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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Did they go to the police?

Baroness Blatch: They tried very hard indeed to identify where the threats were coming from. They were frequently anonymous. They were frequently not able to identify the people involved. In some cases they tried to go to the police and certainly in Birmingham I know that a case was pursued but it never came to anything because it was always difficult to pin down the people involved.

On one occasion, I asked the head teachers what they would have done to make things different. One reply that I received was that in another situation the school would never remain neutral. "We believed it was the best way forward for our school but we played fair by the parents. Parents contacted us, as head teachers and members of staff who supported the proposals. They asked us for our views". But in order to play fair, the head teachers said, "I must not influence you in this decision. It is something about which you must make up your own mind".

Parents are often greatly influenced by head teachers. Head teachers did not wish to influence them unduly and parents became suspicious and did not vote. I am merely saying that considerable distress was caused. If the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, wants evidence of those incidents, he could talk to some of the head teachers, chairmen of governors and governors who went through extremely difficult times. Many members of staff in those schools did not like what was happening and made life difficult for them. Many of them changed their minds once grant-maintained status was secured.

Therefore, I am not surprised that some schools saw what was happening and did not want to go down that road because they felt that it was too difficult and controversial a road to follow. Others tried and failed. Very often they failed for what I regard as the wrong reasons.

Lord Tope: I am sure that the noble Baroness will accept that I do not, for one moment, condone the sort of behaviour which she is talking about. I accept that, sadly, in a number of cases--although, I suspect, exaggerated-- it did happen and condemn that at least as strongly as she does.

I am sure that she will accept that, equally, I could swap horror stories with her--and I do not intend to do so at this time of night--about some of the threats, intimidation and wild exaggerations that were made by some of the more extreme proponents who wished to opt-out. I am afraid that it was the divisive nature of the whole practice that caused some of the more extreme proponents on both sides to behave in ways that none of us would condone.

However, I wish to return to the so-called success of that policy. I am not arguing about whether GM schools, as schools, have been successful. I question whether the policy has been successful. The noble Baroness does not wish to swap numbers with me and I do not wish to become involved in a numbers game either. The noble

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Baroness could not remember whether it was 1,000, 2,000 or even 3,000. From memory, I believe it is nearer 1,000 than 2,000 schools which have opted out. Even if we accept the suggestion that a number of others have either chosen not to do so or have lost on a ballot because of whatever fears they may have had, there are more then 24,000 schools in this country. The noble Baroness cannot be suggesting to us that more than 10,000 of those have been intimidated into not opting out.

The reality is that out of 24,000 plus schools, just over 1,000 have chosen to opt out. To me, that is not the mark of a successful policy.

Baroness Blatch: I was not ignorant of the numbers. I know the numbers. I was simply saying it was irrelevant whether it was 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000. That is not the argument. I am one of those people who genuinely believes in choice. If a vast majority of the schools do not wish to go down that road, that must be for them. I support that. I support the freedom to choose. That has always been the basis of the policy.

It may only be about 1,200 schools, but about 25 per cent. of those are secondary schools. A very large proportion of secondary schools are in the grant-maintained sector. With my amendment, I am seeking to allow the parents of those schools to exercise their choice.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for saying that he would not condone such practices, but they were very widespread. Indeed, there are officials sitting not too far away from me tonight who know about some of those practices. They were aware of them in the department. If the noble Baroness or the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, wishes to discuss the matter with officials, I have no doubt that they will be told about some of the difficulties, especially as regards the early schools which opted for grant-maintained status.

I can remember the chief education officer in my local authority handing round anti-GM leaflets at public meetings. I did not regard that as fair game when the schools themselves were not allowed to present their own case, particularly when the head teachers very often played it fair and were neutral in these cases. I support the principle and the policy that fairness should be applied in the first instance and that the schools which chose of their own volition to become grant-maintained schools should be afforded the opportunity to exercise the choice of whether to remain grant maintained, to become foundation schools, or, indeed, to become voluntary aided and/or community schools.

However, with the great Lib/Lab alliance which is alive and kicking both in this and another place, it is clear that I shall not make much progress on the matter. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that I shall return to the matter.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 79:

Page 18, leave out line 11.

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I feel that I should pronounce the end of the Lib/Lab alliance that the noble Baroness seems to have spotted. We have

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consistently held the view--and, indeed, still retain it-- that there should broadly be two categories of school; namely, what are now to be called community schools, with which we are content, and voluntary schools along with the categories which fall within that sector.

There should not be three categories of schools. I believe that that is a view which is shared widely within the maintained education sector. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has said that she sees many differences between foundation schools and grant-maintained schools, although, perhaps out of deference to the time of night, she did not elaborate on the nature of those significant differences. I am bound to say that they have eluded me. The only significant difference that I can see is that they have a different name. There is very little other difference between the two.

It is the view of my party, and remains so, that schools which are not voluntary aided should come within the framework of a light-touch LEA working in partnership with those schools. I acknowledge that not all LEAs achieve that goal. In my view, all LEAs should achieve that and I hope that the better parts of the Bill will enable them to do so. That briefly restates my party's principled objection to the concept of foundation schools.

I am moving the amendment at this stage because it seemed to be the most appropriate place in the Bill to do so. In the unlikely event of our amendment being accepted, I acknowledge that there would need to be other consequential amendments throughout the Bill. However, I did not feel it appropriate either to trouble the Public Bill Office or, indeed, the Committee in trying to move every conceivable amendment to delete every reference to foundation schools, or anything consequential upon it. I recognised that fact but just wanted to move the amendment, although I had hoped to do so rather earlier in the night and at greater length. Nevertheless, I wanted to put that on the record.

I move on to the other amendment which deals with the new concept of foundation special schools. That is something which, in a way, concerns me even more. We have had a difference of view with the Government about foundation schools ever since they proposed the concept when in opposition. It is a different matter with foundation special schools. In common with everyone else, we believed that the Government did not believe in foundation special schools. That belief was based not only on their statements when in opposition but, more importantly, on statements made since they have come into office. The White Paper Excellence in Schools, issued only last year, proposed that special schools would become community schools, and the Green Paper regarding excellence for all children also proposed community status for special schools.

Therefore we had the belief--as did everyone else and particularly those working in that sector--that that was what the Government were proposing. All those who were in agreement with that had nothing to say because they agreed with the Government's stated view. If I remember correctly, on Second Reading the Minister in

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addressing this point said that the Government had changed their mind and had decided to go for foundation special schools because of representations received from grant-maintained special schools. However, that comprises a small number.

That seems to me to be rather strange. It is inevitable that those who have some disagreement with a proposed policy will say so, but to change the policy without giving those who had assumed the Government would stand by it an opportunity to express their views seems to me to be rather less than fair. There are many reasons--they have been stated previously and will be stated again--why it is particularly inappropriate for special schools to have foundation status. One of the most important reasons is the need for LEAs to be able to plan and to target their special needs resources effectively. That is difficult under any circumstances, especially as resource demands seem to be growing enormously, but it is even more difficult when a special school is no longer properly within the LEA framework. It is much more difficult to plan and to target scarce resources so as effectively to meet the broad range of special needs that need to be met today.

While I have no grounds for optimism that our plea on foundation schools will fall on fertile ground, I urge the Minister, and the Government she represents, to adhere to their original view of only a few months ago that they expressed for the reasons they gave in both the White Paper and in the Green Paper, and to reject the concept of foundation special schools. I beg to move.

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