Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: I think that we all accept that, in the specific circumstances to which the Minister alluded, there should be an important exception. Does he expect the guidance to encourage the practice that, once a head who is deemed to be a problem has been replaced, the replacement head ordinarily goes on to the board without delay?

Mr. Timms: Yes, I do.

Mr. Willis: I am glad that I tabled the amendment, because we are discussing an important difference. I agree with the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and the Minister. If the school's management has become so poor that extreme measures have to be taken and the head needs to be replaced, that is clearly a reasonable step to take. I ask the Minister to reflect on the schedule and to try to find an appropriate form of words that makes it clear that, if the head teacher or management of a school is replaced, the new head will automatically be a member of the interim board.

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Mr. Timms: I expect to do that in the guidance rather than the schedule, which I hope will meet the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Willis: With that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

Clause 57

Powers of secretary of state to secure proper performance of lea's functions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

4.45 pm

Mr. Brady: I seek clarification of the clause, which I hope that the Minister would have offered in any case. It is clearly an important aspect of the Bill, arising from earlier legislation, and I accept that it largely involves consolidation. However, I should like to press the Minister a little on the effects that the aspects of the Bill that we have debated will have on the interpretation of the powers under this clause. I am thinking particularly of the powers to secure proper performance of the LEA's functions. The Minister will be aware that the LEA's function has in many ways been redefined, not always predictably, by measures that are likely to become law under earlier clauses. I direct him to clause 2 in particular, which relates to exemptions from terms of existing education legislation. If one or more schools are exempted from an expectation to follow the requirements of aspects of education legislation, that will affect Minister's expectations of the LEA and its delivery. Implicit in much of the Bill is a transfer of powers and responsibilities in various directions and differing circumstances. That is perhaps most extreme in the case of schools that are granted powers to innovate, potentially in large numbers. Sometimes that may be at the invitation of the local authority, and other times at the behest of individual schools. It is in those cases that the effect on the LEA and what Ministers may expect will be the most stark.

Perhaps more profound in its effect will be the process of earned autonomy or

    ''exemptions related to school performance'',

as it is phrased in the Bill. The Minister told us that he envisages about 10 per cent. of schools qualifying for earned autonomy, which would be a starting point that would build consistently over a period. Reasonably, he was not prepared to be drawn on how quickly he expected the proportion to grow, but if it starts at 10 per cent., it does not require a long stretch of the imagination to realise that in a few years it could account for 50 per cent. or even 75 per cent. of schools. In which case, it could account for only 10 or 20 per cent. in some LEA areas but every school in others. That would have a dramatic effect on the role and responsibilities of the LEA.

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In different circumstances, one could also envisage an interrelationship between the performance of the LEA and an individual school's responses to it. Schools may seek powers to innovate and operate more flexibly to free themselves from certain practices or use the earned autonomy route. It may become a particular objective of schools in a certain LEA area to pursue that, although not as earned autonomy because the Minister has said that he will try to define clear criteria by which schools will automatically gain it. If that is the case, schools will not automatically be obliged to take advantage of all the available freedoms. However, it is easy to imagine that schools in some LEA areas would be more keen to do so than in others. It is an important point, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an explanation.

Mr. Timms: Clauses 57 and 61 concern interventions by the Secretary of State in LEAs, but they are really a response to the lessons of the past few years rather than anything fundamentally new. I was pleased to note that only one amendment was tabled, which reflects the general consensus that the mechanism has worked effectively in the past few years.

I am not sure that the measures on earned autonomy will have much of a knock-on effect on the way that the process works. The intervention would be triggered by an inspection and report from Ofsted. The character of LEAs will not change much. The central task of school improvement that we have identified for LEAs will continue to be at the heart of what they do, and it is an important role. The schools that have exercised their rights under earned autonomy to variations on teacher pay and conditions and the curriculum will not affect the way in which the process will work. There will be some detailed changes to the day-to-day operations of the LEA, but the process that the clauses describe and affect will not change. I welcome the fact that there is largely consensus about the fact that the way in which those interventions have been carried out over the past three years has been helpful.

Mr. Brady: I accept much of what the Minister said, but I would like his comments on the changed geometry that might affect the LEA's role and therefore what is expected of it. I spoke about schools without earned autonomy but with exemptions to innovate, such as city academies, the excellence in cities programme and others. That removes some schools in part from the day-to-day supervision of the LEA. In some LEA areas, it is not difficult to imagine that that could become a majority, or at least a large proportion, of schools. In that case, the measures applied to LEAs may be rather different if an LEA has 30 schools, of which one is perceived to be failing but the other 29 are succeeding. If an LEA is left with two or three schools, and one or two of those are failing, the LEA may largely be responsible.

Mr. Timms: I refer the hon. Gentleman to our debate on earned autonomy. The autonomy that we envisage here is tightly circumscribed. It is certainly not the case that schools that take up earned autonomy will no longer have dealings with the LEA. The LEA's central role is its concern for improvement

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in all the schools in its area, although he is right that that does not include city academies. That role will be central to the Ofsted inspection. The question will be whether that school improvement role is being exercised effectively. If it is, no intervention is needed. If it is not, intervention may be needed. The clauses allow us to make some modest changes to the rules relating to interventions to ensure that they work effectively.

Mr. Brady: The Minister is doing his best to deal with my points. Where schools with earned autonomy seek to vary curriculum measures, will the Minister say how the LEA can be held to account for a school improvement function where it may believe that it has no control over the content of the curriculum that is being taught in those schools?

Mr. Timms: The principle is that intervention by the LEA is in inverse proportion to success, so I would not expect the LEAs to be kept busy on school improvement matters for schools that acquire earned autonomy. The focus will be elsewhere. I do not think that the earned autonomy clauses have much of an impact on the way this works.

Chris Grayling: I seek clarification from the Minister about the breadth of the powers in this clause. Clearly, the heart of their purpose is directed towards the educational function of the LEA. For the past four years, I have been involved with an LEA that is going through a process of reorganisation. In my view, and that of many others, it is beginning to make a monumental mess of it because its timetable has gone totally awry.

I want clarification about whether the Government intend the powers of intervention under this clause to go beyond purely the educational and into the broader remit of educational management? If an LEA got the reorganisation process wrong, would the Secretary of State have the powers to step in and take over the management of that reorganisation?

Mr. Timms: The Ofsted inspection covers the full range of the LEA's responsibilities, and any decision from the Secretary of State as to whether any intervention is needed will be based on that inspection.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 58 and 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 60

Power to require lea to obtain advisory services

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 119, page 40, line 38, at end insert:

    ''which shall be the subject of guidance given from time to time (in relation to England) by the Secretary of State or (in relation to Wales) by the National Assembly for Wales''

In response to an earlier comment from the Minister, the lack of amendment to these clauses reflects not consensus but pragmatic resignation—this is what the Government are going to do and we have to make the best of it.

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It is interesting to note that Haringey, Islington, Hackney, Leeds and Bradford where these powers have been used extensively have yet to come up with a solution that is as good as the one in Liverpool where it is the good old LEAs that have turned the authority round. In the words of Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector of schools, it is the best example of an authority improving itself.

The purpose of this amendment is quite simple. We envisage that contracts will be issued, perhaps even to the company of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, although I trust that he will declare an interest if he participates in this debate.

We agree with the Minister and the Government that we cannot allow LEAs or schools to fail, and intervention is important in those areas. If the private sector is involved, there is usually a contract with a number of penalties. For example, Islington has a contract with Cambridge Education Associates, and because there was a failure to reach the required five GCSEs at A to C, there were penalties. It also failed to reach the appropriate level of improvement at key stage 2 standard assessment tests, and there were penalties. Equally, if the targets are met, there is a bonus, but that is payable only if the head and the teachers in those schools perform far better and achieve the required results.

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It seems to be perverse that, under the current system, if an LEA is failing in the eyes of Ofsted or the Audit Commission, the private sector can be brought in as the result of a direction by the Secretary of State, a profit can be made on that contract but the schools, heads and teachers do not benefit. Will the Minister assure me, in the minute that is left, that schools, heads and teachers will benefit from the contracts if there is real improvement?

 
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