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Lord Elis-Thomas: In the spirit of a Liberal Democrat Party of Wales alliance I rise to support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and to speak to Amendment No. 82 standing in my name which is grouped with them. This is concerned with the position of grant-maintained schools in Wales. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, claims that they were a roaring success in England. However, a total of 17 schools opted for grant-maintained status in Wales. That is fewer than 1 per cent. That is hardly a success. The majority of the schools that adopted such a status did so because they were faced with closure because of falling rolls or because they were denominational schools seeking particular advantage in capital funding arrangements. Those issues have been covered earlier in this discussion.

The new foundation category--New Labour, new foundation, I am tempted to say--introduced by the Bill is certainly designed to accommodate the substantial number of grant-maintained schools in England. I believe it makes no sense in the context of Wales to have such a category. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that it makes little sense in England either. As regards my amendment to Schedule 2 I argue that this category should not become primary legislation in relation to Wales and to the work of the national assembly, which will be responsible for implementing the Bill when the Government of Wales

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Bill passes through all its stages in this Chamber and the assembly is established in a little under a year from now.

Therefore there is no case to legislate formally for a category which appears to me to be redundant both in terms of numbers and in terms of a principle. It makes little sense to establish a category in law to indicate the position of such a tiny minority of schools. I am much in favour of diversity of provision--as mentioned in later amendments to this Bill--but it seems to me that this category is not really about diversity; it is a complication in the structure. What is important is that all the schools in Wales are perceived to be of equal standing within the maintained sector of schools. It is not helpful therefore to have such a category. This is the position also of the Welsh Local Government Association. I hope that for all the reasons I have mentioned the Welsh Office and the Minister will consider this provision sympathetically.

Baroness Blackstone: We are committed to creating a new school framework which strikes a better balance between the interests of individual schools and those of pupils and schools collectively. To do that we need to start from where schools are now, not where they were 10 years ago. The school system in this country has never been monolithic, and we value the principle of diversity. Schools have traditionally had different degrees of autonomy. But in the past these differences have almost always been linked to religious character.

GM status gave secular as well as religious schools greater autonomy, and a fifth of all secondary schools took up the GM option. But as we have already discussed in dealing with the last group of amendments, grant-maintained status was a flawed initiative, although it demonstrated clearly that schools are willing and able to run their own affairs.

Our new framework is designed to preserve the benefits of self-management while removing the divisiveness of opting out. Creating a new foundation category is essential to achieving that. It will allow former grant-maintained schools to retain many of their existing characteristics--employing staff, owning premises, acting as admission authorities--within a framework based on fair funding, fair admissions and partnership between schools and LEAs. In time, the foundation category will also give community and voluntary controlled schools the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities.

The alternative would be to deny schools this choice and to force most GM schools into the community category. Apart from being intrinsically undesirable, that would create substantial practical problems. It would mean the transfer of land ownership and staff employment at around 1,000 schools. That would create an unacceptable level of turbulence and distraction for these schools when they should be concentrating their energies on raising pupils' achievements. I am sure that cannot be what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, wants.

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The noble Lord has said that LEAs were initially opposed to the foundation category. It is true that in responses to the White Paper and the technical consultation document a number of LEAs expressed reservations about the three categories of school. But much of their unease came from the proposals to require all schools to choose their new categories simultaneously. They felt that this process would create too much turbulence.

We listened to their concerns and have phased schools' choice of category. Only grant-maintained schools will have a choice of category when the new framework is implemented. LEA schools will be assigned to the nearest equivalent category. All schools will be able to seek an alternative category, if they wish, from a year after the new framework is implemented.

I turn now to those amendments concerning the foundation special schools. They would deprive special schools of any choice by removing the foundation special category. Our White Paper and technical consultation paper suggested that there were advantages in all special schools becoming community special schools. But of those who responded to that suggestion, the majority said that it would be wrong to deny parents at grant-maintained special schools-- who had voted for greater autonomy for their school-- the right offered to parents at mainstream schools to participate in choosing the school's future category. That was a powerful point, and the decision to give special schools a choice of category was made in that light.

We are very conscious of concerns about foundation special schools developing in ways that do not reflect local plans for SEN provision. We thought about those concerns carefully before deciding that special as well as mainstream schools should have a choice of category. In the new framework, both community and foundation special schools will be expected to participate in and be bound by local and regional planning arrangements.

I turn now to Amendment No. 82, which is about changing indicative allocations in Wales. Schedule 2 provides for grant-maintained schools--special as well as mainstream--to be indicatively allocated to the new category which most closely resembles their current characteristics. For example, former county grant-maintained schools employ their own staff and own their own premises. The nearest equivalent category is foundation, not community. That is just as true in Wales as in England.

The purpose of indicative allocations is to simplify the process by which GM schools move into their new categories. Schools which accept their indicative allocation will move automatically into this category. But governing bodies will be free to choose an alternative category if they wish.

With only one exception, all the grant-maintained schools in Wales are ex-county or ex-voluntary. We understand that most of those schools are content with their indicative allocation to the foundation category. Grant-maintained schools and LEAs in Wales are

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starting to work together. So transition to the grant-maintained category should be achieved smoothly in virtually every case.

The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, would mean that to become a foundation, grant-maintained schools in Wales would have to choose the foundation category as an alternative category. Their final category would then have to be decided by the Secretary of State for Wales. This would cause complications, much uncertainty, and delays, which are unnecessary.

In conclusion, the foundation and foundation special categories are integral to the new framework for the organisation of schools. They will minimise disruption when the new framework is introduced. In time they will give community schools an opportunity to seek greater autonomy while maintaining their partnerships with LEAs and other schools. The amendments seek to remove that opportunity or to complicate the process by which schools choose their new category. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: Before the noble Lord, Lord Tope, responds, can the Minister confirm when the Government will allow community schools under the new framework to opt to become foundation schools?

Baroness Blackstone: I cannot confirm the precise date. If we have a precise date I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: I asked the Minister to confirm the date because during the course of speaking to the amendment the noble Baroness referred to a year after the Bill comes into force.

Baroness Blackstone: I am sorry. I think the noble Baroness is absolutely right. That is the period of time which we shall deploy.

Baroness Blatch: This is important. It is a fact that one year after Royal Assent for the Bill local authority community schools will be allowed to make a choice, if they wish, to become foundation schools.

Baroness Blackstone: Yes.

Lord Tope: I predicted that we were unlikely to reach agreement here. However, I was encouraged to hear that the Minister is concerned about turbulence in the education sector. The relative turbulence of 1,000 schools across the country returning over a period of time to LEA seems fairly minor compared with the welter of new initiatives pouring out of the noble Baroness's department every day: the creation of education action zones; the development--which we support--of education development plans, and so on. The added turbulence, to use her word, of a relatively small number of schools in a relatively small number of areas returning to the LEA framework, it is to be hoped in a spirit of friendship and co-operation, will be minor. That is not an argument I accept.

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We have a difference of view about the desirability of a foundation status. I hold to my original view. I regret even more the response on foundation special schools. I make the point again. Had the Government indicated in their White Paper or Green Paper that they were in two minds and had a balance of view, I am certain that the responses they received would also have been more balanced, and more accurately weighted in favour of simply having community special schools.

I did not expect to win the amendment at any time, let alone approaching half past two in the morning. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 80 and 81 not moved.]

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