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Lord Hanningfield: I support everything the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has said. In questioning whether Clause 100 stands part of the Bill, we wish to understand why the Government have decided to abolish both the annual parents' meeting and the governors' report. I wish to talk also to Amendment
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No. 145A. That is a simple and straightforward new clause that would give each headmaster the discretion to decide whether his or her school should have an annual parents' meeting. I shall talk a little more about that in a moment.
As the Bill currently stands, the obligation to hold such a meeting will be scrapped, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, saidI shall not repeat many of the arguments, I just want to stress themas would be the requirement to produce an annual report to parents. Again that would apply only to England. We see that Wales is to continue with both the meeting and the report unless the Assembly decides otherwise.
Will the Minister explain the rationale behind such a step? In particular, what evidence is there that such meetings are not well attended or are not wanted, and, indeed, that the report is not widely read among parents of registered children?
We are not convinced that this is the best step forward, for many of the reasons given by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Once again, in adopting such an approach as we did with the discussion on Ofsted in not involving governors and parents so much, we risk loosening and separating the bonds between parents and schools. In Committee, we have mentioned many times the important part that parents have to play in the life of a child's school. Such a step as this in the legislation merely erodes that involvement once again. Most parents find that having a parents' meeting is a useful and productive exercise, as it is possibly one of the few opportunities they have to find out what is going on in the school and how everything is progressing.
Although we might be told that schools could do this anyway, our new clause would mean that there would still be meetings, but that the heads would have discretion on whether to hold them. I hope that the Minister may support our amendment. He might say that that may happen anyway, but I should be interested to hear his views.
Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: I speak in support of these amendments for two reasons: first, the set of arguments already given in support of them; but, secondlya point made earlier in debate from all sides of the Chamberthe Bill seems to be moving in the direction of downgrading the involvement of both parents and governors in how schools are run. There may well be practical problems about organising parents' meetings. I know of one head teacher who, to establish contact with parents, went out to hand the bills through doors and to post them through letterboxes; although she soon found that in certain parts of town you go with an escort before you do that. But that was the determination of the head teacher. I feel this Bill does not support that determination; we are moving away from it.
Had there been alternative proposals for the involvement of parents and governors in the running of schools that strengthened that involvement, perhaps these amendments would not be necessary. But, as the Bill stands, I think that they are.
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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: I wish also to support the amendment, in particular on the situation for Walesand we have clarified the situation as far as concerns devolution. But we have some concerns. Clause 100 demands that the 2002 Act makes the requirement for a governors' report and an annual parents' meeting to apply only in Wales, with, as other noble Lords have said, the Assembly having an order-making power to remove these requirements in due course.
I have consulted a number of communities in Wales on this issue. I was a school governor for some time; I am not at the moment. These proposals are greeted with horror. People want to be involved in their communities. I do not know whether communities are much stronger in Wales, but certainly any prospect of removing the annual parents' meeting and not having a governors' report is treated as plainly unrealistic as far as concerns the cohesiveness of communities and their schools. So this is a matter of some considerable concern. I should have thought that many communities in England have a similar attitude.
Concurrently, I should like clarification in relation to Wales because it is part of the primary legislation. Does the provision in Clause 100(3)(b) mean that the Assembly could adopt the school profiles legislation as a consequence of removing these requirements at some possible date in the future? Given that the Government are rarely silent on anything, will their future position be to continue to urge schools to hold such events? Is there such a commitment or will they discourage them? Presumably saying nothing is certainly not an option in this particular instance.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I hope my noble friend will be prepared to have a look at these amendments, although I am not sure that the amendments that we are debating are necessarily the right way forward. Earlier today we discussed the question of funding for schools and the desirability of giving schools three years' advance budgets as part of the process of giving more responsibility to individual school governing bodies.
My sense is that greater power and authority brings greater accountability. The accountability has to be not only to those who fund the schoolsthe taxpayersbut also to the parents and the children of individual schools. I think that there is a bit of a problem if parents lose the right to have at least an annual meeting with the governors of that school.
I well understand how we have reached this position. When we debated the question of funding, those of us in favour of the Government's proposals were very happy to quote from the Secondary Heads Association. There is no doubt that the secondary heads have had quite an influence on the drafting of the Bill, but on face-to-face meetings between heads and parents, it is not the Secondary Heads Association that I would turn to for advice. I fear that the Government have listened a little too closely to that august association in this area.
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I understand that in many schools these annual meetings are not well attended. That is probably a sign of health. It means that the parents are pretty satisfied with the way the school is being run and that they do not need to turn up to have a go at the governors. But, as noble Lords will know, my own experience is that it is the schools where things are not going well, where you have a weak governing body and a powerful though wrong-headed head teacher, where there can be real problems. I am not suggesting that the annual meeting of the governors with the parents will be a cure-all for solving those problems, but it is a way of at least allowing parents to put their concerns face to face to the governors.
My fear is that if we get rid of this mechanism, there does not seem to be any other way in which parents can require the governors to come and account for their stewardship. For that reason, I do not agree with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. He leaves discretion in the hands of the head teacher. The head teacher is the last person who should have discretion on whether to call a meeting of parents.
Perhaps my noble friend may be prepared to reconsider the matter. Would one way of dealing with the problem be for a certain percentage of parents at a school to sign a letter calling for a meeting between them and the governors? In other words, although I accept that, where parents are satisfied, the annual meeting becomes a ritual that no one is interested in attending, there are circumstances in which parents ought to be able to require the governors to account for their responsibilitieswhere there are real concerns about the running of the school. I do not have an easy answer to how that should be done, but I ask my noble friend to consider the matter and return to it on Report.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I know that we are coming to a close, so I shall be very brief, because we have already heard some extremely important points. I am strongly in favour of retaining meetings with parents and governors and of having a real input from parents to the school activities. I want to give two examples that have shown a way to involve parents much more in the future well-being of their children and other children.
The first is the Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association. I have endless examples of diffident young parents who started there who went on to be crucial in the education of their children and other pupils and become much more confident members of society. The other is the Government's own Sure Start programme. That has already shown us how it can bring out the qualities and potential of parents by getting them involved. We must build on that because, once parents have seen the inside of the school and feel that it is friendly towards them, they will be much more part of the scene.
I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in his assumption that parents do not come because they are satisfied with the school. That is not always true. They could well, truly, not be being encouraged and not feel themselves part of the school. So I hope that
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we will get some reversion to the original pattern of a really high profile for parents for their meetings both with governors and in the school.
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