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Mr. Miliband: I apologise for not articulating my point clearly enough. We do not propose to introduce a trigger mechanism. [Interruption.] I assure the hon. Gentleman that when I say that we do not intend to do it, that means that we do not intend to do it. We are in happy agreement in that respect.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) urged us to trust markets rather than dialogue as the answer to the need for proper links between governing bodies and

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parents, but one cannot rely on parental choice alone to provide the sort of engagement that we are seeking to promote. It is an important part of the equation, but the right to exercise a voice, as well as a choice, is an important part of the schooling process, and we should welcome the chance for parents to have a serious and deep involvement in their children's education. I would be very wary of pretending that markets can substitute for that dialogue.

I conclude with the exciting point about annual reports. If the word "irksome" can be applied to parents meetings, for many schools the annual report requirements are indeed irksome. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Mole) hinted at that when he suggested using the provision and the regulations that will follow it to think broadly about how we can achieve the right sort of light-touch involvement from the centre. I have glad tidings for the House—the Bill already provides an opportunity to deregulate annual reports. That is not a birthday or Christmas present, but merely continuing evidence of the Government's serious commitment to deregulation for which the House affirmed its support only half an hour ago. That power to deregulate annual reports is the merit of the approach that we have taken in moving the detail of the Bill to regulations. I must provide some context for my glad tidings. Hon. Members will have to agree to pass regulations to achieve the deregulation of annual reports that has gained support across the House.

I assure the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that we want to consider the structure of annual reports in terms of what is required, when it is required and how they are required to be written. We can try to ensure that that accountability operates without in any way undermining a school's accountability to its parent community.

Mr. Mole: If my hon. Friend were to take that path, it would be another factor that would aid the recruitment and retention of school governors.

Mr. Miliband: We all owe a debt to our school governors, and we want to make their contribution as productive as possible. Let us consider annual reports, but let us not, when the time comes, score points against each other about the regulation that may be required to achieve that important step forward.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Government amendment (a) in lieu agreed to.

Clause 41

Schools forums

Lords amendment: No. 27.

Mr. Miliband: I beg to move that this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments (b), (c) and (a) to the words so restored to the Bill.

Mr. Miliband: Collaboration between schools and LEAs is an integral part of the new funding system, and we want that partnership to be effective throughout the

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country. The forums that we are about to consider put that principle into practice. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I dally slightly longer than normal to explain the Government's approach fully.

Our debates on the Bill have not shifted our perspective that forums have an important role under the new regime. We have always said that some LEAs have effective consultation arrangements on funding matters. However, that is by no means the case in every authority. Clause 41 provides a real opportunity to ensure that schools in every area have a voice on a range of matters that are directly relevant to school funding. We are in the era of the self-managed school, where the delegation of school funding has greatly increased. Given that landscape, it is only right that local schools have the opportunity to articulate views on financial matters that affect them, in partnership with their LEAs.

In considering the attempt to remove schools forums from the Bill, we have the benefit of the consultation exercise that we launched in May. It ended last month and we have been able to consider the results, which I should like to report. There were a little under 200 responses in the period for reply. They showed general support for the concept behind schools forums: partnership and consultation on managing the schools budget, which clause 39 would create. We therefore believe that we were right to include schools forums in the Bill and to persist with them. As one school said,

Mr. Andrew Turner: The Minister said that 200 people responded. How many were consulted?

Mr. Miliband: I do not know the figure off the top of my head, but I shall intervene later to provide it or include it in my winding-up speech.

The National Assembly for Wales strongly backs schools forums. It set out its proposals for them in "The Learning Country", the policy paper that it published last year.

We have also received strong backing for forums from bodies such as the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association, the National Governors Council and other schools organisations. I shall quote an extract from a letter that we recently received from the SHA. It states that

The Foundation and Voluntary Aided Schools Association wrote:

Debate on schools forums in the House and in another place has been about two main issues—the way in which forums are to be constituted, and their functions. We have tried to ensure that authorities are not required to change arrangements that work well and are designed to establish proper dialogue between schools and LEAs over the allocation of funding.

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We want to tackle practice that does not work well and reinforce rather than disturb good practice. A dialogue between an LEA and its schools on the management of the schools budget is essential, and there will be different ways of achieving that. However, forums have been identified as an important factor in facilitating a mutual understanding of budget management. Examples that have been brought to our notice include the Bath and North-East Somerset LEA's school budget forum; Croydon LEA's leadership groups; Hampshire's standing conferences for head teachers, and the forum established by Telford and Wrekin LEA. We want such local arrangements to be able to continue with little or no change, and other LEAs to be able to design their schools forums to evolve out of bodies such as head teacher consultative groups.

Our amendments therefore propose much greater flexibility. There will be local flexibility about the balance between head teacher and governor representatives, and the size and method of selecting school members. Elected members of the LEA will be allowed to join forums. The Learning and Skills Council will have only observer status. The quorum requirement will be relaxed. Costs will be charged to the schools budget, but detailed provisions will be for local decisions.

We will give guidance on a range of issues, but this will be non-statutory and for each LEA to use as it wishes. Those significant changes introduce much greater flexibility and will enable many LEAs to turn existing local groups into statutory forums. We believe that those changes are a substantial and positive response to consultation and show that we have listened to the concerns expressed during the Bill's passage.

We have also listened to what has been said about the functions of the schools forums. There was substantial agreement in the consultation responses that the functions that we envisaged for the forums—mainly consultative and advisory, as we have consistently emphasised—are on the right lines. This has confirmed our belief that the forums will provide a valuable resource for education authorities.

8.45 pm

The consultation exercise also showed considerable support for a limited decision-taking function, although we recognise that many have expressed a fear that this function would be expanded over time. That was never our intention, but nor was the decision-making function ever the main point of school forums, which are intended primarily to strengthen local partnerships. We have, therefore, considered the matter further, and, in consequence, we have tabled the amendments now before the House, following extensive discussions in the House of Lords. The amendments emphasise the advisory and consultative role of the schools forums, and restrict the role of the forums so that advice and consultation will be the limit of their function. The forums' advisory role is much the same as before, involving the funding formula for schools, service contracts, specific issues such as the balance of special educational needs spending, and arrangements for education otherwise. There will, however, be no power to take financial decisions.

I have been passed a note giving me the answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I am told that all LEAs were consulted, and about

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90 responded. About 30 national organisations were consulted, 20 of which responded. The consultation was not sent specifically to schools. Perhaps my colleagues in the Department were worried about the bureaucracy that might be involved, and about the taunting that might come from Opposition Members about that. A summary of the consultation was placed on the Department for Education and Skills website.

I hope that the House will join me in rejecting the Lords amendment and agreeing to the Government amendments, which preserve the most important aspects of schools forums while limiting their role to advising LEAs.

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