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Lord Tope: My Lords, I was not present when we debated this amendment in Committee. Some 25 years ago, among other things, I first became a school governor of a group of seven primary schools, each with the same governing body. Back in those days if a governors' meeting lasted more than an hour, the chair was deemed to be doing badly. Most of that hour was taken up with the time that it took successive heads to get from the classroom door, to sit down, tell us how long the fire drill had taken and get out again.
I am now the governor of just one of those schools, which is a junior school, on a different site from its infant school and with a separate governing body. I have no doubt which is better. The situation we now have is infinitely better. My own personal preference would be almost always to have a separate governing body. That is the norm and will continue to be so. However, I wonder why the Government are insisting in all cases there shall be separate governing bodies. I have read the Minister's reply to this point, but I am still not convinced that it was necessary for us to dictate from the centre what shall happen under any circumstances with each governing body.
If I remember rightly, the Minister spoke of the need to encourage more parent governors--I entirely support that--but that in itself does not preclude having a single governing body. It must be possible to increase parent governor representation on a governing body if it is felt desirable--although, in my experience, all too often parents are not clamouring to be governors.
The other laudable desire was that the governing body should concentrate more on driving up standards than on administrative matters, site management and so on. That is also desirable. In my experience, site management is often of more interest not only to governors but to staff. It is also delegated to a sub-committee of the main governing board. Again, why should one preclude the other?
I shall listen carefully to what the Minister has to say. At this stage I feel that the Government are being unnecessarily proscriptive. I was accused on Tuesday of wishing to centralise. This is far more centralising than anything I was suggesting. It would be more appropriate to leave it to governing bodies and the appropriate LEA to decide for themselves where, in exceptional circumstances, it is more appropriate, desirable and agreed by all concerned that there should be a single governing body.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, when we considered these amendments during Committee the main argument in favour of retaining group governing bodies was that, where two schools wanted to be managed by one governing body, they should be allowed to do so. We have heard this again from the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe.
It misses the point of what governing bodies are there to do. They are not there to manage schools. There is a distinction to be made between governance and day-to-day management. Where that distinction is not well understood governing bodies are in danger of treading on the toes of head teachers and their professional staffs by getting too deeply involved in day-to-day management issues.
The National Association of Head Teachers, which represents the majority of primary school heads, has told us that it would be extremely concerned by the re-introduction of group governing bodies as provided for by these amendments. Many LEAs have told us that they support our proposals for each school to have its own dedicated governing body.
Governing bodies are there to promote higher standards and provide accountability for the school's performance. They should be looking at the strategic direction that the school should be taking. Group governing bodies detract from that purpose in relation to individual schools. Governing bodies have always found it easier to deal with issues such as sites and buildings than with the substance of education. They often feel more comfortable with those issues. I too have been a governor--although rather a long time ago--and I remember that too much time tended to get taken up with those sort of problems.
That seems to be particularly true with group governing bodies. They tend to be on shared sites, and buildings and facilities rather than the substance of education, standards of teaching and learning, all too often dominate. Continuing with a system of grouping runs the risk of diverting governing bodies from their main purpose.
We have a genuine desire to strengthen the rights of parents and to increase the accountability of the governing bodies, as I think the noble Baroness recognises. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, certainly did. We have also listened carefully to the arguments being made in favour of retaining group governing bodies. I do not recall anyone suggesting that the existence of group governing bodies would enable them to meet those aims. We believe that such arrangements are inconsistent with those aims because they blur the lines of accountability and reduce the influence of parents on the governing body. Increasing the influence of parents is a manifesto commitment. We see it as a key to raising standards because parents have the most at stake.
We cannot consider the retention of group governing bodies just as a neutral act. It would mean a significant reduction in parental influence at each individual school within a group. Although perhaps it is possible that the number of parents on a governing body in a group school might be increased, there is no way that that can be assured.
Perhaps one reason why the campaign to preserve group governing bodies has not been led by the parents of pupils at the schools involved is that they would like to be better represented. Moreover, we really have not heard a single persuasive argument to suggest that the benefits of operating within a group governing body can only be preserved by legislation. That is the nub of what I want to say.
I appreciate the comments that have been made about the retention of group governing bodies in those limited circumstances where a junior and infants school share the same site, although I do not believe that to be so in the case that the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, is raising. But whether it is the case or not, we do not believe that the difficulties that have been described are insuperable. It will be perfectly possible under the new governors' framework to arrange for some cross-representation across two governing bodies where previously there was only one. There will continue to be provision for governing body committees to include non-members. Indeed, if there were a significant issue of common concern, there is no reason why two governing bodies or their respective committees should not meet together to discuss it. That would be a sensible solution. But, quite frankly, many of the day-to-day management issues involved should be worked out jointly by the head teachers, and usually are. They ought not to be ducking those responsibilities by expecting a joint governing body to sort them out for them. We cannot overlook the fact that a number of positive benefits would be lost if we continued to permit group governing bodies. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, set out very clearly the disadvantages of having group governing bodies.
We think that every school should have its own governing body to oversee the drive to improve standards and to provide a clear line of accountability. Such a governing body will have more direct responsibility for its school's performance and will be able to exercise its responsibility more effectively because the governing body can focus on just one school. It will also benefit from full parental representation rather than the diluted terms which
Lord Gisborough: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, does she appreciate that many of the governors are either experts or are trained and become experts in particular areas, such as accountancy, management and so on? If a governor has those skills, surely those skills should be spread as widely as possible, perhaps over two schools rather than being confined to one.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief contribution on the basis of an experience I have had in this area. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, was saying that having group governing bodies is an innovation. The noble Baroness shakes her head. I did not think that she was saying that. As a former education officer, I had to administer such a scheme. I remember that the education committee--
Lord Whitty: My Lords, for my noble friend's benefit, perhaps I may clarify that at Report stage it is not allowable to make a speech after the Minister has sat down. The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, asked my noble friend a question before she had sat down. That is the only way in which we could have an additional debate.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, perhaps I may answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. I am not sure that I entirely understood it, but I think he was suggesting that where one has governors with expertise--perhaps accountants--it would be desirable if they could serve more than one school. There is nothing to stop an individual who happens to have an interest in more than one school to be on two separate governing bodies, although, on the whole, I think it is a good idea for people to be governors of a single school and take the duties that are associated with being the governor of a single school very seriously and have the loyalty that is necessary. I think there are enough people around, including those who have the kind of expertise to which the noble Lord referred, who are willing voluntarily to give their time to this enormously important job.
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