Education Bill

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The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be shorter.

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough makes a valid point. Providing young people—and particularly the most disengaged and detached—with services and facilities poses a challenge in a whole range of policy areas. It is not easy: there are no trite ways of solving the problem. This aspect may not be attractive or sexy. In the past, insufficient financial incentives were built into the system to encourage governing bodies and head teachers to take action, which would be viewed negatively rather than positively.

This part of the Bill is all about changing the culture. We are not trying to force or oblige governing bodies to offer a wider range of activities: that would be inappropriate. The hon. Gentleman, as a former head teacher, will know of the skills sometimes displayed by heads in subverting governing bodies. If a head teacher believes that proposals by the governing body are not a good way of proceeding, a variety of means can be used to subvert them.

As I said, we do not believe in forcing or obliging schools in this regard, but we want as many levers and incentives as possible to encourage them to help us to solve deep-rooted social problems. It is right to seek to raise educational standards. Providing a decent education makes a major contribution to a troubled young person's life. It provides the foundation for securing good qualifications, a decent career and decent life chances. Equally, however, imaginative and fulfilling activities can take place within a school environment to help those less likely to do well academically. More imaginative, visionary and flexible means of working with young people can be beneficial.

Community activities can help schools to provide a broader infrastructure, and using the new and broader community facilities can help with the management of more difficult children. Community activities benefit the wider society, bring adults back into education and connect the school to the community, but community facilities can be used in more imaginative ways to help to deal with some of the children who most challenge teachers and make their lives so difficult. That can have a knock-on effect or a spin-off benefit.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough may know from his professional experience that some head teachers of high-performing academic schools have always acknowledged their responsibility to the wider community, and especially to disaffected young people. Their genuine enthusiasm for and commitment to that concept and those principles does not undermine the standards in those schools, and has a value-added aspect. Being a more integral part of the community often enhances a school's quality of education.

Chris Grayling rose—

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Mr. Lewis: We must challenge the myth that if a school is involved in wider community activities, bringing the community into the school and the school to the community, it is deflected from its central, mainstream responsibility to raise standards, because such activities are integral to raising education standards in communities.

I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. We are beginning a journey to challenge the culture and to tackle some of the attitudes that prevent the development of provisions to which my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley referred. Hon. Members, especially those who were elected members of local authorities, know the frustration of parents who ask a school to provide certain facilities to which the governing body and the head teacher are not well disposed because they think that that is a distraction from their core function, whereas down the road a head teacher and a governing body with an entirely different attitude are willing to embrace change and innovation and take a wider role in the community. We all know the difficulties and the frustrations involved, but with the provisions on community activities and the power to innovate, the Bill—especially the clause—will open up opportunities and challenge the culture and attitudes to which the hon. Gentleman rightly drew the Committee's attention. I therefore ask that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Chris Grayling: Forgive me for intervening, Mr. Griffiths, but the Minister did not want to give way to me, in spite of my standing up several times. He added the important word ''significant'' when he referred to my comments. He should remember that he is making the law; the law has details and it must be obeyed. I have no problem with the concept of schools consulting local authorities about significant matters, but the wording of the measure will require every head teacher who takes a booking for the one-off use of a sports pitch to tell the local education authority by telephone. In a large LEA area that is an unnecessary restriction. The addition of the words ''significant'' and ''modification'' might be appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27

Additional functions of governing body

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 100, in clause 27, page 16, line 42, leave out 'any' and insert 'the'.

This is a probing amendment. Members of the Committee, especially those who are constantly in and out of schools throughout the country, will acknowledge that complaints against teachers, especially head teachers, are increasing dramatically. That is a problem for everyone in public life, not just in schools, because people are encouraged to complain more than ever before. I blame the charters introduced by Mr. Major, the former right hon. Member for Huntingdon, which were introduced without the resources to support them. People's expectation of

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the service that they receive was raised far beyond what it was possible to deliver. A litigious culture has developed in which parents who do not get what they think is the right outcome for their child see it as a failure by the teacher or head teacher concerned, and they complain.

We have a system for parental complaints against head teachers, but the process is extraordinarily detailed, procedural and convoluted. That is detrimental to the complainant, because a conclusion takes so long to reach, and to the head teacher, who has to deal with a huge amount of bureaucracy in responding to the complaint. Ultimately, the head teacher must appear before a panel of governors for the complaint to be discharged.

The purpose of this simple amendment is to tease out the Government's thinking. I am sure that the Minister supports the tenor of my comments, if not the detail. If a complaint is made, it should be heard and dealt with quickly, so that people can move on and not get involved in a huge procedural outcome. Some issues, however, threaten to involve criminal law. Clearly, complaints from which criminal cases might proceed are different from the run-of-the-mill complaints that are regularly made to most head teachers and chairs of governors in the course of their duties.

Clause 27(2) states:

    ''In establishing or publicising procedures under subsection (1), the governing body shall have regard to any guidance given from time to time . . . by the Secretary of State or . . . the National Assembly for Wales.''

That is a huge, all-inclusive provision. ''Any guidance'' means anything that the Secretary of State or the National Assembly may introduce at any time. The amendment proposes that there should be specific guidance. By changing the word ''any'' to ''the'', there would be specific guidance on the way in which governing bodies can exercise their functions.

Governing bodies should be allowed to get on with developing their own procedures within a broad framework that is exercised by the Government. Procedures that work in downtown Chapeltown in Leeds will be different from those that work in parts of Northumberland or other communities. Governors should be allowed to get on with developing procedures provided that they meet the requirements of protecting the individual who has been complained about and the complainant. That is the purpose of this probing amendment.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. The clause establishes a statutory duty on governing bodies to establish and publicise procedures for dealing with school complaints. They do not currently have that duty, and I agree that it is important to have it in place. The overwhelming majority of governing bodies have complaints procedures in place, and they certainly take complaints seriously.

There is room for more debate on the need for Government to prescribe in detail the processes and procedures that should apply to every school in the

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country. I agree that, in practice, there will be variation among schools in different circumstances and different areas.

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, we consulted on draft regulations for complaints procedures, and there was a strong feeling in the response that we were being unduly prescriptive in setting out exactly how the procedures should work. As a result, the Minister at the time decided not to go ahead with introducing a statutory requirement under the 1998 Act, although there was the power to do so. We have learnt from that, and we can now build on the work done at that time. There is already useful practice and experience on complaints procedures at local level, including a good deal of guidance on handling complaints from, for instance, LEAs, diocesan boards and the local government ombudsman.

I am reluctant to say that there will definitely be guidance as I am not sure that Government guidance is necessarily appropriate. We want to ensure that governing bodies have access to clear and helpful guidance on establishing and publishing complaints procedures, but we want to avoid unnecessary and confusing duplication of guidance. We intend to undertake a review of existing complaints procedures, many of which share common features, to make good practice examples available on our school governors' website. We will also consult on whether there should be a limited number of key principles, such as on the time limits that should apply, to which schools might be asked to adhere in devising their procedures.

12.15 pm

We need to do some more work before we determine whether Government guidance is needed in this area. I am reluctant to accept the amendment because it would imply that there definitely will be guidance. Although I am resisting the amendment, I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman that his sentiments are in line with our approach. We recognise that there will be different approaches in different schools, and we want schools to have access to examples of good practice in complaints procedures. It sounds as though, in the hon. Gentleman's experience, procedures have not worked as well as they might.

We want to ensure that examples of good practice are available to schools, but not at this stage to decide whether Government guidance is appropriate: we will make that decision in the light of the consultation that will follow. If there is to be guidance or if examples of good practice are to be made available, that will happen early in the 2003–04 academic year. I hope that is of some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman. He made it clear that it is a probing amendment, so I hope that he will feel able to withdraw it.

 
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