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Baroness Walmsley: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 167, 168 and 169 and to oppose the Question whether Clause 41 shall stand part of the Bill.

The purpose of those amendments is to limit the power of schools forums to that of giving advice to the relevant local authority. Although the Government have set out the functions of schools forums in draft regulations, if they remain committed to the new unaccountable structures, further clarification of their role in the Bill would be helpful. That is because of the danger that the role of the forums could widen in future, through further regulations, to involve decision-making, despite the reassurance that the Minister gave to my noble friend Lady Sharp in relation to an earlier amendment.

A number of problems would ensue from such an extension of the forums' powers. For example, would their determining whether some school support service budgets should be delegated to schools give them de facto employer capacity without the accountability to which LEAs taking such action are subjected? What if the amount that is given back to the authority to fulfil statutory duties in relation to special educational needs or for excluded children was not sufficient?

The whole issue of schools forums is yet another example of the fact that the Government spend time legislating when doing so is quite unnecessary; there are much more important issues to discuss. Local authorities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, are already obliged to consult all schools under the fair-funding arrangements. Most schools are happy with that. A recent report by the Audit Commission showed that more than 80 per cent of the 10,000 schools that were questioned were happy with the level of support from the LEA on the planning of schools budgets and believed that consultation had improved during the past few years. Schools are consulted not only on budgets but also on service level agreements, asset management plans, sixth-form funding, recruitment and retention, SEN reviews, delegation of school meals provision, Ofsted inspections and directorate restructuring; I could go on.

I hope that the Minister is not going to tell us that there has been an outcry demanding this extra bit of bureaucracy for schools. Does she have a file full of letters from head teachers demanding to have their time taken up with more meetings, the cost of which will be deducted from their budget? I am sure that she does not. Head teachers to whom I have spoken believe that they are well consulted by their LEA; they certainly do not have time for any more consultation and do not see the need for it.

Authorities also consult a range of other stakeholders, including teachers' unions, diocesan boards, community groups, residents, Members of another place, local health authorities, the local Racial Equality Council, pupils, elected members and others. There is plenty of evidence from Ofsted inspections

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that consultation is being done effectively, regularly and widely. The saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", is a good one and should apply in this context.

There is a danger that if the forums are established and do not contain a representative from every school or stakeholder in the authority, the level of satisfaction that I have described will melt away and schools will become dissatisfied with the views that are expressed by their representatives. Only a small number of schools could be involved and they may not be truly representative.

While it is both desirable and possible for LEAs to further refine and improve consultation arrangements so that they take account of local needs and conditions and involve all stakeholders, there is no need to legislate for that. There is no proven need for that, and it would introduce unnecessary complexity into the LEA's budget-setting process.

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 171, which stands in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and which is grouped with this amendment.

We are concerned about this aspect of the Bill. The creation of schools forums is a debatable matter in itself. It is clear to us, particularly since the Regulatory Reform (Voluntary Aided Schools Liabilities and Funding) (England) Order came into effect in April this year, that particular issues involving voluntary-aided schools have to be addressed. If the forums will give advice to local authorities on funding and school budgets, it is essential that they are at least represented on schools forums. It would be an injustice for a body to be discussing the budgeting and funding arrangements for particular schools if there was no representative of the schools on the forum. That may be an oversight in the way that the Bill has been drafted. However, it seems to me that, of all the stakeholders, this is a particularly important one, although I share many of the reservations of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, concerning the representation of all schools in this area.

I hope that, in replying, the Minister will be sympathetic to the concerns of the voluntary-aided schools. When it comes to forming a budget and the funding of a school, they have particular issues to address which are not applicable to community schools.

Lord Jones: Perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Minister from whence comes the concept of the schools forum which she promulgates today. Have there been any pilots, or is there anything that might remotely equal a pilot in the country at present? Is there, for example, any parallel in an overseas country to what is now proposed? Can she spell out the reasons or the details as to why she makes these proposals? Is it because consultations are now considered to be defective? My noble friend might respond to those questions should she get to the Dispatch Box in the near future.

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Lord Alton of Liverpool: When the Minister comes to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Jones, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, no doubt she will deal with the general question of schools forums. I believe that we all wait with interest to hear what she has to say. However, my purpose in rising is simply to support the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, who suggested that voluntary-aided schools should certainly be involved in the membership of schools forums where they are established.

It is paradoxical that earlier in our proceedings the complaint was made that Church or faith schools did not always play their part in the wider community. Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, used the phrase "ghetto schools". Some Members of the Committee disagreed with that and said that it was an unfair caricature of those schools. However, unless we incorporate this amendment, or something like it, into the text of the Bill, there is a danger that voluntary-aided schools will be set aside in precisely the way that was suggested when concerns were expressed earlier in our proceedings. I agree with the right reverend Prelate. I suspect that there may have been an oversight in the drafting of the Bill. I hope that when the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, comes to reply, she will be able to give a helpful response.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I rise to support my noble friend on the Front Bench. My remarks will be extremely brief. This is the first time that I have intervened on this Bill, but I shall draw on the speeches that have just been made by the noble Lords, Lord Jones and Lord Alton. My speech will be in the nature of the occasional comments made by the chorus in Greek tragedies.

The Minister will be aware that Clause 41, which we are now discussing, and Clauses 42 and 43 were not debated in another place due to the programming Motion. There is a degree of interlocking relationship between the clauses with which we are dealing in this part of the Bill. The logic that would have been revealed in another place if the clauses had been discussed is, of course, lacking to us. Consideration is genuinely assisted if Ministers have the chance to explain the unfolding logic, which Ministers in another place were denied the opportunity to do. However, this is not simply an animadversion on programming Motions, although I dare say that any self-respecting Greek chorus could have risen to a climax of ululation on the subject. But no chorus was confined to a single theme.

My concluding remarks, which flow from everything else that I have said, contain profound sympathy for the Minister for the extra strain that is put upon her in this place for having, as the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Jones, said, to explain issues which, frankly, we would have found easier to discuss if they had already been debated somewhere else.

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6.15 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: That was a very good introduction. It would have been easier for me, too, if these matters had been discussed elsewhere. I shall endeavour to ensure that I cover all the relevant points. I know that Members of the Committee will ensure that I do so before the end of this discussion.

I begin by speaking to Amendment No. 170—the government amendment. This amendment has been brought forward as a result of further consideration of the way in which the Bill is drafted. It is not a new policy; it has always been our intention that a schools forum should be consulted by its local education authority on the funding formula and various other matters, including a limited range of items which I have already discussed.

However, the clause is written in terms of the forum's, rather than the authority's, functions. Therefore, it is questionable whether, as it currently stands, it authorises regulations which compel the authority to undertake such consultation. The amendment makes it explicit that the relevant regulations can compel the LEA to consult the forum. That is my formal statement on the matter. I hope that Members of the Committee will agree to the amendment on the basis that, if we are to have forums, they need to be able to do their job well.

I turn to Amendment No. 166 moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, concerning consideration about the majority of governing bodies. The noble Baroness referred to Cambridgeshire—an authority that both she and I are privileged to know something about, although obviously I know it from a different end of the telescope from the noble Baroness. As the noble Baroness said, that authority, and many others, have a good dialogue with schools about funding issues. They have established local consultative groups and those work well.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked me on what basis we brought forward this provision. We did so by looking at examples of where local education authorities and schools have worked well together. We asked what lesson could be learnt that would be applicable across all local education authorities.

Therefore, we are trying to bring forward schools forums for the benefit of schools everywhere. We believe that they have vital functions to fulfil. Those are: improved consultation on funding formulae; decisions on the delegation of funding for certain types of expenditure; advice on a range of financial issues, including the balance of spending on various services; and helping the LEA to fill a client role in letting contracts. Above all, they will be a conduit for the views of schools on the management of the schools budget, which is introduced under Clause 39.

The list of functions shows why the forums are part of our strategy for the new LEA and school funding system which we are working towards. From the representations that we have had from the Secondary Heads Association, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Governors' Council, I

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believe that this is something that schools want. The Secondary Heads Association gave me permission to quote this:

    "While it is true that many local education authorities do have reasonably effective ways of consulting their schools, the current process is not consistent or evenly satisfactory".

It is precisely that that we seek to address. We want this important initiative to go ahead as soon as possible so that schools can influence decisions which will be taken by authorities in the first stage of the new funding system in 2003–04. We believe that introducing an extra stage, by polling schools as to whether or not to have a forum, would be unnecessary and bureaucratic.

We want to see this provision in every area. We believe that schools forums have an important role to play, and it is a role that we want to see every local education authority take on. The concept is based on the good practice of schools elsewhere and on the good practice of local education authorities. We want to see it universally adopted, and that is why we are putting it forward in this way.

For that reason, I cannot support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, although I agree with many things that she said. Specifically she said that schools forums would be voted in by a majority of governing bodies. But we would not want significant minorities to be unable to have a schools forum, not least because we consider them to be important.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 167 to 169. The forums are essentially advisory and consultative bodies, and the functions that we intend to give them mostly reflect that role. But we believe that there is some scope for a limited decision-making role with regard to the delegation of certain items of expenditure. Those items are the museum service, meals for primary and special school pupils, library services and so on. As I said, we shall consult to ensure that that list is the right one. In doing so, we have been holding discussions at length with the Local Government Association.

Whether or not delegation of those items is better than LEA central funding will depend on local circumstances. We believe that the schools forum can usefully reach the collective view of local schools on this matter. Therefore, we want to entrust such decisions to the forums and, through them, the schools that they represent.

As I said, we do not intend to extend the list in the future. For most items where expenditure is centrally retainable, a decision to delegate will still rest with the local education authority. That must be, and is, especially true in relation to special educational needs because the LEA has responsibility for ensuring that special educational needs requirements are fulfilled. However, the limited scope that we wish to give to forums for decision-making means that it is not right to designate them as purely advisory bodies.

I turn to Amendment No. 171 which stands in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. It requires that schools forums should automatically have head teacher and

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governing body representation for voluntary-aided schools. I recognise that that reflects concern within the Churches that such schools may not have their particular interests adequately represented on the forums. In response to that concern we propose to insert in the regulations on forum membership a provision that permits LEAs to organise the election of school members so that there is separate representation by school type, if it appears that that is justified by local circumstances and wishes. Those on the schools forums will be elected teachers and governors from the schools within the area.

However, we do not believe that there is justification for an automatic representation for voluntary-aided schools. First, such a right would be disproportionate. In many authorities fewer than 20 per cent of schools are voluntary aided. In fairness, such a right would have to be matched by rights for other school types. Secondly, schools forums are to be concerned only with school funding matters. We believe that the category—community, voluntary or foundation—that a school falls into does not affect its funding from the education authority to any significant degree, especially now that changes have been made to governing body liability for premises of voluntary-aided schools.

That means that the situation is not analogous to school organisation committees which always have diocesan representatives. We understand that the Churches will want to have an involvement. Therefore, I say to the right reverend Prelate that in guidance on the forums, about which we shall be consulting shortly, we intend to encourage LEAs to appoint diocesan representatives as non-schools members. Furthermore, voluntary school heads and governing bodies will no doubt be keen to stand for election as schools members. We think that that is the better way, and I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

On Clause 41 stand part, we want to build on what has been successful. We believe that the consultative process set up in some local education authorities is a model that we can enhance and develop into the schools forums. We believe that the way in which we have increased the proportion of schools' funding delegated to school bodies means that the logical next step is the process that we have set up in Clause 39, which is creating separate schools and LEA budgets.

So local education authorities already have a good relationship with schools on those issues, but others do not. We want schools in those areas to share in best practice. That is what we are seeking. We shall issue a consultative paper on the way in which forums should be constituted and the functions that they will have. Responses will inform the regulations and guidance. We would like the forums to become functional by 31st October, so that they can have a meaningful input into the deliberations on school budgets for 2003–04. A first draft has been placed in the Library of your Lordships' House. We expect to add to that draft a provision requiring LEAs to have regard to the need for school members to be broadly representative of the types of school to be found in an area.

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I have found this debate extremely useful. We want the forums to become a valuable tool. We believe that we have received representations from governors and head teachers that that would be welcome. We believe that it will build on the success that noble Lords have described as taking place in education authority areas. Having listened to the debate, I shall want to reflect further. I am not sure that I shall be able to find a way that will satisfy all noble Lords, but I am happy to offer to meet with noble Lords to discuss the matter further before we reach the next stage of the Bill.

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