HC Deb 25 May 1984 vol 60 cc1381-5
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Sir Keith Joseph)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Government's proposals for the governing bodies of maintained schools in England and Wales. The proposals are set out in a Green Paper which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I published on Wednesday. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

The aim of the proposals is to raise standards. Since the Education Act 1944 established the present basis of our decentralised school system, much has been achieved by our maintained schools. The local education authorities, the voluntary bodies and the teachers have each contributed as partners to that achievement. The Government now propose to expand this partnership. We mean to give parents an increased role within it. Parents, too, are partners in education. They bring to this task unique responsibilities, a close knowledge of the children and a personal dedication to the full development of their qualities and talents. Our proposals build on the reforms initiated by my predecessor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle).

We now propose that parents elected by their fellow parents should have the right to form the majority on the governing bodies of the 20,000 county schools and maintained special schools and, together with the foundation governors, to form the majority on the governing bodies of the 3,500 voluntary controlled schools.

We also propose that, subject to the fundamental functions of the LEA, the governing bodies thus reconstituted should be assured of a powerful voice in the affairs of these schools. We plan to redefine the allocation of certain responsibilities for the curriculum and conduct of the school, the appointment and dismissal of staff, the management of its finances and the use of its premises. We intend that the local education authority, the governing body and the teachers should each have adequate scope to contribute to the good education of the pupils in cooperation with each other. Governors would receive training for the effective discharge of their responsibilities.

Local education authorities have a long and proud record. Our proposals are deliberately designed to leave untouched the duty of each local education authority to secure the provision of sufficient and efficient schools for its area and preserve those powers which it needs to discharge that duty. It will continue to be responsible for the character and pattern of the school system in its area; for formulating a curricular policy for its schools in the light of national policies and local needs; for employing the teachers and other staff and for managing them in the interest of all its schools; and for providing the necessary resources and deploying them effectively. On many important matters affecting the schools the local education authority will, as now, have the final say.

Our proposals protect the professional freedom of teachers and in particular give a more secure foundation to the authority of the head teacher to manage the professional business of the school.

Our proposals seek to strengthen the dual system of county and voluntary schools which continue to serve the country well and to offer diversity and choice to parents. We shall retain the present arrangements for the composition of the governing bodies of voluntary-aided and special-agreement schools. We also propose to maintain those features of the system which give these schools a substantial measure of independence and to make certain changes designed to enhance the position of voluntary schools.

A good school is more than an outpost of county or town hall, and more than a place where teachers go about their business. A good school develops its own identity and sense of purpose and serves its local community. We propose to achieve these ends by giving to every governing body, and to parents, an influence over the life of the school which does justice to their commitment to the standard of education in their locality and gives them scope to improve that standard.

My right hon. Friend and I will now consult widely and thoroughly on the proposals in the Green Paper. In this complex matter we are anxious to profit from the knowledge and experience of our education partners and of all others who are concerned to raise standards in our maintained schools. In the light of these consultations we intend in due course to bring before this House legislation to give effect to the Government's proposals.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

I declare my interest as a former governor of an ILEA comprehensive school. First, is the Secretary of State aware that the Labour party is strongly in favour of the involvement of parents because we believe, with the Hargreaves report, that education is a common enterprise between pupils, parents, teachers and the wider community?

Is the Secretary of State also aware that the Labour party was the pioneer of parental representation on school governing bodies and that it was the Labour Government who set up the Taylor committee, mentioned in the Green Paper, and who first introduced legislation—which fell with the fall of the Labour Government in 1979—later adopted by the Conservatives, which required there to be parent governors?

Does the Secretary of State accept that we welcome an increase in the number of parent governors but believe that all the education partners should be fully represented—local authorities, teachers, non-teaching staff, parents and representatives of the wider community such as the employers and the trade unions?

Does the Secretary of State further accept that if there is to be genuine partnership it is wrong for one group to be able to dominate the others? Under the Government's proposals, is there not a danger of giving majority power to a group whose interests in a particlar school may, of necessity and understandably, be transient? There could well be problems of continuity, lack of experience and balance.

The Secretary of State has shown his interest for one educational partner—the parents. Is it not about time that he showed a similar interest for the teachers, who are completely demoralised and bitterly resentful of the Secretary of State's refusal to support arbitration? Will he now join with the AMA and instruct his representatives on Burnham to vote for arbitration?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am glad that in general the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) welcomes the Government's proposals. To the extent that he wants to obtain credit for pioneering on the part of the Labour Government, although they set up the Taylor committee they did nothing effective about its report, and it is the Conservative Government who are pioneering the giving of a majority voice to parents on governing bodies.

I make no apology for giving parents a majority voice on governing bodies. They have, as a group, a continuing interest in school standards, and I believe that during the consultation process we shall have ample opportunity to consider whether we need to make any adjustments to our proposals.

As for the sad disruption that is now occurring to children's education, the Government continue to deplore it, with great emphasis. I cannot believe that it is in teachers' interests to disrupt the schooling of children. No arbitrator has the power to conjure up more resources. The employers have offered as much as they conceivably can, and the offer which remains on the table is fair and reasonable. I hope that teachers will come to realise that and will accept it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that, although this is an important statement, the spring Adjournment debates are precious Back-Bench Members' time. It would be unfair to those Members who have been successful in the ballot to take too much time on the statement. I propose to allow questions to continue until 11.15 am.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

I am sure that Opposition Members will welcome the Secretary of State's scenic route to Damascus. Does he accept that what he has announced is pure, high-octane Liberal policy, and has been so for some 10 years? He said that the reforms were initiated by his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle). Will he explain why the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposed these very amendments, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in the Education Bill Committee in 1979?

On the subject of schools and the Secretary of State's encouragement to develop the identity and sense of purpose of schools in the local community, will he now stop closing village schools such as the school in the village of Coveney in my constitutuency, which is doing such good work; and finally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."]

Sir Keith Joseph

I am glad that the Liberal party also welcomes the Government's initiative. Let historians dispute where the idea of increasing parental influence on governing bodies came from. Of this I am sure: the idea of having a majority of parents on governing bodies is a Conservative Government monopoly. It is our initiative, which we are glad is being so widely welcomed.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I should like to declare my interest as a former deputy head of a comprehensive school of 1,100 and as one who ran a mixed school of over 2,000 children after that. Will the governing bodies, as now to be reconstituted, have final responsibility for school discipline? Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is very difficult to arrange a good, strong parental vote for a parent governor? I tried to do that. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider including postal ballots and a minimum voting requirement to achieve the number of governors that he envisages?

Sir Keith Joseph

I respect my hon. Friend's experience in schools. I draw his attention to chapter 4 of the Green Paper, on conduct and discipline. Parents, through governing bodies, will have a greater influence on conduct and discipline, as my hon. Friend will see spelt out there. With regard to electoral procedure, we shall consider my hon. Friend's points and any others that are made during the consultation period.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, whichever party is in power, it is not easy to get such matters right? They are not susceptible to nice party manifestos. Will the Secretary of State consider asking the Leader of the House whether we can use the Special Standing Committee procedure to question the Government's proposals before there is legislation? The Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Bill is an admirable precedent. It is an excellent idea. One hears the views of the professionals and the parents and not just those of the Department of Education and Science, which are as remote from education matters as are the Secretary of State, myself and the House of Commons.

Sir Keith Joseph

I shall put the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I can do no more than that.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

Does my right hon. Friend share my slight sense of disappointment at the somewhat grudging tone of the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice)? It seems to me that the closer democracy gets to the ground, whether the pithead ballot, the London boroughs or parent power, the less the Opposition like it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the wider education debate raised by the hon. Member for Durham, North, there is a duty on both sides to avoid that debate being dominated purely by the cash nexus? Will my right hon. Friend therefore put this reform and other reforms into one big productivity package that will give a new deal for pupils, teachers and parents?

Sir Keith Joseph

My hon. Friend is asking a great deal. I happily accept his comments on the Opposition's attitude, but I am still glad that they welcome the proposals.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I served as a governor for an ILEA school. Following the ILEA's initiative of introducing parent governors on to school governing bodies, does the Secretary of State accept that most Labour people in inner London will welcome a move towards increased and improved parental involvement on governing bodies? Does he recognise that as parents become more involved on governing bodies there will be increasing pressure from them for him and his skinflint colleagues to release the additional resources that will be necessary if the schools are to do their job, whoever is on the governing bodies?

Sir Keith Joseph

I was glad to see that in the good Hargreaves report on schooling in inner London, commissioned by ILEA, the idea of an increase in the number of parents on governing bodies was included.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Newport, West)

My right hon. Friend's announcement today will be welcomed throughout Wales, and also in England. The change has needed to be made for a long time. Can my right hon. Friend say what timetable he has in mind for introducing the legislation?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and am glad of his voice to help me to persuade my colleagues to make that day as early as possible.

Mr. Speaker

In the interests of balance, I call Mr. Wrigglesworth.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Is the Secretary of State aware that these proposals will be welcomed by alliance Members and studied with great interest over the coming couple of weeks? Will he assure us that the procedure adopted in the past, of political appointments being made to governing bodies of people who have no knowledge of or contact with the area from which the pupils are drawn, will be ended under the proposals? Pay and arbitration are causing much trouble at schools. Could that matter be resolved if the Government had the political will and priorities that they had for the Falklands, the police and other areas of Government activity, when they spent substantial sums of money?

Sir Keith Joseph

There will be less room on governing bodies for appointments by local education authorities as a result of the proposed legislation. As for the hon. Gentleman's welcome to the proposals, I am not used to unanimity, but I am grateful for it on this occasion.

Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage)

I join other hon. Members in welcoming the proposals, although at present I am a school governor appointed by a local authority. However, will more guidance and encouragement be given to greater involvement in meetings and other activities in the interests of the effectiveness of governing bodies?

Sir Keith Joseph

The purpose of the proposed reform is precisely to increase the effectiveness of governing bodies and parents.

Mr. Freud

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You made a welcome but innovative remark from the Chair. You said that in the interests of balance you would call my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth). I wonder what the balance is that you intend to give from the Chair.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman does not need to ask me such a question. He knows exactly what I meant by that remark. He is taking time out of the Adjournment motion debate. I call Mr. Banks