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Education: Academies

Volume 771: debated on Monday 9 May 2016


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

“In our White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, I set out this Government’s vision to continue the rise in educational standards in England over the rest of the Parliament. We are committed to building on the reforms of the past six years, which have led to 1.4 million more children being taught in good and outstanding schools. But we are not content to stop there: 1.4 million children is a start, but it is not enough. We have to ensure that we deliver a great education to every single child; it is what we owe to the next generation—to give them the tools to realise every ounce of their potential. The White Paper was called Educational Excellence Everywhere for a reason: as I have said before, for me the ‘everywhere’ is non-negotiable. In the White Paper, for example, we set out our plans for achieving excellence areas, where we will focus specific resources to tackle entrenched educational underperformance.

The White Paper sets out how we want to see the teaching profession take responsibility for teacher accreditation, tackle unfair funding, build leadership capacity and set high expectations for every child with a world-leading, knowledge-based curriculum in a truly school-led, self-improving system, learning from the best from across the world and preparing the next generation to compete on the global stage.

The vision of a fully academised system has attracted most attention. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have spoken to many honourable Members on both sides of the House, as well as to school leaders, governors, local government representatives and parents. What is clear from these conversations is that the strength and importance of academies is widely accepted. There is a clear recognition of the case for putting greater responsibility for the school system in the hands of school leaders.

Let me be clear. We firmly believe that schools becoming more autonomous and more directly accountable for their results raises standards. Academies are the vehicle to allow schools and leaders to innovate with the curriculum, have the flexibility to set the pay and conditions for their staff, and bring about great collaboration with other schools. We still want every school to become an academy by 2022.

We always intended this to be a six-year process, in which good schools should be able to take their own decisions about their future as academies. However, we understand the concerns that have been raised about a hard deadline and legislating for blanket powers to issue academy orders. That is why I announced on Friday that we have decided it is not necessary to take blanket powers to convert good schools in strong local authorities to academies at this time.

In March, a record 227 schools chose to apply for academy status, showing clearly where the momentum lies as school leaders, parents, governors and teachers across the country embrace the benefits that being an academy brings. Since then, we have also issued more than 104 academy orders to underperforming schools, meaning that the young people in those schools will soon benefit from the strong leadership provided by expert academy sponsors.

That is why those who took to the airwaves this weekend to crow about a victory in their battle against raising standards will find themselves sorely disappointed. There will be no retreat from our mission to give every child the best start in life and to build an education system led by school leaders and teachers on the front line, running their own schools as academies.

The Education and Adoption Act 2016 already enables us to rapidly convert failing schools and schools which are coasting where they can benefit from the support of a strong sponsor. As a result, when schools underperform, it is now easier to respond swiftly and effectively. Schools will not be allowed to languish unchallenged for years.

As we set out in the White Paper, and as I have subsequently argued, the most pressing need for further powers is to boost standards for those schools languishing in the worst performing local authorities and to provide for schools in local authorities likely to become unviable. So, instead of taking a blanket power to convert all schools, we will seek powers in two specific circumstances where it is clear that the case for conversion to academy status is pressing.

In our worst-performing local authorities, we need to take more decisive action so that a new system led by outstanding schools can take their place. Similarly, because of the pace of academisation in some areas, it will become increasingly difficult for local authorities to have the ability to offer schools the necessary support, and there will be a need to ensure that these schools are not dependent on an unviable local authority. We will therefore seek provisions to convert schools in the lowest-performing and unviable local authorities to academy status. This may involve in some circumstances conversion of good and outstanding schools when they have not chosen to do so themselves. But the need for action in those limited circumstances is clear because of the considerable risk to the standard of education that young people in those schools receive, as the local authority is either unable to guarantee their continued success or support further improvement.

We will consult on these arrangements, including the thresholds for performance and unviability. I am making a clear commitment that the definition of and thresholds for underperformance and viability will be the subject of an affirmative resolution in this House.

I would also like to reassure honourable Members on concerns raised about how we protect small schools, particularly those in rural areas. I have already made it clear that no small rural school will close as a result of the move to have more schools becoming academies. There is already a statutory presumption against closure of rural schools, but we will now go further. Where small rural schools are converting to academy status, we will introduce a dual lock to ensure their protection: both local and national government will have to agree to a school closing before a decision can be made. There will also be dedicated support to help rural primary schools through the process of conversion and a £10 million fund to secure expert support and advice.

While we want every school to become an academy, we will not compel successful schools to join multi-academy trusts. In order to share expertise and resources, we expect most schools will form local clusters of multi-academy trusts. But if the leadership of a successful school does not wish to enter a formal relationship with other schools, we trust them to make that decision and will not force them to do so. Small schools will be able to convert to stand-alone academies as long as they are financially sustainable.

I began this Statement by saying our goal has not changed. This Government will continue to prioritise the interests of young people in getting the best start in life by having an excellent education over the vested interests that seek to oppose the lifting of standards and the rooting out of educational underperformance—those very same vested interests that allowed schools to languish for years unchallenged and unchanged until the launch of the sponsored academies programme by the last Labour Government.

Our work to improve our education system will continue apace. We will continue to empower school leaders and raise standards. We will continue to hold high expectations for every child. We will establish a fair national funding formula for schools so that young people everywhere get the funding they deserve. We will continue to work towards a system where all schools are run and led by the people who know them best in the way that works for their pupils, as academies. These reforms will transform the education system in our country and ensure we give every child an excellent education so that they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. In it there was mention of people crowing at the Government’s climbdown. I am not going to adopt that approach, although I have to say that I can understand why many would. U-turns are becoming a regular feature of this Government’s attempts to initiate or see through legislation, and the number of times that we have witnessed the brakes being applied soon after bold statements of intent suggests that a little more than bad luck is at play here. Bad judgment is more likely, I think, and that is certainly the case with forced academisation. Before I leave the issue of crowing, I find it rather depressing to hear the Statement say that people are crowing about a victory in their “battle against raising standards”. Is that really what Ministers believe? Nobody is against raising standards. The Minister and the Secretary of State should realise that they and the whiz-kids at the No. 10 Policy Unit do not always know better than those who, day in and day out, are at the sharp end of things, delivering education for our children. Of course there are examples of where schools are underperforming, and they must be helped to improve, but that does not justify the conclusion that academisation is the only answer.

The opposition to the White Paper proposals encompassed a broad alliance, including head teachers—I hardly need to remind the Ministers here this evening that head teachers made their collective voice very clear to the Secretary of State when she spoke to their conference—and also parents, governors, teachers, local government leaders from all parties and Members of Parliament, more than a few from their own party. Although the Secretary of State has conceded on the ideologically driven idea of forcing good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes, she still apparently holds the ambition that all schools will become academies, though still without advancing a single convincing reason as to why this aim is sensible in the first place.

The Statement today is certainly welcome, but it none the less leaves questions, one of which is whether high-performing schools will be forced to become academies. At one point, the Statement says:

“We will therefore seek provisions to convert schools in the lowest-performing and unviable local authorities to academy status. This may involve in some circumstances conversion of good and outstanding schools when they have not chosen to do so themselves”.

Yet later it says:

“While we want every school to become an academy, we will not compel successful schools to join multi-academy trusts”.

I say to the Minister: which is it? The Government clearly cannot have it both ways.

There is also the issue of autonomy. Do the Government really believe that that is the outcome when a school becomes part of a multi-academy trust? They claim that academisation devolves power to the front line, but that is a myth. Schools and academy chains actually lose most of their autonomy because the chain controls their premises, their budget, their staffing and their curriculum. The ultimate irony is that chains have far more power over schools than local authorities currently do.

Last week, I asked the Minister in your Lordships’ House whether there was any evidence that academies automatically performed better than local authority maintained schools, particularly those that are already categorised as high performing. The Minister avoided answering the question, perhaps for the good reason that the honest answer was no. What he did do was to pray in aid what he thought was a supportive comment from the Sutton Trust. But what he did not tell the House was that the research by the Sutton Trust found that there is a very mixed picture in the performance of academy chains and no evidence at all that academisation in and of itself leads to school improvement.

The White Paper promotes academy chains as the preferred model, yet many chains are performing badly and significantly worse than many local authorities—a point recognised by the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. There have been too many examples of financial mismanagement verging on corruption in academy chains and—perhaps it is a debate for another day—the Education Funding Agency is widely recognised as not being up to the job of supervising even the number of academies that we now have. So I again ask the Minister what evidence the Government have that only academisation leads to school improvement. Where is the choice and autonomy that the Government are so fond of emphasising despite advancing a one-size-fits-all approach? Is there sufficient capacity and accountability in the academy system to ensure that it is best practice, not poor practice, which is being spread?

These questions remain as the Government seek further powers to speed up the pace of academisation. Your Lordships might like to ask why this has been deemed necessary so soon after the Education and Adoption Act was in your Lordships’ House. We spent many days and hours going through the fine detail of that Bill; but were the White Paper proposals to be adopted, it would mean that we had effectively wasted our time on it. If the Government were so convinced that only forced academisation would do, why did they not amend the then Education and Adoption Bill appropriately? That would have been the honest approach instead of leading noble Lords and MPs down what is effectively a false path, knowing that the Bill was merely a stop-gap measure.

It is surely self-evident that we all want to see educational excellence everywhere, but at a time when schools are facing huge challenges from falling budgets and teacher shortages, top-down reorganisation of the school system will remove even more money, time and effort from where the focus should be. It is high time the Government recognised that further structural changes are at best a distraction and, at worst, could damage standards. Will the Minister now accept that, when it comes to change in education, the Government need to carry the professionals with them if such change is to be successfully delivered?

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is actually good to listen; it is good to hear what other people have to say rather than immediately jump to conclusions, and I welcome the fact that the Government have listened to people who have considerable experience in these matters and adjusted the likely content of the forthcoming Bill.

The Minister said in the Statement that the Government wanted to,

“deliver a great education to every single child”.

But don’t we all? I suppose that the difference is that some of us do not believe that the blind concentration on structures and types of school is really the answer. We think that, more importantly, it is about the quality of leadership of those schools. It is about the teachers—who are highly trained, highly respected and given proper continuing professional development. It is about a broad national curriculum which every pupil takes, and includes, as some of the Minister’s colleagues believe, PSHE and good careers advice. It is about parents being involved in the education of their child, not divorced from it; and it is about a curriculum which celebrates technical, vocational and creative education.

There is no evidence that turning a school into an academy will improve standards. In fact, academies tend to perform less well in Ofsted inspections than local authority schools do. I hope that we will see, once and for all, the end of the ideological obsession with pushing aside the role of local authorities in community schools. They need to be cherished, nurtured and given the resources to do the job.

I am very pleased with what the Minister said in the Statement about rural schools, which have been neglected for far too long and need special attention. But putting them into multi-academy trusts is not always the best solution. If they have to go into a multi-academy trust, the trust has to have a relationship with the community that the school is in, because the community is hugely important to the rural school.

I have two questions for the Minister. So far, he has resisted publishing tables to compare trusts’ overall performance. Will he now agree that that should happen? Secondly, he has refused to let Ofsted conduct full inspections of academy chains. Will he now agree that this should happen as well?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for his comments about supporting the raising of standards in schools. I have no doubt that he supports that aim.

Many people wanted to see more detail on our direction of travel for academies, so we provided it in the White Paper. However, as I have said, it is clear that the blanket power outlined in the White Paper created anxiety in the system. So we have listened—I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about that—to the concern of head teachers and teachers and removed those powers so that people can now take time to understand the benefits of becoming an academy or joining a multi-academy trust. I am confident that once people have had the opportunity to understand that, many more will come forward to convert, as schools are in record numbers at the moment. I hope that noble Lords across the House who have not had the opportunity of spending time with leaders of academies or multi-academy trusts or with the regional school commissions will take the time to do that over the next few months. I am happy to arrange visits or meetings. We will continue to listen and to have dialogue with the sector, parents, teachers, governors, unions and local authorities over the next few months.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to evidence, an issue we have discussed a great deal in this House. I said in answer to his question that schools that have chosen to convert to academies—that is, those that are high performing already—are obtaining better results. Despite their already high performance, they are improving their results and are more likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Secondary converters are performing 7 percentage points above the national average and results in primary-sponsored academies open for two years have improved on average by 10% since opening, more than double the rate of local authority maintained schools over the same period.

In answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in certain limited circumstances, high-performing schools may be obliged to become academies—that is, where they are in local authorities that are either performing poorly or are unviable. As I have said, we will be setting out more on that and consulting on what the viability test will be.

We make no apologies for the benefits of schools working in multi-academy trusts. There are particular benefits in relation to leadership development and CPD for teachers. People who work in multi-academy trusts talk often about the retention of staff benefits. They say that when they were running one school they tended to lose their rising stars because they could not offer them career development opportunities. They can now have rising stars programmes in place and retain their best staff. There are benefits such as the sharing of good practice and economies of scale, and many others. I invite noble Lords, when they meet with people from multi-academy trusts, to discuss this with them.

On accountability, as I have said before, academies are held to a higher standard of accountability than local authority maintained schools. They are obliged to publish annual third party-audited accounts, which local authority maintained schools are not; no one in a governance relationship with an academy can profit from that relationship, which can happen in a local authority maintained school; and they are also held to the standards of the Charity Commission and the Companies Act.

As to leadership, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, made a good point about the capacity and leadership. We have £600 million available to develop this programme. We have invested in a leadership programme with future leaders and executive educators, and we are in discussions with a number of business schools about their developing leadership courses for people who work in academies and multi-academy trusts. I hope to say more about that in due course.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his comments about rural schools. I agree entirely about the importance of their being intimately engaged with their local communities. In answer to his last two questions, we will be publishing MAT performance tables based on this summer’s results. We have had extensive conversations with Ofsted, and agreed an arrangement whereby Ofsted will carry out batch inspections of schools in multi-academy trusts and look at the school improvement services provided by the head office. However, we do not think it appropriate for Ofsted inspectors to inspect the finances, governance and management arrangements of these organisations. We have discussed with Ofsted the idea that in certain circumstances, there may be joint inspections: Ofsted inspecting school improvement and the performance of the schools, and the EFA—possibly working with consultants—inspecting the head office, management, governance and financial arrangements of the trusts. We have also had discussions with Ofsted because we know that it has inspected weak performing multi-academy trusts. We hope that it will soon be inspecting some strong performing multi-academy trusts so that we can see what a really good chain looks like.

My Lords, I welcome much that is in the Statement repeated by the Minister. As a good Cross-Bencher I have no interest in being drawn into any frisson or hint of triumphalism perhaps coming from the other Benches, nor even a collective sigh of relief from the Benches behind the Minister, because that is there as well; both apply.

There are many things in the Statement which I am sure that I and others agree with. We want to ensure that we deliver a great education for every child—who would not? Of course we do. We want to focus resources on tackling entrenched underperformance, and of course the Minister has made it plain that he knows that resources are not simply cash. They are to do with leadership and talent working in the schools in question. The strength and importance of academies is widely accepted. I absolutely agree with that, on the basis of being well acquainted with quite a number of academies and academy chains.

However, I want to register two questions which are premised on the most important point made in the Statement. While we want every school to become an academy, we will not compel successful schools to join multi-academy trusts. That is the point on which many supporters of academies were hung up. It is the most important statement that we have before us. It is also important to emphasise that, yes, we can persuade, but no, we cannot compel. In that context, I would like to be reassured that the aspiration for converting every school into an academy within six years is not a sotto voce way of bringing into play a form of compulsion that will be part of the next series of policy decisions. A reassurance on that is rather important.

Finally, the Minister indicated that the definition and thresholds of underperformance and viability will be the subject of affirmative resolution. Presumably that applies to the Commons, but will it apply to this House? Will we also have an opportunity to debate those issues?

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for his comments. Given his vast experience in this area, he always makes helpful observations. He is absolutely right in what he says. There is no doubt that our comments about compulsion had caused anxiety in the system. In order, if you like, to take the heat out of it, we have decided to remove that because we think it is right that people should work out for themselves the benefits of academisation, whether on their own or in multi-academy trusts. In answer to his last point, yes, those issues will be subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses.

My Lords, as the Minister responsible for converting the first local authority education schools to independent city technology colleges, at the time I believed that if we could show that they were successful, others would follow; it would be a natural flow of events. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. Progress can be achieved by the natural flow of events rather than prescription, so I am glad that the Government have accepted that approach. I should also say to the Minister that I agree very much with the point made by the noble Lord on the Cross Benches that all good schools should not necessarily join multi-academy trusts. On the other hand, multi-academy trusts are essential between the institutions and the Government, which cannot possibly be responsible for 30,000 schools and the independent schools in our country. I am also glad to see that there are to be tough inspections by Ofsted. There are some very good multi-academy trusts, the best of which is that run by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Peckham, who has been working at it for 30 years. But there are also some poor multi-academy trusts, and a poor multi-academy trust is no better than a poor local education authority.

I entirely support my noble friend’s comments about success proving itself. Of course, he is vastly experienced in this area and, indeed, if it were not for his invention of city technology colleges all those years ago, we would not be here today. Of course, there are poorly performing academy groups and we are intent on intervening whenever we can to improve them. As my noble friend said—and I entirely support his comments about our noble friend Lord Harris—we now have enough outstanding academy groups, such as Harris, Ark, Outwood Grange and many others. We know that when a multi-academy trust is functioning well, it provides a standard of education to which all multi-academy trusts, we hope in time, can aspire.

I return to the position of rural schools, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Do they not face considerable pressures at the moment and require additional support in dealing with them? Secondly, does my noble friend agree that a responsible Government must have the power to intervene where local authorities are clearly failing?

I agree entirely with my noble friend that rural schools face certain pressures. We are absolutely determined that no school—particularly rural schools—will be left behind. Our national funding formula will, for the first time, provide many rural schools with more support than it has in the past. We are proposing both a lump sum and a sparsity factor for rural schools. As I said, we will have a fund of £10 million to help them explore the academisation. We will have people working with them and will do all we can to help them. We believe that rural schools working together may be able to afford, for instance, a language teacher, which on their own they would be unable to do. On my noble friend’s second point, we accept that where we have underperformance—wherever it is, whether in the local authority or elsewhere—we must have powers to intervene.

My Lords, the Minister made it fairly clear that although the element of compulsion has been removed at least from the rhetoric for the time being, it is still the determination of this Government to encourage, by whatever means, all schools to become academies. Building on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, when he said that a poorly performing multi-academy trust is no better than a poorly performing local authority, can the Minister say why the Government are so bent on creating this new monoculture? A well-performing academy trust is obviously a very fine thing and we all like to see schools succeed, but some local authorities are also succeeding and are creating and supporting schools that are doing well. Should we not celebrate that success as well as the success of academies?

I shall follow on from the question asked by my noble friend on the Front Bench. The issue of autonomy for schools—much vaunted in the progress of this Government’s determination to encourage academies—is surely diluted in multi-academy trusts where there is, of course, one leadership team. The degree of autonomy that then resides with the individual school must by definition be reduced. Is that really what the Minister has in mind?

As I have said, I accept that there are multi-academy trusts that are not performing, but we have ambitions to bring them up to the standards of those that clearly demonstrate that this model works. As far as a monoculture is concerned, we would say that we have much more diversity in the academy trust structure than under a local authority structure, whereby a school is stuck in one local authority because of a geographical accident. An academy can choose to convert, maybe on its own or as part of a small local cluster, or as part of a larger group. Of course, there are high-performing local authorities, and we encourage them to spin out and form multi-academy trusts, which some are discussing at the moment, or to subcontract out their school improvement activities.

As far as autonomy of individual schools is concerned, we have said a lot about how we would expect schools in multi-academy trusts to work together in local clusters. We think that is absolutely essential to their being intimately involved with their community. Ultimately, we are concerned with standards and pupils ahead of everything else.

I thank my noble friend for his Statement. I was one of those breathing the collective sigh of relief referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland. I am delighted that the Government have withdrawn the word “compulsion”, but, since he has made his understanding of rural schools clear, I ask my noble friend to remember that in many rural schools—I had some 40 in my former constituency—parent governors play a particularly important part. Just as he will encourage schools to become academies, will he encourage all schools to maintain parent governors?

I entirely agree that parent governors play a very important part in all schools, particularly in rural schools, where, as we have discussed, they are so intimately connected with their local community. That is why we want parents to be more involved in their schools than they are at the moment. We want them to be intimately involved in all aspects of their child’s education, be that attendance at parents’ evenings or whatever. For the first time, we will create a new expectation that every academy will put in place arrangements for meaningful engagement with all parents to give all parents a voice. We will put in place a parent portal, setting out the key things that parents need to know about their schools. We will introduce more regular surveys of parental satisfaction and we will provide guidance on handling complaints.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for the Statement. I will ask two quick questions. First, what is the Government’s view of the establishment of multi-academy trusts by local authorities? Clearly they will require them to be at arm’s length, but is this something that the Government would encourage to reach that 2022 objective? Secondly, will my noble friend give your Lordships’ House an indication of the pace at which those schools that are some distance below the target in the funding formula will be able to attain it over time?

To answer my noble friend, as I said, we certainly encourage individuals in local authorities to spin out and set up trusts. Local authorities are allowed to have just under 20%. We will encourage people in local authorities to get involved in MATs in any way that works for them. As far as the national funding formula is concerned, the first changes will take place in 2017-18. We are keen to phase this in over a period of time. The second phase of the consultation will deal in much more detail with the granularity of the figures and the timing.

House adjourned at 7.28 pm.