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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I begin with Amendment No. 138. Subsection (3) of Clause 31 is the direct re-enactment of the existing Section 41(3) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The regulations made under that section set out the procedure to be followed where schools wish to make changes to session times. We believe that this is important. It is crucial that parents are notified of changes that may be made to session times. That is particularly pertinent, of course, to working parents but it is important for all parents to be given time to reflect upon, understand and have a say in the matter. As I say, the legislation as it stands as reflected in Clause 31 recognises that significant impact. We

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believe, therefore, that it would be wrong to remove that protection set out in regulations, certainly without first consulting those affected. At present we detect no desire on the part of schools or education authorities to make changes to the current situation.

I turn to Amendment No. 138A. As I said, we do not believe that we can remove subsection (3) of Clause 31. However, as the noble Baroness said, Amendment No. 138A would remove only paragraph (d) of Clause 31(3). That measure is also a straightforward re-enactment. The subsection exists to deal with the apparent anomaly of an authority being required to consult itself as a corporate parent about changes to school session times. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made an important point. The current regulations do not distinguish between corporate and other parents. Therefore, we are happy to accept Amendment No. 138A as drafted by the noble Baroness.

I turn to Amendment No. 140. Term dates are set by local education authorities or governing bodies depending on the category of school. As things stand, that decision is taken on a local basis. As the Committee will be aware, a small number of schools are already running a five-term year. Few representations have been made to the department to change the present arrangements under which school term dates are decided locally by those most affected. The consultation procedures appear to work well without the need for procedures to be set out in regulations.

It is, of course, inevitable that there is some variation of term dates from year to year. Variations in the date of Easter have always caused annual variations in term dates. That being the case, we do not believe that one particular model of a school year should be singled out in primary legislation. I recognise, of course, that the noble Baroness used that as an example. The Committee will also be aware that discussions are being undertaken at the moment with the Local Government Association on a fixed-term year as an alternative. Those proposals, of course, are not covered in the amendment although the Government have made it clear that for our part we would need to be convinced that there was widespread support for change before lending our support either through legislation or guidance.

Although it is not a statutory requirement, we expect local authorities to consult widely on issues that affect people in their areas. Currently, several authorities are consulting locally on changing to a six-term year. The evidence is that local education authorities understand the need for wide consultation. We therefore do not believe that a duty to consult is necessary here. I hope that in the light of those remarks the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful and, in fact, almost overwhelmed that an amendment has been accepted and so early in the day. I hope that that sets the tone for the rest of the day.

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As regards Amendment No. 138, the noble Baroness seemed to say that because the relevant measure is a re-enactment it is all right. When I stood at the government Dispatch Box I used the argument, "It has been done before and therefore why cannot we do it again"? However, that is never an intellectually sound argument for doing anything. Just because something has been done before does not necessarily make it right. I argue that there is a case for removing the regulations that we are discussing.

In responding to Amendment No. 140, the noble Baroness appeared to say that local consultation works well, that the Government expect it to continue to work well and that therefore they see no reason why the measure should be included in the Bill. However, that same argument is used in favour of requiring regulations in subsection (3); namely, that it is important that consultation and the way in which procedures work locally must be bound by regulations set from the centre. If the argument against Amendment No. 140 is a sound one, why is it not also sound in terms of supporting Amendment No. 138? There is an inconsistency here. I shall wish to read what the noble Baroness said and digest it carefully. I may return to the matter, but in the meantime I am pleased that Amendment No. 138A has been accepted. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 138A:

    Page 18, line 41, leave out paragraph (d).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 139:

    Page 18, line 42, at end insert—

"( ) for the principles and procedures to be followed by the local education authorities and governing bodies of schools in determining the dates of the terms in any school year"

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of the amendment is to help pave the way for something that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has just admitted she is fundamentally against; that is, changing the school year. The amendment must be read in conjunction with Amendment No. 157 which we have already debated, but which, lest the Committee has forgotten what it says, attempts to define the concept of the school term as those days within any discrete period of the school year,

    "on which pupils are required to attend school".

Amendment No. 139 asks that an extra subsection be added after subsection (3) of Clause 31—the subsection that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said was otiose—to enable secondary legislation to set out the principles to be followed in determining the dates on which school terms and holidays are to begin and end. Together, these two amendments pave the way for local education authorities to move towards a standardised school year. Neither amendment is strictly necessary. The response given to Amendment

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No. 157 was that the LEA, or the governing body in relation to voluntary-aided and foundation schools, has a clear duty to determine the dates of holidays as well as terms. That means that half-term holidays and faith holidays can also be fixed by the local education authority and that does not leave any ambiguity. However, some of us feel that there is a degree of ambiguity in that regard. For the sake of completeness it would be helpful to have on the face of the Bill a definition of the school term and—this is where the relevant subsection comes in—the principles that are adhered to by the local authority in determining the school year.

The case for standardising the school year is well known. With children frequently moving from one area to another and LEAs varying their holiday patterns, sometimes by as much as two weeks in one direction or another, many families can be greatly inconvenienced. The long autumn and, when Easter is early, summer terms cause stress and illness among pupils and, more particularly, staff. For exam years half the summer term is effectively lost and exams often come at the peak of the hay fever season.

City technology colleges free from LEA constraints have for the past 10 years experimented with a five-term year. They claim that part of their success derives from the smoother pattern of teaching and study that that has promoted. The current pattern of the school year with its long holidays in July and August, to coincide with the harvest, dates back to the 19th century. The Local Government Association set in train consultation among local education authorities a couple of years ago in an attempt to reach agreement on some form of standardisation. That led to the setting up of an independent commission under Mr Chris Price, which has been consulting extremely widely. It came up with two proposals involving relatively minor changes which would, in effect, create a six-term year. Those changes are: the standardisation of a two-week break for the half-term in October, making, in effect, two seven-week terms between September and Christmas; and the standardisation of a two-week break, whatever the date of Easter, in the second and third week of April, so that there would be two six-week terms between Christmas and the April break, followed by two six-week terms in the summer. That would leave the five-week summer holiday effectively intact.

Those proposals have received wide support and many LEAs will begin moving towards them in 2003-04. As has been said, strictly speaking, no new legislation is required. However, the two amendments would help to clarify the purpose and the ease of the process of standardisation. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch: There are two issues in this regard. The first involves a fundamental change in the structure of the school year and the decision whether to go from the current arrangement to a four-term, a five-term or even a six-term year. I have seen the literature on the six-term year and personally I am quite attracted to it. However, that is a personal view, which I do not advocate for schools. I have a difficulty

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about imposing a "one size fits all" policy on our education system, and I should want to think very long and hard about imposing that approach on every school in every LEA. In relation to any change in that regard, there should be full consultation and total involvement of parents and people in the local communities.

In turning to my second point, I shall speak on behalf of parents. There is incredible frustration among parents about the fact that different schools in their locality start and end terms at different times. That creates all sorts of tensions in families with two or more children, who attend different schools. Parents are run ragged trying to cope with the different dates for the beginnings and ends of terms. There is much to be done in that regard; we must have better co-ordination and put in place better arrangements so that parents are fully involved and can express views on the start and end of a term. That is a different point from that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister's response.

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