Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

In the document Raising the Bar; Narrowing the Gap, which was the discussion Green Paper of the Government when they were in opposition, it was anticipated that the total number of new schools-roughly about 300 to 400-would be equivalent to about 220,000

21 Jun 2010 : Column 1217

places. I mention this for two reasons. First, all of the proposed changes might touch upon, potentially, 5 per cent of the total cohort of schools within the country. Therefore, the sense that this will send shockwaves through the entire system is unfounded and it is perhaps unfair to concern people about that. Secondly, the catchment areas of the new schools-

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: When the noble Lord refers to "new schools", does he mean free schools?

Lord Bates: The terminology is getting to us all. I do mean that. I come from an inner city urban area on Tyneside and it happened quite regularly that, where you had a failing school in a suburban area, dissatisfied parents who could afford to, or opted to, would take over an old large Victorian terraced house and its grounds-we have all seen them-and set up a new independent fee-paying school. The parents who could afford to opt out of the system would then pay fees for their children to go to that school. This movement still exists and is happening within the private sector. I cannot understand how anyone who has a passion for narrowing the gap and giving greater opportunity could possibly object to it. We should do all of these things in inner city areas and make them free and available to everyone. That would be entirely laudable.

I wish to make two other brief points, the first of which relates to catchment areas. If there is going to be a greater number of schools, broadening catchment areas would be a good thing. When the city technology colleges were established, they covered not only one entire local education authority area but often encompassed two or three. In other words, if the parents were prepared to undertake the duty of getting their child to school and it was not going to damage the child's education, it was deemed acceptable for the child to attend there. Where there is greater choice the catchment areas need to be broadened. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, rightly made the point that narrow catchment areas could have too severe an effect on neighbouring schools.

The final point on which I seek clarification from the Minister concerns the properties that could be used. There are many buildings in inner city areas-including, many educational buildings-under the control of local authorities. Indeed, where they have a surplus of places they are paying additional money for them. Does my noble friend agree that local authorities should look at their existing stock of prepared educational establishments, embrace this change and, where there is a surplus, hand over existing buildings to a new school provider? That would give the authority an additional income and would mean that the provider was not forced into premises that might not be suitable.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, it has been wide-ranging debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out, we have in some ways already got on to some of the issues that we will discuss in later groups of amendments. We can pursue them in greater detail then. Given how wide-ranging the debate has been, it would perhaps be helpful if I briefly restated the amendments and their purpose.

21 Jun 2010 : Column 1218

Amendments 2 and 3 would mean that academy arrangements could be made only with the governing body of an existing school rather than any other group. They are linked in this group to Amendment 24, which would mean that, for future academies, the academy proprietor would have to ensure that its governing body was not controlled by a majority of parents of pupils at the academy-which was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

Amendment 13 seeks to ensure that the SEN annex of an academy agreement, which sets out the school's detailed obligations in relation to pupils with SEN, would apply also to the arrangements for academy financial assistance. Amendment 33 seeks to prescribe in the Bill that the academy agreement includes details of the roles, composition and continuance of the governing body. Amendment 76 seeks to ensure that academy funding agreements include additional provisions on SEN, including a requirement to comply with special educational needs legislation and regulations as if it were a maintained school.

Perhaps I may start with Amendments 2 and 3. The Government want to make it easier for teachers, charities, educational groups and groups of parents to start new academies. As the 2005 White Paper stated:

"We believe parents should have greater power to drive the new system: it should be easier for them to replace the leadership or set up new schools where they are dissatisfied with existing schools".

We debated that earlier. I do not feel that I need to go through much of it again.

I should make it clear to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan-I think that my noble friend Lord Greaves also raised the point-that a free school could be regulated either through a funding agreement or a grant under Section 14 of the 2002 Act. In both cases, similar requirements will be placed on free schools as are placed on academies which convert from a maintained school. The only difference would be more flexibility in relation to the length of the funding period, a point that I made in our earlier debate on the Urgent Question. The more flexible arrangement would be used mainly in cases where new providers did not have a previous track record.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: It would be helpful if the Minister set out in greater detail in writing what he has just said. We received a letter from the Secretary of State today-I am scrambling around to find it among my papers-stating not only what he has just said but also that academies funded through grant would have the conditions of their grant outlined in a letter. It states that the provisions would be in line with those in the funding agreement, as the Minister has just said. However, there is anxiety that, for issues around SEN, vulnerable children and all the areas set out in the funding agreement, the provisions might well be "in line with" but not the same. The Minister has just made a strong statement. It would be helpful to have that more clearly set out. My noble friend Lord Adonis said that the Secretary of State can already fund schools in this manner under the 2002 Act. If that is the case, and all the instruments exist, why do we need this additional route? If all the instruments exist, are we not just confusing matters? Around the Chamber, we are starting to understand the importance of the

21 Jun 2010 : Column 1219

academy agreement. If we introduce another way of doing things, will it not confuse things further? Perhaps a letter would be helpful.

Lord Hill of Oareford: I am very happy of course to write further and set out what the noble Baroness seeks, because it is absolutely our intention that the two forms of funding should be on a completely equal footing. I recognise that many Members of this Committee want as much reassurance as they can have on that. If I can help in making it clearer, I will be delighted to do so.

Amendment 13, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low, seeks to ensure that the SEN annex of an academy agreement, which sets out the school's detailed obligations in relation to pupils with SEN, would apply also to the arrangements for academy financial assistance. In a way, that is a variant of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. The amendment is unnecessary, because academies whose arrangements take the form of an academy agreement and those whose arrangements are for financial assistance will both be under the same obligations in relation to special educational needs. I shall pick up again on special educational needs in connection with Amendment 76, although I know that a later group of amendments has been tabled on SEN.

6.45 pm

We have had a long and interesting discussion about the role of governors, with a wide range of views expressed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln talked about concerns that governors would be the Government's narks. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, approached concerns about the number and role of governors from one point of view, and my noble friend Lady Perry approached it from the other. She made it clear that, in thinking of all these issues, we need to strike a sensible balance. We can perhaps all think of our own examples of charities which may initially have been set up by someone who had a personal interest in an issue-one might have said, "Well, that person has a personal interest in this charitable issue, so I am not sure that he or she should have too much influence"-but which, over time, became completely self-sustaining. In principle, there is no reason to think that that should be any different in the case of the schools. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said that, from his experience of independent schools, that model has developed over a long period.

I turn to Amendment 24. We will require through the model funding agreement with academies that the governing bodies have at least one parent governor. I know that there are those in the Chamber who feel strongly that that number is not enough. A number of later amendments will allow us to discuss that at greater length.

Lord Northbourne: Might the Minister perhaps think a little more about the composition of governing bodies and write to me and the Committee? Just to say that there will be more than one parent governor, but, apart from that, that it is a matter of chance, is not quite enough.

21 Jun 2010 : Column 1220

Lord Hill of Oareford: I am not sure that I would say to the noble Lord that it would be totally a matter of chance. Fundamental to the Bill are trust and the principle of freedom. Throughout the Bill, we are seeking to be as enabling, permissive and as little prescriptive as possible. That principle would obtain also in our attitude to the question of governance. Our starting point would be that people wanting to set up these schools and exercise these freedoms would have a view as to what the most sensible membership of a governing body would be. The noble Lord will know from his experience that the best kind of governing body has a broadly drawn membership, bringing in expertise and experience from many areas. I am happy to discuss with him outside this debate whether there is anything further I can do.

Baroness Walmsley: Notwithstanding that my Amendment 82 in a later group deals with this very matter and I would like to talk about it then, does the Minister not agree that if a school is set up on the demand of, and by the organisation of, a group of parents, it seems a little strange to have only one of them as a governor?

Lord Hill of Oareford: I am being helped by noble Lords opposite who know far more about this subject than I yet do, so I am grateful for their prompting. The proposal is that there should be at least one parent governor. In practice, if one were to draw up a list and look at what happens on the ground, one would find that academies tend to have varying numbers of parent governors, often many more than one. That is because academies have worked out for themselves that having those parents involved is a good thing. Parental involvement is a good principle. It is sometimes thought that academies are conspiracies against their local area and against local people, but I have seen no evidence of that whatever. In the academies that I have seen, it has been exactly the opposite. It would be wrong if I have given my noble friend the impression that I consider one parent is correct. The statutory requirement is for at least one, but in practice it would be many more than that. However, we will return to this debate later.

Picking up on that point, it is the Government's view that there should be broad representation on the governing body of academies. That is rightly a matter for academies. We are seeking not to be too prescriptive in setting down what those freedoms should be.

Free schools will have to have a fair and transparent admissions policy, just like other academies. They will have to provide places to pupils of different abilities drawn wholly or mainly from the local area and we would expect parent governors to reflect that intake. The arrangement for the election of parent governors will be set out in the articles of association of the academy company. It will make clear that the election of a parent governor should be by the parents or pupils attending the academy and, once elected, they will be appointed to the governing body of the academy trust.

On Amendment 33, moved by my noble friend Lord Lucas, I first apologise that we have not yet been able to circulate the model funding agreements. I want

21 Jun 2010 : Column 1221

to do that as soon as possible. We are proposing to be able to circulate specifically the elements that deal with admissions, SEN and exclusions, which I know are of particular concern to many noble Lords. We will do that as soon as we can and I am sorry that we have not been able to do it in time for today.

On the question asked by my noble friend Lord Lucas about intervention powers, the Secretary of State has power to intervene when educational standards are in question, if health and safety is an issue, and where governance, including financial management, is at issue. Of course, parents can complain to the Secretary of State and ask him to intervene.

On the substance of Amendment 33, all academies are managed by an academy trust which, before it can enter the funding agreement with the Secretary of State, must have finalised and lodged at Companies House its governing documents, with the memorandum and articles of association which set out the governance arrangements and the governing body. That prompts me to respond to a question asked by my noble friend Lord Phillips. Because of the technical detail, I feel I should write to him to follow that point up.

In the case of outstanding schools converting, we will discuss and need to agree with the governing body of the converting school who will be responsible for establishing the academy trust and the proposed composition of the board of the governing trust. We envisage that the composition of the governing body of the trust may therefore be very similar to that of the governing body of the converting school. The effect of Amendments 2 and 3 would be to deny teachers, charities and parents the opportunity to set up new schools. It would be wrong to deny them that choice, which the previous Government themselves intended to give them and that the Conservative Party promised in its manifesto and restated in the coalition agreement.

Lord Greaves: I am still confused. Either free schools can be set up under the 2002 Act or they cannot. If they can, why do they also need to have provision in this legislation?

Lord Hill of Oareford: The point of having two ways of establishing an academy is that in addition to the current funding agreement route, it was thought to be sensible also to have a flexible way of approaching the subject, particularly in so far as the new free schools might be concerned. We believe that it is necessary to have that extra flexibility in the system.

Lord Greaves: So is it the Government's intention to use this new legislation and not the 2002 Act for free schools? That is the clarity that we need.

Lord Hill of Oareford: I will need to make that clear subsequently to my noble friend Lord Greaves. I will do that as soon as I am able.

Lord Greaves: In writing?

Lord Hill of Oareford: Of course.

21 Jun 2010 : Column 1222

Amendment 76 in this group would ensure that academy funding agreements would include additional provisions on SEN, including a requirement to comply with special educational needs legislation and regulations as if it were a maintained school. Academy funding agreements already include and will continue to include, as will grant arrangements, provisions setting out the responsibilities of academies in relation to pupils with SEN and disabilities. These include the responsibility of the governing body of the academy trust to consult the local authority and the governing bodies of other schools in the area to the extent that that is necessary for co-ordinating provision for pupils with SEN.

Academy funding agreements also already include provisions that require academies to use best endeavours to meet any special needs of pupils, have regard to the SEN code of practice and have an SEN policy. Academies are already required to appoint a suitable person to co-ordinate SEN provision, but they currently have the freedom to decide who that should be. Nevertheless, academy funding agreements are clear that the key elements of this role are to ensure that the special educational needs of those pupils with such needs are met, including through the co-ordination of specialist provision within the local authority. Where an academy fails to meet its SEN funding agreement obligations, the Secretary of State has the role of ensuring that these obligations are met. Academy parents and pupils also have the same rights of access to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability).

I hope that the setting out of those measures will go some way to reassuring noble Lords on this issue and I know that we will return to debate it further. However, I have listened to a whole range of noble Lords speak eloquently in this House and elsewhere about the need for absolute parity between academies and maintained schools and those points have been forcefully made again this evening. I have had meetings on SEN with a number of noble Lords from the Cross Benches and all sides and I have been particularly impressed by my noble friends of the Lib Dem Benches on this issue. I am conscious that the expertise in this House on special educational needs and vulnerable children is considerable, and I am certainly not an expert in these areas myself. I have tried to approach the question of parity from first principles rather than from having the depth of knowledge that many Members of this House have. Having thought about it from first principles and reflected on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Low, endorsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and underlined by my noble friend Lady Williams and many other Lib Dem noble friends, I can say to the House that I will commit to think about how best to achieve parity. In principle, that seems the right way to go, and I shall come back to the House on Report with proposals.

7 pm

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I thank the Minister for giving way. Will he also think in his deliberations about both routes for academy designation-through an agreement and through the grant letter?

Lord Hill of Oareford: One is approaching this from first principles, and first principles are first principles.

21 Jun 2010 : Column 1223

I give an undertaking to come back at Report with proposals as to how one could put the principle of parity into effect.

Lord Rix: I had intended to thank the Minister for the letter that he sent to many of the Peers who spoke at the Second Reading of the Bill and to ask that he at least acknowledge some of these points. The Minister has already done this, which means that he has shot our fox to a certain extent, because a lot of us have a lot more amendments to make. I trust that the Minister will take them in the spirit in which they are offered, consider them and perhaps meet us again before Report. If he could do that, we would be extremely grateful.

Lord Hill of Oareford: I would not like to deny the noble Lord, Lord Rix, the pleasure of the hunt. I had no intention in shooting his fox, but it struck me in listening to the debate that, given that was my view, it made sense to make that clear sooner rather than later. I know that the noble Lord and others who know huge amounts about this subject will want to make many points, and I am always happy to have them made to me.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I have just one small point. The Minister indicated that having given very full consideration to all these points he will come back at Report with proposals. There are strictish rules about the sort of questions that can be asked at Report. Given that the Minister will be making almost a Committee stage announcement, will it be acceptable if some of the questioning flows back into the allowance given to Committee stage?

Lord Hill of Oareford: We have two more days to debate these issues, and I am sure that we will come back to them. The answer to the noble Baroness's question is, as much as it is possible, yes, of course.

Having concluded on Amendment 76, I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, the noble Lords, Lord Greaves, Lord Lucas, Lord Northbourne and Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, not to press their amendments.

Lord Lucas: I thank my noble friend for his reply and look forward to the model agreement, or the bits of it that we will get. Yes, charities do evolve, generally, a self-sustaining model for their governing body, but those that do not, die. Schools that do not either die, as many have this year, or the bursar very quickly puts other arrangements in place. It does not seem that those triggers are there for a straightforward maintained school with no sponsor. I shall return to this matter again in another context but, before the passing of the Bill, we need to know how we can stop schools getting into a real mess and how we can pick it up early and do something about it.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page