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Birmingham Schools

Volume 755: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education in the other place earlier today. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools arising from the so-called Trojan Horse letter. That report by Peter Clarke has been laid before the House this morning.

The abiding principle of this Government’s education policy is that schools should prepare children for life in modern Britain and, indeed, the modern world. Schools should open doors for children, not close them. That is what parents want and expect. We should be clear that this is as true for the overwhelming majority of British Muslims as it is for everyone else.

As a Government, we strongly support the right of Muslim parents to be involved in their children’s schools and their commitment to take leading roles in public life. What has been so upsetting about the history in this small handful of schools is that the success of efforts to encourage more British Muslims to take up governing roles has been damaged by the actions of a few. I sincerely hope that parents will continue to come forward to serve as governors and take leadership roles in schools.

But what Peter Clarke found is disturbing. His report sets out compelling evidence of a determined effort by people with a shared ideology to gain control of the governing bodies of a small number of schools in Birmingham. Teachers have said they fear children are learning to be intolerant of difference and diversity. Instead of enjoying a broadening and enriching experience in school, young people are having their horizons narrowed and are being denied the opportunity to flourish in a modern multicultural Britain.

There has been no evidence of direct radicalisation or violent extremism. But there is a clear account in the report of people in positions of influence in these schools, with a restricted and narrow interpretation of their faith, who have not promoted fundamental British values and who have failed to challenge the extremist views of others.

Individuals associated with the Park View Educational Trust, in particular, have destabilised head teachers, sometimes leading to their resignation or removal. Particularly shocking is the evidence of the social media discussions of the Park View Brotherhood group, whose actions,

‘betray a collective mind-set that can fairly be described as an intolerant Islamist approach that denies the validity of alternative beliefs’.

Evidence collected by Peter Clarke shows that Birmingham City Council was aware of the practices that were subsequently outlined in the Trojan Horse letter long before it surfaced.

The council published on Friday its own report by Ian Kershaw into the problems. He concluded that in some cases the council was actually a vehicle for promoting some of these problems, with head teachers being eased out through profligate use of compromise agreements rather than being supported. The council’s inability to address these problems had been exacerbated, the report found, by a culture of not wanting to address difficult problems where there is a risk of accusations of racism or Islamophobia.

We are all in the debt of Peter Clarke for the rigour that he brought to his investigation and for the forensic clarity of his findings. And we are in the debt of my predecessor, now the Chief Whip on this side of the House, for his determination in the face of criticism to invite Mr Clarke to take on this task. No Government and no Home Secretary have done more to tackle extremism than this Government and this Home Secretary. In the conclusions of the Government’s extremism task force last year, the Prime Minister made it clear that we need to deal with the dangers posed by extremism well before it becomes violent. Peter Clarke’s report offers us important recommendations to address this challenge in schools.

Our first priority after Ofsted reported its findings last month was to take action over the schools in special measures. The members at the Park View Educational Trust have now resigned, enabling outstanding head teachers from the wider Birmingham community to take on the governance of the trust and ensure a strong future for its three academies. My noble friend Lord Nash has today written to the Oldknow Trust notifying it that I will terminate its funding agreement in the light of the trust’s manifest breaches. And a new interim executive board has replaced the failing governing body of Saltley school. I pay tribute to the right honourable Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, and the honourable Member for Birmingham, Yardley, for their work with these schools.

The second priority is the progress which must be made by Birmingham City Council. I have spoken to Sir Albert Bore and we have agreed that I will appoint a new education commissioner within the council to oversee its actions, to address the fundamental criticisms in the Kershaw and Clarke reports, while building resilience in the system as a whole. The commissioner will report jointly to Birmingham’s chief executive and to me. If we are unable to make rapid progress with these new arrangements, I will not hesitate to use my powers to intervene further.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has also spoken to Sir Albert Bore about the need to address the wider weaknesses that these events have highlighted in the governance culture of the council. It has agreed that Sir Bob Kerslake will lead a review of governance in the city council, reporting with recommendations for both the short and medium term by the end of 2014.

I want also to ensure that our system of standards and accountability for all schools should better withstand the threats of extremism of all kinds. The National College for Teaching and Leadership will take the extensive evidence provided by Peter Clarke so that its misconduct panel can consider whether any teachers involved should be barred from the profession. Advice to the panel already provides that actions which undermine fundamental British values should be viewed as misconduct. I will strengthen that advice to make clear that exposing pupils to extremist speakers should be regarded as a failure to protect pupils and promote British values. I will also strengthen the advice to make it clear that prohibition from teaching should be imposed while such cases are investigated and a prohibition without review made where misconduct is proved.

We have already published a consultation on strengthening independent school standards, which apply also to academies and free schools, including a requirement actively to promote British values. Ofsted will inspect how well all schools are actively promoting fundamental British values through their curriculum. We will provide further guidance on how to improve the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of pupils, which is also inspected by Ofsted. We will strengthen our regulations to bar unsuitable persons from running independent schools, including academies and free schools. Anyone barred in this way will also be prohibited from being a governor in any maintained school.

Peter Clarke recommends that Ofsted should be more sensitive to the signs of emerging problems. I believe that key evidence can be hidden from inspectors, and the inspection regime needs to be strengthened further. My predecessor asked Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to look at the feasibility and practicalities of introducing no-notice inspections for schools. I am pleased that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector has already decided—and notified schools earlier this month—that he will be broadening next term the criteria that Ofsted uses to judge whether unannounced inspection is required for a particular school. HMCI believes there are advantages to extending no-notice inspection to all schools and will use his consultation in the autumn on changes to the 2015 inspection regime to consult on whether universal no-notice or a different change to the no-notice regime should be made.

HMCI has also highlighted the need to ensure that all state-funded schools meet the requirement to teach a broad and balanced curriculum. The chief inspector is clear that this is an area where inspectors will pay more attention, and the autumn consultation will seek views on whether Ofsted needs to do more to ensure that all schools meet their requirement to teach a broad and balanced curriculum.

My predecessor commissioned a review by the Permanent Secretary on whether the department missed historical warnings in Birmingham, and he will report to me later in the summer. The department has already ensured increased scrutiny of new academy sponsors and of the governance arrangements for schools seeking to convert to academy status. We have appointed regional schools commissioners, backed by boards of local outstanding head teachers, who will bring local intelligence to decision-making on academies, but I will now improve the department’s due diligence and counterextremism division’s capacity as Peter Clarke recommends, and I will ensure that the department works in partnership with the Home Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government and other agencies to improve the intelligence available to us on whether other parts of the country are similarly vulnerable to the threats that have been exposed in Birmingham.

The report also raises questions and makes specific recommendations about other important areas including: the role of the Association of Muslim Schools UK; further action on improving school governance; how to communicate better the role of local authorities with all schools—maintained, academies and independent —over safeguarding and extremism; and how we can be sure that all schools are meeting their statutory duties. I want to reflect further on these issues, as well as all specific recommendations made in the report published today, and return to this House in the autumn on steps to be taken on these matters.

Peter Clarke’s report confirms the pattern of serious failing found by Ofsted inspection reports and identifies how the actions of a small number of individuals in some schools represented a serious risk to the safeguarding of children and the quality of education being provided. We are taking action to put things right and I will not hesitate to act in any schools where serious concerns come to light in future.

However, I want to be clear that those who seek to use this case to undermine this Government’s reform agenda will be disappointed. Today there are more than 4,000 academies and free schools serving pupils and parents up and down the country. They are helping thousands of young people, regardless of their background, to unlock their potential and become valuable and rounded members of society. The expansion of the academy programme has been one of the great success stories of this Government and the actions of a small number of individuals will not divert us from this path. The programme of reform goes on. I commend the report to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. The contents of the two reports that have led to the Statement clearly make for sobering reading. Failures in oversight and supervision go back years, to a time when the Conservative-run Birmingham City Council failed to hear the concerns of local head teachers and a delegation brought a dossier of complaints to the then Education Minister in the Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hill, in 2010. Those complaints were registered with promises of action, only to disappear into the bowels of the Department for Education, never to be heard of again. Since then, despite repeated concerns being raised about the consequences of a lack of scrutiny of schools, we have been reassured that processes are in place to guarantee standards. However, the fact that these latest allegations came to light not through the diligence of Ofsted inspectors but from whistleblowers clearly demonstrates that these provisions were not sufficient. Does the Minister recognise that, in retrospect, the Government should have heeded the warning messages at a much earlier stage and introduced a much more robust system of oversight? Is he now in a position to share with us what exactly happened to the complaints that were raised with the noble Lord, Lord Hill, back in 2010?

I am aware of the similarities between the two reports published today, but also aware of the different tones of their conclusions. Clearly, when dealing with matters of potential community sensitivity we need to be confident in the strength of evidence before us. So we need to acknowledge that actual evidence of incitement to violent extremism or radicalism appears to be relatively weak. This does not mean that there is not serious cause for concern about the conclusions of both Peter Clarke and Ian Kershaw.

First, it is clear that all agencies involved, including the department, Ofsted and Birmingham City Council bear some responsibility for the poor governance of these schools. There are lessons here for the appointment and training of governors, as well as for the focus of future Ofsted inspections. Does the Minister welcome the recommendations on training and accountability of governors, and does he accept the case for them to be rolled out across all schools in future?

Secondly, there are concerns that secular schools are able to focus on a narrow, single-faith doctrine that rejects and denigrates other faiths, including teaching a very narrow interpretation of the curriculum. What advice do the Government propose to give in the future about the teaching of religious tolerance in both faith and non-faith schools?

Thirdly, there are concerns that girls are being segregated and given restricted access to subjects such as sport, biology and PSHE education. Will the Minister clarify how the Equality Act sits with these practices; whether girls are entitled to be treated equally and to mix with students of the opposite sex on equal terms; and how we can be assured that these rights will be protected in all schools in the future?

Finally, is it not now time for the Government to face up to the failures of their own policies for school oversight, so aptly described by Peter Clarke as “benign neglect”? Sir Albert Bore, Labour leader of Birmingham City Council, has apologised, even though his party was in power for only a short time over this period. Should the Secretary of State not also take responsibility and apologise for the failings of the Government’s education policy to monitor effectively what was happening on their watch? Does the Minister accept that what parents, teachers and communities want is an authoritative local body that can be trusted to take up their concerns and with the power to intervene to guarantee standards? This view is shared by the Local Government Association. Our policy of having local directors of school standards to support and challenge schools to improve, and to root out problems before they set in, is exactly what is needed now.

Both reports today identified systematic failure in the current structures so, while we welcome today’s announcement that there will be a new education commissioner in Birmingham, how can we be sure that these problems are confined to Birmingham? Is there not a case for rolling out this model of supervision across the country? I hope that the Minister will accept that the Government’s schools policy is no longer fit for purpose, and that he will work with us on developing a model for proper local oversight in which everyone can have faith for the future.

This is not a matter for bipartisan point-scoring but one for serious reflection on the issues that have arisen. The noble Baroness is quite right that some of the evidence suggested that these issues go back 15 years, including under a previous Government and while these schools were all maintained schools. Within a few weeks of becoming aware that issues were apparent with the academy trust described by Peter Clarke in his report as the incubator, Park View Educational Trust, we had removed the members of that trust. Clearly, that shows swift and firm action.

We, too, expect all schools to teach tolerance and we have set that out in the independent schools standards. As I say, we will be improving the social, moral, spiritual and cultural guidance on this. We do not mandate training for governors. We have 300,000 governors in this country and we are extremely grateful to them for the work that they do. We expect governors to be trained where appropriate but at this time we do not think it appropriate to mandate them. The Equality Act of course applies to all schools.

As far as our policies are concerned, there is no doubt now that the academies programme, started under the previous Government and dramatically rolled out under this Government, is an outstanding success up and down the country. Schools that have been failing for years—hundreds of them—are being dramatically transformed under academy sponsorship. The Labour Party’s solution to such issues is to have 50 to 100 new directors of school standards, all with their own bureaucracies. As far as I am concerned, I know who I would rather trust to give me advice on local issues such as the ones we have seen in Birmingham. It would be head teachers, every time, ahead of local bureaucrats. That is why we have set up our eight regional schools commissioners.

I pay tribute today to the three outstanding head teachers who have come forward to take over as the new members of the Park View Educational Trust and the speed with which they are getting to grips with the issues in those three schools, to ensure that they are safe and appropriately staffed when they open again in September. I also pay tribute here to those officials in the Department for Education who have worked so tirelessly with me over the past few months to ensure that the former members of the Park View Educational Trust have stood down.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for bringing the Secretary of State’s Statement to the House and for the publication of Peter Clarke’s report. As he mentioned, this goes alongside Ian Kershaw’s report, which was published on Friday, about Birmingham City Council and it has the support of the Birmingham Trojan horse review group, of which I am a member. That group has published its own, wider recommendations in this complex and troubling period. Does the Minister agree that both reports are thorough and hard-hitting, and that there is much in common in their findings?

Will he also affirm that it is vital now that we have a co-ordinated effort across all interested parties and responsible bodies, not only to rectify wrongdoing and implement the welcome recommendations of both reports but to ensure that every child in Birmingham has an excellent education, preparing her or him to flourish in our liberal 21st-century democracy, so that they can start the new academic year in September confident that the proper structures, monitoring and support are in place? Can he also reassure the House that, given the arrangements he is proposing, with these rapid and responsible responses to new structures and influences in Birmingham, we will be absolutely clear by September who is responsible for what in this revolutionary period in our education system? Will sufficient resource be directed to enable local authorities and their partners, new and old, to achieve this safeguarding, which is the responsibility for all children, in whatever form of education or schools they are, and can he reassure the House that they will receive that?

May I also make a wider point about this complex matter? Faith, in a city such as Birmingham, is of great importance to a huge number of the population, which is perhaps unusual across the population of the country. The issues that we face in these reports are wider than just education and, of course, the Prevent strategy, such as making sure that proper arrangements are in place for the safety of all. Will the Secretary of State’s department consider taking responsibility for developing a new awareness and experience among all professionals, of whatever responsibility, of what lived faith looks like in a 21st century city and enable a wider conversation about faith, not only in education but throughout civil society?

I welcome the right reverend Prelate’s “look forward” approach to this matter and am grateful to the diocese of Birmingham for its support for the schools and academies programme and its collaborative approach to working both with the department and with other dioceses. As the right reverend Prelate says, both reports are hard-hitting. We should all take stock and analyse all the recommendations.

As for being clear by September who is responsible for what in these schools, it is clear now today that we have changed the members of the Park View Educational Trust, which was responsible for three academies, Park View, Golden Hillock and Nansen Primary. They will become trustees of the trust. We will bring in further outstanding heads as trustees, who will be responsible between now and the beginning of September for securing the schools and analysing which teachers may have behaved inappropriately. They will not hesitate to take the right action against any teachers who have behaved unprofessionally and will make sure the schools are safe and ready for opening in September. Probably during August, we will work with potential sponsors for these schools to ensure their long-term future. This has invited a wider discussion about faith, which is very welcome.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s Statement. Sometimes good can come out of a difficult situation. I have four questions to ask the Minister.

I have two questions to ask him. First, does he think that there is a need for Ofsted to inspect academy chains, and that the curriculum proposals should be for all schools? Secondly, he mentioned in his Statement that a number of head teachers were eased out through compromise agreements. These compromise agreements often come with confidentiality clauses. We currently know that up to £3 million of education money is being spent on these compromise agreements. Does he not think that we ought to look at this situation? Had those confidentiality issues not been linked to the compromise agreements, perhaps we would have got to the truth of what head teachers felt sooner.

To answer my noble friend’s two questions, we have so far felt that, given that Ofsted is capable of conducting batch inspections on a number of schools in a chain, as it did in Birmingham and has done on many occasions, that gives it plenty of opportunity to examine the support that those schools get from the centre. Visiting the head office—when Ofsted probably would not see very much except the office—would not tell it any more. However, we keep that constantly under review.

On the compromise agreements, when I came to work in education I was pretty shocked by the lack of due diligence that was often taken over referencing people in teaching. Of course, what can happen as a result of compromise agreements is that bad teachers just pop up elsewhere, which is described in America as the dance of the lemons. That is something that we need to look at.

My Lords, there is much to welcome and to ponder in today’s report. There is an underlying issue of knowing what is going on in schools to which I will draw attention by asking two related questions. I suggest that one of the key sources will always be responsible teachers and head teachers. Is there any way of devising a route that they can follow to raise questions about serious difficulties within the school, knowing that they will be taken seriously?

Secondly, there is an issue of governance and governors. I welcome what is recommended in the report, but it is a much broader issue than that. Could a broader look be taken? I could take the Minister to schools within a mile or two of here that struggle to find enough good governors. We have to find ways of improving that situation, and that will not happen reactively in situations like this.

I pay tribute to the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, in the area of HMCI. We have whistleblowing procedures in place in the department and in the EFA. We have been discussing with Ofsted how we can improve them, and we will look at doing so.

On page 90 of Peter Clarke’s report, he says that he does not see that there is an issue with governance generally, merely an issue with governance in these particular schools. In the last 18 months, as Minister with responsibility for governors, we have dramatically beefed up our focus on governance to focus governors on three core skills, to focus governance on skills rather than representation and to view governing bodies more as non-executive director bodies. I was delighted to hear in the other place earlier this afternoon the shadow Secretary of State support the non-executive director approach. Ofsted is far more focused on governance than it was and we are increasingly working with it to make it more so.

The noble Lord is quite right about recruiting more governors. We have recently launched the Inspiring Governors Alliance to work with the CBI and other business groups to recruit more governors.

It has been 13 years since I ceased to represent part of my city in the other place. My former constituents would not thank me if I started to play a party-political game here, so I have only one question. Will Sir Bob Kerslake’s review of governance look at the splitting of the city into three boroughs? London is no less London for having 32 boroughs dealing with social services and education. Last autumn I advised the then Secretary of State not to send in commissioners for social services and education necessarily, but to send in the boundary commissioners. With wards with an electorate of 20,000 for three councillors in that city compared to 6,000 electors for three councillors in London, there is a disconnect in democratic accountability. The elected councillors cannot possibly be in touch with things that happen on their patch. It is the only place in the country that has such a democratic dislocation at ward level between councillors and the electorate.

Change is long overdue. I even raised it when Tim Brighouse came to Birmingham. With more than 400 schools in one city, it is just not possible to manage it properly. I am not calling for the dismemberment of the city, but for the boroughing of the city in that same way that London is boroughed, so that there will be more accountability and more people will know what is going on. It is not just the governors but the elected councillors as well. Bob Kerslake seriously has to have a look at this, because although it is not the entire solution it is part of it.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for the Statement. It is a relief that this applies to a very small number of schools, however important it is, and to note that there are serious problems of governance. It is important to underline that there is no evidence, as we saw in the lurid headlines, of a “plot” or of violent extremism.

We know that there is a difference between religious conservatism and extremism. That has not really come out in a lot of the narrative from these schools. It has been quite damaging. Can the Minister comment on that? Does he agree with me that when we talk about values, we need a shared level of standards, values and accountability for all schools, be they faith schools, free schools, academies or private schools? Would he also agree that we need to refrain from the generalisation that we have seen that stigmatises whole communities and faiths? This has been very damaging and will make it more difficult for moderate people in Muslim and other communities who want to get engaged in public life to become school governors and councillors, and to play a full role in British civic society.

My noble friend is quite right about the difference between religious conservatism and extremism. We are dealing with some extremely difficult issues. We must respect all faiths, but all schools should be places where pupils start to learn about inclusivity and tolerance, not where they are excluded from society. We are focused on our pupils being adequately prepared for life in modern Britain, and the noble Baroness raises some very important points.

My Lords, do the Government agree that this scandal, like Muslim segregation and Islamist violence more generally, is a problem that arises from within Islam and can be cured only from within Islam? Given all that is happening in Africa as well, why do the Government go on intoning that Islam is a religion of peace?

I think that what has happened in Birmingham is unacceptable to all the communities there, including most of the Muslim parents and teachers. I do not recognise the noble Lord’s analysis of the religion of Islam, which I see as a religion of peace. I do think that there are issues in relation to developing counter-narratives to extremism, but I do not think that there is time to go into that here.

Does the Minister recognise that the department has to take its fair share of the blame and be accountable? It is not possible to put all the responsibility on to Ofsted for knowing what is going on in schools day in and day out. With academies, the department has the responsibility through its newly imposed regulatory system. How could it miss what was happening to girls in those schools, when many women were being dismissed from schools as cleaners, dinner ladies and so on, as well as teachers? Many of us feel very let down in this respect by the Government, with their centralised control of academies. I declare my interest as a member of Northern Education Trust and as a governor of Castle View Academy in Sunderland—so I am not against academies by a long way, but the Government have neglected these schools and have not now got the infrastructure to know when things are going wrong. What are they going to do to change that?

The noble Baroness is quite right that everybody needs to take their fair share of the blame in this. Nobody comes out of this particularly well. One could say, “How did the local authority miss these issues for years?”. It was only when Ofsted did a batch inspection of 21 schools and saw a common pattern of behaviour which had accelerated dramatically in terms of threatening behaviour in recent years that it became absolutely clear what was happening. As I said in relation to the actions we have taken with Park View Educational Trust, we dealt with these matters extremely speedily. We have now substantially tightened our procedures in relation to schools becoming academies and we will, as a result of events in Birmingham, look further at that.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that we owe a great debt to Peter Clarke for this report and that its modulated contents disprove many of the concerns in the media at the time of his appointment? It is a modulated, precise report. As to its content, after the Minister’s Statement, I am much clearer about the Government’s thinking on the governance of these schools. However, the report also criticises the conduct of a number of teachers. I am not sure how the discussion is going to develop on the point of the teachers—as opposed to governors—whose conduct is discussed in the Clarke report.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the great debt that we owe to Peter Clarke, one of the great investigative policemen of our time. At this precise time I cannot comment on the detail of the noble Lord’s point about the conduct of the teachers. However, I can assure noble Lords that the new trustees of Park View Educational Trust will take all appropriate action, and the National College for Teaching and Leadership will take the extensive evidence provided by Peter Clarke so that its misconduct panel can consider which individuals, if any, should be barred from the profession.

My Lords, as a former MEP for Birmingham for 15 years, and as a feminist, I have taken a great deal of interest in this matter. Can the Minister say what his department will do to ensure that the Equality Act is implemented in faith schools, free schools, academies and maintained schools from now on?

I can assure the noble Baroness that we are extremely focused on that. We make sure that all schools, particularly when we are approving them as free schools, are thoroughly inclusive. We visit the schools, and if we see any practices that we think are inappropriate, we are very quick to draw them to the attention of the schools and make sure they are rectified. We are extremely focused on that. The noble Baroness makes a very good point.

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and I thank the authors of the two reports. I do not know the author of one of them, but I know Peter Clarke, and I have long appreciated his judgment and analysis, which come through in this report. It is obvious that there were problems in the schools, the local communities and the local authorities, and we have concentrated on that. However, without in any way laying particular personal blame or being party political, it is equally obvious that there were failings at the centre of government, and in more than one department. To put it at the minimum, someone somewhere, or a number of people, took their eye off the ball. The Minister said that procedures had been “tightened up”—I think that that was his phrase. Could he elaborate a little more on that? Can he say—if we are reviewing everything that is happening in Birmingham, in the local authorities, the schools, regarding the teachers and so on—what is the nature of the review being carried out in the Home Office and/or the Department for Education, and whether any conclusions have already been reached?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments, particularly given his vast experience in this area, and particularly his comments about Peter Clarke. We have dramatically beefed up our due diligence and counterextremism division in the department, and will further strengthen it. We were the first department outside the Home Office to set up such a unit. I cannot comment on the Home Office, but we will look carefully at all the issues arising out of this. I can assure the noble Lord that, in terms of analysing the individuals involved in any schools in which the department is involved in any approvals, we will use our due diligence unit very rigorously.