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Publicly Funded Schools (Oversight)

Volume 573: debated on Monday 6 January 2014

We have reformed Ofsted’s inspection framework to make it clearer, tougher and fairer. We are also introducing new, more intelligent accountability measures in school league tables.

Ministers say that the Education Funding Agency is the only means of oversight for free schools. How many free schools are currently being investigated by the EFA?

The EFA is not the only means of oversight for free schools. As we know, Kings Science academy has been the subject of a specific investigation by the EFA. We also know that the Al-Madinah school, which has come to the attention of the Department and Ofsted, has also been facing a difficult scrutiny process.

My right hon. Friend, along with Lord Nash, has been assiduous in responding to colleagues’ concerns about academy chains. Will he consider changing some of the Education Funding Agency’s requirements so that in future pre-warning actions can be delivered when schools go into improvement status, not just into special measures?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that we are energetic in using the warning notices. More than half of local authorities have not used warning notices when schools have been underperforming, but where the best local authorities have used such notices, and indeed where the Department, on the advice of the EFA or others, has used them, we have seen real improvement.

Does the Secretary of State believe that it is acceptable for head teachers of academies to refuse to respond to complaints taken up by MPs? If he does not, when will he act to ensure that MPs receive proper responses?

I think that MPs deserve proper responses from all those charged with spending public money. I will look more closely at the specific case the hon. Gentleman mentions, but it is important to recognise that the principals of academies are more accountable than the heads of local authority schools—[Interruption.] “Facts are chiels that winna ding”. That is as a result of the greater accountability they face, and not just to the taxpayer through the EFA, but to the Charity Commission. We should be satisfied that the improved governance that academies and free schools have means that they are more directly accountable to taxpayers and elected representatives.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the changes to the accountability system for schools will benefit all their pupils, not merely those on the C-D grade borderline?

My hon. Friend is typically acute in getting to the heart of the matter. The change to judging schools on how well each student progresses from the moment they arrive until the moment they take their GCSEs, across a broad range of eight GCSEs, will mean that not just academic excellence but creativity and technical accomplishment will be counted in determining how well each school has improved—and of course we will move away from the distorting impact that a focus on the C-D borderline has had in the past.