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School Standards and Framework Bill

8.31 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 103 [Home-school agreements]:

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 235A:

Page 78, line 34, leave out from ("home-school") to ("to") in line 35 and insert ("policy").

The noble Baroness said: I see that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has had to do what I did last week; that is, not only be on the Bench throughout the day but speak also during the dinner break. I hope that his noble friends will allow him some respite.

I apologise for this group of amendments because it is slightly confusing. I am not sure how it happened, but at some stage someone should have advised us that something was wrong. If Amendment No. 235A were agreed to Amendments Nos. 235B to 235E would not make much sense. We want to incorporate Amendments Nos. 235B to 235E, which would change the Bill to read:

"policy" being the key word--

    "for the school ... For the purposes of this section and section 104 a 'home-school policy' is a statement designed to promote partnership between home and school".

Amendment No. 237 leaves out reference to a signed parental declaration. Amendments Nos. 237A and 237B change the Bill to read:

    "Before preparing the home-school policy, or revising that policy, the governing body shall consult".

This raft of amendments supports the proposition that legalistic signed agreements--

Baroness David: Will the noble Baroness tell me which amendments she is speaking to in the group? I have some amendments in the group and I am not clear to which amendments she is speaking.

Baroness Maddock: Although I am moving Amendment No. 235A, I shall not press it to a vote. It

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is an amendment I must move because it is the first in the group. However, if it is agreed to, Amendments Nos. 235B to 235E will not make sense. I am talking to Amendments Nos. 236A, 237A, 237B, 238A and 239A. I am not talking to the amendments standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady David. I hope that that clarifies the issue.

This raft of amendments follows our support for the proposition that legalistic signed agreements between school and home are not the correct way of fostering the most positive relationship between the two. We have received a great deal of support from groups and individuals outside the House. I shall leave it to my noble friend Lord Tope to explore those later.

We believe that the format proposed in the Bill is likely to set up an antagonistic and litigious atmosphere from the moment a child sets foot in the school. If both the home and the school cling to this text as though they have rights under it we can see many problems ahead. Our alternative proposal is a process of continuous instructed dialogue between governors, staff, parents and pupils to develop a home-school policy rather than an agreement. We want to see that on paper, but not cast in tablets of stone. It will be a process in which all four interested parties work together. We believe that the process and the activities surrounding it will be useful in building constructive relationships between the four elements in the school community; that is, the governors, the staff, the parents and the pupils.

We see policy documents being produced on a regular basis in order to summarise where the dialogue has reached. We believe that a home-school policy as opposed to an agreement is much more likely to command the respect and support of all sides if it is developed in a spirit of mutuality. Many bodies and groups agree with us and my noble friend Lord Tope will explore that further.

I believe that the Government's intention is good but in their desire to change things for the good they have a tendency to want to control everything a little too much. The difference between us is that we want to give more opportunity for groups to reach a consensual agreement and not be told, "You must have this policy and every person must sign it. If you don't sign it there will be a problem." We see that creating unnecessary tensions. Our suggestion is in the spirit of the Government's intentions, but we believe that it will work better.

The Government talk about partnership. My experience of working in a variety of partnerships is that having dialogue and working things out together is most successful, receives most support and is most likely to work. That is the spirit in which I speak to the amendments. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Lockwood): As the noble Baroness said, if Amendment No. 235A is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 235B.

Baroness David: I have my name to Amendments Nos. 237, 238 and 244 in the group. I am very much in

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sympathy with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Although I do not strike out "agreement" and put in "policy", I am sympathetic to the suggestion and would be happy with the word "policy". In fact, I think I prefer it.

I am very glad that the Government have decided not to use the signing of home-school agreements as a criterion for admission. I really did not like that. The increased emphasis given to the role of parents in the education of their children is very welcome, However, the potential of home-school documents to build constructive relationships is, in my view, undermined by this section of the Bill, which places the onus only on the parents, failing to establish a principle of mutuality which focuses the attention and efforts of all concerned--teacher, staff, pupils, parents and the governing body--on the educational experience of the child.

Home-school documents can be a means of engaging parents' commitment and involvement. Documents are best seen as part of a continuum of establishing a relationship between parents--some of whom have had negative school experiences themselves--and schools. Written documentation can be effective when used to facilitate discussion among staff, parents and pupils about shared expectations.

For example, a Children's Society project called Shine, working in two primary schools in Lambeth and Wandsworth, uses home-school agreements in order to gain parental consent to work with individual children and to invite them to participate in the work of the project. In fact, the All-Party Group on Children had the project leader in Shine speak to them about a week or so ago. It was very interesting how successful they had been in working with parents and children. I very much recommend the pamphlet which they produced describing their work.

I move on to Amendment No. 238. This amendment tries to ensure that the views of staff, pupils and parents are sought in the development and review of home-school agreements. It omits certain lines and substitutes all qualifying parents,

    "the staff of the school, and ... the pupils of the school".

As I said on our last day in Committee, I very much want to get the word "pupil" on the face of the Bill. "Pupil" is not mentioned in the whole course of this enormous Bill. That does seem to me rather a mistake, so here is another chance.

We are concerned that the consumers of education are too often thought to be parents rather than parents and children. The consequence of this is that pupils are given little opportunity to exercise responsibility or to contribute to the organisation of school life.

This amendment is consistent with the principle of participation which I believe the Bill could establish in concrete and constructive ways. It is also consistent with Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that every child capable of expressing a view has the right to do so on all matters of concern to him or her. I have mentioned that before, too. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the international

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monitoring body, when examining the record of the UK Government in implementing the convention, expressed particular concern over the fact that children's participation in schools was at the discretion of the head teacher or governing body. It considered that the principle of participation should be respected as a matter of principle for all children. This amendment provides the opportunity to do this.

The amendment has a practical value too. Participation in the development of a mutually agreed set of expectations can motivate pupils to engage more fully in the life of the school and in learning by providing the opportunity for them to exercise responsibility and to contribute their views and to feel valued.

The process of establishing home-school agreements can lay the foundation for participation in other aspects of school life, such as behaviour policies.

The next amendment that I have in this group is Amendment No. 244, which in fact I do not think engages very closely with the other two amendments. But as it probably prevents me having to deal with the last amendment tonight I would prefer to have it in this grouping than by itself, which would be more sensible.

This amendment, which is a new clause following Clause 119, places schools and LEAs under a duty to listen to the voices and views of pupils on matters affecting them and, where reasonable, to ascertain their views.

During the passage of the Education Act 1993 a QC's opinion was obtained which advised that education legislation was currently in breach of Article 12 of the UN convention. This new clause is a modest and reasonable measure to bring education into line with the convention as well as with domestic law governing other sectors such as social services, health and civil court procedures. It does not prescribe how schools and LEAs will fulfil this duty, although formal structures such as schools councils and complaints procedures spring to mind.

It does not require schools or LEAs to follow the views of pupils, just to listen to them. This is simply a matter of good practice, which occurs in many schools and authorities but unfortunately not all. Listening to pupils of all ages pays big dividends in terms of reducing pupil disaffection and increasing their commitment to their education and the school.

I believe that these are important amendments in establishing the proper relationship between families, parents and children. Once again I repeat that I think that the views of pupils should really be taken into more consideration and that should be written on to the face of the Bill.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: These are complex amendments. We are moving from party politics almost totally to the running of schools.

The first point that I should like to make is that, of course, children in schools are of different ages. We cannot just talk about every pupil because we are talking

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of children between the ages of five and 18. I have great sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. It is very hard to lay down on the face of a Bill exact details concerning discipline.

Home-pupil agreements are, in essence, a good thing. But there are two elements to these agreements. Each of them has equal importance. We must not give more importance to one or the other. First, there are the parents with their expectations of the school for their son or daughter. Then there is the school, which has created a certain style of community. People sometimes have a choice of schools--in the independent sector, for example. The noble Baroness knows quite a lot about that sector, since she sent her own children to one of those schools. Some may choose Bedales and some may choose a more structural school such as Winchester. In the state sector there are often difficulties. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, with whom I do not often agree, hit the nail on the head. We enter into enormously difficult areas.

We all agree that there should be a home-school agreement, but what form should it take? The agreement is between the school and the parents, and demands great sensitivity. I have great doubts whether it can be laid on the face of a Bill. Each side has equal rights. I do not think that you can write on the face of a Bill that the school must always consult the pupils, though most schools with any sense would. But how do you consult a five year-old? This Clause refers to "all maintained schools". What should be done about five, six and seven year-olds?

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