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We have tabled Amendment No. 15, because even when an authority meets the criteria and is within the top Ofsted category, it still needs permission from the Secretary of State to publish its proposals. Our amendment states that when a majority of parents have indicated in a ballot that they wish to have the chance to consider local authority proposals, those proposals shall be published alongside the others.
We maintain that there is not a fair balance. There are constraints limiting the scope of local authorities to publish their proposals and put them alongside others. First, such constraints on their rights to publication run counter to the principles of local choice and local accountability. As democratically accountable institutions, councils need flexibility to respond to local needs and circumstances. They should be required to present a full range of options for new schools in their communities. If local people want a new school and the locality needs one, a community school should be among the choices.
Secondly, the current proposals contradict the Governments wider devolution agenda. The Lyons local government reviews interim report highlights the need for local government to be less constrained, more accountable locally and more innovative. The principle of earned autonomy which supersedes local peoples wishes and accountability can impact across a large range of local authority commissioning and delivery functions. It is at odds with the Governments commitment to devolve power to local communities.
Lastly, the Governments proposals run against the principles of the Bill itself, which sets out a new strategic role for local authorities in education and seeks to promote choice and diversity and to champion pupils and parents. By allowing only certain councils the freedom to propose new community schools, the Government are suggesting that only certain councils can undertake the full strategic role that all councils have a duty to deliver.
As I indicated in my opening remarks, schools are provided and run for the benefit of the local community. A good part of the council tax that we pay goes towards the provision of that education. We elect our local councils to oversee these activities and decide what best suits local people. They are democratically accountable and should have some say in what sort of schools best meet local needs.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I have not entered into any of the debates so far on the Bill because I live north of the Border and my own experience, which is out of date but fairly copious on the subject of state education in schools, has not seemed relevant.
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It seems to me that the Government and the leadership of my own party are now asking themselves whether much more autonomy of professionals in schools will bear great fruit. They are asking themselves whether teachers and others in schools can stand a lot more trust from the public in what they do, more freedom and more responsibility. The Scottish Executive have concluded that they cannot stand those things, and that conclusion has been endorsed by the teachers unions. Of course, the Scottish Executive partly consist of the Liberal Democrat party.
Looking at what is happening in schools in England, it seems to me that the Government are certainly right. It is very exciting what more freedom can do to help professionals to provide better schools. It is not at all exciting to see what lack of freedom is doing to the Scottish education system, whose outcome is less good than before, going by most of the measures applied. I do not want to run down my own country: I am a great believer in Scottish education and I am sure that it will recover.
The question raised by my noble friend in the amendment is simply: should they be asked to continue to govern in future years, will the Government be prepared to increase the autonomy of schools and to have more foundation schools? If they are not, I think that she may be suggesting that our own party would be interested in exploring that. I shall be very interested to hear the Ministers reply.
First, there is good empirical evidence of the contribution that schools which have been given additional powers of self-determination have made to some of the most difficult areas, including in this city, of which Peckham is an example. Such schools have made real contributions to education in that area, and that is but one example.
Secondly, the amendment would give the local authority a responsibility to work towards what is clearly an intended outcome of the Billthat is, to increase the amount of autonomy and self-determination in schools. It is important that local authorities take that on board as a responsibility which they willingly share. If they do not, there will be a risk of friction and envy between such schools and other schoolsperceived sometimes rather than real.
Thirdly, there is no doubt that there will be a period of transition in which a number of schools will seek such additional self-determination. In that process, it is important that there is a common view about the responsibilities of local authorities so that we do not have one local authority encouraging it and another dragging its feet. There should be equal opportunity throughout the system, and the amendment has the value of indicating what that responsibility would be.
Baroness Morris of Yardley: My Lords, I speak against Amendment No. 4. The picture of the English education system described by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is not one that I recognise as of the real world. I would have preferred her to start this interesting debate with a recognition that every single indicator of improvement in standards, in quality of teaching, in management, in leadership and certainly in investment by the Government, shows things are far better now than they were a decade ago.
The argument about foundation schools and community schools has run throughout the passage of the Bill. I want to make what I hope is a relevant comment to what I believe is an irrelevant debate. An error in all these discussions is to believe that there is greater autonomy for a foundation school than for a community school. If I really believed that having foundation status gives schools more powers, more freedoms and greater autonomy, I would support the amendment. I oppose the amendment because I do not believe that foundation schools have greater autonomy or more independence than community schools.
That is because I believe that the Government have worked exceptionally hard over the past 10 years to try to make the education system, the schools system, structurally more equal and to give it greater equality. Having listened to the Minister and many people over the past months, I am yet to be persuaded of one meaningful, extra freedom, one grain of greater autonomy that one has with foundation schools that one does not have with community schools which would persuade me that standards would increase as a result. If I could be persuaded of that, even at this late date, I would support the amendment with great voice and great enthusiasm.
However, one can see no evidence that foundation schools now perform better than community schools. I pay tribute to the many wonderful foundation schools that exist in the inner cities which have turned schools aroundthere is one in Peckham to which I pay huge tributebut I need to hear some generosity of spirit that pays equal credit to the wonderful performance of many community schoolsmany serving most schools in the inner-citiesthat have really raised standards.
On this debate, the irony is that the only people with whom I have discussed community schools and foundation schools are politicians. In the past five years, I have not met one head teacher, when visiting a school or at a conference, who has asked, Why dont you make it easier for us to be a foundation school?. Quite simply, it is so easy now to be a foundation schoolfar easier than becoming a grant-maintained school in the days of the Conservative Governmentthat if our good head teachers really thought that it would make a difference, they would do it. They have asked me for lots of other things, but not one single head teacher has said, If only you made it easier for us to be a foundation school, with all those extra freedoms that would go with it, I know that I could deliver better outcomes for the children.
Given that that is the picture, why would we want to put an extra responsibility on a local authority to promote more of them? They have better things to do than to promote something that is readily available if a school wishes to take it. The noble Baroness talked about trusting heads, trusting schools and trusting governing bodies. We should trust them and if they want to become foundation schools they can; they do not need a local authority encouraging and persuading them to do that.
I am persuaded on two points. I could interpret the notion of foundation in a slightly different way and that would be a partnership in school improvement, an external partner to provide support in raising standards. I am all for that, but equally I know many community schools with the strength of such an external partner, so I have come to the conclusion that I really do not mind whether a school is a foundation school or a community school. I do not mind one bit. I am happy to leave it to the school because I believe we have a level playing field. To be honest, I mind us all spending a lot of time debating the matter when the world of education is not in any way putting an obligation on local authorities to pursue these structural changes.
The real challenge for us is that schools and heads want greater autonomy and ask for greater freedom. They tell me that if they had greater freedom, they could do better for their children. But the freedoms they ask are freedoms in the national curriculum, often freedom from the accountability framework, sometimes freedom from the publication of their results in the local press and the ability of the neighbouring school to seduce the most able children to go to it. The difficulty is that those are the freedoms we do not want to give, and a debate on that will come later on Report. I am not against freedoms, but there is nothing in foundation status that will give our heads more freedom to do their job more effectively. If there were, they would take it because it is there for the taking. Let us not place this additional burden on local authorities by making them pursue something that will do little for the children they are meant to be serving.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, the noble Baroness answered herself in her previous contribution when she successfully outlined the importance of having icons, totems and loadstones in legislation to set out in a declaratory way the direction in which we think we are moving. My noble friends amendment makes two important points in that regard. First, it is important that a school thinks that it is a foundation school because that is an attitude of mind and sets the direction that the school takes. I think that it is a thoroughly constructive direction, as the Government do, as they are promoting it. It is the way to go, and even if the physical powers are not much different, the mental attitude is. Secondly, it sets out the mental attitude that we expect of local authorities. Those of us who were around at the timewhich I suspect is most of uswill remember how difficult local authorities made themselves at the time of grant-maintained schools. Many still seem to be wedded to the idea that schools must be theirs and they must control them, rather than that they belong to parents and the community.
Across this House, we have taken a step away from that. We have said that local authorities are as friends of the parents and helpers of the schools, but not their owners. We are going to get away from the difficulties that came from ownership, such as local authorities just accepting their schools faults, not doing anything about them and expecting parents to live with them; that they were part of the community and satisfactory because they were the local authorities. I can remember going around schools in Manchester a long time ago. When a teacher was so bad that he was eventually removed from a school, the local authority transferred him to another of its schools because it thought that it owed a duty to its teachers first and above any other duty. We have moved a long way from that, and we are now in a very satisfactory position. The Governments vision of the function of local education authorities is one with which I thoroughly agree. To put a declaratory framework in the Bill so that local education authorities know what they are about and where we are expecting them to head has great value. I have been persuaded of that by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, herself.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Buscombe, for coming back to us with their slimline amendments. We remember the non-slimline versions, which occupied us for many hours. I am glad that we have now managed to focus the debate on two specific issues: that of promoting community schools and whether there should be local authority ballots in respect of them; and the duty to promote non-community schools.
The amendments in this group tabled by the noble Baronesses have opposing intents. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, wants us to encourage all schools to become trust, foundation or voluntary schools, while the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, wants there to be more community schools and wishes to amend Clause 7 so that local authorities may promote new community schools in all circumstances. I hope that I may come across as the voice of sweet reason because we want to come through the middle between these two extreme positions and stick with what the Bill proposesnamely, that schools and local authorities should consider the case for trust or foundation status on its merits. We believe those merits are substantial.
I strongly underline what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, who spoke with all the authority of a former chief inspector of schools, particularly in highlighting the contribution which greater autonomy can make to schools operating in more challenging circumstances. The evidence I have strongly supports the points he made in respect of academies where results are rising significantly faster than the national average, both at key stage 3 and GCSE. Furthermore, looking at the relative performance in schools in the most challenging communities, foundation schools, voluntary-aided schools and community schools, there is a differential level of performance in favour of foundation and voluntary-aided schools.
Among schools where more than 21 per cent of pupils were eligible for free school meals last year, the proportion getting five or more GCSEs in voluntary-aided schools was 48 per cent and in foundation schools 47 per cent, against 40 per cent in community schools.
I join my noble friend Lady Morris in paying tribute to the work of all schools. I visit schools constantly, as she does. I make no differentiation in the comments and the praise I give to schools whatever their category. We should support them all and they all go about their job in a highly professional way. But I believe that the evidence is clear that, all other things being equal, greater autonomy helps promote higher standards. Many schools are keen to explore opportunities for trust status and academy status, and since we simplified the arrangements more schools are opting for foundation status. That also supports this point of view. We believe that this decision should be taken by existing schools. Therefore, we do not favour Amendment No. 4, which provides this new duty.
It is now a truism that schools run best when they run themselves. But that is true. We seek to build on successful experience. Local authorities without track records which lead one to believe that they can take on these new responsibilities successfully, should establish schools on the foundation, trust or voluntary-aided models.
The House knows that we have made concessions on new community schools, as set out in Clauses 7 and 8. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked whether local authorities in the highest performing category may automatically publish proposals for a community school in a competition. I can state clearly that they can do so automatically. They do not require the permission of the Secretary of State. We believe that we have gone as far as is consistent with the need for better schools in areas where they simply are not good enough. I am not prepared to stand here and defend failure, blighting the life chances of children. Therefore, I do not accept that a local authority should have an unfettered right, however bad its track record, to promote schools which it more directly manages. A local authority with a poor track record should commission those with better prospects of successbe they a parents group or an education foundationto take on the task by means of a trust or a voluntary-aided school or an academy.
Amendment No. 15, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, would allow local authorities to publish proposals for schools outside a competition without the need for the Secretary of States approval where a ballot of parents had supported it. We support the role of parents. The Bill makes specific provision to strengthen their role by giving them more choice and more say in the education of their children. Our position on parental ballots has not changed since these matters were raised in Committee and in another place, and we do not support this amendment. This
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The Bill already places new duties on local authorities to promote diversity and choice and to respond to specific representations from parents. Clause 10 requires consultation with appropriate parties before any proposals are brought forward and guidelines will make clear that that includes parents. If consultation with parents favours a particular type of school, that will certainly add weight to that proposal when the local authority or the adjudicator comes to take its decision in the usual way.
We accept that in certain circumstances, such as the amalgamation of junior and infant schools, competition in the provision of a new school may not be in the best interests of the local community. Where that is the case, the current mechanisms set out in Clause 10 are in place to provide for proposals to come forward without a competition, but we see no reason to amend the provision further. Therefore, we oppose all the amendments.
Not only do we not support the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, but she stated that schools were there to serve the local education authority. That says it all. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lucas that we are trying to make a declaratory statement but also to give confidence to all schools
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I do not think that I said that schools were there to serve the local education authorityif I did, it was a slip of the tongue. My notes state clearly that schools are there to serve the local communityas are local education authorities.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention, but I think that she did say that. It was probably a slip of the tongue, so perhaps it is good that I have put the record straight with her.
The important thing here is that we want to do what we can to encourage schools and give them the confidence to go forward and become foundation and trust schoolsnot just of their own volition but through the encouragement of their local authorities.
We will support local authorities in playing a new commissioning role in relation to a new school system, at the heart of their local communities, and responsive to the needs of parents and pupils. They will support new schools and new provision where there is a real demand or where existing provision is poor. This is a very different role from acting as a direct provider of school places. We recognise that in many ways it is more challenging. But it also offers the scope to ensure that communities receive the education they deserve and aspire to.
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