HL Deb 16 October 2001 vol 627 cc476-8

3.7 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, under the proposed reforms for primary and secondary schools, private companies will be allowed to take over the running of a school with control over all staffing matters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, we wish to encourage a diverse range of partners and providers. Private companies could propose to establish a new foundation or voluntary school, could work in partnership with schools to raise standards, could assist LEAs in turning round failing schools or could sponsor city academies. Similar opportunities will be available to community or faith groups, LEAs and other public and voluntary bodies. In all cases, staffing matters will be the responsibility of the governing body.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. She is saying that the private sector will not have the power to run a school, which must go hand in hand with having control over staffing. Do I read the noble Baroness correctly in that matter?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, having given considerable thought to the matter, it is our view that a school should be run by the governing body. In terms of the different types of school, which, as the noble Baroness will be fully aware, include voluntary aided, voluntary controlled schools and so on, the composition of the governing body is different. However, the relationship with a private organisation will be that of a consultancy more than that of a contractor. Therefore, such an organisation will not be responsible for the running of the school.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, can the Minister clarify a point which is very obscure? Where a private company takes over a school, what role will the governing body have?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I pointed out, there are different ways in which private sector organisations can be involved in schools. We have tried to develop that to allow the private sector to play a full participatory role. Perhaps I may take as an example the Abbeylands School, with which the noble Baroness will be familiar, where Nord Anglia is currently working with the local education authority. The maximum number of governors that Nord Anglia would be able to have on that governing body would be six, assuming that it also took the governance of a foundation school. The difference between that and, for example, a city academy is that, as noble Lords will know, the latter allows for a foundation to be made where the private sector puts in 20 per cent of the funding. In such cases, it would have a majority of governors on the governing body. That majority would be a small one in all cases, but it would be a majority. That is the difference.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the shortage of governors and the difficulty of recruiting them for some primary schools in London? What is being done to enable schools to support governors? It is reported that there is a clear lack of support, which is needed to make the system effective.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there is indeed a shortage of school governors in all categories. We are concerned to ensure that the right number of governors is available. We estimate that on average each year a school gets 1,000 hours from its governing body. That means that being a governor is a huge commitment for people to make on an entirely voluntary basis. I am sure that noble Lords join me in paying tribute to governors all over the country.

We are considering several measures in this regard. One approach is to examine the ways in which we can support schools that find it particularly difficult to recruit governors in certain categories. We should establish whether local authorities would consider ensuring that governors were put into those schools that are in the greatest need, in the local authority's view, and helping parents to consider becoming governors by showing what kind of role they would play. The system might be moved away from the more traditional meeting format that has perhaps not previously inspired everyone. A raft of measures is available and I should be happy to discuss them further on another occasion.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the situation that she has just described in city academies, by which a private company could have a majority on the governing body, would discourage school governors from serving on those bodies, where they could easily be outvoted by vested interests? There is also the matter of the public accountability of such a governing body. How would that be managed?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, city academies have a strong relationship with local education authorities. We should not forget that that develops in areas in which LEAs are closely in touch and we should ensure that academies are put together appropriately. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that we have 13 partnerships currently working to establish city academies.

As for the majority of governors, it has never been my experience—the noble Baroness may have a different view—that people are discouraged from becoming a governor because they would be in a minority. Indeed, most categories are in a minority—I refer to a parent governor and an LEA governor, for example. It is important that the ethos and thrust of a school are maintained. As I said earlier, we must ensure that with city academies the majority that is obtained is not substantial but that it enables the running of the school to be carried out appropriately.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one reason for the shortage of governors is that many people do not feel themselves fitted to be governors? The reason that they do not feel themselves fitted is that they are not fitted. What are the Government doing to fit people to be governors so that they can be effective?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, many noble Lords are definitely fit to be governors. If I were allowed to do so, I should take a straw poll to see how many of us are in fact governors. I believe that the question is, in a sense, the other way up—many people are fit to be a governor but they do not feel that it is a role for them. They may feel that way because they have a misunderstanding about what is required, because they believe that being a governor will take up a huge amount of their time or because they find the process and procedures very difficult to understand. Most people—certainly many parents, many of those who are involved in community life and many business people—should and will be encouraged to become governors, but it should be done on the basis that they understand what the role involves.