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Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 34, line 22, at end insert--
("( ) The governing body of a maintained school shall have a duty to facilitate and give reasonable assistance to parents who wish to establish an organisation within the school to represent parents when 20 per cent. of those parents have petitioned for it.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 4. Many noble Lords will be aware that this amendment is a redrafting of Amendment No. 107 which was moved on Report. That amendment sought the right of parents to set up a parents association at a school to be enshrined in legislation. The difference between that and the present amendment is that the new wording refers to 20 per cent. of parents who petition for such an association. This amendment is moved in response to concerns on the part of the Government and some noble Lords that possibly a few parents may hold everyone else to ransom. That was never the intention of what we sought to achieve.

The debate at Report stage became hung-up on references to CASE and its national policy and proposed national structure of interacting parent associations that would be federated to a countrywide body. The Minister was adamant that that was a step too far and that was a reason for rejecting the amendment. The aims of this

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amendment are far more modest. We wish to remedy the situation that occasionally arises in which headteachers or governing bodies refuse the reasonable requests of a significant proportion of parents to form an organisation to represent them in a school. We and many others believe that such an organisation should be afforded reasonable assistance by governors.

The amendment speaks only of parents who wish to establish an organisation. We do not say that every school must have such an organisation. It is up to parents to decide whether or not to push for it. We acknowledge that there must be a substantial proportion of parents who are anxious to form such an organisation. In the short time that we have discussed this matter in the House we have received a considerable number of letters of support from various organisations, notably the Parent Teacher Associations of Wales, the Alliance of Parents & Schools, the Leicestershire Federation of Parent Teacher Associations and many other secretaries to parent groups.

At the previous stage of this Bill the Government also objected to the statutory responsibilities of governing bodies being placed on the face of the Bill. This happens elsewhere in the Bill. The imposition of home school agreements places far greater statutory responsibility on governing bodies than this amendment. It is difficult to understand why the Government believe it is right to put home school agreements in primary legislation and yet will not give parents the right in legislation to support governing bodies if they wish to form an association to represent them. Surely, it is inconsistent to give parents the sole right to decide on the future of selection but not to decide whether to have an organisation in the school to represent them. I hope that this time the Government will listen more carefully and see the merit in what is proposed. Both I and other noble Lords find it difficult to understand why the Government are so vehemently against this proposal. It is not as if it is a matter of great party policy that will undermine the whole Bill. It is all about enshrining in the Bill the right of parents to take part in supporting the school. That is something that noble Lords on all sides of the House agree is essential in seeking to raise standards in schools.

I finish by quoting a short passage from a letter written by the executive secretary of CASE who puts the matter rather well:

    "Only last week I spoke to two parents who contacted CASE having been told they had no right to form an association. One of these was following a parental resolution to the governing body at a quorate annual parents' meeting. I know that bad cases can make bad laws, but all that this amendment will do is clarify the confusion about whether parents have the right to set up an association".

I believe that the case is well made by others outside this House and by many noble Lords. I hope that this time the Government can give just a little. We do not ask the Government to do very much.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness David: My Lords, I moved a very similar amendment at Committee and Report stages. The reference to 20 per cent. of parents requesting the establishment of an organisation has been added to this amendment to deal with the criticism made earlier that

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a few awkward parents may cause trouble. I believe that the Government have been very unresponsive and extraordinarily inflexible. The Minister has said that the Government are all for parental involvement and want the total co-operation of parents in the running of schools and so on. Yet this amendment which gives them the right to form an association is denied. That is very odd given that when home school agreements have to be organised by the governing body, they are very much more complicated. The Minister also said that it would place a burden on the staff and head of the school. Staff would not be required to attend meetings. The parents would organise it themselves. They would require a room and what is called "pupil post" for children to take home messages about possible future meetings. I do not believe that it would be a burden but that it would encourage the involvement of parents.

One is told that there are schools in which parents have been denied the right to make such an association by a difficult head or governing body. I hope that this time, with the addition of the reference to 20 per cent., it will not be said that a few parents are making ridiculous demands on a governing body. I very much support the amendment.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, I too support the amendment. Since Committee stage I have conducted a survey in my part of Lancashire. I have discovered that the majority of governing bodies and parents' associations wish this amendment to be accepted. Over the years I have spent a good deal of time looking at this problem and encouraging parents to take a more active role in the government and working of their schools. I believe that the Government make a sad mistake in not accepting this amendment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this is an important issue. We have already debated the involvement of parents in schools. Over the past 20 or 30 years we have seen much greater engagement by parents in the classroom and in the activities of parents' associations. This amendment is concerned with the small minority of schools in which parents are not welcome through the front door and where in meetings with headteachers they often feel intimidated about raising issues of concern. It is here that an association can help in allowing parents to raise matters of concern in a rather safer environment than before the headmaster in his office. Unfortunately, it is often in these kinds of schools that there is no parents' association or such association is inhibited from raising issues of this kind and is confined to raising funds for the school. It is also likely that in such a school the governing body is itself rather weak and beholden to the head.

I do not believe that the amendment will put all of that right. I doubt whether the requirement for 20 per cent. of parents to sign the petition is the right approach. To me it sounds rather bureaucratic, confrontational and, I suspect, over-prescriptive. But I believe that it is helpful to have some reassurance that governing bodies will at least be rigorously reminded that opportunities for parents to raise issues of concern is not a charter for troublemakers, but a sign of a healthy school environment.

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Governing bodies need also to be reminded that a school without an active parents' association is not a complete school. If I were to devise a set of performance indicators to judge the effectiveness of a school governing body, at almost the top of my list would be an active and involved parent body.

Lord Peston: My Lords, it was most remiss of me not to have spoken on this subject on an earlier occasion. My only excuse is that the case was put so well by my noble friends and by noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat and Opposition Benches. However, since this may be my last opportunity to speak on the issue, I feel that I must take it.

There was reference to awkward parents causing trouble. I suppose therefore that my wife and I and other friends were "awkward parents causing trouble". We suffered from the delusion that we were concerned parents, anxious to improve the quality of education in our children's school in Haringey. When we behaved in that way in our local primary school, it was the first time that I had been involved in anything practical in the world of politics. I was a hot-shot theorist telling everyone what they should do. When the issue concerned my children's education, it dawned on me that I had a responsibility to become involved.

However, to echo the words of my noble friend Lord Hunt, it was quite easy in Haringey--even though the head was determinedly against what we wanted--for middle-class, articulate parents to get their own way. With reference to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, we were brilliant fundraisers as well. Our head was not going to get up the noses of the people who were providing considerable sums of money for the school.

However, that is not remotely the reason why one supports the amendment. It is demonstrably the case that parental involvement is educationally productive. We want parents to be involved because that improves education. We want that not because parents replace or undermine teachers, but because parent involvement makes the teacher's task easier.

The Government whom I support--and I strongly supported them during their hard 18 years in opposition--would give the best possible signal to parents and to the world of education in general by making this provision a statutory imposition in the Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said when introducing the amendment.

I speak for my own sake; I know that I am completely wasting my time. If I were not, my noble friend Lady Blackstone would have accepted a similar amendment earlier, or said that she would come back with an amendment of her own. None the less, those of us who have been involved can envisage what such a measure would provide. It would help those parents who often cannot speak for themselves. It would be wrong of me to let the amendment pass, even though I know that I am wasting my time, without offering it my total support.

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