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Education (School Performance Information) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 1998

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 February 1999

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7.35 p.m.

rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 23rd December 1998, be annulled (S. I. 1998/3260).

The noble Baroness said My Lords, I have tabled this Motion because the regulations amend the Education (School Performance Information) (England) Regulations 1998 by removing subparagraph (b)(v). The effect is to remove the requirement on LEAs to make available copies of a document or a computer disk containing information about the performance of schools to the editor of any newspaper circulating in the area of the authority. That means all newspapers, provincial, free and commercial and all national and international newspapers circulating in the local authority area. On an almost daily basis we are told about the importance of freedom of information, access to information and open government and yet we have a specific regulation today removing the requirement on LEAs to provide information.

I can be brief because so much will depend on the explanation that I am given by the Minister. I am also concerned—this relates to the original regulations which these regulations amend—about the inexplicable delay in receiving key stage 2 results. Already they are almost a month late and it would be helpful to know what is the cause of the delay and why it is that we have not had the information. Will that be the norm for years to come? There is the question of the results coming out in time to inform parents about making their choice of school. It would he helpful to know from the Minister to what extent that information and those results will be caught by the amendment regulations before the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 23rd December 1998, be annulled (S. I. 199813260).— (Baroness Blatch.)

My Lords, I want to join my noble friend in expressing the same reservations as she expressed about the regulations. We are promised, in no uncertain terms, by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that we shall have a freedom of information Act. We have a White Paper that sets out in some considerable detail what the Government hope will be in such an Act. We have a draft Bill to come. Our "have-a-go" Home Secretary will doubtless be having a go at some of the freedoms in the White Paper, but nonetheless it is clear that it will be—and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, was clear that it will be—an effective Act.

What sort of provision or exemption under any imaginable freedom of information Act would deny the editor of a newspaper, regional, national or international, the right to ask for and receive the information that these regulations set out to deny to such people? Could the noble Lord please explain either under what sort of provision this information will be denied to people or, if it is not to be denied to them under the freedom of information Act when we have it, why it is to be denied to them now?

My Lords, I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to those questions. I do not intend to ask him many questions myself. However, perhaps I may advise him that removing a requirement to publish information in local newspapers is not the same as a refusal to provide such information. I should be grateful for the Minister's confirmation that LEAs will still be expected to provide such information when asked to do so. I would expect any good LEA to do so regularly. Similarly, if I am correct, I understand that the department is collecting such data. Presumably it will be able and willing to publish it. I look forward to hearing confirmation of that from the Minister.

Perhaps I may make a few general points on the regulations. They apply particularly to 15 year-olds, as I understand it, and relate to not allowing schools to "massage"—I hesitate to use that word—the figures in order to improve their performance targets. I am sure that that is right, but one difficulty is that other pressure points will arise, such as in earlier years. I have heard that the regulations are to be the first of a two-phase approach to this. Can the Minister tell us any more about whether there will be similar regulations to deal with other pressure points? I refer, for instance, to the key stage 3 or even the key stage 2 points, both of which are pressure points. I am concerned that by dealing with this age group, we may encourage some schools to exclude pupils at an earlier age for exactly the same reason. That will not solve the problem. I hope that in reply the Minister will say something about the Government's overall approach to this matter as well as about their approach to these specific regulations.

7.45 p.m.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate this statutory instrument. Particularly in view of the more general comments made by the noble, Lord Tope, perhaps it may be helpful if I set the context for these amending regulations before responding to the specific points about publication of data which were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

The regulations have arisen because of the serious point that has been reached in relation to truancy and school exclusion. We do not know precisely how many children are out of school at any time because of truancy or exclusion. However, each year at least 1 million children truant and there are nearly 13, 000 permanent exclusions and 100, 000 fixed-period exclusions. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the current levels of school exclusion are too high and that we must tackle the problem with vigour.

Exclusion blights the life of thousands of children, often those most in need of education. In 1994–95, there were 11, 100 permanent exclusions. The figures published last autumn show that 12, 700 pupils were permanently excluded from school in the 1996–97 school year. Statistics also confirm that we know broadly who those pupils are. They are mostly boys and two-thirds of them are aged between 13 and 15.

Pupils excluded from school or those who truant are more likely to get drawn into crime while they are out of school. Many pupils excluded from school or who truant never get back into mainstream education, making it more likely that they will be excluded from society later in life, at a considerable cost not only to the individuals concerned, but also to the country as a whole. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister asked the Social Exclusion Unit, as one of its first tasks, to report back to him on how to,
"make a step-change in the scale of truancy and exclusions from school, and to find better solutions for those who have been excluded".
The Social Exclusion Unit's report Truancy and School Exclusionwas published in May 1998 and set out the Government's ambitious plans for reducing levels of truancy and school exclusion by one-third by 2002. Our plans focus on meeting those targets through earlier intervention to prevent disaffection setting in and through multi-agency support to help schools.

We have asked LEAs to set targets to reduce their levels of truancy and exclusion, but we recognise that dealing with such children will never be easy for schools. An inclusive approach does not mean keeping pupils in the classroom at any cost. We know that children will not learn if they are too busy disrupting lessons and that they will also stop others from learning.

The evidence suggests that some schools are too ready to exclude those pupils they should be managing, but in many cases teachers need extra support if they are to help those children. We are providing that support through our new social inclusion pupil support grant. This will provide nearly £500 million over three years to support effective action against truancy and exclusion, including ensuring better education provision for pupils who are excluded. It is a significant additional investment which gives us the opportunity to make a considerable difference.

The new programme will also ensure that, for the first time, all excluded pupils will receive a full-time and appropriate education. We intend to ensure that learning continues during that period outside school. We cannot allow a situation to continue whereby very often such pupils receive little effective education and so become an increasingly less attractive prospect for other schools to take on.

The funding arrangements are backed up by new integrated guidance on which we are currently consulting. We have brought together in one document advice on pupil behaviour and discipline, improving attendance, the use of exclusion and the provision of education outside school. The emphasis of the new guidance is very much on early intervention and prevention through multi-agency working. It sets out many practical steps to help teachers and support services to deal with such problems.

We are committed to meeting our ambitious targets for reducing levels of exclusion by helping schools to tackle bad behaviour, not by forcing teachers to cope with increasingly disruptive children. We believe that our national target can be met through earlier intervention to prevent the occurrence of some of the really serious incidents that warrant exclusion, and by ensuring that exclusion is not used for relatively trivial reasons.

It is of great concern that so many pupils are permanently excluded between the ages of 13 and 15. Exclusion towards the end of compulsory schooling is particularly disruptive to a child's education and reintegration can prove very difficult.

Last year the Department for Education and Employment consulted on detailed proposals for two possible options for taking forward the changes to secondary performance tables. Under the basic model, any pupils permanently excluded from a maintained school at the age of 14 or 15 would continue to count on the school's roll for the purposes of the secondary performance tables only. Thus the proportion of pupils achieving, for example, five or more GCSEs at Grades A* to C, as recorded in the performance tables, would be lower than if the pupils had been removed from the roll of the excluding school in the normal way.

The consultation paper also proposed a more sophisticated model, involving making changes to the number on the roll of a school which received pupils who had been excluded from another school at the age of 14 or 15. Where such pupils were admitted to a new school in the run-up to GCSEs, those pupils would not be added to the school's roll for the purposes of the secondary performance tables, although any exam success could be counted towards the school's exam totals. The results in the performance tables would therefore be higher than if such pupils had been added to the school's roll in the normal way.

We believe that the proposed changes found broad support among those whom we consulted. The general view was that it was fairer to make adjustments to the results for both excluding and receiving schools. We have therefore decided to phase in the changes to both excluding and receiving schools over two years, with adjustments being made in respect of 15 year-old pupils only for the 1999 secondary performance tables. From 2000, the secondary performance tables will reflect the 14 year-olds excluded in the previous year and the 15 year-olds excluded between the start of the current school year and the form 7 census date.

We are aware that concerns exist. I refer particularly to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that these changes might alter the pattern of permanent exclusion by year group and, for example, increase the number of pupils excluded at the age of 13, but decrease the number of those excluded in the two GCSE years. At this stage, all that I can say is that we shall monitor the exclusion statistics carefully and keep the changes under review. I note the noble Lord's point.

I turn to the two points raised about the publication of primary school performance tables and the issue of whether the information is to be released to the media. The delay in the publication of primary school performance tables is a consequence of difficulties experienced last year with collection of the 1998 key stage 2 assessment results on which the performance tables are based. We rely on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and its contractors for each year's national curriculum assessment results, which we can then check back with schools before passing them on to LEAs for publication in the performance tables.

The problems experienced by the QCA's contractor in 1998 delayed the provision of the results to the department. These delays were sufficiently serious to make it impracticable for LEAs to publish the 1998 tables in accordance with the date currently specified in regulations. The amending regulations defer the publication date by some four weeks. LEAs have had the data from the department since late January, and we expect all will be able to meet the new requirement of publication before 24th February.

I refer to the publication of performance data. I can assure your Lordships that this is a technical amendment. We are in fact making it easier for the press to get hold of the data. Last year the 150 LEAs in England were required to give the information directly to the press, on request from editors. This has frankly proved cumbersome, both for LEAs and for the media. Following a review of these arrangements we have decided this year to relieve LEAs of the burden of passing data to the press. The Department for Education and Employment has taken this on board. The new regulations reflect this change by removing the statutory burden on LEAs.

The amending regulations we are debating prescribe the information that it is necessary to collect in order to make changes to the 1999 secondary performance tables with respect to excluded pupils. In collecting the information necessary to make the changes to the secondary performance tables we have been sensitive to concerns about unnecessary bureaucracy. I think this debate has proved a useful forum for an exchange of views on these matters. I hope that I have convinced noble Lords that the regulations enable us to take forward this measure as one part of our endeavour to reduce these unacceptable levels of truancy and exclusion.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for taking such care in responding to the prayer against these regulations. However, I have to say that the argument proposed has no merit whatsoever, either as regards the issue of exclusion or the issue of providing information to the press. However bleak the situation is in terms of the number of children who are excluded and/or are truanting, it seems to me that that information should be made available and that the world should know about it. I half agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tope—although we shall have to wait to see how this works out in practice—in that I think this measure will move a problem rather than resolve a problem. I am afraid that the explanations that the Minister gave so carefully do not resonate with me at all.

As regards removing the requirement to provide information to the press, I have said on a previous occasion—I repeat it now—that I think the officials at the Department for Education and Employment must have been shaking with excitement at the Bill that passed through this House last year. It was the most centralising Bill. It gave officials handles on control that they have longed for. This measure is yet another example of that. Will the Minister please tell me, if he can, what are the problems? What is the problem for my local education authority in Cambridgeshire in simply responding to a request from the local newspapers, and indeed any other newspaper that wishes to have this information for local people? I do not know of any problems that may arise in this regard.

Since I have taken up the mantle of praying against these regulations I have contacted a number of newspapers and I have not been told that there have been problems. However, I foresee problems if yet another group of officials at the Department for Education and Employment is pre-occupied with requests from every—I hesitate to use the following word—tin-pot little newspaper, from "freebies", local newspapers, provincial newspapers, area newspapers, regional newspapers, national and international newspapers which request, for example, the results of just one authority, or the results of part of an authority, or the whole country's results. That seems to me to be an extraordinary mantle for the DfEE to take on.

The Minister said that the requirement has been removed from local education authorities to provide this information—they have become used to doing that—and that the requirement will be picked up by the Department for Education and Employment. However, that does not appear in any regulation whatsoever. There is no requirement on anyone to do this, now that it has been removed from the regulations. It is a great sadness to me that it is the convention of this House that we do not vote against secondary legislation provided it is consistent with primary legislation. However, I must comment on the poverty of the response to my request that this requirement should be left in place. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that removing the requirement does not mean that local education authorities will not provide this information. However, we all know of local education authorities that would prefer not to pass this information to local newspapers.

As regards the point about the delay in the collection of the Key Stage 2 assessment results, we were also given a pretty poor explanation on that. The contractors have now collected information year on year. It is not a new phenomenon to get results out to the public and to parents. It is extraordinary and inexplicable that a whole month has gone by without this information being produced consistent with the date that was laid down in regulations. Is there to be a year-on-year adjustment to the date—in which case it will not be helpful to parents—or is this just a one-off for this year because the publication of the Key Stage 2 results is relatively new and consequently we have had to wait an extra month? I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to that and perhaps other points.

My Lords, I shall respond with the leave of the House. I think there is no doubt that it has been the experience of some LEAs and others that it can be a cumbersome process for each LEA to undertake the task we are discussing. I know from my own experience of dealing with performance tables—although not in the educational field—of the difficulties of trying to co-ordinate the whole effort to make it as effective as possible. Difficulties sometimes arise when one is relying on quite a large number of LEAs to do that. The noble Baroness mentioned what she described as the centralising tendencies of the Department for Education and Employment. I think that in this case the department is relieving a bureaucratic burden, and that that should be welcomed as such. It also allows for—

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. But will he tell me how the DFEE gets this information in the first place? It has to receive it from LEAs, so they still have to do the work.

Yes, my Lords, but the measure will still allow a co-ordinated approach as regards releasing all the tables. From my own experience I believe that will reduce an unnecessary bureaucratic burden. However, the substantive point is that at the end of the day, far from having, as might have been suggested, a situation where information will not be published, I believe there will be a much more effective approach towards publishing information, making it available to parents and everyone else concerned, which is what we all wish to see.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he say where in these regulations is the obligation to publish?

My Lords, I believe that we are out of order now. The noble Baroness should now decide what to do with her Motion.

My Lords, I, too, should like an answer to the question. Perhaps the noble Lord would write to me outlining where the obligation lies in statute for this information to be published.

I repeat to the noble Lord, it is the most incomprehensible answer I have ever had to a question across the Dispatch Box. The work has to be done at LEA level. The LEAs need the information available to give to their own parents, their own governors and their own local newspapers, and in order to go and talk at parish council meetings and other places. Can the DfEE co-ordinate this, given that the requirement—if the noble Lord reads it—is on request? These requests can come in at varying times—all at the same time, in dribs and drabs or much later in the year—and from so many thousands of sources. As I say, each LEA had only to deal with its own information to the newspapers circulating in its area.

It is a wholly unsatisfactory situation. No intellectual thought has been given to responding to the Prayer against the regulations, and it is with great sadness that I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

My Lords, is it your Lordships' pleasure that this Motion be withdrawn?

My Lords, in that case, I have to put the Question, That this Motion be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion shall say, "Content".

Motion negatived.

House adjourned at one minute past eight o'clock.