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Volume 574: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2014

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.

The Minister of State will be relieved to know that I will not be referring to recent press reports about Ofsted. I am not here today to attack its methods or to call for its abolition—far from it. While I have the odd reservation, I am a big fan of Sir Michael Wilshaw and of Ofsted’s work. The issue that I want to focus on is Ofsted’s monitoring of the performance of local authorities in driving up standards in education.

The policy context is that under this Government, more and more schools are being freed from local education authority control. Thanks to the free schools programme and the Government’s dramatic expansion of the academy model, parents, teachers and head teachers are being trusted with the task of driving up standards in the classroom, rather than spending their time answering to local councils. More than half of secondary schools are in the process of converting to academy status, and I am sure that more and more schools and parents will want to take advantage of the freedoms that such status offers.

I can understand why the Government have pursued this policy so vigorously, as the success of privately managed, publicly funded schools is a global phenomenon. The OECD reported in 2012 that

“In general, privately managed schools tend to have more autonomy, better resources, better school climate and better performance levels than publicly managed schools”.

However, local authorities continue to run nearly half of secondary schools, nearly 85% of all schools and, obviously, the vast majority of primary schools. The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said in a newspaper over the weekend that local authorities should continue to have a role “overseeing” free schools and academies. Local authorities will continue to be relevant and important to the standard of education delivered in Britain’s schools. However, that raises some key questions. How can parents and the public know what councils are actually doing to promote high standards in schools? How can the performance of local councils and their officials be assessed and judged? Are they doing the right things? Are they doing enough? Are they ambitious enough on behalf of their young people?

How can people hold local authorities to account? I would contest that that is not very easy. There are tables showing the performance of schools in a local authority’s catchment area, but those performance data can be affected by a number of other factors, such as the socio-economic characteristics of the intake. Issues with performance can also be masked by the performance of particular schools—I will say more about that a little later—including schools that are outside an authority’s control, and by the educational attainment of pupils from outside its catchment area. The questions therefore remain: how can people tell what local councils are doing to improve educational standards? Are they doing the right things? Is it enough, and are the people at the local education authority up to the job?

I was prompted to raise those questions today by the concerns that I and many of my constituents—and now also Ofsted—have about the performance of Reading borough council as the local education authority. I will not skirt around the issues or dress them up; I will just report them as they are. I hope that Reading LEA will listen carefully to my critique, which is based on the facts, and try to engage sensibly, rather than behaving in a knee-jerk, defensive and political way. I am willing to help it to reform and improve if it does the right things. At the end of the day, the key must be to improve the outcomes for children in LEA schools.

Reading has struggled for years to make consistent and long-lasting improvements to educational outcomes, thereby allowing many children to underachieve. Even at GCSE and A-level, for which the results are very good, its real performance has been masked by the excellent results from grammar schools, where around 90% of the children come from outside the borough. It strikes me that there must be something fundamentally wrong with an LEA that allows that level of educational underachievement to continue. Let me explain why.

Just before Christmas, the director of education, adult and children’s services at Reading borough council wrote to the head teachers and chairs of governors at all local schools, admitting that Reading’s key stage 2 results in reading, writing and mathematics had fallen behind those in almost all other areas of England, and were in the bottom five nationally. Reading LEA had the largest drop in the proportion of pupils reaching level 4 and above in the south-east region, and the third largest fall in performance in the country. The achievement of key groups, including some ethnic minority groups, those with special educational needs and those on free school meals, was also extremely poor according to the LEA’s director of education.

Inspection of local children’s centres has found them to be inadequate. In a damning judgment, Ofsted found children’s centres in east Reading to be “inadequate in all respects”, and is planning interventions to bring about improvements. To be inadequate in all respects takes some doing.

Earlier this year, the Minister wrote to Reading LEA, challenging it over the gap that has developed between rich and poor children’s performances, despite the huge Government investment through the pupil premium. Last year, the George Palmer primary school was removed from the LEA’s control and reopened as an academy due to its constant failure to improve its failing performance.

I have put my concerns in a letter to Sir Michael Wilshaw, and earlier this week spoke to Matthew Coffey, the Ofsted regional director. Ofsted has informed me that it was already concerned about Reading LEA’s performance because of the high exclusion rates in a number of schools; in fact, Reading was found to have the highest fixed-term exclusion rate of any local authority in England. The key stage 2 data confirmed Ofsted’s concerns, and on 5 October last year Mr Coffey wrote to the LEA expressing those concerns. Shockingly, Ofsted has told me that 5,000 of 13,000 pupils under Reading LEA control are at schools that are not considered even to be good. Surely a good school is the least that any parent and every child should have the right to expect. The situation suggests that Reading is an LEA that at best is allowing schools to drift, and at worst is failing to challenge inadequate standards properly.

Ofsted met with the LEA on 13 December, when it was made clear that if no improvement was seen, there was the option to carry out a focused inspection of the LEA. Although in reality it had little choice, I am pleased that Reading agreed to share tracking data for key stage 2 and targets for improvement. I also welcome Ofsted’s recent finding of improvement in Reading’s key stage 1 results. A further meeting to try to resolve some of the issues is due in March.

I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s aspiration for every youngster to have a good school. Given that the quality of learning and teaching is a fundamental factor in raising attainment and achievement in schools, how can Ofsted and the LEA monitor that quality, especially where there are non-qualified teachers?

As we all know, a debate on that subject is taking place this afternoon in the Chamber. Unqualified teachers have been used very successfully in both private and public sector schools for many years. I see no reason to try to change the current arrangements.

Let me explain the significance of the poor key stage 2 results I mentioned. Key stage 2 is an assessment of the attainment of primary school pupils. Although six of the eight secondary schools in Reading’s catchment area are now academies, only five out of the 31 primary schools are. Poor performance in primary schools means poor performance in the schools that Reading borough council runs. That suggests that the council, in its stewardship of the schools, is hindering progress, rather than fulfilling its legal duty to promote higher standards. Ofsted is concerned that the attainment gap between pupils receiving free school meals and the rest is getting bigger at primary school level, even though in secondary schools—most of which have left LEA control—the data are getting better and the gap is narrowing.

That situation must not be allowed to continue at the primary school level. I suggest that in the LEA there is a lack of ambition to challenge, and a lack of will and desire to take the decisions necessary to make real and lasting educational change. There is a culture in which failure in local schools is too easily accepted and excused. For a long time now, I have noticed a lack of aspiration for some groups of children, and a lack of will to challenge the notion that some children from difficult areas and chaotic homes are too challenging or damaged to be helped.

The LEA’s poor performance and attitude have forced me into a much more active role regarding local schools than I ever envisaged when I first became MP for Reading East. The local authority has termed that interference, but it would be a dereliction of my duty to my constituents not to intervene. Of course, I was conscious of Reading’s lack of consistent progress in schools when elected in 2005, but I could not immediately put my finger on the reason for it. When I did, the Government were resistant to making the necessary changes and to challenges to the educational orthodoxy.

That changed in 2010, when academies and university technical colleges got rocket boosters, free schools were introduced, changes were made to the curriculum, and help was made available to poorer pupils through the pupil premium—a policy on which I agreed with the Minister long before my party did. That gave me the tools to start bypassing an LEA that was at best coasting and at worst failing. It meant I was able to be a focal point for setting up a new UTC, which challenged other schools to up their game and LEAs to invest where there was inadequate performance.

The coming of that UTC encouraged the neighbouring LEA, Wokingham, to invest in Bulmershe school. Recently I helped another school from the neighbouring authority to get behind setting up a new free school for 11 to 16-year-olds. Maiden Erlegh free school will enable its mother school’s outstanding DNA—the standard that parents want for their children—to be delivered in my constituency. It was announced last week that it will open in 2015.

Why does the hon. Gentleman think that there is a lack of aspiration in the local education authority?

Because, as I think I have explained, it is failing to take the necessary decisions to ensure that the gap between rich and poor local children is properly closed.

I am disappointed with Ofsted for not noticing what was happening, and for allowing Reading to bump along the bottom for so long, failing a whole generation of children. Ofsted should be a catalyst driving long-lasting change and improvement in local authorities’ performance, as it has been for many schools across the country. Local authorities have a legal duty to promote high standards in schools and among other providers, so that children and young people achieve well and fulfil their potential. It is welcome that Ofsted has restarted inspections of local authorities’ performance, but Ofsted will not inspect every local authority and will not undertake a fixed cycle of inspections; rather, inspections will be made where key indicators give rise to concern.

My questions for the Minister are these. Given that Reading LEA’s lacklustre performance has been apparent to us for many years, is he concerned that there are other LEAs across the country that are quietly failing to meet their responsibilities? Could they slip through the net like Reading? Will he commit to reviewing continually other Ofsted procedures for inspecting local authorities? Are those procedures sufficient and effective? Will he give a commitment that where Ofsted finds that a local authority is not doing enough to promote high standards, its recommendations will have real teeth and the situation will not simply be allowed to continue? With specific reference to Reading, will he give a commitment that he and his Department will keep a close interest in developments in Reading, and make it clear that if there is no developed and credible plan of action soon to improve performance radically in the LEA’s schools, they will ask Ofsted to carry out a full inspection of Reading LEA?

I am a huge supporter of this Government’s academy and free school policies—I believe that they will be seen as being among the signature achievements of this great reforming Government—but we must not turn a blind eye to the hugely important role played by local authorities. They must be subject to challenge, just like schools and teachers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Havard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing this debate and making his points so clearly. I am pleased that he is doing what is important for Members of Parliament: not only acting as a cheerleader for local schools when that is justified and right—it is important to recognise and praise local schools’ success—but serving as a challenger when there is weakness and underperformance. Sometimes it is tempting for Members of Parliament to do the easy bit but not to confront the challenges, which is not always popular or welcome among some people in the schools system and local authorities. What my hon. Friend is doing is right for his constituents and for parents and pupils in the area. I am also pleased to hear about the wider role that he has played in seeking to improve educational opportunities for young people in his constituency.

I join my hon. Friend in putting on record my gratitude to Ofsted for the work that it does in inspecting schools and local authorities. I said a week or so ago at the North of England education conference that I thought Sir Michael was the best chief inspector of schools that we have ever had. All of us in the Department for Education are extremely grateful to him for the work that he is doing and believe that Ofsted is a very professional organisation that should be welcomed by all parties.

Can the Minister explain why Ofsted does not have a systematic approach to inspecting local authorities, not just to bring about improvement but to share effective practice?

There is a systematic process in place for inspection of local authorities. I will come to that later in my speech. For the time being, though, it is right to mention that the authorities on which the chief inspector is concentrating most are those with the weakest performance. Clearly, he could be going to other local authorities, and indeed he would be the first to recognise that spreading best practice is important. That is something that Ofsted seeks to do, but for the time being, it is targeting its scarce resources, which must also be applied to 23,500 schools and lots of early years settings, at the weakest performing local authorities, which I think is the right thing to do.

I would like to say a few things about the national context of underperformance, and then I will talk in detail about the particular issues in Reading that have been raised by my hon. Friend. As I said recently at the North of England education conference, improving our education system is the biggest long-term challenge we face as a nation. We are making progress. Last week, the results for secondary schools were published, and they show that the number of state-funded schools classed as underperforming in relation to floor targets is now 154 out of 3,200 secondaries, down from 195 the previous year. Those figures are a credit to teachers’ professionalism and hard work, and they mean that the number of pupils being taught in underperforming secondary schools has fallen by 50,000 since last year and by almost 250,000 since the coalition Government was elected in 2010.

Nevertheless, there is much more to do, as my hon. Friend has made clear. Attainment in many schools is still too low, and we have a long way to go in narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and other pupils. There is also wide variation between different parts of the country, as he mentioned. Our vision is of a school-led system where improvement is driven from within, with the very best teachers and school leaders modelling excellence in practice and working in partnerships to build capacity and raise standards across the system.

The national leaders of education programme enables head teachers of Ofsted-rated outstanding schools and their staff to use their skills and expertise to support schools in challenging circumstances and improve the quality of teaching and leadership. There are three NLEs in Reading. Alongside that, the local leaders of education programme enables head teachers of Ofsted-rated good schools to work outside their own school to provide support to another head teacher and their school. There are five LLEs in Reading. In addition, the Teach First programme now places nearly 5,500 teachers in schools in challenging circumstances. The programme started in inner London and will, in the year ahead, be for the first time a genuinely national scheme in all regions of the country.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the situation in Reading. I will raise it, as he has done, with the chief inspector when I see him next week for my regular stocktake, and will mention this debate. Reading is currently ranked 111th out of 150 local authorities in Ofsted’s latest table for percentage of pupils attending a good or outstanding secondary school, and 116th out of 150 local authorities for percentage of pupils attending a good or outstanding primary school. The 2013 results for pupils at the end of primary school, in key stage 2, show that Reading has dropped significantly below the national average of 75%. Reading now stands at 69%, a drop from 73% last year. Those figures are disappointing. I note, however, that in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which includes primary schools in both Reading and Wokingham local authorities, the key stage 2 percentage is 73%, which is close to the national average.

I will make a little more progress, and then I will give way.

At key stage 4, the percentage of pupils in Reading achieving five or more good GCSEs rose from 60.7% in 2012 to 63.6% in 2013, which is above the national average of 60.6%. Reading contains two selective grammar academies, as my hon. Friend will know, which have contributed positively to those results, but its non-selective schools, which on the whole continue to improve, have also played their part in that achievement. Reading East constituency averages significantly above the national average for key stage 4, at 75.2%.

The area has five primary academies, three of which are sponsored, representing 18% of the total number of maintained primary schools in the local authority. Most of those have been open or with their sponsors for a year or less. All have deep-rooted performance issues dating from their LA-maintained days. My hon. Friend will know that half the borough’s secondary schools are already academies. I understand that the only sponsored academy is now starting to make good progress following a slow start. Again, that school had many deep-rooted issues that the sponsor had to address when they took it over. In all cases, the Department is working with the sponsors and academy trusts concerned to ensure that rapid improvement is made and sustained over time.

I would like to mention briefly disadvantaged performers and the pupil premium, which my hon. Friend highlighted. In the 2013 key stage 2 tests at the end of primary education, 58.8% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level in reading, writing and maths, compared with 77% in 2012. Again, those are disappointing figures. For all other pupils, 78.8% achieved the expected level in reading, writing and maths, compared with 77.9% in 2012.

Can the Minister explain why Ofsted has apparently been so tardy in intervening and it has required the intervention of the local MP to bring the matter to the fore?

Ofsted looks at 23,500 schools across the country. It has a huge number of early years settings and other, wider responsibilities beyond the schools. It has recently, under Sir Michael’s leadership, taken a far more thorough and proactive approach to local authorities, picking out the local authorities that it is most concerned about and beginning in a proper and proactive way the process of inspection that should have been taking place a long time ago, including under the previous Government.

Results for primary schools in Reading show that the percentage of pupils, both those on free school meals and their peers, who met the expected standard has gone down between 2012 and 2013. The results for free school meal pupils dropped from 54% to 52%, and the results for their peers dropped from 77% to 74%. At key stage 4 nationally, the proportion of free school meal pupils achieving at least five good GCSEs has risen from 34.6% to 37.9% in 2013. The gap between those pupils and their peers has now dropped to 26.7 percentage points, compared with 27.4 percentage points in 2011, which is welcome. In Reading, the picture is of rising attainment but the gap has widened. The percentage of free school meal pupils achieving the standard has risen from 31.9% in 2011 to 35.1% in 2013, but the rise for non-free-school-meal pupils has been greater than that, so the attainment gap has risen from 28 percentage points to 35 percentage points. In our view, that is not acceptable.

Those figures illustrate that although the national picture is positive, all schools and local authorities need to improve so that we can finally start to break the link between poverty and future life chances. To ensure that all schools are equipped to do that, we have spent, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, almost £4 billion on the pupil premium so far, with another £2.5 billion planned for next year. The rate for primary school pupils will rise significantly next year to £1,300 per pupil per year, and the rate for secondary school pupils will rise to £935. I want to ensure that that will be used appropriately and make a difference. Ofsted has a key role to play in ensuring that schools use the pupil premium for its intended purpose, and on an evidence-based basis.

I am pleased to report that this year only one school in Reading received a challenge letter from the Schools Minister urging better support for their disadvantaged pupils based on their recent results. I was able to write to two schools commending them on their excellent performance and encouraging them to support other schools. If my hon. Friend has not seen those letters, I will make sure that he receives copies so that he knows which schools I am talking about. I look forward to hearing how the high-performing schools are helping to spread best practice.

Local authorities have an important role to play, together with national Government, in leading the delivery of our ambitions for improved education. Where local authority maintained schools are underperforming or failing, early intervention and swift, robust action are required to tackle failure. Statutory guidance for local authorities, “Schools causing concern”, makes that clear. I understand that Reading has issued five warning notices to primary schools since 2009 with the aim of securing improvement, and I encourage LAs such as Reading to continue to make full use of their statutory intervention powers where they consider that maintained schools are not doing enough to bring about improvement. The statutory guidance is also clear that academy status with the support of a strong sponsor is often the best way of securing lasting improvement in those circumstances.

In cases such as Reading, local authorities should focus their main school intervention activity on the schools that they are responsible for. Good LAs should work constructively with all local schools, but academies are ultimately accountable to the Secretary of State for Education, and local authorities should raise any concerns that they have about academy performance directly with both Ofsted and the Department for Education.

I am fascinated by some of the things the Minister is saying. Does he agree with my concern that Ofsted tends to look at local education authorities where the failures are right across the board, but it also needs to look at the signals of those that are almost bumping along the bottom? They are not quite at the bottom, as the Minister showed through his league tables for primary and secondary school, but they are in that patch where they are consistently failing in areas of what they are doing. Ofsted really needs to challenge them, and it is not quite challenging them as well as it should at the moment.

My hon. Friend makes a legitimate point in drawing our attention to the need to ensure that it is not only the LAs at the bottom of the performance table that are challenged, which I am sure that the chief inspector would acknowledge. It is relatively early in the process of inspecting local authorities in this way, and over time, I am sure that the chief inspector, who is independent of the Department in these matters, will make sure that he refines the way in which things are done, but does not simply focus on those areas that are right at the bottom of the league tables.

Where there is weakness, local authorities can intervene in many ways, such as by making effective use of data to intervene early; offering direct school support; encouraging schools to form self-improvement clusters; seeking to work constructively with academies; and finding suitable sponsors for underachieving schools. We know that those mechanisms work. The best LAs have reformed in line with the changing landscape and offer ample examples of good practice.

We are keen to see local authorities on the front foot, taking the initiative and not simply waiting to be challenged by Ofsted or the Department about the performance of schools in their respective areas. It is right that the chief inspector is highlighting regional and local disparities in the quality of educational provision through Ofsted inspections of local authority school improvement arrangements. We welcome his plans to ask challenging questions of local authorities, academy trusts and other external parties about their contribution to school improvement. Where the chief inspector reports a less than satisfactory response to his concerns, we will consider, as a Department, what action should be taken to hold those responsible to account. Continuing mediocrity and failure will never be an outcome that we can accept.

I understand that Sir Michael and his regional team have already been looking into specific examples that my hon. Friend has raised and the statistics he has brought to our attention. For example, Ofsted’s regional director wrote to Reading setting out concerns about the drop in key stage 2 results. As I think my hon. Friend knows, that led to a meeting between Ofsted and the director of children’s services in December last year. I am told that a number of actions have been taken as a result, including a new system for tracking exclusions and more close monitoring and tracking of achievement for pupils, which Ofsted will be reviewing shortly. The authority has also set up a conference for head teachers in February and has invited Ofsted to contribute, which I welcome.

I understand that Ofsted’s regional director has discussed some of that with my hon. Friend in the past few days and has written to him. I am confident that if Ofsted considers that Reading is not taking appropriate steps to address the key stage 2 issue, it will use its power to take appropriate action, whether through focused inspection of schools or through an inspection of the local authority school improvement arrangements. My hon. Friend will understand that deciding which local authorities to inspect and on what basis is ultimately a matter for the chief inspector and not for me or the Department.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to these very important issues. The solutions for the underperforming schools in Reading might also provide important lessons for other areas of the country, and he is drawing attention to something that is of great importance, not only to his constituency, but to the Government, for the entire country.

Sitting suspended.