Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Clause 109(4) states:

Clause 109(5) states:

    "No person shall be excluded from such a school or suffer any other adverse consequences on account of any failure to comply".

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1192

Clause 109(6) states:

    "A home-school agreement shall not be capable of creating any obligation in respect of whose breach any liability arises in contract or in tort".
That is quite a reduction. I can see what the noble Lord means, but I should be grateful if he could say why the Government have reduced home-school agreements so decisively when at the moment schools can enforce them in a stronger way.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was proposing to go through Clause 109 subsection by subsection and respond to each of the elements. I can well see--I have sidelined it in my brief--the elements of subsection (4) which most exercise the noble Lord, although he was delicate enough not to emphasise it too strongly in his opening speech.

Perhaps I may finish the sentence that I had started when I was so politely interrupted. We expect agreements to include expectations about the standard of education, the ethos of the school, regular and punctual attendance, discipline, homework and the information schools and parents will give to one another. The guidance will also make clear that agreements must be fair and balanced if they are to foster a spirit of partnership. We want schools and parents to use home-school agreements to demonstrate to children the importance of education by declaring their commitment to work in partnership.

The clause empowers the Secretary of State to forbid the use of certain forms of words, or words which have a particular effect, from inclusion in home-school agreements or parental declarations. For example, it might be necessary to make clear that a school could not request or put pressure on parents to contribute regularly to the school PTA fund. Although it is a restriction, it is not a diminution of the effectiveness of the agreement; it simply ensures that the agreement does not include unreasonable elements.

As the noble Lord rightly said, the clause prevents the use of home-school agreements in the admission process. We do not believe that it is right to allow admission authorities to base their decisions on whether a parent has signed, or is willing to sign. We uphold the principle that an admission authority should not be able to attach conditions when making the offer of a place. It cannot be right to deny a child a place because his or her parents are unwilling to sign the home-school agreement. That refers to what I said at the beginning that in this agreement we are looking to protect the interests not only of the school and the parents, but of the pupils themselves. We strongly take the view that the attitude of parents to a home-school agreement should not be an element in the choice of pupils for a school--in other words, in the admission process.

However, once a child has been admitted to a school it is right to expect parents to sign a declaration that they acknowledge and accept both their responsibilities and the school's expectation of their child. I have to go on. The noble Lord is otherwise engaged at the moment. Perhaps I may reciprocate his criticism. I have to describe the whole clause. I know perfectly well that the

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1193

noble Lord is really interested only in the London Oratory School. His amendment covers the whole of Clause 109. It also forbids a pupil's exclusion from school and the pupil or his parents suffering any adverse consequences if they do not sign the parental declaration. It cannot be right that a pupil should be punished if his parents did not sign the declaration. Failure to comply with the terms of a home-school agreement will not be treated as giving rise to any liability for which damages or other remedies could be obtained through the courts in action for breach of contract or in tort. The noble Lord cited that as being a diminution of the effectiveness of home-school agreements. I suggest to him that they would be very much more diminished if they were to be seen as legal documents for which legal remedies were appropriate.

In the light of this description of Clause 109 and the defence that I have given of its contents, I hope that the noble Lord will not seek to press this wide-ranging and damaging amendment.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I was not talking about the London Oratory School, I was thinking about another school. The issue as to whether the noble Lord's right honourable friend the Prime Minister prefers that school or not is nothing to do with me. I am concerned about people like my daughter, who teaches in Bethnal Green, and who face a very difficult community where parents are reluctant to enter into agreements with schools; teachers find it difficult to impose sanctions and where co-operation with parents is very difficult to achieve.

I accept that the noble Lord has been presented with briefing by his civil servants, but the fact is that it is difficult enough to require parents to sign on the dotted line and yet the Government have given them many escape clauses. This will not be a problem at the London Oratory, which deals with the more sophisticated children from Islington and other such areas. I am sorry to dwell on the Oratory, but the noble Lord raised it. I did not; I was thinking about schools in different areas of this city to which the noble Lord's right honourable and honourable friends do not send their children.

Teachers in such schools face considerable difficulties and they would be helped by tighter requirements. Once the Government include on the face of the Bill provisions that the home-school agreements may be broken or ignored, the teachers' job is made harder. However elegant may be the noble Lord's defence, the teacher at the front line in the difficult area will depend on such requirements.

Often in this House, noble Lords speak more about the civil rights of pupils than they do about the needs of the teachers who have to enforce discipline and standards in difficult areas. That is why I should like Clause 109 to be removed from the Bill. I have heard so often in this House emphasis being laid on the civil rights of pupils. I understand that and I value it, but I must think of the teachers in the difficult areas who need home-school agreements that will have a bit of bottle behind them so that the teachers can enforce them.

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1194

On the advice of his civil servants, the noble Lord is removing much value from those home-school agreements and I am not convinced by his arguments.

Let us consider the purpose of home-school agreements. In the most difficult areas of our cities we need parents to commit themselves, on the dotted line, to ensuring that their children will not truant. After years of serving on the Parole Board, I know how often such children truant. By reducing the power of home-school agreements, the Government are reducing the power of the teacher.

I can understand the legal gyrations, but the fact is that Clause 109 defies the Government's rhetoric. Both Mr. Straw and the Prime Minister constantly stress the need for parental responsibility, but Clause 109 removes it. Irresponsible parents are not foolish; they are just as capable as anyone else of reading these provisions and they will know that Clause 109 does not mean anything. They will argue with the teachers.

I am not satisfied with the Government's attitude. I am putting this on the record: I shall come back to the Government again and again on this matter, especially when I see the rhetoric of the noble Lord's right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary defying what is stated on the face of the Bill. An analysis of debates in this House would show that many noble Lords have stressed again and again the importance of pupils' civil rights rather than the enormous difficulties faced by the school teachers in the deprived areas of our cities who find it difficult to get children to go to school and to enforce discipline when they are there. Some head teachers have found ways of doing that through home-school agreements, but the Government are reducing the power of such agreements under Clause 109.

I am not happy. I shall withdraw my amendment, but I want these words to be on the record. I assure the noble Lord that I shall return to him on this point but, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 188 not moved.]

Clause 112 [Nutritional standards for school lunches]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 189:

Page 86, leave out line 12 and insert ("schools maintained by local education authorities.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 189, I should like to speak also to the subsequent amendments, Amendments Nos. 190 and 191, which deal with school lunches and nutritional standards in nursery schools. As it stands, Clause 112 gives the Secretary of State the power to introduce compulsory nutritional standards for school lunches, but that does not extend to lunches provided either in pupil referral units or in maintained nursery schools, except for maintained special nursery schools. The first two amendments will remove that anomaly. This is a straightforward technical correction.

As it stands, Clause 113 places a duty on local education authorities to offer lunches for sale to pupils who want them in all the schools that LEAs maintain unless it is unreasonable for them to do so. The effect

7 Jul 1998 : Column 1195

of Amendment No. 191 is to place a duty on LEAs to provide paid lunches for those pupils under compulsory school age only where those pupils are full time. LEAs would continue to have the power to provide paid lunches to part-time pupils under compulsory school age and to provide paid lunches to all pupils of compulsory school age.

I believe that these are sensible arrangements. Most nursery schools or units offer only part-time provision--children attend in the morning or afternoon--and in practice many parents provide lunch. If there were a duty on LEAs to offer a paid meals service to these pupils, it would in effect extend the school day and require extra staff and additional supervision with attendant extra cost. However, LEAs will still be able to provide this service if they so wish. I can assure noble Lords that this does not affect the position of pupils under compulsory school age who are entitled to free school meals. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 190:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page