Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, before I respond to the amendments, it is pertinent to say a little about the legal framework that we are constructing in the Bill, given that in part the amendments would place on the face of the Bill matters that will be dealt with in regulation.

I hope that I have made clear that our approach is for matters of principle to be laid down in primary legislation and process matters to be covered in regulation. In education, we inherited a vast amount of process laid down in primary legislation. That is why we have converted a number of processes and procedures into delegated powers, in order that they can be laid out as necessary in regulations. That will enable us to create more flexibility to tailor the procedures to changing circumstances and enable us to create more freedom for the front line—if I may describe teachers and governors as such—by making those regulations less prescriptive.

3 Jul 2002 : Column 270

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the right reverend Prelate should bear in mind that regulations have equal force in law to provisions in primary legislation. That is important when one looks at where one wishes to position a particular element. We are looking to put the processes and procedures into regulations.

I turn to Amendment No. 14. I am aware of the concerns expressed in some quarters to see parity of representation on school governing bodies between support and teaching staff. The noble Baroness has tabled an identical amendment to that she tabled on Report, together with her further Amendment No. 16 which defines small schools. I explained then that all governing bodies will be able to choose a model which suits their needs best within a framework of guiding principles.

So there will no longer be any necessary connection between the size of a school and the size of its governing body. Even the smallest school if it wished would be able to choose the largest model. In order to increase flexibility, we are deliberately coming away from pegging representation to size of school. That is an important point because it is fundamental to our agenda of giving schools greater flexibility. But the Government's motivation could be being misinterpreted as a drawing back from the principle of support staff representation on school governing bodies. That is certainly not the case, particularly as it was the Government's 1998 legislation that first provided that opportunity, as the noble Baroness said.

I am grateful for the opportunity the amendments provide to allow me to place on the record the Government's commitment to the involvement of support staff as members of school governing bodies. Noble Lords will know only too well that support staff play a vital and increasingly important role in the life of our schools. They are being employed in greater numbers in a wide range of capacities. Life in our schools is the richer for them, and their greater involvement is of considerable benefit to other staff as well as to pupils and their parents.

The move to a single governance category to cover all staff employed to work in maintained schools is not intended to suggest that support staff are not important or that their presence on governing bodies should be regarded as an optional extra. It was previously the case that support staff could be included only if they were parents, or if the governing body decided to co-opt them, with neither option giving support staff any say in who should represent them. The Government took an important step to include them in the 1998 legislation by providing for elected non-teaching staff.

The single staff category also emphasises that all staff are part of a single stakeholder group as they are employed to work at the school and owe their livelihoods to it. I know from personal experience that support staff are making a valuable contribution to the work of governing bodies. Where the situation is working well, a governing body would be foolish

3 Jul 2002 : Column 271

indeed to deny itself access to individuals who, while just as intimately involved in the school, can bring a different perspective from teachers.

But we need to provide for those governing bodies which, despite strenuous efforts and much good will, have found it impossible to persuade any member of the support staff to stand for election as a staff governor. One of the benefits of the new constitutional arrangements is that governing bodies should be able to choose the size and composition that works best for them and minimise unnecessary vacancies.

There are good reasons why governing bodies may wish to have a smaller governing body, particularly for a very small school. Smaller governing bodies make provision for only two staff representatives. One of those places, as noble Lords are aware, will be designated for the head teacher and cannot be reassigned, even if the head does not wish to become a governor. A second place will be reserved for a teacher. But if no teacher chooses to stand for election and other staff wish to do so, we have decided that the school's staff will be able to elect a member of the support staff to fill that second place.

Having further considered the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, I want to place on the record a further change that I propose to write in regulations. As noble Lords will remember from Report stage, the draft regulations already provide that at least one staff governor in addition to the head teacher must be a school teacher unless no school teacher stands for election. Where constitutional models provide at least three staff governor places, we will provide that one of those places should be reserved for a member of the support staff, unless no member of the support staff wishes to stand for election.

I hope that as governing bodies consider their options for new constitutions they will look closely at what support staff are already contributing to the work of their governing body or could in future, and, unless there are good reasons to opt for a smaller model, select a constitutional model which will allow for support staff representation.

Amendment No. 15 seeks a requirement that the regulations made under Clause 19 should provide for at least two foundation governors on the governing bodies of voluntary controlled and foundation schools with a religious character. As I said on Report when we were debating a similar amendment, I do not believe that there is any difference of opinion between us. I gave the House my absolute assurance that the regulations will indeed provide for a minimum of two foundation governor places at voluntary controlled and foundation schools. It has been a key tenet of our approach to the constitutional proposals that the primary legislation should restrict itself only to the key principles, with all the details in secondary legislation.

While it grieves me dearly to say no to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, for me to agree to the amendment would mean breaking faith with all the other stakeholder groups who have a right

3 Jul 2002 : Column 272

to be treated equally. I understand his concern to ensure that the ethos of controlled and foundation schools with a religious character should be protected. But we are undertaking to meet his request by providing in regulations—I have explained the force of regulations in law—that foundation representation in voluntary controlled and foundation schools should provide at least two and up to and including one quarter of places.

The governing body will continue to be obliged to uphold the school's trust deed and honour the ethos statement in the school's instrument of government. If there are concerns at any time that a governing body is acting in a way which would undermine the school's religious ethos, it will be open to any person to complain to the Secretary of State under the provisions in Sections 496 or 497 of the Education Act 1996 that the governing body is acting unreasonably in exercising its powers, or that it has failed to discharge that duty.

In considering any complaint made to her, the Secretary of State is required to take account of a school's category, and therefore the requirement to conduct a school with a religious character in accordance with the school's ethos statement. All the amendments seek levels of detail that we believe are more appropriate for regulations. I hope that my assurance on our commitment to school support staff, and the changes I have proposed to the regulations, will persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, to withdraw her amendment. I also trust that the additional assurance on the preservation of the religious character of controlled and foundation schools will lead the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn not to move his amendment.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister greatly. She has given me most of what I wanted. It would have been nice to have it in the Bill, but I realise that that would not fit with the stakeholder model. It is the next best thing to have the provisions stated in regulations and I am delighted. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 not moved.]

Clause 24 [Federations of schools]:

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn moved Amendment No. 17:

    Page 15, line 27, at end insert—

"(3A) A school that is a Church of England school, a Church in Wales school or a Roman Catholic Church school shall not be federated without the consent of the appropriate diocesan authority, and where a federation referred to in subsection (1) includes such a school, the instrument of government for the federation shall not be changed without the consent of the appropriate diocesan authority.
(3B) In the case of a foundation school, a foundation special school or a voluntary school which has a religious character but is not a Church of England school, a Church in Wales school or a Roman Catholic Church school, the school shall not be federated without the consent of the persons who appoint the foundation governors of the school, and where a federation referred to in

3 Jul 2002 : Column 273

subsection (1) includes such a school, the instrument of government for the federation shall not be changed without the consent of those persons.
(3C) Where the consent of the appropriate diocesan authority is required under subsection (3A) or the consent of the persons who appoint the foundation governors of the school is required under subsection (3B) such consent must not be withheld unless there are reasonable grounds for so doing."

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, although procedures forbade me from rising at that point I am grateful for the Minister's assurances on Amendment No. 15. I am also grateful for her full reply when I last raised federations on Report. However, on reading Hansard, and reflecting with others on the detail of her comments, it became clear to me that I have reluctantly to return to the matter, even at this late stage.

My support and encouragement for federations, which is on the record from previous debates, remains; that is why I rise to move this amendment. I commented in the earlier debate on the helpful note the Minister's officials prepared on the impact of federation on the religious character of a school. I raised four issues that have not been addressed adequately and to which I return now.

The note referred to voluntary aided schools with a religious character, but had nothing to say about voluntary controlled schools, whose individual religious character is particularly important to the Church of England. On Report the Minister helpfully referred to the importance of reserve teachers in such schools and how that would be preserved in the federation. I made a brief reference on another matter to the place of head teachers in such schools of a religious character, but in Section 60 of the School Standards and Framework 1998 Act the wording was introduced—a significant innovation from the Church's point of view—that the governors could appoint a head teacher for a voluntary controlled or foundation school on the basis of a candidate's,

    "ability and fitness to preserve and develop the religious character of the school".

That, of course, quite rightly fell short of a religious test but did allow for the first time the choice of a head who would be positively sensitive to, and supportive of, the school as a Church school whatever his or her own religious beliefs. As I said earlier, the religious character of a voluntary-controlled school is harder to preserve than that of a voluntary-aided school. Thus, the Government accepted our innovative wording. It will be important in a federation to preserve that character. I hope to hear an assurance from the Minister that regulations will acknowledge and, indeed, allow for that in a voluntary-controlled or foundation school.

Secondly, the helpful note identified arrangements for the appointment of a head teacher where a voluntary-aided school is part of a federation, but not for a proportion of the other staff where joint staff appointments are to be made. Section 60 of the 1998 Act put positively for the first time the governing body's right in a voluntary-aided school to appoint teachers who hold the religious tenets of the school in question and who do not contravene the moral

3 Jul 2002 : Column 274

precepts of the religion in question. That was important, in view of the forthcoming introduction of the Human Rights Act, as a contribution to the preservation of the character of the school. It had been implicit in legislation dating back to 1944 but was made explicit for the first time in the 1998 Act.

What would be the impact, for example, on a rural voluntary-aided school federated with two other community schools in neighbouring villages, with one head and in total, say, nine teachers? I hope that the Minister can give me the assurance that in such a case there should be a means whereby the three teachers who would normally be teaching in the voluntary-aided Church school—or, in any case, three of the teachers if the teachers were appointed to work across all three schools—could be appointed under the terms of Section 60 of the 1998 Act, and that regulations will so provide.

Thirdly, I was concerned that the note referred to a situation where there was disagreement between the governing body, the LEA and the diocesan authority over a new instrument of government. I was helpfully told that in those circumstances there would be an appeal to the Secretary of State. However, it would be helpful to have some indication of the principles on which the Secretary of State might decide the case.

The Minister helpfully referred on Report to several bases for the Secretary of State's judgments. However, I would like to have heard that the Secretary of State would seek to ensure that the trust deed of the school—its purpose as a religious school—would not be contravened by the proposed federation and that she would bear that in mind as well in seeking to resolve any unfortunate dispute. I assume that it will not be difficult for the Minister to give that commitment, but it would be good to hear it and to have it on the record. The Church or other religious bodies entering a federation would not seek preferential treatment but equal opportunities and a respect for the original charitable purposes of the school.

Finally, the note outlined an exit strategy if a federation were to some minds going wrong. The final decision would rest with the governing body of the federated schools and its decision would be absolute. As I understand it, if the governors representing a religious foundation within the federation wanted, for the sake of preserving the religious character of the school, to withdraw their school from a federation, they could do so only by persuading a majority of their fellow governors to agree. I hope that the Minister shares my view that that might significantly discourage religious schools from entering the kind of federations that I should like to see them enter to the detriment of their potential role in creating inclusion and diversity particularly in the primary sector of our education service. In current proposals a majority of community school governors would decide on the future of a Church or other faith school. I predict that that might lead to unfortunate disputes.

I am sorry to have taken so much time but it would help us and other religious communities willing to entertain joining federations—for the sake of social

3 Jul 2002 : Column 275

inclusion and community cohesion—if the diocesan authority or the body appointing foundation governors could appeal to the Secretary of State to withdraw their school from a federation where a federated governing body was not willing for such a withdrawal to take place. If the Minister were able to give me such an assurance, I would find it perfectly possible enthusiastically to recommend federations to religious schools, at least within the Church of England, without the need for a diocesan authority to have a veto, as the amendment seeks to achieve. I beg to move.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I support Amendment No. 17 which the right reverend Prelate has just laid before your Lordships. I wish particularly to underline the point he made about how the amendment could enhance the Government's laudable objective of trying to create federations. If the kind of assurances which the right reverend Prelate has sought cannot be given, many Church schools from varying religious backgrounds—the right reverend Prelate mentioned Anglican schools but from the discussions I have had with Roman Catholic authorities I believe that they hold the same views—would consider that a major disincentive to entering federated arrangements. The very proper objective of trying to encourage schools to work with often secular counterparts in the same areas so that they can properly share the assets, resources and expertise that they have and consolidate the educational opportunities within particular districts will be lost due to a fear of diluting the religious ethos and character of a school.

The right reverend Prelate was right to raise the issue of an exit strategy. Schools need to know how they can get out of federated status if those arrangements do not work out in the way that they hoped. It would do much good if the Minister were able to give assurances on those matters. I know that she would not wish to see the dilution of the religious ethos of schools; she has made that clear throughout the proceedings on the Bill. If the assurances that the right reverend Prelate has asked for can be given and placed on the record, schools could enter into sensible proposals with some degree of enthusiasm. If those assurances cannot be given, I fear that the right reverend Prelate is right and that schools will decline to take part in federated status.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page