Education Bill

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Chris Grayling: I am worried by some aspects of the Minister's remarks. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made a good point about our current litigious and complaining society, although I

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do not agree with his analysis of the reasons for it. There is obviously a sensible balance to be struck between listening for justified complaints from parents and allowing parents to complain about anything that moves, which is the case in too many schools. A few weeks ago a head teacher told me that one of his biggest problems is that parents often refuse to accept what the teachers say. If the teachers say that a pupil is causing problems, more often than not the parents will not accept it.

It worries me that the Minister does not feel that any guidance is necessary on that. We need to think of the nature of schools. Amateur governing bodies do their best to provide support to head teachers in an area that is becoming increasingly problematic for schools. The burden of complaints, particularly about the conduct of staff, is growing all the time. Schools need clear support and guidance on that. The Government will have to be quite tough in setting out when complaints will be accepted and how they will be processed, and they must protect teachers against the risk of false allegations by pupils, which happens all too regularly.

It also worries me that the Minister is not certain that Government guidance on such matters is needed. It is one of the few areas in which their guidance is definitely required. They must show leadership and help schools to deal with complaints and related circumstances. I urge the Minister to reconsider what he has just said. It is necessary to give schools support and a clear framework within which to operate, and to give their heads, governors and teachers strong protection against a culture in which people's behaviour and their unwillingness to accept what teachers say are not given serious enough attention.

Mr. Willis: The debate has been interesting and important. I agree with many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. Although at first he said that there were not many complaints, he concluded by saying that more complaints are indeed being received. At least we have come together at the end of the circle. There is a lot of guidance. The Minister was right to say that different organisations have issued guidance and that there is no statutory process at present, but that that leads to significant confusion. We do not want each school to have the same procedures. The Minister also made that point.

I agree with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that a broad framework within which schools must operate would be extremely welcome. If the Minister is suggesting that draft proposals should be put forward for consultation through the website, that would also be welcome. I examined the issue after the previous consultation process, and I agreed with the then Minister, who is now the Secretary of State, that the proposed procedures were over-elaborate and over-prescriptive and, instead of solving problems for schools, they would have added to them. In light of the debate, I hope that the Minister will think again about the issue and perhaps, before the Bill is enacted, proposals could be produced either here or in the other place to bring together the best of the guidance, which would help schools and their governors to form their policies.

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Mr. Timms: I hope that I made it clear that advice will be provided. The question whether the Government should issue formal guidance should be subject to more discussion. To answer the hon. Gentleman's point, I do not think that such discussions will be concluded before the end of our debates on the Bill, because wider consultation will need to take place. He may be right, however, that a limited set of key agreed principles could then be issued as guidance. However, we must have a wide discussion to see whether that is the appropriate way forward.

Mr. Willis: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 183, in page 17, line 11, leave out 'comply with' and insert 'take account of'.

The amendment explores how far Ministers believe that the heads and governing bodies of schools have meaningful, managerial independence. The amendment would replace the requirement under which the governing bodies and the head teachers of

    ''a community or voluntary controlled school . . . a community special school, or . . . a maintained nursery school''

are placed under a duty to

    ''comply with any direction given to them by the local education authority concerning the health and safety of persons on the school's premises or taking part in any school activities elsewhere.''

The amendment would delete the term ''comply with'' and replace it with ''take account of''. It would ensure that schools were properly advised and informed of what the health and safety provisions should be, and that schools that were ''community or voluntary controlled'' or fell under one of the other categories listed in subsection (5) would not be left in the cold by the education authority, because it could still offer direction on health and safety matters, but that direction would not be compulsory. The governing body and the head teacher would exercise managerial independence in meeting the obligations imposed on them by the Bill and by existing health and safety legislation.

If the Government resist the amendment, responsibility will be transferred from the head and the governing body. Under the Bill, ultimate responsibility rests with the local education authority, which is required to direct the school to comply with health and safety provisions.

If the Bill is not amended, the governing body and the head teacher will not be responsible for health and safety in the school: they will have passed any meaningful responsibility for those matters to the local education authority. If the amendment is agreed to, the local education authority will still have a duty to direct when it perceives a danger on health and safety issues. It could give advice, guidance and information, but the head and the governing body would decide whether to take account of that direction and make use of it to fulfil their obligations to ensure that the school is a safe working and educational environment for staff, pupils and visitors to the premises.

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It is interesting that some categories of school have been picked out and listed in subsection (5). That raises the issue of the extent to which the Government are serious about the autonomy of schools. There is already a difference between the degree of autonomy available to any foundation and voluntary-aided school, and that available to

    ''a community or voluntary controlled school . . . a community special school, or . . . a maintained nursery school''.

That difference is defined in a new way in subsection (5), which takes day-to-day managerial responsibilities away from schools and gives them to local education authorities. Not only is that negative for the autonomy of schools, but it is less likely to result in effective health and safety provision. Surely it would be more effective to place day-to-day control of health and safety in the hands of the people who most intimately know the school—who know its working environment, and who represent, through election to the governing body, both those who work in the school and those whose children are its pupils. It is better to place that control directly in the hands of people who intimately know the school, and who can take real responsibility for it—with the proper guidance and back-up that the local authority can provide—than to make it a matter of compulsion and instruction, which takes control out of their hands, and, therefore, places the onus, and the final responsibility, on the local education authority.

Is not the Minister concerned that there is a danger that, if a local education authority does not make a specific direction, it will incur a liability under health and safety legislation for having failed so to do? If clause 27 remains unamended, it will possible for the governing body and the head teacher to avoid that responsibility. Following an accident or a mishap, they can point to subsection (5) and say, ''We were not directed by the local authority. Had we been directed by the local authority, we would immediately have complied with that direction, but, as there was no such direction, we have done nothing wrong.'' The responsibility should lie with the school, and the head teacher and the governors should have the responsibility to provide a safe working, teaching and learning environment in the school, while drawing on the advice, guidance and support of the local education authority. I am interested to hear the Minister's response to that.

12.30 pm

Mr. Timms: There is a significant problem with the hon. Gentleman's proposal; it would amount to a significant weakening of the health and safety protection for pupils, and others, in schools.

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, the local education authority is the employer of the staff in the schools that are listed in subsection (5), and it also owns the premises. Therefore, it has the primary responsibility for health and safety matters under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. Given that the authority bears that statutory responsibility, we need to ensure that it also has the power to address problems when they arise, because, otherwise, it would have the statutory responsibility without being able to do anything to meet it. As the authority carries the liability under the Act, it is right that we should give it

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the power to make directions, and that the head teacher and the governing body should be under a duty to comply with those directions.

It might further reassure the hon. Gentleman to know that the position that I have outlined was inserted in the Education Act 1986 by the then Secretary of State, Lord Baker. He introduced local management of schools; that was done on the insistence of the Health and Safety Executive, which was worried that, otherwise, there would be a statutory requirement on local education authorities but that there would be no mechanism for them to fulfil their statutory obligations. With regard to that, the form of words under discussion ensures that the mechanism that is needed is in place.

 
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