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The Earl of Sandwich: In view of the shortage of time for these inspections, does the noble Lord completely discount the possibility of parent governors taking that role? That is why they were constituted in the first place.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: If the parent governors were doing a good job, that would be perfectly possible. However, what about a school where the governing body is weak and has no control over a strong, assertive head? If parents make their concerns known to the governing body and find that nothing happens, what should they do? One of the great opportunities is to go and meet the inspectors. If a lot of parents turn up at the meeting, as they do with some inspections, the inspectorate at least knows that there are some issues that must be confronted. It is in such circumstances that we need the opportunity.

The Earl of Listowel: I rise to support what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said about Amendment No. 36 and to speak to my amendment, Amendment No. 37.

If my noble friend Lord Northbourne were able to be here today, he would strongly support what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said. There is an important principle involved: parents should be
 
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involved at every opportunity in every way possible in decisions that affect the upbringing of their children. That might seem to go without saying, but I do not think that it does.

I listened with great interest to the Conservatives' debate yesterday on a low-tax economy and to what my noble friend Lord Skidelsky, the economist, said about the importance of a low-tax economy. He did not argue that the primary reason was an economic one but that it was a question of responsibility, a moral question, and that individuals should not have their responsibility eroded by an unnecessary tax burden.

I have come across the issue in past debates on childcare. We know that many children arrive at school with language difficulties caused by their poor experience of parenting and that good childcare can help to remedy that and prepare children to arrive at school in better shape. There is a danger that people will say to parents, "We can look after your children better than you can. You can trust us with your children when they are very young", when sometimes the quality of the childcare is not what we would wish. That tension needs to be attended to. I am concerned that we should not, even with the best intentions in the world, erode the sense of parental responsibility. That is why I support strongly what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said, among the other reasons that he gave.

My Amendment No. 37 is similar to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. It seeks to involve those in the care system concerned with children who are looked after by local authorities. In particular, I think that it is important to involve birth parents, where it is possible and safe to do so. Many children in the care system return to their birth parents, and it is important that the parents are kept in touch with the process. Birth parents often feel excluded and frustrated by the system.

I shall give an example. A mother with mild learning difficulties might have her child placed in the care of the maternal grandmother. It may be a marginal case, and one would hope that the child could soon return to the mother's responsibility. It would help the mother not to lose hope that she might one day be fully responsible for her child again, if she were involved in the process and could feel that people were still interested in asking about the fate of her child and the decisions taken about the child. A mother in the process of recovering from alcohol or drug addiction could be kept involved with her children and in any important decisions about them.

The issue also highlights the need for a designated senior teacher at the school, as the guidance on the education of looked-after children recommends. That teacher could liaise and would be well aware of the situation in the local authority, so that, even at short notice, he or she could think, "Who shall I speak to? Who might it be helpful to contact in the short period before the inspection?". There might be a good deal of utility in that. Many foster carers and many people who work in residential childcare are concerned about the quality of the educational experience that the
 
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looked-after child receives in school. They might have something useful to say to the inspectors, if it were possible to involve them at short notice.

It is a probing amendment. I am seeking information about what happens currently and what might happen in the future with children who are looked after by local authorities. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Lord Hanningfield: Amendment No. 38, which is in the group, is similar to the two amendments that have been spoken to.

The key change in this Bill from the one that it follows so closely—the 1996 Act—is the scrapping of the meeting between the inspector and the parents of children at the school being inspected. We believe that that is a retrograde step and will act as a further disenfranchisement of parents.

The Explanatory Notes point out that such a meeting would be impractical, as we heard from other speakers, given the intention to reduce notice of inspections. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that it is neither impractical nor impossible. The two sides—inspectors and parents—have a great deal to offer each other. Both have valuable insights and information that it would be advantageous to share. Inspectors can get a true picture of the wider environment in which the school operates, including any ongoing concerns that might not be understood or spotted in an all-school environment. It is very important that parents are involved.

It is an easy opt-out to deem such a step impractical. We simply do not agree that that should happen. It would be relatively straightforward for the head teacher in a school, once he or she knows that an inspection is to be carried out, with the support of the appropriate authority, to set up a meeting between the interested parents and the inspection team. Parents are well aware of the importance of an Ofsted inspection, so attracting interested individuals would not be a problem. The intention behind our amendment is to leave it to the discretion of the head to arrange a suitable meeting.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: I want to make three points about Amendment No. 39. First, I support the thrust and intention of the amendments grouped with mine. I spoke about that at Second Reading, so I shall not repeat my arguments about the importance of the parents' role in the process.

I noticed in passing, with some wry amusement, that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, managed to identify a school that has not had an Ofsted inspection for some time. No doubt, Ofsted will take note. He may be thanked for that; he may not. We shall see.

My second point is that the amendment presses the importance of a meeting with the governors. There are two reasons for that. The first has already been alluded to in the debate: the governing body includes parent representatives. As a fail-safe position, the amendment would be one way of ensuring that some parents—those elected to represent the parents—met the inspection team. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, reasonably pointed out, it may be that the governing body is weak and the parents on it not very active or particularly representative.
 
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That brings me to the other reason why a meeting with the governing body is important. If the governing body is not strong and active and playing its part in the school, that fact needs to be drawn to its attention. Who could do that well, other than the inspectors with whom it should properly meet? The governing bodies of schools have had their responsibilities increased over the years, and rightly so. They can be a major source of support to the head teacher and other teachers and a major source of policy making in the school. The responsibility that they have for being accountable to the wider community is wholly in line with the intention of the Bill. Hence the importance that my colleagues and I attach to a meeting with the governors.

Governors ought to be available on short notice for such an important matter, but we suggest a failsafe position, so that, if they were not, it should not be a reason for not meeting the chairman. Whoever chairs the governing body ought to be available for such a session. Not only should the chair of the governing bodies and the other governors available be given the opportunity to meet the inspection team, it should be drawn be drawn to their intention as a responsibility. How else will they realise what their responsibilities are and ensure that those responsibilities are taken seriously by the department, the parents and the community at large? How else will they face up realistically to the report that will be made on their school? They ought to see the whites of the inspectors' eyes early and know how serious they are about their business.


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