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Lord Dearing: I intervene briefly to say that if the Government insist on Clauses 100 and 101, I urge that they accept Amendments Nos. 145AB, 145A—except that it should specify the governing body, rather than the headmaster—145B and 146, which I do not think has been mentioned, in which the governing body, in partnership with the headmaster should, in addition to what the Secretary of State may prescribe, decide the content of the school profile. I ask the Government to think about that.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: As the chairman of the committee that introduced the Taylor report in the 1970s, which created school governing bodies, I have been reluctant to join in this debate until now, but to do away with an annual general meeting in the way that the Government propose is ridiculous. We need every support to encourage parents to serve on governing bodies. If you do not give them an opportunity to come to an annual meeting and to read an annual report, they will be less interested than ever. I plead with the Government after what has been said from all sides of the House this evening to take the proposal back and think again.

Lord Lucas: I very much agree with those Members of the Committee who want to do away with Clause 100. I mostly ally myself with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt: it is a matter of responsibility and a proper relationship between parents and governors in the school. People may not attend the meeting, but if they want it, it is there. There is a connection and a way to talk.

Indeed, I should like the Government to use Clause 101 to open that door rather wider. I have looked at the current draft of the school profile. It is a deficient document at present. It mentions the name of the chair of governors but gives no means of contacting her, other than through the school. If you have trouble with the headmaster, you want to know how to talk to the governors. It ought to list all the governors; it ought to give a way to contact them that does not come under the headmaster's beady eye.

It is crucial that governors are allowed to play their role in a school and are open and available to contact from parents. It is often extremely difficult for parents to do that, because the only way to find out the information is to disclose to the school the fact that they are talking to the governors. I find that thoroughly difficult and very much hope that, in its final version, this document will remedy that deficiency.

The school profile contains collections of data, such as how well the school's pupils achieved at 14, with a little bar graph, but no space for explanation. So there will be that little graph to show whether they have done well or badly compared to other schools or nationally, but no explanation, no words to provide understanding.
 
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Given all the criticism that has, quite reasonably, come from the Labour Benches over the years about the limitations of league tables, and how much more you need to say about a school to give a reasonable picture of it, it is very disappointing that, here, the Government are sticking to just the figures with no explanation. Well, there is a technical explanation of what they are but no explanation by the school of what lies behind them; nothing to say what subjects are being taught or what rationale lies behind that.

There are technical details, such as how we teach our pupils, which will not really be understood by most parents, but nothing that really speaks to parents directly about how pupils are faring in the school. There is nothing that could be said to be human about it. One of the great virtues of the annual report, when it is written well, is that it gives you a human picture of the school, a feeling of what it is like to be there. That has all been expunged from the school profile. There is nothing current about it. Yes, it will be updated every year, but it is a sort of mission statement tacked on to a few statistics. It is not a bad document in its way, but terribly limited.

It would be nice if there was a standard document—ticking the box at least makes sure that people fill in the various sections—but it should be much better thought out than it is and I want there to be a requirement that it should be on every local authority website. There should be a link to the school profile for every school that it looks after. That way, it will become possible for parents to use that document at a distance.

I also want to pick up on what the Special Educational Consortium has said about disability. There is a little box at the back that contains about five lines of standard wording and then says, effectively, if you want to know about our policy towards pupils with disability, e-mail the school. As the consortium says, that will not do. Parents feel that, by asking such questions, they are putting their child at a disadvantage or putting the school's back up by asking it to do something, becoming a tiresome supplicant of the school, rather than getting something to which they are entitled. That information ought to be readily available, not the subject of some special request of the school.

So, although I approve of Clause 101, it needs to be much better drafted.

Baroness Andrews: I am very grateful to all Members of the Committee who have spoken in this important and passionate debate—I should expect no less. I shall try to keep my remarks short, because I know that the House is under pressure of other business, but I must take issue with some points. At the same time, I tell all Members of the Committee who have spoken that the Government are listening intently to what is said this evening. I hope that I can give some reassurances and a little extra explanation about why we have taken this route. I hope that it will make sense if I do so.
 
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I could not agree more with the noble Baroness when she said that it is vital for parents to be involved. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, asked me what explanation we can possibly offer for our decision in Clause 100 to get rid of the parents' meeting and substitute other forms of contact. It is precisely because we believe that there are more effective ways to do that and because so much has changed since school annual meetings were introduced in 1986.

To my noble friends, who I know feel passionately about this, I say that accountability is meaningful only if it is owned and supported by those who need to be held accountable and those who hold them accountable. We fear that the annual parents' meeting has not been effective in doing that job.

I shall now deal with some of the evidence and arguments, dealing separately with Wales. We have a great deal of experience to show that participation between parents and schools is not delivered sufficiently through an annual general meeting which involves a very random, and often very small, group of parents. I do not accept the argument that parents' meetings tend to happen only in schools that are doing well; there is fairly random distribution. A great deal depends on the leadership of the school and governors, and the effectiveness of parent teachers' organisations. It is very hard to generalise, so we should be very careful about that.

Most schools, and especially governing bodies, put huge effort into holding meetings and writing the governors' annual report, but our evidence suggests that few parents respond positively. These time-consuming and valuable activities require a lot of resources. The governors' annual report is designed to provide parents with information about the school's performance. Its content is heavily prescribed, detailed, lengthy and time-consuming. Removing the requirement to produce the annual report and introducing the school profile—about which I shall try to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—is at the heart of what we want to see in the new relationship with schools.

Schools and governing bodies have changed a great deal since 1986, when the annual parents' meeting was introduced by the then Conservative government. The same degree of parental representation did not exist in schools; parents certainly did not have the same rights to express preferences to schools; there were no regular Ofsted reports; no requirements on schools to have a complaints procedure; no home-school agreements; and no public achievement and attainment tables. Things have changed dramatically as regards the amount of information available and the accessibility of that information.

The 1999 Education Select Committee looked into the role of school governors. We pay a great deal of attention to the Select Committee; it is a wise and comprehensive body. Its report recommended the abolition of the parents' meeting, suggesting that governing bodies should find alternative ways—I shall come to Amendment No. 145AB on this point—of promoting good relationships with parents. Over the
 
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past 10 years many different ways of bringing parents into schools have been found. I have an inch-thick bundle of evidence about the different methods, such as out-of-school activities and various partnerships related to family learning, to which the noble Baroness pointed. We have moved on a great deal. I know from experience that such contacts generate the commitment that parents develop towards schools. Their commitment develops not from an annual meeting, which may last an hour and have no lasting impact, but from the regular, familiar contact between schools and parents daily. Of course we will want to encourage good practice. When I say that we are listening, we are listening particularly to those sorts of ideas about how best we do that.

When we talk about trust with parents, we send out a very powerful message. We believe in all seriousness that the annual parents' meeting is not sufficient, given the changes since 1986, given our other methods of contacting parents and the changes that we want to bring about in the school profile and the whole way in which schools communicate with parents. On Amendment No. 145A, I reiterate that there is nothing to stop schools holding an annual, six-monthly or three-monthly meeting with parents, if that is their commitment to parents. Many already go far beyond an annual meeting.

I have listened carefully to what my noble friend has said about governors. On the profile, we recognise that if you give schools increased freedoms, there are increased risks, and we must safeguard parents' rights to information. The best evidence of what we want to achieve through the profiles is the fact that they are being trialled. Last year we held a three-month national consultation on the profile. Of the respondents, 81 per cent of primary schools and 82 per cent of secondary schools welcomed the profile. Seventy five per cent of respondents thought that the profile should replace the governors' annual report.

The profile will not be a box-tick mechanism. Formulated information will be provided centrally because that will make it much easier for schools, which will not have to spend time putting together all the statistics. But there will be a narrative about the school, talking about its ethos, its expectations for its students and much more. All the key information will be engagingly written, short, accessible, readable and available in a range of languages. We are trialling the profile at 90 schools. That is why we think we will be on sure ground. However, we will continue to evaluate the proposal as it goes through; in fact, we are still waiting for feedback. We hope to introduce the school profile in the academic year 2005-06.

The noble Lord made a very important point about SEN and disability. He will know that it has always been a statutory requirement to include that in the governors' report. Now it will be in the school prospectus in the same form, under the same requirement. Nothing will be lost as regards the quantity or quality of information. I can enlarge on that when we debate the next set of amendments after the dinner break.
 
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Clause 100 retains the requirements for a governors' annual report and annual parents' meeting in relation to governing bodies in Wales, but it provides the National Assembly for Wales with the power to remove the requirements by order at a later date. Clause 101 does not apply to Wales. In Wales the situation is different—that is becoming a mantra. Already the governing bodies can produce a summary report that is significantly shorter, so the Welsh Assembly Government do not believe that school profiles are needed in Wales.

The Welsh Assembly Government consulted in early 2004 on proposals to reduce the need for governors to hold an annual meeting. Half of the respondents supported this proposal. The National Assembly for Wales proposes to make regulations under the Education Act 2002 giving provision for exemptions to the general requirement, but it wants to assess the impact of the proposal before it makes the next move. It can then determine whether to consult on proposals to abolish the requirement altogether. The situation in Wales is different but it is dynamic.

I have gone very quickly through the arguments in response to what Members of the Committee have said. I thank noble Lords for their remarks. We will continue to listen. We will have the opportunity to debate school profiles in more detail on the next set of amendments.


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