HL Deb 19 July 1993 vol 548 cc515-7

2.43 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

What procedures are in place for parents to complain about their children's education in both grant-maintained and local authority maintained schools.

The Minister of State, Department of Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, there are statutory appeals and complaints mechanisms in the areas of the curriculum, admissions to schools, exclusions from schools and special educational needs. The Education Bill includes various provisions to improve those mechanisms. Parents may also raise concerns about any other aspects of their children's education with school staff, the school governing body and, where appropriate, with the local education authority.

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, there are areas where there is no statutory requirement and it is that which I believe worries some parents as they have been encouraged to complain in line with the arrangements under the Citizen's Charter. Therefore, would it not be wiser to have statutory requirements for the other areas not already covered or, indeed, to make the ombudsman available —as he states in his review he wishes to be —to deal with the other complaints?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness probably knows that the functions of the ombudsman have been extended to cover the grant-maintained school sector, comparable to those that apply to the LEA-maintained sector. We also believe that many of the complaints from parents are very informal and can be dealt with by the teacher, the head of department, the deputy heads, the heads of school governing bodies; and, indeed, also by the inspectorate. When the registered inspection teams visit the schools the very first people they consult are the parents, whether or not, as the case may be, they are satisfied with the school. Parents are allowed both severally and individually to voice any complaints they may have about the school.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say in what document or documents such procedures will be laid down?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the statutory provisions are based in law; for example, I am referring to the statutory appeals provisions in the areas of the curriculum, admissions to schools and exclusions. Indeed, as and when the present Bill going through Parliament receives Royal Assent, further improving measures will come into force. However, I am making a distinction between what is statutory and formal and what is informal and can be left as very much a matter between parents and schools.

Lord Judd

My Lords, the Minister's replies are most helpful in clarifying the situation as the Government see it. However, does she agree that it is not just a matter of "either/or" and that, although we obviously want a flexible approach, it is also important to have a statutory provision to support such an approach? Does the Minister also agree that it is an extremely good example of the role that can be played both positively and helpfully by local education authorities?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is important to note, first, that schools are now more open and more accountable than they have ever been. They are required to have public meetings and show their annual reports to parents. Parents have never had more or greater opportunity to voice their complaints to schools, whether informally or formally. As I have already said, they can also go to the teacher, to heads of department, to deputies, to heads, to the governors and to the local education authority. Moreover, in the case of grant-maintained schools, parents can even go to the Secretary of State. Further, there is an inspectorate system which takes the case of the parent and child most seriously. There are annual reports and annual meetings; an information bank; the ombudsman with extended functions; and, indeed, a tribunal system for children with special educational needs.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the statute book is already overcrowded with unnecessary directives? Parents have ample opportunity to complain or suggest to schools what they want without having to go through the whole parliamentary procedure and getting themselves tied up in red tape.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend has made an important point. Certainly the statute book is more than overcrowded. I believe that it would be a very depressing day if absolutely every activity, however informal, was covered by legislation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that if parents are uneasy about, say, the quality of the education provided for their children they require information upon which to base any such complaint? Does she also agree that an important part of that information is the publication of examination results so that parents can see clearly how their children's classes are getting on in relation to the whole school and how that school performs in relation to others in the country?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in two words: yes and yes. Perhaps I may also supplement that rather curt answer by referring the House to a league table, if I may put it that way, in today's edition of The Times which shows, at the end of the day, what parents can really do; namely, exercise choice and go to a school that is more responsive to the needs of children.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important for parents to know exactly what is going on as regards testing but that one should also ensure that the testing is right in the first place?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that there is a review under way to look at the testing system. I shall no doubt be reporting to the House before very long with the results.

Baroness Serota

My Lords, reverting to the complaints procedures, in view of the many different procedures listed by the noble Baroness in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady David, can the Minister say how parents are made aware of the different and complex complaint systems?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I must, first, apologise to the House if I made it sound complicated. I was actually referring to a hierarchy of where one can go with a complaint, starting with the classroom teacher and working one's way up through the system. Clearly, one could end up in the courts if one took the matter very seriously.

The noble Baroness makes an important point, too. The Citizen's Charter has gone out of its way to explain to parents their rights, and indeed their responsibilities, and to help them through the complaints procedure. We are insisting that schools do the same with their parent bodies; that they help them to make sure that the schools are aware of complaints and that the schools should, as far as possible, respond to those complaints.

Baroness David

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Citizen's Charter.If the Citizen's Charter task force recommends that there should be a statutory requirement for other complaints procedures to be included within this field, will the Government then agree to make statutory requirements?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not in the business of pre-empting something that has not actually happened. Certainly the noble Baroness has mentioned the task force, which is there to monitor the system and to make sure that it is working. Clearly, if it makes recommendations to Her Majesty's Government it will be for the Government to consider those recommendations when they are made.

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