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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I believe that we should examine the kind of occasions when it might be necessary for a local education authority to seek access to a school. It might be necessary when a school's performance falls below an acceptable level. The LEA must have access to the school to know how best to support its improvement. The same is true in respect of an issue of health and safety, for example. The responsibility on the LEA is to promote high standards in all the schools for which it has responsibility.
The noble Baroness is right in saying that we are returning grant-maintained schools to a relationship with the local education authority which was removed by previous Conservative legislation. That political decision was taken before the election, announced before the election and included in the manifesto on which the people of this country decided to elect a Labour Government.
We do not intend to back down on our commitment to return grant-maintained schools to LEAs and to set up the foundation process. If we were to do so on an issue of this kind we would be betraying the whole purpose of the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to improve standards in our schools and a main agent for that purpose is the local education authority.
Baroness Blatch: The Minister has still not answered my question so I wish to put it again. Perhaps he will relate his answer to schools such as the Oratory School and many others which have been in touch with us and are concerned about this issue.
First, the noble Lord referred to "total discretion". Can he explain over what? Secondly, I agree that reaching agreement is a better course. If the LEA, the governors of a school and the staff believe that there is a good case for intervention, for providing information or whatever, that is the best way in which to move forward. Certainly on past records, there will be occasions when the school believes that the case for LEA intervention is not strong, and will take issue with it and resist it. Does "total discretion" come in there? Is it possible for a school to resist intervention by the LEA?
I return to a point made by the noble Lord about the previous government. They put a measure in an Act of Parliament which allows schools to opt voluntarily for grant-maintained status. Every single grant-maintained
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I have looked carefully at my speaking notes and the only time that I used the phrase "total discretion" was when I referred to the effect of the noble Baroness's amendment. I said that the amendment would give the governing bodies of voluntary-aided and foundation schools almost total discretion over the extent to which the local authority was allowed access to the school.
The only other reference which could possibly justify the noble Baroness's intervention is when I said that the code makes it clear that LEAs have no general legal power to insist on entry to a school against the wishes of the school. That must be what the noble Baroness was referring to.
I used the phrase "almost total discretion" with reference to the amendment because it provides that there shall be reference to the Secretary of State in the course of dispute. I used the phrase that there is no general legal power to insist on entry because the code of conduct sets out quite clearly the circumstances in which entry might be necessary and, of course, provides that there is a system for appeal to the Secretary of State by any school which claims that entry is not necessary. Therefore, the description of a general power is entirely inaccurate.
If the noble Baroness suggests that there is a total discretion in relation to governors, the answer is that if access to the school were refused unreasonably--in other words, not in accordance with a code of practice--it would be open to the LEA to seek a direction from the Secretary of State. It would also be open to the LEA to issue a formal warning notice if it has concerns about a school's performance.
However, I repeat that it is important--and I am sure that it will be adhered to in 99.9 per cent. of cases--for schools and local education authorities to work together to promote standards rather than setting up a system of institutionalised conflict which could be brought about by the amendment which has been moved.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon: Perhaps I may make a point in relation to voluntary-aided schools. I take it that those schools are included in the amendment because they have that degree of autonomy to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred.
I make three simple points. First, church schools, not least aided schools, have always maintained that they do not wish for separate or special treatment in those ordinary provisions. This appears to me to be a special provision for aided schools which the majority of them would reject.
Thirdly, I make the point made already by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. Good relationships lie clearly at the heart of building up standards. The experience of the vast bulk of schools--aided as well as controlled schools--is that there are those good relationships. As I said, aided schools have a measure of autonomy. There is no necessary reason why that autonomy should lead to any kind of conflict. It is possible to have the autonomy that aided and foundation schools will have in the future and still to work closely with LEAs. I hope that that will be the outcome.
Baroness Blatch: I am surprised that the right reverend Prelate said that the voluntary-aided schools have had no difficulty abiding by the code of practice because it is not yet in being. The document is out for consultation; the first draft has not yet come back to the department; and we shall not know what the final document looks like until it comes before the House.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The right reverend Prelate is quite right. Although the code of practice to which we have referred is not yet in force, I can confirm on the part of the local education authorities that they value the constructive co-operation which exists with voluntary-aided schools.
Baroness Blatch: So do I, but I believe that we are talking about two different things. We are talking about a code of practice which refers to many statutes which are not yet on the statute book. Therefore, it is not yet in being. The autonomy which grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools enjoy at this moment is greater than that which they will enjoy under the Bill when it is enacted. That is the point I was making.
I return to the fundamental point that I was making. The code of practice is no more than an exhortation. We all applaud when things are going right and are going as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, describes. That is very important. It is far better to have harmony and agreement. But we know that when a large number of schools obtained grant-maintained status they did not enjoy a very good relationship with their LEAs. Many will now come together again. We want that to work and we shall applaud if it does work.
However, we must think of the most difficult scenario; namely, where the situation does not work out. We must ensure that the rights of a school are protected in this Bill. My amendment refers to the schools which are performing very well indeed. They are successful and are improving year on year. My amendment asks that they should be left alone. That is what the amendment seeks to achieve. Where a school is claiming to be successful and improving year on year but the LEA takes a different view, then it is possible
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.