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Three-tier Education

Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2016

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered three-tier education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would also like to express my gratitude to Mr Speaker for granting this debate.

I called for this debate because, since being elected last May, I have been contacted by many parents asking for my advice and guidance on the advantages and disadvantages of middle schools; by parents lobbying either for or against their local first school’s attempt to change its age range; and by teachers and headteachers of middle schools concerned about the long-term viability of their own schools, especially if feeder first schools are adding years. There is a lot of confusion about the value and long-term viability of the three-tier system.

I hope to use this debate, first, to raise those issues and to seek the Minister’s guidance on the Government’s position on whether a two-tier or three-tier system is best for our children. Secondly, if an area or individual school wishes to move away from a three-tier to a two-tier system, I seek guidance on how that can best be achieved and to confirm what processes and consultations are considered best practice, based on the experience of transitions elsewhere in the country. I should clarify that by “three-tier system”, I mean a system that contains first schools, middle schools and high schools, and by “two-tier system”, I mean one that contains primary and secondary schools.

By way of background, middle schools in the United Kingdom have had something of a chequered history. Until 1964, education authorities were required to provide for just primary and secondary schools, with a transfer at the age of 11. The Education Act 1964 changed that and made provision for schools to allow for different ages of transfer, which led to the creation of middle schools. Although the Government did not specifically encourage the introduction of middle schools, they did not discourage them either. The schools appeared in a variety of forms, as suited each authority. By 1981, more than 1,800 middle schools were open in nearly 50 local education authorities, from Devon to Northumberland. The patchy way in which the schools developed led to the variety of provision that exists today.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is making an interesting speech. He mentioned 1964 and 1981. When I asked the House of Commons Library for background on this issue, it said that there is virtually nothing. Is he aware of the 1967 Plowden report? That was the one source that the Library found for me, and it is inconclusive. I congratulate him on clarifying this matter, as it is a mystery to us all.

I, too, reached out to the Library when researching for the debate. There is not a huge amount of information. The hon. Lady is right. One of the issues that we face is whether the three-tier or the two-tier system is better. The evidence is inconclusive, which is one of the reasons why I called for this debate.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He asked for examples. Purbeck in Dorset moved from a three-tier to a two-tier system 18 months to two years ago, and Broadstone in Poole is the one borough left in my constituency that still has middle schools. Elsewhere in Dorset, there are thriving middle schools. Indeed, pupils from Lockyer’s Middle School are coming to Parliament this coming week. Would he, like me, welcome guidance from the Minister about the support that can be given to those middle schools, and on whether there is a preferred model?

I could not agree more. Some middle schools are thriving—there are raving fans of middle schools up and down the country—but their long-term viability is in question. There is also the issue of transfers into secondary schools. Again, I hope the Minister can provide guidance on that.

The confusion that I mentioned earlier led to the development of all sorts of middle schools with different age ranges. There are currently six different types of middle schools based on age range alone. During the past two decades, there has been a clear move away from middle schools towards a two-tier system, and the number of middle schools has fallen from more than 1,800 in 1981 to under 200 in recent years. Today, there are not 50 but 17 education authorities that have middle schools, including my county of Worcestershire. The first middle schools in Worcestershire opened in 1969, and there are still 20 in the county. That is the third highest number of middle schools of any local education authority in the country; only Northumberland and Central Bedfordshire have more. There are 14 local authority maintained middle schools and six middle school academies in Worcestershire, including five in my constituency.

There is also a two-tier system of Catholic primary and secondary schools, which serve Droitwich, Evesham and Pershore. I should declare that my own children attend a local Catholic state school—St Marys in Evesham, which is a great school. It is a primary, rather than a first school, which feeds into a secondary school, so I am familiar with this system. I went through a two-tier system in Lincolnshire and attended a local primary school before going on to the local comprehensive. Although I am personally a product of a two-tier state system—a system that served me well—I am not biased one way or the other. Academic and other reports extol the virtues of both the two-tier and three-tier systems.

Since moving to and representing Worcestershire, I have met many raving fans of both the two-tier and the three-tier systems, and many parents express great affection for the middle schools in my constituency. Many went to middle schools themselves and are enjoying their own children’s experience at the very same schools. Many say that it was a more comfortable segue into secondary education, because it was less intimidating and more friendly than the otherwise potentially intimidating jump to a large secondary school with more than a thousand pupils. Most middle schools have just a few hundred pupils and benefit from nearly everyone—both pupils and teachers—knowing one another.

The National Middle Schools’ Forum said:

“Middle Schools occupy the formative central ground in the education process. They are uniquely placed with their opportunities for creative flexibility of organisation to meet the needs of pupils through a time of considerable and wide ranging intellectual, physical and emotional development.”

On results, it said:

“A distinctive and valuable feature of Middle Schools is that they span Key Stages Two and Three. This way of organising children’s education is unique in that the assessments at the end of Key Stage Two and the work which follows them all take place within one school, rather than at the point of transfer.”

That is another valid point.

In an adjournment debate in 2009, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) stated that there is no clear link between a particular school organisational arrangement and educational attainment. It might be useful to note that in our quest to find the best model.

Again, I could not agree more. I seek additional guidance from the Minister. After all, one of the Department for Education’s responsibilities is to give guidance on the best options for our children’s educational outcomes. The academic and other research is confusing for Members of Parliament, including me and the hon. Lady, and also for parents.

I have talked about the advantages of middle schools, but some parents in my constituency told me that they are concerned that transferring schools during key stages can be disruptive. In particular, transferring as late as 13 to a high school leaves less time to make informed GCSE decisions. Other parents told me straightforwardly of the logistical challenges of having to drop their children of different ages off at two or three different schools that are often quite far apart. There are clearly many arguments for and against a three-tier system, and one’s personal experience comes into play. I would appreciate it if the Minister can clarify the Government’s current preference.

There is also discussion about transitions. The issue of whether a two or three-tier system is best has come up again recently in my constituency, specifically because of moves by some first schools to add a year 6. The first schools have perfectly rational reasons for wishing to expand and do that, but an inevitable, if unintended, consequence of such moves is to undermine the long-term viability of the middle schools, as their pupil head count will inevitably fall. I would therefore ask for the Minister’s guidance on the Government’s recommendations on how best to manage any transitionary process. If the head count at the remaining middle schools falls, they may seek to convert to a secondary school, so I would also seek the Minister’s guidance on how the Government will support such moves, both financially and otherwise.

In areas where some schools are maintained schools, controlled by the local authority, and others are more independent academies, that mix of statuses and processes can sometimes add to the confusion in the debate about adding years and converting. From talking to parliamentary colleagues, the consensus seems to be that an open debate, proper co-ordination between schools in and across pyramids, and good consultation, engaging parents and teachers from all impacted schools, are all key elements of any successful transition.

In Worcestershire, we are currently not having a full and open debate on the long-term viability of the two-tier system versus the three-tier system. Perhaps we should be, because I fear that more and more piecemeal changes may lead to some middle schools closing without us having a proper debate about whether that was intended.

I am aware that the Government publish advice and guidance for schools that wish to expand or change their age ranges, and that a full business case is required for significant changes, such as changing the age range of a school by three years or more. I understand that the processes are slightly different for academies versus maintained schools, and that the guidance for maintained schools is currently being reviewed. I am very interested to hear from the Minister what changes may be made as a result of that review. Given the Government’s announcement in today’s Budget of the academisation of all schools, I also suspect that further guidance may well be forthcoming.

As part of the review, however, I would respectfully ask the Minister to consider the protocols on consultations carefully, particularly when an area contains a mix of both academy and grant-maintained schools. I am keen that the wishes of parents of children in schools both directly and indirectly impacted by any changes are considered. At the end of the day, the wishes of local parents should play the key role in deciding on significant changes.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the role of parents should be key. Would it not also be helpful to have some independent evidence—not just subjective, but objective evidence—on which is the best system? In my previous intervention, I mentioned two schools, but I must mention two others, or they will feel left out: St Michael’s Middle School in Colehill and Allenbourn Middle School in Wimborne, both of which are excellent schools. One has been to visit Westminster and another, I know, wants to as well, but doubtless those parents would also want to see some objective, independent evidence on which is the preferred model.

I again thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has almost stolen my conclusion with the point he has made, which gave him an excellent opportunity to namedrop those schools.

At the end of the day, I wish to be very respectful to the views of people on both sides of this debate. My key ask of the Minister and the Government, however, is that they do everything they can to provide clear guidance and ensure that any unintended consequences during any transition—should a school or system decide to go from a three-tier to a two-tier system—are minimised. We all want to work together to ensure that all our children achieve the great education that they deserve and that parents could and should rightly expect.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this debate on an issue that is clearly of concern to a large number of his constituents. To answer his question straight away, the Department and Ministers have no plans to remove the three-tier education system. Our clear position remains that the organisation of maintained schools is an issue for local authorities and for individual schools, but in close consultation with parents.

In the Budget just now, we heard about devolution. The Minister says there is a role for local authorities, but if I understood correctly, schools are going to become academies, which seems to contradict the principle of devolution. Perhaps he can help me understand this better.

Yes, of course. The announcement today in the Budget—we will be saying more about this tomorrow in the White Paper—is that all schools will become academies, or be in the process of becoming academies, by 2020. Until then, a large number of schools will still be maintained schools, and if the hon. Lady can be a little patient, I will come to the position regarding academies in a moment. None the less, we still need guidance about the position of three-tier systems when a number or some of those schools are maintained schools.

Where organisational change is proposed, we expect the local authority to agree with schools how any changes will be funded. The Department’s role is to hold schools accountable for the quality of education they provide and not to mandate any particular configuration of tiers. Supporting local authorities to create sufficient school places remains one of the Government’s top priorities. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places for children in their area. We are spending £23 billion on school buildings in this Parliament to create 600,000 new school places— we created nearly 500,000 in the last Parliament—and we intend to open 500 new free schools and to address essential maintenance needs with that money. That delivers on our manifesto commitment to invest a further £7 billion to create new school places between 2015 and 2021.

Through the free schools programme, we are creating greater local choice by allowing existing schools and other groups to be able to establish new schools, in particular where additional high-quality places are needed. Those include not only traditional primary and secondary schools, but 55 university technical colleges, 72 all-through schools and 25 16-19 free schools that are either open or in the pipeline.

The three-tier system—in which school provision is organised into lower, middle and upper schools rather than the primary and secondary model—has been established, as my hon. Friend said, in areas of the country such as Worcestershire for many years. The number of groups operating the three-tier system has reduced in recent times, mainly because local authorities have restructured their provision as need dictates. There are still, however, over 68,000 children currently being educated in middle schools in England.

The Secretary of State only has a role in decisions to change the age range of a school when that is proposed for an academy. She will only make such a decision at the request of an academy trust.

When a local authority decides to move from a three-tier to a two-tier structure, it is important that careful plans are in place to minimise any negative impact on the performance and viability of other schools in the area, which is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire expressed concern about. Local authorities proposing such a change must follow the established statutory process set out in schedule 3 of the School Organisation (Prescribed Alterations to Maintained Schools) (England) Regulations 2013. In practice, an authority-wide reorganisation often involves months of informal consultation and research before the formal statutory process is undertaken. That process ensures that such decisions are widely consulted on and the views of stakeholders and others are valued.

There are four separate stages of the statutory process. First, local authorities are required to publish their proposals in a local newspaper and at the school site. Secondly, a period of formal consultation has to take place for at least four weeks. Thirdly, a decision is usually made by the local authority. Only after those three steps have been taken can the proposal be implemented.

The Minister makes an important point, but for people who live close to the edges of boundaries between local authorities, the catchment areas can be different. I am thinking, in particular, of Dorset, the borders of Poole and Dorset County Council. Within the points that he has made, is there a duty on local education authorities to consult one another—neighbouring authorities—to ensure that there is a fair system for all pupils in an area?

The duty is to consult stakeholders, which will include parents. That includes parents who are likely to go beyond the local authority boundary to send their children to a school.

The consultation stage gives people who may be affected by the proposed change, including children, parents and teachers, a chance to express their views. The local authority is under a statutory duty to take into account all objections raised when reaching its final decision. In cases where objections have been raised, the local authority has a two-month window in which to make a final decision. If the process takes longer than two months, the schools adjudicator will take on the role of decision maker. I stress that changing the age range of local authority-maintained schools is a local decision. The Department nationally has no formal role in the process or the final decision. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire mentioned, we are reviewing our schools organisation guidance to local authorities and maintained schools, and we intend to publish that shortly.

Where an individual academy seeks to change its age range, the process is different, but it still maintains the requirement for effective consultation and adherence to the principles of public law. The relevant regional schools commissioner is the decision maker for applications from academy trusts. They will ensure that any local issues are identified and addressed before a decision can be made and will draw on the advice and knowledge of their headteacher board. The guidance to support that process requires academy trusts to discuss their proposals with the local authority to ensure that the proposed change is aligned with local pupil place plans and will not have a negative impact on education standards at the academy or at other local schools or colleges. If objections are raised locally about a proposed change, the regional schools commissioner will require the trust to provide a full business case, including details of the steps it has taken to address objections raised through consultation.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Department had any strategies in place to prevent issues arising from any transition to a two-tier system. The guidance requires that schools undergoing any reorganisation work together to ensure an appropriate, co-ordinated implementation and that decisions on any individual proposals will be made in that context.

I refer my hon. Friend to “Making significant changes to an existing academy”, the guidance that the Department published this month. The guidance says on page 9:

“Where proposals are likely to have a significant impact on other local provision a full business case will…be required…Where local provision is organised in three tiers and the aim is to move to two tier age range, the department expects schools to work together to ensure an appropriate co-ordinated implementation, and will only approve any individual proposal in that context.”

Unless the proposers can demonstrate that they have engaged in those kinds of co-ordination arrangements and that their proposals will not adversely impact maintained schools, other schools or parents in the area, the regional schools commissioner simply will not approve the proposal.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that the Department is not looking to remove the three-tier school system. The process for reorganisation and changing the age range of local authority maintained schools rests with local authorities, and for academies it rests with trusts and regional schools commissioners.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.