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Lord Jones: Regarding the consultation with the LEAs and the proposed forums, shall we assume that a substantial body of the local education authorities is deficient in consultation? If that is the case, does my noble friend have any body of research or any information that she may share with the Committee as to why she proposes the forums in the Bill?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I had hoped that I had given the noble Lord some encouragement when I described how we have been considering good practice that exists within certain local education authorities. We are seeking to set up something that is not just a talking shop but more; something that will enable that dialogue to turn into a solid relationship between schools forums and local education authorities with a respect for the role of each. On the basis of the good experience that exists, I am happy to write to the noble Lord laying out some of the examples, of which the Committee will be fully aware, that we have considered. It is for those reasons that head teachers, governors and their representative bodies have said that they want to explore the situation with us. Having said that I am happy to discuss this further with noble Lords, I hope that it will be taken forward.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: Perhaps the Minister will clarify her response to the amendment of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. She suggested that in some areas where minority interests were relatively small it would not be appropriate for them to be represented on schools forums. However, in some boroughs, such as the borough of Wigan, close to 50 per cent of schools are run by the Churches. In those circumstances, who is in a majority and who is in a minority?
Lord Lucas: As the Minister responded to the amendments I became more and more concerned that the Government are missing the point of what is being carried out so successfully in many local authorities. Local authorities are gathering consent and conducting matters in a way that, from time to time, suits a particular local authority, a particular group of schools and a particular set of problems. It is a structure that is flexible and that can respond to difficulties that may arise; for example, one particular group of schools may feel that it is not properly represented on the forum, but the forum is not charged with any statutory duty. Its object is to produce consent. Its usefulness as far as concerns the local authority is to produce something that is owned by the schools so that when the unpleasant task of cutting £1 million from the budgets to fund extra special educational needs provision arises, the exercise can be conducted with consent and with understanding all round.
The structure in the Bill appears to introduce something that is too rigid. If voluntary-aided schools were unhappy with what was going on and they were not represented, that would leave them feeling that they had not consented to a decision that the schools forum had made; they would not feel part of it. It would seem to me that that would lose the point of the good practice that has been established.
By acclamation, this Chamber is moving towards greater power for elected Members, but in local education authorities we are moving the other way and introducing mini quangos that will have powers that are not responsive to the electorate. I am not sure that that is the way that we should go. I believe that we should work through the democracy and the good practice of local education authorities. By all means let us have the power as a fall-back position for schools, but allow local authorities to produce their own solutions if the fall-back power would compel them to do it in a way that they would not like. I find that a valuable way of encouraging good practice.
I have one technical question. The Minister referred to the admission forums having powers. As far as I can see, that comes under new Section 47A(3)(a) which refers to new Section 45A(3). I cannot see that Clause 45A(3) refers in any explicit way to giving powers to schools forums. Can the Minister explain the technicalities of how something that appears to be a regulation governing what is delegated or what is not, can suddenly give powers to another body to take part in those decisions when that body is not mentioned at all in anything to do with new Section 45A(3)?
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I rise for a second time, but feel better about doing so because I expressed sympathy to the Minister for the task imposed upon her by the other place. As I followed her logicand it was about her logic that I was concerned when I first spokeit is, as my noble friend Lord Lucas said much more articulately than I could, that things are working well on a voluntary basis and in a consultative manner in certain parts of the country and therefore we should standardise them. However, it seems possible, as my noble friend Lord Lucas implied, that it is the very circumstances in which they have hitherto been working which have made them successful. I am perfectly happy to be proved wrong.
I shall also be happy if the noble Lord, Lord Jones, will allow me to be copied with whatever letter the Minister sends to him. I am happy to keep an open mind in regard to what the Minister says. But I have always been powerfully influenced by the observation of C S Lewis that if you hear about somebody going around doing good to others, you can always tell the others by their hunted look!
Baroness Walmsley: Did I understand the Minister to say that the schools forums would completely replace the current consultation processes? If so, we are in danger of dumbing down rather than improving the quality overall in the interests of the consistency to which the Minister referred.
I am concerned that many schools would not be involved with the schools forums. The primary schools in particular may lose out because the system will undoubtedly be dominated by the secondary schools. Nor am I convinced that there is a demand for this kind of structure. Clearly it comes to some extent from the Secondary Heads Association. But I wonder how many head teachers are behind the statement and how many school governors are demanding a structure of this kind. I am afraid that the Government will be jumping out of what they consider to be a frying pan into what the rest of us consider to be a fire.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, confused me because he mentioned admissions forums, which are different. The technical answer to his question is that new Section 45A(4)(c) relates to schools forums powers under 45A(3). I can go no further than that at this point, but shall be happy to take that up with him later if it would help.
As Members of the Committee will be awareparticularly the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, because she has stood at this Dispatch Boxdifferent local education authorities have different experiences, as do schools. So sometimes the role of government is to put together a package which is made to look the same across the piece in order to ensure that those schools, those education authorities and ultimately those children, receive the best possible service. That is what we are trying to create in these provisions.
As I said, I am happy to discuss the detail. I recognise the strength of feeling. It is not a question of taking away what has flowered, blossomed and grown in different areas to be something hugely successful. We are providing something to enable a dialogue to develop under a new funding regime and with the new opportunities that arise on a representative basis. It is no more and no less than that. There are some matters the forums could discuss with the LEAs. But of course the main bulk of funding provisions rests where it should; that is, either with the school or with the local education authority.
I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that I was saying that we would be allowing different categories to cover precisely the point that in some areas many schools are voluntary aided and in other areas very few are, and to recognise that representatives from the diocese could be part of the forums via the group we described as a non-schools member. I hope that that reassures Members of the Committee. I look forward to continuing the debate but hope that the clause will be allowed to stand part.
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