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Baroness Byford: I wish to support my noble friend Lady Blatch. It seems to me ironic that we have just spent the early part of this evening debating the education action zones which give freedom and independence to achieve excellence in schools. Now we will debate reducing that opportunity for grant-maintained schools. I know the time is late, but it seems ironic.
I also support my noble friend Lady Blatch in her request that if this is to come about, whatever we say on these Benches and whatever happens in the other House, at least the parents should be able to have a vote on the outcome. All in this Committee would acknowledge the good academic record of grant-maintained schools. It has not happened overnight; it has been worked at steadily. It seems to me a great pity that we will dismiss the very success that the schools have built up over recent years. I support my noble friend's amendment.
Baroness Blackstone: I begin by reassuring the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that I shall not read out the same letter again. I read it out at Second Reading and I do not wish to repeat myself. The noble Baroness made much of the success of grant-maintained schools, and of course the Government agree that there are some aspects of the grant-maintained initiatives that were positive. For example, it demonstrated that schools are capable of managing their own affairs. It showed that schools welcomed greater responsibility in controlling their budget. That is why the new schools framework will retain the best aspects of the grant-maintained initiative. As school self-management and greater budget delegation are key principles in the new framework, perhaps I may remind the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, so is a much more sharply defined role for LEAs.
Intervention in schools will be kept to an essential minimum, with a code of practice on relations between LEAs and schools. There will be no return to the kind of unnecessary intervention by LEAs in controlling schools, as sometimes happened in the past.
However, there were also major flaws with the grant-maintained initiative. The GM/LEA divide was not a sensible basis for a school system. Opting out divided school from school and schools from LEAs. I think it led to a rather unhealthy preoccupation with structures and status which distracted schools and LEAs from their central task of raising standards.
The new framework will promote partnership and stability. We believe that it is based on principles of fair funding, fair admission, partnership and equal treatment. There will not be preferential treatment for a few schools at the expense of the many. That was one of the problems that marked the GM schools: they were getting preferential treatment in certain ways, which was unfortunate.
The noble Baroness has criticised the Bill for being focused on structure and not on standards. It is therefore surprising to hear that she believes that grant-maintained status in itself raised standards. Of course it is true that on average grant-maintained schools have achieved better test and examination results than LEA-maintained schools. But there is no evidence that that has anything to do with their legal status. Grant-maintained schools have tended to serve more advantaged areas than LEA schools. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools' most recent annual report confirms that when similar schools are compared, quality of teaching and progress made by pupils in the grant-maintained and LEA sectors are very similar.
That is not to deny the success of some grant-maintained schools. The Government praise all successful schools, whether they are grant or LEA maintained. We want our standards agenda to help all schools, including former grant-maintained schools, to go on performing well and, where possible, where they are not performing so well, to raise their performance.
Grant-maintained schools have nothing to fear from the new framework. Our manifesto promised that they would prosper, and we will deliver that promise. We have been working closely with the organisations representing grant-maintained schools. In their own words, they are looking forward to the new framework and not backwards to old divisions. That is a reassuring response from them.
In contrast, the amendments of the noble Baroness seek to allow repeated ballots about whether or not a school should remain grant maintained. They also attempt to enable other schools to change category to become grant maintained. That would perpetuate the very divisions which the new framework is designed to heal. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Blatch: Before I respond more fully, will the noble Baroness give me specific examples of the preferential treatment that GM schools received and therefore what they will lose as a result of the Bill?
Baroness Blackstone: Over a number of years, grant-maintained schools--I use this word with some hesitation but I believe it is the case--were bribed. Many schools were bribed to become grant-maintained schools by being offered generous capital provisions. They were far more generous than those for local education authority schools. We will have a fair system for the treatment of schools.
Baroness Blackstone: I completely reject any suggestion that he boasted. He was giving factual information about a decision the Government have made. The Government will apply capital in a fair way to all schools with improvement needs whether in respect of science labs, repairs to leaking roofs or any other aspect where they are not up to scratch as a result of neglect by the previous government.
Baroness Blatch: I make the point only because the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that he treated grant-maintained schools in terms of capital allocation more generously than the previous government. The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot accuse us of having treated GM schools more generously and then boast, as they did earlier today, that they are treated more generously by the new Government than by the previous government.
This policy was so successful that the Prime Minister-- not simply because he sent his children to a grant-maintained school--was attracted to it. Hence an aversion to perpetuate something invented by the previous government and therefore labelled a Tory policy. But in fact an attempt was made to reinvent it.
I happen to believe that there is a real tension between the Department for Education and Employment and Number 10 about the understanding of just how similar the foundation school provisions are to those for grant-maintained schools. I know, for example, that the Prime Minister is under an illusion that somehow or other what the Oratory enjoys as a grant-maintained school will be enjoyed by foundation schools. I can say to the noble Baroness that that is not the case if one reads the Bill and if one reads the distinction between grant-maintained schools and foundation schools.
The Oratory school, as a grant-maintained school, will not be as free to run its own affairs as it would as a foundation school under the provisions of the Bill. Hammersmith and Fulham, which has no role whatever in the Oratory school at this time, will indeed have an involvement under the new arrangements. So I am saying that this policy was very attractive to the Prime Minister; so much so that he actually sent his children to such a school. The same applies to Ms. Harriet Harman. She sent her children to a grant-maintained school because that school was attractive to her. And I say strength to the elbows of parents who look around for what they consider to be the best school available.
Perhaps I may also say to the noble Baroness that it is not just this Government who praise all successful schools, whatever their character--whether they are denominational schools, LEA schools, grant-maintained schools, special schools, or whatever. Wherever good education resides and wherever schools are well run, we
However, my amendment is not about that. It is a matter of record that grant-maintained schools have worked. It has been a very successful policy. It has moved forward the way in which LEAs manage their own schools. The amendment says that these parents chose the status "grant-maintained" and some of them went through great difficulties to become grant-maintained schools. We are simply asking the Government to afford them the same privilege to stay as they are. If the foundation schools are so attractive in the way that the noble Baroness has spelt out, and if they are to enjoy almost the same facilities as they do now as grant-maintained schools, there is really nothing to fear. The chances are that they will all accept that option and become grant-maintained schools. But it was a democratic right that they had to become grant-maintained schools in the first place and therefore that democratic right should be afforded to them in the future.
The noble Baroness invoked the code of practice as one way of saying that grant-maintained schools should not fear this new government policy, as the exhortation in the code of practice, which I have read from cover to cover, is that intervention should be in inverse proportions to needs. All I can say to the noble Baroness is that that is all it is. The code of practice is mere exhortation. It says to the local authorities that they must have regard to the code of practice. There is no penalty for not doing so. There is nothing in the Bill to explain what would happen if a local authority were more heavy handed then it ought to be. There are so many clauses in the Bill which give local authorities a rationale for intervening in a school.
For example, if the local education authority has a responsibility to monitor, and if the LEA has a responsibility to be concerned about good education in the local authority area, it does not wait on the outside until the school has failed. If it is doing its job properly, it will argue--and I think with some force--that it ought to be on the inside of those schools where it thinks the problems are beginning to happen in order to intervene early.
In the discussions on a previous amendment we were talking about the virtue of early intervention to deal with disruptive behaviour. The earlier one intervenes, the more likely one is to remedy the problem. The same will apply for local authorities. They will have a legitimacy in making sure that those schools perform well. Some local authorities which gave the schools a particularly hard time when they became grant-maintained will have a very real opportunity for some score settling. Far from the tension being resolved, as the noble Baroness said, I can say that in some cases tension will increase. I know of a number of grant-maintained schools which are very worried about returning to local education authorities which were very threatening at the time they became grant-maintained.
I do not believe that the foundation schools necessarily offer the same facilities and opportunities as grant-maintained schools. But that is not my central point. It is that under the Bill there will be a range of schools. I am simply saying let that range of schools include the existing grant-maintained schools, but give the parents the opportunity to exercise their own choice.
My final point is in the form of a question to the noble Baroness. She emphasised the point that these schools, particularly foundation schools, will be their own admissions authority. I believe that was in response to my noble friend Lady Byford. Will the schools be subject to the admissions code of practice or exempt from it? If they are their own admissions authority and are exempt from the admissions code of practice, then the answer is that they will have control. If they are subject to it, as I believe they are because there is nothing in the Bill that says they are not, the fact that they are their own admissions authority will not be worth the paper it is written on because it will be possible for the organisational committees and the all-powerful adjudicator to have the last say. Therefore, it will invalidate their freedom to have control over their admissions.
Baroness Blackstone: I can answer straightaway the last part of the question asked by the noble Baroness. They will be subject to the admissions code of practice. The Government consider that is the right thing to do in order to secure a fair deal between different categories of schools.
Perhaps I may put her mind at rest. There is absolutely no tension, conflict or disagreement between the Department for Education and Employment and No. 10 on this matter. That is pure fantasy and I do not know where the noble Baroness got it from. Grant-maintained schools will really have nothing to fear from these changes. I can only repeat what I have said, but I do not want to at this time of night.
I also dispute what the noble Baroness said about score settling by local education authorities. That is very unfair to LEAs. I do not believe that any LEA would want to indulge in such behaviour. I am sure that they will not. The Secretary of State would take a very dim view were it to happen.
Many of these schools will be foundation schools rather
than community schools. Grant-maintained schools will
have a choice of category in the new framework. Parents
of such schools will be able to secure a ballot on the
schools' future category by presenting a petition. The
rules of the ballots will be very similar to the ballots for
the grant-maintained schools. Those schools will not have
the choice of remaining grant maintained. As I have
already explained, that would simply perpetrate the
divisions within the school system which the new
framework is designed to heal. In the light of that answer,
I very much hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to
withdraw her amendment.
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