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Education and Adoption Bill

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

Consideration of Lords amendments

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Lords amendments 2 to 6.

Lords amendment 7, and amendments (a) to (d) thereto.

Lords amendment 8, and amendment (a) thereto.

I am pleased to welcome the Education and Adoption Bill back to the House for consideration of amendments made in the other place. As a result of the careful scrutiny of both Houses and the strong advocacy of my noble Friend Lord Nash, the Bill returns to the House in good shape and with the potential to ensure that many more children and young people have the opportunity to realise their full potential.

Since 2010, educational standards in England have risen rapidly, and 1.4 million more pupils are now taught in schools that are judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding. More than 80% of our schools are now good or better. Further improvements are required, however; 1.5 million pupils are still taught in schools that Ofsted judges to be less than good. To deliver educational excellence in every part of the country, we need a school system that consistently delivers high academic standards. This Bill brings forward important reforms to raise standards across the country. It will speed up the process by which failing maintained schools become sponsored academies, introduce new measures to allow us to intervene in coasting schools for the first time and ensure that we have consistent powers to take swift and decisive action when academies underperform.

Alongside reforms to improve school standards, the Bill introduces a reform of the adoption system so that more of our most vulnerable children can find stable, loving homes without delay. The way the sector has embraced the challenge of regional adoption agencies has been impressive, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families has recently announced that future funding will be available to support the sector during the transition. The move to regional adoption agencies is a widely supported manifesto commitment, and I have been delighted to see the support from across the House and in the other place for the Government’s vision. I am pleased to confirm that the adoption clause, clause 13, stands unchanged from when the Bill was first introduced.

There are eight Lords amendments to the education provisions for the consideration of the House, and the Labour party has proposed changes to two of the Lords amendments. All eight of the Lords amendments were either Government amendments or amendments that were supported by the Government, and each was accepted by all sides in the other place without a Division. I hope that we will be able to reach the same conclusion today.

Lords amendments 1 to 5 relate to coasting schools. I want to speak to the most substantive amendment in the group first, Lords amendment 5, regarding parliamentary scrutiny of the coasting regulations. The Government recognise the importance of Parliament scrutinising the detail of the coasting definition. Lords amendment 5 therefore requires that coasting regulations to be made under the Bill will be subject to the affirmative procedure the first time they are laid. Subject to parliamentary timetabling, we hope that that will take place once the 2016 performance data have been published and before any school is formally identified as coasting for the first time. In making the change, the Government have listened carefully to the concerns raised in both this House and the other place regarding appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of the coasting definition.

Subjecting the regulations to the affirmative procedure when they are laid for the first time represents the most proportionate approach. It will allow both Houses to scrutinise and approve the detail of the final coasting regulations without creating an ongoing burden on parliamentary time. Minor and technical changes could be required to the regulations following the publication of school performance data, which currently takes place twice each year, or as a result of changes to the layout or content of performance tables. Such changes would of course be uncontroversial, but if the regulations were subject to the affirmative resolution procedure each time we made such changes, they would require a full debate in both Houses. Under the negative procedure, Members of both Houses can still call a debate should they have any concerns about the changes proposed.

Lords amendment 1 seeks to improve the drafting of the Bill and to remove any unintentional element of subjectivity that could be read into its original wording. The original text states that a school will be eligible for intervention when it has been notified that the Secretary of State “considers” it to be coasting. We have been clear from the outset that we want schools to be certain about whether or not they meet the coasting definition. That is why our proposed definition is firmly based on school performance data. To ensure that schools are not left in any doubt about this, Lords amendment 1 proposes to revise the wording of clause 1 to remove the term “considers”. In doing so, it clarifies that whether or not a school is coasting is based on the absolute terms of the definition.

Lords amendment 2 provides the Secretary of State with the power to disapply the coasting clause of the Bill from certain types of schools. As currently drafted, the Bill would apply to all maintained schools, as defined in the Education and Inspections Act 2006, including special schools and maintained nursery schools. We have no intention of applying the coasting definition to some of those schools, such as maintained nursery schools, which is why we have proposed this change.

Lords amendment 3 would change the Bill’s wording to ensure the Secretary of State must make regulations to define coasting. Amendments seeking this change were tabled by the Labour party in this House, and the Government supported the amendment when it was brought forward in the other place. It has always been our intention that coasting regulations be made, and this Lords amendment will remove any doubt.

The final amendment to the coasting schools clause, Lords amendment 4, is consequential to Lords amendment 1, and is a technical change to ensure correct cross-referencing within the clause. Lords amendment 6 is also a consequential and technical amendment to make explicit two further sections of the Education and Inspections Act. I will not go into any further detail about that.

Lords amendment 7 will ensure that parents are kept informed when their child’s school is causing concern. Their ability to understand the action that is being taken to bring about improvements has been an important issue throughout the passage of the Bill. In response, the Government brought forward Lords amendment 7, which we hope will provide assurance that parents will always be kept informed when underperforming maintained schools are becoming sponsored academies.

Every parent wants their child to attend a good school. It is right that they demand quick, effective action when concerns arise. We are clear that becoming a sponsored academy will always be the solution for a maintained school that is judged inadequate by Ofsted. The Bill delivers on our manifesto commitment in that respect.

The Minister mentions parents. Does the balance of the Bill not concern him in that it gives at least seven new powers to the Secretary of State, but not one new power to parents?

The amendments we are debating give parents an additional entitlement to receive communication from the new sponsor of an academy while the process is being undertaken. We are unapologetic about the powers we are taking in the Bill, because we want to tackle all failing schools from day one when they become failing. That was in our manifesto, so this Bill is helping us deliver yet another manifesto achievement.

Does the Minister not worry that there is no proper procedure for a good school to decouple from a failing multi-academy trust? Time and again in my constituency, we see MATs that are not doing so well. I do not want to name the schools, but the Secretary of State knows about them because I have written to her personally about the issue. There is no proper procedure for such schools to decouple and we need one.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but the regional schools commissioners, of which there are eight around the country who know the local conditions and the local schools, will take action—indeed, they are taking action—when a multi-academy trust is failing to raise standards in its schools. We have taken action over 120 times to remove schools from multi-academy trusts that have not been delivering the support and sponsorship that we seek.

Once a sponsor has been identified for a failing school, it is commonplace for the sponsor to engage with parents about its plans for the school to ensure that they know what to expect. Often, parents are given the opportunity to share their views about any changes that the sponsor proposes to make. Lords amendment 7 will ensure that there is greater consistency for parents because the sponsor that is identified to take over a maintained school that is eligible for intervention will always be required to communicate to parents its plans for improving the school before the school is converted into a sponsored academy.

The hon. Members for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) have proposed four amendments to Lords amendment 7 that would replace the requirement on the proposed sponsor to communicate information about its plans to parents with a requirement for sponsors to consult parents about their improvement plans. I hope the House will recognise that that proposed change is more than just semantics. To ensure that underperforming schools are turned around as quickly as possible, clause 8 removes the requirement to consult on whether the school should become an academy so that that process cannot be misused to delay decisive action.

The Government consider that to be an important step that will allow failing schools to begin receiving the expert leadership and support that the hon. Gentleman seeks from day one.

Underperforming schools are carefully matched to sponsors. Trusting educational professionals to improve schools based on their experience and expertise is central to the academies programme. The proposal to impose a requirement on sponsors to consult parents about their plans to improve a school would represent a return to the rigid approach that allowed vested interests to prevent sponsors from taking decisive action and to delay the process of transformation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s proposals offer flexibility? Although there is no obligation to consult and discuss, it is always open to the regional schools commissioner and the school to discuss the issue and consult as much as possible. For example, there is a school in special measures in my constituency, and the regional schools commissioner and I have had a meeting with parents to discuss the situation at the school and the potential new sponsor. It is always open to those who are involved in education to consult as widely as possible.

My hon. and learned Friend is right, and nothing in the Bill prevents any amount of consultation, or a new sponsor from talking to staff, parents and so on. The amendment imposes a requirement on sponsors to communicate with parents. Elsewhere the Bill also prevents ideologically driven organisations and community groups that are determined to prevent a failing or underperforming school from becoming an academy from doing so. We will not tolerate failure in our school system, and we want to take action from day one.

Nobody will tolerate failure in schools. Will the Minister provide evidence of where the consultation has resulted in obstruction by vested interest?

In Committee I gave the hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee ample illustrations of that. One example was Downhills school in Haringey, which was deeply underperforming. The process of conversion to an academy—it is now run by the Harris Federation—was drawn out, which delayed improvement in that school. It is now a highly performing primary school in Haringey, and it provides a much better quality of education. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not want such a process to be delayed in future.

Amendment 8 relates to underperforming academies. We have always been clear that we will tackle under- performance wherever it occurs, whether in a maintained school or an academy. We recognise, however, that our formal powers on failing and coasting academies vary depending on the terms of an academy’s funding agreement. In some cases, particularly in earlier academies, that can restrict our ability to take action as strongly or as swiftly as we would want. Regional schools commissioners already take swift and effective action to secure improvements in a minority of academies that underperform. We have issued 134 formal notices to underperforming academies and free schools, and we have moved to change the sponsor in 124 cases of particular concern.

The Minister will know that I have an academy in my constituency, which my middle son attends. It was an excellent school when he started out, but unfortunately it began to require improvement and is now inadequate—indeed, Ofsted is there today. The regional schools commissioner has no powers to intervene in that academy, so will the Minister clarify that these powers will give Vicky Beer, the north-west regional schools commissioner, the powers she needs to go in and sort out the school?

The hon. Gentleman gives an example of where such powers are needed. Regional schools commissioners are industrious and energetic in tackling underperformance in academies, but some have older funding agreements. The new funding agreements have explicit powers for the Secretary of State to intervene, and amendment 8 seeks to give the powers of the Secretary of State, and through her the regional schools commissioners, to all academies, even those with old funding agreements that do not have the powers to intervene.

In practice, Lords amendment 8 will mean that when an academy’s performance meets one of two triggers in legislation—an inadequate Ofsted judgment or performance that falls within the coasting definition—its funding agreement will be read as having broadly the same provisions as apply to failing and coasting schools in our latest model funding agreement. That will give regional schools commissioners consistent powers to move a failing academy swiftly to a new sponsor, and to require a coasting academy to demonstrate that it can make sufficient improvement. The same coasting definition will apply to academies and maintained schools, and where an academy is coasting, as with a maintained school, it will be given the opportunity to demonstrate that it can improve sufficiently.

Does the Minister also recognise, when the regulations are drawn up, that it is possible for a school to be “coasting” at what appears to be a relatively high level, but that nevertheless the children are underperforming compared with what they should be achieving?

Yes. Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The definition of coasting incorporates a progress measure, because schools that on the surface may look as though they are performing well could easily fall within the definition of coasting when we look at the progress the children in that school make. We are determined that every child, regardless of starting point, will fulfil their absolute potential. Whether they are high performing or struggling, all pupils deserve the best education possible. That is the purpose behind using a progress measure in the definition of coasting.

The Labour party proposed an amendment to Lords amendment 8, which would remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to give the proprietor of an academy the opportunity to make representations before terminating the agreement on the grounds of an inadequate Ofsted judgment. The Government have included this step in their amendment as it is a requirement under the current model funding agreement, the contract between the Secretary of State and the academy trust. As I have set out, the effect of the Government’s amendment is to bring academies with older funding agreements broadly in line with the provisions of failing and coasting academies in the latest model funding agreement. Removing the requirement to seek representations would go beyond that and would fundamentally change the funding agreement, which is a contractual agreement for all academies. I assure the House that we have not set a particular timescale for the representations process in relation to failing academies, and we will ensure it is not lengthy and bureaucratic.

I hope the House will recognise the clear progress made on the Bill since it was last debated in this place and will welcome in particular the amendments to ensure parents are kept informed of consistent, effective powers to address underperforming academies. I am confident that the Bill before us today illustrates the Government’s commitment to building a fairer society in which every child receives an excellent education and the best possible start in life. I hope that hon. Members are able to support the amendments. I commend them to the House.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who led for the Opposition when the Bill came through the House, as I do to all other right hon. and hon. Members who, as the Minister bore witness in his opening statement, contributed in Committee and in the Chamber to improving the Bill. I commend those in the other place who have worked hard at least to extract some small movements in the right direction, which come before us today in the form of Lords amendments.

It is quite amazing that, when there are so many real challenges facing the education system on the Conservatives’ watch, the first education Bill of the new Parliament does nothing to tackle them: parents concerned about the crisis in school places; parents anxious about the crisis in teacher supply; parents worried about changes to the school assessment system. Parents get no answers to the things that matter to them from the Bill and this Government. Instead, the Education Secretary brings forward another Bill obsessed with structures, seizing more powers for herself while marginalising parents and local communities—the very people who understand their areas, their local economy and what their children need to succeed.

Let us take the amendments in turn. I welcome the Government’s proposals in Lords amendments 1 to 5 that the coasting regulations will be subject to an affirmative procedure the first time they are laid. Hopefully, things will then become much clearer—they are still pretty murky at the moment. We do know, however, that primary and secondary schools will be identified on the basis of their 2014 to 2016 pupil results through a devised progress measure. We do not know when that final designation will occur for primary and secondary schools, with GCSE results about a month behind final key stage 2 results. We can only wonder how many schools will be identified. It could be 200, it could be 2,000.

We do not know whether the measures will work. After all, the Schools Minister has form on promising to fix the problem of coasting schools. He came to this House in November 2011 to say that we must concentrate on the schools in the leafy suburbs that are not challenging their pupils as well as they should be. He promised that all schools would be subject to scrutiny to make sure that they raised standards and he placed his faith in the new performance tables that would identify how schools perform in relation to children of high academic ability as well as to those of lower academic ability. There is no evidence that the new panacea of academisation will be any more effective than the old panacea of performance tables.

We welcome amendment 7, as it finally recognises that parents exist and have an interest in their children’s school. Frankly, though, it does not go far enough. The 2015 Conservative party manifesto boldly states that “power to the people” is “a core Conservative belief”. [Interruption.] Thank you. I am not sure whether that is right, but I do know that in this Bill that belief is not extended to the people most concerned about their children’s education—their parents. Surely parents deserve to be as fully engaged as possible in decisions affecting their child’s education. Where the ownership of the school is changing, they should surely have the right to be consulted, and not simply, in the Secretary of State’s words,

“given the opportunity to understand just how a sponsor aims to transform their child’s school.”

The right hon. Lady serves up advertising jargon when she should be giving power to parents.

The selection of a sponsor is a critical strategic decision. As the Sutton Trust has shown, not all sponsors are as effective as others. Some are failing to provide an acceptable standard of education. Indeed, Ofsted recently said that the Academies Enterprise Trust, the largest academy chain, is “failing too many pupils” and that poorer pupils are doing “particularly badly”. None of us wants that. We are agreed across the House on that, but the reality is that that is what is happening in a number of multi-academy trusts. Ofsted has also branded standards at secondary schools at another multi-academy trust, E-ACT, as “too low”, while the performance of pupils from poorer backgrounds was “causing serious concern.” This is the chain that wants to cut local people out of governance arrangements, replacing them with “academy ambassadorial advisory bodies”—more jargon.

My hon. Friend mentions Ofsted and power to local people. He may have seen the comments of Michael Wilshaw about Liverpool and Manchester. Does he agree that it vital to have solutions to bring about school improvements in great cities such as Liverpool and Manchester that are owned by local people and by local communities? Will he welcome the Liverpool challenge, which is seeking to address precisely the issues that Michael Wilshaw was talking about?

Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I pay tribute to him for the work he is doing with the Liverpool challenge to make sure that those schools continue to transform and deliver the best for the children in their care.

To follow the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), Michael Wilshaw also commented today from London that Greater Manchester and Merseyside schools should have greater local involvement or more direction from local politicians. Has Government policy changed— we should now have a devolved structure for school administration—or has Ofsted under Sir Michael’s stewardship between 2012 and 2016 failed to improve standards?

I think everybody recognises the very good work that Sir Michael Wilshaw has done, but he lays down a challenge to us all when it comes to connecting what we want to do in a way that empowers local communities. In a sense, that is one of the things missing from this Bill.

To follow that up with another quick intervention, does my hon. Friend agree that too few MPs get involved in school improvement in the local area? Many MPs of all parties talk about schools as though they were experts, but they do not roll up their sleeves and do what our hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) is doing—actually trying to make a difference on the ground.

I always listen carefully to what the former Chair of the Education Committee has to say, and he is right on this occasion. We all have a leadership role in our communities when it comes to supporting our schools and colleges and ensuring that they deliver.

This is the second occasion on which AET and E-ACT—the two largest multi-academy trusts in the country, responsible between them for 85 schools—have received significant criticism from the Independent Schools Inspectorate. That is telling. The Secretary of State is ultimately responsible for holding academies to account, but, two years after Ofsted’s warning that the trusts were failing to raise standards, we are again being told that their schools are not delivering for many pupils. I am sure we all agree that that is not good enough, and that it illustrates the size of the challenge.

Parents have a fundamental wish to be involved in their children’s education. A recent survey by PTA-UK found that 97% of parents wanted to be consulted when big changes were made to how their schools were run. When a school becomes a sponsored academy and the sponsor is chosen, that represents a big change and a big deal. Parents have an important role to play in challenging—and helping—school communities to improve, and their views should be taken into account at such important moments.

Might there be a risk that the Government are laying the foundation for future legal challenges against academy trusts if the duty to inform turns out to be a duty to misinform, because they misrepresent the information to parents and they are not allowed to consult on it?

My hon. Friend has done a great deal of work on the Bill, and I am sure that Ministers have heard what he has said. No doubt their legal advisers will have already looked into the point very carefully, but they may want—with his assistance—to double-check the position. Why the Government cannot trust parents is beyond me, but the House has an opportunity to put that right by voting for our amendments (a) to (d).

There is real concern about whether the pool of current and potential academy sponsors has the capacity to improve additional schools. The Government’s own statistics show that only 15% of the 20 largest chains are performing above the national average, compared with 44% of maintained schools. Since September 2012, 75% of maintained schools have gained good or outstanding judgments, compared with 69% of academies. According to the National Foundation for Educational Research, in 2014 pupils at maintained schools achieved the same high standard of GCSE results as those attending academies. The facts suggest that the Government would help schools to improve by ending their ideological obsession with academisation, and pragmatically removing the bureaucratic barriers that prevent councils from intervening in underperforming schools.

In my constituency, Priory Lane school received an Ofsted judgment that meant that it needed significant improvement. The governors indicated that they wanted to go down the academy route, but that they wanted a choice of academy sponsor. Owing to a lack of academy sponsor capacity, the Department for Education and the regional schools commissioner could offer only one option, so governors and parents were presented with a “take it or leave it” choice. Despite representations from all and sundry—including myself—the Government remained adamant that the shotgun wedding would go ahead.

I understand where the Government were coming from, and, indeed, their sense of urgency and exasperation has been made clear today. In the event, however, owing to the skilled intervention of the local authority, a better solution was found. The school formed a federation with a successful partner, Westcliffe Primary, and that process is now benefiting both school communities. Ultimately, the local authority’s skilled intervention has produced a better outcome for children and parents—the very people on whom we should all be focusing. That is the sort of best practice that should be applauded and learnt from in the interests of children and parents everywhere. Of course we are pleased that the Government acceded to our arguments, and have included academies in the “coasting arena” so that action can be taken when necessary.

We come to the 80 lines of amendment 8, which was inserted to recognise that academies—as we already know—can also fail or be coasting and need improvement. Academy governance is a mess. There are 5,000-plus academies and 5,000-plus funding agreements. The private contract, as opposed to public law, cannot work for such a large number. It is a bureaucratic nightmare.

It baffles me that this Bill insists on treating schools differently depending on what type of school structure they have. If Ministers truly believe that no parent should have to put up with their child spending a single day in a failing school—to be fair, they have reiterated that today, and we agree wholeheartedly with them on it—and that leadership and governance should be replaced immediately, I simply cannot fathom why that would not apply to failing academies, too. Rather than double standards for pupils, there needs to be robust, purposeful action taken over any school that should be doing better.

In conclusion, let me remind Members of the words of Sir Keith Joseph, one of the Secretary of State’s illustrious predecessors, in introducing his 1984 Green Paper:

“Parents care about their children’s progress—how they develop and what they learn. They share the general desire for higher standards of education…We have not yet… allowed parents sufficient scope for discharging their unique responsibilities. Our education system is poorer for this. The Government now intends—while fully respecting the responsibilities of local education authorities—to extend its policies for raising standards in schools by enabling parents to improve the work of the schools.”

This is an old-fashioned one nation Tory who respected local authorities and wanted to empower parents. I applaud his words.

How times have changed when it is now a Labour Opposition who have to remind a Conservative Government of the need to respect parents and recognise the role of local government in providing oversight and accountability. Amendment 8 goes a tiny way towards bringing improvement by stating what funding agreements should say—whether they say or do not—about Government action when a school causes concern. Much more robust legislation is required, and the Minister might like to indicate whether it is true that the Government’s much touted next White Paper will ideologically academise the rest of the school estate. If so, will there be further reams of words trying to make sense out of nonsense?

The Labour amendment highlights the fact that when an academy has an Ofsted inadequate judgment, the Secretary of State must listen to representations from the school’s academy trust before taking further actions. No such opportunity is afforded to local authority-maintained schools.

The noble Lord Nash said amusingly in the other place when introducing amendment 8 that a myth had grown that Government

“somehow favour academies and hold them to account less robustly than maintained schools”,


“That is not the case.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 December 2015; Vol. 767, c. 2095.]

He is clearly a dab hand at irony. The reality is that this clause further treats academies more favourably than maintained schools by giving them the right of appeal to the Secretary of State in these circumstances when maintained schools cannot.

Is it the shadow Minister’s party’s policy to retain existing academies? We are a little confused as to where it currently stands on the issue of the academy system.

There is absolutely no confusion. We are just arguing that, whatever title there is above the door to the school—academy, free school, maintained school, university technical college or whatever—the same rules should apply, and all those rules should recognise the importance and the role of parents.

Labour believes that all schools should be treated equally. There should not be preferential treatment of schools that are academies compared with maintained schools when either are failing or coasting. Academies that are failing should have no more rights than maintained schools that are failing. There should be a level playing field for children, parents and communities, whatever the structure of the school. Labour believes that a partnership with parents is key to a strong education system, which is why we continue to argue that when their child’s school is to academise or the academy’s sponsor is to be changed, parents should be consulted.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 6 agreed to.

After Clause 12

Amendment (a) proposed to Lords amendment 7.— (Nic Dakin.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Lords amendments 7 and 8 agreed to.