Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: Several schools could come together to provide transport services, thereby benefiting from economies of scale. That is the kind of development that might be encouraged.

To respond to an earlier point that was made by the hon. Member for Eddisbury, subject to basic safeguards we want companies to be as free as possible to manage themselves. In our view, companies should have the flexibility to decide the most suitable management arrangements that are free from bureaucracy. The amendments would undermine that objective.

Any member of staff of a school who became involved with a company's activities would have to agree to do that. There is a variety of ways in which the member of staff could work for the company. For example, they could be on a temporary secondment, or part of the working week could be spent on company rather than school business. Different remuneration arrangements would be needed in different circumstances. Amendment No. 21 would introduce unnecessary formality to the procedure. In reality, arrangements would be best left to local discussion and agreement.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): Will the Minister clarify whether any schools will not be able to form companies in the way envisaged in the Bill? Would failing schools be allowed to set up companies? How would he compare the number of schools that will be entitled to set up companies with the percentage of schools that will be allowed autonomy, which he quoted this morning?

Mr. Timms: I refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 11(1). I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to underline this point, because it follows on from our previous discussion.

A governing body would require the consent of the local education authority in order to join a company. If consent were withheld, the school would not be able to join the company. Paragraph (b) is relevant to the hon. Gentleman's point because if the school did not have a delegated budget, it would not be able to join a company.

We will not set thresholds, and the measure is different from that which we have discussed previously. We can only wait and see the number of schools that will take up the opportunity. Schools have a substantial and growing interest in working together, and the provision will make that easier and more effective.

Chris Grayling: While the Minister is clarifying these points, will he tell us the degree to which the provision for the companies involves the delivery of educational services? Is it conceivable that a governing body would have the right to sack its head teacher and staff, and bring in a company established by a more successful school to run the school? In theory, could a governing body subcontract out the entire management and educational management of its school to a more successful school?

Mr. Timms: That does not sound like a likely scenario. The governing body has clear responsibilities in this area, which it will exercise normally. The scenario is possible—subsection (1)(a) makes this clear—because we are considering services provided to schools by other schools. We want more examples of that. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, or one of his colleagues, suggested that strong schools could support weak schools. There will be many examples of that. The new provision will make that easier.

Amendment No. 60 specifies the people from each school who should be on the board of directors. We would not want the Bill to specify that the representative should necessarily be the head teacher or a teacher, which the amendment would do. That would preclude administrative staff or bursars from sitting on the board. Such people may have the experience and time that are best suited to the day-to-day role of running the company. Given the concerns expressed by members of the Committee about the work load of teachers and heads, it would be inappropriate to insist that only members of the teaching staff could undertake these duties.

Mr. O'Brien: I fully accept that none of us, particularly those who have paid numerous visits to their constituents and local schools, wants to add to the burden of teachers. The Minister makes a fair point. However, he knows that it would be otiose to use the phrase ''non-executive'' or ''advisory'' in an amendment. A director can be part of the day-to-day management and be entitled to attend board meetings, whatever their frequency.

If an organisation that is responsible for those functions and services is to serve the interests of raising educational standards for children, board members must have teaching skills, or there will not be the required expertise. A bursar must have financial ability, which is critical to any board. After all, the Government criticised Railtrack for having no engineer as a board member.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales has picked up on my long intervention. However, he was educated in Wales and he will understand that I am given to a touch of prolixity.

5 pm

Mr. Timms: It would depend on the nature of the company. If the company carried out procurement on behalf of a group of schools, it is likely that someone other than a teacher would be an appropriate board member. It is worth pointing out that a large number of schools might be members of one company—for example, an LEA. One would not want to insist that every school had its own representative on the board, as long as there was a process by which all the schools could agree on the directors. Amendment No. 60 would impede effective operation of the company.

I hope that members of the Committee agree that governing bodies will be able to make sensible decisions about such matters, and they do not need the extra bureaucracy that would be created by the amendments to operate effectively. I hope that the amendments will be withdrawn.

Mr. O'Brien: The Minister has not reassured me on that matter. In his response to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, he prayed in aid clause 11, thereby admitting that chapter 3 hangs together. It is difficult to understand the Government's mind, especially in the absence of reassurances from the Minister.

It is also becoming increasingly difficult simply to take the Government on trust when they maintain that the clauses are enabling powers. They are subject to the exercise of powers by the Secretary of State later, and subject to our further discussions on some of the clauses and amendments to be considered later in the debate on chapter 3. It is becoming increasingly unclear, if they are enabling, to what extent the regulations will play a major part in governing the companies, or whether those companies will be free.

The Minister's answers were not sufficient, and it would be helpful to have some pro forma regulations. In the absence of such regulations, there is a great deal of flexibility and freedom. I suggest to all Members who see the provision as a tool to help to raise standards that these are companies, and financial interests are at stake, so there may be some who are not entirely motivated to raise standards. The reassurances have not gone far enough to give confidence that those with financial interests, those who look for cheap takeovers or those who would decrease joint bus services, for example, will always act in the interests of children, staff and teachers. Under clause 60, we need to include on the board those whose primary concern is children's educational needs.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It is often difficult to find people who are willing to serve as school governors. If we introduce a commercial dimension to the governing body, and if the head is not given the statutory right to participate—at least as a non-executive—a governing body could be hijacked by those who saw it as a commercial opportunity and were enthusiastic about taking advantage of that.

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend reinforces the point that, because of the lack of specificity and pro forma regulations in the clause, there is high corporate risk. There is also the potential for abuse by those who do not share hon. Members' motivation to improve education. Members of all parties who have experienced corporate life will know that, just as in any other walk of life, 98 per cent. of people are well motivated, but there are always rotten apples.

If it were not for the amendments, there would have been no acknowledgement of the risk that the governing body might be controlled in that way. In the absence of regulations, the debate cannot be conclusive. It would be inappropriate to press the two amendments to Divisions.

Mr. Brady: Will the Minister publish the regulations?

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that impromptu prompting. Will the Minister assure me that he will publish pro forma regulations? The Committee would be better informed if the regulations were published by Tuesday.

I have been a Member for just two years—only in opposition, unfortunately. I should have thought that Labour Members would know better than me that it would be staggering if, when drafting regulations are included in a Bill, there was no document containing draft pro forma regulations swanning around the Department. It would cause the Minister no harm to cross out the word ''draft'' and publish those regulations.

If the regulations were published, we could be more certain whether our probing amendments are on to something, or whether the Minister's assurances are sufficient to give confidence to members of the public who are concerned that the Bill is going down paths that are not wholly desirable. I give the Minister the opportunity to say whether, in the spirit of future consensus, he will give that assurance.

Mr. Timms: I cannot promise the regulations by Tuesday, but I assure the Committee that we shall publish a statement of the policy underlying the regulations before the Bill leaves the House of Commons. That is in line with other commitments that I have made on points raised by the Committee.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the Minister. I accept that it would be difficult to produce the regulations by Tuesday at this increasingly seasonal time of year. That assurance will help us to clarify many of the uncertainties that have arisen. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Five o'clock till Tuesday 18 December at half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Bailey, Mr.
Brady, Mr.
Flint, Caroline
Francis, Dr.
Grayling, Chris
Heppell, Mr.
Kumar, Dr.
Laing, Mrs.
Laws, Mr.
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Miliband, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Purnell, James
Timms, Mr.
Touhig, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Willis, Mr.

 
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