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The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, this is the third time that we have debated these issues. Admittedly, on one occasion there was a great deal of excitement elsewhere. Much of this ground has been covered before. But I hope your Lordships will bear with me if I go over again the basics behind what we are proposing, not because the noble Lord, Lord Tope, was inaccurate in any way, but because they are fundamental to our reasons for persisting with our belief in these arrangements as the best way forward.
I start with the position as it is. Noble Lords will know that many proposals for change to school organisation are currently considered by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State takes decisions on all proposals relating to voluntary and grant-maintained schools; and all LEA proposals to which there have been objections. In addition, the Secretary of State may call in any LEA proposal for his own decision. Noble Lords opposite have spoken on a number of previous occasions of their experiences in dealing with such cases. We want to get away from that position. What we want, and what we have support for from consultation, is as local a decision-making process as possible. But it must be a local process based on partnership, reflecting in particular the significant contribution of the Churches over many years in the provision of school places.
Noble Lords opposite drew attention to the consultation and discussion between partners locally that is already undertaken in the development of proposals for change to school organisation. The Government entirely support that and hope that it will continue. Our proposals seek to build upon that partnership at local level. But the existing partnership is supported by the formal arrangements that I have just described in which proposals made by partners other than the LEA come automatically to the Secretary of State. Because the Secretary of State takes all decisions on cases where there is the slightest dispute, there is no incentive to resolve conflict locally.
I was surprised by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. In giving effect to the principle of decisions at local level, building on local partnerships, we concluded that it was right to involve those other partners directly in the decision-making process. We also concluded that it was right to do so in such a way as to give their views the degree of force that they are now given: hence a school organisation committee, in which the key partners at local level are brought together to reach decisions at a local level.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, and his noble friend Lady Maddock referred to the local education authorities. Our proposed new arrangements do not reduce the powers of local education authorities in respect of proposals for change to school organisation. LEAs will be responsible for securing that there are sufficient school places in their area; and for that reason will draft the school organisation plan. LEAs will retain their powers to publish proposals for all types of change to community schools and to decide any of their own proposals that do not attract objections. In that respect our proposals represent no change from the current arrangements.
Where they do introduce change is in the decision-making on those proposals that local education authorities have never had the power to determine: proposals of their own that attract objections, proposals made by voluntary schools and proposals made by foundation schools. Those proposals are currently removed from the local arena. From the noble Lord's remarks, it appeared that he did not completely understand that. I am sure that he does. However, I was surprised by his remarks in the light of that. In our proposed arrangements, these decisions will be made jointly by all the partners, with each having a direct voice in the decisions on those proposals.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, seemed to be saying that decision-making can be devolved to the local authority, particularly since other partners have seats on education committees. The fact remains that in the provision of school places the LEA is only one partner. It makes decisions for only some of the schools in its area. Partnership works now because it is supported by the involvement of the Secretary of State in making decisions on voluntary and grant-maintained schools. The school organisation committee, through its membership and voting arrangements, maintains the balance in decision-making partners.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She invoked grant-maintained schools and foundation schools. I proposed an amendment for the Government to agree that they should be represented on the organisation committee, but the Government objected to it.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, perhaps I may pick up the issue of membership of the committees. We have made it absolutely clear that the right way to organise the committees is not to have individual school representation in the way that the noble Baroness suggested. All schools have power to publish proposals of at least one kind within the new framework, including proposals to change categories. Voluntary schools covered by dioceses will be represented on the committee. We believe that it is right that other schools, particularly foundation and non-diocesan voluntary schools, should have a voice on the committee when proposals published by individual schools come to be considered. However, that is a level of detail for regulations rather than appearing on the face of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, in particular, among other noble Lords, expressed pessimism that decisions would not be reached by school organisation committees. Proposals going to school organisation committees will cover a wide range of change, including the addition of nursery provision, an enlargement beyond a certain minimum limit, the amalgamation of two schools. Many of those are not at all controversial. LEAs already decide some 40 per cent. of proposals published and that will continue. The number of proposals published varies from year to year, but might amount, in a typical year, to some 600 proposals. That is an average of four for each LEA. Of course, that average covers a range. There are authorities where, in a given year, no proposals at all are published; and others where periodically there is a very large number.
I accept that some proposals may be particularly difficult. Many proposals to close schools are, but even in that case they are not all difficult. I do not accept that school organisation committees will not be able to reach decisions on such proposals. Of course they will be difficult sometimes. Of course there will be pressures on individual members and on groups of members on the committee. But it seems to me a positive outcome that there will be members of the committee presenting a range of views on a particular proposal. But, when it comes to a vote, I think that in the great majority of cases the committee will be able to reach a collective decision. I think that we ought to be a little more optimistic than the noble Lord, Lord Tope, seemed to be.
I turn to the question of adjudicators. While the school organisation committees and the admissions forums provide the framework for local discussion and agreement, we have always recognised the need for a mechanism to cover occasions--which, as I have said, we anticipate will be relatively rare--when local agreement cannot be reached. We hope that it will not be necessary, but of course we must provide for it. We propose that the role should be filled by an adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State. We shall advertise the posts and recruit openly, following guidance set down by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
We have placed in the Library a statement on the adjudicator which describes in a little more detail his or her functions. The adjudicator will look again at proposals, comments and objections and the reasons for disagreement at local level. The adjudicator will consider all cases in the light of principles that are set out in public guidance from the Secretary of State and, as appropriate, in the school organisation plan and the code of practice on school admissions.
My noble friend indicated during discussion at Report stage--and I have written to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington--that the guidance will, for example, make clear that adjudicators are not expected to take decisions on proposals to which the Church groups on the school
Perhaps I may confirm what my noble friend Lord Peston rightly said and say to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, that I do not think that is in any way an authoritarian set of arrangements. The adjudicator will make an independent judgment on the relative merits of each case, based on the facts and against those principles. Of course, he has to make a decision which is reasonable. In all cases, decisions will be judgments between restricted options and we should remember that.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, said that what we propose is undemocratic, in which he was supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. During our most recent debate on the issue, the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, acknowledged that,
However, elected members do not have a monopoly of reasonable common-sense decisions. That is what we shall expect of adjudicators. They must be separate from any concern that decisions have been prompted by political considerations.
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