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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): Not necessarily.

Mr. Turner: I notice that hon. Members on the Government Benches shake their heads at that assertion. I hope that they do not wish to condemn the performance of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough in his previous incarnation. I accept that on occasions it is

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difficult to provide the open and welcoming atmosphere, or perhaps schools are less successful at providing the open and welcoming atmosphere that they should provide to encourage parents to attend the annual parents meeting. On those occasions, I am sure that a little lubrication of the kind referred to by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole)—or even a lake of lubrication—may be helpful.

The thrust of the Government's amendment is right. However, I echo the remark of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West about the possibility of a back-up. If the Government decided to remove all requirements for the governors to hold a parents meeting annually, perhaps they would consider a back-up provision enabling parents to require such a meeting to be held if they so wished. I can think of certain circumstances in which the Government might consider that appropriate, especially in the case of the exercise of powers to suspend the statutory requirements in clause 2.

If the governors were, for example, seeking the Secretary of State's approval to suspend the statutory requirement that prevents them from charging for certain school functions, that might be a matter on which parents should be empowered to call a meeting. Alternatively, the Government might set that down as an exemption of a governing body from the requirement to call an annual parents meeting.

It is important to recognise that we have a mixed economy of schools, not only in terms of the huge—and, indeed, burgeoning—number of different types of school that the Government propose, some of which reflect rather well on what went on between 1988 and 1997, but in terms of the amount of choice that parents have. Frequently, my suggestion that Government and local education authorities should allow parents greater choice has been countered by the assertion that if choice cannot be provided in rural areas, it is wrong for it to be provided in urban areas. That is tantamount to saying that because we cannot provide choice everywhere, we should provide choice nowhere.

I do not take that view at all. Indeed, I should have thought that where there is less choice, there needs to be marginally more safeguards and more prescription, but where there is great choice, that is exactly the sort of condition in which there needs to be less prescription and fewer safeguards, because parents have the safeguards in their own hands. They can choose schools of different ethos, different appearance—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman of the amendment that we are discussing? He seems to be going rather wide of it.

Mr. Turner: Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am grateful for your guidance. One of the bases on which such choice may be exercised is whether a school decides of its own volition to hold an annual parents meeting.

I, too, support the broad thrust of the amendment, but I am interested to know whether a change of the sort that it proposes would have to lead to the promulgation of a new set of regulations or whether existing regulations could be cross-applied. In the context of the previous amendment, we might need to consider whether consultation on the new regulations would in itself place a new burden on teachers, heads and governors.

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8.30 pm

Mr. Miliband: This has been rather a good debate and I shall put aside the voluminous facts and figures that I have been given to help me to rebut the outrageous claims of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) about the desultory nature of the Committee stage. I shall put them aside in the interests of the new co-operative spirit that is pervading our discussion.

What we are talking about is getting the right balance between encouraging all governing bodies to have a genuine partnership with their parent communities and regulation that is "irksome"—a word used by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that I want to return to later. The Government have acknowledged that annual parents meetings have been over-regulated in the past and have genuinely listened to the concerns expressed about meetings. We think that we have come up with a workable solution by deregulating some processes and procedures and limiting the bureaucracy associated with the meetings.

The amendment is an example of where the Government's much-maligned approach in the Bill may serve a purpose, as it gives us scope to go further in future in relieving more schools of the duty to hold meetings where they have already given parents the opportunity to have their say. That will benefit schools, while ensuring that we retain the essential right of parents to question the governing body and the head teacher about the way in which their child's school is run. That is why I return to the notion of balance. We want to keep a situation in which parents have some weapons in their armoury to ensure that accountability is maintained.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West took us back to the happy days of his amendment that was never discussed in January and February and to his presumption of not having a meeting. Despite my new role, something in me thinks that introducing legislation not to do something or with a presumption that something will not be done is a rather backward way of doing things. We are trying to express our presumption that school governing bodies should have a genuine partnership with their parenting communities, and we want to give them different ways of giving effect to that intention. He may come to think that his use of the word "irksome" in relation to parental meetings may be slightly over the top. There are many examples of parental meetings that work well and we should not denigrate the efforts that go into making them a success and a useful part of parent-governor dialogue.

Mr. Brady: First, I am sure that the Minister will agree that a requirement to hold a parents meeting may appear irksome to a school in the circumstances to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) referred, in which no parent attends the meeting. The regulation may certainly be irksome in that context. Secondly, he dealt only with the first half of the amendment that was never moved—the presumption that there would not ordinarily be a parents meeting. May I ask him for his thoughts on the second part, however, and the idea of a positive mechanism in which a requisite number of parents would have to ask for such a meeting?

Mr. Miliband: The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. If he will forgive me, I shall come to that point in a few moments.

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The hon. Gentleman asked about the criteria for exempting schools from the requirement to hold a parents meeting. The overriding criterion must be that there is evidence to show that a genuine partnership exists between the governing body and the parental community. There is a need to prove that that relationship exists. I am in danger of skiing off-piste, so I must be slightly careful, but I shall give some examples of what might count as evidence of genuine partnership. There might be year-group sessions in which parents from different years are brought together to discuss provision for a particular year group. When a school is trying to achieve serious dialogue with parents in different year groups, it would seem odd subsequently to force a great gathering of the whole school. That is just one example that springs to mind. Different schools may organise different patterns of meetings. There may be discussion forums in which parents are brought together to discuss different aspects of the school's policy.

It may also be worth our while to think about cases in which the governors' attempts to hold meetings have not been successful. Perhaps we need to think about whether that indicates that the governors are not trying hard enough or not offering the right sort of wine and cheese—or pie and peas in my part of the world—but it may also be evidence to suggest that such meetings are not an appropriate way of achieving the sort of discussion and dialogue that we want.

In terms of the overriding criterion of partnership, but a keenness to find ways of achieving it that are appropriate to the school, I should like to refer to the notion of the trigger mechanism mentioned by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West both today and in his amendment. If we are convinced that our overriding criterion of partnership is fulfilled—it must be evident before exemption is given—the trigger mechanism will not be necessary. If there is genuine partnership, it will be the reason why there does not have to be an annual meeting. Layering a new load of bureaucracy on top by introducing a trigger mechanism is over-egging the pudding.

Mr. Willis rose

Mr. Miliband: I am about to come to the hon. Gentleman's point about annual reports, which I find very exciting.

Mr. Willis: I am delighted that I have been able to excite the Minister. Before he leaves the trigger mechanism, may I ask him to think very carefully before introducing such a provision? A trigger mechanism that can be invoked by 10 parents may cause a real problem, especially in schools where groups of militant parents have an axe to grind as regards a particular teacher.

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