HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc596-9 '.—In section 19 of the Education Act 1997 (School performance targets), in subsection (1), after 'set' there shall be inserted "after consultation with the local education authority.".'.—[Mr. Don Foster.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Don Foster

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 15 raises the question of target setting and the relationship between individual schools and their local education authorities. The new clause would require governing bodies to consult their local education authorities before setting performance targets. That will be achieved by amending the Education Act 1997. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary will respond to the debate on the new clause. If she checks her records, she will see that, during debate on that earlier legislation, she was a sponsor of amendment No. 208. As new clause 15 is almost identical to the amendment that she proposed approximately one year ago, I look forward to her support when we discuss the issue further.

The new clause is about target setting and the relationship between local education authorities and schools. It is now accepted by all hon. Members that target setting can play an important role in helping to raise standards. That is why the Liberal Democrats are prepared to support the Government's initiatives in that regard. However, we are conscious of the fact that target setting alone will not raise standards; other processes must be in place. After all, there is little point in setting a high hurdle unless we help people get over it.

A more important issue is the nature of the relationship between local education authorities and individual schools. There was considerable debate about that in Committee. I think it fair to say that Opposition Members were somewhat confused about the nature of the Government's understanding of the relationship between schools and LEAs. That was particularly true in relation to target setting. There was considerable confusion about who would be responsible for agreeing or setting targets. For example, I refer to the contribution by the Minister for School Standards in Committee on 29 January, when he said: The LEA will need to engage in discussion with the school and agree targets for it. The Government clearly believe that the LEA will set the targets and that the schools must accept them. However, the Minister went on: It will always be for the school to agree to the targets proposed by the LEA, but it will be for the LEA to challenge the school to do better and to get it to sign up to those improved standards."—[Official Report A, Standing Committee, 29 January 1998; c. 178.] It is clear that the LEA will set the targets and that the school must agree to them. Later in our deliberations on the same day, the Under-Secretary said at column 191 that the schools would be responsible for setting targets. She went on to say that she believed that it was important that the targets were owned by individual schools. She argued persuasively that, if the target-setting agenda was to be successful, schools had to set and own their targets.

The Committee also agreed—I hope the House will accept this also—that, if schools and local education authorities are to have an effective relationship, it is vital to involve local authorities in the target-setting process. If we refer to page 26 of the White Paper "Excellence in schools"—which preceded the Bill—we see that the Government had a clear view of the nature of that relationship. The White Paper states: The Government sets national targets and publishes national performance and benchmark data. Each LEA provides benchmarking data and guidance to all its schools to help them set targets. Each school sets draft targets, taking account of the comparative data and their own previous best performance, for discussion with its LEA. Finally, the White Paper states: Schools and LEAs agree targets, covering a 3-year period and subject to annual review. The crucial phrase is "for discussion" with its LEA. The new clause would ensure that an assurance was written into the Bill that the governing body of a school will consult its LEA before targets for the school, which the body will continue to own, are agreed.

Given that the new clause is almost identical to an amendment that the Under-Secretary proposed approximately 12 months ago, I very much hope that it will have her support.

6.30 pm
Ms Estelle Morris

I have to admit that I have never understood the problems that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) seems to have with this matter. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and I both made it clear where the responsibility for target setting lies. I am happy to reaffirm our commitment to setting targets as an important part of the agenda of raising standards and to reiterate my words in Committee. Ownership of targets by schools is important. The role of the local education authority is crucial. The hon. Gentleman referred to comments made by my hon. Friend that were made in the debate in which Leafy Lane and Park View schools were born. We had a long and interesting debate and those schools stayed in existence until the end of the Standing Committee, with hon. Members on both sides referring back to them at suitable points in our exchanges.

My hon. Friends referred to Leafy Lane, Park View and all the rest, because target setting is not merely about ensuring that schools that do not get good results improve, but about ensuring that schools that get what appear to be adequate results improve as well. We commented that there was much under-performance in Leafy Lane schools that needed to be challenged. The crucial role of the local authority in this matter is to provide comparative information about schools' performances in similar circumstances—similar in prior attainment, in the backgrounds of children and in the environments of the schools—which means that, when schools set targets, they cannot hide away and loiter in the middle of the school performance table. That is the role of local authorities—to challenge the target-setting progress of schools and point out to them that they may be happy to set X, but that a school with similar circumstances in the borough has set X plus Y.

From our experience of local authorities setting targets on a local authority-wide basis, we know that schools want to meet the best target that other schools in similar circumstances are meeting. The qualitative information that local authorities provide will be helpful to schools in setting targets.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards said, and as I repeated later: Responsibility rests with the school and the individual classroom teacher".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 29 January 1998; c. 178.] I am happy to repeat again that the responsibility for setting targets must lie with the bodies that will primarily be responsible for ensuring that the targets are achieved—schools. It is right that that should happen, but it is also right that schools should listen to what local authorities say.

In the vast majority of cases, there will not be a dispute. Schools will welcome the information that local authorities can bring. They will benefit from the exchange of information that they and their governing bodies will have with the local authority. The result will be that the targets set will be sufficiently challenging to do their job of raising standards.

Mr. Don Foster

Does the Under-Secretary accept that there is a possibility of a dispute between a local education authority and a school only if there has been consultation on the issue between them? Will she confirm that it will be a requirement for schools to consult the LEA before they finalise their targets? That is all that the new clause would ensure.

Ms Morris

I do not want to avoid the question, but that depends on what the hon. Gentleman means by "consult". If he is asking schools to consult local education authorities and defer to their opinion, the answer is no. If he is asking them to talk to the LEA about their targets, the answer is yes. The real difficulty is—perhaps this has been the source of our debates—that, if the school and the LEA cannot agree, the local authority's targets stand, but the fact that there has been a dispute can be recorded in the plan that goes forward. What is the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the word "consult"? Does it mean bargaining and schools having to do what they do not want to meet the needs of the local authority? No. Schools must set their own targets. If consultation means talk, we can find accord with that.

I do not think that there is a million miles between us on this matter and, my having given him those assurances, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will see fit to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Foster

Towards the end of the Under-Secretary's remarks, we were beginning to get a clear assurance that she would expect consultation of the type which she described—not a one-way consultation in which the LEA is determined to have its way, but a two-way consultation between the school and the LEA.

The Under-Secretary wonders why I have continued to be somewhat confused about the Government's position. If she reads in Hansard her contribution to the debate on new clause 14 on special educational needs, she will find that she continued some of the confusion. If I noted it correctly, in her reply to that debate she said: targets must be set for special schools". The confusion about who is responsible for setting targets is part of the reason for my confusion.

Ms Morris

I would hate the hon. Gentleman to continue to be confused after this debate. Perhaps I was not clear in my use of words. I was referring to the documentation that is sent to the Department for approval, in which we are asking for targets school by school. The word "for" refers to the fact that LEAs must record the targets for special schools, not that they must do it on their behalf.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for acknowledging that her words were somewhat unclear. I pressed the issue because of that lack of clarity, but given the clear undertaking that the hon. Lady has given about the need for consultation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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