administration and management services. It has a good case.
However, that is not what I am talking about. It worries me that in his reply the Minister should talk about consultancy and management skills. I am talking about the energy, enthusiasm and zeal of groups of educationalists who believe they can turn a school round. I want them to be given a chance. If one says that that will be possible within the forum structure I would be very happy. But the Minister needs to say more than he has said to persuade me that that would be possible.
Lord Whitty: There is quite a degree of flexibility built into the action zones in bringing in anyone-- educationalists, management consultants or whoever-- who can offer expertise. To some extent the noble Lord is addressing a slightly separate and different problem. We are debating here action zones directed at changing the educational attainment of whole areas and co-operation between schools. I believe that what is at the back of the noble Lord's mind is the question of failing schools where clearly innovative measures would be contemplated. Indeed, any measures which offer improvement for failing schools identified by the department and the local education authority would be contemplated on a one off school-by-school basis. That seems to me a slightly different issue than how we conduct the education action forum and zones.
Certainly, we are deeply concerned about failing schools and the need to turn them round. We would welcome expertise and innovative ideas in those areas. We are dealing here with the management of the whole of the education action zone. That concept requires co-operation and, to some degree, co-ordination, but not necessarily uniform co-ordination, across the schools rather than having established an education action zone and then removing one school from that approach. The whole question of failing schools was addressed earlier
Lord Skidelsky: I shall make just this one further intervention and then I shall shut up in order to allow the debate to go forward. If it were true that all the schools in an education action zone were of the same kind and were roughly of the same standard, there could be uniform treatment. If 10 people were suffering from the same disease or were in the same mediocre health, you would give them one medicine and they would all improve. The Minister talked about education action zones as though they contained schools of a similar type. That is not true. Within any education action zone some schools will be failing. The whole object of education action zones is to target some of the worst schools--and some of the worst schools in the country will be in the education action zones.
My proposal was to use the machinery which the Government have created in order to enable those schools to be dealt with. I was not trying to use machinery that is not in the Bill. The machinery is there; it is set up. Charter schools have been successful. I emphasise that failing schools will not be chucked out of an education action zone; they will remain in the zone and will be accountable to the forum for their performance, but they will not be under the same degree of management and control precisely to allow some new flowers to bloom.
I cannot believe that the Government do not intend that to happen. However, I do not think that the machinery is sufficiently flexible at the moment for it to happen, and I am suggesting a way in which it may be made so. If the Government felt that there was a different way of achieving this, for heaven's sake I wish that they would say so. At the moment, a bit of stonewalling seems to be going on, with the Minister saying, "I share the objectives, but they can be met within the existing framework". I am not sure that that is true.
Lord Lucas: Perhaps the Minister would like to take the opportunity to enlarge a little on what exactly the regulations under subsection (3) of Clause 12, but possibly also under subsections (4) and (5), will look like. Will they be regulations which will allow a great deal of flexibility? Will they allow an education action forum which wishes to experiment with one of its schools to say, "What happens if we let this group of teachers take on the school in their own way and see where it goes? Why do we not try that in this school, see whether it works and take that experience around the rest of the zone?". Will that be allowed, or will the regulations state that all that is allowed is to pursue initiatives across a range of schools, and that those initiatives will have to be fairly universal and similar within the zone?
If the regulations are to allow a lot of scope for a forum to decide that it will pursue individual experiments--or trials--of particular ideas, ways of managing schools and degrees of freedom and innovation within an individual school to see whether they work (with the support of the rest of the zone, but with the rest of the zone looking on and learning) perhaps we can do something to make possible my noble friend's ideas within the perhaps regrettable limits of this initiative, but at least allowing it to happen, if that is what is wanted.
I am concerned by all the fog and uncertainty
surrounding the regulations. Having heard the Minister,
I was uncertain about whether the regulations would be
drawn in such a way as to allow that to happen or
whether they would be so restrictive in terms of how a
zone may operate that no initiative of the sort proposed
by my noble friend would ever be possible.
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