Education Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) rose—

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) rose—

Mr. Lewis: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight to give him the opportunity to answer my question.

Mr. Turner: Even section 1 powers would not be required in the case of Rutland county council, for example, as there are only two secondary schools and a small number of primary schools in Rutland. It would be easy to form a federation of such schools in the circumstances to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred. Local education authorities throughout the country are constantly closing schools with the argument that it would raise standards to do so. If the approval of only the school organisation committee were required, it would be dominated by the federation, which, under the Minister's proposals, would have only one governing body, not a series of them. The Minister has yet to show that his proposals are watertight.

Mr. Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he failed to answer my earlier question. On his substantive point, we have shown clearly that the existing law offers sufficient safeguards to prevent unscrupulous behaviour by a company as part of a governing body in making decisions without regard to raising standards or the best educational interests of the school. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was justifiably concerned about that risk, but there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that it will not happen. If Opposition Members do not agree, I respect that difference.

The Secretary of State would look closely at the detail of any such proposals to ensure that they were motivated by and relevant to the general power to innovate, which is about raising standards.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I have been waiting to pick up a couple of points that he made in response to previous interventions. I believe that he was present when the Minister for School Standards was answering questions. Although his hon. Friend made it clear that procurement companies were not intended to operate for profit, he has freely used the profit motive in his description of the defence. The Minister for School Standards indicated that land and buildings would not be part of the assets that could be held by companies, but the Under-Secretary has appeared to indicate that they could be. Where corporate entities are to be deployed in the use of the school budget, it was intended that they would not operate for profit.

I would like to believe that the Under-Secretary is on top of his brief. I know that his hon. Friends on the Back Benches are proud of his performance today. However, it is extraordinary that he prays in aid that no Labour Secretary of State would wish to use the powers freely asked for in this Bill in a way that he found unacceptable. It may not have occurred to him, however much his supporters take the view that they will always be in power, that there is a democratic process in this country. It is possible that the powers the Government are seeking might be used by others with whom he would not have political sympathy. He needs to be careful. I ask him at least to be consistent with his fellow Minister and to recognise that his answers have given rise to a sense of discord among Opposition Members. Those of us who are trying to understand the Bill's purpose need to be enlightened, and his answers so far have been inadequate.

Mr. Lewis: As my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier, there will be no transfer of assets to the private sector. There are other companies as well as those formed by schools. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was referring to a situation where a private company had a controlling interest on the governing body. That is a different point from that made by my hon. Friend earlier in the proceedings. He talked about the capacity to transfer land and buildings to a private company.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough's point was that in a situation where a private company had a controlling interest on a governing body, it could, for reasons other than raising educational standards, make decisions not in the best interests of education provision. I believe that there are sufficient safeguards on the statute book to prevent any private company with perceived ulterior motives from taking such a course of action. The hon. Member for Eddisbury should not be patronising and arrogant. We are aware that democracy means that Governments change from time to time. The legislation is in the best interests of the education system, and that is entirely proper. A future Secretary of State, including one representing another political party, would have at their disposal the laws—[Hon. Members: ''Precisely.'']—on the statute at the time.

The Government are acting in the best interests of schools and young people in this country. We are introducing deregulation and we are freeing up schools. It would be ludicrous to introduce those integral changes without addressing governance.

Chris Grayling: On a point of information, Mr. Griffiths. The Minister referred to legislative safeguards. Can he clarify which legislation provides them?

9.30 pm

Mr. Lewis: Any proposal would have to be considered under the Bill. If a governing body, or a federation of such bodies, wanted to implement the far-reaching proposals suggested by hon. Members, they would be required to gain approval for that decision. It would be scrutinised to ensure that it was consistent with the objective of raising educational standards.

Hon. Members have asked why we should rock the boat by shaking up the system. They argue that governing bodies want a period of stability in which the status quo would prevail. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and I share many views on a range of issues, but one of the characteristic views of the Liberal Democrats on education is the maintenance and preservation of the status quo. I am realistic enough to realise that some people in education want to be left alone, and do not want reform. The Government are impatient to introduce change because we are not satisfied that enough mechanisms are in place to raise standards to the right level. That will ensure that all young people have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough does not support the Government's current proposals for specialist schools, and accuses us of creating a two-tier system. We intend that every secondary school that wants specialist status should have the opportunity to achieve it. In four years, we will ensure that 50 per cent. of those schools are given that opportunity. We are not satisfied that the current secondary schools system enables the desired number of young people to fulfil their potential. By 2005, 50 per cent. of secondary schools will have specialist status. That is not about accepting the status quo, under which we still do not give enough young people the chance to fulfil their potential. I raise that point, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough says that we need stability, which is often a code word for status quo. The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that the status quo should prevail. That is also true of our discussion about governing bodies. None of us has paid tribute to the work done by governors throughout the country in running schools. They are volunteers who make a massive contribution towards raising standards. If we are to introduce a radical reform agenda to improve standards, it is vital that there is synergy between the variety of policies to implement those changes and giving the governors whom we are asking to deliver the modernisation agenda the opportunity to have the appropriate and relevant structures.

Mr. Brady: The Minister has rightly paid tribute to the excellent work that is done by governors, especially as they are volunteers. Will he shed light on the power under subsection (3)(f) to pay allowances to governors?

Mr. Lewis: I shall come to that later.

The problem with amendment No. 213 is that it would define the membership of the governing body only as set out in the clause. That would be insufficient without greater detail, and would not allow us to prescribe that detail in regulations. The regulation-making power under clause 18(2) will work with the allied power in clause 18(3), so that we can implement our commitment that at least one teacher will have a place on the governing body. Hon. Members were concerned about that. The Government have repeatedly put on record that that is guaranteed.

On amendment No. 166, we intend to provide in regulations that at least a third of the places on school governing bodies should be taken by parents.

Chris Grayling: Once again, the Minister has used the phrase, ''we intend to provide in regulations.'' Why does everything in the Bill have to be, ''we intend'', rather than simply being provided?

Mr. Lewis: I have already made that point. We have already debated at length the balance between primary legislation and regulations, and I will not go through that again. It is neither appropriate nor desirable.

I want to reassure members of the Committee on issues relating to teaching staff, which were mentioned in relation to amendment No. 176. It is important that non-teaching staff are valued equally as part of the team, and we do not believe that they have been given sufficient status. Hon. Members may recall an unhelpful comment, apparently out of context, by a leader of a major teaching union. We believe that support staff will become increasingly important in raising standards and delivering the education that we want and expect. Amendment No. 176 would provide a separate stakeholder group for teachers on the governing body, which would exclude support staff.

Mr. Willis: With respect, this is becoming a farce. The Minister has told us that he is going to include in regulations the fact that there has to be a teacher. We are now talking about non-teaching staff. We have reached a situation where there might be just one member of the staff, which is what it says on the Bill. Are the governor's posts to be shared?

 
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