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Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 122:
"(5A) The references in subsections (4) and (5)(b) to a local education authority include references to any person exercising on behalf of such an authority functions relating to eligibility for free school lunches and milk."
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move this amendment, standing in the name of my noble friend on the Marshalled List. Clause 106 is an enabling power, designed to remove the legal barriers to data sharing in order to enable information held by the Inland Revenue and the Department for Work and Pensions to be used to implement a more efficient system for determining eligibility for free school lunches and milk.
Plans for implementation of the scheme would see certain information being supplied from the Inland Revenue and the Department for Work and Pensions to my department to set up an electronic system whereby registered users within local education authorities could make checks on an individual's entitlement to free school lunches or milk, thereby removing the checking responsibilities from schools.
These technical amendments are necessary to allow for the circumstances where a local education authority has contracted out most of its services, including the responsibility for checking the eligibility for free school meals. These amendments would ensure that, in those
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authorities, the contractor can carry out his functions effectively. Without these amendments, information could not legally be passed to anyone checking eligibility for free school meals on behalf of an LEA. This would mean that the provisions would not provide an equal service to those authorities, and schools within those authorities that have contracted out their services either on a voluntary basis or pursuant to a direction under Section 49(7A)(4) of the Education Act 1996.
Free school lunches and milk are aimed at families with the lowest incomes in society, usually non-working families. This is achieved by making free lunches and milk available to claimants of income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance and child tax credits where working tax credit is not also being claimed and income is below a certain level. Lunches and milk can be supplied free of charge only where an application has been made by an eligible claimant.
At present, eligibility for free school lunches and milk is assessed locally, and the system for doing so varies by LEA authority areas but usually consists of either school or LEA staff manually checking documents such as tax credit award notices or benefit books to establish eligibility.
The provisions are intended to reduce bureaucracy, particularly for schools, and to reduce the current capacity for fraud and error. They will facilitate a national scheme, based on LEA checking, in place of the various systems operating at present.
I hope that, with that brief background information, the House will be content to accept the government amendments.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Baroness Andrews moved Amendments Nos. 123 and 124:
"(6A) In this section, "school lunch" has the same meaning as in section 512 of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56)."
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 111 [Power of governing body to make alternative provision for excluded pupils]:
Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 125:
Page 60, line 40, after "education)" insert "after "governing body of a maintained school" insert "and the governing body of an Academy, a city technology college or a city college for the technology of the arts" and"
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 125 and 126 are concerned with exclusions, the subject of Clause 111, and seek to probe the role of the governing bodies, in particular those of non-maintained but state-funded schoolsthe academies, city technology colleges and city colleges for technology and the artsand also the role of the local education authority in relation to exclusions.
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Each local authority should be required to provide behaviour support for schools. No school should be required to continue to accept on its roll pupils with continuing unacceptable behaviour. Equally, no child or young person should be written off. It should be a requirement of all local authorities to maintain and have access to a range of provision, including behaviour support services and schools for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties. All local authorities should maintain or have access to pupil referral units and to hospital and home services. Later we will talk about parent support services.
Such services are vital in supporting children and young people who are not taught in mainstream schools and are vital also in meeting the needs of vulnerable children. The right to education of all children needs to be protected.
In the context of the new local authority responsibilities for vulnerable children, each local authority should appoint lead professionals whose role would be to provide advice to schools and to take action where necessary when a vulnerable child has been identified. The proposed children's services grant should be sufficient to fund the appointment of lead professionals. With schools and teacher organisations, local authorities should continue to develop practical policies on pupil behaviour, including on bullying and homophobic bullying.
The amendments have been tabled to probe the issue of placement of difficult pupils in popular schools. The DfES guidance on behaviour and exclusions does not apply to independent schools, city technology colleges, academies or sixth-form colleges, which have separate exclusion procedure. Academies, however, are supposed to have exclusion procedures that are consistent with those set out in the guidance.
The King's and Unity city academies in Middlesbrough, for example, appear to have operated separately and expelled 61 problem children between them since the start of the school year 2002. That compares with 15 exclusions from all other secondary schools in the borough.
In November last year, Mr Clarke, who was at that time Secretary of State for Education, announced a package of pupil behaviour measures. They included local agreements for admissions forums to share the allocation of hard-to-place pupils between schools and to limit the number of excluded children that each school would have to admit. In addition, it involved encouraging schools forming foundation partnerships to put in place formal agreements to pool behaviour support funding. It also encouraged them to make provision for pupils at risk of exclusion and to work with local education authorities to cater for those who were excluded.
Yet, on 1 February this year, the new Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, appeared to backtrack a little on this issue. The Department for Education and Skills press release stated that she had,
"set out her ambition to see every secondary school being part of a partnership to manage pupil behaviour by September 2007",
"In return, new admissions protocols for hard to place pupilswhich are to be agreed by September this year for vulnerable pupil groups such as looked-after childrenneed not apply to excluded pupils until such time as schools have agreed arrangements with LEAs for strengthening the support available to schools to deal with disruptive pupils".
However, according to the press release, she is still,
"prepared to consider legislation to ensure that admissions protocols are in place everywhere, once the support infrastructure is in place".
My question to the Minister is: where are we with these various provisions? Various declarations have been made, but I think that we have been left somewhat in the dark in knowing precisely where this new brand of independent state school, in particular, stands in relation to the exclusion protocols. In addition, what do the Government see as the continuing role of LEAs? I should be grateful if, in reply, the Minister could give us some indication of that. I beg to move.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for her clarification of what lay behind the amendment. To some extent, I suspect that what I say initially will deal more with the context rather than the specifics of what she said. But no matter; if she will bear with me, I shall at least ensure that I set that context.
Amendments Nos. 125 and 126 impact on the section of the Education Act 2002 which is concerned with the governance of maintained schools. We agree entirely that local authorities must be fully involved in the process of planning alternative provision. However, we believe that the amendment is unnecessary because its intention is served by existing processes and procedures.
We agree that local authorities are best placed to respond to the needs of pupils within their particular areas and that they play a vital strategic role. They have a statutory duty to provide sufficient schools in number and character to ensure appropriate education for pupils. They are also charged under the Education Act 1996 and the Children Act 2004 to get better outcomes for all their children.
Clearly, it is important that the needs of the children are placed first. When dealing with excluded pupils, schools must work closely with the local authority. That is explicitly addressed in our current guidance on exclusion for schools and pupil referral units, issued last October. We make it clear to schools that they have a statutory obligation to inform their local authority of all exclusions, other than fixed-period exclusions of five days or less, and remind them of the need to work with their local authority when dealing with an excluded pupil's needs during and after exclusion.
The Education Act 2002 gives schools the authority to refer pupils to off-site facilities, to alternative curricula and to alternative provision. It is often unnecessary for schools to involve the local authority in making these arrangements. Doing so could put a considerable burden on schools with the result that resources are diverted from other, more useful activities. We believe that the amendment would have the effect of requiring schools to
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consult their local authority every time they wanted to send a pupil to other premises. It would also remove their ability to adopt reasonable, flexible working practices. Therefore, taking the amendment at face value, that is one reason that we believe it would be undesirable.
Moving on to the specific issues raised by Amendment No. 126, the amendment could not apply to the categories of school specified as the relevant section of the Education Act 2002 does not extend to non-maintained schools. Perhaps I may explain why we believe that the amendment is unnecessary.
Maintained schools are governed by statute, and the governing bodies of maintained schools need statutory authority for their powers. That is why the Education Act 2002 gives governing bodies a specific power to require pupils to attend off-site provision. Without that power, there would be doubt about whether they could do that. Although they are publicly funded, academies, city technology colleges and city colleges for the arts are, in the classification of the Education Acts, independent schools. They are conducted by charitable companies and are not subject to all the statutory provisions that apply to maintained schools. They are already able to make arrangements for pupils to receive some of their education off-site and do not need to be given statutory powers to do so, which is one of the specific relevant points.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also asked where we were more generally and particularly asked about my Secretary of State's letter in February of this year. The Secretary of State was making it clear that admission protocols for hard-to-place pupils need not apply to previously excluded pupils, if the schools in the area do not consider themselves ready to take them. That should allow agreements to be made quickly about finding places for looked-after children and other hard-to-place pupils covered by the protocols, which should still be agreed and put into practice in September. Once arrangements for strengthening the support available to them to deal with disruptive pupils have been agreed between schools and with their local authority, it should be completed by September 2007.
To put it at its simplest, it is essential that there are effective protocols and mechanisms for getting hard-to-place pupils, whether excluded pupils or looked-after children, back into school when they are ready to be placed there. We have put a priority on that. We have put a statutory duty in the Bill to give looked-after children top priority. I think that that is right, for the reasons that we have debated on other occasions.
It is possible that we may need to legislate subsequently, to ensure that there are effective protocols for the readmission of hard-to-place pupils, but we do not want to go fast as we did originally. A better way of doing it is to give a bit of space to local authorities and the schools in their areas to agree effective support arrangements for taking back hard-to-place pupils who have been disruptive, rather than forcing them in in advance of the support mechanisms. That is intelligent because it is trying to ensure that, before the process is
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forced, the support mechanisms are in place to make it more likely to work. It is sensible and in the interests of the child. We do not want the child thrown out again in three months' time if support mechanisms between the authority and the school are not there to make it work. That is the best interpretation or help I can give on the noble Baroness's question. I hope it is helpful.
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