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Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: We have had a very helpful and full debate, and I thank the Minister for replying so comprehensively and in such a helpful way. To return to my earlier remarks, and picking up on the point that my noble friend Lord Adonis made, I think that it would be helpful-now that we know that free
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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I hesitate to prolong this debate, but after all that has been said on this group of amendments, is it not sensible to have the phrase "free school" somewhere reflected in the Bill? The Government themselves refer to these new academy schools as "free schools". I should have thought that, in trying to make the legislation as helpful as possible to the poor devils who have to implement it hereafter, that would be a useful thing for the Government to contemplate-and I should be grateful if he would.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, in moving Amendment 3A, I shall speak to Amendments 4A and 101. My noble friend Lord Adonis drew our attention to the similarity between Clause 1 of the Bill and the relevant Section of the Education Act 2002. However, the difference between this Bill and the section devoted to academies in the 2002 Act is the scale of the new initiative and the fact that this Bill will encompass so many new schools. Therefore, it is right that there are more safeguards and stringent checks than were perhaps required in the past.
Amendment 3A and the first part of Amendment 4A in some ways refer back to the debate on the previous group of amendments, but they are still pertinent. It is surprising that there is no provision in the Bill for any "fit and proper person" test to discern whether a board of governors or anyone to whom they may contract the running of a school are appropriate persons to take on the role of governing an autonomous school without local authority support-and, seemingly, much reduced inspections. This lack of safeguards would be concerning, but it might be understandable were there provision that the concerns of the community were taken into consideration in conferring this significantly increased responsibility or even power on existing boards of governors. This Bill appears to compound that lack of safeguards rather than tempering it by cutting out any right of these obviously vital stakeholders to be consulted. Amendments 3A and 4A are designed to address that crucial gap in the proposals.
The issue of consultation should be central to the Bill. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said at Second Reading, consultation is a serious hole in
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I am sure that this Bill is not a gimmick, but local authorities have a role in planning and delivering education in the community that remains far more democratically accountable and responsive than a system that relies on the Secretary of State sitting at his desk in Whitehall. As was pointed out at Second Reading, there is difference between political rhetoric and reality in relation to the Bill. The Prime Minister said some time ago:
I believe that consultation is a vital part of democratic engagement. However, this Bill is not so much about decentralisation as about centralisation. Power is being taken away from the people and given to the Secretary of State.
Community cohesion is dealt with in the next group of amendments, but at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made the important point that the wider views of the community should be taken into consideration in relation to decisions about schools, as the education system must serve the whole community. I believe that the community should be included in any consultation. Consultation, apart from being the right course of action, enables time for reflection about governance and accountability and about how schools can best use new freedoms to their advantage but without disadvantaging the rest of the community. Local authorities, parents, children and the staff-both teaching and non-teaching-see issues in the round and, unlike the Secretary of State, are aware of local circumstances and sensitivities. They are best placed to know the needs of the community and to express concerns that might not have been considered about the consequences of a conversion. They can reflect on the impact on neighbouring schools.
I also believe that there must be parental involvement from the first if the schools are to succeed. That means involvement in a parental consultation process. To have one or possibly two parents on the governing body that makes an application to the Secretary of State is not enough. Wider consultation with parents is needed.
The Secretary of State has said publicly that he hopes that some schools will be able to convert to academy status by the beginning of the new academic year this September. Some looking at this from the outside suspect that the haste and determination with which these schools are to be converted owe more to political considerations than to any particular urgency. I believe that there is more to this issue than politics. Introducing a proper measure of consultation would enable the Government to demonstrate that this Bill is not just about politics but about improving standards and improving our education system. However, time is needed for consultation. If that means that schools that are anxious to become academies have to wait a few more months before they can do so, so be it. Consultation is important for the schools and for communities.
In the Statement, I think that the Minister said-I may be mistaken-that there would be consultation on the setting up of free schools. Why is there to be consultation on free schools, which will then become academies, but no consultation on academies in relation to this Bill?
In my view, consultation is the key to the success of these new academies. Consultation, when properly undertaken, is a means of ensuring that the right policy for a particular school is pursued and of ensuring the wider ownership of this policy. It will engender the confidence of parents, pupils, staff and the community. This is a means of ensuring the success of the policy.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, my Amendment 104 is in this group. I am not quite sure why Amendment 3A is in the group-I think that it should have been in a previous one-but the rest of the amendments are all about consultation. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that appropriate consultation, over a sufficient time, leads to good decision-making. The decision that schools have to make about conversion to academy status is terribly important, so I think that they should consult.
I have a few words to say about the amendments tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Morgan. I am not sure why they felt the need to include CRB checks in Amendment 4A. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that all those who had dealings with schools had to have CRB checks anyway. Indeed, I know a young teacher who does both paid and voluntary work in a number of schools and has had four CRB checks. I hope that the coalition Government will smooth out that totally unnecessary duplication. Also, surely the Government normally do due diligence on anyone with whom they intend to sign a contract, so I think that the second subsection in the amendment may be superfluous, too.
The main point of this debate is consultation. Of course schools should consult all the relevant people and provide them with the information that they need to be able to respond appropriately. To become an academy is an enormous change in the governance and funding of a school. Indeed, I think that it is very risky, as Clause 1(2)(b) and Clause 1(3)(b) give enormous
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Incidentally, I do not believe that these schools should be called "independent", as they have been described. They will be totally dependent on the Secretary of State for their funding and the terms of their operation. My noble friend Lord Greaves referred to them as "autonomous", which I believe is a better expression.
The difference between our amendment on consultation and those tabled by the Opposition is that we do not include the trade unions. I thought that I should explain why that is. Unions are national organisations, whereas we have proposed consulting local people or organisations that have a keen interest in the school. No national organisation can have a relevant view of the merits of the application of every individual school. The local people matter here and it is they who should be consulted.
That is especially true of the children. I have been in your Lordships' House for 10 years. At the start, when the Labour Government brought legislation before us, we had to put down a lot of amendments about what I call the voice of the child. Gradually, the Government got the message and, I am glad to say, such provisions started to appear in Bills, so we did not need to put down those amendments. I hope that the Minister will take into account the fact that, when you consult children about things that affect them, you get better decision-making. I also hope that, if he cannot accept these amendments, he will at least put this in guidance, so that schools have to consult the appropriate people.
On the matter of the documents that should be sent out to the people who are being consulted, Amendments 101 and 102 are far too prescriptive. We would leave it to the schools to judge what material it is appropriate to send out. On these Benches we intended to add something much briefer and less prescriptive but it got lost and did not go down in the end. The period suggested for the consultation is six weeks by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and four weeks by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. However, the school will have to make the TUPE arrangements with staff, which requires 10 weeks and should not be during the school holidays. Schools will have to take a lot longer than four weeks, and so they should. I have already urged my right honourable friend Michael Gove to hasten slowly, and I shall do the same to my noble friend Lord Hill. That should be the watchword. The decision does not need to be fast but it needs to be right.
Baroness Morris of Yardley: I support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady Royall. This is a very strange part of the Bill, and I am not sure what the rationale behind it is. The Bill purports to want to know the views of people in communities or schools where children's lives are affected by what legislation
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I have two more points. When this issue was previously been raised in the course of the Bill, the Minister said that the previous Government did not have means of consulting anyway. Correct me if I am wrong, but the essential difference was that, under the legislation used by the previous Government, one school was closed and a new one was opened. The consultation took place as part of the school closure and opening. In the Bill, the conversion of a school-as far as I can see, there is no official closure and opening-excludes any consultation at all.
Finally, the amendments do not seek to take away from the Secretary of State the right to decide whether or not a school should be granted academy status. You might argue that they ought to, but they do not. I cannot see that they would delay any consideration. If I was the Secretary of State in this situation, I would want to put myself in a position where I took the community with me, just to give any new school the best possible start to its life. To load a school with potential suspicion when that need not be the case is really not acceptable. To accept amendments along these lines, if not in such detail, would be very good for any schools that become academies under this legislation.
The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, as a supporter of academies, I very much encourage the Government to accept the spirit of these amendments. I have been involved with three academies. I chaired the first and co-chaired the second. The first academy arose from community consultation. When there was anxiety in the community over the other two, there was consultation which allayed people's fears. I put it to the Government that the people who are being proposed for consultation-young people, parents, governing bodies-are the constituent parts of the big society. It seems a contradiction that if you want to build the big society, you then exclude the very people who are the essence of it. Consultation is called for here.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I refer to my Amendment 102. It is interesting that several differing groups have tabled more or less the same sort of amendments, calling for much greater consultation. The differences between us tend, perhaps, to reflect
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The point I would like to stress in my amendment is that the governing bodies of other schools in the areas, which might reasonably be considered to be affected by the making of an academy order, should be consulted. This comes back to the wider issue of whether the academy will advantage or disadvantage the rest of the school population in the area. The Minister stressed that he is not disallowing consultation. He is no doubt encouraging it, but he is not giving the view that it should definitely happen. It is not compulsory. I would like to see in the Bill some degree of requiring that consultation take place. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is not very keen on the second half of our amendment. Nevertheless, if you want to set out a range of issues that need to be looked at and thought about before deciding whether to apply to become an academy, that half is important too.
Finally, there is the letter to Peers dated 15 June from the noble Lord, Lord Hill, in which he wrote about understanding the importance of parental engagement with the conversion process. Everybody is very pleased to see him acknowledging this in the Committee. However, the Department for Education's guidance to schools wishing to become academies suggests only that schools consider how they might wish to inform staff, pupils and parents of the intended conversion. That is not what I would call consultation before a decision is made by the governing body. It is about informing stakeholders once a decision has been made. I gather, too, that this guidance has not been changed since the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Hill, advising schools to engage with parents. I would have thought that this would be something that the department should include and send off to the various areas that need to consider this issue. On that basis, I would certainly support what the noble Baroness said in moving the first amendment. All the points that she made are very important in making a decision.
Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I will not go through the full list of people to consult, but I will comment on two groups specifically. One is children, who were mentioned earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the other is schools in the area. On children, Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child so beloved of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, gives children the right to express views on all matters affecting them and to have these views given due weight. Failing to consult students on matters that may alter both the character and curriculum of their school is a backward step in implementing Article 12. The Government should seriously think about consulting children.
I believe that academies do not have to be part of the local family of schools and that there is no obligation to co-operate with other neighbourhood schools. Unfortunately, I cannot remember where the survey
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Lord Adonis: My Lords, there seem to me to be two distinct issues. The first is that of good practice in the establishment of academies, which was rightly raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. It is clearly good practice that maximum efforts are made to engage the local community. Indeed, it is very unlikely that an academy proposal will be a success if it does not have a very wide measure of support from the parental body, the staff body and the wider community. As the right reverend Prelate rightly says, although the statutory consultation requirements are not present in the case of academies because very few statutory requirements apply in respect to academies, an elaborate process of consultation has taken place in relation to their establishment. In virtually every case consent has been given before an academy is established. I say "virtually" because, in the case of some failing schools, it is not possible to gain the consent of the parental body or sometimes even of the governing body. However, that is distinct from the precise provisions we propose to put in the law. As soon as you read Amendment 4A tabled by my noble friend Lady Morgan, you will see the difficulty of trying to put this into legislation. Having dealt with these issues at the Dispatch Box over a long period, I can say that they are only too clear to me. My noble friend's amendment says that the groups to be consulted must include those it is perfectly reasonable to include, such as:
I entirely agree with my noble friend Lady Massey about the importance of consulting pupils. One of the things the previous Government did which I think was a big step forward was strongly to encourage pupil engagement in schools, including with school councils, which were a very worthwhile development in schools in recent years. I would certainly expect to see school councils consulted before proposals of this kind came forward. However, paragraphs (f) and (g) of the amendment move into the land of the extremely subjective and difficult to determine. Paragraph (f) refers to,
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