HL Deb 10 June 1991 vol 529 cc969-72

7.55 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford rose to move, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure has four main purposes. First, it provides more flexibility for diocesan boards than the present Measure. Diocesan boards, or committees of education, have wide responsibilities for education in parishes, Sunday schools, adult groups and so on, as well as specific responsibility for schools. We need a more flexible constitution in order to make adequate provision for those responsibilities. Hence the rather complex schedule to provide options for dioceses.

Secondly, in the matter of voluntary aided schools, the diocesan board often has to act as banker, guarantor or provider. It is essential that the diocesan board should have proper financial control.

Thirdly, the diocesan board must have the freedom and authority to develop a strategy for church schools. Nearly all Church of England schools have local trustees and a majority of local governors. The General Synod Board of Education has no control or authority over those schools. It can only be advisory. If the Church is to be an effective and coherent partner with the state in the dual system, then diocesan boards must be our agency. They need the authority to co-ordinate the Church's specific contribution to the education of young people.

Fourthly, the Measure is needed in order to bring us up to date. The existing Measure was passed in 1955. Since then, synodical government has been introduced. More importantly, the Education Reform Act has come into force. We need a legal basis which takes account of those enactments.

I believe that the Measure is generally acceptable. It was agreed by overwhelming majorities in General Synod. A small minority has criticised the Measure because it gives too much power to diocesan boards. Anxiety has focused on Section 7, under which, in some circumstances, a diocesan board can give directions to the governing body of a school. It is further argued that such a power of a diocesan board over a local school goes against current government policy, which delegates as much responsibility as possible to the school.

Perhaps I may make some points clear. First, in the preparation of this Measure we have been in continuing contact with the Department of Education and Science and with the Charity Commissioners. They have not expressed any concern with it. Secondly, the diocesan board of education is specifically excluded from giving directions when a school wishes to apply for grant-maintained status. Thirdly, many of the circumstances in which a diocesan board might give directions are such that the matter will ultimately be resolved by the Secretary of State. Nonetheless, in some matters the diocesan board can give directions to a church school governing body, and there is in the strict sense no appeal. However, the board can give direction only where there is a two-thirds majority and a report must then be made to the diocesan synod. Therefore the powers of the diocesan board are circumscribed.

The report by the Ecclesiastical Committee refers to a specific possibility. A successful church school might wish to increase its intake, resulting in the loss of pupils in a neighbouring school, whether church or county. Will a diocesan board overrule the aspirations of the local governors? In such a situation, the diocesan board could not and would not in practice refuse to let a church school expand to its full capacity. We wish to see all church schools working at capacity, so making their full contribution to national education. If there were a question of expansion beyond capacity, extra capital expenditure would probably be involved and neither the diocesan board nor the Secretary of State would be likely to authorise extra expenditure if there were spare places in the locality.

The Measure provides a forum in which the Church can resolve such a situation responsibly, hearing the views of the governors who are entitled to attend the board, and considering the situation in perspective. Any decision will be made in the interests of the school, the interests of church schools generally and bearing in mind that the Church is in partnership with the state. Our concern remains to promote a high standard of education, including the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils in school and of society. I believe that the Measure will help us in that purpose. While I recognise the criticisms that have been made by a minority, I have no hesitation in commending the Measure to your Lordships. I beg to move.

8 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford for presenting the Measure. The system of Church of England schools is complex, as is this Measure. Many such schools were established by parishes and by local benefactors before the modern diocesan structures were developed. Unlike the Roman Catholic voluntary schools, in which the majority of school governors are appointed by the diocese in question, the Church of England may appoint only a minority of school governors and therefore be open to difficulties from the majority who are not Church appointed.

The right reverend Prelate discussed the problems that have arisen under Section 7. I had doubts about the provision which I expressed before the Ecclesiastical Committee. I am happy to say that my doubts About Section 7 have been resolved, except that I wish tile diocesan board could instruct governors not to apply for grant-maintained status. However, that is another matter, which I shall not at present pursue.

I support the right reverend Prelate and believe that the changes are welcome. They should achieve the promotion of a closer relationship between the diocese and the local education authority. That is their design and it is much to be desired. I do not believe that the rights of Church of England school governing bodies to determine the future of their schools will change a great deal as a result of the Measure. However, the power of the diocese to direct a governing body to consider plans, for instance, about a change of character under Section 13 of the Education Act 1980 and, if necessary, submit them to the Secretary of State on behalf of the governing body will, in my view, promote the diocese's role in implementing school reorganisation plans that have been agreed with the local education authority. As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, the Measure will assist the local education authority in its duty under Section 8 of the 1944 Act to secure a sufficient number of primary and secondary school places and it will assist in the reduction of surplus places.

My doubts about Section 7, which I initially thought was draconian, have been resolved. I am happy to welcome the Measure and to support it.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall be brief. This is not a government Measure. Its purpose and effects have been fully explained by the right reverend Prelate, happily to the satisfaction of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel.

The measure has been, as we have heard, fully debated in all Houses of the General Synod and voted through by a considerable majority. The Ecclesiastical Committee has given it a thorough review and has taken evidence from representatives of the General Synod before declaring it to be expedient. Those are the procedures appropriate for a Measure which affects only church schools and they are procedures in which we would not wish to intervene without strong reason.

In very early discussions Department of Education officials queried the possible effects of the Measure on applications from aided schools for grant-maintained status. The General Synod representatives told us that it was never their intention for that to be subject to any power of veto by the Diocesan Board. The Measure now makes that quite clear as did the right reverend Prelate.

As we have heard, there remain in some quarters anxieties about the nature and extent of the new powers given to the boards. I can understand those anxieties and welcome the assurances given by the right reverend Prelate about the way in which those powers are expected to be used.

Beyond that I shall do no more than note that the full debates in synod and in this House have enabled all views to be heard and have given a good basis for the decision which now rests with your Lordships.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I have every hope that the Measure will strengthen the Church's contribution to the education of the children of this nation. In that spirit, I commend the Measure to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.