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House of Lords Hansard
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Regional Schools Commissioners
14 April 2016
Volume 771

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to make Regional Schools Commissioners democratically accountable.

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My Lords, within an increasingly school-led system, the responsibility for school performance lies with the academy trust. There is a clear line of accountability from the trust to the Secretary of State. RSCs exercise the powers and duties of the Secretary of State on her behalf, meaning that the Secretary of State remains fully accountable to Parliament for decisions made by regional schools commissioners. They are civil servants and take decisions within the scope of their responsibilities and within a defined set of criteria, governed mainly by funding agreements and, in maintained schools, by statute.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Could he explain why the Government plan to end local oversight of schools, abolish parent governors and hand power to a small number of unelected officials accountable only to Whitehall? Could he say how all this relates to the Government’s localism agenda?

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As I think everybody knows, we are not planning to abolish parent governors. We greatly value the role of parent governors in schools, and I pay tribute to the many thousands of parent governors that we have. Indeed, we want to increase the role and involvement of parents in their children’s education. We will exert a new expectation on every academy to put in place meaningful engagement arrangements for all parents, but we must focus governance on skills. On the localism point made by the noble Lord, four members of every head teacher board are elected. They are local professionals who are well steeped in their local communities and local issues.

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My Lords, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about public education here, paid for from public funds. That should mean that public accountability is a given—real accountability, not just accountability to the Secretary of State. In its report published in January, the Education Select Committee, which has a Tory majority and a Tory chair, called for greater transparency and accountability for regional schools commissioners. Will the Minister say what action he intends to take in light of that recommendation, particularly since the White Paper was published?

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The noble Lord makes a very good point. We will publish the following information on the GOV.UK website this month: a high-level outline of the regional schools decision-making framework; each regional schools commissioner’s regional vision; a description of the national schools commissioner’s role; and the terms of reference for head teacher boards.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that if a political decision is made in a region that affected, say, a third of the primary schools in that region, the only way you can get an answer under the current arrangement would be to go directly to the Minister in charge—the Minister who is answering the question? What preparation has his office made for receiving inquiries from a third of the primary schools in any one of these regions?

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I think that it is unlikely that any particular decision would affect so many schools, but if the noble Lord is referring to small primaries, we are very conscious of the issues facing them and are very keen to support them. We believe that they will be more sustainable as part of groups working together in MATs. As Lucy Powell said in the other place only yesterday, it is acknowledged that schools work better in local regional clusters, and we are keen to see them be able to do that.

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My Lords, I declare my interest as the president of a diocesan board of education and a member of a multi-academy trust. Can the Minister explain the factors that influence RSCs in their decisions about the capacity of sponsors for new schools, and the extent to which those factors are objectively determined?

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The right reverend Prelate makes an extremely important point. It is all about capacity. Regional schools commissioners, along with head teacher boards, use performance data, Ofsted reports, intelligence from academy visits and their own expertise to ensure that a robust decision is reached. They will look at the geographic focus of the sponsor, whether they have brought into their group recently many failing schools, and the management capacity and skill set of the MAT board.

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My Lords, last week the Scottish Sunday newspaper the Sunday Post brought together a former pupil of mine and myself after 40 years. He told me that he is now a leading research scientist in Manchester University dealing with the Zika virus. In contact with me this week, he stated that he was grateful for the support, mentoring and engagement that his parents had, and that he would not be in that leading position if it had not been for such a fine state school. Given the great work that goes on in state schools, will the Minister not listen to some of his colleagues in the House of Commons, such as Graham Brady, who described this as a madcap proposal? Will he ensure that parental engagement and parental governors are the centrepiece of any initiative that is going to be taken forward—otherwise it will be nothing other than a disaster?

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I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the importance of parents, who provide absolutely vital feedback. Governing bodies will be free to have many, if not a majority, of governors who are parents, and many will continue to do so. But, as I have said, they must be chosen for their skills.

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My Lords, could the Minister explain how these arrangements fit in with the new devolution agenda? In particular, will London and Manchester take over responsibility for the regional schools commissioners?

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As I said, regional schools commissioners and their head teacher boards are local people immersed in their local areas. They are professionals who bring consistent high expectation and responsiveness to their role. They have all been directly involved in helping turn around failing schools and have no truck with an excuses culture. So I feel that they are the right people. As we all know, sometimes petty local adult politics gets in the way of the right decision for children.

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My Lords, under the system that most of us grew up with and have got accustomed to, parents who are dissatisfied with the way in which their local school was operating had a number of local bodies to which they could go. The most obvious one, ultimately, would have been the local authority: the local councillor, or maybe even the person who chairs the education committee. Is the Minister really saying that the capacity of parents now to see as their ultimate, democratically accountable person the Secretary of State is in anything other than words a meaningful point of access for parents seeking to find out what is going wrong with their school?

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As I have already said, we think that parents should be more involved in their children’s education. It is the case that many academy trusts have found when they have taken the school into their group that parent engagement has been very lacking, and they have, in particular, brought attendance at parents’ evenings up dramatically. As I have said, we will put in place new arrangements whereby all multi-academy trusts and single trusts must engage on a meaningful and consistent basis with parents. Also, we will put in place a process whereby parents can bring complaints and concerns directly to the regional schools commissioners.