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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment 244A:


After Clause 119, insert the following new clause--
("Inspection of voluntary aided and foundation schools

Inspection of voluntary aided and foundation schools

.--(1) The School Inspections Act 1996 shall be amended as follows.
(2) In section 25 (power of local education authority to inspect maintained school for specific purpose), before "Where" there shall be inserted "Subject to section 25A below,".
(3) After that section there shall be inserted--
"Inspection of voluntary aided and foundation schools.
25A.--(1) In the case of a voluntary aided or foundation school to which the special measures provisions of this Act do not apply at the time, a local education authority may only exercise their powers under section 25 above with the agreement of the governing body.
(2) Where the governing body of a school does not agree to a request by a local education authority to exercise their powers under section 25, the authority may appeal against the decision of the governing body to the Secretary of State.
(3) Where a local education authority make an appeal under subsection (2) the decision of the Secretary of State shall be binding on both parties.".").

The noble Baroness said: The amendment aims to put on the face of the Bill the precise meaning of what we understand the Secretary of State to be saying about local authorities carrying out their functions. The draft code and the School Inspections Act make it absolutely clear that a local education authority may exercise its rights under Section 25 only for the purpose of exercising statutory functions. LEA functions are considerable. I have catalogued some. One has only to read through this considerable Bill to realise that. They will be even greater when the Bill is enacted. Many are very general. A large number are left open to wide interpretation.

Not only does the provision undermine the autonomy of good schools--a point I made a moment ago--but a local education authority could make life difficult for a school and still keep within the provisions of the code of practice. The LEA has only to argue that it is doing something in the interest of raising standards or school improvement under the functions in the Bill and that would pass muster.

The education development plan is one example. It is a new function which will open up many opportunities for LEAs to intervene in school life. As is well known, grant-maintained schools have functioned successfully without being subject to those provisions. We understand there to be a willingness in the department to sustain the level of autonomy that has been enjoyed by grant-maintained schools and to build on that. The Government have said that they want schools to be able to exercise greater autonomy. That is set out in paragraph 2 of the code of practice. The first words in that paragraph are the Government's starting point: there is a presumption in favour of school autonomy.

Paragraphs 3 and 4 refer to the need for that autonomy to be matched by accountability and the need to build in the necessary checks and balances. That is understood. My amendment will give statutory force to the Government's sentiments while providing a right of appeal to the Secretary of State by a local education

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authority which felt that a school was being unreasonable and hindering its ability to fulfil its statutory duty. It builds in the safeguard that where a local authority believes that it has a good case for intervention where the school is being difficult, it is possible to have that case considered.

The Minister will note that I have restricted the amendment to voluntary aided and foundation schools. There might be difficulty extending the provision to other types of schools, especially community schools, which under the provisions of the Bill have opted to remain community schools. From what the Minister said at a previous stage of the Bill I understand that about a year or so after Royal Assent community schools will have an option to become foundation schools. In other words, they will opt for yet more autonomy. If they remain community schools they are directly accountable to the local education authority.

I have restricted the amendment to foundation schools for the reasons I have set out. As other schools have a statutory relationship with the LEA, the right of access will work differently.

It may be that my amendment is in the wrong place in the Bill. If that is the case I shall be advised by the noble Lord. However, the point I wish to make is this. Schools which are performing well and are achieving at a high level, and schools which are showing discernible improvement year on year and are showing no grounds for concern, should be protected from an LEA which might wish to move in for inspectorial reasons. My amendment does no more than codify on the face of the Bill an important protection for the present grant-maintained schools and what will become foundation schools.

Whether the foundations come from the cohort of grant-maintained schools or from the cohort of community schools when that part of the Bill is implemented makes no odds. It is an important way of allaying some of the fears behind some of the press comment we have seen in the past few days about the Oratory School. It is no secret that Hammersmith and Fulham LEA is looking forward with relish to seeing the school return to it, the LEA having increased powers under the Bill. If the Government are serious, the amendment will protect such schools from undue interference from the local education authorities. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The noble Baroness in introducing the amendment expressed doubt about whether it is in the proper place in the Bill. She also commented on its scope. They are matters of fact to which I must respond. So far as we understand, there is no problem about the amendment's place in the Bill. It would have the effect which the noble Baroness intends. However, I must remind her about the provisions of the School Inspections Act 1996. Under that Act local education authorities have a right of access to any school maintained by them where they require information about the school for the purposes of exercising any of their functions and where it is not reasonably practicable to gain the information in any

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other manner. The Bill provides that that right of access shall be extended to voluntary-aided and foundation schools.

The proposed new clause would give the governing bodies of voluntary-aided and foundation schools almost total discretion over the extent to which the local authority was allowed access to the school. I accept that under the noble Baroness's amendment local authorities would have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State and that the Secretary of State's decision would be final. But our view is that the approach provided for in existing legislation and the draft code of practice on LEA-school relations will give schools adequate safeguards against the risk of unreasonable action on the part of the LEA. The code takes a much more positive view of LEA-school relations. It encourages collaborative working arrangements rather than assuming that there will be disputes and relying on rights of appeal to the Secretary of State to resolve disputes.

The present draft of the code uses Section 25 of the School Inspections Act 1996 as the starting point on LEA rights of access into schools. This gives them the right to inspect any school maintained by them where they require information about the school for the purpose of exercising any of their functions and where it is not reasonably practicable for them to obtain the information in any other manner. The code also makes it clear that LEAs have no general legal power to insist on entry to schools against the wishes of the school. These arrangements have been in place for some time for existing categories of maintained school, except grant-maintained schools which are not maintained by the LEA. We are not aware that they have caused problems.

If a school at any time believes that the LEA is using those powers unreasonably, it can appeal to the Secretary of State. It would be open to the Secretary of State to issue a direction under Section 496 of the Education Act 1996. But, in general, we would expect the LEA and school to resolve any differences of view and to reach an agreed way of working which suits both parties without recourse to the appeals process. The present draft of the code offers appropriate guidance.

I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that the policy which is being implemented in this part of the Bill is predicated on agreement and consensus rather than on conflict. We do not want to see a significant number of appeals, although the right to appeal has been properly observed.

The noble Baroness raised the issue of community schools and their right to choose a new category. It is true that community schools will be able to choose a different category one year after implementation of the new framework. I stress that that is not one year after Royal Assent, as the noble Baroness appears to believe.

I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that there is nothing particularly new in the nature of the access which is provided. It is already provided in the School Inspections Act 1996 and the appeals procedure is already provided in the Education Act 1996. I hope that on that basis, and on the basis of our determination

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to put school standards at the heart of the new schools framework, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: Local authorities do not intervene in grant-maintained schools, but as they are to become foundation schools that situation will change considerably. In reply, the Minister referred to the right of access being extended to local education authorities, but he went on to say that schools will have "total discretion". When a school and its governors reject the LEA case for intervention, does the school have total discretion to refuse to allow it to intervene?


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