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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I was much taken by the statement by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about the need to consider very carefully before imposing a "one size fits all" approach in this regard. As we discussed in relation to the previous amendment, term dates are currently set out by LEAs or governing bodies, depending on the category of the school. Clause 31, which will bring nursery schools into the arrangements, leaves that position intact.

We have had few representations to change the system because, I believe, the consultation procedure is working well. Members of the Committee will be aware of the relevant examples. In Wigan, the pattern of terms was changed locally. A detailed consultation was conducted—the relevant information will be available to Members of the Committee. East Sussex is often quoted as an example of an LEA that consulted on a six-term year. In light of responses to that consultation, it decided against that change.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, was right to say that there is not a specific statutory requirement to consult. However, we expect LEAs and school governing bodies to consult widely on issues affecting people in their area. We have no reason to believe that there is anything wrong in this regard. We believe that the procedure is working well. We should not seek to regulate LEAs and schools unless there is a clear need to do so. The evidence is that LEAs understand the need for wide consultation, give parents good notice of term dates and generally take their responsibilities in this area seriously. I believe that governing bodies of schools—often as advised by their LEAs—understand that, too.

In this context, there is no real need for regulation. The current procedures work well and there does not appear to be a need for further change. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I thank the Minister for her reply. As she pointed out, the process of consultation has been extremely wide. LEAs that are attracted to the idea are also consulting extremely widely—there is no question of them not consulting parents. They are going along that route for precisely the reason described by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch; namely, that many parents are very frustrated by the fact that school holidays do not coincide. There would be advantages to some standardisation. It is around that notion that LEAs are consulting. That is what lies behind the approach.

I accept what the Minister says. I was asked to advance the amendment by Mr Chris Price, who is leading the consultation, because, as I said, he felt that it would clarify the position and help the consultations to proceed. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 140 not moved.]

Clause 31, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 32 [Annual parents' meetings]:

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): We now come to Amendment No. 141. I point out that if Amendment No. 141 is agreed to, that will pre-empt Amendment No. 142.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 141:

    Page 19, line 7, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Baroness said: I wonder how independent schools exist at all. They do not have an LEA or a Department for Education and Science, and they do not have regulations galore, guidance or guidelines but, somehow or other, they get by. That is the thinking that lies behind this amendment.

I really cannot understand why the Government believe that they have to make regulations—they will be issued from the centre by the Secretary of State—governing how schools conduct their annual parents' meeting. There is already in statute requirements about what has to be included in annual reports and about what information has to be given to parents about their children. What about the idea that there should be regulations about the purpose of the annual general meeting or about the circumstances in which a governing body will be exempt from the obligations imposed by Clause 1?

Subsection (1) states:

    "Once in every school year the governing body . . . shall hold . . . an 'annual parents' meeting' . . . which is open to . . . the head teacher, and . . . such other persons as the governing body may invite".

Why do we need regulations on that matter? We have previously discussed innovation projects. The Government accepted that a project may be intended to raise standards in a school. It may be wholly acceptable within a project, for one reason or another, not to hold an annual general meeting or to hold it in a different manner—perhaps once every two years, for example. That could be dealt with as part of the application for the innovation project. However, as a rule, having regulations in that context is wrong.

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We also have regulations on the procedure to be followed for any such meeting. What is there to stop a school from deciding how to run its annual parents' meeting? Schools that reside in the leafy lanes of our country have little difficulty with annual meetings—when they call a meeting, it is well attended. People arrive and are told about the school and the progress of their children. There may be a guest speaker and everybody goes away happy. In other parts of the land, head teachers and diligent governing bodies work incredibly hard to raise interest in the annual meeting but have great difficulty getting parents to attend. In those cases, they resort to different ways—perhaps more entertaining or novel ways—of encouraging parents to come along. Why not leave the way in which meetings are conducted to the schools? As I said, they are already controlled by statute in terms of the information that they have to give to parents in other ways.

Then there are regulations which make provision for imposing requirements on the governing body, the head teacher and the local education authority in relation to resolutions which have been passed at any such meeting. They include requirements framed by reference to any opinion formed by the governing body. The nanny state is going too far in this respect.

Finally, there are regulations to enable the governing body or, as the case may be, the local education authority, to determine for purposes connected with the annual meetings whether any person is to be treated as the parent of a registered pupil at the school. Again, do we really need that?

Therefore, the thrust behind the amendment is that these regulations are a step too far. The amendment gives the Government an opportunity to take at least one set of regulations out of the Bill and give schools the space and freedom to exercise their own professional judgment. Schools already have an obligation set out in statute to inform parents about what is going on. We should leave them to be as innovative as they wish and should not seek for them to be governed by regulation. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: We on these Benches have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. We go along with subsection (1). We are anxious that there should be an annual parents' meeting. I believe it is important for there to be an obligation on a school to arrange a time at which to acquaint parents with the developments that have taken place and to keep them in touch with ideas that are developing within the school. However, it seems to be unnecessary for regulations to stipulate precisely what goes on. If the department considers it necessary to lay down suggested guidelines, why does it not introduce guidance rather than regulations? That would be far less heavy-handed. Therefore, as I said, we have much sympathy with the amendment.

The Earl of Sandwich: I, too, warmly support the noble Baroness's amendment. I do not understand

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why we are not all on our feet saying that here at last is an opportunity for there to be no regulations. Can one imagine a parents' meeting at which the parents have to check the regulations to see whether anything has been offended against; or can one imagine governors scurrying down the corridor to check exactly what is being said? It is unimaginable, and I hope that the noble Baroness will take this second opportunity to accept an amendment.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Opportunities come only once in a while. I take note of what noble Lords have said. I confess that I smiled to myself slightly as I have chaired several annual parents' meetings. I believe that I fall into the category, described by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, of struggling to get parents to go along to meetings. However, I know from previous experience that parents are quick to attend an annual meeting if it is to discuss an issue of great concern to them. In other words, if something is going wrong in a school or if an issue is burning within a school, then parents feel the need to be at the school and to know exactly what the processes and procedures are. That is the thrust of what we are trying to achieve here.

I accept that one reason for seeking to introduce the regulations is so that we can reconsider these issues over time and not wait for primary legislation in order to do so. Therefore, we understand and appreciate the thrust of what Members of the Committee are saying. I also understand the desire that everyone has to ensure that the meetings are fulfilling for parents and that they are innovative and novel in terms of persuading parents to attend.

However, in this case we are in the business of introducing safeguards. It is appropriate that, where things are not as parents would wish them to be within a school, we consider how to ensure that they are able to exercise their rights. That is why, if 20 per cent of the parents of pupils at a school attended such a meeting, they would have the ability to pass resolutions. The provision is intended to give parents power if they are faced with an issue of huge concern. We believe that it is important to retain that opportunity.

Therefore, although I appreciate that the spirit of the amendment is to allow freedom within schools, the purpose behind our desire to keep the matter within regulations is to provide a safeguard for the moments when things do not go so well. Having chaired several annual meetings of parents, I do not believe that spending a great deal of time on formal business takes away from those meetings if things are going well.

I understand that the concept of such meetings was originally based on the idea of a company directors' meeting, and that is why they are rather formal. However, in terms of what can be achieved beyond the formal part of the meeting, I believe that many people have produced interesting and innovative ways of involving parents with discussions, guest speakers and so on.

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Therefore, the regulations allow us to make adjustments and to accept that, as times goes on, things change. Nevertheless, on this occasion we believe that the safeguard is necessary. While I appreciate entirely the Committee's wish that annual meetings should not be anything other than occasions where people can debate matters, the regulations would ensure that, if something went wrong, a process would be in place to which parents could turn and use for their benefit. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

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