Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy for the amendment but I wonder whether the wording is quite right. How many parents are required to form an organisation? As I read it, "parents" in the plural can mean two. I think you would need more than that number. What would be the position if there were two schools of thought among the parents in the school with two different objectives? Would the governing body be required to set up two rival organisations? I do not think that is what the noble Baroness has in mind. But it is something that needs to be borne in mind. After all, this will be an expense on the school and the school does not want to pay for a war on its own premises.

Lord Tope: My Lords, before the Minister speaks perhaps I may come in at the conclusion, as my name is down to the amendment, with that of the noble Baroness, Lady David. My noble friend Lady Maddock was, of course, speaking for me on the amendment.

I have listened to this brief debate. I suspect the Minister is about to say that she has much sympathy with the intention of the amendment but--and then we will hear the "buts". It seems to me that to deal with the matter through guidance and the dissemination of good practice is all very desirable. It is particularly useful in schools where they are at least amenable and, we hope, encouraging of the establishment of parents' organisations. They will take notice of the guidance and it will be useful to them.

What we are trying to achieve concerns the, I hope, small minority of schools that do not want such organisations and will take no notice of non-statutory guidance. It is not a matter which I should have thought was central to the Government's policy on the Bill. I should have thought it was a relatively small but important issue on which a listening government could give way. We have had two supportive speeches from the Government's Benches, indeed the amendment was moved from there, with support generally from around the House. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, it may well be that more detailed thought needs to be given to the provisions. So be it, that is in the Government's hands.

2 Jul 1998 : Column 863

But if we are doing anything in this House, spending so many hours considering the Bill, even in my wildest moments I do not expect to change the central tenets of government policy--hard though I try sometimes. But on minor issues like this which are of importance to many people a listening government could demonstrate that they are listening. They could offer us a little more than sympathy and understanding and commit themselves, if not to agreeing to the amendment, at least to taking on board what it means. Then they could come back with something which the parliamentary draftsmen say is more appropriate. I hope that we are about to hear that from the Minister.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady David for much of what she said. As she mentioned, I am conscious that when my noble friend Lord Whitty responded to the amendment at Committee, he offered to reflect further on the issues raised. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that we are listening and have reflected on them. The amendment raises important issues and we wanted to consider them and look at all the implications. The amendment was tabled at quite a late stage. It has been inspired by CASE proposals for parent councils, as my noble friend Lady David said. Under the CASE model, the parents of pupils in every class would elect a class representative who would then serve on a school parent council. Each school parent council would be represented on a national body for parents. I believe that that is the thinking underlying the amendment and the way CASE would like to see it implemented.

We greatly admire the work of CASE and I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, when she is being pursued for her subscription, will pay it immediately. But we do not believe that this approach is the best. As a model, the tiered structure is rather bureaucratic. We are also concerned about the potential additional burden on head teachers and schools whose staff would inevitably need to be involved in working with parents' associations through providing "reasonable assistance".

More importantly, we are not convinced that the majority of parents would wish to be organised in this way. The way would be open for such an organisation to be controlled by just a few individuals--that is perhaps what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, had in mind--rather than one that could be said to meet the needs of all parents. Most parents want to develop closer relations with school staff and want mechanisms for ensuring that any concerns they may have about their own children are properly considered. The Government have sought to address that concern. That is why Clause 38 of the Bill places a statutory requirement on school governing bodies to establish procedures for dealing with complaints. I hope that all those Members of your Lordships' House who have contributed to the debate will accept that that is an important development.

The Government are committed to working with parents and to improving parental participation in their children's schooling. We are increasing that participation in a number of ways: for example, by encouraging parents to become more involved in what is happening in the classroom, as in our literacy strategy.

2 Jul 1998 : Column 864

That will have a direct impact on standards. We are improving parental involvement by increasing the number of parents on governing bodies, by providing parent representatives on education committees and through our important proposals for home-school agreements. All those changes implement commitments we made in our manifesto and will considerably strengthen the influence of parents.

We need to guard against overloading parents, however, as well as governing bodies. The changes I have already mentioned will mean that schools and governing bodies will need to develop new ways of working with parents. The more changes we introduce simultaneously, the less effective they will be. Governing bodies need to work in partnership with parents. By increasing the number of parent governors, we hope to ensure that parents' views are firmly reflected within the governing body. On that basis, we see no need to formalise the school-parent relationship through legislation in this further way. That is the difference between the Government and those who support the amendment.

Legislation is not the best way to deal with that kind of relationship. The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, was perhaps referring to her experience of 20 years ago when she said that in the past head teachers and governing bodies are sometimes resistant to parents taking a bigger part in the operation of the schools attended by their children. I too have had similar experiences. Perhaps we are all becoming a little old--I speak for myself in saying that. That was true 20 years ago, but there have been a lot of improvements in the way in which schools react to parents. Today we would not face the same resistance to which the noble Baroness referred and which I experienced, at least not to anything like the same degree. We believe that the best course is for individual schools and parents to sort out the most appropriate ways of cementing the important relationship between parents and teachers rather than imposing a statutory requirement on all schools. Parental involvement is a precious investment that all schools should be making, and that is a message that the Government are promoting in many different ways.

We are sympathetic to the intentions of the amendment but do not believe that this is the appropriate time to place this additional statutory requirement on school governing bodies. I hope therefore that my noble friend will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, in her response she indicated that we were all speaking on behalf of CASE. I want to make it absolutely clear that I certainly was not.

The suggestions that I made were practical ones expressed by parents in school who were saying that they would like a closer link. That is why in some ways I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady David, in wanting to establish another body. I was trying to encourage the Government, if they are not prepared to accept Amendment No. 107, to think about putting in place a system to encourage greater exchange within the

2 Jul 1998 : Column 865

schools for parents and governors. At the end of the day the governors run the school, whether or not it is through a set organisation.

I want to make clear that I was not speaking on behalf of CASE. I apologise if I misunderstood the Minister, but I felt she inferred that because CASE had been in contact with us we were all speaking on its behalf. That is not true in my case. However, I am aware that schools desire to have a closer working relationship with parents, and we must do whatever we can within the new structure to enhance that. The amendment was one way of highlighting the situation.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I in no way meant to imply--I am sorry if it appeared that I did--that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was speaking on behalf of CASE. On the contrary, she said that she did not agree with the amendment. As she was not putting forward an amendment of her own, I did not see the need to pick up on what the noble Baroness was saying. I tried to say what the Government believe to be the right approach and to explain the system that we would like to see installed. I have nothing to add to what I said earlier.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page