HC Deb 01 July 1991 vol 194 cc131-9 10.41 pm
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mr. Michael Alison)

I beg to move, That the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament. The Diocesan Boards of Education Measure replaces and repeals the Diocesan Education Committees Measure of 1955, enacted quite a few years ago. The first aim of the new Measure is to give more flexibility for diocesan boards than the 1955 Measure afforded, particularly in the light of changes since that far-off time, not least the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988. Diocesan boards have wide responsibility for education in parishes, Sunday schools and adult groups, over and above a board's specific responsibility for church schools. The schedule to the Measure gives the necessary flexibility to the composition of the diocesan boards, depending on the diocese.

The second aim of the Measure is to give financial control to the board in the matter of voluntary-aided schools where the board has to act as banker, guarantor and provider. The third aim is to allow the diocesan board to develop a strategy for church schools so that the church can be an effective and coherent partner with the state in the dual system.

Lastly, the Measure would bring diocesan boards into line with synodical government and make boards accountable to the diocesan Synod. In addition, the Education Reform Act reached the statute book in 1988, as I reminded the House, and the Measure has been drafted to take account of its new provisions.

Hon. Members will have seen that the Measure was given final approval with large majorities in all three houses of the General Synod. The one area that gave concern to some members was clause 7, which empowers a diocesan board to give directions to the governing body of the school. At all stages of the passage of the draft measure through the Synod, the Department of Education and Science and the Charity Commissioners were consulted. They raised no difficulty with regard to the clause.

Secondly, the board is specifically excluded by clause 7(5) from giving directions when a school wants to apply for grant-maintained status.

Thirdly, many of the matters on which a board might give directions would be those for which the Secretary of State would have ultimate responsibility. The House will nevertheless note that our own Ecclesiatical Committee sounded a modest although not overriding reservation about this point in paragraphs 10 and 11 of its report to the House.

I know that, in spite of the Ecclesiastical Committee's decision that the Measure is expedient, one hon. Member, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—he hoped to be with us this evening but I understand that he has been delayed and therefore sends his apologies—advises me that he still has some misgivings about the extra powers the diocesan boards are being given in the Measure.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead has raised two points with me in correspondence. As they are of general interest, it is reasonable to delay the House for a minute or two with some comments on his reservations.

First, the hon. Gentleman is worried about the future of church schools when local education authorities are reorganising or being reorganised. All too often, he believes, authorities pick on church schools to close if closures have to take place. The hon. Gentleman does not want this Measure and the enhanced powers of diocesan boards which it provides to frustrate or prevent a church school from taking a decision to apply for grant-maintained status, thus side-stepping the possible closure which the education authority may have in store for it. As I have already pointed out, clause 7(5) specifically prevents a diocesan board from frustrating any application for grant-maintained status by a voluntary-aided school.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Birkenhead expressed fears about the scope for governors of church schools in situations of change somewhat less final or sweeping than that of applying for grant-maintained status. He believes that in the new world in which schools operate nowadays, following the Education Reform Act, church schools which are successful and go-ahead will be able to attract pupils from the less successful schools. He visualises situations, however, in which a very powerful case might he put forward by some doicesan boards of education to prevent a voluntary-aided church school from maximising this opportunity and increasing its numbers up to its physical limits—particularly if some non-church state schools faced local closure as a result of the migration of children and pupils to a growing voluntary-aided church school.

I hope that I can largely reassure the hon. Gentleman on this point. If a successful church school sought to increase its intake, a diocesan board would not—indeed, it could not—overrule the aspirations of the local governors to let their school expand to its full capacity or to its so-called standard number—which is the same thing. Under the open enrolment provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988, no one can prevent the growth of a school up to the capacity of its building, should there be a parental demand that the governors wish to meet.

However, if there is an expansion beyond existing physical capacity, extra capital expenditure would logically be involved. That would raise somewhat wider issues. The diocesan board, for example, would become liable to find the 15 per cent. of capital cost not provided for by the 85 per cent. Department of Education and Science grant. It could not allow itself, however, to become a passive, residual and automatic provider of funds, in response to a school governing body's unrestricted initiative to expand its capacity. It is thus unlikely that the diocesan board, or the Secretary of State for Education and Science, would authorise extra capital expenditure on expanding a voluntary-aided church school where there is already spare capacity in the locality.

I hope that, on these two points, the hon. Member for Birkenhead will feel reassured that, within reasonable limits, school governing bodies' scope and initiative for extra enrolment, where there is the school capacity, will not be frustrated or inhibited by the Measure. The object of the Measure is to assist in the promotion of high standards in education, including the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of children in schools and more widely in society. Accordingly, I commend it to the House.

10.51 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

As it is for other hon. Members who were members of the Ecclesiastical Committee, this is the second time round the course for me, because we have already debated the Measure. As the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) knows, and other colleagues may be aware, I expressed some concern about the provisions in this Measure that go further in giving powers to diocesan boards than the secular legislation gives to local education authorities vis-a-vis governors of schools. In secular education, the pattern has been to hand more powers to governors, and that was the thrust of the Education Reform Act 1988. As the Ecclesiastical Committee, and those who gave evidence to it, accepted, the Measure has some moves in the other direction. There are provisions that explicitly give the diocesan board power to direct and intervene, as the right hon. Gentleman said. They come in clause 7, which is entitled: Powers of Board to give directions to governing bodies of aided church schools. There was a dispute at all stages in the Synod and subsequently as to what the right test should be and whether the test of intervention should be that someone had acted unreasonably, or whether the test, as in the Measure, should be Where the Board is satisfied that the governing body …is discharging its functions …in a manner which is not in the best interests of the school or church schools generally". The right hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to the two paragraphs in the report where the Ecclesiastical Committee in general, in paragraphs 10 and 11, pointed out that there was at least one circumstance where the power to intervene was questionable, because it was not subject to a final overriding decision by the Secretary of State for Education and Science. In paragraph 11, the Committee said: The point does not seem to the Committee to hold good, however, where the Board uses its powers under subsection (I) to direct a governing body not to take some action. If, for example, the Board gave a governing body directions not to publish proposals for changing the character of the school which the governing body was intending to publish under section 13(1)(b) of the Education Act 1980, the governing body would be under a duty not to proceed with the publication. In such a case the matter would never fall to be submitted for the Secretary of State's approval. That report makes it clear that two of us on that committee were not happy with the majority's conclusions. Even at this late stage in the debate I should like to reiterate my concerns. They will not be unfamiliar to those who have followed this debate and they derive from my experience of recent years as a school governor in a Church of England school.

The case is quite controversial and I would be neglectful if I did not mention it in this debate. It concerns the Southwark diocesan board of education and the Bacon's Church of England secondary school. That 18th century school is to be closed at the end of this term because the governing body decided to support the proposition that the school should be a city technology college. That decision was reached when I was on that governing body and I accept that I was out-voted—I do not make any complaint about that. The school will become the first Church of England CTC to be built, and will be in Southwark, in Surrey docks in my constituency.

The governors voted to close the school and supported the proposition that the Sir Philip and Lady Harris trust and the Southwark diocesan board of education should co-sponsor a CTC. At the time of that decision, one of the complaints was that the board's principal officer—he is aware of my view—specifically set the ball rolling for the CTC, without coming out in the open and discussing it with the governors, the school community, the members of the diocesan board or the diocesan bishop. From subsequent conversations I have gathered that the whole thing happened in a rather underhand way.

As a result of that behaviour the decision to turn Bacon's from a church secondary maintained school into a CTC was considered to be additionally controversial. The staff and the head opposed the decision and many governors—in the event a minority—also opposed it. As a result it was felt that the decision did not carry the full support of the school community.

In a way, all of that is water under the bridge as the governors voted to close the school and to set up a CTC. The diocesan board, as one of the promoters, found that the matter was debated by the synod of Southwark diocese only after the event. The sequence of events meant that first the governing body decided and only then that decision subsequently went before the synod.

The Measure before us still offers the possibility of intervention by the diocesan board. Subsequently the matter can be debated by the diocesan synod as a result of the clauses to which the right hon. Member for Selby referred. I believe that that process is completely the wrong way round. If there is a major decision of principle, such as that a church school should opt out, become a CTC or be closed—all are perfectly valid options within the education system—there should be wide consultation to test the body of opinion in the diocese. That should happen before the decision is taken by the diocesan board of education or the school.

I would not have felt the need to say anything further on the subject had subsequent events not reinforced the view—I heard witnesses say the same before the Ecclesiastical Committee—that the Southwark diocesan board of education has continued to neglect the best interests of the school in major respects.

I must use this forum to give notice that, unless the complaints that I outline are dealt with adequately, the reputation of the diocesan board and of the church in Southwark will be impaired greatly. This issue is relevant to the Measure as the Measure gives to the diocesan boards powers that are greater than those of the education committee to intervene over and above the heads of governors. If the diocesan board does not have the confidence of the members of the education community, giving the board more power is not something that some of us are very willing to see happen.

There were clear terms of agreement negotiated between the governors of Bacon's school and the CTC promoters—the trust and the diocesan board—on whether children who wished to go to the city technology college should have the right of appeal if turned down, and on the rights of children and staff to be able to transfer from the school to the college. It is the strong view of many staff, including senior staff, of many of the parents of children at the school and other parents—the view is irrespective of whether the parents' children still attend the school—and of the teaching unions and associations that are affected that the Church has broken its word.

I make the allegation explicitly because there is still just about time to recover the position before the end of the school year. It does Christian education no service when, having decided to go down a controversial road—to set up a Church city technology college—and having carefully negotiated terms, the Church appears clearly to break its word by failing to execute the terms of the agreement.

This general subject was carefully considered by those in the Synod, including the members of the relevant committees, who thought that there would be no abuse of powers and that it was appropriate to give the diocesan board extra powers. They may have had broader experience than mine, as I have been a school governor only once at the school in question, and once more recently in another church school in Southwark.

Despite what has been alleged, I do not advance these arguments out of pique because I have an incorrigible view that city technology colleges are so awful that I shall do everything that I can to undermine them. I have told the principal designate of the CTC that I shall support him and his staff as the college gets up and running. I have made it clear that I shall support the pupils and all those associated with the college. It is not my job to undermine a decision that has already been taken.

It is my job, however, to point out when the Church lets itself down, and there are many aggrieved people who consider that the word of the Church and of the education diocesan board in Southwark is not what it should be and is not what it was said it would be. It is felt that this experience has not shown the Church in a good light. Unless the Church and the diocesan board in Southwark end the sorry saga by putting their house in order, the end of Bacon's school, after centuries of service to the community, and the beginning of Bacon's college will have taken place against a background of an unpleasant set of circumstances. It is unfortunate that locally many feel already that the powers of the diocesan board are the last powers which should be extended.

I give the warning that recent experience in Southwark shows that it may sometimes be better to have the secular system whereby the governors have more powers relative to the education committee, as we have legislated for them to have, rather than fewer powers. I hope that what I have said with some anger on behalf of quite a large number of people with some bitterness will be heard where it is meant to be heard and that matters will be put right before it is too late.

11.4 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will not expect me to take up in detail his remarks about the route that has been taken by Bacon's secondary church school and its successor city technology college. I merely say in passing that I am not certain that the Inner London education authority was especially fond of Bacon's school. I think that there were differences over secular control. I recall that on several occasions education authorities tried to look away from some of the schools—often church schools, and primary schools at that—that have been popular with parents and staff, to look with more favour on schools where they thought that there was more of the ideological approach that suited their own prejudices. I pay tribute to the many members of staff, head teachers and governors of schools who have managed to stand out against some of the temporal inclinations of education authorities. School reorganisation is not a problem confined to the Church of England; the Roman Catholics have a great deal of controversy over some decisions, but by definition they are excluded from the provisions in this Measure.

During a short intervention in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) during the debate on the previous motion, I welcomed the general principle stated at the beginning of that Measure. I appreciate that it is not necessarily appropriate to this Measure, which deals with what the Secretary of State may do, and he may not want to be bound by a denominational or religious declaration of principle. The partnership between the Secretary of State, the Department and the Church authorities is, on the whole, good and it works reasonably well.

There are times when I think that some of the capital allocations to church schools have been abysmal. In London, some of the decisions that have had to be made on capital spending have not been limited by the 15 per cent. that may be raised by diocesan authorities; the problems have arisen because the capital allocation from the Department has been nil. I do not mean just small —on some occasions it has not existed.

My main point relates to clause 6—the provisions for the appointment of someone from the diocese to the committee looking after religious education not only in church schools, but in all schools within the education authority or the diocese. I fear that if 12 to 16-year-olds in church schools, as well as in non-church schools, were asked to explain the story of the prodigal son, to describe the actions of the Samaritan on the Jericho road or to go back to the Old Testament and show some understanding of the story of Ruth, only a very low proportion of them would be able to say much about any of them. They might recognise the words, "the good Samaritan", it is conceivable that some of them would recognise the words, "the prodigal son", but it is unlikely that they would have any idea of the detail of the stories or how they fit into two of the parts of the Christian faith—those of love and forgiveness.

We appear to have succeeded over the past 20 years in throwing away a great deal of our religious education, let alone our religious instruction. We have managed to devalue, by ignoring, much of our heritage—Judaeo, Christian and, to some extent, Hellenic—because we have stopped believing that we have practical measures that would allow young people to learn what many of us learned.

I am not suggesting that the Church of England provides a way to become good—I do not think that that is what the Church is for—but the Measure provides some of the mechanisms for passing down to successive generations some of what has been passed to us. I hope that, through the mechanisms of clause 6(1), people will find support in their dioceses and communities for the work of religious education, which has diminished when it should have increased.

11.8 pm

Mr. Alison

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall reply briefly to the debate.

I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will not consider me unreasonable or impertinent if I do not get drawn too deeply into the affairs of Bacon's school, which the hon. Gentleman brought vividly to the attention of the Ecclesiastical Committee. Indeed, his comments are on record in the report that it makes to the House.

I wish to make one or two more general comments in view of the enhanced authority that the Measure would give to diocesan boards of education, apparently in contradistinction to the tendency in the secular schools —the ordinary maintained schools—that more and more power be devolved to the governors and away from local education authorities.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it in good part if I say to him that had the diocesan board of education disagreed with the governors of Bacon's school in respect of its desire to become a CTC, that very power of the diocesan board of education mentioned in paragraph 11 of our report that the hon. Gentleman pinpointed—to issue to a school a direction, without any qualification or appeal, not to do a certain thing—would have put it in a position to secure precisely that which the hon. Gentleman wants—to prevent Bacon's school from taking certain action that he did not want it to take. Unfortunately, that enhanced power becomes a liability in the case he cited —but it could have been a veritable asset.

Mr. Simon Hughes

That is a fairly obvious conclusion to draw, but I would not take that view. If the diocesan board had taken a different view, its powers under the Measure—if the case had arisen next year rather than two years ago—would have allowed it to intervene. My concern remains the same. If the diocesan board had decided that the governors' view was wrong, and had used its powers to direct the governors, it could override them whichever view they had taken. The governors would have no appeal. They would have no chance of making their case to the board. The Measure's overriding power goes against the current tendency in the secular world, and the Measure permits too much in the way that it is drafted.

Mr. Alison

The hon. Gentleman has been clear and consistent. He suggests that, whichever way a diocesan board might move, he is in principle not too happy about the enhanced authority that the Measure gives it. However, its enhanced power does bear on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltharn (Mr. Bottomley) concerning religious education.

I draw attention to the functions of the board, as specified in clause 2(1), where it says that the functions of the board shall be (a) to promote or assist in the promotion of education in the diocese, being education which is consistent with the faith and practice of the Church of England. Only in Church of England schools is it possible to secure an education consistent with the faith and practice of the Church of England. In a controlled school, for example, although it may be a church school in origin, the religious education that it provides must be in accordance with the local education authority's agreed syllabus. It does not have to be the much finer and more highly flavoured religious input that is appropriate to a voluntary-aided school, where it may be possible to secure education that is consistent with the faith and practice of the Church of England. I make that point because it is possible, as matters now stand, with the considerable powers that are in the hands of a school governing body, for a new incumbent to enter the parish and to become chairman of the local church school's governing body. A new set of parochial church council members, who may be of an entirely transitory character, could also turn up on the school governing body. Then, hey presto! A case was brought to my attention in the past week by those who have been advising me about this Measure. A school governing body, made up of a not particularly interested incumbent and some not very committed parochial church council members can suddenly decide that they do not want the bore and the threat of having to raise the 15 per cent. of the total capital sums which they are required to find as part of their voluntary-aided status. On one fine summer's evening and in one vote, the school governing body then decide that they will opt out of voluntary-aided status and will opt in to controlled status. Through the single vote and decision of a group of people in the parish, who may be gone in five years' time, the whole of the purposes of clause 2(1)(a) of this Measure, which is to secure the promotion of education …consistent with the faith and practice of the Church of England;", can be thrown out of the window.

In those circumstances, it seems reasonable that when a school governing body decides that it wants to change the status of the school in a way that undermines and evacuates those very qualities of high calibre religious education in accordance with the doctrines of the Church of England, and when it decides to throw those out in a casual decision to opt for controlled status, the diocesan board should have the right to say no, to say that that is too draconian and final. It should have the right to tell them that it undermines the whole purpose of voluntary-aided church schools and the provision of quality religious education which the boards of education are there to promote.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and also to the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) for raising the issue. This is a very important debate. There is a strong argument for ensuring the protection of Christian education against maverick decisions by transitory people or careless custodians. However, there are ways of achieving that through a dialogue, just as when we make a decision in the House it has to be dealt with in another place and we have to consider what they think.

There is scope for dialogue between a governing body and a diocesan board. The question is whether one allows dialogue or an unquestioned arrogation of rights—telling people what to do with no question of their debating it. I am not saying that there should not be that sort of support from a diocesan board concerned about the fundamentals. I share the view of the hon. Member for Eltham that, unfortunately, the product of all our efforts may be that in many church schools the fundamentals are not clearly propagated by even a combination of the diocesan hoard and the governing body.

Mr. Alison

Dialogue is one thing, but a decision has to be taken. In the type of case that I have cited—where there is the possible loss of voluntary-aided status because of a unilateral decision by a school's governing body—although dialogue over the decision is desirable, someone has to bite the bullet and have the final say. Diocesan boards of education should have the power to prevent voluntary-aided Church of England schools from opting out and thereby losing the input of distinctive Church of England education. Dialogue is important, and if I knew more about Bacon's school I would be able to comment more constructively on whether there was adequate consultation. Nevertheless, even if one accepts that, the provision in the Measure is desirable for those reasons.

Mr. Hughes

Perhaps I should have used the word co-decision rather than dialogue. Sometimes there is an advantage in ensuring that a decision has to pass through two stages. Perhaps that would be a more secure way to achieve the objectives that the proponents of the Measure and those who are concerned about the greater powers on one side are looking for. If that can be achieved in practice all the time, perhaps it will be a good outcome of this change and this debate.

Mr. Alison

I take the point. Paragraph 9.3 of our report states that the board of education is required to make a report to the next meeting of the diocesan synod in respect of any directions given by it under the clause". I know that that is closing the door after the horse has bolted, and I fear that it will provide no consolation for the hon. Gentleman. I will, however, ensure that what he has said is brought to the attention of the relevant authorities.

I hope that I have dealt adequately with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.