Education Bill [Lords]

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Angela Watkinson: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in clause 11, page 6, line 42, at end insert—

    ‘(5)   The Chief Inspector is required to publish all reports on schools placed in special measures in accordance with the provisions of section 44 and make them available to registered parents of registered pupils at that school.’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 19, in clause 29, page 18, line 42, at end insert—

    ‘(5)   The Chief Inspector is required to publish all reports on schools placed in special measures in accordance with the provisions of section 44 and make them available to registered parents of registered pupils at that school.’.

Angela Watkinson: I am frantically turning pages.

Mr. Stephen Twigg: That makes three of us.

Angela Watkinson: Special measures are dreaded by all schools. They come as a great blow. Schools in my constituency with inspirational head teachers, including schools that are having difficulty that feel that they are making good progress, have been inspected and then told that they are going to be put on special measures. That is a body blow to the whole school community.

It is necessary that the reports are published, however, because identifying the weaknesses or problems in a school that led to its being put into special measures is the path out of special measures. The purpose of inspection is not to point the finger and criticise, but to identify failings and to help schools through them so that they can come out of special measures. The publication process is an important part of the inspection process. That is why the amendments were tabled.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I join colleagues in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Forth. Having witnessed your contribution to last Friday’s debate, I think that few people know our procedures better. I am sure that we will be in safe hands and get through our business quickly with you in the Chair. I commend the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) too. I know that she is a reader of mystery novels. It may be a mystery why she has little support today, but as she is facing three Ministers with surnames that
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sound the same, she has done remarkably well in tackling the matters that she wishes the Committee to consider.

The hon. Lady’s amendments would require the chief inspectors of England and Wales to publish the reports of all schools placed in special measures and make them available to registered parents of registered pupils at the school. I believe that her amendments are unnecessary. They are unnecessary for England because the Bill ensures that the reports of all section 5 inspections, not just those that specify that special measures are required, will be available for inspection by members of the public. Indeed, any person who asks for a copy of the report must be provided with one. Reports are sent to every registered parent of registered pupils at the school.

Under clause 14, the chief inspector is required to ensure that copies of a section 5 inspection report are sent to, among others,

    “the appropriate authority for the school.”

The appropriate authority is the school’s governing body, or, if the school does not have a delegated budget, the local education authority. The clause further requires the appropriate authority

    “to secure that every registered parent of a registered pupil at the school receives a copy of the report”.

Clause 38 makes similar provision for the report of section 28 inspections in Wales. It provides for the inspection report to be sent to the appropriate authority for the school. It also places a duty on the appropriate authority to secure that every registered parent and every registered pupil is sent a summary of the report with the full report on request. Clause 11 enables the chief inspector in England to publish any inspection report in such manner as they think appropriate. Clause 29 enables the chief inspector in Wales to do the same. Publication of inspection reports is an important aspect of the role of the chief inspectors in raising public awareness of key educational issues. In practice, all section 5 and section 28 inspection reports will be published. That is the case for such reports now and it will continue to be the case under the arrangements set out in the Bill.

The amendments are therefore superfluous. The Bill already ensures that inspection reports will be publicly available and that parents will receive the reports of their children’s schools, irrespective of whether special measures are required. With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to seek leave to withdraw her amendments.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the Minister for that reassurance. It is not the news that parents with children at a school put into special measures are hoping for, but they need that information. If parents are aware of the areas of failure in a school, the school community can work together to overcome those
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problems. Given his reassurance that that information will be available to parents, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 12 to 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clauses 20 to 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clauses 29 to 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 44

Categories of schools causing concern

Angela Watkinson: I beg to move amendment No. 20, in clause 44, page 29, line 28, after ‘failing’, insert ‘or likely to fail’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 21, in clause 44, page 29, line 29, leave out from ‘education’ to end of line 32.

Angela Watkinson: We move now to the clause dealing with categories of schools causing concern. The new regime has reduced the range of categories that define a school as failing or needing to go into special measures. These are simple amendments. On amendment No. 20, we think that it is important to identify a school that is likely to fail and to help it not to do so before it happens. On the principle that prevention is better than cure, identifying a school as likely to fail and dealing with procedures to prevent it from going into crisis would be an important measure and an improvement to the Bill. It would save some schools from being identified as failing before they reached crisis point. That is the reason for inserting those few words—to clarify the term “failing” and to introduce a different category of schools that have not quite reached that stage and could be prevented from doing so.

Amendment No. 21, at page 29, line 29, would, in effect, delete paragraph (b) from that category, which reads:

    “the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.”

Dr. Pugh: May I speak against the amendments? I am not a great fan of the blame culture, but neither am I prepared to come over as particularly liberal and lax at this point. The hon. Lady makes the valid point that, in a sense, the system up to now has been a cliff-edge system. Schools have gone along as they will, and suddenly they can be declared to be in special measures, and all kinds of help are then available. That
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is not the kind of model that we want; it is the model that we are sometimes reduced to working with, because local authorities are so disempowered, but we want a model in which, as she said, schools that are declining and not performing as well as hitherto will be supported so that they can improve without getting into special measures.

Nevertheless, the concept of a failing school can fairly readily be benchmarked. Certain criteria that schools ought to be expected to meet can be defined, comparisons can be made with similar cohorts and decisions can be made about whether a school has failed or not. The phrase “likely to fail” is a much more subjective judgment. We all know when a Government or future Government have failed to do something, but it is not always easy to tell in advance when they are likely to fail to do something. That is usually a point of debate, as all the facts or issues may not be before us. Adding the phrase “likely to fail” adds an element of subjectivity to the appraisal process, which is probably undesirable.

10.45 am

Angela Watkinson: I understand that the inspection regime involves a scoring system on a range of one to nine. There must be a point on that scale at which failure is recognised. I do not know where on that scoring spectrum failure is identified, but if an inspector is considering whether, for example, a certain area of school activity should be scored at two, three or two and a half, that may be the point at which the fact that it is likely to fail could be identified.

Dr. Pugh: I accept that point, but there is an element of subjectivity. I use the rather poor analogy of the premier league. Southampton have just crept out of the relegation zone. An avid Southampton supporter would say that the team is going to advance up the league by leaps and bounds. A rather more pessimistic person, or a Crystal Palace supporter, might well suggest that it is likely to fail. The position on the score sheet cannot be used to extrapolate that failure is likely or will continue.

That brings me rather nicely on to my second point. The Government—possibly going soft in their old age, or as they head towards whatever term they think that they are heading towards—have added a further element. They say that a school will be placed in special measures if it is demonstrably failing and

    “the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.”

Therefore, there must be some circumstances in which the school is benchmarked. Perhaps it has a new and dynamic staff—people who are capable of turning the school around—in which case it may be decided to hold back on the special measures that the Government have the option of implementing, because there is the capacity to improve.

If a school has the capacity to improve, it should be given the chance to do so, rather than simply being completely taken over. We are all aware that the head teacher is often a crucial element in a school’s evolution and progress. Changing a head teacher, or
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the senior management can dramatically turn a school around. The Government are not unwise to say that, in circumstances in which a school is failing, or has failed, relative to other schools, but has the evidential promise to improve, they want to stay their hand a little and to give the school autonomy. That does not necessarily mean failing to give it adequate support.

Mr. Touhig: I will deal first with amendment No. 20. I appreciate the argument that action should be taken at an early stage when problems are emerging in a school and that matters should not be left until the school is identified by Ofsted inspections as requiring special measures. Schools that are likely to fail will be caught by the new “significant improvement” category that we are introducing in the Bill. The category is defined in clause 44(2), which provides that

    “a school requires significant improvement if, although not falling within subsection (1),”—

that is, not requiring special measures—

    “it is performing significantly less well than it might in all the circumstances reasonably be expected to perform.”

Schools that face difficulties and are likely to fail will therefore fall into the “significant improvement” category. I would expect such schools to be identified and supported at an early stage.

Local education authorities are expected to challenge, support and monitor the progress of all their schools. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) knows, from her experience as a school governor, that that certainly happens. It certainly happened when I was a school governor. LEAs should have a clear strategy for identifying weak schools and should take decisive action before those schools receive an adverse inspection report. Schools should seek LEA support where problems emerge. Effective and open communication between schools, LEAs and other stakeholders is essential in those circumstances. Guidance makes it clear that LEAs should work closely with schools and other stakeholders, including, where appropriate, the local diocese or, in the case of sixth forms, local learning and skills councils in England, or the National Council for Education and Training for Wales.

The guidance also makes it clear that the aim should always be to provide support before formal intervention. However, when intervention is necessary, LEAs have powers to intervene in schools. The powers are available for use before schools are placed in the “cause for concern” category following inspection. The LEA may give a school a formal warning if it has serious concerns about it, and non-compliance may result in the LEA using its intervention powers, which would enable it, for example, to add governors to strengthen the governing body. I personally have encountered a situation in which the LEA brought in additional governors.

Therefore, the “likely to fail” category is not needed to ensure that early action is taken to improve a school. Schools in England will be able to look to their school improvement partner, who will be an experienced practitioner accountable to the LEA and charged with
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providing advice and support to schools on improvement matters. In Wales, schools will continue to work with the LEA.

Angela Watkinson: Can the Minister say a little more about the improvement process for a school that has been identified as needing significant improvement or that is in special measures? What period would elapse before another inspection and what process would a school follow to get out of such categories? Will there be any change from the current regime?

Mr. Touhig: I will come back to that in a moment, if I may. I would like to continue with some of the matters that I originally intended to cover.

On amendment No. 21, the Bill provides that a school requires special measures if two criteria are satisfied: first, if

    “the school is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education”,

and, secondly, if the school’s leadership is

    “not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement”.

The amendment would delete the second part of the definition and remove the requirement to take into account the school’s capacity to improve. We have introduced that new requirement, which is an important change to the current definition of special measures, to ensure that inspectors who are making special measures judgments give specific attention to a school’s capacity to improve.

Angela Watkinson: On that point, can the Minister say a little more about what action will be taken in respect of the individuals in the school who are failing to show leadership or management skills? Obviously, there are personnel implications.

Mr. Touhig: There are clear implications for the personnel in schools if such measures are taken. I may be able to deal with the matter to the hon. Lady’s satisfaction when we deal with other amendments that she has tabled.

The clause will improve the effectiveness of the categorisation, thus ensuring that the worst cases of school failures are identified and tackled. Let me explain why we are proposing the change.

Occasionally, schools have been placed in special measures because they are not providing an acceptable standard of education despite having acquired the capacity to improve. That may have resulted, for example, from a recent change of leadership that is demonstrably driving the school forward. The school may already have made an accurate self-evaluation of its provision that coincides with the inspection findings, and it may already be well on the way to putting things right. It is not difficult to imagine the frustration likely to be felt by a strong head teacher if the school is then placed in special measures. That could knock the school back. The progress that it was making could be halted by the adverse effect on staff morale of a special measures judgment in such circumstances.

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The Government’s view is that it makes no sense to place in special measures a school that is already well on the way to recovery. The Bill’s definition of special measures reflects that, ensures that school failures will continue to be identified and challenged, and that support will be provided as part of the continuing effort to drive up standards. The points made by the hon. Member for Southport reinforce what I am trying to get across.

The hon. Lady asked about follow-up action for special measures. The LEA would take the action and produce a plan, which would be monitored by Ofsted, for combating the problems that required special measures. I hope that that explains clearly and to the hon. Lady’s satisfaction how we would deal with the matter, and that she will withdraw her amendment.

Angela Watkinson: I am still a little unclear about the implications where individual members of staff are identified as contributing to a school’s failure. I wonder what the logical conclusion of that might be. Could it lead to official warnings or even dismissal in extreme cases?

Mr. Touhig: In extreme cases, it could. I tried to make that point in my response. Of course, it would be a matter for the school governors and there might well need to be changes in senior management. Again, such measures were first introduced when the Conservative party was in government, and we have now vested greater influence and power in school governors. Their influence and power is certainly greater than when I first became a school governor at the age of 18—

Dr. Pugh: Ten years ago.

Mr. Touhig: Around 10 years ago. The hon. Gentleman is now on my Christmas card list.

The change has been beneficial. There is now greater empowerment of local school governors, who can respond to the problems faced by schools in our communities.

Angela Watkinson: After that explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46

Sixth forms requiring significant improval

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

Dr. Pugh: I wonder whether I can tempt the Minister into a slightly wider debate. Clause 46 is fairly innocuous, and schedule 5 is unbearably dull, but there is a significant issue about what kind of inspection regime will prevail in sixth forms. The Government’s change in policy raises the possibility of there being a
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multiplication of sixth forms in many LEAs, with 11 to 16 schools having the opportunity to exert their right to develop sixth-form provision.

The Minister will be aware that, historically, there has been quite a debate in many LEAs about rationalising sixth-form provision, with the object of ensuring that it is high quality across the LEA. He will also be aware that the profile of certain sixth forms is somewhat similar to that of a further education college—many of the students do not do the standard 11 to 18 school A-level or AS courses, but pursue various vocational or semi-vocational courses.

Given that environment, some embryonic sixth forms will be inspected and found not to exhibit the classic profile that sixth forms are expected to exhibit. They will perhaps have small numbers at first, or people will be doing a limited range of subjects. I want the Minister’s assurance that, if schools go down that road, they will not find themselves in dire straits. If they have something like a sixth form, it may be vulnerable to severe criticism when an inspection takes place. I would like him to acknowledge intellectually that the scenario about which I am speculating could occur—perhaps he would like to reassure me that it could not—and that when it does, whatever form of inspection we have will be appropriately tailored to take account of what the new embryonic sixth form has been allowed to become in the limited time in which it has been allowed to evolve.

Mr. Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. It is a consequence of something that we set out in the five-year strategy for the Department for Education and Skills, which was published in July 2004. He will know that we have been consulting on the proposal to make it easier for a school that does not have a sixth form to open one. We are certainly not saying that we want a free-for-all, which would not be in the interests of learners or, indeed, schools themselves. We are saying that we want a proper quality choice of institutions and courses in each neighbourhood. The 14 to 19 challenge provides an opportunity for institutions to work more closely together. I understand the scenario that he describes and I accept that it is a possibility. I think it unlikely because a school that introduces a proposal to open a sixth form will have to consult other local providers and talk to the Learning and Skills Council. Will it be in the interests of that school to open a sixth form that is unlikely to be viable?

11 am

Dr. Pugh: The Minister has mentioned a quality threshold, and that is entirely sensible. Is there a quantity threshold? Is there an animus—I used the word on Second Reading—against a sixth form of fewer than 100 students?

Mr. Twigg: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a series of area reviews is being conducted by the Learning and Skills Council to consider precisely that question. I do not believe that we can set an absolute national quantity threshold because what may be an appropriate quantity in inner-city London or
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Manchester may not make sense for a rural school serving a sparsely populated area. The key starting point has to be the availability of the necessary range of courses and qualifications for children and young people. Of course, with technology, there are opportunities for distance learning, video conferencing and so on, so there cannot be an absolute figure.

I would accept, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would, that we have sixth forms that are not viable in practice. I have seen reviews during the work I have been doing in London, where schools that have sixth forms with quite small numbers of students have agreed to give up their sixth forms and to support a sixth form college as a solution in the best interests of learning in their area. That demonstrates that one size fits all is not an appropriate way to deal with the matter. Different solutions are suitable for different parts of the country.

To comment on the clause, the term

    “Sixth forms requiring significant improvement”

reflects the new significant improvement category of schools causing concern introduced by clause 44. Currently, a school may be judged on inspection to have an inadequate sixth form. In future, such a school will be categorised as having a sixth form that requires significant improvement. It is simply a part of the simplification of categories and I therefore recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Clauses 47 to 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 6

Inspections of denominational education in Wales

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Sixth schedule to the Bill.

Angela Watkinson: I have a brief question about the nature of inspections of denominational education in Wales.

Mr. Touhig: In Wales?

Angela Watkinson: Yes, in relation to schedule 6. I presume the process does not differ significantly from denominational inspections in England. As a governor of a denominational school, I am acutely aware how a denomination affects the ethos of the school. I happen to be the governor of a Roman Catholic school, although I am not a Roman Catholic. A range of denominational schools are springing up. There are Sikh schools, schools for Jewish children and for other denominations. Is it intended that the inspecting team or inspector who goes to inspect religious education will subscribe to the particular denomination of the school?

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Mr. Touhig: I believe that that is the case, but I am somewhat in doubt. I shall write to the hon. Lady to clarify the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

Clause 51

Power of LEA to inspect maintained school for specific purpose

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

Dr. Pugh: The clause allows the LEA to inspect schools and to exercise any function where the local authority requires information in connection with any function discharged by it. I strongly support the clause but I wonder how far it extends. It was regarded as quite a minimalist clause, whereby the local authority simply arrives in a school to inspect whether education maintenance allowances, for example, are administered properly. It can be seen as a much more positive clause. My view is that LEAs should have a strongly supportive role in all their schools and that the LEA’s support is particularly useful in connection with such things as behavioural difficulties. Early intervention, good monitoring and a properly managed transfer from primary to secondary school are crucial in order to keep on top of the problem.

I do not think the Government are opposed to the idea, but I strongly advocate LEAs acting as important partners in ensuring that all the schools in the area are well behaved and well run, that problematic children are in class and that problematic situations are adequately dealt with. That crucial LEA role may be seriously underestimated. In many respects, it would certainly be a cheaper option than establishing hosts of turn-around schools or more pupil referral units.

I do not want to be politically contentious, but it amuses me that the Tory prospect of turn-around schools will create more places than the number of children currently being expelled. That leads me to the irresistible conclusion that children will be worse behaved under the Conservatives. Otherwise, why have all those additional places? Because of the capacity being planned, I can assume only that disciplinary standards will decline sharply and markedly.

The local authority has a key role, for instance, in identifying children at risk or those with behaviour difficulties, and in ensuring that primary schools do not neglect the situation and simply wait to get such children into secondary school. Such work involves a degree of liaison and demands a strong and positive local authority role. If the local authority is to do that job properly, it needs to know about the schools’ behaviour programmes. I believe that the best local authorities already do so. However, they need the right to have the information, and I guess that they can do that only if it is included in the clause as a local
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authority function. I want clarification about what we might construe the local authority function to be in the context of the clause.

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