HL Deb 23 July 2002 vol 638 cc255-61

27 Leave out Clause 41.

The Commons disagreed to this amendment but proposed the following amendments to the words so restored to the Bill—

27B> Clause 41, page 27, leave out lines 25 to 29 and insert— "(3) The purpose of a schools forum is to advise the relevant authority on such matters relating to the authority's schools budget as may be prescribed by regulations under section 45A(3) or by regulations under this subsection. (3A) Regulations under section 45A(3) or under subsection (3) may include provision requiring a relevant authority to have regard to advice given by their schools forum, or requiring a relevant authority to consult their schools forum in relation to prescribed matters or before taking prescribed decisions.".

27C Page 27, line 39, leave out from beginning to end of line 3 on page 28.

The Commons have made the following consequential amendment to the Bill—

27A Page 25, line 29, leave out from "determined" to end of line 31.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 27 to which the Commons have disagreed and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 27B and 27C to the words so restored to the Bill and to consequential Amendment No. 27A.

As I have made clear in your Lordships' House in the course of our deliberations, we believe that collaboration between schools and education authorities is an integral part of the new funding system. We want that partnership to be as effective as possible across the country.

The debates that we have had during the Bill's passage through both Houses have not changed the Government's view that forums have an important role to play under the new regime. We have always said that we know that effective consultation arrangements are in place on funding matters in some local education authorities. But that is by no means the case in every authority. It is only right that schools have the opportunity to articulate views on financial matters that affect them in partnership with their local education authority.

Perhaps I may remind the House of the context for the introduction of schools forums. In the previous two clauses of the Bill, we make arrangements for a new system in which there is a separate schools budget. That, in turn, is subject to the Secretary of State's reserved power. In that context, we want schools collectively to have a stronger voice on how the schools budget is constructed and allocated. Instead of national controls on delegation, we want schools to give a view on, for example, the correct balance between central spend on special needs and delegation to schools. This is a way ahead which promotes local responses to local circumstances. I hope that all parts of the House would welcome that.

As I have previously stated in your Lordships' House, we have had strong backing for the creation of forums from bodies such as the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association, the National Governors Council and other schools organisations. A letter we received from the Secondary Heads Association states that, the overwhelming majority of our Council believes that the Schools Forum proposal should go ahead and we very much hope it does not get lost in the parliamentary process". The Foundation and Aided Schools National Association has written in the following terms: We do see these as a very significant step towards bringing informed professional judgments to bear on local LEA funding…we have tried to get across…how strongly we feel on this". Debates on schools forums, both in this House and in another place, have been about two main issues: the way forums are to be constituted; and their functions. As a result of this and the consultation exercise, we have decided to make changes to our thinking about secondary legislation. Our aim is to ensure that authorities are not required to change arrangements of this sort that work well. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made that point in Committee to good effect.

When we considered the Bill at Third Reading, I outlined the much greater flexibility we propose as to the way in which forums may be established and run. It may be useful to remind the House of those because they give much greater discretion to authorities. Forums would have to include both head teachers and governors but the balance would be at the education authority's discretion and the election method determined locally. We would raise the minimum size to 15 members but there would be no maximum. There would have to be regard to proportionality between primary and secondary phases but no elaborate formula imposed nationally. We would reduce the maximum percentage of non-schools members to 20 per cent and these could now include, if desired, elected members of the LEA. The LSC would have only observer status and the forum requirement would be relaxed a little. Most provisions relating to costs would be settled locally. These are significant changes which introduce much greater flexibility and will enable many local education authorities to turn existing local groups into statutory forums.

We have also listened to what has been said about functions of the schools forums. As I said at Third Reading, there was a substantial measure of agreement in the consultation responses that the advisory functions we had in mind for the forum are on the right lines. This confirmed our belief that the forums will become a valuable resource for education authorities. The consultation exercise also showed considerable support for a limited decision-taking function. But we recognise that many have expressed a fear, not least those from the Liberal Democrat Benches, that that function would be expanded over time. That was never our intention. But nor was the decision-making function ever the main point of school forums which are intended primarily to strengthen local partnerships. So we have considered this matter further and in consequence have brought forward the set of amendments approved in another place which arc now before the House.

Those amendments restrict the role of the forums so that advice and consultation will be the limit of their function. The forum's advisory role is planned to be much the same as before: the funding formula for schools, service contracts, specific issues such as the balance of special educational needs spending, and arrangements for education otherwise. But there will be no power to take financial decisions. It never was our intention that the forum tells the local education authority how much to spend on schools or even on each expenditure item. But these amendments mean that forums will have no decision-making role. The forum will be a body for partnership and a resource for forward-looking education authorities. It is also a mechanism which will help schools to take a collegiate view of priorities and see each other and the local education authority as parts of a greater whole.

In our recent document, Investment for Reform, we emphasise the need for schools to learn from each other and not try to work in isolation. We believe that school forums will help to make that a reality. They are to be welcomed.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 27 to which the Commons have disagreed and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 27B and 27C to the words so restored to the Bill and to consequential Amendment No. 27A.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Lord Lucas rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 27 to which the Commons have disagreed and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 27B and 27C to the words so restored to the Bill and to consequential Amendment No. 27A, at end insert "together with the following amendment to the words restored to the Bill by the Commons' disagreement to Amendment No. 27—

27D Page 27, line 17, after "shall" insert , if they so decide or if they are so requested in writing by the governing bodies of at least 5 per cent of the maintained schools in their area,"".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I support school forums in the form they have come back to us from the Commons. I agree with the Minister's remarks about the Government's current intentions as regard regulations. However, I want to go further.

There is much good work and practice in local education authorities and their communities of schools. I think in particular of a body created in Dorset by the Liberal Democrats called the Budget Advisory Group for Schools. It has proved an enormous success and a great help to that county in making difficult decisions about how money should be allocated between schools.

The success of that structure results from one simple fact: the schools feel that they own it. They have been responsible for designing how it works. 'They have been responsible for designing its constitution and who should be on it. They have control over its business. They are the only voting members of that structure.

I do not understand why we should seek to replace that structure by something from a centralised diktat. The noble Baroness gives me some comfort on that. But why should something that is working well and has the overwhelming support of local schools be overturned by central diktat?

These issues depend on local enthusiasm, local ownership and local decisions made to suit local circumstances. It is not appropriate that a central diktat can override all local wishes and impose something designed by Whitehall without reference to local conditions. I beg to move.

Moved, That Amendment No. 27D, as an amendment to the Motion, be agreed to.—(Lord Lucas.)

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I support my noble friend. The only argument for having these uniform bodies, rather than accepting flexibility for schools and local education authorities to decide on the form of local consultation, is to have greater central government control. Policy notes, regulations and guidance documents are already being written in the department and will soon be winging their way to all 24,000-plus schools. That is superfluous. I rest my case and support my noble friend.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, we on these Benches are minded to support government Amendments Nos. 27A, 27B and 27C. We are grateful to the Government for listening and responding to our objections to schools forums at earlier stages of the Bill.

Our concerns were never about consultation. Consultation is always a good thing. We are in favour of it. However, accountability is through the ballot box. These organisations were unelected and were to be given the power to deploy LEAs' budgets even if an LEA had good reasons for wanting to do something else. We believed that it was never necessary to take a sledgehammer to those few LEAs which did not consult adequately.

In the new amendment, subsection (3) contains the most significant change. It makes the organisations advisory. That is good. But we have some questions about subsection (3A). I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the position. Subsection (3A) requires the authority to have regard to advice. What does that mean? Who decides if it has not had regard to advice? What happens if it does not?

Unfortunately, we are not minded to support Amendment No. 27D. We are afraid that the very LEAs which would choose not have an advisory school forum may be the very ones which need to improve their consultation. As to getting 5 per cent of governing bodies to agree and forcing the LEA to accept a schools forum, we are all aware of how difficult it could be to get a campaign of that nature going. If local authorities are not consulting adequately, it is good that they should follow a pattern which involves schools, and consult better.

On that basis, we shall be supporting the Government's amendment, but not that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

7 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, in winding up this brief debate, I begin by dealing with the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I am pleased that he is happy that the main clause should be restored to the Bill. As the noble Lord has said, the effect of his amendment would be to make the establishment of schools forums discretionary for an education authority, unless 5 per cent of school governing bodies request one.

Our concern—and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, put this extremely well—is to make sure that local authorities have the benefit of appropriate mechanisms. It is precisely those authorities that would not set up some kind of consultative mechanism that we seek to address. But we have moved—and I have explained the changes we have made directly as a result of consultation, but also in response to comments by, in particular, the noble Baroness Lady Blatch in Committee—to try to make sure that the way in which education authorities currently consult will fit well into this with the minimum of change. That is the nub of what I want to get across.

The noble Lord's amendment proposes that there should be a 5 per cent mandate for a schools forum to be established. My main objection is that that would introduce an unnecessary additional hoop. We know that many schools support school forums. We have had a great deal of correspondence about this—some of which I have read to your Lordships. So I believe that it is inconceivable that 5 per cent would not be found in every education authority to do so. The education authority, unfortunately, will have been put to a huge amount of trouble in organising the plebiscite—if I may call it that—when it could have been engaged in constituting the forum itself.

I appreciate the spirit in which the noble Lord has put forward his amendment, but I genuinely believe that it is unnecessary. We have made the various changes. We have given a greater degree of local flexibility and discretion. It reflects the consultation exercise. We believe that schools will be pleased with this. We do not see any need for a prior referendum to establish schools forums. It would be unnecessary. I hope that on that basis the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised a question about advice. Advice is taken account of, but if the authority has a good reason to do something different, it can. It is a phrase used throughout education legislation and is well understood. I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, can she confirm that there will be regulations and guidance following this proposal?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I believe that I have made it clear that we will want to make sure that we have regulation. Of course, we always ensure that where schools benefit from the guidance, the guidance is available to them. Again, we need to be cautious about assuming that all guidance to schools is unnecessary. Very often it is of great importance.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has misrepresented the amendment to some extent. First, the local education authority has an absolute right without consulting anyone to set up a schools forum. It does not require anyone else's permission under the amendment. It is merely if the local education authority decides not to and 5 per cent of schools ask them to that they must. So no difficulty is imposed on local education authorities.

I am delighted that the noble Baroness agrees that there is an overwhelming desire out there and that therefore there will be no difficulty in getting the 5 per cent of schools to agree, should the local education authority oppose the setting up of the schools forum. In the amendment—and I think that the noble Baroness has indicated that this amendment would work in that way—I am simply trying to make sure that existing arrangements supported by an overwhelming 95 per cent or more of the schools in the area can be allowed to continue. However, the Bill, as it now stands, with the amendments that have returned from the Commons, would put us in a position where some of these arrangements would be threatened, where some agreements reached locally will be overturned by central diktat and for no more reason than the convenience of legislation and central control.

It puzzles me sometimes; I thought the Liberal Democrats believed in local government, local decision making and local variation. They certainly seem to with most of their policies. But, given the opportunity to vote in this House, they vote for central control every time. Under those circumstances, I do not see that it is sensible to waste the time of the House in calling a Division, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, if he wishes to assert that we vote for central control every time, perhaps he will be present for the rest of today to see whether he remains of that opinion.

Amendment No. 27D, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 27, as amended, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Bill returned to the Commons with amendments and reasons.