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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The noble Lord must listen a little more carefully, if I may say that to a former headmaster. On 19th May, after explaining that there was no question of education development plans dealing with the matter in the amendment, I said:
The noble Lord has, as is entirely his right, chosen to put down this amendment in relation to Clause 25. I shall seek to persuade him that it is in the wrong place. It may be helpful if I, first, emphasise the purpose of the school organisation plan. It is to provide a context against which subsequent proposals for change may be brought forward by proposers and considered by school organisation committees. I say that with due deliberation, because from what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, it seemed that there was some confusion about what a school organisation plan does.
A number of noble Lords on the Opposition Benches seemed to think that a school organisation plan sets out those matters which have in the past been matters for statutory proposals considered by the Secretary of State. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who was helpfully in his place on the previous occasion, reminded the Committee that changes such as those suggested by noble Lords opposite required, and still require, the publication of individual proposals.
While under current legislation such proposals might be required for changes to selective admissions arrangements, the Bill's provisions handle that separately and we shall come on to them when we consider Clauses 94 and 98, for partial selection, and Clauses 100 to 102 for grammar schools. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, that I said that on 19th May.
We shall come shortly to discuss those clauses that deal with individual proposals. Under Clause 27, schools must publish proposals to make prescribed alterations to their schools. Among the changes that will be prescribed are changes of a year or more to the age range of a school and changing from providing single sex to providing co-educational education or vice-versa. Those are all matters brought forward again in the amendment.
That means that it will not be possible to discontinue sixth form provision at a school, or to make a single sex school co-educational, without having proposals to do so approved through the new decision-making system. That is the local decision-making process.
The new system will continue the current arrangements for publishing statutory proposals--in other words, the proposed change would have to be consulted on, and then published, with notices made publicly available, and various interested parties informed, including the governing bodies of any school affected. There will then be wide opportunities for comment and objection over a statutory two-month period before the proposals are put to the committee for consideration.
The committee will consider the proposals in the light of any comments and objections, and take into account all views expressed in reaching its decision. It is not our intention that the school organisation plan should replace the arrangements for proposals for change to individual schools. That is the error in the placing of the amendment. The plan should supplement that process, and, in the way that we have already discussed, make more transparent the demographic and policy considerations that underpin such proposals.
I hope that I can put the noble Lord's mind at rest about the extent to which the school organisation plan might deal with those issues. The local education authority will consult upon and publish a draft plan. There will be widespread opportunities to comment and to object. If there were to be any suggestion in a draft plan that, for example, school sixth forms should be removed, local schools and parents would have ample opportunity to comment and object, and the school organisation committee would have those objections before it.
As to the admission of pupils of the opposite sex to a single sex school, I would expect the interests of particular religious communities also to be reflected at local level and that both LEAs and school organisation committees would take their wishes fully into account in reaching decisions. That is the point of local decision-making. Our aim is that there should be a local consensus, reflecting the wishes and needs of all parties, not that we should impose constraints. Individual schools have enough opportunities to make their views and wishes known.
I hope that the noble Lord will not be too disappointed and will accept that the process of local decision-making infuses our thinking throughout the Bill and that his amendment is not appropriate at this place.
Lord Blackwell: I have not had the opportunity to hear all the debate today. However, I believe that the amendment strikes at the heart of the Bill. The noble Lord makes the point that the proposals should not be commented on by parents but that parents should accept the proposals put forward. Whether or not the amendment is in the right place, it seems helpful to have such words inserted in the Bill.
Clause after clause takes powers away from parents and puts them in the hands of either appointed officials, LEAs or the Secretary of State. I have done a tally which no doubt the Minister can correct. There are 65 new powers and duties for LEAs, 71 new powers and duties for the Secretary of State, and 52 new regulatory powers for the Secretary of State. The noble Lord would be hard pressed to point to any new rights for parents of the children in the schools.
On this side of the Chamber, we have fought for some time for the principle that the best people to protect the interests of children and educational standards are the parents of those children. It should be clear in the Bill--at either this point or at any other point in the Bill that the Government may decide--that no measures reducing the diversity of choice of schools available to
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am sorry that we have not had the benefit of the opinions of the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, in our debates until now. If I had heard those comments before, I should have been able to say something more definitive about them, perhaps at a time when there would be more Members of the Committee present. It could have been raised at Second Reading. These are clearly important points. They deserve, and will receive from me, a considered answer in response to the statistics that he raises. He will understand that I am unable to respond to them off the cuff.
However, the noble Lord gives expression to a profound misunderstanding about what the Government seek to do in this legislation. It is not that we are taking rights away from parents. On the contrary, the search for a local consensus involved in the school organisation committee has to be considered in the light of the composition of the school organisation committee. If we had been simply returning power to local education authorities, we would not have had a school organisation committee with an elaborate procedure for consensus, for blocking votes from religious communities, and with membership from governing bodies including parent governors. We would not have had any of the difficulties that have taken up so much time in drafting changes in the past few hours.
What is fundamentally different is that the decision shall be taken at local level, as far as possible on a consensus basis, including parents, parent governors and other governors in that decision process, rather than by the Secretary of State. I long to join in the wider debate raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell. However, I have to return to my point: that this is not what school organisation plans are. The protection of the process of proposals, consultation and decision-making still exists for the issues raised in the amendment.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: I admire the noble Lord's honeyed words. They managed to perplex a large number of my colleagues when I put forward the amendment. I have had to run seminars to tell them what the noble Lord was saying.
The fundamental point of the amendment is to give parents the right to decide over sensitive issues. As the Minister knows, we on this side of the Chamber have considerable doubts about school organisation committees and adjudicators. We therefore want written on the face of the Bill support for certain sensitive areas such as sixth forms, the style of the school decided by admission and single sex. The noble Lord has not submitted grammar schools and similar matters to the local authority. The Government have established balance, which we shall discuss later. The parents of the county or the area will decide. We are suggesting that in certain other areas parents decide. This is not a Bill that removes parental choice. It allows it over grammar schools, and we are extending it to other areas.
I am not satisfied with the noble Lord's answer, as I was not previously. He knows as well as I do that if it goes on the surface of the Bill, the school organisation committee, the adjudicator, can do nothing about it. It is safe. It is set in tablets of stone. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.