Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister. His response has been helpful. He said that the burden that the amendment would place on schools would be too great, but he also alluded to the balance that must be struck. The balance is between the burden of reporting and administration and the new powers that the Minister seeks to take. If Ministers do not have detailed knowledge of what money is finding its way into schools, they will not be able to make informed judgments when exercising their new powers in the clauses to direct the activities of LEAs with regard to the schools' budget.

Mr. Timms: I just want to make a point that I perhaps should have made earlier. In clause 42 we are looking at the introduction of consistent financial reporting, which will allow us to benchmark in a way that has not been possible in the past, and to compare the amounts that are being spent in different schools on different things. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's earlier description of a black hole.

Mr. Brady: My description of a black hole applied to the existing situation and Ministers' apparent lack of knowledge about the money that is finding its way to schools. If the financial reporting requirements under clause 42 would give Ministers precisely the

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information that I seek for them in my amendment, it would give me considerable comfort.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Is the hon. Gentleman arguing, as the Conservative party did at the last general election, that there should be a national per capita formula for all children in all schools that would clarify where the money comes from and where it goes. Does that remain the policy, and is that behind the amendment? If it is, there is a clear contradiction between what the Government want, what the Liberal Democrats want and what the Opposition want. Does he believe that, even in an LEA such as his own, there is a need for someone to determine that schools and children who are greatly disadvantaged in accessing the education system should receive more than those who have particular advantages, such as the students who go to the grammar schools in his area?

Mr. Brady: I am wary of going too wide of the amendment, and we may have a constructive debate on another related amendment that my hon. Friends and I tabled. I will simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that if we had implemented a national funding formula for schools, it would have made provision for those from disadvantaged areas or backgrounds to attract a higher weighting. Therefore, the two points are in no way inconsistent. The hon. Gentleman would have had no worries about that issue under a Conservative Government, who sadly the nation are missing.

Mr. Willis: I am enormously relieved.

Mr. Brady: I know that the hon. Gentleman is relieved.

The Minister's response to my amendment suggested that existing legislation requires that transitional funding should be reported. Part of the difficulty that arises is that transitional funding may be reported and Ministers may be aware of it. However, if they are not aware of the overall funding picture, they have only part of the information that they need to make a decision.

The Minister said that schools' funding for the sixth form curriculum would inform the LSC funding. Ministers have told me that they do not know what that funding is, and so I cannot see how the Minister can maintain that that information will inform the funding decisions for the learning and skills councils. I would be interested to hear how that funding has been decided. I understand that the baseline figure for the sixth form funding under the learning and skills council is based on last year's funding picture. However, some schools have received no new funding to take account of the increased responsibilities and activities necessary under the new sixth form curriculum. If last year's funding is taken as the baseline, Ministers will be locking in a pattern of underfunding for such schools.

There are real questions that need some answers. I may have sympathy with some of the objectives behind the clauses, but I am keen that Ministers should exercise them in a well-informed, responsible and transparent way. The clauses leave open the danger that Ministers may be forced to make decisions in the

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dark according to criteria that are not public and that have not been debated or agreed outside ministerial offices.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) asked me whether the intention behind my amendment was to introduce a national funding formula. It is not. My intention is simply to ensure that Ministers can obtain the necessary information if they are to exercise the powers responsibly. The Minister sought to reassure me that that information would be available. I hope that it will be.

I am grateful for the Minister's offer to examine figures from schools in my constituency. I will not detain the Committee with local matters but will provide the information for him. On balance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 219, in page 25, line 22, leave out—

    'or the authority's schools forum'.

We now come to contentious proposals and sensible amendments to overcome the problems. I think that the Minister accepts that it is difficult to debate amendment No. 219 without having first debated the make-up and purpose of the schools forums. Thus, if I stray into discussion of membership, it is only because it is important to consider it in discussing the amendment.

By including schools forums in the clause, the Government are trying to achieve what the Conservative party did not achieve in the last election. They are trying to bypass the autonomy of local authorities and respond to head teachers and governors in a way that suits their purpose. I agreed with many of the Minister's comments on the previous amendments, which were about reducing needless bureaucracy to do with accounting systems in schools and local authorities. The school standards fund is a good example: there has been a huge reduction in the work load. That was a good Government initiative. However, we now have a Government pledge to reduce bureaucracy by introducing a new layer of bureaucracy into the system. Fundamentally, that is what the measure will achieve.

I defy the Minister to name a single local authority in England or Wales that does not have reasonable or excellent consultation arrangements with its heads and governors. If we refer to Ofsted's examination of local authorities—I accept that it has not inspected all local authorities—or the Audit Commission, which supported the inspection of local authorities, we find that 75 per cent. of head teachers and governors are satisfied with the consultation that they have with their local authority. That is a remarkable achievement.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comment. In broad terms, most governors and head teachers may be satisfied, but that is largely because the need for consultation is relatively limited in most of their lives. I assure him that many LEAs have a terrible record of consultation

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in cases where there are major developments; for example, the London borough of Merton, with which I have been involved for the past four years, announced that schools were due to be closed as part of a reorganisation plan at a meeting of heads of all schools in the borough. It did not even take the trouble to talk to heads of schools individually. The overall figures to which the hon. Gentleman referred mask some seriously bad practice.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comment, because I did not stress that every local authority, school or business is not perfect; that is obvious. The inspections by Ofsted and the Audit Commission made it clear that there is much cause for concern in a small number of authorities. The answer is not to create a new layer of bureaucracy but to sort out the problem. Giving every local authority a duty in legislation to consult heads and governors about x, y and z is perfectly reasonable. However, going to the nth degree by creating schools forums, for which I can find no justification from anyone, is overcooking the egg, if hon. Members will pardon the expression.

5 pm

The amendment is designed to make the Committee consider a key issue for which the new schools forums will have responsibility or a responsibility. In proposed new section 45A(4)(c) of the 1998 Act, one duty is to

    ''enable any prescribed determination—''

on school budgets—

    ''to be made by the Secretary of State or the authority's schools forum.''

However, the regulations do not say that. Nothing in them makes that clear, yet the Bill clearly states that the schools forum can have responsibility for determining the budget.

Let us consider the make-up of the schools forum. Not every school will be represented. Even in the largest authorities such as mine, out of, say, 350 schools—many big metropolitan boroughs have that many schools or more—50 is the maximum number that can be represented. A quarter of places can be reserved for members other than schools, which leaves about 38. Two places are reserved for special schools, which takes the number down to 36. Those places are divided up according to the number of pupils in each school—primary, middle, secondary or special—which then get a number of places determined by the number of youngsters in the sector. The formula to assemble 36 head teachers or governors to represent those schools is complicated and bureaucratic.

Before the Minister contradicts me, I accept that that group of people will not make the determination in all circumstances, as the Secretary of State will not intervene in all circumstances. However, if those 50 people have the responsibility, as the Bill says, how will they make the decision?

The first responsibility of every governor and head teacher whom I have met is to their school. I have often argued to governors that we should consider our family of schools and how we distribute resources only

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to be given short shrift by the chairman, who says that they are elected to look after their school and no one else's. When people go to the forum to debate these issues, their main responsibilities and liabilities will lie very much with their own organisations. What is to prevent a group of them in the forum from getting together to carve things up on their behalf?

The amendment would eliminate the role of schools forums in determining the level of schools' budgets at individual school level. It would mean that forums could advise on individual budgets, but could not have an authoritarian mandatory role. I hope that the Minister will see the sense in that reasonable request and respond to it in his usual positive and supportive way.

 
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