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Baroness Blatch: In a sense, what the noble Baroness is saying is a repetition of what she has said before on these matters. I still want an answer as to whether or not a private contractor will be allowed to make a profit.

Baroness Blackstone: I believe I have already given that answer. The answer is no. They will be paid a fee. They will not be allowed to make a profit in the normal sense. As I have said before, they will be allowed to receive a fee.

Baroness Blatch: The Prime Minister therefore was wrong when he said on 13th May that schools will be allowed to participate in the education action zone and to make a profit if they are successful.

Baroness Blackstone: They will be receiving a fee and will make money from that fee. I believe that that is what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister meant.

Baroness Blatch: Can the noble Baroness say what is the difference between making money and making a profit?

Lord Henley: Answer!

Baroness Blackstone: I believe I answered the question.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Baroness Blatch: The noble Baroness said that these companies will not be allowed to make a profit. On 13th May, at col. 371 of Hansard, the Prime Minister said,

Is the noble Baroness saying that they will not be allowed to make a profit? When she says that they will not be able to make a profit, but will be able to make money, will she define what the difference is between making money and making a profit, as the Prime Minister said?

Baroness Blackstone: I have nothing further to add to what I have already said.

Baroness Blatch: Those who read Hansard will make of it what they will. The noble Baroness gave a different answer from her right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

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Amendments Nos. 49 to 51 allow a single school to be taken over by a third party; whether or not that is a private concern, it is a third agency. It seems to us that it is consistent with the talks taking place in the DfEE at the moment with private bodies, with the possibility of making a profit--the noble Baroness has not yet denied that--to allow the flexibility of not simply a consortia of schools, but as few as one school to take part.

I know that talks have been taking place with the DfEE because I spoke to one of the participants who went to see the DfEE in relation to the possibility of turning around a particularly difficult school that is failing by anybody's standards--either the DfEE's or the local education authority's. On past record, certain bodies have been singularly successful in using their talents to work with a school to improve education and the great beneficiaries have been the children themselves. Given that the DfEE is apparently open-minded about the situation, we believe it to be important, at least in this Bill, to enable the possibility for one or a group of schools to be included in the new policy.

That relates to Amendment No. 49. Amendments Nos. 50 and 51 are consequential. There is one quite disturbing aspect of the Government's plans for EAZs. As there are only four clauses in the Bill to go by, it is difficult to make any judgment about what the detail will be. However, I notice that nowhere does it appear that the consent of parents is involved in any of this. If one accepted that a single school should be taken on by a third party, it is important that parents at least have the benefit of, first, being consulted and, secondly, having their opinion taken.

I happen to know of schools that are said to be participating in bids--I have now seen all the bids--where individual governors do not even know that it is going on. I attended a meeting in the past three weeks when participants met in a public house in London, yet a governor of one of the schools represented at the meeting did not even know that her school was involved.

Many thousands of parents simply do not know what is going on. They are not aware of the policy and they are not aware of what third parties are discussing on their behalf. There are many teachers who are hearing what is going on third hand or fourth hand and are simply not in the picture. That does not seem to be the best way of setting up a consortium which is there precisely to bring about improvements in educational standards and to improve the lot of children in those schools.

My plea is that all the governors of schools should be in the picture. Parents should certainly be in the picture and their opinion should be sought. Certainly, all teachers should be in the picture, particularly when the national curriculum could be disapplied. That would have an impact on the children, because who would determine what would take its place? In the case of teachers, pay and conditions could be disapplied. I know that in one of the back-up papers the noble Baroness said that there will be consultation at the time. I suggest

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that there needs to be preconsultation before an action zone is set up at all. The specific point in my Amendment No. 49 is that there should be flexibility for there to be as few as one school and as many as up to 20, which is proposed by the Government. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone: These three amendments are designed to allow individual schools to become action zones in their own right. I am not unsympathetic to the idea that more schools may like to take part in an action zone, but to set up "zones of one" would be to overlook a large part of what the policy is really about.

Education action zones are about groups of schools in disadvantaged areas working together to raise standards across the zone. Action zones are intended to support and encourage the development of effective working partnerships, both between the schools themselves and with the forum members they have drawn in from the public, private and voluntary sectors. In action zones, schools will set targets for the zone together; they will devise joint strategies for improvement; they will operate by consensus through an action forum; and they will work together, across phases and institutions, on specific local initiatives.

Allowing schools to become zones individually misses the point of what zones are about. They are about partnerships and working together to come up with creative and interesting ideas. I see little point in creating an action forum, specifically designed to co-ordinate work across a group of schools, if there is only one school in the zone.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about parents and whether they had been consulted. It seems more appropriate to respond to that point when we reach Amendment No. 54A. I hope that she will find that acceptable from the point of view of trying to be orderly. In the light of what I have said about the importance of groups of schools working together, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: In the light of the answer the noble Baroness has given, may I ask her another question? It is well known that DfEE officials are actively discussing the possibility of a single school being taken on by a third party with a view to improving education for those children. If the noble Baroness is not prepared to accept it being called an action zone, is she receptive to an amendment being brought forward to the Bill, not under the aegis of action zones per se, but to bring forward the possibility that a single school could be taken over by a third party which could include a public and/or private or voluntary concern?

Baroness Blackstone: I shall be happy to look at any amendment that the noble Baroness wishes to bring forward either at the next stage or at a later point in the Committee. I shall be happy to examine it and see

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whether it is acceptable. Until the amendment is tabled it is hard for me to give a categorical response as to how the Government would respond.

Baroness Blatch: My question was whether the noble Baroness was receptive to the notion. If officials are actively considering the possibility of a single school being taken over, then all one would put into the Bill is an enabling power to allow that to happen. It does not necessarily have to happen because at the end of the day the DfEE has the final say on even the action zones, let alone on single schools. Is it going to be possible or are the people addressing the DfEE talking in a vacuum and there is no intention of permitting a positive response through this Bill to the idea of turning around a single school that, by anyone's judgment, is deemed to be failing?

Lord Lucas: Or is it that officials are discussing the matter in confidence and therefore are unable to discuss it with the Minister?

Lord Skidelsky: It is a shame in a way that the grouping has meant that we have to have two discussions on exactly the same point at widely dispersed intervals. In Clause 12 I have an alternative kind of amendment designed to achieve the same purpose as that of my noble friend. We ought to have a combined discussion. We shall have to come back to it in half-an-hour or so.

Baroness Blackstone: I am very sympathetic to what the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky says. In the groupings that the Government put forward his amendment was grouped with those of the noble Baroness, but then de-grouped. It is the absolute right of the Opposition Front Bench so to do.

Perhaps I may respond again to what the noble Baroness said. Of course, the Government will look at any amendments that she wishes to table, but an amendment of the kind she describes has nothing to do with education action zones. They are designed to be groups of 10 or 12 schools working together with various other organisations, perhaps one or more private companies or voluntary organisations, to try to collaborate to raise standards. What she is discussing seems quite different. There can be no question of a private firm taking over a single school.

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