Education Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Happy new year, Mr. Griffiths. I apologise for my absence this morning.

I have seldom heard such common sense from a Liberal Democrat, but on this occasion, there was a modest amount of common sense in what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said.

Mr. Willis: I was really good this morning.

Mr. Turner: Speak for yourself.

It is made more difficult because the Government have not yet published the draft regulations—[Interruption.] Sorry, I understand that they have been published, but I have not yet had a chance to read those draft regulations on the composition of schools forums that the Government have so kindly provided. However, I want to support the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

It is difficult to envisage how a school can be both effectively governed by governors and involved in decisions at the executive level about the distribution of resources. It is also difficult to understand why the power is necessary for many local authorities. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) that some are defective in respect of consultation with governors and head teachers. On the whole, however, local authorities are quite good at such consultation. The difficulty arises for a minority, which might not contribute the right amount, might lack the capacity for effective organisation of the education service or might not have the political will to take effective decisions in consultation with governors and head teachers.

What is the need for this power given to governors and head teachers collectively and what will be its consequences? In some circumstances, a majority on the schools forum could get together to outvote a minority. Surely it would be fairer for elected local authority representatives to take the difficult decisions between the majority and the minority. Is the process necessary for all local education authorities? In excluding the common council of the City of London and the council of the Isles of Scilly, the Government have already accepted that it is not necessary for all.

What should be the threshold? For the Government, it is one school. Why should an authority such as Rutland, with a small number of

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schools, be governed by an arrangement in which a school instead of a local authority can take a decision?

Chris Grayling: A further point arises. One important issue seldom properly addressed is cross-border educational planning. More commonality of issue often arises with schools just across LEA borders than with schools on different sides of the same educational area. If the Minister is going to impose mechanisms, should he not provide for cross-border dialogue as well?

Mr. Turner: I have considerable sympathy with that view, especially when a border is artificial. Some borders are clear and defined; others—particularly in south London—have huge cross-border flows. About a third of the London borough of Southwark's secondary population is educated outside the borough and about a quarter of Lambeth's secondary population is educated within Southwark. Some local authorities differ about whether sixth forms are located within their areas. Oxfordshire has an interesting history in that respect: some parts have a three-tier system, others a two-tier one. The interests of middle schools would not necessarily be recognised by the majority of schools in particular areas.

The Government have taken insufficient account of those issues in drafting the amendment. Even accepting the principle—and I am unsure that I do—that local authorities should be overridden, we must ask more about the detail.

Mr. Timms: I can give the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) some assurances on their concerns. We all agree that schools should be consulted on financial matters. The National Association of Head Teachers certainly believes that there is a problem here. It recently carried out a survey of consultation arrangements, which concluded that a significant proportion of heads were dissatisfied with the consultation on financial matters. The sunny picture painted by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is not the experience of head teachers.

Mr. Willis: The Minister and his Department spend millions commissioning Ofsted and the Audit Commission to carry out this work, and the Minister now quotes in defence the National Association of Head Teachers' survey. I find that ludicrous.

Mr. Timms: We take notice of evidence wherever it arises. The important organisation to which I referred believes that there is a problem. The hon. Gentleman argued that no one envisages any problem, but that is not the case. We all support consultation with schools on financial matters and the provisions provide the mechanism to introduce it.

Schools forums are not new in principle: some authorities already have fine consultative arrangements, but we want all schools to benefit from that approach. Good practice benefits all schools. When we reach clause 41, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will set out the detail of our approach to schools forums. Presently, I disagree with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that it is acceptable for bodies to comprise more than 50 people. As my hon. Friend will

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explain more fully, it is appropriate to set a maximum size for the schools forums.

We want the forums to play a significant part in local funding arrangements for schools. We want them to have mainly, but not entirely, an advisory role. The size of the school's budget and the nature of most centrally retained expenditure items will remain decisions for the LEA to take. The schools forums will not have a role in determining the overall size of the authority's schools budget, still less the size of an individual school's budget share. That should provide an important element of reassurance about the concerns expressed by the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough and for Isle of Wight. Many spending decisions—determining priorities for the use of the overall delegated budget, for example—remain for individual schools to take. However, with respect to the advantages of delegation or central retention, only a limited range of items should be decided collectively through the forum.

I am in the happy position this afternoon of having distributed the draft regulations. I am not always in such a happy position, but I am now. In fact, two sets of draft regulations relating to schools forums have been circulated. Not every member of the Committee may have read to the end of both. The heading of schedule 1 is ''Regulation X: classes or descriptions of planned expenditure which may be deducted from the schools budget of a local education authority''.

In other words, it is a list of things that the LEA can retain centrally. We propose to add four new items to that list, which is set out in regulations: school meals for primary and special schools, library services for those schools, museum services, and licences and subscriptions. As a result, the forum will be able to decide whether those four items should be delegated to each school. That is the extent of the decision-making powers that we propose should be conferred on the schools forums. It is a much narrower decision-making power than hon. Members suspected.

5.15 pm

Mr. Willis: Can the Minister confirm that there would have to be a resolution under affirmative procedure in both Houses to extend those powers and to include other items?

Mr. Timms: I cannot confirm that. However, it would require new regulations, not those that have been circulated to the Committee and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, those would be dealt with in the normal way.

Chris Grayling: Just to clarify that, the Secretary of State would have the right under the legislation to assign broad-ranging powers to an education forum without coming back to Parliament, and to re-deploy many of the LEAs' supervisory functions to the schools forums.

Mr. Timms: The Secretary of State has the power to propose new regulations that would be published and consulted on in the normal way and, as we have discussed several times, if hon. Members have concerns about those regulations, we would consider any request for a debate. That is the appropriate way

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to handle such a change to the proposed list. The decision-making power is restricted and is consistent with the character of the proposed schools forums.

Schools can already opt individually for delegation on school meals. The schools forum is in the best position to judge whether schools can benefit from further delegation, and the decision to delegate should be left to it. This is a modest exercise that allows schools under each LEA to have a greater say in their affairs. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that the move is helpful, sensible and welcome. I hope that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Willis: I am not satisfied with the Minister's response. I fully intend to press the amendment to a Division. I do not have huge difficulties with what the Minister is trying to achieve, but I object to the ham-fisted way in which he is going about it. The final insult was the response to my question about whether the forum could have extended powers. The Minister said that it would not require primary legislation, but could be done by regulation. Yet again, another aspect of the Bill leaves hidden powers. As I have said before, the Minister's assurance that we can pray in aid against the regulations and have a debate on them is a hollow gesture. Whether there is a debate, when it will take place and how much time will be devoted to it is entirely in the Minister's gift. It is totally different from the scrutiny of a Standing Committee and a resolution of both Houses of Parliament.

I do not belittle the survey by the National Association of Head Teachers. It is right to highlight what it sees as difficulties. However, if a group of head teachers were put in a room together and asked whether they were satisfied with what the local authority was giving them, they would not be satisfied, even if the amount were doubled. The primary heads will say that the secondary heads get too much; the middle school heads will say that the primary heads get too much and so on. Their job is to argue for as much as they can. However, if those heads were asked whether they wanted a group of them to be selected and for them to decide for the rest, they would go ballistic. That is the last thing that they want. They can at least attack the elected members of the local authority. They could hardly start to attack each other. Nevertheless, I take the point.

The other issue with which the Minister has not come to terms is the introductory clauses in part 1, which were all about innovation and allowing LEAs and schools to innovate. This is not innovating at all. St. John Fisher, a brilliant Roman Catholic high school in my area, has its own school meals service, as does St. Aidans. They do so because they feel that it is the best way to deliver the sort of service that they want. That is what I call innovation. In the north Yorkshire dales, however, where the primary schools mostly have fewer than 50 pupils, one would get a totally different response from head teachers if they were asked to make meals for their pupils. Yet the forum will make those decisions.

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The Minister must recognise that when groups of heads are put together in the way envisaged, it will be recipe for dispute. The school that has invested heavily in its library is hardly likely to want to put its hand up to give more money to other schools for libraries. Things do not work like that. I am sad that the Minister sees it that way. Local authorities are undergoing a heart bypass here. We will tell these forums, whose powers can increase, that a Labour Minister is happy for an unelected group of people to make decisions about budgets. Labour Members should recognise that we are asking local authorities what is the point of them raising £388 million, as they did last year, to put into school budgets when they will not have authority over how it is spent.

We are going down a dangerous slope without justification. Yes, there should be consultation and local authorities should be made more accountable to their schools, although it is difficult to imagine how they could be made more accountable than at the moment, but the idea of a schools forum is one step too far. It is clearly an idea that was provided by the No. 10 policy unit and the Secretary of State is desperately trying to find a justification for it.

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