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Coasting Schools (England) Regulations 2016

Volume 777: debated on Monday 12 December 2016

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Coasting Schools (England) Regulations 2016.

Relevant document: 12th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, earlier this year Parliament debated and approved what is now the Education and Adoption Act. This gave the Secretary of State the power to identify, support and take action in coasting schools for the first time. It also required the Secretary of State to set out in regulations what “coasting” means in relation to a school. These draft regulations, which were laid before both Houses on 20 October, fulfil this requirement.

The Government are dedicated to making Britain a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few, and that means providing a good school place for every child—a place that offers them the opportunity to fulfil their potential and be taken as far as their talents will let them go. Over the past six years, thanks to our reforms and the hard work of school leaders and teachers, nearly 1.8 million more children are in schools rated good or outstanding than in 2010, but a good school place is still out of reach for too many children, so there is more to do.

Last month we announced a new £140 million strategic school improvement fund for academies and maintained schools, aimed at ensuring that resources are targeted at the schools most in need of support to drive up standards and deliver more good school places. Our coasting schools policy will help us to target some of this investment. It will identify those schools, whether maintained schools or academies, that are not doing enough to help pupils fulfil their potential. Where these schools need extra support, the strategic school improvement fund will ensure that this can be put in place, so that the school can improve and every child can have access to a good education.

We have developed a coasting definition set out in these draft regulations which is clear, transparent and data-based so that schools can be certain whether they have fallen within the definition. It puts focus on the progress that pupils make in a school, recognising differences in intake by looking at the starting point of pupils rather than just their attainment. It considers performance over three years, so that we can identify and support schools that have struggled to stretch their pupils sufficiently over a number of years. We believe that this definition will identify those schools that are not ensuring pupils reach their potential, and allow the right support to be put in place so that schools can improve and give pupils the excellent education they deserve.

These regulations mean a primary school will fall within the definition if, in 2014 and 2015, less than 85% of pupils achieved level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths, and less than the national median percentage of pupils achieved expected progress in reading, writing and maths, and, in 2016, less than 85% of pupils met the new expected standard in reading, writing and maths and the school’s progress scores were below minus 2.5 in reading, minus 3.5 in writing or minus 2.5 in maths. A secondary school will fall within the definition if, in 2014 and 2015, less than 60% of pupils achieved five A* to C grades at GCSE, including in English and mathematics, and less than the national median percentage of pupils achieved expected progress in English and maths, and, in 2016, the school’s Progress 8 score was below minus 0.25. A school must be below the coasting thresholds in all three years—2014, 2015 and 2016—to fall within the overall coasting definition.

Both the primary and the secondary definitions contain different measures for performance in 2014 and 2015, compared to 2016 onwards. This is because the accountability system against which school performance is measured changed in 2016. This interim definition makes the coasting definition more complicated in the early years, but we believe that this is fairer for schools. It means that the definition is based on the measures that schools were already working to in those years and understand, and does not seek to apply new measures retrospectively. The definition will of course be simpler from 2018, when performance in 2014 and 2015 is no longer part of the three-year definition. Subject to Parliament’s approval of the regulations, regional schools commissioners will identify and start to work with the first coasting schools in the new year, once the revised 2016 results are published.

We first published this definition, with the exception of the 2016 progress thresholds, in June last year. It informed much of the helpful debate and scrutiny in this House during the passage of the Education and Adoption Act. It also formed the basis of the public consultation we held in the autumn of last year. A range of views were expressed in response to this, including, as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has recognised, some disagreement with the premise of identifying coasting schools. There was, however, wide support—including among those who were opposed to the 2014 and 2015 interim measures—for the use of a progress measure as the basis of the coasting definition. Many respondents felt that this was the fairest and most effective way of identifying those schools that are failing to ensure that pupils reach their potential. Our new 2016 measures provide this focus on progress and will therefore address many of the concerns raised by respondents to the consultation.

I am aware that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was also concerned that the regulations would have a greater impact on schools than is suggested in the Explanatory Memorandum. I reassure the Committee that this is not the case. Since the committee reported, we have published an estimate of the number of schools that will meet this definition when the revised 2016 results are published. This shows that around 800, or just under 5% of schools with eligible results, are likely to fall within the definition based on their provisional data. We expect that a sizeable proportion of those schools will also be below the floor standard or judged inadequate by Ofsted. Many of them will already be working with regional schools commissioners to improve their performance, so falling within the definition will not necessarily lead to additional action. For other schools, falling within the definition will be the start of a conversation. Regional schools commissioners will work with the schools identified, whether they are academies or maintained schools, to understand the important wider context and consider whether additional support would help them to improve.

Where a school has fallen within the definition but is supporting pupils well or has a sufficient plan and the capacity to improve, the RSC may well decide that no additional support or action is required at that stage. Alternatively, if in discussion with a school the RSC agrees that additional support is needed—for example, from a national leader of education or from a high-performing local school—the RSC will work with the school to help put that support in place.

Following initial discussions, the RSC may consider that a more formal approach is needed. For maintained schools, the RSC may use the Secretary of State’s powers to change the membership of the governing body or to direct the school to accept additional support. For academies, they may issue a warning notice to the academy trust setting out the improvement action required. Only in a small minority of cases do we expect RSCs to use the Secretary of State’s powers to direct a coasting maintained school to become an academy or to move a coasting academy to a new trust.

For these reasons, we do not believe that the regulations will place a significant or unreasonable burden on the school system. We know that teachers, school leaders and governors are all already working hard to ensure their schools continue to improve and provide the best education for their pupils. The coasting regulations will help identify those schools where more support might be needed, so we can ensure that this is put in place and the school can improve. As I have said, we expect directed conversion to an academy or a change of academy trust to happen only in a small minority of cases, and only where this is necessary to achieve the required improvement. I am sure noble Lords will agree that this is not unreasonable or overly burdensome when it is the only way to ensure pupils receive the excellent education they deserve.

I know from the informed and wide-ranging debate we had on coasting schools during the passage of the Education and Adoption Act that there is widespread support in this House for identifying and supporting those schools that are not fulfilling the potential of their pupils. We all want every child, regardless of their background, to have the opportunity to go to a good school and receive a high quality education. I hope, having heard again the detail of our proposed coasting definition and the principles that underpin it, that noble Lords will also agree that the definition we have set out in these regulations is the right one. I therefore commend the regulations to the Grand Committee.

My Lords I welcome these regulations; this is a very constructive approach to picking up on schools that are not doing as well as they should be. I am pretty happy with key stage 2. At the end of it, we have a criteria-referenced examination; we have set the bar at 85%, which is none too high and, as a result, I think we are going to pick up a number of schools that need help that we might otherwise have missed. I hope, though, that the Government will make some further progress on key stage 4.

First, we still have the problem that the GCSE has become a norm-referenced exam involving the use of comparable outcomes. It is assumed to be impossible for the secondary school system to produce improved outcomes year on year above the level of the increase, if any, in key stage 2 results. That really says that all we expect of secondary education is that it does just as well as it has ever done, and that there is no inherent improvement taking place. I know the Government are experimenting—or perhaps still thinking of experimenting—with national reference tests, but I would be very grateful if my noble friend told me where we are getting with those. Otherwise, we face a serious difficulty, because key stage 4 is still producing examinations that pupils need to carry on into life afterwards. If we are effectively limiting the percentage of pupils who can achieve a pass grade in these exams, we are doing our people a great disservice over the longer term; it may be all right for now, but it is certainly not all right for the future.

Secondly, I am disappointed that the Government have chosen to set the bar so low for selective schools. There are coasting selective schools, but at the level the bar is set, I really do not see that we are going to catch them. I very much hope that the Government will keep this matter under review, and that when enough time has passed and we have seen the first year of this system in operation, having looked at it and made judgments on it as a whole, the Government will find some way of reporting to us or to the public on how it has gone, enabling us to have a conversation about how it could go better.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations and talking us through some of the mechanics involved.

A year ago, during your Lordships’ consideration of what is now the Education and Adoption Act 2016, the Department for Education undertook public consultation on the proposed definition of coasting schools. It received more than 300 responses. The department claimed,

“wide support for the use of progress measures as the basis of the coasting definition”.

I noted what the Minister said about the consultation, and I understand why he said it, but it is a fact that only 25% agreed that the principles underlying the definition of coasting were correct. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was fairly clear in its criticism of that spin, asserting that,

“the claim made in Explanatory Memorandum of ‘wide support’, does not accurately represent the views put to the Department”.

That, to some significant extent, highlights the rather flimsy foundations on which these regulations sit. I shall have more to say about the committee’s report in due course.

Identifying and supporting coasting schools was not an initiative of this Government, nor indeed of the previous one; it was of course a Labour government policy, introduced in 2007. At that time, it was based on a school’s performance in tests and examinations but it also involved a professional assessment by Ofsted and discussions with the identifying schools about improving performance. By contrast, the present Government’s “coasting school” concept is based solely on a calculating-machine approach to school improvement and does not use professional judgments.

Perhaps the major difficulty in identifying coasting schools using performance data alone is that not all pupils make the same rate of progress as judged against the former national curriculum levels. Those from lower starting points, who are often from disadvantaged backgrounds, tend to make slower progress than those from higher starting points, who are often from more advantaged backgrounds. Rates of progress in schools with a higher proportion of lower-achieving pupils tend to be lower for all pupils in that school, which can lead to a wrong designation of “coasting” for some schools, while those with highly advantaged intakes—including, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has just mentioned, grammar schools—can escape the coasting designation.

Last month the department published Coasting Schools: Provisional Data, which includes a breakdown of where the schools are geographically and their type. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Ministers know precisely which schools have been identified from this exercise. The provisional estimate includes 479 schools at key stage 2 and 327 at key stage 4. Among primaries, a high proportion of academy schools meet the coasting criterion compared with local authority maintained schools, while at secondary level the proportion is the other way round. It appears that the schools most likely to fall within the scope of the coasting schools regulations are those already converted into academies as a result of government intervention.

No school will be formally identified as coasting until the 2016 key stage 2 results are finalised and published in three days’ time, although we will not receive the results for key stage 4 for a further month. For that reason, I ask the Minister why we are being asked to consider the draft regulations now. We believe that parliamentary scrutiny should have been delayed until both sets of results had been published with time allowed for them to be assessed. That would have permitted judgments to have been made, for example, as to whether this data-only approach to coasting schools, without professional Ofsted advice, was identifying good and outstanding schools in areas of significant deprivation.

On 15 December, nearly 400 local authority maintained primary schools will be labelled publicly as coasting. Can the Minister say whether regional schools commissioners have notified these schools, the relevant local authorities and Ofsted in advance? In how many of these schools is intervention already taking place? I say in passing to the Minister that I have quite a few questions to put to him and I shall be more than happy if he cares to write to me in due course, to use a familiar phrase.

Decisions about what happens to a school will be taken by regional schools commissioners assisted by their head teacher boards. There is some concern that those bodies are neither widely accepted nor operate with a great deal of transparency. This issue has been raised before and I do not intend to pursue it today, but it is an issue. That concern was stated unambiguously earlier this year by the Education Select Committee in another place in its report on regional schools commissioners, concluding that their role remained unclear. That point is now thrown into sharp focus by the fact that these regulations give extended powers to the commissioners to intervene when schools are designated as coasting. Yet one of the Government’s key performance indicators for the commissioners is not schools standards but how many schools they are able to convert into academies. There is a clear conflict of interest there and, as stated by the shadow Schools Minister, Mike Kane, when these regulations were considered last week in another place:

“That prompts the question whether the RSCs are independent arbiters in terms of judging whether our schools are failing, successful or coasting”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/11/16; col. 7.]

It certainly does, and I hope that the Minister will seize this opportunity to answer that question.

That leads us to another question: what will happen to maintained schools once these regulations come into force? The ministerial Statement on primary education issued on 19 October stated that regional schools commissioners should work with local authorities to determine actions for coasting schools. However, additional information provided in the DfE memorandum of 26 October to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee states that even though the legislation allows local authorities to take action in a coasting school that they maintain, this is expected to have little impact on the public sector as the regional schools commissioners will predominantly take action when maintained schools are regarded as coasting. It goes on to say:

“We do not, therefore, expect the additional power to be burdensome for local authorities”.

I welcome the Minister’s saying a few moments ago that he did not think it likely that many schools designated as coasting would be forced to become academies and that the other two options open to the regional schools commissioner should be pursued, but can he explain definitively the role that local authorities are expected to undertake if one of their maintained schools is found to be coasting? If the regional schools commissioner decides that the local authority should be involved, how will this be funded as a general rule? More specifically, how will this be funded after the education services grant finishes in September 2017? The provisional date of publication would appear to confirm the proposal in the March 2016 schools national funding formula consultation that school improvement support of around £250 million a year in the education services grant will terminate next September. Why has the DfE not confirmed this position so late in the 2017-18 budget-making cycle?

Perhaps I may further ask the Minister to write to me with information on how many of the 479 primary schools identified as coasting by the provisional data are already undergoing some sort of regional schools commissioner-instigated action, and are the commissioners ready and adequately prepared to deal with the remainder?

I turn to the question of whether there is the capacity among regional schools commissioners for an additional 800 schools to be managed by next year. The ministerial Statement on primary education to which I have already referred stated that the commissioners should work with local authorities to determine actions for coasting schools, but the Coasting Schools in England: November 2016 (provisional data) omits this. Some regional schools commissioners have already been using their powers to identify schools eligible for intervention using performance data from the 2013 to 2015 school years, but there is a real imbalance between the regional schools commissioner regions. The East of England and North-East London Regional Schools Commissioner has issued 48 of the 79 warning notices; two regional schools commissioners issued no notices at all, and a further two issued one each. That begs the question as to why there should be such a wide disparity in different parts of the country.

This issue relates to another question raised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It asked the Department for Education how it would ensure consistency of action by regional schools commissioners given the discretion that they will have. The department told the committee that it would certainly moderate a selection of cases from each region, and review the evidence considered and the decision reached in each case. The action taken in a coasting school will, where appropriate, be discussed collectively and individually with the National Schools Commissioner. I welcome that. What discussions has the Minister had, or does he intend to have, with Sir David Carter to establish the parameters of such an approach?

There is also the question of whether there are, or are likely to be in the foreseeable future, sufficient multi-academy trusts to take over and sponsor the smaller and usually rural schools that may well be designated as coasting; but perhaps I have already used up my quota of questions for the Minister for one day—although of course, we will be going on to consider the childcare funding regulations. Research suggests that the traditional school improvement strategies of creating a self-improving institution, creating school networks and alliances and benchmarking against best practice are the key to improvement. For a school joining an academy chain this may happen as a result, but I feel that it needs to be more willingly acknowledged by the Minister, his department and the regional schools commissioners that this can equally be achieved in successful local authorities. There is no guarantee that, on its own, a school becoming an academy brings about improvement. That must be borne in mind as the identification of and assistance offered to coasting schools develops.

My Lords, first, I will take back the point made by my noble friend Lord Lucas about key stage 4 and discuss it with my colleague Nick Gibb MP, who is the Minister for this area. On the bar for selective schools, we will keep that under review. Of course, the coasting definition applies equally to all schools and we will certainly keep it under review.

I am afraid that I will not be able to answer all of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, but perhaps I may respond to some of them and write to him on the others. I take his point about different pupils making different levels of progress from the starting point, but I think we have come up with a definition that is generally acknowledged to be fair and easily understood. Obviously, trying to work out exactly which pupils make what progress is very complicated, but the general definition we have come up with, which is based on measures that are already understood by schools, is the fairest and simplest way to proceed.

As for the noble Lord’s point about regional schools commissioners taking into account the wider context, they will, as is clearly set out in our procedures. That wider context includes Ofsted and the particular circumstances of the school, such as whether it is in a location that has intergenerational unemployment. We all know that, sadly, that is an issue in certain areas with a heavily white working-class population, for example. All this will be taken into account. The regional schools commissioners will work closely with local authorities. It is acknowledged now—I think the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said it himself—that school-to-school support is the best way to improve schools. They will be working closely with local authorities to help identify the help available, whether from other schools nearby, which may be local authority maintained schools or academies, or NLEs that can help them. They will also be able to access the school improvement fund, which I mentioned earlier.

All schools will know exactly where they are in terms of the results of the past two years, and will now have an estimate of their figures for this year. These will be published shortly. Of course, the regional schools commissioners will be working with some of these schools anyway—they may have asked for help—but they will all know exactly where they stand.

As for the resources available to regional schools—

Although the Minister was not talking specifically about this, will he address my question on whether the schools that are going to be named publicly on Thursday have already been told by the regional schools commissioner that that is about to happen, and whether the local authorities have been told?

They are not going to be named publicly but the schools will be able to work out from their results whether they are coasting.

As for the resources available to the regional schools commissioners, they started with very small offices of around six or eight people, but they have all now been substantially strengthened to an average of more than 40 people. We are satisfied that they have the resources in place. One thing that they are working on closely, as the noble Lord mentioned, is ensuring that we have enough capacity in the system and enough MATs to sponsor any failing schools where required.

I will write to the noble Lord in some detail on the other matters to which he referred. I am sure that all noble Lords support our ambition to ensure that all pupils, whatever their background and wherever they live, have the opportunity to go to a good school. I therefore hope that noble Lords will support our proposals and these regulations.

On the issue of the context of the schools, will the level of English spoken in families also be looked at? I imagine that that may have an impact on a child’s learning and it might be helpful when it comes to the read-across with Louise Casey’s work on integration.

The noble Earl makes a very good point. That is something we are looking at, and certainly increasingly seeing in some schools. The definition of EAL is sometimes a little loose, because there are plenty of people who speak fluent English but would be defined as EAL because it is their second or third language. However, in parts of the country an increasing number of schools are having to cater for a sudden influx in different year groups of pupils who do not speak any English at all. Certainly, the regional schools commissioners will take this into account.

Motion agreed.