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Schools

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2009

Statement

My Lords, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, over the past 12 years, school standards have risen significantly in our country, and our education system has changed beyond recognition. The number of secondary schools with at least 30 per cent of pupils failing to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, has fallen from over half in 1997 to just one in seven today. We now have over 40,000 more teachers, backed up by over 200,000 more support staff. We now also have 200 national leaders of education, compared to none in 1997. Our best state schools now match the best schools in the private sector and anywhere in the world; and the reason is that we have rebuilt the school system on a foundation of sustained record investment matched by tough accountability. That is why we can now go further and transform our schools system to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Our country faces an economic imperative, because every young person now needs skills and qualifications to succeed; and a moral imperative, because every child and every young person has potential and can do well with the right help and support. It is to meet these twin imperatives that I am today publishing our 21st Century Schools White Paper based on: new guarantees for pupils and parents; a significant devolution of power and responsibility to our school leaders, matched by strengthened school accountability; and an uncompromising approach to school improvement, because we want every child to succeed and we will never give up on any child.

We will now legislate for our pupil guarantee to ensure that: all young people get a broad and balanced curriculum and high-quality qualifications, whether their strengths are practical, academic or both; every secondary pupil has a personal tutor; all pupils get five hours of PE and sport every week and access to cultural activities, too; gifted and talented pupils get written confirmation of the extra challenge and support they will receive; and all pupils with additional needs get extra help, with 4,000 extra dyslexia teachers, and all pupils in years 3 to 6 falling behind in English or maths get one-to-one tuition to help them get back on track. We will now extend the offer of one-to-one or small group tuition to all pupils at the start of secondary school who were behind at the end of primary school. And following the report of the expert group on assessment, we will now introduce a new progress check at the end of year 7 so that parents can be confident that their children have made up the lost ground.

Our new parents guarantee will ensure regular online information about their child’s progress, behaviour and attendance, access to their child’s personal tutor, and fair school admissions in line with the admissions code. Parents’ views will be listened to and reported on a school report card so that parents know what other parents think when choosing a school. Where parents are unhappy with the choice of schools on offer to them, based on an annual survey of parents, local authorities will have to listen and respond to their concerns. And because all parents want their children to learn at an orderly school where they are safe from bullying and lessons are not disrupted by bad behaviour, we will now legislate to strengthen home-school agreements so that all pupils and parents will accept the school’s rules when they apply for a school place and be expected to sign up to renew their commitment every year. Schools will have stronger powers to enforce discipline through intensive support, parenting contracts and parenting orders, and parents will have the right to complain and expect action if schools fail to act to enforce the home-school agreement.

Building on the success of the national strategies’ literacy and numeracy hours—which will continue in all schools, with Ofsted continuing to inspect them as now—we will devolve power and funding to school leaders to decide, with ring-fenced funding, what support they need to further drive up standards. We will ensure that schools can get the support they need from other services through children’s trust boards and encourage multi-agency teams based in schools. The new chair of our independent bureaucracy watchdog will review any unnecessary obstacles which get in the way of delivery. And building on the success of our National Leaders in Education and academies programmes, we will now act so that our best head teachers can run more than one school, with better pay for executive heads. We will accredit high performing schools, colleges and universities to run chains of schools in not-for-profit accredited schools groups, with the first providers up and running by January. Already nine schools, one multi-academy sponsor, four colleges and four universities, including Nottingham University, have come forward, and I am today setting aside funds over the next two years to support their growth.

We will match this transformation in school leadership with a transformation in school accountability. School league tables are easy to read, but because they present a narrow view of performance based solely on the attainment of the average pupil, they cannot provide the full picture parents need. Our new school report card will include full information on school attainment, but go well beyond it. It will set out clearly for parents how the school is improving standards, how well it is helping those pupils who have fallen behind to catch up, and stretching the most able. It will report on discipline, attendance, sport, healthy eating and partnership working. And it will set out what parents and pupils think of the school.

We will begin pilots of our new school report card this September. But while we will consult further, I am now convinced that if parents, newspapers and websites are to make fair, clear and easy-to-understand comparisons between schools, our school report card will need to include a single, overall grade.

Because a world-class schools system needs a world-class workforce, we are making teaching a masters-level profession. We will now introduce a new ‘licence to teach’, similar to that used by other high-status professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. Teachers will need to keep their practice up-to-date to renew their license, and they will be given a new entitlement for continued professional development. We will start with newly qualified teachers, beginning their training this September; those returning to teaching, from September 2010; and all supply teachers shortly afterwards. We will make governing bodies slimmer and more highly skilled and will require all chairs to undergo specific training.

The primary responsibility for school improvement lies with head teachers and governing bodies. But where progress is too slow and performance does not improve, local authorities have a responsibility to act. Since we set out our National Challenge and our Coasting Schools Challenge, local authorities have drawn up improvement plans and we have announced 55 new academies and 27 National Challenge trusts. Today I am giving the go-ahead to two new academies, in Halton and in Redcar and Cleveland, and confirming funding agreements for two further academies, in Nottingham and in Herefordshire, all replacing National Challenge schools.

Some argue that where underperformance is entrenched, locally-led change is not working and excuses are being made, the right approach is to stand back, let schools wither and slowly decline, and to allow the children and young people in those schools to pay the price. I disagree. We have a responsibility in government to step in and demand improvement. I will not shirk that responsibility.

Following Ofsted’s December 2008 assessment of Milton Keynes, which found children’s services to be inadequate, with serious weaknesses in secondary school attainment and improvement, we commissioned an independent performance review. Despite some progress, the review concluded that urgent improvement is still required. The Children’s Minister has today written to the council directing it under Section 497A of the Education Act 1996 immediately to appoint Mr Peter Kemp to chair an independent improvement board that will report directly to Ministers, and to submit and agree an improvement plan.

The Schools Minister and I are concerned about the rate of progress in Leicester, where we issued an improvement notice last June. So today I am asking Sir Mike Tomlinson, chair of our National Challenge expert advisers, to provide us with a progress report in September. And, on the basis of his report and this summer’s results, we will consider whether further action is needed.

I am also asking our expert advisers to work with Blackpool and Gloucestershire—areas that need to make more progress—to identify what more needs to be done to deliver National Challenge and report back to me on progress in September.

If this year’s exam results reveal serious weaknesses in these areas, or any area in the country, I will do whatever it takes to secure the progress of children and young people.

In this White Paper, we match continued investment with reform and higher expectations so that we meet the economic imperative by ensuring every young person gets the qualifications they need; and we meet our moral imperative by ensuring that every child can succeed, whatever barriers they face. And I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. However, it was a Statement, as one expected, of old, rehashed ideas and the Government’s admittance that they have failed to get to grips with some of the serious concerns that are giving parents and teachers alike great anxiety. With this White Paper, the Government had a great opportunity to transform our approach to the education of children in this country. What the Secretary of State has in fact shown is a failure to address why so many of our young children are not reaching minimum requirements in reading, writing and numeracy from primary school age straight through to secondary education.

We have seen a frightening rise in the numbers of young people not in employment, education or training. We have seen a rise in truancy and in the numbers of children repeatedly suspended from schools. The Government seem to have tacitly accepted this by ditching their national strategy for numeracy and literacy after years of lauding its success.

Many of today’s parents are the product of a childhood under a Government who have taken more and more responsibility away from them and handed it to the state, while failing to make available effective educational provision. The Government cannot release themselves from being the architect of the failure of so many children to thrive and reach their full potential at school.

This programme proposes to strengthen the responsibilities of parents to their children’s behaviour. If parents fail to comply, they will be prosecuted and fined up to £1,000. We all agree that parents have a key role to play in the support they give their children and schools in tackling poor behaviour, but surely we need to see what can be done to help parents carry out those expectations rather than criminalise them. We know that often the most disruptive children come from disruptive backgrounds. Do the Government really think that criminalisation of inadequate parenting skills is the way forward?

The Minister said that all primary school children will have an entitlement to one-to-one tuition and all children in secondary school will have an entitlement to personal tutors. How will this be funded? Where will all these tutors come from? Will they have appropriate training? When will they come into action? Furthermore, it is proposed to have an extra 4,000 teachers for dyslexic children. Where will they come from? What qualifications will they require? Will the process involve special educational needs assessments? How does the Minister propose to fund the proposal set out in the pupil-parent guarantees, as there seem to be huge financial implications? I am sure that the Minister will quote the Secretary of State’s view that £400 million has been freed up due to the let-up of the recession. Can she explain exactly what this means and where this money will come from?

The abolition of school league tables in favour of an ill defined and uninformative report card system will surely have one big loser—the parent. At a time when we need parents to have access to far more detailed information about the schools they are sending their children to, it would be a travesty to offer only a one-page report card that includes, laughably, a rating on how the school teaches children to control their feelings. Can the Minister offer any reassurance to our concerns that with such a paltry selection of very general information—consisting apparently of, among other things, ratings on truancy levels, sporting prowess and attendance at lunch—there seems to be little encouragement for schools to lift their academic standards. Surely just rating schools A to F will leave parents unsure about schools’ exact academic achievements.

The Conservative Party has consistently argued for the strengthening of league tables, a process which would require a great deal more data to be made accessible to parents. As it is, this seems like another of those lost opportunities that we have become used to under this Government.

A second and more serious point that I hope the Minister can clarify is what the actual function of the grades will be. If they are for parent information, they are remarkably uninformative. If, like under the New York system, they are to be used to justify sanctions and benefits for bad and good schools, it is important for the Minister to inform the House of what these might look like. It would be useful to know whether the system will be a means for state control of school behaviour or of giving information to parents.

It would seem that the Government have not grown tired of watering down and rehashing the ideas of the Opposition. School chains are part of what Ed Balls calls an,

“uncompromising approach to school improvement”.

Apparently they will engineer a situation whereby high-performing schools and education providers will take over less successful neighbours to create chains of successful schools.

Surely this is nothing more than a watered down version of Conservative Party policy for opening the market to new providers. The Secretary of State called this White Paper radical during an interview on Radio 4. Will the Minister explain what is radical about taking a policy that the Opposition have developed, removing all its innovative aspects and then passing it off as new and revolutionary?

The Minister will say that raising to £200,000 the salaries of head teachers who take on these chains of schools will be an incentive. However, it seems unlikely that it will provide the answer to the problem of the energy that head teachers put into running successful schools being taken away by working with poorly performing schools without the necessary support mechanisms. Will the Minister assure us that these super heads will have available the support mechanisms to ensure not only that their successful school will be managed properly but also that the new schools that they take on will be properly facilitated?

This is a missed opportunity from a Government who have run out of steam. The proposals bring nothing but more bureaucracy, tinkering and meddling. The Government’s own report card would state “grade F”. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I congratulate the Government on the investments that they have made in the schools system, which has led to some improvement. However, unlike the Minister, I would claim that we have always had state schools which have been as good as the best in the private sector. I have always been something of an apologist for state schools and we have many to be proud of.

While the Government have put much needed resources into the schools system, there remains their gross failure during their 10 years to reform the secondary school curriculum. One reason why around 50 per cent of young people do not gain grades A to C is partly that most of them are totally unmotivated by the curriculum that they are offered. The Government’s failure to pick up and implement the Tomlinson report in 2004 means that they are left with a continuing process of relative failure in secondary schools.

The Statement echoes elements of the White Paper, Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future: Building a 21st Century Schools System. As with so many of the White Papers that we see these days, it is a re-announcement of a lot of initiatives which have existed previously. Among them are a number of initiatives that we would applaud. The one aspect of it that seems so unreal in the present circumstances is where the money will come from. In spite of Speaker Bercow’s announcement last week that new ideas were to be announced first in Parliament, we had a good preview of this White Paper on this morning’s “Today” programme. The Secretary of State indicated that he had found £400 million in his budget to fund these initiatives for 2009-10 and 2010-11. This may be so, but where is the money coming from in future? We know that many cutbacks are still to be made.

Among those elements of the White Paper that we on these Benches would applaud is one-to-one tuition for years three to six and, if the young people still need it, in the early years of secondary school. We have long argued that more money should be spent on those pupils who come from a disadvantaged background than on other pupils—we call it our pupil premium. We are glad that the Government have at long last accepted that this is so. Again, it is an initiative which, had they only put it into practice 10 years ago, might have led to very different results from our primary schools and fewer young people in the category of not in employment, education or training.

We also support to a certain extent the New York-style report cards on schools. There is no doubt that league tables are a crude way of measuring a school’s performance, particularly those that are based largely on the crude examination score. Attempts to create value added measures of school performance have not been very successful.

As the Government are considering a broader report card to measure schools, why when they look at local authorities are they going back to the league-table mentality and crude exam results? The White Paper refers to authorities that have been in difficulties and says,

“if this year’s exam results reveal serious weaknesses in these areas, or any area of the country, I will do whatever it takes to secure the progress of children and young people”.

Again, it is back to using exam results to measure performance.

One of our reservations about the Government’s proposals is that, like the Opposition, we do not fully understand what the guarantee means. Does criminality for parents mean that parents will be fined? Does it mean a criminal offence? ASBOs have proved to be unsatisfactory. I do not think ASBOs for parents will prove to be any better. Who is sued if the guarantee is not met? Is it the governors who are sued? Is it the local education authority or is it the Department for Children, Schools and Families who will be sued if the guarantee is not met? If it is the governors, the Government will find it increasingly difficult to find people to volunteer to be governors. The responsibility you take on as a governor is already formidable and if you are likely to be sued if the school does not deliver it could be even more so.

On federations, on these Benches we have long argued that the right way to approach education is co-operation not competition. As the Minister knows, we had a lot of reservations about the schools policy which set one school against another and we continue to have those reservations about the academies programme because it puts them outside the community. In our view, schools are there to serve a community and need to co-operate with one another. We like the idea of a federation but we have grave reservations about sharing heads. As everyone knows, a good school is where you have a good head and a good leadership team and it is not easy to share those with other schools. If a head’s attention is divided between two schools, it does not always work.

Neither do we want to see shared boards of governors. There was a time when many schools were run with shared boards of governors or schools managers, as they were then called. The concept of a board of governors is to be a link between the community and the school. It is not a good idea to have shared boards of governors between a lot of schools. Federations in terms of co-operation between schools—yes; federations in terms of having lots of schools with one head or one leadership team or one board of governors—no, that is not what we want.

We do not understand why the Government are proposing to slim down boards of governors. They have slimmed them down a lot and boards of governors work quite effectively now. There does not seem to me to be any room for slimming them down more. Given the responsibilities they are putting on boards of governors—the fact that you have to have a governor who represents special educational needs, a governor for children in care, a governor for health and safety—it is difficult to see why you would want fewer governors. Governors are an important link between the community and the school.

Can the Minister tell us more about the Government’s proposals for teachers, including the requirement for a master’s qualification and licence to practise? Are they proposing that no one can teach until they have a master’s degree? If they want teachers to have a master’s degree, I would hope it would become part of the CPD training and that teachers would not only get time off in order to acquire these extra qualifications but could do so in bite-size chunks. In that way they could gradually build up those qualifications and be recompensed for having done so and for having given up their own time for doing it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses for their questions and comments. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, I recommend that she takes time to look at the White Paper, because I think that she will find that, rather than being a recycling of Conservative Party proposals, it is a recognition that, since 1997, following the significant investment in school infrastructure, teaching and support staff and every aspect of education delivery, we are now at the stage where the system is maturing and we can increase the level of trust and confidence that we have in our schools. Rather than, as the noble Baroness suggests, increasing bureaucracy, we are aiming not to abolish the national challenge but to allow schools, by devolving resources to them, to procure improvement resources themselves. We are building on the success of initiatives such as the national challenge.

When the noble Baroness talks about the report card, she should note that parents are looking for a much richer and broader set of data on schools, including more information on discipline and how bullying is managed. Yes, academic qualifications are extremely important to parents, but it is also important for parents to know how well school well-being and discipline is being delivered. She asked about superheads, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. It is absolutely vital that we make the most of the incredible leadership skills and the management and educational expertise of some of the wonderful heads that we have in this country. By allowing them to broaden their impact and work with other schools, we are making the most of them. Of course, it is absolutely vital that they have the right support to do that.

The noble Baroness asked about the report card. It is extremely important that the pilot that we are beginning drills down into what is effective for parents and communities. We shall work hard to interpret the outcomes of these pilots to ensure that the new report card captures all the information presently available through the system and adds the kind of richness that we know that parents look for.

The noble Baroness asked about the percentage of young people who are NEET. It is extremely disappointing that in 1997 we had 76.8 per cent of young people NEET and that we now have 79.7 per cent of them who are NEET. However, you have to look at that in the context of our strategy for raising participation. We know that through hard work and investment we will be able to encourage young people to become further involved in education and training.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked about one-to-one tuition and funding for tutors. Of course, the money for one-to-one tuition is part of our spending review settlement and has already been announced; so the money is there. All the tutors that we are talking about recruiting—and this is an area that is very important to parents—will be qualified teachers. The noble Baroness generously welcomed much in the White Paper and I encourage her to look at it further. She talked about the importance of co-operation between schools; there is a great deal in the White Paper about the value of schools working in partnership, which is very much at the heart of what we trying to achieve. We have a system in which it is time to recognise the economic challenges; we do not want to leave a single child to fall through the net, but we know that schools cannot do it on their own, and it is vital that they work together. Therefore, we have created this duty on schools, and it is important that we build on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked about the guarantee and the legal recourse. Surely, the first step would be for a parent to talk to the head teacher at school, and then, if the parent is not satisfied, to make a complaint to the local government ombudsman. As a last resort, there is always judicial review—but that is very much an end process. We want to avoid that through a much more meaningful relationship between parents and schools.

Time presses, but I would encourage noble Lords to look at the detail of the White Paper. There is much in there that Members of this House will find interesting and encouraging.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I serve as chair of two city academies. I welcome very much the Statement read by the noble Baroness. I should like to press the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about governing bodies. My own experience is that it is very difficult to recruit governors, especially from the community. With her express proposal to slim down these governing bodies, how does the Minister propose that we recruit the governors that are needed for the curriculum sub-committee, the discipline sub-committee, the appeals sub-committee, the Every Child Matters sub-committee and the remuneration sub-committee? These committees require a lot of work. One of the things that the Government should be addressing is the creation of incentives to encourage people from the community to come forward for what is an ever more onerous responsibility serving as a member of a governing body.

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the role of school governor is extremely important. I appreciate that the volume of work involved can be very great. What is really important about a governing body is that it has the right skills in order to do the right job. Of course we will make sure that we have the adequate number to do the work. However, I know from my own experience that when you have working groups it is sometimes extremely helpful to bring in expertise from other community groups. You do not necessarily have to be a governor to be involved in supporting a school in your community. I hear what the right reverend Prelate says; we need to ensure that the size is right and that governing bodies can function appropriately.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is a splendid statement of aspirations for our schools that many of us from all parties in the House will thoroughly share.

As the chairman of my party’s policy group on the improvement of public services, I am pleased to see that some of the things that we recommended in our published report have been reflected in the Statement today. Most particularly, I welcome the thrust to decentralise the control over education and to give more control to the professionals in the system, to teachers and to schools. We and the Liberal Democrats have shared that aspiration for some considerable time.

I have two questions to ask the Minister. First, I ask about the one-to-one teaching. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, asked where the money and the people were coming from. I think that the Minister replied about the money but not about the people. If these are all to be qualified teachers, where will the necessary supply of people, who are expert enough to work with children who are failing in the way she has described, come from? There are many classes and many schools where it is not the odd one child who needs special help, but where 20 children in a class need one-to-one special help. I wonder where this recruitment for so many people will come from.

My second question is much broader. Where will the thrust for independence for schools be reflected, particularly in relation to this mistaken policy of giving every school a grade? The idea of the report card is sound, because, as the Minister has rightly said, parents want a wide range of information about schools. They want to know whether a school is right for their child; is it the right sort of feel, does it have the right sort of atmosphere and values? That is certainly important, but to give a school a grade seems such a retrograde step. Parents will not want to send their child to “D” school. It will simply increase the competition for the “A” schools, and make it harder and harder for schools struggling on examinations. Can the Minister explain where the grading will come from, and what sort of factors will be taken into account?

My Lords, first, the recruitment for the one-to-one tutors has already begun. As I understand it, interest is encouraging. I agree with the noble Baroness that it is extremely important that we get the right people. Many children will benefit from this. We know from evidence that even short courses of one-to-one tuition can help children catch up very quickly, which we are keen to enact as quickly as possible. Many teachers would find this attractive. I am encouraged by the initial feedback.

The report card is not a simple matter. In my opinion, as parents we want to see that rich, broad information. For schools, however, it is not always helpful. If that information is put in the public domain, somebody will always put it into a league table for you. There is merit in having a clearly evidenced procedure or process that has come out of real piloting in real schools, which will allow the process of creating a grade to be fair, transparent and widely tested.

The noble Baroness is right in that no parent wants their child to go to a D-grade school, but we want every school to be an A-grade school. We must have a fair and open process that can allow us to achieve that. We do not want a single child to be left behind.

My Lords, I admit that I listened with some disappointment to the claim that in this White Paper,

“we meet the economic imperative by ensuring every young person gets the qualifications they need”.

In all of the Statement before that, there was no mention of one of the basic needs that continues to be denied to all our children. Why do we continue to perpetuate the scheme whereby children are automatically moved on once they get into primary school before they can read? Why not make certain that they can read before they move out of the entry level? If they cannot, they cannot keep up with what happens afterwards. Then you get all the problems of being unable to keep up: they are bored, they leave and they truant. Time after time you hear reports of teachers, observers and everyone recommending this. We have Statement after Statement, but still that basic requirement seems to be denied. Can the Minister explain why?

My Lords, our aspiration, clearly articulated in the Statement, is to ensure that all children can achieve their potential. Of course, that means ensuring that they can read before they leave primary school. It is intolerable for us if only one child moves on to secondary school without functional skills. That is why we have invested not only in ensuring that we drive up standards for all schools and making sure that we are initiating the catch-up one-to-one tuition at the beginning of secondary school, where children have fallen below level 4. As the noble Lord is aware, we have also invested in training in functional skills for adults. We are not just tackling children who need to have those basic literacy skills but also adults.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement and share the aspirations in the White Paper. I echo the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about school league tables focusing on a single grade. Some of our most praiseworthy schools operate in areas where the catchments are disadvantaged. However hard the schools work, their children will never pass exams, which is the main criterion for achieving in these schools. That would be a major concern both on our Benches and on the Conservative Benches. Has an estimate been made of the amount of additional bureaucracy that those measures will impose both on schools and on individual teachers, who will have to carry out a great deal more form-filling, writing and reporting rather than being in front of young people and teaching them?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point about the report cards. This is something that the pilots will be looking at. It is essential that the report card, which has that rich, fuller set of information about a school, takes into account the community and the circumstances in which a school is functioning. That means fully representing the value-added—an awful phrase—that a school provides. It is precisely because the oversimplistic focus on exam results does not satisfy what parents are looking for that we are reaching for something that has much more to say about the broad work that schools do promoting well being for young people, ensuring a calm and orderly environment, that bullying is tackled and that children have the opportunity to benefit from good quality teaching by the provision of a sound learning environment. There is no benefit for anyone if our commitment to devolving more to schools results in schools taking on more bureaucracy. That is not what our Secretary of State is trying to achieve. He is firm on that matter.