Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant document: 10th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
My Lords, it is now 3.30 pm. I am obliged to begin by advising the Grand Committee that, if there is a Division in the Chamber—which I am brave enough to say is singly unlikely—while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
Clause 9: Consultation about identity of Academy sponsor in certain cases
23: Clause 9, page 6, line 39, at end insert—
“(d) parents of children registered at the school, and(e) the teaching and support staff at the school.”
My Lords, I understand that there are some drafting issues with this amendment, but I will still speak to it and we can perhaps resolve those in later amendments. I have always believed strongly that it is important that every pupil or student should have a qualified teacher. That does not prevent the opportunity for those members of staff who are preparing to become qualified and it does not prevent those teaching assistants who have NVQ level 3 or 4 from teaching.
Sorry, am I on the right amendment here?
I am tempted to say that you might as well keep going.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is not here—it is not a good start—I shall rise to speak to this group of amendments, which follow on in a different way from the concerns about consultation that were raised last week but with the added dimension of consultation on a proposed academy sponsor. I remain astonished at the requirement to consult if a school is undergoing a voluntary conversion but not if it is classed as being eligible for conversion—we discussed that last week—and I also remain astonished that the Government do not see the absolute necessity to consult those people who are most involved in the school, whatever the school’s type.
I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, who is here, thankfully—so she may correct me—previously in Committee raised the issue of what happened to schools in London when comprehensivisation took place. As she pointed out, there were many different types of school in London at that time: there were successful grammar schools and successful secondary modern schools, and there were failing grammar schools and failing secondary modern schools. There were also different ideologies about education and there were immense complications about land transfers. I was a parent and a governor in Inner London at that time, and I remember those battles. I also remember the consultations—with parents, teachers, governors, directors of education and the inspectorate—and I think that that consultation was valued and made for the successful re-establishment of many schools.
I assure the Minister that, like many colleagues, I have fought for high standards in education and for the welfare and rights of children. In this Bill, we are not trying to delay or disrupt; we are seeking the best for children, and I hope that the Minister will respect that. I also know that hurry is often the enemy of satisfactory results and that consultation processes are important. There seems to be some sort of air of desperation—“How dare parents and governors challenge so-called education experts?”. It is not a case of experts against the rest; any expert worth the name will accept that they might not have all the answers and will want to seek a diversity of opinion. Effective experts want to help others to understand their reasoning and proposals. I cannot go along with this hurry here.
The Minister will say, as Nick Gibb has said:
“We want the transformation of a failing school to begin from day one”.—[Official Report, Commons, Education and Adoption Bill Committee, 9/7/15; col. 288.]
Fair enough, but let us not go along the track whereby a pupil who is “languishing” in a failing school even for a day is suddenly whisked away into a different structure. It simply does not, and cannot, happen like that. It takes time—certainly longer than a day—to transform a system. Parents and teachers are very aware that some academy sponsors have actually failed. I argue that there is time for consultation to take place, and it cannot possibly happen in a day.
Moreover, I cannot go along with Nicky Morgan’s argument about sweeping away,
“the bureaucratic and legal loopholes previously exploited by those who put ideological objections above the best interests of children”.
I cannot believe, as Nick Gibb said, that,
“unnecessary debate, delaying tactics and obstruction of the process”—[Official Report, Commons, Education and Adoption Bill Committee, 9/7/15; col. 285.]
is a justification for cutting out consultation. This is a particularly unpleasant and aggressive way of polarising the argument. Everyone, especially parents, seeks the best interests of children. The parents and teachers know the children that we are talking about. They know the school and the community, and they need to be certain of an appropriate academy sponsor. That is what this is about—the appropriateness of the academy sponsor.
Ofsted is the obvious body to give an overall vision or view of an academy chain as well as of individual schools. The Secretary of State should surely listen to Ofsted giving its objective view. Surely the parents, teachers, governors and pupils have the right to know a great deal about a proposed academy sponsor from Ofsted and other reports: the sponsor’s track record, its philosophy, its ethos, and its experience in dealing with all types of pupil, including those with special educational needs. Websites and reports are useful, of course—and I have looked at many websites of academies—but what is more important is face-to-face consultation, where questions can be asked and reports considered. Academy schools and chains can fail, just as any school can fail. Some schools have had to be transferred to a new chain. Parents and governors, quite rightly, do not want to take unnecessary risks. This idea really does need to be looked at again.
I will try a second time.
The noble Lord, Lord Nash, has a view that he has expressed a number of times: that there is not time for consultation with parents; that if a school is failing, we have to get on with putting it right; and that, the longer we delay doing something, the more effect it will have on the progress of a child and the success of the school. That is a view that I can understand, but I equally understand that parents play a hugely important part in the development of a child’s education. The notion that a school should close down and become an academy without any discussion among those parents is very strange. That does not seem the correct way we have viewed education over the last X number of years. We have always seen parents as pivotal—as part of that partnership.
On my second point, again the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Nash, resonated with me. On Second Reading, he talked about his own experiences in Pimlico, and I think he alluded to some of the abuse that he and his wife received when they were consulting to start up the school. As someone who closed more schools in Liverpool at the time of falling rolls than anyone else, I know those sort of pressures. Yes, some people will use consultation as a means of maintaining the status quo or for political reasons, but that does not make this the right thing to do. Surely we can look at this objectively and say that it can take place at an agreed period of time or if there is an agreed means of doing it. However, the principle of consultation must be enshrined as we go forward on this.
I do not have any objections to academies. I have come to the view, which I have expressed on two or three occasions, that I would rather see all secondary schools become academies than create a whole pattern of different types of schools. Therefore, I do not have any ideological view against academies. We should not be getting to the point where a school is failing and a pupil is languishing in it—we should be in there before that happens. I cannot understand why we get to a point where we suddenly say, “This school is failing, so let us close it down”, with all the trauma that the pupils face when that happens. We should be there before that happens. However, if a school is going to close, an academy is going to be established and an academy is going to be chosen for that school, we should consult with parents. I hope that the Minister will look creatively and objectively at how we might achieve that, with the minimum fuss and the minimum amount of time, but in the interests of that all-important partnership.
Once again, I apologise for getting the amendment wrong.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 24 and 25 in this group and to whether Clause 9 should stand part.
Amendment 24 aims to bring some much-needed transparency to the process of selecting academy sponsors. There is an unanswerable case in general terms for consultation but there is also a case for consultation on this very specific issue. Local communities should not have sponsors imposed on them without having some say in the matter. Sponsors are not just interchangeable. They have particular approaches to managing schools and to the curriculum. They have very different records, in terms of both their effectiveness and their record in managing public money. Again, I urge the Minister to acknowledge the essential fact that public money is involved here—which ought to mean that transparency and accountability are guaranteed. It is public money, yet the Minister wants to cancel the public’s right to have any say locally as to how it is used in educating their children. It is unacceptable that a Minister can come to Parliament, propose such a fundamentally undemocratic measure and hope to get away with it.
Currently, there is absolutely no public quality control of would-be sponsors. On academisation, we know that Ministers are determined to press ahead at full speed and are thus required to find sponsors at all costs. We also know that regional schools commissioners are paid by results—that is, how many academies they can bring into being—and so they need to find sponsors at all costs. That is surely not a healthy situation. Someone, somewhere, needs to have the responsibility to say, “Wait a minute—these people are just not up to the task”. If that means that some schools cannot be converted as quickly as had been intended, surely that is preferable to signing up sponsors who are inadequate. More needs to be done by government—in whose name we are told the regional schools commissioners act—to get the sponsors right, rather than to get them right now.
Logically, of course, this role should be undertaken by Ofsted, and that brings me to Amendment 25. Why Ofsted should be written out of so much of this Bill is worrying because it reflects the clear determination of the Department for Education and its Ministers to ensure that as much as possible of all aspects of transfers from maintained status to academy status is removed from public scrutiny. I have to ask the question: why the secrecy? What does the Secretary of State and her department feel they have to hide? Presumably, it is something or some things that would not stand up to close examination, at least as regards how they are being carried out.
Ofsted should have the right of access so as to guard the public interest. If it were simply a question of resources—I think we all know that Ofsted is underresourced—that at least would be an issue that could be addressed. But it goes deeper than that. The Government are determined to ensure that we have a two-tier structure in public education. I say that because on our last day in Committee, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Nash—declined to accept an invitation from my noble friend Lord Hunt to say that the Government intended to make every school an academy. Clearly, we are looking at a two-tier structure that will be there for some considerable time.
The Minister will no doubt argue that he and his appointees can be trusted in the matter of sponsors, as in all other matters relating to academisation. However, the facts suggest otherwise, because the performance of sponsors shows that some are simply not competent. Some have been found to have misused public money. Some, such as Prospects Academies Trust in 2014, have collapsed through incompetence, with all the consequent problems that causes for children, parents and teachers. Some have highly questionable international links, such as the Aurora Academies Trust, connected to one of the more dubious US schools chains with a record of failure and scandal in that country.
Earlier this year, we followed with increasing concern events surrounding the forced academisation of the Hewett School in Norwich. That brought up all sorts of questions relating to consultation and parental involvement in the process. I suspect that the fear of that being repeated is one of the main drivers of this anti-democratic Bill because I have no doubt that is exactly the kind of example that the Ministers will point to when lecturing us on why we cannot have people being asked for their views in case—heaven forfend—they are likely to want something other than academisation, and they might kick up a bit of a racket in doing so. I am sorry but that is the democratic process. There was a large march through the city of Norwich in protest at the Secretary of State’s academy order and a clear majority of those asked in a consultation exercise were opposed to it. There were dubious goings-on between the company given the role of carrying out the consultation and the trust seeking to become the academy’s sponsor.
Did any of this trouble the Secretary of State? Not a bit of it—she rode roughshod over the views of parents and the local community and announced, in so many words, “You’re having an academy and that’s the end of it. Now, go away!”. It just so happens that the trust that is now the sponsor of the Hewett Academy is chaired by a major donor to the Conservative Party and the chair of the academy’s board of governors is the trust’s chief executive, a person lauded by the former Secretary of State, Mr Gove. Are these coincidences? Almost certainly not. So there is a serious need for proper, independent quality control of would-be sponsors. Why would Ministers not want that to be guaranteed? There is an urgent need for Ofsted to take on this role to bring transparency to areas where it seems the Government are determined that there should be none.
This clause is symptomatic of the general “we know best” approach of the Government throughout this Bill. We all share the aim of wanting our children and schools to perform as well as they possibly can, but we differ fundamentally with the Government on the means of bringing about these changes. Parents, school governors and local authorities all have long-established rights that enable them to have their say on matters affecting schools in their communities. Teaching unions, too, have the right to give their opinion, given that they are at the interface between children and their future careers. Yet in this clause we see that only certain categories of person are entitled to be consulted while everyone else, it seems, is insulted. Why should foundation or voluntary schools be treated differently from maintained schools? It is instructive that the appropriate religious body in faith schools merits consultation, but at the end of the day they can still be overruled by the Secretary of State on whether or not their school will be forced to become an academy, or who the sponsors will be. They may not even be of the same faith as the school itself.
Then, of course, there is the question of land. I made reference earlier to the Hewett Academy in Norwich, which sits on land estimated to be worth £60 million. That is £60 million of public funds—at least it was until recently. Now that tidy sum has simply been handed to a group of the Government’s friends and while at present they are saying that they have no plans to sell the ground and move to a new site—let us face it, they would have to be monumentally stupid to suggest anything else—there will be nothing to prevent that in future. The only certainty is that the public purse is £60 million lighter as a result of that deal.
If I were involved with a faith school, I would be very concerned as to the future of the land owned by my church because, ultimately, it can be taken by the Secretary of State from that church, which may have owned the land for centuries, and handed over to anybody approved as a sponsor to do with as he pleases. I suggest that that is a shocking state of affairs for a Government in a democracy to contemplate, far less legislate for.
My Lords, I shall comment, I hope briefly, on the three listed amendments in reverse order, starting with Amendment 25. I made it plain under desperate interrogation at the previous sitting that I am in favour of Ofsted having rights of inspection over academies, and I do not move from that. However, rather than this fairly complex amendment—which I have to say, as presented, has a touch of an amendment by innuendo, which I am not comfortable with—I would hope for provision to be made for Ofsted to make its own judgment on when inspection is required, and to be open to requests from the department and the Secretary of State, as it currently is, to carry out specific tasks. I would think that Ofsted is probably in the best position to take the view on whether detailed inspection, and all that that implies, is necessary. That is Amendment 25.
On Amendment 24, I do not like the very last subsection about “all correspondence held by” the Secretary of State being published. We have a freedom of information system, and I think that that can and should be used as appropriate.
In some ways, the more substantial Amendment 23, on consulting parents, will not necessarily produce total wisdom, as I have made clear on this Bill and elsewhere. I have been a parent myself in these contexts, and sometimes we can get it wrong. On the other hand, I take the point that providing more time for consultation is not in the interests of the pupil. However, I then worry that if a provision is made for consultation of religious authorities, I can only believe that that is being pushed by a fairly powerful lobbying group who say that it is really rather important that, “We are consulted”. If these are the authorities presiding over a school that turns out to be coasting, what have they been doing? I think that there is a case for a rethink on this, or alternatively, having an opportunity for parents to make their views known, I would hope that the local press and MP can be a useful avenue in that.
It is still a school or an academy, and if we remembered that it might help some of the progress on this Bill.
Regarding some of the points raised by the noble Lord, that school sits on sports grounds that have served half the sports clubs in the area. Indeed, the club where I started my career—I should declare—and finished, started on those grounds. These are the sorts of things that need to be worked into the system. We have to try to get them in somewhere along the line. On its use as a community asset, the noble Lord will not know the place but these are acres of prime playing fields in the heart of one of the fastest growing cities in the country. They are wonderful playing fields on flat, open ground that have been used as an asset by everything going on there. How we build on such a utility is something that should be taken into account. What are we doing on the broader picture? That has not been brought in here, and it should. The fact that the community and parents should be given that courtesy is self-evident. That greater asset to the local community is something we seem to have missed so far.
My Lords, I shall be taking part in the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, so I apologise to your Lordships if I cannot be here for much of this afternoon’s discussion.
Listening to this debate, I think back to the experience of my half-sister, who for many years was a school librarian in Canada. She would complain about fathers coming in and taking books for their three year-olds about the planets and stars, which were completely inappropriate for the age of the children in question. Fathers were expecting children to understand things that they had no possibility of understanding. I think that probably happens a lot in the education system and outside it. People feel very strongly that certain things are important and others are less so.
My concern with sponsors is that they may have a very strong vision; sometimes that is a very positive thing, but sometimes that may not be so helpful. That is why I am interested to hear from the Minister, in a letter in due course, about the selection, training, support and development of sponsors, and why I have some sympathy with the concerns expressed by the Committee about who these sponsors are and who guards the sponsors. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I will make just a few comments on this group of amendments. I, too, apologise that I will not be able to be here for the whole Committee sitting. Unfortunately, because of other commitments I will be in and out a little bit.
I support the spirit of Amendment 25. I cannot see any reasonable and valid arguments why chains of academies should not be routinely inspected. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, made the point that that discretion could be left with Ofsted, but if it does not actually inspect chains I do not know how it will know whether or not it needs to inspect them. They ought to be brought into the fold of those organisations that Ofsted routinely inspects.
I want to focus on parents and what I believe is the right of parents to be both informed and consulted about significant changes to the status and organisation of the school in which their children are pupils. We touched on this in an earlier meeting. We have since had, just before this Committee session started, the response of the noble Lord, Lord Nash, to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, who raised some of these issues. It is now clear from this letter, notwithstanding the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, at the previous meeting, that in relation to a failing school the governing body does not have a duty to inform parents; it is required to take reasonable steps, but we all acknowledged in Committee that in many instances that does not happen. So there is not a duty on the governing body specifically to inform parents if Ofsted has decided the school is failing and that consequences will follow.
The noble Lord, Lord Nash, also admits in the letter that:
“There are no requirements within the Bill for the governing body to have to inform parents that the school has been identified as coasting”,
by the regional schools commissioner; nor is there a requirement on the regional schools commissioner to inform parents that he or she has decided that the school is coasting. It seems that, when it comes to these important matters, parents are falling between a number of bodies which may or may not decide that they should inform parents and which may or may not consult them. It is in the gift of the Government to make that a duty and to bring the rights of parents to information and consultation to the fore in the Bill. Surely that is right.
As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, the only argument we have heard against that so far is that the Minister thinks that that would delay things at a time when speed is of the essence in setting matters to rights when a school is not performing. But that is within the Government’s own gift. The Government could set strict time limits. They could set down the means by which that consultation should take place. They could set that in statute or in regulation to minimise any delay, but that could still involve putting the rights of parents to information and consultation to the fore as an equally important principle, along with the others in the Bill.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that point, because if he is still relying on the very weak argument that this would cause unnecessary delay, he really has to say why the Government do not grasp that nettle and bring forward proposals that would minimise delay but still involve parents in decisions about their children.
My Lords, in speaking to Amendments 23, 24 and 25, regarding consultation about the identity of a sponsor that has been identified for an underperforming school, I shall also use the opportunity to set out the case for Clause 9 remaining part of the Bill.
I hope by this point in the debate that noble Lords will be all too familiar with the strong case for the central pillar of the Bill—that is, that where a school is underperforming and an academy solution is needed we want the transformation to take place from day one. We do not want the process to be delayed through debate about whether that school should become an academy. We have been clear that becoming an academy with the support of a sponsor is the best way to bring about radical improvement in a struggling school. That is why Clause 8 makes clear that there is no duty to consult where an academy order is to be made because the school is eligible for an intervention.
We also do not want any delays caused by ongoing debate about who the sponsor should be for the school in question. Where it is necessary for a school to become an academy with the support of a sponsor in order to address failure or bring about necessary improvements, regional schools commissions will decide the most appropriate sponsor.
However, I have committed during a previous debate in Committee, as well as in my letter sent to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, today, to reflect on whether any further commitments can be made to ensure that parents will always be engaged if their child’s school is causing concern.
Amendment 25 seeks to require Ofsted to report on, and in some cases inspect, an academy trust prior to the Secretary of State entering into an academy arrangement with that trust in relation to a failing or coasting school. I agree with noble Lords that regional schools commissioners must have a clear picture of the performance and capacity of academy trusts operating in their local area. This information is required when RSCs make decisions about which trust is best placed to take on a failing or coasting school and when they hold trusts to account for the performance of their existing academies.
There are already strong systems in place to scrutinise and assess the performance and capacity of trusts, and I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Watson, meets regional schools commissioners he will be able to satisfy himself of this. Regional schools commissioners already hold trusts to account for their education performance based on the individual Ofsted inspections of schools within that trust and on performance data. The Education Funding Agency already carries out trust-level reviews, assessing the financial and governance arrangements in trusts against the robust requirements set out in the Academies Financial Handbook.
In fact, the accountability framework for academy trusts reflects their status as both charitable companies and public bodies. This means that, when it comes to matters of good governance and financial management, they not only have statutory responsibilities under company law but are also accountable to Parliament for how they spend public money. Furthermore, Ofsted can already inspect a group of schools within a trust and make an assessment of the support that the trust provides to all its schools through these individual inspections and through taking the views of any schools in the trust about the support they receive. The published inspection report after such focused inspections include Ofsted’s assessment of the overall performance of the trust, as well as a summary of the outcomes of the individual academy inspections.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton, spoke last week of the importance of regional schools commissioners working well with Ofsted regional directors. I reiterate that regional schools commissioners already meet regularly with Ofsted regional directors to share information about academies, trusts and sponsors and discuss any performance concerns. We have shown that we take decisive action where trusts do not improve the performance of their schools. With a number of trusts we have moved a number of their schools to more effective sponsors to address concerns about the trusts’ overall performance. We also carefully monitor the capacity of trusts as they expand. Where we have concerns, we will pause a trust from further expansion until we are convinced that it has the capacity to provide the high-quality support that failing or coasting schools require.
At his most recent appearance before the Education Select Committee, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for Schools, was clear that the current arrangements whereby Ofsted can inspect batches of schools within an academy trust at the same time are appropriate. Therefore, the proposed new clause is not only unnecessary but would create an additional layer of bureaucracy that prevented regional schools commissioners and trusts moving swiftly to bring about much-needed improvements in failing and coasting schools.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, spoke about Ofsted inspecting chains. We do not think that it is right that Ofsted should have an additional role in judging a trust’s central functions or operating model. This would simply place another burden on Ofsted, distracting it from what is most important and from the core skill of an HMI, which is inspecting the quality of teaching and learning in schools.
However, I have already had discussions with senior members of the Ofsted team about circumstances which may arise in which we may want to organise a parallel audit of a trust, where an inspection by Ofsted of a batch of schools in the trust and the trust’s school improvement capability would take place alongside a simultaneous but separate investigation by the EFA of the trust’s central governance, management and financial competence—an area of activity which we think the EFA is more appropriately qualified to inspect.
Having reassured Peers on the processes for holding trusts to account, I turn to Amendments 23 and 24, which would require wider consultation about the identity of the sponsor for a school eligible for intervention. RSCs, supported by their head teacher boards, will use their local knowledge and expertise to identify the sponsor which they believe will provide the most benefit to an underperforming school. I see no need to consult the local authority or the existing governing body of an underperforming school about that decision, given that it is those bodies which have overseen the failure of the school or have been judged to be unable to address underperformance at the school. The quote I mentioned in last week’s debates, about turkeys voting for Christmas, comes to mind.
Dave Baker, the CEO of the Olympus Academy Trust and one of the individuals who attended the meeting with Peers the week before last, has perhaps summed up the position most compellingly:
“Where a school fails, swift action is needed and there is no time for debate and delay. As a member of a Headteacher board, I know the effort that goes into identifying and matching the right sponsor for any individual school. Where a school has failed, efforts should be spent on getting the right sponsor in place as soon as possible so that the sponsor can start engaging parents and start to secure change through decisive leadership. This should be the focus of everyone’s attention rather than lengthy debates about who the sponsor should be”.
Once an RSC has identified a sponsor for a school, the sponsor will usually be keen to engage with staff and parents about its plans for the school, ensuring that they understand what will happen next and have the opportunity to share their views on the sponsor’s approach. This means that staff and parents still have a say on the future of the school. I have already set out in earlier debates examples of how this engagement has taken place. I would also quote Martyn Oliver, the CEO designate of the very successful Outwood Grange Academies Trust, who said:
“A prospective trust does not just ride roughshod over a school and its community. Outwood Grange has a clear vision and we are passionate about engaging staff and parents on that vision. The advantage of our model is that alongside the clear vision of the trust, local governing bodies are left with more space to focus on things like engaging with the local community. Ultimately parents are happy, especially when they start to see the dramatic improvements in results for their children”.
Noble Lords have also proposed that correspondence about how a sponsor for a school is identified should be published. I believe this to be unnecessary. As I have described, RSCs already subject sponsors to thorough scrutiny. The decisions of RSCs and head teacher boards are already transparent. RSCs assess applications from prospective new sponsors against published criteria. The rigorous assessment process ensures that prospective sponsors have a strong track record in educational improvement and financial management, and that their proposed trust has high-quality leadership and appropriate governance. The majority of sponsors are high-performing schools which have been subject to rigorous assessment by Ofsted and have been found to provide outstanding education. We publish a list of approved academy sponsors. After sponsors are approved, they remain under careful monitoring by RSCs and the department. RSCs take account of the trust’s capacity and its track record in turning the performance of academies around before allocating them any new sponsored academies.
A full list of RSC decisions is already published on GOV.UK and we are making RSCs’ decision-making more transparent. From December, a fuller note of head teacher board meetings will be published to cover all meetings from 1 October this year and will contain information on the criteria that were considered for each decision.
The noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Addington, made some comments about the Hewett School and its land. I can assure the noble Lords that the terms of our legal agreements with the sponsor in that case make it absolutely clear that it will not be able to dispose of any of the land without the consent of the Secretary of State.
I would like to take this opportunity, however, to reiterate the purpose of Clause 9, which specifies the limited circumstances in which it will be appropriate for RSCs to consult on the identity of the sponsor. Clause 9 requires that, where a foundation or voluntary school with a foundation is eligible for intervention and subject to an academy order, then the RSCs must consult the trustees, the foundation and—for a school with a religious character—the appropriate religious body about who they propose should be the sponsor. It is important that underperformance, whatever type of school it is in, is tackled. That is why we are clear that there should be no consultation on whether a failing school should become a sponsored academy, whether it is a foundation school or not, but in the case of faith schools we must also ensure that their ethos is preserved.
In many cases, a diocesan sponsor will be the best choice for a failing church school, but where appropriate—for example, where the diocesan sponsor does not have sufficient capacity to take on that school at that time—a non-faith sponsor can be put into place in such a way that the school’s particular ethos is protected. I expect that dioceses and RSCs will work closely together to agree on the best academy solutions for any failing church schools. To support those arrangements, we are having discussions about reviewing and updating the memoranda of understanding that set out the roles of dioceses and government as they relate to the academy programme, in order to reflect the changes in this Bill and the wider evolving policy landscape. These discussions are ongoing.
The trustees, foundation and religious body are specified in Clause 9 because they are being consulted specifically in recognition of their responsibility for the ethos of the school, and to contribute their views on how this may best be preserved. This is why we do not agree with Amendment 23, which proposes that parents and staff should be consulted, too.
I hope that noble Lords have once again been persuaded by my commitment to ensuring that underperformance is tackled swiftly wherever, and in whatever type of school, it occurs. I have, however, explained the reasons why Clause 9 is important in the group of schools it applies to and reiterated my belief that sponsors can, and will, engage with parents, staff and communities once they are matched with a school. As I said earlier, I have committed to reflect further on whether any more commitments can be made to ensure that parents will always be engaged when their child’s school is causing concern. In light of this, I urge the noble Lords not to press their amendments and to allow Clause 9 to stand part of the Bill.
Before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask a question? I am grateful for the letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, which I have not got through my own post but through the photocopying skills of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, but no doubt it will come to me. I thank him for that. I have not said it yet, but it seems from what the Minister just said that there has been, if not a softening of approach, then at least some consideration about parents. However, could the Minister tell me—we have talked about this day one, but what exactly happens on day one? Surely, a child or children cannot be transferred to another school on day one, so there must be some gap between all this. How large is the gap, and why is it not possible to set a timetable for some sort of consultation, given that there will be a gap already? Children cannot just be put into another school the day after, so what is this day one? Could he tell me, or perhaps write to me about it?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. I found it very reassuring in terms of my particular concern about sponsors. I think that he was saying that most sponsors will already have a track record, and they will be the ones who are being looked at.
Perhaps he could say what proportion is likely to be coming in new to the field, and answer this example. Let us say I ticked all the boxes to become a sponsor for an academy, and seemed to be a very good person to do the job, but I thought that schools were places for work, not play, and that school playtime should be quite short. What would be the process to enlighten me that that is not the case or to weed me out and keep me away from the academy? How much influence might I have? I am thinking here of the story of an academy, which may be apocryphal, that was built without playgrounds for some reason, as somebody believed strongly that that should be the case.
I thank the noble Lord for saying that. That is a very important point which, with his health background, he would raise. I am simply trying to give an example of a possible candidate and how he might be processed by the system. But from what I heard from the Minister just now I am very much reassured that most of these academy sponsors will be experienced and will have a track record, and we can have confidence in them because of that.
If the noble Earl is contemplating making an academy sponsor application, I am sure we would be happy to guide him through the process, but as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, says, if he is serious about restricting play space, we can save him the bother. I believe a visit is being organised shortly to King Solomon Academy, which is a remarkable school. From memory, I think the statistics are that about 60% of children get free school meals, 90%-plus get five A*s in English and maths, and more than 75% get an EBacc. The noble Earl will have formulated his views on academies and we can discuss his pending sponsor application in more detail.
I shall refer to two comments made by the Minister, if I may. The first was that underperformance should be tackled quickly. We all agree on that. When all the coasting schools are to become academies, we need to have sponsors lined up to take them over. We do not want to wait months for an academy sponsor to be found, in which case the delays that the Minister is concerned about will invariably happen.
On the question of parental consultation, I was taken with the Minister’s comment that we want parents to be engaged. The best way of doing that is at the start by allaying their fears and sharing the vision with them. Maybe in Committee we can have some further discussions on how we might make that a reality. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendment 24 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Amendment 25 not moved.
Clause 10: Duty to facilitate conversion
Amendment 26 not moved.
Clause 10 agreed.
Clause 11: Power to give directions to do with conversion
Amendment 27 not moved.
Clause 11 agreed.
Clause 12: Power to revoke Academy orders
Amendments 28 and 29 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
30: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Inspection of Academies
Before section 9 of the Academies Act 2010 insert—“8A Inspection of Academies
Before a coasting school is converted into an Academy by virtue of this Act, and of section 61 or 62 of EIA 2006 (schools requiring significant improvement or schools requiring special measures), the Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills must inspect and report on the person with whom it is anticipated the Secretary of State will enter into an Academy arrangement.””
My Lords, in our endeavours to ensure that we have the highest standards in our schools, we look at three processes. One, of course, is testing and examinations. When schools are not achieving the level anticipated it is a sign that we need to take action. The second method is inspections when we inspect schools in, I hope, a supportive way, and when there are concerns we are able to act on them. The third area is the quality of the leadership and the teachers in those schools. The amendments in my name—Amendments 30, 31 and 32—are linked to those three areas.
I will deal first with Amendment 31 on teachers. You would not go to your local medical centre to see your doctor and be given an unqualified opinion. You would not go to the dentist and be seen by an unqualified dentist. It is hugely important, not just for the status of teachers and how they are valued by society, that we make it absolutely clear that in whatever type of school—local comprehensive, free school or academy—every pupil has the right to be taught by a qualified teacher. The notion of bringing unqualified people in to teach because they might be enthusiastic beggars belief. That is not to say that there will not be people who have a particular interest and enthusiasm but they will be part of an ongoing project and there would be a qualified teacher with them; nor is it to prevent those people who are aspiring to be teachers from teaching, again alongside a mentor who is a qualified teacher.
The previous Labour Government permitted non-teachers to teach by allowing classroom assistants to teach. I have real reservations about that, I have to say. We allowed NVQ level 3s to teach lessons but not to prepare, plan or mark, and NVQ level 4s to teach, plan and mark lessons. We almost passed the buck when we allowed that to happen. It was interesting when the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said at Second Reading that this present Government and the coalition Government had more unqualified teachers in schools. Actually, that was not correct. There were more unqualified teachers in schools under the previous Labour Government than currently.
I am not trying to score points here. We should not be trying to score points off each other, we should all—Government and Opposition—value the role of teachers, and we should say that every pupil should be taught by a qualified teacher and it is as simple as that. Linked to that should be the quality of the training of teachers, which is not covered by this amendment—
I am not going to gainsay what the noble Lord has said. I am sure he has done his homework. But will he accept that there are different categories of unqualified teachers? When Labour was in government, a lot of the teachers involved were from other countries so had gained their qualifications abroad and were in the process of bringing those up to standard here or did not have the appropriate qualifications at that time. Quite often, under the current academy status, we are seeing people move into jobs simply on the grounds of enthusiasm and the ability to communicate, and we need a bit more than that if we want to get people through GCSEs and higher exams.
I agree with that. Of course, the other reason is, despite what the Minister constantly tells us, that there is a shortage of teachers and we are desperate to find people. Figures published last week suggested that one in six teachers comes from overseas. I do not have any problem with overseas teachers, provided that they are qualified. I come back to the issue that I want to see every pupil in every type of school having a qualified teacher. Linked to that would be the quality of the teacher training and of the professional development while that teacher is in post.
On inspection—and this goes back to the previous debate—it is interesting that some academy chains are now bigger than local authorities. My local authority had 50-odd schools. The Harris academy chain has more than 50 schools. We inspect local education authorities but we do not inspect academies. Amendment 30 suggests that if a school is coasting or failing or going to become an academy, do we not want to know the reasons why that is happening rather than just saying, “It has failed, let’s move on”? Do we not want to understand what has happened in that school so that we can put it right? Do we not also want, when we move that school into an academy, to be absolutely sure that the academy that is chosen is up to inspections and up to the mark, and that we do not move the pupils from one difficult situation to another? I beg to move.
My Lords, I respect the noble Lord’s motivation in tabling these amendments. My objection to them does not get into the specifics relating to qualified teachers or whatever, but it is simply that I think that it is wrong for primary legislation to lay down what Ofsted should and should not inspect. The noble Lord suggests a very short list of what should be inspected, and I am sure that Ofsted would have a much wider field of interest in any inspection that it conducted, but I think that he has a focused and almost myopic picture of what Ofsted can and cannot do.
Over the years in which it has worked, Ofsted has built up a comprehensive picture of what is going on in schools and in education. It will undoubtedly have inspected at least one of the schools of most of the chains which might be candidates to sponsor a coasting school. Similarly, I cannot believe that any school would have been classified as coasting over a three-year period without Ofsted having been alerted to that and having gone and had a look at it. So we should have more confidence in what good HMI can do and their knowledge both of the system and of individual schools which are in trouble, rather than trying to lay down specifics such as, “They must inspect to see how many qualified teachers they are going to have, or they must inspect for this, that and t’other”. I therefore ask the noble Lord to think again about the amendments and to have a little more confidence in what HMI within Ofsted would be able to do.
Does the noble Baroness not agree that the difficulty is that local authorities no longer have the resources to give that support which previously existed? Does she not think that we should ensure that academy chains have the resources to do the very things that she suggests rather than always leave it to Ofsted?
I have declared my interest as chair of Wandsworth Academies and Free Schools Commission. We interview every prospective sponsor. We look at their track record; we listen to what their aims and objectives are; and we listen to their views of education. We can then offer advice from the local authority to the department. I know that the department’s evaluation of every potential sponsor is very detailed. Of course, local authorities will no longer be asked to comment—so my little commission will disappear—but I know that the regional schools commissions will do an extremely thorough job before they hand over any school to a new sponsor. They will have looked carefully at every aspect of the sponsor: its aims, its objectives, its track record, its vision of education and its proposals for what it will do with a school and so on. We sometimes try a little too hard in this House to nail everything down in legislation instead of having more confidence in what professional people will do.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I see the noble Lord’s three amendments as being essentially about the quality and standards of the academy chains being considered to take over individual schools. As a matter of principle, it does not seem unreasonable to require that information be available to those who make decisions and to parents and teachers about the record of that academy chain. I take the point that one does not want to write everything into primary legislation and to instruct Ofsted in everything that it should do. On the other hand, one of the themes through our debates is whether maintained schools are being treated on a level playing field with academies. The suspicion arises because the Government seem to convey the view “Academies are good; maintained schools are bad”. That is why some of us want to see something in the legislation to ensure that academies are dealt with equally, and looking at the past performance of the chain seems to me to be particularly important.
On the issue of teaching assistants, I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord. Surely the record shows that the employment of many teaching assistants has been beneficial; they have relieved some of the pressures on classroom teachers, who—goodness knows—are under huge pressure. The noble Lord asked whether in the NHS we would have a doctor or nurse purporting to treat patients without the right qualifications, and of course the answer can only be no. However, the NHS has good and bad examples. For instance, I do not think that healthcare assistants, much though they contribute to the health service, are a good example, because there is no national standard or curriculum or qualification that they can reach. Frankly, the demise of the state enrolled nurse and the eventual rise of the healthcare assistant has been a disaster, because not only has the previous role of the state enrolled nurse—who might not have had the academic qualification but certainly had the caring skills—been undermined but we have failed to develop and train sufficiently the healthcare assistants. On the other hand, in A&E departments or operating departments where nurse assistants are often appointed to help as practitioners, there are many examples there of people who, though not fully qualified in the primary professional function, have been well trained and are very experienced. To my mind, the experience of classroom assistants is that, in the main, they have done a very good job indeed.
However, the substantive point is surely that all this information is entirely relevant when considering whether an academy chain is fit to take over a school. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that looking at issues such as the ratio of qualified teachers to unqualified teachers, absences and the record of the chain overall in Ofsted inspections of individual schools is entirely relevant. It may well be that the noble Lord may want to reflect on today’s debate between now and Report in terms of any amendment that he puts forward then.
My Lords, on the question of the qualifications of teachers, we can build ourselves into nonsense positions of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has been spelling out. In general, I agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry.
To give an example of the nonsense—from outside this jurisdiction, so that there can be no unpleasantness in our reactions—up in the north-east of Scotland, on the bit of coast where we watch dolphins quite a lot, there is a shortage of teachers. In that area, instead of insisting that the standard QTS or GTC and all the rest apply, people have suddenly realised that the RAF personnel and people coming into industry in that area bring with them spouses—male and female—who are very good teachers and probably, in our terms, qualified. However, they have to make special arrangements. A bit of common sense in how we do things is very important. In that area, a policy is now being pursued to attract such people into the schools, where they will, I have no doubt, enrich the variety in the system.
Another, related point is that, if I were looking to improve the quality of teaching—as we all want to do—I would rather ask about the policies on continuing professional development in those schools, local authorities and chains. That is exactly where, I think, we have been rather remiss. I would look, not in this Bill but elsewhere, to put that in place.
My Lords, I will speak to the new clauses proposed by Amendments 30, 31 and 32. These clauses, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell, Lady Pinnock and Lady Sharp, all relate to reports which Ofsted would be required to provide before a failing or coasting school becomes a sponsored academy. In particular, they seek to require that Ofsted must inspect an academy trust, report on teacher qualifications and report pupil absence levels prior to the Secretary of State entering into an academy arrangement for a failing or coasting school.
First, on Amendment 30, I agree with the intention behind the noble Lord’s amendment to ensure that regional schools commissioners should be fully informed about the performance and capacity of academy trusts in their area. However, this proposed new clause is an unnecessary addition to the Bill because regional schools commissioners already have access to this information, as I outlined in some detail in responding to the previous group of amendments. I hope that the Committee can see that, given the information already available to regional schools commissioners, this clause is unnecessary. I have described that there are already a number of ways in which this full picture of an academy trust is built up, rightly utilising the skills set of Ofsted inspectors on educational performance and the assessments of the Education Funding Agency against the robust financial and governance standards under which academy trusts are held to account.
The clause inserted by Amendment 31 would place a duty on Ofsted to report on the teacher qualifications required by a particular academy trust before a failing or coasting school joins that trust as a sponsored academy. I understand that, in tabling this amendment, noble Lords are concerned about ensuring the highest quality of teaching in academies, and I agree that this is a vital ingredient—probably the most vital ingredient—for securing the excellent education that every child deserves.
Teacher quality is a complex mixture of different attributes, including personal characteristics such as commitment, resilience, perseverance, motivation and, of course, sound subject knowledge. These cannot be guaranteed through a particular qualification. We believe that children should be taught by good teachers who inspire them, regardless of the qualification they hold. The noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Watson, seem to have some notion of academies hiring unqualified teachers purely because they are enthusiastic. I doubt very much whether any professional head of a school would allow that to happen, and I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, thinks that they would.
One of the most important “qualifications” that teachers need is deep subject knowledge. I am delighted that, over the last five years, the number of postgraduates entering teaching with a 2:1 or better has risen from 61% to 73%. We do not think that we should necessarily require a PhD in physics to go through nine months’ teacher training, over 60% of which is likely to take place in a school. If they have deep subject knowledge and the right personal characteristics, they can make great teachers without any further qualifications, as I have seen myself on many occasions. Neither do we think that a drama teacher from RADA who has a spare afternoon a week to teach in a primary school should have to get QTS.
What would the noble Lord say about the skills you need other than your primary consideration? If you have a PhD in physics, do you, for instance, know what to do with a child with special educational needs? That is the sort of thing that attracts the attention and the worry. It is not the fact that they are great at their primary function but that a lot of other stuff has to be dealt with to get to the primary function.
I know that the noble Lord is always concerned about this point. Of course every school has to have a SENCO, and every school, particularly if it has high SEN numbers, will have plenty of teachers focused specifically on this area. However, if a person has high academic qualifications and the right other characteristics, as I have already said, we do not see why they would necessarily have to get a particular other qualification.
If this physics teacher who has deep subject knowledge is taking a class which misbehaves, and he or she cannot control that class even though they have that deep-seated knowledge, does that not suggest that an understanding of behaviour management is important? Or, if there is a child protection issue among those young people which perhaps goes unnoticed by this teacher with deep subject knowledge, does that not suggest that they, too, need some qualification or training in this area?
I entirely agree with the noble Lord that behaviour management is key, which is why I am surprised that it is not focused on in many qualifications for teaching. That is why we have appointed a behaviour tsar, Tom Bennett, to look at this and why we will ensure that behaviour management is focused on, because you cannot teach if you cannot control your class. I should point out that, according to the latest statistics, 9,900 teachers working in academies and more than 10,000 teachers working in maintained schools do not hold qualified teacher status.
We trust heads to make decisions about getting the best possible teachers to teach in their schools. The funding agreements of many academies give trusts the freedom to employ teachers without reference to standard qualified teacher status. This allows head teachers to exercise their autonomy to bring in appropriately qualified or otherwise eligible people from a range of different backgrounds to enrich the teaching offer available to pupils. Of course, head teachers are held to account for the quality of teaching in their schools through the Ofsted inspection regime, as my noble friend Lady Perry said, and the regular publication of school performance data. As such, I do not think that it is necessary to place a further requirement on Ofsted to report on the required qualifications for teachers.
Amendment 32, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, seeks to require Ofsted to report on the level of pupil absence over three years in a failing or coasting school before it becomes an academy and on the levels of absence in other schools already part of the trust taking that school on. Noble Lords are right to highlight the importance of pupil absence. We, too, take attendance very seriously. There is clear evidence that absence from school is linked to lower levels of attainment. Pupils with no absence during key stage 2 are over four and a half times more likely to reach level 5 or above at the end of primary school than pupils who missed 15% to 20% of the sessions, and twice as likely to do so than pupils who have missed 5% to 10%. The outcomes at secondary level are similar: pupils with no absence across key stage 4 are nearly three times more likely to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, and around 10 times more likely to achieve the English baccalaureate than pupils missing 15% to 20% of school across key stage 4; for pupils missing 5% to 10%, the figures are 1.4 times and 2.5 times.
That is why we are supporting schools and local authorities to keep absences to a minimum and to develop measures to support and promote good attendance. We do not want children missing their education. That is why we changed the law to tackle the culture of taking holidays during term time. In 2013-14, the latest academic year for which figures are available, overall absence across state-funded primary, secondary and special schools fell to 4.5% from 5.3% the previous academic year, with persistent absence falling from 4.6% to 3.6%. Data on the level of pupil absence are already collected and published annually for all schools as part of the performance tables. Requiring Ofsted to report separately on this would merely duplicate what is already available.
As the noble Lord said, even if these amendments were necessary, which I do not agree they are, Ofsted has a great deal to do and, at the moment, is going through a major restructuring as it brings inspections in house. In my view, these new clauses are all unnecessary and would simply introduce additional bureaucratic processes for Ofsted that would delay regional schools commissioners from making decisions and trusts from beginning to bring about the much-needed swift improvements in the schools concerned. I therefore urge noble Lords not to press their amendments.
I first want to comment on teaching assistants. I do not want to give the impression that I do not value them. I think that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, rightly pointed out, they do a fantastic job in supporting classroom teachers. My concern is how they are increasingly being used to cover for sicknesses, shortages and other absences—it has become almost de rigueur to take them on for that role.
Turning to the amendments, I agree with the Minister that it is vital that the person teaching the subject or the class has a deep knowledge and understanding of that subject or, in primary schools, an understanding of child development and behaviour management. However, far too often we see a subject specialist who has an incredibly detailed knowledge of his or her subject but no ability—no flair, imagination or creativity—to put that subject across. Of course, the pupils are then not able to be successful in that subject.
The important thing here is what the Minister said at the beginning when we were talking about consultation and parents being engaged. Of course regional commissioners and Ofsted have this information, but if a school is being closed—I have not experienced that situation; I do not know if the Minister has—it is a very traumatic time for parents. It is decided in a meeting to close the school but for the parents—forget for a moment the teachers, governors and pupils—it is incredibly traumatic, and we want to ensure that that process works for them as well. That is why I was particularly taken by the Minister’s comment in the previous debate about how parents should be engaged.
One of the ways in which parents can be engaged is to be reassured about the person leading the school and the qualifications of the teachers—a whole host of issues. That information might be available but let us make sure that it is available to parents and not say to them, “You can find this out by looking at the website”. At that crucial moment in a school, let us make sure that the transition from one school to another—which is another important area—goes as smoothly as possible, with parents supporting it and being given the information. I do not care how that information is arrived at but parents must be given that information so that they can understand it and share the vision, and perhaps become evangelical themselves for the school and the new setting. I hope the Minister will take on board some of those thoughts for future discussion. I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 30 withdrawn.
Amendments 31 and 32 not moved.
Clause 13: Local authority adoption functions: joint arrangements
32ZA: Clause 13, page 8, line 25, after “authorities” insert “and voluntary adoption agencies operating in the area jointly”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 32ZA, I will speak also to Amendment 33. This group focuses on the voluntary adoption agencies, about which quite a bit was heard at Second Reading, but considerable difficulties remain as far as the agencies are concerned. We owe a duty to them to air those views and to seek the Government’s help in prioritising them.
The DfE’s Regionalising Adoption document, published in June this year, was interesting. It devoted two pages to the role of voluntary adoption agencies, beginning with this statement:
“We are particularly keen to consider models that have an element of cross-sector collaboration, bringing together the best of the voluntary and statutory sectors”.
If the DfE had finished the consultation document there, I am sure that the voluntary adoption agencies would have been perfectly happy because that is basically what they seek. The document then proceeds to list three options for local authorities,
“to acknowledge and use the potential of the voluntary sector to provide services at a regional level and have the confidence to take forward these partnerships”.
The first is:
“Involving a voluntary adoption agency in a regional partnership as a specialist adoption support provider”.
The second is:
“A voluntary adoption agency leading a regional partnership, providing adoption management services to a group of local authorities, and working with and through local authority staff in social work positions”.
The third is:
“A voluntary adoption agency providing specialist services to a number of local authorities as part of a formal partnership arrangement”.
I have perhaps been remiss in not welcoming the fact that we are on Clause 13 and now dealing with adoption. I have been slightly thrown because of the way in which the amendments have been grouped, with Amendment 32ZA at the beginning rather than Amendment 33, which I was going to speak to first. This is an important issue. I do not believe it is an afterthought in the Bill, as has been suggested. It is a relatively small but very important part of the Bill and will affect a great deal of people.
The voluntary adoption agencies play a very important role within that. I got the impression from reading the sections I have quoted from Regionalising Adoption that the Government value the role of voluntary adoption agencies. My question stemming from that is: why not formalise that role? Voluntary adoption agencies are seriously concerned at the possible dilution of their role and this would help to allay those fears.
Although the Minister had quite a bit to say about Clause 13 in his opening remarks at Second Reading, in summing up he had very little to say. In fairness, I should remind noble Lords that he revealed that he was extemporising on that occasion. That was perhaps somewhat ill advised because he devoted just five lines in Hansard to the question of voluntary adoption agencies, and what he did say betrayed a misunderstanding of the concerns expressed by the voluntary adoption agencies. When adoption agencies in Wales were reorganised into five regional groupings, smaller voluntary agencies were the casualties. What assurances can the Minister give that the same will not happen in England? That fear was expressed by several witnesses who gave evidence to the committee in another place. That view is also held by the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies and by its biggest member, Barnardo’s.
The key concern here is about accountability and ensuring that the new system results in meaningful improvements for vulnerable children, especially the hard-to-place ones—those in the categories of age four and over; children with a disability; sibling groups; and children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Voluntary adoption agencies have particular expertise in work with hard-to-place children and the danger is that local authorities may look to protect their own interests after the introduction of regional adoption agencies, leading to a squeeze on the smaller but still influential voluntary agencies. As I have said, that concern was raised by several witnesses who gave evidence to the committee in another place.
It was also said at Second Reading that voluntary adoption agencies play a key role and yet, despite government support over the past few years, they are struggling for survival. Many are reducing the size of their social work teams as the proportion of adoption work that was done by the agencies decreases. In some areas, local authorities—despite clear direction from government, which I acknowledge—exclude them from discussions. It is not clear how voluntary adoption agencies will play a part in the proposed new regional structures while retaining their individual independence, or how funding arrangements will support their activity.
Voluntary adoption agencies are concerned about transitional instability because some are losing their relationship with local authorities, which feel that they may not need the voluntary agencies when the local authorities become part of a regional adoption agency. As I have said, voluntary adoption agencies play a key role. However, it is not clear how they will play what they would regard as a meaningful part in the proposed new regional structures while retaining their individual independence. Equally, they are concerned as to how funding arrangements will support their activity.
Amendment 33 would require the Secretary of State to lay an annual report before Parliament containing information about how she has exercised the power given to her in Clause 13 and the safeguards she has put in place to protect the voluntary agencies, other models of care and the provision of post-adoption support. In referring to the power to direct local authorities to come together in regional adoption agencies, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, said at Second Reading:
“I assure your Lordships that we expect to use this power rarely”.—[Official Report, 20/10/15; col. 586.]
That is as it should be. However, if that is the case, an annual report to Parliament would not involve many examples of their use and could hardly be regarded as onerous or particularly bureaucratic by the Government. I trust the Minister will not look for reasons to avoid meeting what I believe is a fairly modest requirement.
The Bill provides the Secretary of State with the power to intervene directly in adoption arrangements. That leads us to believe that in cases where she uses her powers of direction it will be because she has failed to achieve the hoped-for consensus and voluntary arrangements that are clearly the Government’s ambition. In such circumstances, is it not right that Parliament should be told what persuaded the Secretary of State of the need to exercise her powers? Meeting the requirements of Amendment 33 would make that information available to Members of both Houses of Parliament, allowing appropriate scrutiny to be undertaken.
There is clear need for the Secretary of State to report on the impact of voluntary adoption agencies, the whole area of children in care and the question of support for adopted children and their parents, especially concerning mental health issues. Why is it the case that children currently entering the care system are subject to a routine physical health check but, despite the often chaotic, sometimes traumatic lives that led to them being placed in care, they are not automatically given access to a mental health check? For those reasons, it is important that the Government are prepared to report on an annual basis to ensure that that information can be made available to Members of both Houses, and that progress relating to this part of the Bill can be tracked. We all wish it success but we also want to see that that is actually what is happening.
Returning to the question of voluntary adoption agencies, these organisations undertake only about 16% of adoption placements. There is therefore a real danger that they could get lost within the new system when the local authority with which they work becomes part of the regional adoption agency. It would be a great shame, and a real loss, to a sector that has recently seen the demise of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering if they fell by the wayside. I look to the Minister to reassure them that their vital and long-established role will be both recognised and protected. She can meet that hope by accepting our amendment and agreeing to report annually to Parliament. I beg to move.
I will speak just to Amendment 34 in this group, which seeks to develop the work we did on the Children and Families Bill, where quite important progress was made on the whole issue of adoption. There was an important amendment from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the increasing length of time that children stayed with foster parents.
Let us build on that: Amendment 34 seeks to support that progress by saying that children in the care of local authorities are perhaps the most vulnerable children. Many of them have mental health problems. In fact, the figures—I will not repeat them now—are really alarming. Many local authorities and agencies which carry out the role for local authorities make tremendous progress with those looked-after children. But there are real concerns, and this amendment suggests that we should always have those concerns in the front of our minds through having an annual report on the support we are giving those young people, so that we can adjust our provision and policies where we need to. I hope the Government might consider supporting this amendment.
My Lords, Amendments 33, 34 and 32ZA raise important issues about ensuring that any use of the power given to the Secretary of State in Clause 13 is transparent and considers the impact on voluntary adoption agencies, other parts of children’s social care and the provision of post-adoption support. The amendments require an annual report to be laid before Parliament and enable the Secretary of State to direct local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to jointly determine who should deliver adoption functions.
I thank noble Lords for raising these issues and I agree that we need to be clear about how this power is used, and what its impact is, so I appreciate the intent behind the amendments. First, I assure both noble Lords that any use of the power will be transparent and fair. Decisions will be informed by input from the affected agencies and other agencies operating in the local area, including voluntary agencies. However, I believe that laying an annual report before Parliament on the use and impact of the power would be disproportionate, and that directing local authorities and voluntary agencies to make decisions jointly will not work in practice. I will go on to explain why.
First, I assure the Committee that we have carefully considered the impact that moving to regional adoption agencies will have on other parts of the care system, and on the provision of post-adoption support. We have been clear that regional adoption agencies need to consider how adoption support functions will be carried out and how links with other parts of children’s social care will be maintained. This includes ensuring that adopted families have access to appropriate mental health support to meet their children’s needs. We will come to that in more detail in the next set of amendments. We see regional adoption agencies as an opportunity to deliver improvements in these areas. We are also encouraging innovation. This may well include broadening the regional approach to include wider permanence services, where this has potential to drive improvement.
Turning to voluntary adoption agencies, I reassure the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, that we are clear that these organisations have an important and central role to play in new regional agencies. That is why we have ensured that all the projects we are funding include voluntary adoption agencies. I am delighted that two-thirds of all voluntary adoption agencies are already involved.
We are committed to ensuring that the move to regional adoption agencies does not adversely impact on voluntary agencies and that they see it as a positive opportunity. Understandably, a number have raised legitimate concerns about their role in regional adoption agencies. But I am pleased to say that it is clear from the expressions of interest we have received and the projects we are funding that VAAs are being involved in a number of ways and have clearly been party to some fruitful discussions about how they can expand their involvement.
We absolutely believe that smaller, very specialist VAAs continue to have an important role to play. The service they provide in recruiting adopters, particularly for some of our most vulnerable and complex children, will still be very much needed in the new regional agencies. We will keep this area closely under review and will monitor it because we are determined to ensure that the excellence and expertise offered by voluntary adoption agencies is at the heart of this new agenda.
Clearly, the noble Baroness has given considerable reassurance to the Committee, but how does this all fit with procurement policy? The reason I ask that is because we know that the Cabinet Office has been leading very hard-driven, centralised procurement and there have been complaints that, despite the Cabinet Office also having a policy to encourage SMEs, those have been squeezed out by the prime contractors. I think that the Cabinet Office is reviewing that at the moment.
It struck me from what the noble Baroness was saying that although Ministers clearly recognise the role of the smaller voluntary agencies, particularly the specialist ones, one of the problems is that once you create regional entities, inevitably they adopt a bureaucratic process. I worry that the smaller agencies may find this very overbearing. I do not think this is a matter for statute but rather one of reassurance that the regional agencies understand that they cannot develop processes that make it almost impossible for these very small agencies, often with very limited infrastructure, to get agreement to be part of the new agencies in the future.
We think that the VAAs should be involved in early conversations about regional adoption agency design. We will issue procurement guidance for projects shortly, so it is in our minds.
Finally, the noble Lords raise important points about the proportionate use of this power. It is important to emphasise that we are committed to supporting local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to move to regional adoption agencies voluntarily in the first instance. These powers are only backstop powers to be used for the reluctant few.
As I have already said, we are delighted that the sector has already seized the opportunity to be involved. We have announced 14 regional adoption agency projects that we are working with this year, which, as I said, will involve more than two-thirds of all voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities. In the rare cases where the power is needed, decisions will be made following extensive discussions with all those involved or affected, including voluntary agencies. Prior to making a final decision, we will write to any relevant local authority formally requesting its views on the matter. I therefore reassure noble Lords that all those involved will have the chance to comment on the proposal before a final decision is taken.
I take this opportunity to mention the role of the national Adoption Leadership Board, which meets quarterly and has a remit to drive significant improvements in the performance of the adoption system in England, and which will also have an important role to play in shaping decisions and overseeing service development. This board has already been paramount in driving forward our reform programme, and that role will continue. The board is made up of the most senior officials from key organisations in the system, including representatives both from local authorities and voluntary organisations. The Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, which represents all voluntary adoption agencies, is a key member. Board members have been appointed to represent their sector and to take responsibility for galvanising performance improvements within their respective areas. Involving the board in any decisions about regionalisation will therefore be vital. This is another indication of how we are trying to bring all parties together.
This is a practical and proportionate approach to ensuring that the powers are used appropriately and that all interested parties are involved in decision-making. In view of this, I hope that noble Lords will feel reassured enough not to press their amendments.
I thank the Minister for that reply, which was to a large extent warm and, I am sure, encouraging to voluntary adoption agencies. She talked of them being involved in 14 of the regional adoption agencies that are in the process of being established—that is all very well and good—but that is the start. We look some way down the road and it may not happen. What if some local authorities or some regional adoption agencies decided not to involve voluntary adoption agencies? It is quite unlikely that none would be involved, but the agencies themselves remain concerned—it is not those of us on this side of the Committee who need to be reassured, it is the voluntary adoption agencies. For whatever reason—well, the reasons I have outlined, to be frank—they are not yet confident that that is how it is going to be into the future, and it is the future that concerns them rather than the present.
The Minister did not say specifically what was wrong with Amendment 32ZA. I do not see why it cannot be added to the Bill. It would simply add nine more words and ensure that voluntary adoption agencies were fully involved. If that is the Government’s intention—and I have no reason to doubt that it is—why not just write it into the Bill on that basis? It is disappointing that the Minister is not willing to do that, because I cannot see that it would have any real effect on any other part of the adoption system.
On the annual report, the Minister talked about transparency and about the agencies being fully informed, but transparency is also important as far as Parliament is concerned. You may say that Members of this House or another place can read the reports that are made available—no doubt, they will be put in the Library—but Parliament has a right to expect that such information be made available to it. If there was a need for a debate on these issues—it would not be every year, by any means—that could take place. If I noted the Minister correctly, she said that this would not work in practice. I may have missed it, but I did not hear from her why that would be the case. Yes, it would perhaps be a little bureaucratic, but only a little bit. I think that it would have a much wider benefit, not just for parliamentarians but for the agencies involved. The Minister’s response is therefore disappointing. Perhaps the Government could further clarify why they seem resistant, particularly in respect of including voluntary adoption agencies in the Bill. I know that that is what they want for reassurance and it is what we want with this amendment. But given what the Minister has had to say, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 32ZA withdrawn.
32A: Clause 13, page 8, line 35, at end insert—
“(f) the provision of child and adolescent mental health services for children in the adoption system;(g) the assessment of the mental health needs of children in the adoption system”
My Lords, I shall speak also to my Amendment 34A. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, regrets not being present and would have liked to support these amendments—she spoke eloquently on these issues at Second Reading. Perhaps I may also say how good it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in his place. When he was Education Minister many years ago taking through Parliament the Children (Leaving Care) Act, he listened to the concerns of noble Lords and extended protections for children.
I should just correct the noble Earl: for some reason, they would never let me near the Department for Education. I took the Children (Leaving Care) Act through as a Health Minister. Of course, I well recall our debates, because the noble Earl eloquently and consistently raised the issue of the poor outcomes of children in care, and we were concerned about the transition from care into adulthood and about making sure that there was still a duty on local authorities to support. We made some progress but, alas, the figures speak for themselves as regards the outcome for children in care. That is why this issue of mental health is so important.
I could not agree more. If we are reflecting for a moment on the past, Governments have invested a huge amount of money and resource into young people in care, and perhaps that money might have been better spent if more thought had been given to ensuring that mental health was fully integrated with all the educational support that is given to young people in care.
Amendment 32A extends the ability of the Secretary of State to allocate functions and includes the provision of child and adolescent mental health services for children in the adoption system as well as an assessment of their mental health needs. I suppose that the Secretary of State might say of a charity such as the Brent Centre for Young People, “They do a very good job—maybe they should do it more widely, and maybe a certain local authority needs them to give it help in this particular area”.
Amendment 34A ensures that the quantity and quality of mental health support provided for in the adoption system will be maintained or improved by these steps to ensure that there is a movement forward, not backward, in any changes made. The headline I put to your Lordships is that, while this is quite narrowly focused on children in the adoption system, I hope that the Minister might allow me to make a plea for improved mental health support for young people coming into care. In particular and most important, currently, children who come into care have a health assessment by a GP, which is welcome. I will expand on this later, but they really need a mental health specialist or perhaps a clinical psychologist to give them an assessment that is focused on their mental health. Following on from that assessment, they need the services that follow to help them meet the need to recover from the trauma that many of them will have. Therefore, that is the headline I put to your Lordships: an appropriate clinical professional at the very beginning, the services to follow up, then ongoing monitoring to ensure that those services are being provided, as well as of the mental health of the young people. That would make a huge difference.
I am most grateful for the many measures that the Government have taken to improve the adoption system, in particular with the assistance of my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss with regard to the adoption support fund. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how that will apply to this particular area, and on accelerating the adoption process so that children get to a loving family more swiftly than in the past.
There are challenges. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, 60% of children who come into care have experience of neglect or abuse, and 45% have a mental disorder in care as against 10% of the general population. Therefore it is not surprising that they will have often experienced trauma in their lives before arriving into care. Being taken into care—being taken from one’s family—is a traumatic process in itself; then there may be further trauma as regards shift of placements in care. Therefore, there is a huge mental health element to the work that needs to be done here as well as the educational attainment, which is being better grasped for.
It is very welcome that the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson MP, is well aware of these issues. His father has written on the issues of attachment in the past and, of course, Mr Timpson has siblings who are adopted. He is very sympathetic and has been meeting with the NSPCC and young people who have left care recently to discuss these particular issues. I commend him for paying such attention to this area.
I do not wish to take up too much of the Committee’s time, but I shall give a little example. I worked 10 years ago with a 10 year-old who was just coming up for adoption. The placement was arranged by Anne Longfield, the current Children’s Commissioner, for which I am grateful. We had been working with this young boy of 10 for two weeks, and nobody had told us that he was about to come up for adoption. One might have guessed as he was behaving like a three year-old most of the time. He was aggressive and disruptive, and spent much of the breaks just lolling around in a tyre. He was behaving in a very infantile way, but he just needed extra support. We learnt that he was about to be adopted because as we were driving from Chessington World of Adventures in a minivan, he said, “I can’t wait to meet my new family. We’re going off to Butlins together and I’ll meet my new sister”. One really hopes that that worked out well for him. A child like that needs excellent support from the get-go, so any issues are sorted out early and he has the best chance of a secure and safe placement.
Another quick example is one produced in the film of Steve Jobs’s life. It is based on a biography but it is a fictional, artist’s interpretation of what happened. One sees that Steve Jobs is very unkind to his five year-old daughter at the beginning of the film. He rejects her and says, “I’m not your father”, in her presence, even though she clearly wishes him to be so and imagines that he is. At the end of the film, he comes to recognise that she is his daughter, but what also comes out is that he himself, as an adopted child, for a long time felt that he was not wanted and had been rejected. It seems that that pattern, which was unresolved, played through again in his fatherhood. It highlights the risks that if we do not deal with the issues early on, they will go on to plague that person’s life and the next generation. So, we need to act early and get the best and correct professional input from a clinical psychologist, or someone of that ilk with the appropriate training.
There are a couple of challenges, on which the noble Baroness can enlighten me. One is the prospective adoptees. What work is being done to ensure that prospective adoptees, who may perhaps have had several attempts at in vitro fertilisation and may be feeling quite frustrated at being unable to have a biological child of their own, have had the support to come to terms with that before taking on a child for adoption? I imagine that that may be dealt with in the adoption process.
The other issue is that many of the children coming up for adoption in the future will be older children. Because the Government have been so successful at getting more children through the system, we are now likely to be left with older children coming forward. That would be a challenge and I wonder how the Government will face it. That highlights again the importance of correct mental health interventions early on so that those older children get the help they need. I am not sure that I have got that right, but perhaps the Minister would write to me about that. The correct thing for me to say at this point is: I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his very detailed speech today. I think that we have become much more knowledgeable and sympathetic about adoption issues. We have had the excellent report from the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation. We have had the report chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, on childcare. To echo what the noble Earl said, this Government have expressed a great deal of concern and work has been done, particularly by Edward Timpson MP, who takes a real interest in this. The last Government also did a great deal of work on adoption. We therefore know what good practice should look like; we also know that the background of some adopted children has been horrendous, quite often from a very early age. We know that children in care are more likely to fail or do badly academically, are more likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol, more likely to become pregnant as teenagers and more likely to fall into a life of crime. This is immensely costly, not only to the welfare of those children, but financially to society. It costs a great deal to pull somebody up from being in the criminal justice system if they got there for one reason or another. I therefore welcome these amendments.
It would be good if the Government could, for example, examine some of the work done by the Thomas Coram Foundation, which I visited recently. It has a programme of working with prospective parents and children, taking on mental health issues on both sides to look at what might best make for a successful adoption. It follows that up with support for mental health and all kinds of other issues for parents and the children themselves.
I am so pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, managed to get this amendment down. I tried, and could only get the wording to say “report”; he actually got a lot more, and I am very grateful for that. He obviously has charm and persistence that we need to learn from. I very much want to support the amendment.
There are moments in our lives that obviously have a profound effect on us and our personal circumstances. Some of those can be life-changing. I can remember one such occasion when, after being a bit blasé, thinking, “Do I really have to go?”, I went to meet a group of looked-after children in Liverpool. This was about five or six years ago. Liverpool Education Authority was the guardian of these looked-after children, and it had formed a committee that invited me to tea. It was one of the most life-changing moments for me because these young people talked about their problems: how they had been pushed from pillar to post, and how nobody had understood their concerns or needs. It made me realise that looked-after children had so many problems and concerns on their shoulders that you would not expect people of that age to have. We have the duty and responsibility to make sure that we do everything possible to help and support them.
I am glad to say that the whole issue of mental health is now moving much further up the political agenda: that is a good thing. The previous coalition Government, for the first time, made resources available for mental health. The present Government are carrying on with that commitment. I noticed that the Labour Opposition have appointed a shadow Minister for mental health, Luciana Berger, which shows how important mental health is. That is to be praised. Certainly in schools, it goes back—dare I be so bold as to say—to this teacher with incisive knowledge of physics, where the issue with the student in front of him might be a mental health issue. Unless that teacher has that knowledge or understanding, or somebody else in the school is able to pick up on this, it is to nought. Just as my noble friend Lord Addington went on and on and on about dyslexia—and probably all of us were waving the white flag and saying, “We give in”—we need the same focus on issues of mental health. We should keep at it like a dog with a bone. We talked about bullying in schools and the issue shot up the agenda. Many of the bullies have mental health problems. If we were able to identify them and deal with them at an early stage, they would not be bullies and some of the problems and the suffering that they and the people they bully face would not happen.
We also need to learn from others. I read about an interesting mental health project in the United States of America for young children. That is why I was nervous when the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was talking in a previous discussion about play—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, rightly jumped up and asked about obese children—but this project looks at how you deal with mental health through role-playing. The results have been quite stunning. So we should be learning all the time from different projects as well.
Looked-after children need us to go the extra mile more than anyone else. I hope that we can all get behind and support this amendment.
My Lords, I commend the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for tabling Amendments 32A and 34A, for the eloquent manner in which he introduced them and for the eloquent examples he gave of some of the existing stresses relating to adoption.
However, I have a question for him. Given the wording of Amendment 32A, which calls on a local authority or an adoption agency designated by a local authority to act, it might be better to tie the National Health Service into this provision because I wonder whether local authorities have the authority or the power to undertake what he is seeking they should do. I would like to see it done but I am not clear in my mind whether this is the best way to do it.
The issue of support once a child is placed in adoption can be crucial as to whether or not that adoption becomes permanent. Often specialist support is needed to care for a child appropriately. This is because, having experienced abuse or neglect, 45% of children in care have a mental health disorder compared with only 10% of the general child population. However, the mental health needs of children in care often go unidentified and there is a subsequent lack of mental health support. The Government urgently need to provide specific measures and greater resources around mental health assessment and support for the tens of thousands of children entering care, whose welfare must remain a priority concern.
The Department for Education’s document Regionalising Adoption, which I referred to in the debate on the previous group of amendments, stated:
“We still have too few adopters willing and able to adopt harder to place children”.
Harder-to-place children are a particular concern and yet the document does not suggest any solutions for this serious gap in provision. I hope the Minister will be able to say what the Government propose to do in terms of increasing the number of harder-to-place children who find a permanent home. She may well say, “It is out for consultation; let us see”, but this is an urgent matter. The argument advanced by Ministers in terms of the academisation of schools with no day to be lost perhaps applies even more urgently in the case of harder-to-place children.
I am aware that it is only a consultation document but, worryingly, it does not make a single mention of children with mental health problems. In something like—I cannot remember offhand—20 pages there is no mention of that. I wonder whether the Government appreciate the need and fully understand the issue and how it impacts on so many children in care. That is often a significant factor in their being in care in the first place.
The document goes on to say:
“Currently, adoption support services are provided by a mix of local authority provision, the NHS and independent providers”.
But—it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a “but”—
“There are regional gaps, gaps in the types of services on offer, and little evidence of spare capacity”.
We had some gaps a minute ago and here are some more, which are highlighted in the Government’s own document. It is fine to flag them up but we need some suggestion from the Government—the Minister might tell me it is a bit early just now—as to how those gaps are going to be filled because they are pretty glaring and very serious.
The document’s next section talks about what we want to see and post-adoption resources. That is a point I raised earlier. These are absolutely crucial but the document simply expresses a hope that,
“there would be opportunities to share and develop wider support services, including in partnership with health and independent providers”.
That is just a hope. I am very concerned that there is nothing firmer than that and that the Government even suggest that they are seeking to gain from the consultation something a bit firmer than that. Again, I have to ask whether the department or Ministers actually get the extent of the needs that exist in that area of provision.
Perhaps they should talk to the NSPCC because in its recent research, that organisation highlighted that one-fifth of children referred to local specialist NHS mental health services are rejected for treatment and said that a “time bomb” of serious conditions is being created by children not getting appropriate early help. Specifically, in six mental health trusts that provided information, it found that one in six children who had problems associated with abuse or neglect were rejected by child and adolescent mental health services.
The NSPCC report, Achieving Emotional Wellbeing for Looked After Children, which I referred to previously, found that spending within numerous local authorities on mental health support for children in care was profoundly disturbing. There was a spending lottery between local authorities in terms of both overall spending and decisions about what to spend on. Some local authorities spent nothing on child and adolescent mental health services specifically for children in care, and one local authority spent nothing at all on those health services, which is shocking.
The mental health of looked-after children was raised in the House of Commons recently and the Government responded with reference to the upcoming guidance promoting the health and well-being of children in care. While welcoming that guidance, the NSPCC takes the view that it falls a long way short of being able to meet the needs of looked-after children. There is currently no entitlement for looked-after children to receive support for their mental health needs once those are identified. That is a major worry.
Of course, resources are an issue. Does the Minister realise that that is an important part of the problem? Does she recognise the implications of stresses—financial and otherwise—on local authorities, which are likely only to get worse as further cuts bite into services? I very much hope that she and the noble Lord, Lord Nash, will be fighting the department’s corner in the spending review to ensure that these children and their families get the support they need.
It is essential that support should be provided as early as possible so that children receive the requisite services that improve their emotional well-being and mental health. If the Government reject the amendment, saying that it is not needed, I will have to ask the Minister why she believes that she knows better than the NSPCC or Barnardo’s, which is also very concerned about this issue. The Government do not have a monopoly on wisdom and they should listen to the experts in the field.
At Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Nash, referred to concerns raised by noble Lords about mental health issues. But he then referred to the report entitled Future in Mind. I have been doing a bit of reading so I have read that one as well, although I will be honest: I have not read it all; it is 80 pages long. That report does not say anything specific about children in or leaving care. It was published three years ago, in 2012. Chapter six is entitled “Care for the most vulnerable”. It worried me greatly that in five pages there was just one mention of the word “adoption”. Clearly, the adoption of children emerging from care is not being given enough emphasis. I know that a lot of money—more than £1 billion, I think—has been attached to it; I know there is money there for spending, but three years down the line the NSPCC and Barnardo’s are still concerned. They would not be writing to noble Lords—and I am sure Ministers receive those communications as well—if they felt that things were even moving in the right direction. Those organisations, I regret to say, do not.
As I mentioned in our debate on the previous group—I do not apologise for repeating it—currently, children entering the care system are subject to a routine physical health check but are not automatically given access to a mental health check. I just do not understand how that can be rationalised, far less justified. There is a major gap in post-adoption support for children in care and those emerging from it—and for the families entrusted with their well-being. I invite the Minister to explain what steps she intends to take to ensure that that gap does not remain for much longer.
My Lords, I hope it may be helpful to the Minister if I fill in a large omission that I made in my opening statement; I apologise to the Committee for not having alluded to this. One important issue is the cuts to local authorities over the last several years. One understands why those cuts have had to be made, but it is a particular dimension of child and adolescent mental health services that half the funding comes from health and half from local authorities—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, might correct me if I am wrong. However, for some reason the cuts to local authorities have particularly impacted services under CAMHS, so there is very little CAMHS around. Therefore to target the CAMHS resource at the most needy children might be an improvement with regard to using a scarce commodity in the most effective way. However, in any case, because of the scarcity of resource and because of our particular responsibility for these children in the care of the state, we should take more steps to ensure that they get the appropriate specialist mental health service that they need.
I will quickly say why I support Amendments 32A and 34. I am very sorry for not having been here earlier, but I am on the Select Committee on Communications; we are looking at the BBC charter renewal and were just questioning John Whittingdale, the Secretary of State.
I am here because we must ensure support for all options for looked-after children that are considered, whether they remain in care, leave care independently or live with a special guardian. I support Amendments 32A and 34A because they will create provision in this Bill to improve the timeliness and quality of mental health assessment and support for all looked-after children. Looked-after children have significant needs, and improvements are needed to ensure that their emotional well-being is better promoted.
We have an increased focus on children and young people’s mental health, but we must not forget children in care, who are sometimes the most vulnerable children. One young person told the NSPCC recently that the trauma associated with the abuse that she experienced was not picked up on her early entry into care. She felt that she did not receive help until she reached crisis point. She said:
“We shouldn’t have to do crazy things before people notice we need support and do something”.
That is why I put my name to the amendment. I see that it is not on the list, but I did put my name to it because I feel very strongly that it should be given as much consideration as possible. It creates such provision in the Bill that will make sure that children’s mental health is assessed automatically and supported much earlier in the adoption system.
Another young adult, Liza—not her real name—told the NSPCC that before turning 16 she had around 15 placements and between 20 and 25 placement moves. This caused her so much stress and trauma because she had to travel around from place to place, which was extremely tiring, both physically and mentally. Reflecting on this experience, Liza made it clear to the NSPCC that she would have benefited from easier access to therapeutic services which would not have required her to travel long distances. Liza’s experience is not untypical of that of many children in care who struggle to find the right therapeutic support. Amendment 34A, which I support, would require the Secretary of State to oversee an increase in the quality and quantity of therapeutic support services and would create provision in the Bill to stop more children having the terrible experience that Liza outlined.
Almost two-thirds of looked-after children have experienced some sort of abuse or severe neglect, and 45% of children in care have a mental health disorder compared with just 10% of the general child population. We know that looked-after children are four to five times more likely to attempt suicide, less likely to attain good results at school and more likely to end up homeless. However, the mental health needs of children in care often go unassessed and unidentified and there is a substantial lack of mental health support for these children.
Current guidance from the Department of Health and the Department for Education on mental health assessments for looked-after children does not go far enough. The BBC—I have the BBC on my mind; I am sorry. The NSPCC believes that the important aspect of quality support in Amendment 34A relies on quality assessment as outlined in Amendment 32A, so the two go together. Looked-after children’s initial health assessments rarely include the involvement of mental health professionals, thereby reducing the chances of identifying their mental health needs. Furthermore, there should be direct contact with the child and their carer to fully explore the child’s emotional and mental health needs. We have to make sure that children know that they are being considered, no matter where they are from.
I welcome the Education and Adoption Bill but urge the Government to include specific measures around mental health in particular: all children entering care should receive an automatic mental health assessment in addition to the physical assessment that they currently receive; children in care should then immediately receive the subsequent necessary support to help them deal with issues of mental health identified in the assessment; and there should be regular monitoring of children’s mental health while in care to inform the support the child receives and ensure that it contributes to their improved well-being.
The NSPCC recently released figures which show that more than a fifth of all children referred to local specialist NHS mental health services, including children with problems stemming from abuse, are rejected for treatment. This cannot go on. Children who have been abused or neglected could face serious long-term mental health problems because of the lack of support. The NSPCC recently stated that this is a serious “time bomb” because it is getting worse, not better. So I hope that the Government will take on board the things that I have said and support this amendment. This is something that we need to address in the best way possible. I hope that the Government will consider the amendments in the constructive spirit in which they are intended as the Bill moves through Parliament.
My Lords, Amendments 32A and 34A, spoken to by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, raise important points about the mental health needs of children adopted from care.
I absolutely agree that the mental health of adopted children is a key issue, as all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have said, and one that we expect to be central to the development of regional adoption agencies.
The Government have committed £1.25 billion to improve mental health services for children and young people over the next five years through the implementation of Future in Mind, the report resulting from the Government’s review of child and adolescent mental health services. The report included a section on vulnerable children and makes specific recommendations about looked-after and adopted children. This includes improving access to services, working better with parents and carers and support for children who have suffered trauma in their early life.
We are working very closely with the Department of Health and NHS England on the implementation of Future in Mind. Locally, clinical commissioning groups have been—
On that Future In Mind document, the Minister said that the chapter on vulnerable children makes specific reference to proposals for looked-after children. I do not expect her to respond now, but could she write to me pointing it out? As I said, I could find the word “adoption” used only once in that chapter.
Clinical commissioning groups have been working with their local authority partners to develop local transformation plans to improve their local offer based on the recommendations. These plans, alongside additional government funding, will cover the full spectrum of mental health issues, including, crucially, addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children.
Improving assessment of and support for looked-after children will be a key priority in our programme of work. We welcome the recent report on this issue from the NSPCC, as mentioned by a number of noble Lords, and agree that getting assessment right when children enter care is critical. All looked-after children already have an annual health assessment, which must include an assessment of their emotional and mental as well as their physical health. That assessment, which informs the development of their health plan, should take account of the information provided from the strengths and difficulties questionnaire which is completed by their carer. The guidance also sets out clear expectations that all looked-after children should have targeted and dedicated support through child and adolescent mental health services and other services according to their need, arranged by CCGs, local authorities and NHS England. However, I accept the point made by the noble Earl that, for some young people with a range of problems, a follow-on referral to specialist health services is required.
The Department for Education hosted a round table last month, bringing together children’s social care and mental health stakeholders, to discuss how to improve mental health services for adopted children. As a result, we are considering how centres of excellence, possibly linked to regional adoption agencies, might enable the mental health needs of looked-after and adopted children to be better met.
At the moment, the specialist support that many adopted children need in order to address the effects of abuse and neglect in their early years is simply not available in their area, as the number of adopted children at local authority level is too low to ensure that the right provision is there. Assessment and commissioning of specialist support on a regional scale will allow providers to expand their services, provide better value for money for the taxpayer and help ensure that all adoptive families receive a consistently high quality of assessment and provision.
In addition, we are providing £4.5 million of funding this financial year to accelerate the development and implementation of regional adoption agencies. Adoption support, including mental health, is a key element of that. We are clear that regional adoption agencies must have a focus on improving the assessment of adopted children’s mental health needs and the provision of appropriate mental health support services.
Regional adoption agencies will be able to make use of the government-funded Adoption Support Fund, as the noble Earl mentioned. More than 2,000 families have already benefited from £7.5 million of therapeutic services provided by the fund for adopted children and their families. We know that getting a high-quality assessment of need is critical, and local authorities are increasingly using the fund to pay for specialist assessments and, where appropriate, specialist therapeutic support.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked about harder-to-place children. We are providing £30 million to help pay the interagency fee to both local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies so that harder-to-place children might be adopted more quickly. More than 200 children have already been placed through this new scheme. On recruiting adopters for harder-to-place children, we believe that recruitment from a wider geographical base than simply a local authority, which takes into account the needs of children across a number of local authorities in a regional recruitment strategy and uses specialist techniques for recruiting adopters of harder-to-place children, will have an important effect.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, said that schools needed expertise in supporting looked-after children and children with mental health issues. We made changes in the Children and Families Act to introduce a virtual school head for looked-after children. This measure was designed specifically to ensure that looked-after children receive the support that they need at school.
I hope that noble Lords will see from this range of initiatives the importance that this Government and the previous Government have attached to ensuring that our most vulnerable children receive the support that they need, and that we are already committed to meeting the objectives of these amendments. I hope that the noble Earl will feel reassured enough not to press them.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate on these amendments today and for the supportive comments made by many of your Lordships. I am also grateful for the care with which the Minister has responded: to some extent, I am somewhat reassured. I was interested to hear what she said about centres of excellence and that seems most welcome. In Wales, for instance, a fostering charity that provides services has to find its own mental health professionals, because there simply is not enough of a CAMHS in that particular area of Wales to provide for it. I can imagine, as the noble Baroness says, that there will be areas where there is a deficit of expertise, and therefore the principle of drawing in from the best elsewhere—as provided in the academies programme—is a good principle to utilise.
The noble Baroness referred to the strengths and difficulties questionnaire and to the fact that the initial and ongoing health assessments look at the emotional and other needs of young people in care. That is welcome. However, given the experience of these children before entering care and that that they are pulled away from their families into the care system and have that trauma too, I feel that that is not sufficient. They need at the very beginning to see a specialist and to have a specialist assessment. I do not want to push that too hard but, as we speak, I remember a young woman who had been through the care system and whose brother was in the care system with mental health difficulties. She must have been 22 or so and she said to me that what she would have liked to have had when she first went into care was a therapist to speak to and somebody to stick with her through the care system—they had one mental health professional to stick with her through the system—and she wished the same for her brother, who was having difficulties.
I am going to make a slight detour and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me. These are difficult issues. In the past, the Department for Education used to employ civil servants who had a long tenure and a lot of experience in one particular area. For instance, the recently deceased Rupert Hughes was one of the chief civil servants behind the Children Act 1989, under Baroness Thatcher’s Government. I used to serve with him as a trustee for several years. One did not realise his important background from meeting with him but from hearing about it from others and seeing how important his memorial service was to so many people who knew of him. He was a hugely important figure. In dealing with these systemic responses to the difficult questions that we are discussing today, I wonder whether the Minister might consider what more might be done to ensure that there is a continuity of experience within the Civil Service to deal with these difficult problems over time. I do not think that it was this Government—the Conservative Government—who got rid of these longer tenure civil servants but in the past they frequently had more people like Rupert Hughes.
I am sorry for the digression. There is much to be welcomed in what the noble Baroness has said and in the investment that has clearly been made by the Government. I thank her for her helpful reply and other noble Lords for their comments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 32A withdrawn.
Amendment 33 not moved.
33A: Clause 13, page 8, line 35, at end insert—
“(3A) In giving directions under subsection (1) regarding the provision of adoption support services, the Secretary of State must take steps to ensure that decisions as to whether a particular child should be placed for adoption with a particular prospective adopter are made in such a way as to be blind to whether the adopter was approved by the relevant local authority, an external local authority, a regional adoption agency, or a voluntary adoption agency.”
My Lords, I will also speak to the Clause 13 stand part. Amendment 33A would require the Secretary of State to take steps to ensure that the process for making decisions about matching children with prospective adopters is conducted so that the decision-maker is blind as to which body—be that the local authority, the regional adoption agency, or a voluntary adoption agency—approved the prospective adopter. This would ensure that personal bias and other irrelevant factors are absent from decision-making and that instead, decisions are focused solely on considering the best match for the child. This would reduce unnecessary delays in the matching process by ensuring that a wider pool of prospective adopters are given full consideration from the earliest possible point, preventing the sequential decision-making that currently happens.
The Department for Education’s Regionalising Adoption consultation document—I am not sure whether it will be pleased that I am mentioning it for the third group in a row—contained some telling statistics, not least from Professor Elaine Farmer’s research. This found that some local authorities tended to seek to place their children with adopters approved “in-house” before considering adopters approved by other local authorities and then voluntary adoption agencies. This results in what is termed, as I mentioned earlier, sequential decision-making, which means that some children wait longer than they should to be adopted and the average is eight months between placement order and match. Professor Farmer’s investigation revealed that in 30% of cases delay was associated with an unwillingness to seek an adoptive family outwith a local authority’s own group of approved adopters. Clearly, that kind of behaviour is unacceptable.
The aim of Amendment 33A is to ensure that regional adoption agencies are not allowed to discriminate in terms of financial considerations when deciding where to place an adoptive child. There should be an assumption of them being blind to provenance, otherwise the interests of the child are not being put first. Unfortunately, an assumption—even where given by a regional adoption agency to the Department for Education—will not be enough. It needs to be guaranteed by being on the face of the Bill.
Currently there is an interagency fee of £27,000 per child placed with adoptive parents and it is welcome that the Department for Education has given £30 million in one- off funding. I heard what the noble Baroness just said in reply to the previous group. I had understood that that was simply in general terms to enable local authorities for whom the interagency fee, or at least the extent of those fees, was preventing them matching children, and that the £30 million was to break the logjam. If it is specifically, as the Minister said, for harder to place children, that is interesting, but perhaps she can clarify that in her reply.
What happens in the future after that £30 million has been spent? If local authorities need to save costs—we know that they will—they may well cut the voluntary adoption agencies out of the process, as I suggested earlier, and place a child with another authority to which, by agreement, they do not need to pay each other the interagency fee? That situation must not be allowed to develop. The fact that the voluntary adoption agencies are already fearing that it might do so ought to provide the Minister with the confidence to accept this amendment.
Turning to the clause in general, I have to say that it is worthy of support, as far as it goes. The trouble is that it does not go far enough. Will the Minister say why this clause focuses only on adoption? Why did the Government not think more creatively, more substantially and bring forward something called, perhaps, an emerging from care Bill rather than just a clause, with all types of settlement included? The adoption reforms in the Bill relate only to the 5% of children in care who are placed for adoption. It is wrong for adoption to be singled out for preferential treatment in relation to other forms of permanence.
Of course, where adoption is in the child’s best interests, an adoption order must be made, and the placement commenced in a timely fashion. That said, for other children, adoption is not necessarily in their best interests. Foster care, kinship care or special guardianship may be more appropriate for a range of reasons, so care should be taken in advocating increasing the number of children to be adopted. What is clear is that the number of children being placed for adoption is falling, whereas the number of children going into care is rising. It stands to reason, therefore, that there is a hold-up in the system. Certainly—I think we all agree—the process needs to be made more efficient.
It is also not helpful, to put it mildly, when the Prime Minister uses language such as appeared in his press release of 2 November, when he said:
“It is a tragedy that there are still too many children waiting to be placed with a loving family—we have made real progress but it remains a problem”.
That comment is both inaccurate and misleading. Many children in excellent foster homes are not waiting to be placed with a loving family; they are with a loving family who are meeting their needs, caring for them, helping them recover from trauma and offering stability and continuity. The same is true for children placed with relatives. The Government’s suggestion that adoption is the primary focus and that other options are somehow lesser is at best unhelpful and at worst insulting to those who give so much for children in other forms of care.
Because adoption accounts for just 5% of children in care, it is inappropriate to measure local authorities’ success in terms of adoption numbers. They surely need to be measured in terms of outcomes for all children and young people entering care, and how they are doing in achieving permanence in all its forms. Adoption is just one option. A special guardianship order with committed grandparents or uncles and aunts is another. The current focus on adoption ignores the 95% of children in the care system for whom adoption is either inappropriate or unavailable. The Prime Minister’s rhetoric is implicitly critical of foster care and kinship care in its efforts to promote adoption. I do not think that is helpful. The Government should examine the permanency order available in Scotland. It legally recognises that long-term foster care is an excellent permanency option for many children in care, and one that should be valued, protected and supported. Perhaps it might usefully be brought into operation—or at least examined—in England.
Achieving the best outcomes for vulnerable children is not a competition between adopters, foster carers, extended family members and residential care; it is an endeavour in which each play their part. Unfortunately, the Bill does not recognise that fact. There are other reasons why the Bill should have been much more adventurous in its scope. If Ministers are wondering why we have not submitted amendments to make it more adventurous, we did but they were blocked by the clerks, who told us that such amendments were outwith the scope of the Bill.
I note that the Prime Minister, in the press release to which I referred earlier, also stated:
“The government is actively considering changes to adoption law, to make sure decisions are being made in the child’s best interests. Ministers will look at proposals so that where adoption is the right thing for children, social workers and courts pursue this”.
So we learn that the Government have plans to legislate further on adoption yet still have nothing to say on other forms of pathways to permanence, such as long-term fostering or kinship care, although in that same press release the Prime Minister did suggest that special guardianship orders would be the subject of new regulations. I do not know what that involves; perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. But again, why the singling out of adoption? Why should this be the focus of resourcing and legislation—and, it seems, further legislation? Surely it would be more sensible to look at things in the round and consider how to ensure that the system delivers the right support for all children in care. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain the rationale, as well as give us an idea of what further legislation is in the pipeline.
In a wider sense, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what the Government are really intent on achieving here—and I do not doubt the sincerity of their determination to improve adoption rates and timescales—is a further reduction in the powers of local authorities by limiting their ability to provide services. There certainly appears to be a move by the DfE towards adoption functions becoming independent of local authority control to some extent, and there are parallels with the academisation of schools. Under the regional adoption agency structure proposed, local authorities will be merely board members, with regional adoption agencies accountable to the DfE. If that gives noble Lords a sense of déjà vu, it would not be surprising because it forms a remarkable parallel with regional schools commissioners. The key concern here is about accountability and ensuring that the new system results in meaningful improvements for vulnerable children, especially the harder-to-place ones, as we have already discussed.
I will make one final point. At first sight, the benefits of regional adoption agencies may appear to be advantageous. But the Government need to be aware of unintended consequences. I mentioned voluntary adoption agencies earlier. But another aspect which it seems the Government have not considered is the implication of the physical separation of children’s social workers in local authorities from the same authorities’ adoption social workers, who will be located at a regional adoption agency “hub”. This will almost certainly mean that the benefits of a close peer group working relationship leading to the maximum efficiency in determining a plan of adoption—where that is appropriate—and the subsequent matching and placing of children in adoptive families may be lost, and the net effect of the proposals may reduce the efficiency of the adoption process rather than increase it. I hope that is not the case but it is at least a possibility.
I finish where I started. By focusing solely on adoption, this clause does not go far enough. I hope the Minister will tell us why that is the case and what the Government intend to do—although she may regard it as outwith the scope of the clause—for the overwhelming majority of children in care who are not covered by it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing us this opportunity to have a clause stand part debate.
Of course, it would be much better if children were not taken into care in the first place. We need to think about what we might do to support families better so that these circumstances do not arise—for instance, what we can do to ensure that more fathers stick with their families.
Many boys grow up without a father in the family. Obviously, there are circumstances where parents have to separate, but I am sure that we could do more to enable parents to stick together and to help young men who grow up without a father in the family experience what it is like to have a father through providing mentors and positive male role models. This is a huge challenge for us. Currently, 22% of our children grow up without a father in the home. However, that figure will rise to more than 30% in the next 10 or 15 years, according to the OECD, so we will overtake the United States. Many boys will grow up without a father in the family. How will they know how to be a father if they have not had one themselves? As a society, we need to think what role models and mentors we can provide for these young men.
It is also important to think about the impact of the huge cuts on local authority funding over the last five years or so. I declare an interest as a vice-chair of the Local Government Association, which has expressed concern that we have reached the point where any further cuts will inevitably cut into services for adults and children. I sponsored a meeting recently with a charity that provides excellent support to families—for instance, providing an Arabic-speaking woman to support Arabic-speaking mothers in London who would otherwise be very isolated. That body was on its last legs and said, “You cut us any further and this service will disappear”. It costs a lot to regenerate that service, so it will be lost to those families.
Cuts have also been made to children’s centres. One understands the pressures the Government have been under, their achievement on the economy and on many other levels, and the huge importance of the increase in employment in terms of benefits to families. However, we have to keep in mind the removal of family support services as a result of the cuts to local authorities.
I think that a fairly recent ruling has led more courts to choose to go down the special guardianship line rather than the adoption line. Perhaps the Minister will write to me on the direction of travel in that area. That may be the reason why new regulations on special guardianship are being introduced. I know there are concerns that special guardianship may on occasion be granted too easily.
I agree with what the noble Lord said about the pathways to permanence being many, and adoption being just one of them. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, and his ministerial colleagues for introducing the “staying put” amendment on the last education Bill, thereby allowing all young people leaving care stability in circumstances where they wish to remain with their foster carer, and their foster carer wishes them to remain, to the age of 21.
Another issue relates to adolescence. Many children are adopted at a young age and from when they enter primary school until the age of about 10 or 11 they may be quite manageable and easy to deal with. The emotional tantrums and outbursts of the under-fives tend to dissipate. However, when they become teenagers and enter adolescence, all that stuff can re-emerge, so services need to cater for that. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about outcomes for adopted children.
I was speaking to a researcher recently and she said that the issues around teenage pregnancy for adopted children are not that far removed from the issues experienced by young people leaving care. That suggests that some issues are important still even with the benefits of a more permanent experience through the adoption process. It occurred to me that one might think of allowing young people who are aware that they have been adopted to have entry to the care-leaving system. This would give some kind of support for young people growing up in adopted homes through the care-leaving system. I am not sure that that would work but it did occur to me. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what information he has on the outcomes for adopted children, particularly during adolescence and up to the age of 21 or 22.
As I say, I am grateful to the noble Lord for this opportunity to have a more wide-ranging debate on the adoption procedures. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, Amendment 33A seeks to ensure that adoption agencies match children with the right parents for them, regardless of which agency recruited and approved those parents. The noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, also oppose the inclusion of this adoption clause within the Bill.
Clause 13 introduces powers to direct one or more local authorities in England to have certain adoption functions carried out on their behalf by another adoption agency in order to create regional adoption agencies. Regionalising adoption is necessary if we are to remove delay from the adoption system and ensure all adopted families have access to the support services they need wherever they may live.
We have already made significant improvements to the adoption system, with record numbers of children finding permanent loving homes, but there is still more to do. The system remains highly fragmented, with around 180 different adoption agencies currently recruiting and matching adopters. We do not think such a localised system can deliver the best service to some of our most vulnerable children. This is starkly illustrated by the almost 2,500 children who are still waiting for their forever families despite there being enough approved adopters across the country. Forty-five per cent of these children have been waiting longer than 18 months.
That is why we are proposing the measure in this Bill to increase the scale at which adoption services are delivered. Actively encouraging local authorities to join forces and work together will give regional agencies a greater pool of adopters, enabling them to match children more swiftly and successfully with their new families. It will also ensure vital support services are more widely available as these will be planned and commissioned at a more effective scale.
The noble Lords raised important issues about how decisions on matches between children and prospective adopters are made. The amendment seeks to remove the practice of sequential decision-making, where agencies seek first to place children with adopters they have recruited and approved before looking more widely. I appreciate the intention behind the amendment and can reassure the Committee that one of the primary motivations in introducing regional adoption agencies is to prevent this sequential practice and to encourage agencies, both local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies, to work much more closely together, always putting the interests of the children first.
The Government will also continue to invest in national infrastructure to enable matches to be made between children and adopters from different regions. We will also continue to use data to bear down hard on any delay so that regional adoption agencies are incentivised to find the right family for a child as quickly as possible, regardless of which agency recruited and approved the family in question. The proposals in the amendment would be difficult to make work in practice and could have unintended consequences.
Effective agencies will plan their pipeline of adopters so that they match well with the children coming through the system. This means links can be made early in the process to avoid any delay. This good practice would be difficult to maintain if the agency was discouraged from shaping its own recruitment to match the needs of the children it knows are coming through the system. If we break the link between the children waiting and the adults being recruited, the opportunity for strategic targeting of recruitment will be weakened.
Furthermore, if agencies have to consider all adopters available nationally in every single case, it is likely to increase delays as they try to filter and sort a large number of potential adopters. It could also impact negatively on adopters who are considered and rejected for a large number of potential matches.
I was not arguing that all national agencies should be considered in each case—it is more local to whatever the region happens to be—but the amendment would make sure that nobody was excluded. That may be the intention—I heard what the Minister said and, no doubt, reading that in Hansard tomorrow, a number of agencies will be encouraged—but what about the future? That cannot be guaranteed. The purpose behind putting it into the Bill is to make sure that all local options are considered—not nationally. It need not slow the process down if that is kept within the region in which the agencies operate.
I do not think that I can add anything at the moment, but I will think about what the noble Lord said.
The noble Lord asked about the £30 million figure. This is for children in one of the following groups: children who have been waiting for 18 months or more at the time of placement; children who are aged five or over at the time of placement; children who are in a sibling group of two or more and placed as siblings at the time of placement; children who are from a BME background; or children who are disabled.
The noble Lord asked why the clause covers only adoption. If local authorities are interested in bringing together other permanent services voluntarily, they have the freedom to do so. Furthermore, they can apply to our regional adoption agencies support programme for support to create a “permanence hub” that goes wider than just adoption. More than half of the bids for which we announced funding recently are interested in going wider than adoption. However, given the specific nature of the adoption system, this legislation is in relation to adoption only. Adoption is the system where consolidation and scaling-up of services is a pressing concern.
The noble Lord was not around when we passed the Children and Families Act, a substantial piece of legislation with 177 amendments which comprehensively covered wide aspects of SEN and children in care. Had he been, I think that he would have realised that we have substantially reformed the system for children in care and SEN. His comments about the Prime Minister’s recent concerns about adoptions are ill-informed and unfortunate. The Bill does not go any wider because we have covered fostering in the Children and Families Act and taken considerable steps to improve the situation for children in care homes. The children’s homes regulatory framework underwent significant consultation and review in 2014 to enable the development of new quality standards that must be achieved for looked-after children living in children’s homes.
The Prime Minister announced on 28 October that Sir Martin Narey will lead a review into residential care for looked-after children. Sir Martin will report his findings and recommendations in spring next year. The overall purpose of the review is to set out the role of residential care within the wider care system and to make recommendations about how outcomes for children who are currently placed in residential care can be improved. Given the proportion of looked-after children who have poor mental health, it is likely that the review will explore mental health and well-being of looked-after children in residential settings.
This year, we are providing up to £4.5 million of start-up funding to support the development of regional adoption agencies. As my noble friend Lady Evans mentioned, we have already announced the first 14 projects, which involve more than 100 local authorities and more than 20 voluntary adoption agencies. However, for that small number of local authorities which prove unwilling to rise to the challenge and to get involved voluntarily, we need the power in the Bill as a backstop measure. Without it, children in those local authorities would miss out. They would continue to face unnecessary delay, which we know causes lasting harm, and miss out on the vital support that they need. I therefore recommend that this clause stand part of the Bill and I hope that noble Lords will feel reassured enough not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I was particularly interested to hear what the Minister said about Martin Narey and his work around children’s homes, which is very welcome. I endorse what he said about the quality standards for children’s homes, which are a step forward. If there is one thing that I might ask him to bring up with his colleague, Edward Timpson MP, it would be with regard to residential childcare. It is a matter of great regret that mental health and social care in children’s homes have not been embedded together from the word go. I was talking to a psychiatrist about the history of residential care in this country. We have some excellent residential care, but I am afraid that in general the quality is pretty variable in my experience.
The continentals were interested in our approach. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, published his report on staff in children’s homes, Choosing with Care, which I think came out in 1993. In the witness evidence to that inquiry the psychiatrist said that on the continent staff in children’s homes have an ongoing relationship with mental health professionals. I discovered later that they learned that from us. If we only had that ongoing partnership in all our children’s homes, we would see better outcomes and better protection for children in those homes. I am asking for a model where a clinical psychologist, who is appropriately trained, a child psychotherapist or some other mental health professional goes into children’s homes regularly—maybe once a fortnight—and speaks with the manager and staff, providing an opportunity for them to talk about their relationships with young people and how they are managing them.
In my experience that has such an effective input. This kind of work is emotionally exhausting. People talk about the turnover of staff and how they just burn out after a few years. However, if there was that kind of support, staff would be far more likely to stay. There would be a continuity of relationship, which is so important, and experience would be built over time. Staff members would have years of experience of children with complex needs and they would know the right things to do. We should make sure that all children’s homes have that close support from CAMHS which would make all the difference in this area. I am glad to hear from the Minister of Martin Narey’s review.
I thank both the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the Minister for their replies to the debate. I very much share the comments of the noble Earl relating to the importance of role models, particularly for boys. Having a father figure or male in the household is important for many reasons.
I note that the noble Earl picked up the point I made about resources for local authorities. The Minister did not, but in fairness to him that is not his remit. It is important if we are looking at the broader context. The £30 million that has been made available will be welcome and well used. There will still be people in the hard-to-place groups that the Minister highlighted, as well as those who have been waiting for some time in the logjam. They will need specific assistance. At a time when local authority budgets are shrinking, it would be helpful if the Minister had something to say about the clause being robust enough to withstand the stresses and strains that will inevitably come in the years immediately ahead of us.
I note what the Minister said about the Narey review. I await that with interest as it will cover important issues. I hope that it will provide some positive ways forward. In terms of the overall structure, we can exchange a bit of political knockabout across this Committee Room but the professionals who are doing the job daily—I mentioned the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and the voluntary adoption agencies—would not have been speaking to members of the opposition parties had they not been sufficiently concerned that the proposals as they stand, and how they are likely to play out, would create further difficulties in the future. As I said earlier, it is not me or my colleagues that the Minister has to reassure but those at the sharp end. It appears, so far at least, that they are not reassured.
I was disappointed that the Minister made a rather dismissive remark about my comment on the Prime Minister. I note that in his earlier remarks, the Minister himself talked about loving families. He must realise that the point I was making was that the Prime Minister’s statement seemed to suggest that other forms of care were of a lesser value, or were not providing enough loving homes, whereas adoption did. That was the point I was trying to make. Adoption seems to be a buzzword within the department and the Prime Minister has used it in this context. I think that is unhelpful and, again, the professionals in the field think it is unhelpful. There are many loving homes that are not the subject of adoption orders. That was the point I was trying to make. It just so happened that the Prime Minister had made the remark. I want to see children secure in whatever form of care is best for them. If it is adoption, fine; if it is any of the other forms of care, so be it. I want to see the resources available to make sure that permanence is the watchword for those children.
It has been a lively and, I think, helpful debate. A lot of the points have been highlighted and we will return to them in other forums. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 33A withdrawn.
Amendments 34 to 34A not moved.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clauses 14 to 16 agreed.
Clause 17: Commencement
35: Clause 17, page 9, line 33, at end insert—
“( ) A statutory instrument under subsection (2) may not be made until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report on the funding of the costs of conversions under this Act.”
My Lords, I will be brief. I know how important transparency and accountability are to the Minister. This amendment is to do with the cost of conversion to academies. If, as the Prime Minister says, by the end of this Parliament all schools will become academies, it will put an enormous burden on resources to make that happen. Will those resources be available from within the existing budget or will extra resources be needed? Can we be assured that any school that becomes an academy will get the same financial advantages as academies currently do or will there be a reduction in that provision? I beg to move.
My Lords, there were some pertinent questions in the noble Lord’s short introduction to his amendment. One might think that the Explanatory Notes to the Bill would provide some helpful information in that respect but I pay tribute to the drafting of officials in the Minister’s department because they elegantly provide no information whatever.
The Explanatory Notes acknowledge, as the Minister has done, that this policy is bound to lead to increased expenditure by the Minister’s department. They say:
“The cost of any additional intervention will be considered as part of the normal Budget and Spending Review process”.
We will know the outcome of that next week. I do not know when we are coming back on Report but I assume that by then the department will have worked out the consequences for its own spending programme over the next three years, and that we might get some reassurance that we will be given some more information on Report. In the expectation that the noble Lord receives no comfort this afternoon, perhaps he will bring this back on Report to probe a little more on it.
My Lords, Amendment 35, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, seeks to require that the Bill cannot be commenced until a report on funding the costs of the academy conversions resulting from this legislation has been laid before Parliament.
In the light of the ongoing spending review it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on the future costs of academy conversions. As I am sure noble Lords will appreciate, the spending review will determine the Department for Education’s total settlement and it will be that which determines the final cost. I will be delighted to comment more on the DfE’s total settlement on Report, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested.
Of course, while I cannot provide specific details of the future funding regime, the existing grant rates for schools converting to academy status are already publicly available and published on GOV.UK.
As the published guidance sets out, there are various types of grants available to schools becoming sponsored academies. There is a grant awarded to all schools prior to opening as an academy to cover costs such as staff recruitment, project management and legal costs. There are three flat-rate amounts for this, depending on the level of transformation the school requires. In the most serious cases of concern, sponsored academies may also receive a small capital grant to improve the school environment and indicate a fresh start for the school. Overall, in the academic year 2014-15, the department paid nearly £20 million to academy trusts in pre-opening grants. We are committed to ensuring that funding for academy conversions results in maximum value for money. Since the days before 2010, we have very substantially reduced the costs involved. Funding amounts are regularly reviewed to ensure that the grant levels are appropriate.
The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that, where a school has failed, there will be swift and decisive action to bring about improvements. We anticipate that this equates to up to 1,000 inadequate schools converting to academy status over the course of this Parliament. The exact number will vary depending on Ofsted judgments, but it is important to emphasise that this number represents a continuation of the trend we have seen over the past five years. When the previous Government came to power in 2010, there were 203 sponsored academies and now there are more than 1,500. Including converter academies, there are now more than 5,000 open academies overall.
I turn to the assertion made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that the Prime Minister’s vision was that every school would become an academy during this Parliament. In fact, he did not say that he expected that to happen: he said that his vision was for every school to become an academy, but he did not put a timescale on it. As far as coasting schools are concerned, as we have already discussed, that is not a default option.
Alongside failing schools, the Bill also proposes that schools that have been notified that they meet a new coasting definition should become eligible for intervention. When we discussed coasting schools earlier in Committee, I went to some lengths to stress that regional schools commissioners will exercise discretion to decide whether and how to act in coasting schools, and that not all coasting schools will become academies. As noble Lords will be aware, we are currently consulting on our proposed coasting definition and no school will be identified as coasting until after the final 2016 performance data have been published. It is therefore impossible to predict, before the definition has been finalised and the tests have been set, exactly how many schools we expect to be labelled as coasting. We expect, however, to identify hundreds of schools which can be challenged and supported to improve.
In light of the assurances that I have given about the existing costs of conversion and the number of schools we anticipate will become sponsored academies, I hope that the House will agree that a report on the future costs of conversion is not necessary and I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Heaven protect us from speculation. I think that people read very clearly into those comments from the Minister. There was a fear that coasting was the mechanism for ensuring that all schools did become academies by the end of this Parliament. People will look at that very clearly. If there are hundreds of schools that are coasting, and we need to find academy sponsors for them, there will be a cost—
For some. I do not know if the noble Lord was here last week, but we discussed in some detail the circumstances in which a school might be sponsored if it was coasting, but also there were many circumstances where it may be able to cease coasting on its own or with some limited support.
My apologies for not having yet been able to read the Hansard of those Committee proceedings. Of course, there will also be costs, presumably, for those academies that are identified as coasting. I take his point about the spending review and obviously we will come back to this issue as well. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 35 withdrawn.
Clause 17 agreed.
Clause 18 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.
Committee adjourned at 6.34 pm.