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Schools: Local Oversight

Volume 755: debated on Monday 28 July 2014


Asked by

My Lords, arrangements for the management of academies and free schools will be enhanced by the collective expertise and wisdom of eight regional schools commissioners supported by their head teacher boards. Two RSCs are already in situ, and the other six start in September. We have also strengthened the guidance for local authorities on intervening in maintained schools, and inspections are undertaken using a risk-based approach, with more frequent inspections for those schools not performing well.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Last week, when dealing with the Trojan horse Statement, he conceded that the department has to take its fair share of the blame for the failings that occurred in Birmingham. However, does he realise that, at the heart of the situation, people have lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s ability to manage thousands of schools from the centre? Does he not see that the proposed regional commissioners for academies who he has just mentioned just add a further level of confusion, as they will not apply to all state schools? Surely what is needed here is a strong system of local oversight for all schools, such as our proposed directors of school standards, that would give parents, teachers and governors real confidence that their voices will be heard and that poor standards will be addressed.

I do not recognise the picture that the noble Baroness paints. We believe that this system is efficient; in devising it we were advised by people who have set up national and international organisations. We find that the position of the party opposite is confusing. On the one hand its leader tells us that nobody wishes to revert to the local authority system, while on the other its policy adviser, Mr Blunkett, says that he wants to have between 80 and 150 directors of school standards, all supported by their own bureaucracies, and many of whom will be recycled local authority people. We do not think that that is the way forward. There is no role for RSCs on maintained schools; that is a role for local authorities, and, as I say, we have clarified their role.

My Lords, my noble friend will recognise, I think, that a substantial number of academies very much regret the lack of clear local accountability. Can he therefore tell us whether the new Secretary of State will consider a method under which local accountability can be more clearly established so that problems such as those arising from the Trojan horse story in Birmingham will be obviated at local level and not have to turn into a national horror of one kind or another?

Our solution to ensuring better local accountability is to have a system of regional schools commissioners which is run by head teachers. Personally, I trust head teachers to be better wired into their local systems than bureaucracies and bureaucrats are, any time. We are also increasingly seeing the emergence of regional multi-academy trusts, which are proving particularly effective.

My Lords, after the Trojan horse allegations, it has been reported that teachers who spoke out at the time are now suffering harassment and the threat of losing their jobs. What do the Government propose as a way of protecting whistleblowers locally so that they are given enough courage to come forward and speak out?

The noble Baroness raises a very good point. We are doing all that we can to ensure that that does not happen. Indeed, there are some teachers we are particularly concerned about who had themselves been causing harassment and who have now been suspended from their jobs. We are talking to Ofsted about expanding its whistleblowing arrangements to cover exactly this kind of situation.

My Lords, will the Government ensure that mandatory training is introduced to reduce the risks associated with school governance? I declare an interest as president of the National Governors’ Association.

We have not yet gone as far as mandatory training. We have a high expectation that all governors will be trained where necessary and that they should be chosen for their skills. We brought in this big focus on skills rather than representation: governors may come from all walks of life, but they must have the expectation that they will be trained. We have also brought in tightening regulations so that where governing bodies feel that one of their governors needs training and they refuse to take that training, they can be suspended.

Can my noble friend confirm for me and for the House that the overwhelming success of the vast majority of free schools and academies is the best evidence that allowing autonomy and freedom to schools and heads is the best way of raising standards?

I am grateful to my noble friend for her comments. The overwhelming success of the programme is unarguable. Some 24% of free schools are rated outstanding, which makes them by far our highest performing group of schools; converter academies are far more likely to retain or increase their Ofsted rating at the next inspection; and sponsored academies are increasing their performance at a rate approximately twice that of other schools.

Can the Minister please tell the House what are the responsibilities of the members of the local governing board when the academy chain has trustees who appoint the head?

These are arrangements which are sorted out under a scheme of delegation between the trustees and the local governing board. They can delegate quite a few of the responsibilities, or limit them, but all academy trusts have to make this very clear in their schemes.

Whatever the arguments—and they are substantial—between the two sides of the House on the merits of the Government’s policy of allowing so great a range of different administrations for secondary schools, what is unarguable, as I am sure the Minister will agree, is that the Government’s programme has resulted in a huge increase in the Secretary of State’s personal responsibility—whoever he or she might be—for the ultimate management of so many secondary schools. Given that no individual could possibly do this on their own, can he tell us what structures are in place within the Department for Education, how many people are employed within those structures, and how much it costs? We might then get some sort of measure of how this awesome responsibility is being undertaken and who on earth is undertaking it.

The Secretary of State, to put it simply, has always been responsible for schools in this country. I cannot put it better than this:

“If a school is not delivering sound education for its pupils, and a different way of running the school would yield a different and better result, it is our duty to institute the change”.

I could not have put it as well—and not surprisingly, as that was a former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, speaking last week. We believe that the regional schools commissioners are the right structure. As for cost, this Government inherited a department from the previous Government that had no concept of value for money. We have halved the cost of running it in real terms. I will write to the noble Lord if he would like the figures. However, the actual cost of running the regional schools commissioners will be something like £5 million, compared with the huge expense of the bureaucratic system that the party opposite proposed to put in place.

Can my noble friend say how many of these schools have children arriving at them for whom English is their second language?

The proportion of pupils in schools with English as a second language has risen substantially. I will write to the noble Baroness with details on the different types of schools.

My Lords, the Minister has pointed to the importance of head teachers in his answers. Can he say whether we have a sufficient number of head teachers in secondary and primary schools now?

It has always been the case in the recent past that we have appeared to have a shortage of head teachers. We are increasingly seeing younger heads coming forward and academy chains growing their own senior leadership teams. Teaching schools are now, of course, also playing an increasing part.

Does my noble friend agree that the previous Secretary of State for Education has been a hero in this field in introducing and carrying out policies that have greatly enhanced educational opportunities for children throughout the country?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness’s comments. He is the first Secretary of State for many years, I think, to stop the decline in school standards. His changes, which are dramatic, will take years to have effect, but we are already seeing quite significant early signs of the positive nature of their effect.