Education and Inspections Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Leigh: I am not leader of the party yet, so my hon. Friend does not have to suck up to me.
Mr. Hayes: I believe that my hon. Friend’s proper emphasis of, for example, the role of Churches and neighbouring schools is born of his determination to ensure that new schools work as closely as possible with the community in which they sit and take account of the important advice and influence that Churches and other bodies can bring to bear. I simply wonder—I shall be interested to hear his comments—whether that, in itself, might not be a further drag on the process.
My worry is that some of the figures in authority in various movements—I will not be too specific—do not share my hon. Friend’s dynamism, energy, and clear-sighted purpose. They may themselves have become part of an educational orthodoxy that, rather than embracing renewal and improvement, might be unhelpful to our pursuit of those things. I simply say to my hon. Friend that we do not want to put any barriers in the way of parents who desperately want to make a difference. In that spirit, I am delighted to propose the amendment that stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, and wait with interest to hear what my hon. Friend will say in defence of his amendment.
Mr. Leigh: My amendments were probing amendments, and after the eloquence displayed by my hon. Friend, they are now even more probing than they were before. For all that, when coupled with my hon. Friend’s amendment, they do a useful job. We are going to elicit a wide range of possible consultees from the Minister and discover what she means by saying that the local education authority must
“consult such persons as appear to the authority to be appropriate”.
That is the key.
In all honesty, it must be clear by now, even if members of the Committee have not read the amendments, that my vision is that all schools should be independent charitable trusts, free of local authority control. That is my vision, but we are where we are. It is extremely unlikely that I shall be able to convince the Minister of the virtue of that viewpoint, although I am confident that, over the course of this Parliament, I will convince those who lead for my party on education.
I do not speak for the Conservative party. The virtue of being a Back Bencher is that one can be a sort of outrider for the party—[Laughter.] There is no harm in that. All political parties need people to think creatively, which is what I try to do. That is my role, as it is in part the role of my amendments.
The Minister will have to address the problem. I shall not labour the point—I made it this morning with regard to our experience with grant-maintained schools—but I suspect that, as my hon. Friend says, she will find that unfortunately not everyone shares her enthusiasm for the establishment of trust schools. With a clause such as clause 8, I fear that local education authorities will use consultation as a means of obfuscation or of putting barriers in the path of those wishing to set up trust schools.
Who should be consulted? Obviously someone should be consulted, otherwise what is the point of such a clause? My hon. Friend is right that there is no harm in consulting parents. One of the problems with that, as we all know, is that parents are rightly focused on their children at the time of their education, and it is difficult for them to take a strategic view. That is the argument continuously advanced by the hon. Member for Bury, North, by Members of the Liberal party and others.
Are parents best qualified to have a view—or, as I suggest in my amendments, does the Minister envisage that local authorities will consult
“the chairman of governors of all maintained schools in areas adjacent to the proposed school”?
That would seem to be a fairly sensible point of view, would it not? Presumably, therefore, the Minister might agree.
If someone wants to set up a new faith school, based on a trust, will the local authority follow the spirit of amendment No. 348, which states:
“in the case of religious-based schools, the relevant church or religious authority”.
One would think that that was sensible, but what do we mean by faith school? In the recent census, a large number of people apparently said as a joke that they were part of the Jedi knights religion, because a newspaper has suggested that it would be a good way of irritating the authorities. Would I be allowed to set up a Jedi knights faith school? If I said that I wanted to set up a Catholic school, what sort of Catholic school would it be? Would I have to consult the bishop and the local hierarchy?
It would be useful to know the Minister’s view of who should be consulted. The amendments, by their all-embracing nature, should encourage the Minister to do precisely that.
Sarah Teather: I shall be brief. I shall refer mainly to amendment No. 159, moved the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) rather than the outriding amendments.
The amendment would remove the requirement for local authorities to consult more widely than school parents. The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked whether parents were less qualified than others to have a view. They are not less qualified, but we should accept that schools have a more important role than teaching those young people attending the school at the time. We should consider the wider policies of extended schools, early-years centres and children centres, and community use of facilities out of school hours. It is important that the community is consulted on the criteria used when a new school is set up. Consultation is not necessarily about slowing things down; it may be simply a matter of ensuring that a school is appropriate for local need and that consideration goes wider than the young people at the school.
Jacqui Smith: The clause to which the amendments relate is all about the requirements to consult prior to issuing proposals for a competition and how those proposals should be brought to the attention of various groups. The amendments largely relate to the situation on the consultation prior to the issuing of the notice for competition.
Amendment No. 159 would mean that the local authority had to consult parents in the area, not anyone else, before it published a notice inviting proposals in a competition. That is the technical effect of the amendment. However, I think that this is a probing amendment, because the clause currently requires the authority to consult those it considers it appropriate, having regard to any guidance from the Secretary of State. I have some sympathy with the importance that the amendment gives to parents. We had a good discussion about that in relation to amendments Nos. 180 and 182 to clause 7 which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North. There is significance in ensuring that parents are involved. Of course, they should be consulted about proposals affecting provision in their area and their views should be treated seriously, but that does not mean that nobody else should be consulted—and that would be the effect of the amendment.
Given that this is a probing amendment, perhaps I should just clarify who we think should be consulted about statutory proposals. Among those who we think should be consulted are the local Member of Parliament for the area that the school is intended to serve; any MP whose constituents are likely to be affected by the proposals; the local district or parish council for the area where the school is to be situated; and other schools in the area, including those in an adjoining local education authority that may be affected by the proposals, whether community, foundation, voluntary, or special schools.
Any local education authority likely to be affected by the proposals should be consulted, including neighbouring LEAs where there may be significant cross-border movement of pupils, as should parents and staff in the area who might be affected by the proposals, including parents of pupils at feeder primary schools and those living in, or who have children attending a school in, the area of an adjoining LEA.
The local Church of England and Roman Catholic diocese should be consulted, as should anyone else who has previously expressed an interest in setting up a maintained school and others who might be willing to come forward as promoters. If the proposed school is likely to affect a school with a particular religious foundation, the appropriate diocesan authorities, or, where there is no diocesan structure, the national faith group that provides that school, should be consulted.
There should also be consultation with any trust or foundation providing a foundation or voluntary school that does not have a religious character, if the proposed school is likely to affect such a school. If the proposals affect the provision of full-time 16-to-19 education, the Learning and Skills Council should be included. Any other interested party should be consulted. For example, the early years development and child care partnership should be consulted, where proposals would affect early years provision, as should all those who benefit from a contractual arrangement giving them the use of the premises. That might cover the point made by the hon. Member for Brent, East.
Accepting the amendment, virtuous though its emphasis on parents is, would disfranchise a large number of interested people whom we think have a legitimate interest in the opening of a new school that will affect them, whether they support the proposals or are opposed to them. There should be a recognised route for interested parties to make their views known.
Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the list. She will have noted that I was worried about there being differences between one locality and another—that some consultees might be included in one place, but not in a neighbouring area. She has made it clear that the guidance will not allow that. However, does she feel that parents should merely be included in that list or that there should be a special role for parents, a parallel process? Just listing local parents with all those other groups would be rather to undersell their significance.
Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman has a fair point in that the nature of the consultation will differ according to different groups; if it did not, that would be completely unreasonable. Sending a letter may be perfectly adequate consultation for a neighbouring local authority, but doing that or publishing a notice would not be adequate for parents, unless we could ensure that it got to them.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point; there should probably be a differentiated approach to how the consultation is carried out. However, it is important that there should be clear emphasis on who should be consulted in each circumstance. That is why the guidance is statutory.
Amendments Nos. 331 and 348 would insert requirements to consult the head teachers and chairs of governors of all maintained schools in the area, and, in the case of any religiously based schools, the relevant Church or religious authority. Given what I have said, I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Gainsborough that not only are we not opposed to such provisions, but we think that heads, chairs of school governing bodies and appropriate religious authorities should be consulted.
We do not think it necessary to put that in the Bill, but the duty to consult such people as appear to the authority to be appropriate should be represented in the statutory guidance that we shall issue in respect of the clause. I have said that the guidance will specify that other schools in the area must be consulted and that if the proposed school is likely to affect a school that has a particular religious character, the appropriate diocesan authorities—or, if there is no diocesan structure, the national faith group that provides the school—should be consulted too.
It is not open to the authority to disregard the statutory guidance. If it did not consult one of the listed persons, that would be prime facie evidence that the consultation had not been properly carried out, and that would need to be rectified before the competition proceeded.
The guidance will require full consultation on the proposed competition, including local schools, religious authorities, local parents and other stakeholders.
Mr. Leigh: There is a clear structure in respect of existing faith schools, particularly in relation to the role of the diocese. Will the Minister remind me how that structure would be replicated in the case of a new trust school? It would be unfortunate if people wanted to produce schools based on sects within a religion divorced from mainstream religion. What checks and balances does the Minister envisage?
Jacqui Smith: That takes us back to this morning’s discussion, in which I said that I would bring to the Committee guidance for decision makers about the process that a school governing body would go through in acquiring a relationship with a particular trust and that would enable us to set down the criteria for that trust.
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that a sect would not be beneficial to the advancement of education at a school, he should know that it would be prohibited by the fact that advancement of education would be one of the statutory objects of the trust. I have made it clear that the statutory guidance will state that the appropriate diocesan authorities—or the nationally recognised faith bodies of religions without such authorities—should be consulted. In light of those reassurances about the full consultation on the proposed competition, I hope that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Hayes: I have scarcely felt more reassured. The right hon. Lady generously described the groups that will be consulted. I note her point that different groups may require a different approach to take account of their sensitivities and their role in the process. She is right that that satisfies those of us who want to see parents at the very heart of the process.
I am conscious of the time, Mr. Cook, and that my beautiful wife and son are waiting for me to go to tea—[Hon. Members: “Where?”] I am not telling hon. Members today, but I will report back when we next meet. On that happy note, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Four o’clock till Tuesday 25 April at half-past Ten o’clock.
Previous Contents
House of Commons 

home page Parliament home page House of 

Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 21 April 2006