An attempt to establish a body to hear appeals against decisions of the schools' adjudicators was defeated in the lords. The move was rejected by 93 votes to 63 during the continuing committee stage of the Education Bill.
The adjudicators, established by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, can be challenged only on procedural matters through judicial review.
'That development wrote out of the loop the responsibility of local education authorities and put such decisions at arms length from the secretary of state. The most significant deficit is that parents, school communities and the schools themselves are in no position to counter the adjudicators' absolute power', she added.
When an organisation committee receives differing views on the organisational plan, the proposal automatically goes to the adjudicator for determination. The adjudicator can uphold the majority or minority view, alter the proposition or substitute a wholly different decision.
Baroness Blatch said the government argued that committees and adjudicators would bring decision-making closer to the people. However, the adjudicators' areas were extremely wide. The adjudicator could not possibly know all the schools in Cambridgeshire because the individual was responsible for several counties - yet that one person had absolute power.
Different adjudicators had different ways of working and there ought to be a test of fairness.
Baroness Blatch continued: 'My preference would be to see adjudicators removed from the 1998 Act, but if we must live with that unaccountable aspect of local decision-making, there ought to be a process of appeal'.
Conservative Lord Pilkington said it was novel development in English education for decisions on more sensitive situations such as school closures and entry problems to be handed to an official appointed as a result of patronage. The limited challenge on process through judicial review was enormously expensive. Some large LEAs might afford it, but schools and parents could not. The present system was a denial of justice in order to keep angry parents or angry LEAs from the education secretary's doorstep.
Crossbencher Lord Alton said one recurring problem with debates on the Education Bill was that peers had been unclear as to precisely what the government intended for the future of LEAs.
'Another theme that has run through our debates is that we should do nothing to dissipate accountability. Local education authorities may have their failings - I was a member of one for many years', said Lord Alton.
'Nevertheless, they have virtue because they contain an elected element - most of their members are directly elected local councillors. I believe that the more we diminish their powers, the less people will be prepared to serve on such bodies and, even if it is not the intention of the government to abolish them, they will simply wither away'.
Replying, education minister Baroness Ashton said LEAs had an invaluable role and the government had no intention of seeing them disappear. It was trying to develop its relationship with schools and LEAs so that each performed the duties, responsibilities and functions most appropriate to them.
'That means enabling schools to have control over their own budgets and allowing them to grow and develop for their community. It means ensuring that local education authorities play a strategic role, and it also means that the department for education and skills and, of course, the secretary of state, have a responsibility and a duty to all our children and all our schools', added the minister.
She said the issues around the adjudicator had been debated during the passage of the 1998 Act. 'It is my view that the adjudicator process is working well in practice. Fundamentally, it is the appeal process', she said.
The government was in a no-win situation. If it decided the adjudicator system was not working and returned to the previous situation, with ultimate decisions taken by the education secretary, that would be centralisation. However, it believed decisions were best left to an independent adjudicator appointed by the secretary of state on the basis of educational expertise.
'Therefore we believe adjudicators are independent. We believe that they should, and can be, challenged through judicial review. That process is open to those who wish to follow it', said Baroness Ashton.
Hansard 23 May 2002: Column 899-958; 973-1038