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Educational Standards (City of Westminster)

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2010

For many years, successive Governments have assumed that simply tinkering with the structure of education leads to an almost automatic improvement in educational standards, yet the message that is coming loud and clear from schools and colleges is that much of that constant interference does not work. Schools want the autonomy to decide how best to achieve great results within their own unique community, supported only by local education authorities, when necessary. In my view, the local council’s role should be to represent and advise parents in securing a good education for their children, while supporting schools by providing certain services that are beyond the capacity of individual schools to provide.

In an attempt to get that balance right in my constituency, the leader of Westminster city council, Councillor Colin Barrow, decided in June 2008 to launch an independent education commission, charged with calculating how our local authority could assist schools in improving the attainment of Westminster’s young people. The education commission report proposed 10 recommendations to help the city of Westminster overcome the economic, cultural and social challenges of providing education in an inner city environment. Although the recommendations understandably focused on the city of Westminster, the commission believes that the challenges and opportunities facing the local authority are mirrored elsewhere. As a result, its analysis and recommendations have an important contribution to make to the wider debate and further policy development in education.

I often emphasise in the House how misunderstood my constituency is. Many assume that it is a place only for the global super-rich. Although it has pockets of great wealth, for sure, the reality is very different: it is a place where great poverty and great wealth live cheek by jowl. Anyone who had a chance to read the excellent recent Evening Standard series on London’s dispossessed will know now of the huge contrasts present in that seemingly ultra-modern, prosperous and dynamic city.

The impact of that wealth disparity on schooling in my constituency makes the challenges of providing a good education in Westminster considerable. Many of our families are new to Britain. Westminster’s population is 236,000 and of those people 51 per cent.—including me, I hasten to add—were born outside the UK. There is a massive population turnover, with 25 per cent. of residents arriving or leaving each year. Most of the children in our state schools do not speak English at home. As one might imagine, the difficulties of educating a child who arrives mid-year, whose classmates move to different areas regularly and whose parents are unaccustomed to the British education system present a major challenge to Westminster city council. Of course the same could be said of other inner city areas in the UK. Yet, together, our local schools and Westminster city council achieve good results, which are improving fast, in both absolute and relative terms.

The most tangible demonstration of the quality of Westminster schools, however, is the number of children from other boroughs, such as Lambeth, Southwark, Camden and Brent, who come here to be educated. Indeed, I know that when families in social housing are moved to other parts of London, they are normally keen for their children to continue to be schooled in Westminster. Nevertheless, the results averages mask wide differences in outcomes. Westminster city council wants keenly to rectify that by bringing every classroom up to the standard of the best; but how should it go about achieving that admirable goal when its influence over national education policy is limited and all secondary schools in the borough are independent of direct local education authority control? How can it be a useful partner to the right schools in the locality, while granting them the autonomy to make the right decisions for their pupils?

To begin answering those questions, Councillor Barrow launched the education commission in June 2008. Led by Professor David Eastwood, a group of education experts spent six months last year speaking to the widest range of local stakeholders, to gain a clear understanding of the current state of education in Westminster and to advise the council how it might improve its service. All the commissioners accepted that invitation on the basis that their work would be untrammelled, that their report would be entirely independent and that their recommendations would form the basis of a commitment to action.

The education commission report was eventually published in September last year. It recognised the social, economic and cultural challenges that Westminster faces, the significant improvement achieved in many of its schools in the recent past and the capacity constraints on a relatively small London authority. It also produced 10 key recommendations that it advised Westminster city council to take forward. First, it suggested that senior management from the children’s services department should make an annual visit to all schools. Each school’s wider achievements should be celebrated, in the publishing of a school report card, and collated into an annual “Education in Westminster” report. The report also strongly encouraged all councillors to become governors of Westminster schools. In a borough where a large number of Conservative voters send their children to private schools, the subsequent taking up of that recommendation is, I believe, a tangible demonstration of councillors’ commitment to all those in the constituency, not just their political patrons.

The report recommended that the council should work with schools on extended services, such as programmes for the gifted and talented and for the raising of aspirations. It advised that early years provision should be reviewed to determine how effectively it is targeting those most in need and suggested the extension of educational opportunities for children with special educational needs and the improvement of care provision for students with behavioural and emotional difficulties.

As for the council’s responsibilities to parents, the report called upon it to provide high quality, impartial guidance to parents and carers and to facilitate improved information sharing between primary, secondary and special schools and the pupil referral units at the point of transition.

On a broader level, the commission suggested that the council should acquire a right to strategic engagement with all schools if children’s educational experiences are jeopardised and a right to access information from academies to allow such interventions to be made. It also advised that the council should increase its capacity to share best practice through the development of a collaborative inner London board.

Finally, the commission recommended that the council should invite the director of schools and learning to attend the strategic executive board and immediately appoint a cabinet member for education. That was the only recommendation that was subsequently rejected outright, once the council, after consultation, decided that having one cabinet member for all children’s services was more likely to fit with statutory requirements.

I think that there is an acceptance, to be honest—trying to put party politics to one side—that because inner London authorities are very small, by their nature, some collaboration is needed and that, without necessarily moving towards the re-institution of the Inner London Education Authority, there are certain benefits to such collaboration, which I hope will be developed in the future.

The council later added two further recommendations of its own: to support parents so that children’s outcomes improve and to give further attention and resources to enhancing attainment in the key subject areas of English and mathematics, setting two key ambitions—to improve key stage 2 level 4 results from 73 per cent. to 80 per cent. and to get the number of children achieving 5 GCSE grades at A* to C, including English and maths, up from the current 51 per cent. to 75 per cent.

Most importantly, the commission drew attention to the role of the local authority in the context of the continual change to which I referred earlier. Schools deliver education, but, as the Minister knows, the council has statutory powers to ensure that education is provided to the highest standard. The commission recognised that it is a challenge—it would be for any inner city council—to carry out that statutory role when all secondary and many primary schools, as in Westminster, are independent of direct council control. The mobility of students across borough boundaries also presents a further challenge in collaborating with neighbouring local authorities to raise attainment and achieve the best outcomes. Those challenges require the council to be clear about its role. In that sense, it was concluded that the ultimate objective should be to ensure that, when children leave Westminster’s schools, they are prepared for the next stage of life—whether that is in college, work or university—and as far as possible for independence.

I attended the launch of the report in September last year, and I was inspired by the leadership of the council on this important matter, first under the dedicated Councillor Mark Page and now under the outstanding Councillor Nickie Aiken, who is cabinet member for children and young people. At the launch, the council leader said that he aspired to making Westminster’s schools the first choice for local parents. He said:

“In throwing open our schools to external scrutiny and by setting up the Commission we have placed ourselves at the very heart of one of the most important debates of our time—how we can radically improve the life chances of children in today’s society.”

He continued:

“A particular challenge for us is how we ensure high quality, cost effective services and support all our schools within a relatively small authority. The report’s proposals around the development of cross borough collaboration and potential mergers offer a real and exciting opportunity for a regional response which could deliver effective savings for local taxpayers.”

We all know that it is one thing to aspire to change; it is another to enact it. As a precursor to applying for today’s debate, I contacted the council to learn of its progress in adopting the commission’s recommendations. I was pleased to find that the council had already responded with vigour. First, it hosted a series of workshops with local stakeholders to ensure that everyone—teachers, school leaders, members, officers, parents and others—was on board with the recommendations.

The council has also been building on the commission’s recommendations. It recognises that it needs to ensure that Westminster has outstanding leaders and managers in its schools. The council will therefore strive to attract and retain the best, through academies and organisational changes such as executive headship, as well as monitoring challenge and intervention by high-quality school improvement partners. It is also putting renewed attention into early years services by providing multi-agency support through children’s centres, where vulnerable children and those with additional learning and behavioural needs can be identified and properly cared for.

Through capital and joint-funded programmes, the council hopes to improve local learning environments and maximise the use of new technology. The Minister probably shares my view—we may have been educated at a similar time—but whenever we visit schools, we see how much they have changed. It is taken as read that there will be huge amounts of technology in all schools. That is a positive way forward, but we need to utilise that technology to the full in all schools.

The family information service in Westminster provides a single portal of information on all services for children and their families. The school report card gives parents clear and unambiguous advice on which to base their choices, and the service seeks to remove barriers to learning by building a special educational needs strategy. I hope that that will develop high-quality provision in the borough by maximising choice and providing better value for money.

Most importantly, it is proposed that the city council should become a commissioner of education rather than a provider, moving away from the traditional model under which all services are provided and delivered by the authority to one that has a strong, central team of expert education commissioners, with a focus on broader educational improvement. The aim is to improve outcomes; to provide stronger financial planning and control; to implement strategic commissioning; to achieve greater transparency; to develop a mixed economy model that balances good outcomes and value for money by using approaches such as outsourcing, the shared services to which I referred earlier and the use of the voluntary sector; and to commission services with neighbouring boroughs to create new capacity, specialist services and extended management capacity across the entire range of expertise.

Although the academic results in the challenging inner-city borough of Westminster are getting better, given the council’s continued efforts to improve the state offering to local residents, Westminster city council has never been content to rest on its laurels. In launching its independent education commission, the council has made a set of robust recommendations that can be used as a catalyst to drive standards forward. The commissioners’ report also provides a platform for thought and debate, and I hope that it will inspire politicians, council leaders, teachers and officers, who will all need to engage to take the initiative forward. One hopes that Westminster city council will become a beacon authority. In enacting the recommendations, the council looks set to lead the way again, remodelling the role of a local authority in the provision of education.

The most important of the suggestions put forward by the commission is that of clarifying the role of the local education authority as a commissioner of education, rather than as an old-fashioned provider. In pursuing that model, it is hoped that independence for schools and value for the taxpayer will be compatible with ever-improving educational opportunities for the youngest, both in Westminster and beyond the borough boundaries.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing the debate. My first debate as a Minister was with the hon. Gentleman; it was about home education in Westminster, so I know that he is a strong advocate for the well-being and future success of students in Westminster. I know that it is something about which he is passionate. I, too, want to ensure that students across the country receive an excellent education, and that the standards in our schools continue to rise. That means, of course, that I want to see standards rise in Westminster too.

During my time in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, I have been responsible for London schools and have visited some of our capital’s finest schools. I am pleased to say that the many schools I have visited have all been of an exceptionally high standard. Only this morning, I visited Hillyfield primary school in Waltham Forest. It is an outstanding school, with Steve Lancashire, a national leader in education, as its head. In north Westminster, we have St. George’s school, one of the most improved schools in London.

Before speaking about the specifics of schools in Westminster, it is important to outline how far schools standards have come nationally. My Department, working in close partnership with local authorities, school leaders and teachers, has done much to be credited with since 1997. We now have over 40,000 more teachers; they are the best-qualified work force in our history, and are supported by more than 180,000 teaching assistants. We have 4,000 new or refurbished schools, and have seen the biggest school building programme since the Victorian era. Over 100,000 more children are leaving primary school secure in the basics. Only one in 12 schools is now below our basic minimum benchmark of at least 30 per cent. of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with one in two in 1997. That rigorous focus on standards has resulted in there being more high quality schools on the doorstep of many communities across the country.

I am pleased to say that those high standards of education are also present in the city of Westminster. The percentage of students gaining five A to C GCSEs has recently improved significantly. In 2005, the figure was 38.1 per cent., and in 2009 it had risen to 52.8 per cent. That increase of 14.7 per cent. is greater than the London average of 10.7 per cent. and the national improvement in maintained schools of 8.2 per cent.

At key stage 2, 73 per cent. of pupils in Westminster gain a level 4 or above in English and maths, which is 1 per cent. above the national average. Westminster is in the top 10 local authorities for progression in English at key stage 1, with 88 per cent. of pupils making the expected level of progress by the end of key stage 2, which is 6 per cent. more than the national figure. Westminster’s key stage 2 to 4 progression data show a 3 per cent. increase in both maths and English. That breaks down to 66 per cent. of pupils achieving the expected level in maths, and 69 per cent. in English. In maths, 82 per cent. of pupils in Westminster made the expected level of progress compared with 81 per cent. nationally.

I am pleased to see Westminster pupils’ excellent rates of progress in English during key stage 2. I believe that is partly due to the great work of the Making good progress pilot, which has been running in the borough for the last two years. It is an encouraging picture of continued progress from key stage 2 in primary school to key stage 4 at the end of secondary, with a 3 per cent. increase this year for pupils in Westminster in both maths and English compared with last year.

At the heart of the improvement in Westminster schools is a clear school improvement strategy. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Westminster council has ensured that significant additional funding has been channelled to the secondary school improvement team, which has resulted in positive outcomes on a range of indicators. In real terms, per-pupil increases between 1997 and 2005 were £1,720. In 2005 our funding system changed but our investment in education continues, with a real-terms per-pupil increases between 2005 and 2008 of £720, a 13 per cent. increase, compared with 8 per cent. for England.

There are clear plans for each school in Westminster to use detailed data analysis to target support. To Westminster’s credit, it has used structural solutions, including the formation of academies, to help secure improvements in pupil outcomes. There are no maintained schools with results below the GCSE floor target, which is a great achievement, and a credit to the local authority’s good work. Such achievement is shown in Ofsted’s results. From September 2005 to August 2009, Ofsted inspected 56 schools, with 39 rated as either good or outstanding. All secondary schools have been judged as either good or better for behaviour, and the local authority continues to tackle attendance issues well, and is now ranked third nationally for levels of persistent absence. There has also been a reduction in permanent exclusions.

The hon. Gentleman has made extensive reference to the Westminster Education Commission report, which was published in the autumn. I looked at the report with interest. I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for Conservative borough councillors to serve on the governing bodies of local schools. That is a helpful way forward, because local representatives need to know what it is going on in their schools to be able to make good decisions at local level.

It would also be ideal for the minority Labour councillors to do their bit serving as school governors, as some already do. I was not making a party political point. The idea is that it should be almost a prerequisite for all people who aspire to be councillors to do a stint on a governing body. They might even enjoy it enough to continue for some years after they have left the council.

The hon. Gentleman and I agree on that point. It is very helpful to have local councillors from all political parties serving on the governing bodies of local schools because it gives them a real insight into what happens in the classrooms.

The hon. Gentleman will also know of the schools White Paper, which recently started its progress through the House of Commons in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. It includes the development of the new school report card, which echoes an issue raised in the commission report. The report card is part of the wider changes to strengthen schools’ accountability to parents and the public generally, raise standards and reform pupil testing and assessment.

The school report card will include information, ranging from exam data to pupil well-being, that will provide a broader and clearer picture of each school’s performance in one easily accessible place. It will provide a single, clear and prioritised set of outcomes against which schools can be judged by all parts of the system, with predictable outcomes for both excellent or poor performance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need to support parents and all the different community groups in Westminster. We too acknowledge that strong, stable families are the bedrock of our society. Families give children the love and security they need to grow up and explore the world, and families are where most of us find the support and care necessary for a happy and fulfilling life—as children and adults, parents and grandparents.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are strongly committed to supporting all parents, including grandparents and carers, in sustaining strong and resilient relationships. The recently published Green Paper focused on enabling families to help themselves, and its proposals are clearly set out.

The national strategies programme has been working closely with the local authority in Westminster and has praised it for its high-quality secondary team, which makes effective use of school improvement partners, consultants and external advisers. The authority should also be applauded for its advanced plans to construct a centre of support and excellence, which will be forged from combining two special schools and the development of their strong outreach capacity to help more teachers and school leaders in the local authority to support students with special educational needs.

For the one Westminster school that is currently judged by Ofsted to require special measures, the school improvement partners and the local authority are working closely to ensure that improvement is rapid and sustainable. Clearly, Westminster is a local authority that is committed to raising school standards for the benefit of all students—an accolade that it has progressively worked for and one that it will continue to prove.

Much of the fine work for which Westminster is being recognised in this debate could also relate to London as a whole. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, today’s London schools have come on quite a long journey from where they were at the start of the century. In 2001, 179 London schools had fewer than 30 per cent. of their pupils achieving 5 GCSEs at A to C grades, including English and maths. Last year, that figure had dropped to 15 schools.

During London’s journey, from one of the poorest to one of the best performing areas of the country, the implementation of our London challenge has played a key role. The hon. Gentleman talked about the need for boroughs—particularly the smaller ones—to collaborate. I am struck by the collaboration that has already happened in the sharing of best practice. Through the challenge, we can identify and prioritise the schools that need extra help and analyse particular issues for the London education system.

For each school, we worked with local authorities to develop specific and targeted solutions to the problems, including tackling low attainment in individual schools and addressing the issues that were facing London in particular, such as low aspiration and a shortage of high-quality teachers. As London continues to improve, I want us to ensure that success is spread across the capital. To that end, we are supporting all London boroughs to work together in clusters on aspects of school improvement.

Westminster is the lead authority for a five-borough cluster that has been working together since autumn 2009, funded by London challenge. The Westminster cluster is making immediate headway on narrowing the gap in achievement between disadvantaged children and their peers through cross-borough working with a core group of schools. That work has a particular focus on hard-to-reach families, parents and carers, and local culture and values and the early years sector. Work has started with more than 30 schools, and targets have been agreed by all. I look forward to seeing the progress that will be made in the coming months.

Westminster has also been funded by London challenge to work with Kensington and Chelsea on a pilot research project, which draws on an approach initially established in New York schools. It has been delivering significant results for some of the “hardest to move” pupils, improving their skills, motivation and attainment. The model has been adapted for use in a UK context, and 12 primary schools across the two authorities are involved in the pilot. Teachers will work collaboratively to develop strategies to unlock and accelerate the learning of a small group of students, as a means of improving teaching and learning across the whole school. Such examples show how my Government have worked in partnership with Westminster council and Westminster schools to deliver dramatic improvements in results.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and thank him for highlighting what is going on in education in Westminster. If we want educational standards to improve, we must treat each school individually, and offer them tailored support and guidance so that they can do even better. Many Westminster schools are working closely with teachers, students, local authorities and other educational professionals to offer local students the best education possible.

Through this partnership and our continued work in the London challenge, we can ensure that those standards not only stay high, but steadily rise in the years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.