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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 34:


Page 9, line 40, after ("maintained") insert ("school or group of").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the above amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 35 to 37. We now find ourselves at the beginning of the four clauses on education action zones. To say that I wish to express my disquiet about this part of the Bill and about the way in which I have been treated as a Member of the Opposition Front Bench is an understatement. I have now asked three times for straightforward information which is now publicly available everywhere and to everyone but not to me as a Member of this House. I hope that the Minister will give me some answer tonight as to why I have not received the necessary information. Indeed, I have not even received a copy of the letter which has been sent out to the action zones bidders asking whether I can be given the information. I am not sure whether they were asked if it mattered whether the information went to local government associations or was given out in a press conference when the bids were announced. There is serious disquiet about the procedure which has been used and about our rights not only as ordinary Members of this House but also as Members of the Opposition Front Bench.

I have asked who the bidders were, but have been refused the information. I have asked about the percentage of bidders--for example, which were LEA and which were private or voluntary--but, again, I have not received that information. As I said, the information is readily available to people outside this Chamber. I am delighted that the noble Lord the Leader of the House is present tonight. He has not sympathised with me in the matter but, nevertheless, he is aware that I have not received this information. I believe that the usual channels have made strenuous efforts as regards the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that I receive as much information as is permitted to be available publicly. However, as I said, I have not to date received the information that I have requested. I am indeed disquieted by the situation.

This group of amendments is designed to ensure that a school or a group of schools should be allowed to have special status. They also insist that parents should be part of the consultation process. Where a school is taken into an education action zone, it seems to me to be quite extraordinary that there is no requirement on anyone to consult with parents and take note of their opinion. There is no formal requirement to ascertain whether they believe it is a good, bad or an indifferent process. Moreover, there is no requirement to ask parents whether they would approve of having the national curriculum disapplied. Indeed, there is no formal requirement in the process to ask parents whether they approve of whatever is to be substituted for the national curriculum.

There is the mildest possible hint--indeed, it is not even a requirement--that teachers should be consulted if the forum and/or a governing body of any school in the action zone wishes to disapply pay and conditions.

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Again, the whole process is very unsatisfactory. Almost every other part of the Bill has regulations flowing from it. However, this part does not deal with the details as regards the setting up of education action zones. For that reason, it is probably the most depressing part of the legislation.

Having only had access to what is written in newspaper reports and the information which came out on the day of the publication of the 25 winning bidders (and what we know of them), it seems to me that the education action zones are committees which will orchestrate a collective effort where schools have failed. Indeed, that is what they are because there does not appear to be any direction or any lead body in that respect. It is not mentioned in any of the information that we have seen thus far. The committees will be numerous and it is quite clear that they will consume time, money and effort. I suspect that the impact on the classroom will be in inverse proportions to the bureaucracy and what is now very confused management.

The EAZs are free to innovate, but they are subject to education development plans; they are free to innovate, but the teachers and staff are employed by the local education authority; they are free to innovate, but they are subject to almost all the other measures in the Bill. So, policies on the part of the LEA, the gathering of information and the intervention in terms of standards and whether or not they are being achieved are all in place for education action zones.

If the Government really want fruitful and effective partnership enterprise to improve education, they could do no better--certainly when one thinks of the kind of money they are putting into this--than to follow the model set by the city technology colleges which are truly independent and are part of the state family of free education. They provide education in areas which are challenging from an education point of view. There is also the model set by some of the technology colleges that have raised specific sums of money, which can be identified, and which have positive links with companies providing that money. They work well in partnership and they are free to run their colleges without the incredible bureaucratic network that surrounds the education action zones.

It is important that where it is possible for a school or a group of schools to be included in an education action zone, that should be allowed. Mr. Byers talks enthusiastically in the "back room"about single schools being leased out. We know that he is keen to give the education action zones more independence than they are given in the Bill. We believe it has been said that the education action zones as they have materialised are not quite what was intended in the first place, but that will be put right later. It would be nice to know exactly what is meant by all of that. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us.

I end as I began. I would be happy to be advised where I can find out what my rights are as a Member of a Front Bench. Why cannot I obtain straightforward information that has been provided to public bodies outside this place? Do we have any rights as Members

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of Parliament to see information that is publicly available? If that is not the case, this is perhaps a matter that should be addressed by the Procedure Committee, to advise me how I can proceed as a Member of this House trying to do a job as a member of the Official Opposition. My hands are tied behind my back because the information that I require to do my job effectively is denied me. I beg to move.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, I hope that I can help the noble Baroness. I am fortunate in that I live in an area which has action zone status. Last weekend I spent some time discussing the implications of that status with governors, teachers, parents and business people. I heard nothing but favourable reports from all of them. They thought it was an excellent idea and they welcomed the partnership. They welcomed the opportunities the scheme offered. I went out of my way to try to find some criticism of the scheme but I found none. We in Blackburn are fortunate to be part of such a scheme. I am sorry that more authorities have not achieved action zone status. I am all in favour of the CTCs. I have encouraged a number of companies to put money into them. However, the concept we are discussing is completely different from that of the CTCs. I hope that as the action zones develop the noble Baroness will consider that we should have introduced them a long time ago.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, the education action zone is an interesting concept which many people find exciting. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Blackburn, has just explained how excited people are in Blackburn about the concept. I am a little worried about the concept but I understand that it is about partnership and about involving many people in what is going on. Although deep in my heart I am a little worried about democracy, at least many people are being involved in these zones. However, I am concerned that under the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, there could be an education action zone comprising one school, which could be a grant-maintained school by another name. Under her amendment parents would be able to opt into an education action zone which comprised just one school. That seems a rather cunning wheeze. Each school whose application is approved by the Secretary of State will be able to suspend the national curriculum, get its own money, manage itself and create a different salary structure. However, there would be no strategic view of what is going on in an area. Education action zones run for a certain period of time. We have discussed in this Chamber what might happen at the end of that period.

Under an amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, parents and governors would apply for action zone status. That is a similar process to opting out, but there is no mention of a ballot this time. Who would make the decision? As I said, I believe that education action zones will gain strength from partnership. I believe they need to comprise at least a dozen schools. It would be nice to involve the primary and secondary sectors so that everyone benefits from the new ideas, the

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money and the innovation that is made available. I view the amendment as a rather sinister move to return to grant-maintained status which we on these Benches have been, and remain, firmly against.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has just said. I think she has seen through what these amendments seek to achieve. Before I turn to the detail of the amendments, I wish to make some positive comments about education action zones and comment on what my noble friend Lord Taylor of Blackburn said. I am grateful for his comments. I believe that we have something to celebrate here rather than denigrate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, zones are about partnerships--not the public or private sector alone, but partnerships. A number of businesses are taking part in the scheme, in spite of the scepticism that we heard from noble Lords on the Conservative Benches at an earlier stage.

A number of household names have decided to become involved in the scheme. Shell will provide the chair of the forum for the education action zone in Lambeth. Yorkshire Water and Midland Bank between them will provide extensive support in Sheffield. British Aerospace will provide video links for all schools in the Hull zone. Scottish Power will provide an open learning centre for schools and the community in Brighton and Hove. Comcast in Middlesbrough will provide £100,000 in cash. I shall not continue but there are many other companies involved such as American Express, KPMG, BT, Tesco, Tate & Lyle, Cadburys and so on. There is a long list of companies that are involved in the scheme.

These partnerships seek to improve standards in areas which we have been concerned about for some time-- I am sure the noble Baroness will agree with that--both as regards the schools and the areas that they serve. I am a little disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was not able to be more welcoming towards what we intend to do. The noble Baroness asked about the rights of Members of Parliament. I remind her that she told this Chamber in Committee that she had seen all the applications for education action zones. She said that she had seen them through her political contacts in the LGA. In the light of that, to say that she does not know anything about them seems a slightly hollow claim.

On the day of the launch, Tuesday 23rd June, the noble Baroness was sent a letter. The list of proposals and partners was published and placed in the Libraries of both Houses. That was specified clearly in the letter. It was not possible to do that earlier. As was made clear to the noble Baroness--and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Tope, to whom I also wrote, will confirm this--the Government did not feel that, until decisions had been made as to which of the applications were successful, it was right to publish the names of the private sector partners unless they had given explicit permission. Unfortunately, we did not obtain that permission from all who had taken part in the bidding process before announcing the successful bidders.

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That is the reason why the noble Baroness was not given further information before 23rd June. As I said, she stated that she had already seen the applications.

I now turn to the amendments, beginning with Amendments Nos. 34 and 36. When the noble Baroness put forward the first amendment in Committee, I made it clear that this was not what education action zones were about. As the applications I mentioned all made clear, a key element of the zones is partnership. The partnership concept applies not merely to outside agencies and businesses, but to the schools themselves. A major achievement of the applications, which we welcomed when we were able to publish the outcome of the bids a week ago, was the way in which they bring together primary and secondary schools, grant-maintained and county schools to work together.

I believe that education action zones are healing some of the wounds left by the previous government. If the amendment completely removes the partnerships from zones, I wonder whether it has any merit in terms of broadening the scope for innovation.

Of course we want schools everywhere to innovate, and I am sympathetic to the notion that an individual school may wish to do that, as is my honourable friend Mr. Byers. I repeat: a large part of the innovative nature of zones is based on their working in partnership--teachers working across a number of zones; communities being drawn into their children's education; and using information and communications technology to link schools within an area. Removing that partnership and allowing a single school to go it alone would mean that much, if not all, of that would be lost.

What about the specific legislative freedoms that apply to zones? Taking each in turn, the noble Baroness separately proposed an amendment relating to teachers' pay and conditions, which we shall debate later. The national curriculum flexibilities apply to every school. Because of the benefits of partnership I am sure that we shall see them being used more frequently in education action zones, and certainly more than they were under the previous government. The remaining freedoms apply to the way in which the governing body can give its powers to the forum. That is intended to allow the forum to act as the governing body for a group of schools. I am therefore at a loss to see what this proposal can mean for a single school. In the light of my remarks I hope the noble Baroness will withdraw these amendments.

I turn now to Amendment No. 37 on parental agreement to zones being created. Of course parents must be included in helping to shape the education action zones. We hope to see parental representation alongside teachers, governors and business people on the action fora.

However, we should remember that the key form of accountability--the governing body--will remain in place. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said that this radical proposal will take schools out of local authority control and place them in the hands of third parties. I am afraid that that seems to me to be

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living in the past. Local authorities do not "control" schools; schools control themselves, unless they are failing and have their budgets withdrawn. The schools in action zones are not being placed in the hands of third parties. They are entering, voluntarily, a new kind of partnership. In all the zone applications that we have approved, the governing bodies very much intend to continue working. Parents have nothing to fear in terms of losing a voice. If, once in a zone, a governing body wishes to vary the national curriculum, parents will have a voice through that governing body, as they do outside zones. In the light of those remarks, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.


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