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Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Perhaps I may suggest a compromise. We are all facing the fact that it is the middle of the night. The amendments are technical and it is highly probable that a letter would do everything. Possibly we should postpone these technical amendments; it would not affect the Government's business and they would pass without trouble. I am sure that when the arguments are written

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down, without the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, reading them all through, we are reasonable people on this side of the Committee and we would accept them. I think a letter on the technicalities would solve the problem. I assume, from what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said--which I accept absolutely--these are legal matters relating to property and similar technicalities. But doubts have been expressed; people will worry about them. I suggest a letter. Then assuming that what the Minister said is correct that no whale is hiding behind the amendments, that course is the one we should take. That is what I suggest, otherwise we will be here until 5 o'clock in the morning, and at my age that is more than I can take.

Lord Whitty: I do not believe that. However, in the circumstances, in order to make progress, if we withdraw the amendments for today we could undertake to bring them back at Report stage, following a letter. But we should not then have procedural difficulties in the Government bringing amendments forward at Report stage. If that is understood between us, on that basis I shall not move them, but I intend to re-submit them. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 81A.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Allocation of existing schools to new categories]:

[Amendment No. 82 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 83:


Page 106, line 14, after ("paragraph") insert ("1 or").

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 83 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 84 to 90. They were tabled because I believe it is necessary to give the local education authority schools (what will be community schools) an opportunity to exercise their choice as to the kind of schools they would like to be on Royal Assent of this Bill. It is an amendment which I should still like to succeed. However, I am much heartened by the previous statements of the noble Baroness that at least the end is in sight for local authority schools and they will have an opportunity to exercise their choice within a foreseeable length of time.

Baroness Blackstone: I want to clarify a point I made earlier where I may have given inaccurate information.

The noble Baroness asked when local education authority schools--community schools--could change categories; whether it is a year after Royal Assent. It is in fact a year after the new framework comes into force, not a year after Royal Assent. The new framework will come into force in September 1999, so it will be one year after that, in September 2000. But that is quite soon.

Baroness Blatch: That is unacceptable to me, and I will go back with full force to my amendments.

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I do not understand the turbulence argument. There will not be any ballots; the schools will not have to go through great procedures; they simply choose whether they want to be a community or a foundation school.

The Government's supporting argument for foundation schools has been that they are part of the family of LEA schools and it gives them a greater degree of autonomy--I do not know to what extent because it is difficult to work out precisely what that will mean. But I do not understand the turbulence argument.

I agree with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that the pressure from LEAs was because they did not like the policy for foundation schools. However, given that there are going to be foundation schools and given that grant-maintained schools are to be given the option to become foundation schools, I see no reason whatever why community schools should not also be given the option. It may well be that none of them wants to take the option; it may be that many of them do. But there is no good reason why they should be at least two years away from making that decision. The schools should be given an opportunity as soon as the framework comes into being. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: We are all committed to giving all schools a choice of category. The problem that arises is the problem to which my noble friend alluded. It is true that in our technical consultation paper last summer we proposed that all schools should have a choice when the new categories of school were introduced. However, it was quite clear from a large number of respondents to the consultation that they were concerned that making all 23,000 schools choose simultaneously could be extremely disruptive. We have taken that into account and revised our proposals.

All schools will have a choice of category in the new framework, but the opportunity to make choices will be phased. GM schools will have a choice of category under Schedule 2 at the point when the new school categories are introduced. That is because the new framework involves more changes for GM schools than for LEA schools. Parents were balloted when most schools became GM, so we believe it is right for them to have an opportunity to express their view, through a ballot, immediately.

Conversion of LEA-maintained schools is different. The new framework will involve little change for those schools, so they will be assigned to their nearest equivalent category when it is established. After the moratorium referred to by my noble friend, any school will be able to change category under the provisions of Clause 34 and Schedule 8. That moratorium, I repeat, will last for one year after the new categories are introduced, after which community schools will be able to propose changes to their status at that point or at any time thereafter. That will give all schools time to experience their new categories and make a considered decision as to whether they want to

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change. By then the new system on local determination of statutory proposals should be operating. So the Bill provides for changes of category proposals to be dealt with in the same way.

All schools within the framework, whether they were formerly LEA-maintained or grant-maintained, will be free to consider a change after that period. In contrast, these amendments, if adopted, would force all 23,000 schools in the system to undertake their choice and to go through the choice process at the same time. We do not believe that would be sensible. We agree with the aim of giving all schools choice, but we cannot agree with the method proposed by the amendments. The 23,000 all deciding instantaneously would not enhance the introduction of the new framework. A year's moratorium seems to us to be a sensible process. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that all schools will, after that moratorium, have the choice.

2.45 a.m.

Baroness Blatch: It is not surprising that GM schools are being given that opportunity early. It is not that they are being given it out of the generosity of the Government's heart. It is that the Government cannot wait for the GM schools to disappear from the scene. They have made no secret of that. That is why grant-maintained schools are going to be first in line.

Will the noble Lord point me to the specific place in the Bill where the commencement order for the framework in terms of the particular date is set out? Perhaps I may also correct something the noble Lord said. He said that my amendment would force all schools on day one to make the choice. My amendment does no such thing. My amendment and the amendments coupled with it simply make the provision available. Schools may not exercise it for years, or perhaps never. It is simply there as an option. There is nothing in my amendment, unless the noble Lord can point me to it--in which case I shall go away and make sure that it is removed--to force schools to make a choice to become foundation schools.

Lord Whitty: On that point, they are not forced to make a decision. They are required right at the beginning to decide whether they wish to take the category of community school or not.

Baroness Blatch: There is nothing in the amendment to require them to do anything of the kind. If they do not want even to give a passing thought to it, they will not have to give a passing thought to it. But if they want positively to give a passing thought to taking on the new status, they are free to do so. There is nothing in my amendment, unless the noble Lord can point me to it, that requires them to do anything whatever once the Bill comes into play. But it would help me to know where in the Bill I can find the commencement date for the framework and where in the Bill I can find that one year after the commencement date for the framework

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the opportunity will be given to local authorities to make their choices if they wish to become foundation schools.

Lord Whitty: The framework date is the date designated the appointed day in Clause 20(6). The moratorium is not defined as one year, but we are indicating the intention that it would be one year after that appointed date.

There is at least a passive decision required of community schools to remain community schools if the amendment were carried. That is why I am saying that everyone would have to make a decision. All 23,000 schools would have to make a decision. Clearly, the vast majority would be expected to take the decision to take on the community status that they had been assigned. Nevertheless, they would require to take that decision. The clause under which the moratorium date is specified is Clause 34(2).


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