Education Bill

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Mr. Lewis: Some of the scenarios raised are potentially reasonable. In most circumstances, it is reasonable to ask independent schools to inform the relevant authority in advance of making significant changes. However, we accept that there will be unforeseen circumstances in which that would be not only difficult but impossible. In such cases, there will be a clear understanding that information should be provided as soon after the changes as possible.

The obvious example is the reference by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West to the proprietor of an existing school passing away. It would take days to provide the information, but it would not take 12 months because a new proprietor would soon have to assume responsibility for the school. In those circumstances, it is reasonable to say that the relevant authority should be informed as soon as possible. That should not be a problem for any school that has been up and running for some time.

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It is important also to note that the legislation makes it clear that the registration authority is not obliged to remove a school for failing to provide relevant material. Indeed, it is clear that discretion is available and should be used—I know that hon. Members will not like this expression—in a common-sense way. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West asked for evidence from me; I should be interested to see evidence that any registration authority proposed to remove a school for not providing adequate information in one of the unforeseen scenarios that were described by Opposition Members.

The legislation will create a logical, progressive and deliverable process. In advance, independent schools should make the authority aware of material changes that they are planning to make. If that is an unreasonable expectation, they should make the authority aware of those changes as soon as possible. In any other dispute, the authority has the power of de-registration, but it must use that with discretion because it is open to legal challenge. If a registration authority sought to remove a school in circumstances such as those described, most courts would find that to be outside the terms of the legislation.

I hope that hon. Members recognise that we are providing for flexibility, discretion and a staged approach. The legislation anticipates normal and special circumstances and allows for a sensitive, flexible response. I ask the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West to consider withdrawing their amendments.

Mr. Brady: If and when a court considers those questions, it will find it helpful that the Minister put on the record his assurance that he intended that discretion should be used.

Mr. Turner: I am sure that the court will, but why should it have to? Why should the proprietor of an independent school be forced to undergo the same time-consuming and expensive procedure experienced by the people who sold unpasteurised cheese in Scotland? That process destroyed their business and their lives. In this case, the education of many children and many jobs would be destroyed because the Minister insists on including a huge range of unnecessary discretion.

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is right. If Ministers were prepared to include more detail in the Bill, it would lessen the likelihood of future legal challenge. He made a valid and important point, which I fear has fallen on deaf ears. We hope that the registration authority will take the Minister's assurances as a warning. In that context, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 158 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 159 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 160

Inspections: supplementary

Mr. Lewis: I beg to move amendment No. 276, in page 92, leave out lines 38 to 43 and insert:

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    ''(2) If the inspection is conducted by a registered inspector—

    (a) he may, by agreement with the Chief Inspector, be assisted by the Chief Inspector, and

    (b) he may be assisted by such one or more persons enrolled in the list kept under paragraph 3A of Schedule 3 to the School Inspections Act 1996 (c.57) as he may determine, subject to paragraph 3(5) of that Schedule and subsection (3) below.

    If the Chief Inspector so requires, a registered inspector shall be assisted by at least one person enrolled in the list referred to in subsection (2)(b)—''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 277.

Mr. Lewis: It would be minimalistic to describe the amendments as technical, but if I may continue the theme of common sense, they represent a sensible way forward. We intend to allow Her Majesty's inspectorate to be part of a team led by a registered inspector in order to increase flexibility in the organisation of inspections of maintained schools in the same way that we propose elsewhere in the Bill. The responsibility for the composition of the team will remain with the registered inspector. The amendment also removes the reference to the chief inspector being assisted by lay persons and team inspectors, as that power is in schedule 3 of the School Inspections Act 1996.

On amendment No. 277, it is important that people who have been appointed to assist a registered inspector in inspecting an independent school have a legal right of access to the school premises. They must also be able to inspect and copy any records that contain information required for the purposes of the inspection, and the amendment ensures that.

I hope that members of the Committee will agree to amendment No. 276.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 277, page 93, line 9, leave out:

    'and any person monitoring it,'

and insert:

    'any person assisting him pursuant to subsection (2) or (3) and any person monitoring the inspection'.—[Mr. Timms.]

Mr. Brady: I beg to move amendment No. 548, in page 93, line 24, at end insert:

    'save that no such fee shall unreasonably exceed the cost of conducting the inspection.'

The amendment is a modest attempt to improve the Bill by ensuring some natural justice in the drafting of an important provision. Clause 160(9) makes it clear that

    ''The proprietor of the school shall pay the Chief Inspector, in respect of the inspection, a fee of such amount, and by such time, as may be specified in or determined under regulations.''

The amendment seeks to stipulate that the fees should not unreasonably exceed the cost of carrying out the inspection. I hope that the Minister will agree that that is unexceptionable, and that it is entirely reasonable that where the school must cover the cost of its own inspection, the Bill should limit such cost to a reasonable amount that is related to the costs incurred by the inspector. It would be difficult to justify the chief inspector seeing a means of raising

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revenue by charging a premium for inspection of independent schools. I trust that the Minister will reassure me that that is not intended, and that the Government will accept that the wording of subsection (9) could be tightened up to provide some comfort and certainty to independent schools.

Mr. Lewis: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the regime will operate a sliding scale depending on the size of the school. The regulations will make it clear that the costs are not expected to be prohibitive.

Mr. Brady: The Minister's comments have been helpful. He expects that costs will not be prohibitive. Will he go further and make it clear that the fees will relate to the actual cost of undertaking the inspection?

Mr. Lewis: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

5.30 pm

Mr. Brady: With that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 160, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 161

Failure to meet standards

Mr. Lewis: I beg to move amendment No. 278, in page 93, leave out line 43 and insert

    'before the date specified in the notice (or such later date as the authority may specify after service of the notice)'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 279 to 283.

Mr. Lewis: It is important to explain the purpose of the amendments. If an independent school is found to be failing but there is not a risk to pupils' welfare, the school will be required to provide an action plan showing how and when it will remedy the relevant deficiencies. Failure to do so could result in an order removing the school from the register of independent schools, or an order imposing a limitation on its operation.

Amendment No. 278 seeks to allow the Secretary of State sufficient flexibility to extend the time permitted for the school to draw up an action plan if it is considered appropriate to do so. There may be a situation, for example—we have described scenarios frequently during the proceedings—in which the management of a failing independent school changes during the time specified for the production of an action plan. Reasonably, the new management might ask for an extension of time to get the action plan right. The Secretary of State would want to respond positively to such a request.

Amendments Nos. 279 to 283 provide a useful improvement to the powers in the Bill. They allow the Secretary of State and, on appeal, the tribunal another option in deciding on an application from a school to remove an order limiting its operation. The amendment allows the limitation to be varied if it would be appropriate to do so in the light of changed circumstances at a school. At present, the clause is unnecessarily restrictive in limiting the Secretary of

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State to an option of either revoking or upholding the original order. We feel that it is important to have more flexibility in such circumstances.

For example, it would be useful if an order preventing the use of unsatisfactory accommodation in two buildings had been served on a school. The school may decide to bring one building up to the required standard but permanently discontinue the use of the second building. A variation order would allow the school to bring only one building back into use. On balance, it is sensible that the Secretary of State should have the flexibility to make a variation order in such circumstances.

I hope that members of the Committee will agree that the amendments should be accepted and incorporated into the Bill.

 
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