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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I support the amendment. I have also received a letter from the chair of the governing body of the school to which the noble Baroness has referred. As she has said, this is by no means the only school that has this particular concern. There are a number of cases, particularly Church of England schools, where infant and junior schools are on the same site and a single governing body runs both of them, although technically they are separate schools. That is allowed under present legislation. That right is to be removed under the Bill. I find it difficult to see why the Government should not respond positively to this amendment. I welcome the possibilities for governing bodies which this amendment provides.

Baroness Blackstone: Before I respond to the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, in moving her amendment it may be helpful if I make a few introductory remarks about our intentions on school governance. Our focus is on standards and not structures. We want governors to focus on what is really important: raising standards in our schools. The Government appreciate the major commitment and contribution that governors make in governing the nation's schools. We want to make their lives easier by defining the most important tasks and providing a simpler governance framework.

A new school framework will require a new governance structure. We have seized the opportunity to introduce a more streamlined structure which will get rid of some of the rather arcane and bureaucratic requirements of the present system, including articles of government. The existing school governance arrangements are rather incoherent and inconsistent. They represent an accumulation of previous legislation which has been added to over very many years. Some requirements operate directly through legislation and some are required by legislation to operate through articles of government, but every time there is a change in the law on an issue which operates through articles those documents have to be amended.

A simplified structure will be easier for governors to understand and I hope more accessible for schools and parents. Indeed, our proposals for rationalising the process have been welcomed. The need to introduce new governance arrangements for the new framework has provided us with a unique opportunity to think afresh. However, much of what is existing legislation will remain. The substance remains broadly the same.

Primary or secondary legislation will contain all those requirements that currently apply through articles of government. There will be no articles of government in future dealing with the way the school should be conducted. All of that detail will be in legislation. But all schools will have their own individual instrument. No longer will they be subject to a block or group instrument applying to all schools of their category within an LEA as they are at present. They will have their own individual instrument, which schools themselves will initiate.

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To reinforce the standards agenda we are honouring our election pledge to give more power to parents by increasing the number of elected parent governors and LEAs will be represented on all schools, including foundation schools.

I come now to the amendments which reinstate the existing legislation on grouped governing bodies. In implementing our standards agenda, one of our intentions is that every school should have its own governing body. A dedicated governing body, which is able to focus, with no distractions, on the performance of its own school, will stand a better chance of promoting higher standards. The amendments conflict with that by reintroducing the possibility of grouped governing bodies.

Two other main aims underpinning the governance provisions of the new framework for schools are strengthening the rights of parents and increasing the accountability of the governing body. The amendments proposed would enable LEAs to continue to group schools under a single governing body. We believe that such arrangements blur the lines of accountability and reduce the influence of parents on the governing body.

The retention of grouped governing bodies is not consistent with our manifesto commitment to increase the number of parent governors, about which we feel strongly. Under a grouped arrangement far fewer parents are able to serve as parent governors, and parental influence at each individual school within the group is therefore diluted. The reduction in influence is significant. On a grouped governing body for separate infant and junior schools having 600 or more pupils between them, the two schools would have only five parent governors. If each school were to have a separate governing body under our proposals they would be able to choose whether to have four or five parents each.

These amendments are also in conflict with what we see as the basic spirit of the reconstitution proposals, which will allow governing bodies, within the legislative framework provided, to draw up their own draft instrument of government for approval by the LEA. Although Amendment No. 154C provides for the LEA to secure the consent of any voluntary school governing body, it would only be required to consult community and community special schools and could in theory impose a grouped governing body on them. That is undemocratic. It is also against the spirit of delegation. Although I appreciate that the amendments are based on existing legislation in the consolidated 1996 Education Act, the original legislation was framed at least 20 years ago at a time when it was possible for LEAs to set up single governing bodies covering large numbers of schools, which the Committee will agree was not a terribly good system.

I know from letters we have received in the department, how much some schools value being grouped. I understand that. They argue that it provides a better management structure for infant and junior schools sharing the same site, and improves decision making on those issues which affect both schools. They also argue that it provides for a level of continuity and progression across the phases which might otherwise be lost. Again I can understand those arguments.

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However, I must say this to the schools. The benefits they describe will not be lost under the new framework. That is important. Schools can continue to enjoy the mutual benefits accrued from freely entering into co-operative arrangements and we hope that they will do that. Our proposals would permit some cross-representation as regards governing bodies--that again is important--either by LEAs appointing the same individual to both governing bodies or through the governing bodies' own co-option arrangements. If they wished to co-opt the same person on to two different governing bodies where schools share the same site, that would be wholly acceptable and entirely sensible. Although parents and staff will not be eligible for co-opted posts in their own school, it would of course be in the spirit of wider community interests to enable a parent, teacher or staff governor at one school in a former group to be co-opted to another.

It is also clear from the correspondence we have seen that there is a greater risk that those schools are spending a disproportionate amount of time on day-to-day site management and related issues. Of course the governing body must have a role, but operational matters concerning site management and related issues should for the most part be left to head teachers to resolve together. If there is too much discussion of such issues, they are somewhat of a distraction for governing bodies rather than talking about the real issues of standards and the performance of the schools' targets, and so on. They are important if schools are on adjoining sites or sharing buildings which are run harmoniously. But they should not absorb too much of a governing body's valuable time. Indeed, we have heard of grouped governing bodies where half the meetings are taken up by discussion of these matters. Governing bodies should be left free to concentrate on the really important strategic issues, of which improving standards is the most important of all.

We believe that it is important for every school to have its own dedicated governing body to oversee improving standards within the school. In the light of explaining the purpose and nature of the Government's proposals on school governance, and each school having its own governing body, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

11.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: That is probably the most disappointing answer that we have had all day. It seems a case of administrative tidiness gone absolutely mad. Does the noble Baroness say that where the parents, the governors and staff of the school, and the diocese, wish the management of two schools to be under one governing body there is no flexibility in the system to allow that to occur? As my noble friend said, if it were possible to be on one site, this would be one school. It expanded as a popular school and was unable to do that. The Minister refers to governing bodies wasting time on matters which are not concerned with raising standards.

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It seems almost an insult to say that this governing body is not primarily concerned with the standards of education in these schools.

Baroness Blackstone: The Government do not wish to have administrative tidiness for the sake of administrative tidiness. The point of having a set up in which each school has its own governing body is, as I sought to make clear, to make sure that parents are properly represented on the governing bodies of every school. There will be far more parent representation if each school has its own governing body. I have also suggested that there can be joint co-options so that there are people on the governing body of two schools which share the same site and there is continuity in decisions made between the two governing bodies.

In response to what the noble Baroness was just saying, if the need for a single governing body is so strong, one option would be for the schools to merge and, of course, that does sometimes happen. There is no requirement to do so and I am not suggesting that schools in these circumstances should necessarily do so. But we believe that it should be possible for governing bodies, if necessary, through cross-representation and by working constructively with their head teachers, to deal with common management issues.

The large majority of schools with group governing bodies are county schools. As the LEA is the employer and owns the land, and will continue to do so under the new framework for schools, the management issues involved should be quite straightforward. I do not think it is just a matter of administrative tidiness. It is a genuine wish to give parents in every school their own governing body, and the staff of those schools their own governing body, but with some shared membership.

I am sorry if I have disappointed the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but I do want to try to explain that our intentions are not administrative, but entirely concerned with parental representation, and each governing body being concerned with the standards of education in the school.


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