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The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to AmendmentsNos. 59, 60, 61, 121A, 125A, 125B, 125BA, 125C, 125D and 182. This set of 10 amendments aims, on the one hand, to probe the process of competition for the setting up of trust schools, asking in particular what kinds of bodies the Government are looking for as sponsors for such schools and, on the other, to put forward the notion of the community-sponsored trustor, as we have called it, the community foundationas an alternative to a private sector sponsor. Finally, Amendment No. 182 probes the whole question of the schools commissioner.
The first set of amendments deals with the process of competition. Amendment No. 58 asks that the time period specified for preparation and submission of proposals in any competition should be reasonable. When a similar amendment was proposed in the Commons, the Government made it clear that they were sympathetic to the need to have balance between speedy competition and adequate time to prepare the proposal but did not think that the addition of the word reasonable was needed. We are concerned that inadequate time will favour the corporate sponsorsthe Edisons of this world who will perhaps have a ready-made proposal that they can pull off the shelfover, let us say, a local parents group. I believe that the Government are anxious that such groups should put forward proposals. If those groups are to make such a proposal, they will need to find professional help, and the money to pay for such help in putting their proposal together. We feel that it is reasonable that reasonable should be included on the face of the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 59 and 61 seek to prove the kinds of qualifications the Government have in mind for sponsors of trust schools. Perhaps we might put alongside Amendments Nos. 59 and 61 Amendments 121A and 125A, which seek to establish a register of institutions regarded as suitable to establish such foundations. Similar amendments were tabled on Report in the Commons. In response, the Secretary of State said:
During the Committee stage, the draft guidance on trust schools was circulated to MPs serving on Standing Committee E. This guidance singled out as unsuitable to become partners in running a trust school companies involved in tobacco, alcohol, gambling and adult entertainment. It stated that governing bodies should,
The guidance makes it clear that the list is not exhaustive and that decision makers must have particular regard to the strength of parental and other local opinion about the appropriateness of trust partners activities. It goes on to list positive examples of trust scenarios. These include a top-performing school taking over a weaker school, universities or colleges linking up with schools to improve the take-up of higher education and groups of schools banding together to share computer or financial management facilities. I suppose that that would extend to a group of schools already federated. We are very happy with those examples, but, significantly, there is no mention of faith groups or private companies in that list of positive examples.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: Mention of common sense brings me rather neatly to the only other amendment in this first set that I have not so far dealt withAmendment No. 60. If common sense is to be the arbiter of who might be a suitable partner, parents will be looking for a sponsor who will improve provision in their area. Therefore, it is utterly reasonable to ask, as Amendment No. 60 does, that those seeking to establish trust schools should specify how they would improve provision in the area and especially provision for the disadvantaged, since trust schools are to be established particularly to ensure that the disadvantaged get a reasonable share of the pie.
That first set of amendments deals with the process of competition and, in particular, selection of sponsored partners. The second set of amendments in this group of 10 includes Amendments Nos. 125B to 125D. Their purpose is to promote the Liberal Democrat alternative to the Governments vision of the trust school. We would call it a community trust, or, in the words of the Bill, a community foundation. We have throughout argued in favour of viewing education from a community perspective. In this series of amendments, we propose a foundation run by a local authority or a grouping of local authorities. For example, a grouping of local district councils and the county council might form what we have called the community foundation.
No. 125B specifies that the foundation will consist of one-third
elected local authority members,
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It is notable that, in their evidence for Second Reading, both the General Teaching Council and the Association of School and College Leaders strongly endorsed the idea of encouraging schools to collaborate according to the concept of the local federation. The Government have been promoting such federations of schools at a local level, and the amendments seek to capture some of that enthusiasm and to translate it into what we believe to be acceptablea local and locally accountable community foundation. I make no bones about the fact that we are not enthusiastic about foundations run as national chains of schools, whether they are run by Edison, Chris Woodhead or the United Learning Trust. We are not enthused by a model that separates out local schools and sets school against school and parent against parent, which we feel will happen under the Governments proposals, as I made quite clear in our discussions on earlier amendments. I repeat that we are anxious to see local schools working together for the good of their local community.
Finally, Amendment No. 182 is designed to probe the role of the schools commissioner. Is he there just to supervise the work of the local choice advisers? Is he there to encourage the growth of new trust schools nationally? Is he there to ensure that the right people are setting up trust schools? We suggest that this is where he might perform quite a useful role if we really are to have another level of highly paid official to ensure that the Governments agenda is working properly. I believe that the post has already been advertised, so the Government are already moving to appoint a schools commissioner. It would be a great responsibility for schools to have to vet anyone who comes before them with proposals to turn the school into a trust school. Small schools in particular often do not have the resources to probe the background of such people, so the Secretary of State may well delegate the task of vetting those people to the schools commissioner.
By publishing an open register, as the amendment proposes, we would avoid the need to have to use the freedom of information legislation, as now, to find out who has applied to form a trust. An open register would give parents and schools confidence in a system that is very new and highly suspect, in the view of many of our fellow citizens. It is therefore in the Governments interests to go along with this idea. Although local authorities should be able to decide what sorts of people are acceptable locally, there should be some sort of national standard of what is acceptable, otherwise undesirable people might simply go from one area to another until they find one that is not so choosy. The standards should be much more detailed than simply ruling out pornographers and tobacco manufacturers.
The Government might sayindeed, they do saythat the Charity Commission will vet potential trustees, but the Charity Commission cannot do so for two reasons. First, it does not have the capacity to deal with the expected volume. Secondly, it would need to change and extend the checks that it already carries out on charity trustees in order to make them fit for purpose for this educational task. It is much better for the Secretary of State to delegate this task to the new commissioner. I beg to move.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I strongly support my noble friends arguments in favour of this group of proposals. Let us be very direct: if we believe that the Bill gives parents new powers, new strengths and a new influence, it is vital that those parents are properly informed about the decisions in which they will participate. My noble friend has pointed out that parents will not know exactly who is proposing to be part of trust schools or to start academies, or what their qualifications and standards are. It would be simply foolish in the light of a good deal of information that has emerged in the past few months to pretend that we are certain that all those people who put their names forward will be likely to contribute substantially to the standard, the quality and, if I may say so, the moral integrity of our education system.
There are already some worrying examples. For instance, although Mr Bernie Ecclestone was not successful in his bid, we know now as a result of the Freedom of Information Act that he put in for running one of the academies in Sheffield. I am not in a positionnor would I wishto make personal remarks about Mr Bernie Ecclestone, but he would not immediately leap to mind as an ideal figure for sponsoring a new school. In the case of the academy recently started in Peterborough, to take another example, we know that all three of the governing bodies of the schools to be replaced protested that there was no reason to believe that the sponsor had any particular interest in education. Other examples spring to mind. One of the most troubling is the possibility that arms manufacturers might be involved in starting up a trust school in the south-west of England. Arms manufacturers may well have a legitimate role, but again they do not leap to mind as an ideal model to be in charge of sponsoring a major new school. Perhaps one would want someone with a rather wider view of the needs of our globalising world.
For such reasons, it seems to me that we should support the concept that my noble friend has put forward: a register giving the names and qualifications of those seeking to become trustees or sponsors of trust schools, which should be made available to those who are most interested and concernedeither the parents of children who may go to that school or the parents of children registered with schools that are being replaced by the potential trust school or academy.
I register with pleasure the Governments intention in the Bill to make parents play a much larger part in the education of their children, but there are two huge weaknesses in the Bill. The first is the absence of adequate information for those parents to make up their minds and the secondwhich we will come to later and to which I will make no further reference at the momentis the absence of a proper system of balloting so that we know exactly the wishes and preferences of parents. The principle is fine, but the devil is in the details. So far I for one am not satisfied that the details bear out the Governments stated wishes for the Bill.
There are two other things worth adding. One is the point made by my noble friend about the ability to check up on the sponsors of schools at a later stage. Not only do we know that the Charity Commission does not have the capacity to do that, but the truth is that it does not do it. The recent answers that were given on the assessment of academies indicated that the Charity Commission does not regard this as a central part of its dutiesindeed, it would not be expected to do so, given its functions.
The question again emerges: who is responsible? Who guards the guardians? The answer may lie with the schools commissioner or with the local authority, but it is not at all clear where the responsibility lies. My noble friend has pointed to a real hole or gap in the Bill. She is endeavouring to fill it in a way that the Government, if they want the best possible outcomes from sponsored schools, should respond to favourably. Frankly, I do not think that the answers given in another place to the arguments put forward on this front for one moment hold sufficient water. Ruth Kelly, when she was Secretary of State, referred to the common sense of parents. I agree with her about the common sense of parents, but parents who are uninformed and not given the information that they need to reach proper opinions and make proper decisions cannot be blamed if they get it wrong. It is the responsibility of the Government in the Bill to make sure that as far as possible parents are given the information to enable them to get it right.
Baroness Buscombe: I should like to speak to some of these amendments and explain why we will not be supporting them. I refer in particular to Amendments Nos. 121A, 125A and 182. So far as we can understand, Amendment No. 121A would mean that trusts for trust schools would have to be centrally registered. I do not see the purpose of this since the governing body already has to have regard to guidance on the acquisition of trusts which makes it clear that unsuitable trusts may not run schools. Under the Bill the foundations already have to be charitable. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, evidently believes that registered charity status, together with the additional restriction on persons who may act as charity trustees for a foundation, is insufficient to ensure that trusts are suitable. I also doubt that any school would truly opt to acquire a trust that was actually as unsuitable as she and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, have suggested.
Amendment No. 182 goes further and underlines the opposition of the Liberal Democrats for the concept of a school driven by parents. While it would prevent non-approved foundations proposing new schools without first registering with the Schools commissioner, it would also apply to groups of parents or any other private promoter. Furthermore, it would require local authorities to seek approval from the Schools commissioner if they wish to establish new schools, which I am not sure is the intention here. This would mean an awful lot more bureaucracy with unintended consequences. Indeed, it is interesting to note that while the Liberal Democrats have spent so much time both here and in another place criticising the Government and the Opposition for imposing central control from Whitehall, here they propose an unnecessary central layer of bureaucracy from Whitehall.
Turning to a redefinition of the word foundation, set out in Amendments Nos. 125B to 125D, we see that Amendment No. 125B redefines foundations where a local authority is represented on the foundation. It would mean that a,of the local education authority. However, it should be noted that members of local education authorities are currently prohibited from acting as charity trustees under the draft education regulations 2006 covering the requirements as to foundations. I am not sure what a majority, but no more than 33 per cent., means. Perhaps the noble Baroness meant plurality, although perhaps not since it also specifies that a second 33 per cent would be represented by parents. The remaining third would be represented by the community. I am not sure of the purpose behind this amendment. However, it would prevent a number of possibilities, including the possibility of a local authority entering into partnership with a philanthropic organisation such as an educational charity or livery company for the purpose of running a school, which would be a great shamein fact, it would be a disaster.
hope that Amendment No. 125C is unnecessary since I imagine that trusts
could already act in the way envisaged in the amendment. Amendment No.
125D would remove new Section 23(b) of the Schools Standards and
Framework Act, which will allow the Secretary of State to remove
charity trustees. This was raised in another place, at the end of which
Sarah Teather MP said that the then Minister had addressed most of her
concerns. At the time the Minister made it clear that the removal of a
charity trustee was a fallback position to be used in exceptional
circumstances and gave compelling reasons for having such a power,
particularly that it is impossible to set out in regulations all
possible future circumstances. Paragraph 7 of the draft regulations
shows that the power can be used only where the Secretary of State is
satisfied that the person has acted in any way incompatible with the
objectives or purposes of the foundation or the person is likely to
bring into disrepute any school to which the foundation appoints
governors. I believe that when we are dealing with children in
education, it is vitally important to protect them from unsuitable
persons. If Clause 125D were
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Perhaps I may add a point on the absence of information for parents to act on when choosing a school. We look forward to seeing the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, who I know is keen on having some form of information pack. Indeed, he goes further than that by suggesting information centres to give parents the opportunity to gather information easily on the different schools and choices available to them within their area.
Lord Adonis: Amendment No. 58 seeks to ensure that the time for promoters for submit proposals should be reasonable. We agree, but I am glad to say that in fact the regulations concerning this provision, which I have now circulated, lay down that the period must be at least four months. As those regulations will be in place, that will be an absolute requirement. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and other noble Lords will agree that four months is a reasonable period, including for community groups that may take longer to put proposals together.
On Amendments Nos. 59, 61, 121A, 125A and 182, we agree that there need to be appropriate safeguards against unsuitable partners being involved in the running of schools. That is why we have a proper process in place for governing bodies to publish proposals in respect of trusts and to take decisions in relation to them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, recognised, substantial guidance is being made available to schools on this, which I think meets the points raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Williams. I have circulated the draft guidance to the Committee. I quote from page 128 of it:
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I am grateful to the noble Lord. Of course, as he suggests, the recommendations and advice given in the document that he has circulated are extremely acceptable, and anyone would recognise that.
The big question is why parents per se are not given an opportunity to contribute to that decision because they know the names and qualifications of those involved. Why do they have to go through the governing body to do that, and why is it a matter only for the governing body to determine how far their views are taken into account?
Lord Adonis: The governing body will need to take into account the views of parents. We shall debate later the noble Baronesss precise amendments on ballots of parents. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments, but this is the standard procedure for schools taking decisions of the utmost gravity affecting them in many other areas, including a whole range of other characteristics concerning the future of the school. We do not believe that, in qualitative terms, this is any different.
However, over and above the requirements on the school governing body both in terms of how it makes the decision and the factors that it must take into account, we have given a power to local authorities to refer proposals to the adjudicator when they are concerned about the implications for a particular trust of standards at a school. The adjudicator will then make a professional and impartial judgment, which, of course, will override that of the governing body in the event of that judgment being different. We do not think it necessary to regulate further than that. In particular, we believe that the creation of a national register would act as a barrier to innovation and fetter the freedom of governing bodies to decide what is best for their own schools, subject to oversight by the adjudicator.
In so far as the register proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, is intended to be illustrative and informative to encourage the development of appropriate trusts, this function will indeed be performed by the national schools commissioner, who will keep a record of all trusts established and make it available on his website. Therefore, there will be no need TO use the FoI Act, as the noble Baroness feared.
With regard to the kinds of trusts that may come forward, we expect that they will include higher and further education institutions, existing successful schools and bona fide education and business foundations. A particular concern of the noble Baroness is whether they can include community trusts. If she means trusts that have local authority engagement within the provisions of the Bill as it stands, they absolutely can. We will give strong encouragement to local authorities to be engaged in trusts alongside other local community groups and organisations which can make a substantial contribution to improving schools.
No. 60 would require a notice published by a local authority inviting
bids in a competition to specify in what ways proposals would improve
education in the area, especially those from disadvantaged homes. I
believe we have covered that. The illustrative regulations
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Amendments Nos. 125BA and 125C seek to enhance the influence of the local authority over trusts and trust schools. As I say, we support the concept of a community trust. If that means a trust as set out under the provisions of the Bill, of course it can proceed. The 20 per cent level for local authority engagement in trusts, as set out in the Bill, gives local authorities the flexibility to play a valuable role in brokering those relationships and supporting the formation of trusts in their communities. The 20 per cent figure is also consistent with provisions in local government legislation about local authority involvement in companies and trusts more widely.
However, we do not believe that it is right to increase that proportion beyond 20 per cent, which will get close to making local authorities the dominant force in a trust. If a local authority wishes to have that level of control over a trust, it anyway has the option of promoting a community school and exercising this control directly, provided that its track record is good enough. When taken in the round, our policy on trusts is balanced, proportional and workable. Our policy on collaboration is enabling and not prescriptive. I hope that I have met the concerns that have been raised.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I should like to clear up one or two misconceptions on the part of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, before replying to some of the points that he has made. I should make absolutely clear that we are not opposed to trusts being established by groups of parents. Essentially, we would very much like to see that. The concept of the local community trust is the local authority and local groups of parents getting together to promote a local community of schools. I am sorry that the noble Baroness did not read Amendment No. 182 to mean this, but that is what we meant.
I also think that the
noble Baroness misread another amendment. The clean version which has
been circulated in manuscript today makes it quite clear that we are
looking at members of local authorities. We are specifically looking to
a situation where it might be the district council, which is not an
education authority, participating in the local community trust. We
feel that this is a question of trying to get local community and
democratic representation within the concept of the trust. So far as
the trust is concerned, schools will be spending a considerable
proportion of money. It is appropriate
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