Report (2nd Day)(continued)
Clause 10: Duty to facilitate conversion
17A: Clause 10, page 7, line 28, at end insert—
“( ) In facilitating the conversion under subsection (1), the governing body must ensure that parents and staff of the school are fully informed of the steps being taken.”
My Lords, the fourth group of amendments today centres on the Government’s Amendment 20, which introduces the concept of communication with parents. I want to focus first on Amendment 17A,
This provision relates to a situation where the decision has been made on academisation. Not only has that decision been taken without any recourse to the local authority or the governors of the school but its implementation now becomes, at least in part, the responsibility of a local authority and the governing body. How perverse is that? The Government are saying to elected representatives, both councillors and governors, since many governors are elected by their peers: “This school has been deemed to be failing and we’re going to remove it from its current status and make it an academy. We’re not aware whether you want that to happen and frankly, we’re not interested because the regional schools commissioner and the local head teacher board have decided what’s best for you. But wait: we do, after all, have a role for you in this process because you, the local authority and the governing body of the school, are duty-bound not just to avoid impeding the conversion but actually to facilitate it”.
Clause 10 states that the duty of the local authority and the governing body includes,
“a duty to take all reasonable steps to facilitate the making of Academy arrangements with”,
the chosen sponsor. That sounds rather menacing. It is not at all clear what fate might await anyone or any organisation that defied the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister might enlighten us as to what sanctions he intends to bring to bear on those who decline to co-operate.
Our Amendment 17A would at least introduce a smidgen of involvement for one group directly affected by the decision: the parents. We heard in the Minister’s response to group 2 that the Government regard parents as, all too often, impediments to change. It goes without saying that a forced conversion would be likely to cause considerable anger and anguish among parents, who would demand to know the details and all the circumstances. At the very least they have a right to expect that, within the provisions of the Bill, they would be entitled to be fully informed of the steps to be taken. Given the Minister’s movement on the question of information being conveyed to parents, as contained in government Amendment 20, it is surely beyond peradventure that they will find it within themselves to accept Amendment 17A. If they do not, we may well need to test the opinion of the House.
Government Amendment 20 is to be welcomed, as far as it goes. The problem is that it simply does not go far enough. It is a nod in the direction of appreciating the need, at the very least, to let parents know what is to happen and who is going to make it happen, but it is no more than that. In the discussion that I had with the Minister last week, he certainly led me to believe that there would be a government amendment allowing parents to assess the plans of the proposed sponsor. The implication was that if the parents were not enamoured of them, another sponsor would be found. That is a considerable distance from the wording of the Government’s amendment. For that reason, it came to me personally as a disappointment.
As I stated in debate on group 2, there is a world of difference between communication and consultation. Communication involves merely telling people what you intend to do; consultation involves saying to people, in what is surely a much healthier situation: “Here are our plans. What do you think of them? Can they be improved? Do they have the right emphasis? Do you believe that they will result in the school’s performance improving, and quickly?”. But none of that will happen because, as we heard in relation to the amendments in group 2 on consultation, the Government refuse to ask people their opinion for fear of receiving a “No, thanks” in reply. It does not wash to use children as the cloak to cover the determination to keep out any dissenting voices—if I was to be accurate, any voices will be kept out, dissenting or otherwise.
The amendment requires only that, once the regional schools commissioner has identified an academy sponsor to take over a school that is eligible for intervention, the sponsor must communicate to parents information about their plans to improve the school. However, in his letter to Peers, the Minister said that further information about,
“what this should typically look like in practice”,
will be put into the Schools Causing Concern guidance. We await that guidance but there are no requirements in the amendment for the sponsor to put in specific details about what it plans to do, so that offers an escape clause for sponsors which do not wish to be troubled by meeting the parents concerned. It would be appropriate to ask why any sponsors worth their salt would need to be told to communicate with parents in any case, but it seems there must be some of them.
Clearly, keeping parents informed is no substitute for real consultation about the future of their child’s school. There is surely a real danger that some sponsors will be likely to treat this as a box-ticking exercise, and that there will be no mechanism for parents to hold an academy sponsor to account over the information it provides before it takes over a school.
It seems that the Ministers—the noble Lord, Lord Nash, and the noble Baroness, Lady Evans—have a mindset that meets almost with disbelief the very idea that any parent could possibly want their child’s school to stay in the maintained sector. That is certainly the impression given. In passing, I might also ask the Ministers why their requirements as outlined in Amendment 20 apply only to maintained schools. There is no indication as to what will happen when an academy has been taken out of the hands of one sponsor and transferred to another. This demonstrates, not for the first time in the Bill, a two-tier approach by the Government and I invite the Minister to let the House know why the parents of children in academies should not be entitled to the same facility, inadequate as it is, as those in maintained schools.
Clause 9 concerns consultation about the identity of sponsors in certain cases and states that the Secretary of State must consult over the identity of the sponsor where a foundation, or a voluntary school with a foundation, is subject to an academy order due to alleged poor or coasting performance. So we find that the Government do, after all, understand the concept of consultation and have included it in the Bill, but only for such as those in the categories listed in Clause 9. There is of course no provision for consultation over the identity of the sponsor in other cases, and that is unacceptable. Having granted consultation to foundation and voluntary schools—part of the maintained sector —the Government really have no reason to reject Amendments 21, 22 and 23, which give their new clause the beef that it should have had from the start. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that this is what parents want, not simply a pat on the head and a “Now you know”-type letter.
Finally, Amendment 27 would introduce a sunset clause. The Bill remains something of an enigma, largely because of its limitations. I have no doubt whatever that the Government are determined that every maintained school shall become an academy at some point. Recent pronouncements by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have made the Government’s long-term plans plain and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools also reached that conclusion in his recent report. It is now a given that the Bill is merely a staging post on the route to full academisation. We cannot know what will follow in legislation to bring that about—perhaps the Minister will reveal something of his and the Secretary of State’s plans in his response. In the absence of such an indication it is entirely appropriate that the Bill, when it becomes an Act, should be time-limited. I beg to move.
My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, as I did to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, in the earlier debate about consultation. A question which seems not to have been answered in what they ask for is: what would happen if the staff and parents decided that they did not want the change? Let us suppose they decided that they did not want anything to change and that this failing school, which was in dire straits, was the one that they wanted and liked. What would the people whom the noble Lord so rightly characterises as those who care deeply about the welfare of children in the school then do? Would they give in to the parents and staff and say, “All right”?
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said that it could be all over in six weeks. I am sorry, but it would not be if the parents were making a terrible fuss and saying, “We like our school the way it is”. I have been involved in a change in a school which, without any doubt, was a total failure. It had vacancies of more than 15% and a 14% success rate of five good GCSEs among its pupils. But the parents sat there and said to me, “We like our school the way it is. Don’t you touch our school”. I tried to say to them, “Don’t you mind that your children’s chances are very limited? They are only going to have a very slim chance of getting five GCSEs and of having a future”, and so on. But what do you do if it goes wrong? The only way this idea of consultation would work is if you go back to what the Government are saying about information and you tell people what happens. You cannot consult if the result of the consultation will be an answer that you cannot accept.
My Lords, considering that the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, has referred to a tiny speech I made earlier this evening, I will just expand on the views that we take on this side.
First, none of us wants a failing school to continue to fail. That is in absolutely nobody’s interest. Secondly, all of us who have been involved in local communities over the years—as those of us on this side have—understand that parents get very attached to what they know and are often therefore reluctant to see it change, However, if a school is failing, change it must. It was the 2006 Act, I think—although I could be wrong—that enabled local authorities to intervene. In my experience, they do that: my local authority does. It can intervene by completely changing the board of governors and putting in its own governing body, with nominations made by the local authority, which can then change the head teacher. Then you work with parents to explain to them and get them to understand that they should not be putting up with this poor-quality education for their children. Change can then happen.
One example of that is a school about three miles away from where I live which was in special measures. The local authority removed the governing body—without its consent—and put in its own people, who were experienced governors from elsewhere, plus nominations from the local authority. The head teacher was changed, and that school was judged to be good in its recent Ofsted report. That seems to me to have achieved what we all want to see achieved, which is that no child should have to suffer education in a failing school. So it can be done, but if you are going to have long-term success, you have to take the confidence of the parents with you, because they play an absolutely critical role in ensuring that their children succeed. I repeat again that that is what we on this side want to achieve. It can be done.
My Lords, if, as the noble Baroness said, she wants this to proceed as quickly as possible and something to be done about a school, I am rather mystified why in Grand Committee and, so far, on Report we have heard a whole series of amendments from the Liberal Democrats to delay and complicate the process. It seems that the words they say or put down on paper, and what they do, do not seem to match—but perhaps I am not understanding something.
Equally, I do not quite understand why, from the Front Bench opposite, we have the idea of a sunset clause saying we will get rid of all this in five years’ time. It is a funny way to go. I thought that in our democracy one was supposed to stand in a general election, put your plan to reverse the academy policy to the public and win the general election—or perhaps, on the basis of what we have been hearing on Report today, form a coalition with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
I am glad that the House has been informed of that and am sure that academies up and down the country will note that. But I think that the unelected House should probably leave it to the public to make that decision rather than putting in a sunset clause.
However, I did go with the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on one point. I welcome what my noble friend Lord Nash has done in introducing a clear duty to communicate information and, pari passu, it may be that perhaps there could be some assurance that that duty to communicate would apply in the case suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, where there is a move from one academy provider to another, even if it does not have to go into the Bill. But of course that is not what is in the amendments before us. The noble Lord had an opportunity to propose that amendment but did not.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, also said that any academy worth its salt would want to communicate with parents. However, frankly, any local authority worth its salt—whatever it thinks and whether it is in charge of a failing school or not—should want to facilitate the change. Why would any authority not wish to? But it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to put in this provision which, again, the noble Lord has not tried to take out, although he referred to it. If a local authority is not minded to assist—and I have heard a few not-very-willing voices opposite—it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to put in a reserve power.
My own view is that these amendments fail. The House discussed the issue of extensive consultation earlier and a full House took a decision on that matter. Could we not now just settle on the communication which has been promised to parents, welcome my noble friend Lord Nash’s amendment and proceed?
My Lords, I am keen to follow what the noble Lord, Lord True, says in commending Amendment 20. The Minister very kindly earlier on commended the Church of England on its communication through its church schools. That effective communication, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said earlier on, is absolutely key. I know only too well that if there is fog in the pulpit, there is swirling mist everywhere else. Our communication through our church schools has to be effective because it is a key element in the building of fruitful relationships and networks of trust. Our diocesan multi-academy trusts are busy drawing church and community schools to join together and be more effective. But that is possible only through paying attention to parents and pupils in a process of effective communication, rather like what the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, earlier referred to as an effective conversation, which is an ongoing process.
I was also taken by the attention drawn by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to the need for communication to be both determined and sensitive. If academy proprietors communicate clearly to parents that they understand the importance of the school’s character and values, a relationship of trust is already under way. I would hope that through a memorandum of understanding with the department, and in open dialogue with the RSCs, we in the church and in the wider community shall see a fruitful engagement with all stakeholders through effective communication that pays attention to building relationships at every level.
My Lords, we on this side are now anxious to make progress. We have had the discussions and the debate and are grateful to the Minister for the concessions that he has made on a number of issues. I pay tribute to him for that. He has worked hard at it. We do have some fundamental differences, but this is government: we have to move on, accept what has happened and make the changes work.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord True, I am not going to pore through every comment that Conservatives have made and try to score cheap points, except to say of course that at the last general election, they got 37% of the vote and only 26% of the entire electorate.
My Lords, I shall speak to government Amendment 20 concerning communication with parents, the opposition amendments on that and Amendment 27A.
Our amendment is all about ensuring that parents are informed about the action being taken to improve a school. I know that what any parent wants for their child is for them to attend a good school and for there to be quick, effective action if there is significant concern about that school. Where a school has failed, it is right that we take the action that we know will have the best possible impact on improving the school’s performance, and that we make sure that this happens as swiftly as possible. We are clear that becoming a sponsored academy will always be the solution for a school judged inadequate by Ofsted.
That does not, of course, mean that parents do not have a right to know what will happen in their child’s school. Once a sponsor has been identified for a failing school, it is already common practice for it to engage with parents about their plans for the school, ensuring that parents know what to expect and that they understand the process of converting from a local authority maintained school to an academy, and to give them the opportunity to share their views about the changes that the sponsor proposes to make.
We have tabled Amendment 20 to ensure that there is greater consistency for parents on this matter. The amendment will provide assurance that when under- performing maintained schools are becoming sponsored academies, parents will always be kept informed.
To support the amendment, we will also make changes to the Schools Causing Concern guidance to reflect the new requirement. We will use that guidance to provide more information about what the communication from sponsors could typically look like in practice; for instance, to suggest that sponsors might want to write to parents when they are first matched to the school to provide more information about them as sponsors—although, as we have heard, it might be appropriate in some cases for the governing body to make the first communication—to explain their ethos, what parents can expect to happen next, and hold meetings with parents to share information and answer questions. We think it more appropriate for this to be set out in guidance rather than in legislation, ensuring that sponsors have flexibility about precisely how they communicate with parents, to allow them to tailor their approach to the specific circumstances of the school.
We will also reflect the new requirement on sponsors in the notification letters that are sent to the school governing body, the head teacher, the local authority and, where appropriate, the trustees of a foundation school, the religious body responsible for the school, where it is one with a religious character, and to the sponsor itself where one has been identified, where a school is being required to become an academy. We will specify as standard in those letters that the sponsor identified by the RSC will communicate to parents information about its plans to improve the school. This will ensure that all parties are aware of the duty on sponsors.
I spoke earlier about the commitments we have made to ensure that parents are kept informed specifically when a school is coasting. As I committed earlier, we will use the Schools Causing Concern guidance and the notification that RSCs will send to the governing bodies of coasting schools to make very clear our expectation that governing bodies must inform parents when the school has been identified as coasting.
In the light of the amendment that I have tabled and the other commitments we have made to ensure that parents will be kept informed when their child’s school is eligible for intervention, I hope noble Lords will be in no doubt that we recognise the importance of ensuring that parents know what is happening in their child’s school, and will therefore support the government amendment.
Noble Lords have tabled Amendments 21, 22 and 23 to alter what I have proposed. Rather than requiring sponsors to communicate to parents about their plans to improve the school, the sponsor would be required to consult parents about their plans. As I have already set out, I cannot accept the reintroduction of a statutory consultation process. That absolutely does not equate, however, to a belief that parents should not have a right to know, or be involved in, changes that affect their child’s school. I believe that the sponsor, who will be responsible for transforming the school, should have the duty to communicate to parents. We know that sponsors already put a lot of effort into explaining the steps that have been taken. Our amendment will ensure that this will apply consistently.
We expect that in many cases, sponsors will want to go considerably further than the minimum requirement and seek views from parents about specific changes they intend to make to the school—for example, if they plan to change the name of the school or the school uniform, they may ask for suggestions, views or designs concerning their proposed options. However, requiring sponsors to engage with parents through formal consultation, which the amendments propose, is not appropriate. As I said, a formal consultation process is inflexible and in too many cases will unnecessarily raise the temperature of the debate. The arrangement that I have proposed is a much more appropriate approach and gives the sponsor flexibility to tailor its communications to parents to best suit the circumstances of that particular school.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked why this does not apply to academies. Amendment 20 addresses the specific concerns raised by noble Lords about the requirement for failing schools to become academies and to share information about the process involved when a local authority maintained school changes its status to an academy. In cases where an academy is moved to a new sponsor, I am happy to reassure the noble Lord that we will consider in our revisions to the Schools Causing Concern guidance how to make it clear that regional schools commissioners will ensure that parents are kept informed.
The noble Lord also asked what would happen if the sponsor fails to communicate with parents. The duty is clear: the sponsor must communicate to parents information about its plans to improve the school before it is converted to academy status. If the sponsor were to fail to comply, we would not enter a funding agreement with that sponsor in respect of that school, and would look for an alternative sponsor. I am very happy to place that on record, and I hope that that reassures the noble Lord.
Amendment 17A proposes a requirement for staff to be kept informed of the changes in a school being required to become a sponsored academy, in addition to parents. While parental engagement is clearly critical, communication with others is already guaranteed through existing legal provisions. Clause 10 is explicit that the governing body and local authority should work with the named sponsor. The governing body will include the head and representation from parents, staff and the local authority, so those parties will also be kept informed via that route. The local authority will be further intimately involved in the detail of the transfer process of the school to academy status.
Amendment 17A proposes that staff at the school should be included in communications from sponsors, but the existing TUPE process means that employees will be notified about the transfer by their employer or the academy trust. Where the academy trust proposes any changes which affect the employees, there must be consultation about them. This means that there is already a legal obligation for staff to receive information about the incoming academy trust and be consulted on any proposed changes to their terms and conditions prior to any academy conversion taking place. This is comparable to what my amendment now proposes to introduce for parents. It is unnecessary for staff to be additionally included in the new requirement, and therefore Amendment 17A is unnecessary.
Before we leave this amendment, I asked in my opening remarks what would happen if local authorities or governors declined to co-operate. I am not necessarily talking about them being obstructive—just about them saying that they were not going to do anything. What would the Minister anticipate would be the response to that?
I think we have the power to bring forward directions to the local authority and, eventually, I guess that we could go to court. But I shall write to the noble Lord to clarify that point.
I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for his supportive words about our Amendment 20. As I said, the Church of England is very skilled in community cohesion, and I take great comfort from his support for our proposals for communicating with parents. I also take this opportunity to say more about my assurances about how we will ensure that the religious character of a faith school will be protected when any interventions are necessary. The Government are firmly committed to enabling schools with a religious character to protect and sustain their ethos. There are already provisions in the law that ensure that, when a school with a religious character requires intervention, the religious character will be protected. When a faith school becomes an academy, it retains its religious character by virtue of Section 6 of the Academies Act 2010. The academy’s religious character is protected through provisions within the academy’s funding agreement with the Secretary of State and the academy trust’s articles of association.
When a Church of England school joins a non-faith led trust, we intend to insert the following within the trust’s articles of association: a faith object, which requires the trust to ensure that the Church of England character of the church school is maintained; an entrenchment clause that requires written consent of the diocese for changes to articles relating to the maintenance of the church school’s religious character—for example, those relating to the local governing body of the church school and appointment of staff; a requirement that members and trustees are appointed to provide proportionate diocesan representation on the MAT; and a requirement on the MAT to establish an LGB and for the creation of a scheme of delegation relating to the religious character of the school, agreed between the MAT and the diocese. The supplemental funding agreement for the church school will include a clause requiring the establishment of a governing body with the purpose of honouring the characteristics and ethos of the school. The master funding agreement for the MAT will also include a clause to prevent the MAT amending articles relating to the church school’s governing body and the scheme of delegation. A provision within the church supplemental agreement will ensure that the MAT cannot make amendments to the articles as they relate to the governing body of the church school without diocesan consent. This will agree the best academy solutions for any failing church schools, and we are reviewing and updating the non-statutory memoranda that set out the roles of dioceses and RSCs as they relate to the academy programme, to reflect the changes in this Bill and the wider evolving policy landscape. We expect that regional schools commissioners will work closely with dioceses. We will ensure that the RSCs will comply fully with the terms of the memoranda, and we support diocesan directors of education in upholding those terms.
Finally, Amendment 27 proposes that the education provisions of the Bill will be repealed after being in force for five years. The Government are focused on driving up standards of education in this country and giving children the best possible future. The Bill is an essential part of that; it will ensure we have the necessary powers to swiftly tackle underperformance, but it will also ensure that underperformance can be tackled whenever it occurs. It addresses not only schools that are failing right now, but will also ensure that any schools that slip in future will get the support and challenge they need to improve. The Government’s ambition is for every school to become an academy. Until the point when all schools have become academies, it will be necessary to have powers that allow swift and robust intervention in maintained schools that are causing concern, therefore it is right that we have the powers and duties introduced by the Bill for the foreseeable future.
What is in question here is a fundamental undermining of this Government’s commitment to drive up standards of education. It is not in the spirit of this House’s role to make legislation with a built-in expiry date, and I do not consider it necessary in this case. If and when we reach a point where all schools have become academies, we will of course consider what legislation it is necessary for us to repeal at that time. We will, anyway, review and report on the impact that these provisions are having through the academies annual report, which the Academies Act 2010 requires us to produce—or, if in five years’ time this House does not consider the provisions in this Bill necessary, as this amendment specifically anticipates, for whatever reason, this House should have a full and thorough debate on that matter in five years’ time. I do not want to see noble Lords tie our hands on this matter now through this clearly inflammatory amendment. Amendment 27 is not only unnecessary but not in keeping with the long-standing principles of this House, and I urge the noble Lord not to press it.
Following this debate, I hope that the noble Lords will appreciate that we have listened to concerns here and will support our government amendment and the right balance it achieves between decisive and clear action, while ensuring that parents are informed. I therefore hope that the noble Lords will support my amendment ensuring communication to parents and would urge the noble Lords not to press their other amendments.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that comprehensive response. I would like to say a word or two about some of the other contributions. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, was here when I made my closing speech on the second group of amendments, but I think that I answered most of the points that she raised then. I shall briefly repeat them. The fundamental point is that doing nothing was not an option; it never has been and it has not been suggested. I outlined other possibilities at that time, and that remains our position. Secondly, we have not advocated a ballot, so it is not about having a vote on the matter. Thirdly, the emphasis, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, will be on convincing the parents that what is being proposed is in the best interests of the children. To me, that is always the best way forward, if possible. Finally, Amendment 23 says that the Secretary of State will have the final say by being obliged to “take into account” what has happened. I hope that that answers her points—it is not all or nothing.
I think that I heard the noble Lord, Lord True, correctly when he said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that in this democracy the people decide. That is exactly what we are calling for—but it seems that that does not happen with academisation.
The noble Lord, Lord Nash, said that parents have the right to know of and be involved in the plans. Involvement is a rather elastic concept, and what it means to one set of parents may not be what it means to another. I certainly appreciate the value of Amendment 20, as I said in my opening remarks, and parents will be pleased that they will at least, I imagine, be summoned to a meeting in the school hall, given a presentation and able to ask all sorts of questions, but there is no way for any rethink on the sponsor. That is the fundamental issue from my point of view. There may well be a number of reasons why the sponsor is deemed to be unfit as a result of what they say to the parents, but there is no way of dealing with that. That is a problem.
The Minister said that having consultation could raise the temperature of the debate. A change of school is likely to raise the temperature of the debate anyway, and simply telling parents the facts without asking what they think may well exacerbate their concerns. I remain unconvinced that parents are incapable of discussing in a responsible manner the sponsor’s plans for the school that their children attend. I remain convinced that the overwhelming majority of parents will welcome action to improve the school that their children attend. I am well aware that parents may object for other reasons, but the Government are underestimating parents’ ability to have an interest in and a knowledge of the education of their children and to want to do their best to maximise its benefits for their children. I find that a bit depressing because it seems that I have rather more faith in human nature than either of the Ministers.
Amendments 21, 22 and 23 are a step down from our proposals in Amendment 16A as the decision on academisation would have been made by this stage, but the Minister is still not prepared to countenance any proper involvement of parents or their having a meaningful voice, which is a cause for regret. However, we have been through the issues in some detail. I hear what he says on the sunset clause and what may happen. It is not clear what the future holds, and we put this amendment down to highlight that fact. In the circumstances, we have discussed these issues as much as we usefully can. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 17A withdrawn.
Amendment 18 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
19: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Land owned by communities and faith groups
Where an Academy order under section 4(A1) or (1)(b) of the Academies Act 2010 has effect in respect of a school, the Secretary of State, when making the Academy order, must ensure that ownership of the land used by the school does not pass to the Academy, but is retained by the landowner where the land is—(a) owned by a community group, or(b) owned by a faith group.”
My Lords, this amendment, to which my noble friend Lord Storey has also put his name, relates to the future of land passed into the academy trust during the process. I thank the Minister for the clarity of his response to my Question in the Chamber earlier this week about the future of church school land if that school becomes an academy. I understand that Church of England bishops have secured a memorandum of understanding that safeguards the future ownership of church land, and I am pleased that that concern has been resolved.
However, other land ownership issues remain unresolved or at least not resolved satisfactorily. For example, I am a governor of a voluntary controlled high school which is not faith-based. It is one of a handful in the whole country. The land on which Whitcliffe Mount School in Cleckheaton, of which I am extraordinarily proud, was built was donated by local businesses 100 years ago and the school building was built by public subscription and the urban district council. What safeguards are there for this trust land if the school becomes an academy? After all, it was in every sense of the word donated by the public, the local community.
There is the wider question of safeguards for the future of land that is currently in the ownership of local authorities. When maintained schools become academies, the land is typically the subject of a 125-year lease. However, the latest clarification of the guidance, which is in the Department for Education’s Disposal or Change of Use of Playing Field and School Land, which was issued in May this year, explains:
“Prior written consent of the Secretary of State for Education is required to dispose of land (which includes any transfer/sale of freehold or leasehold land and the grant/surrender of a lease). Applications and notifications must be made to the Education Funding Agency”.
Noble Lords will have noticed that the future of the land is subject to discussion not with the leaseholder but with the Secretary of State. That land—previously local authority land, which has passed to the academy trust—may well have been bought many years earlier by a local authority, with or without a grant from the Government. It therefore seems only right that the leaseholder is the main consultee if such land is ever the subject of disposal. Local people will be concerned if they think that school land they had helped years ago to purchase could be disposed of without local consultation. I trust that the Minister will be able to give me clarity about this important matter.
My Lords, Amendment 19, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, concerns the ownership of school land when a maintained school eligible for intervention is required to become an academy. The Secretary of State has no power over privately funded land. That includes the majority of land held by the charitable trusts of church schools, and the majority of land held by the charitable trusts of the small number of non-church voluntary-aided schools. The provisions in the Bill do not change that basic position. As such, the ownership of land by these trusts continues to be protected. If the school to which the noble Baroness refers is a charitable trust, the Secretary of State has no power to acquire it.
Charitable trusts will be able to continue to hold their land and make it available to academies, as they do now. Where land is held by community groups and is in use by schools through local arrangements—for example, where the school uses the local rugby club pitch—there is no reason why any of the Bill’s provisions should change those arrangements. Again, land owned by community groups will be private land, and it will continue to be for the individual group to make its land available to the school. Likewise, where community groups are making use of school facilities—for example, the school renting out use of its playing field—the school can continue to allow it to do so.
Where public land is made available to an academy trust—for instance, by a local authority—the LA would usually lease the land to an academy trust on, as the noble Baroness says, a 125-year lease. The model funding agreement makes it clear that the academy trust cannot dispose of this land without the Secretary of State’s consent. In the rare cases where an academy trust’s funding agreement is terminated, the land will either return to the local authority or alternatively be reassigned, but only for educational purposes. Where the land is designated playing-field land, there are additional legal requirements in place to protect this designation.
We are very clear that we are short of land for schools in this country, so we have a very clear procedure that we do not allow schools to dispose of land unless there are exceptional reasons. As I say, there is particular protection in relation to playing fields. I hope that I have provided noble Lords with clarity and assurance on the matter of land ownership, and I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that clarification, particularly relating to the school where I am a governor. However, I did not quite hear him say that if local authority land is put into an academy trust, that local authority will become a consultee in any future disposal or change of use by allowing another educational use. It would be helpful for us to understand that.
The 125-year lease will be between the local authority and the academy trust. That lease will make it absolutely clear, as would any lease, that the land cannot be disposed of without the consent of the landlord. It is not owned by the trust but is merely a lease, so the local authority in this situation ensures that it has an absolute right of control to stop any disposal. I can discuss this further with the noble Baroness, but these lease agreements are pretty clear on that.
Amendment 19 withdrawn.
20: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to communicate information about plans to improve school
After section 5D of the Academies Act 2010 (inserted by section 12 above) insert—“5E Duty to communicate information about plans to improve school
(1) Before a maintained school in England which is causing concern is converted into an Academy, the proposed proprietor of the Academy must communicate to the registered parents of registered pupils at the school information about the proposed proprietor’s plans to improve the school.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)—
(a) the “proposed proprietor of the Academy” is the person with whom the Secretary of State proposes to enter or has entered into Academy arrangements in respect of the school;(b) a school is “causing concern” if it is eligible for intervention within the meaning of Part 4 of EIA 2006.””
Amendments 21 to 23 (to Amendment 20) not moved.
Amendment 20 agreed.
24: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Academies causing concern
After section 2 of the Academies Act 2010 insert—“2A Academy agreements: provision about failing schools
(1) An Academy agreement in respect of an Academy school or an alternative provision academy must include provision allowing the Secretary of State to terminate the agreement if—
(a) special measures are required to be taken in relation to the Academy, or the Academy requires significant improvement.(2) The Academy agreement must require the Secretary of State, before terminating the agreement on one of those grounds, to give the proprietor an opportunity to make representations.
(3) For the purposes of this section special measures are required to be taken in relation to an Academy, or an Academy requires significant improvement, if the Chief Inspector has given notice under section 13(3)(a) of the Education Act 2005.
2B Academy agreements: provision about coasting schools
(1) An Academy agreement in respect of an Academy school or an alternative provision academy must include provision allowing the Secretary of State to terminate the agreement if—
(a) the Academy is coasting, and(b) the Secretary of State has notified the proprietor that it is coasting.(2) The Academy agreement must require the Secretary of State, before terminating the agreement on that ground, to give the proprietor a termination warning notice.
(3) A termination warning notice is a notice requiring the proprietor—
(a) to take specified action to improve the Academy by a specified date, and(b) to respond to the Secretary of State by making representations, or by agreeing to take that action, by a specified date. (4) The Academy agreement must provide that the power to terminate the agreement on the ground that the Academy is coasting is available only if the proprietor has failed to comply with a termination warning notice (whether by failing to take specified action, or to respond, on time).
(5) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that this section does not apply in relation to an Academy of a description specified in the regulations.
(6) “Coasting”, in relation to an Academy to which this section applies, has the meaning given by regulations under subsection (2) of section 60B of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 in relation to a school to which that section applies.
2C Sections 2A and 2B supplementary - new agreements
(1) An Academy agreement may include further provision about—
(a) the procedure for terminating the agreement in accordance with the provision required by section 2A or 2B;(b) the consequences of terminating the agreement in accordance with that provision.(2) This section does not apply to agreements made before the day on which section 1A of the Education and Adoption Act 2015 comes into force (but see section 2D).
2D Sections 2A and 2B: supplementary - old agreements
(1) An old Academy agreement is to be treated as if it included the new termination powers.
(2) A provision of an old Academy agreement that relates to the procedure for terminating the agreement does not apply to the new termination powers.
(3) Subsections (4) and (5) apply where an old Academy agreement—
(a) contains provision about the consequences of terminating the agreement (“relevant provision”), and(b) the relevant provision is expressed in a way that is capable of covering termination in accordance with the new termination powers.(4) The relevant provision applies to termination in accordance with the new termination powers.
(5) If the relevant provision sets out different consequences depending on whether the agreement is terminated on the ground that the proprietor has breached the Agreement or on other grounds, termination in accordance with the new termination powers is to be treated as termination on the grounds of breach by the proprietor.
(6) In this section—
“new termination powers”, in relation to an Academy agreement, means the powers to terminate in accordance with the provision required by sections 2A and 2B;“old Academy agreement” means an Academy agreement made before the day on which section 1A of the Education and Adoption Act 2015 comes into force.””
Amendment 24 agreed.
Amendment 25 not moved.
26: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Regional Schools Commissioners
(1) The Secretary of State must publish a document which sets out the responsibilities and powers of the Regional Schools Commissioners which are connected with the provisions of the Education and Adoption Act 2015.
(2) The document under subsection (1) shall identify the Acts of Parliament and regulations from which each responsibility and power of the Regional Schools Commissioners is drawn.
(3) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the document under subsection (1) is made widely available to the public.”
My Lords, it appears that my name is the lead one on both the first and the last group of amendments today.
We have heard a great deal about regional schools commissioners, about whom I knew virtually nothing at the start of the progress of the Bill. They are vitally important not only to the Bill but to the line of progress which the Government have taken on with regard to the creation of academies. They are the people who will enforce, check and regulate, so they have a huge role.
It is incredibly difficult to find anything about them unless you know how to chase it down in legislation. I know that it can be done, and was fortunate enough to have with me somebody who is quite good at it. A large number of bits of regulation that come back refer to each other and then go through. It really is not good enough that we do not have a better description somewhere of what they do, what their responsibilities are and how they will oversee this new structure which the Government clearly want to see in place. There is now an equally great complication because their function involves having to deal with local authorities. This is something of a cat’s cradle of responsibility and authority. This amendment is merely a chance to get us to a place where we can have at least the nub of their powers and responsibilities in one place, so that somebody can check and refer to it.
There is a website, which I have looked at. It consists of one page, and under “About us” there are seven lines—and not even complete lines—on what the regional schools commissioners do. It just is not good enough. This may be a temporary state of affairs and there may be more coming, but at the moment this very important bit of a new structure within education is very inaccessible. The Government must be transparent. Half of the problems they have had with this are because people do not know where to get the information.
I have never pretended that anyone in any particular party grows horns and starts to chew on babies the minute they get in power and want to change something. I am sure that the Government have good intentions. I may disagree with them, but I am quite sure that they have good intentions. I ask them to please let us know what they are trying to do, in an easy format. This amendment is merely a way to say, “Bring it together in one place”. Third Reading is still ahead of us; I am sure that there is some way to get at least some guide to what should happen. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 26, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, concerning the responsibilities and powers of regional schools commissioners. The noble Lord has proposed that the Secretary of State should be required to publish a public document that would describe RSCs’ responsibilities and powers arising from the provisions of the Bill.
As we have previously discussed on various groups of amendments, we have already published a revised draft of the Schools Causing Concern guidance for public consultation, which describes, for the first time, how RSCs will use the intervention powers of the Secretary of State and what their responsibilities are for addressing underperformance in maintained schools, subject to the passage of the Bill.
RSCs already operate in an open and transparent way; my noble friend Lord Nash spoke about this when he answered questions from the Education Select Committee earlier this month on the role of regional schools commissioners. Alongside the Schools Causing Concern guidance, a large amount of information on the work of the RSCs is publicly available on the GOV.UK website. We publish notes of head teacher board meetings, conflicts of interest registers for board members and RSCs, information on the roles and responsibilities of the RSCs, and criteria for all types of decisions made by RSCs.
The key performance indicators used to monitor RSCs’ performance have also recently been published through our written evidence to the Education Select Committee. From this month we are also publishing fuller notes of head teacher board meetings. Now that RSCs have been operating for 15 months, and in the light of the additional responsibilities that the Bill will introduce, we have carried out a review of the key performance indicators for RSCs to ensure that they remain effective and continue to incentivise the right behaviour. As a result, we have decided to remove the indicator on the percentage of the schools in each region that are academies. This is because we recognise that it is important that RSCs use their judgment to determine the best route for improving a school and it is important that their decision-making is not unintentionally affected by other factors.
In the light of the fact that the Schools Causing Concern guidance already describes the responsibilities and powers of regional schools commissioners that would result from provisions in the Bill, and as that document has already been made widely available to the public and is currently the subject of consultation, we do not consider the noble Lord’s amendment necessary. Given the further information and reassurances that we have been able to provide, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, that was a very strange answer. It was saying that there is a great deal of information and a great deal going on, and that it does not need to be brought together for this very important group. This is not about the information that is published. There is lots of information but the problem is that it cannot easily be found. That is what this amendment is about. To be perfectly honest, if you cannot find the information, you might as well not have it. I found it but it should not be necessary for people to have to chase it. The amendment is about bringing it together in one place where it can be easily accessed.
As I said, the Schools Causing Concern guidance, which is out for consultation, has more information in it, but we are very happy to look at how we can bring it together in one place. As I said, there is information out there but we are very happy to take away the noble Lord’s comments and to have a look at how we can improve the signposting and bring the information together.
Well, it looks as though we have something to do at Third Reading. I would be prepared to meet anybody to try to get this information together. However, this is not about the amount of information, which can be found; it is about transparency and the information being easily available. A new structure is being introduced here and we need to know what it is. The old structure was not easy to understand either. I am suggesting that, in doing something new, we try to do it better. Perhaps I might have an undertaking that we will have the opportunity to discuss this at Third Reading. A nod will be sufficient; I see that I have it. I think I am right in understanding that we will try to address this issue in some way. Given that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 26 withdrawn.
Amendment 27 not moved.