Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East): In November 1999, Ofsted inspected Leeds local education authority, and in February, it published a report in which it claimed that the authority was so bad that it suggested total outsourcing of the authority's services to schools, and consultants were installed to advise on the way forward. The suggestion is now for a joint venture board and company, which would almost certainly involve a private sector partner. The local authority would have two places on the board and the private sector two, with the Secretary of State choosing a chairman from a list provided by the council.
Before I comment on the proposal, two points need to be forcefully made. In the discussions that have been taking place since February, when Ministers have been criticised, they, understandably, take a high moral stance. I am not sure that we shall hear them do so today, but they cry, "Our only concern is for the education of the children."
On behalf of hon. Members who represent Leeds constituencies, I want to make it clear that we in Leeds and all hon. Members present share that position. Indeed, we go further. Although Ministers can only use words in relation to Leeds, we do not only use high moral language. We, as local Members, either have had or have children at Leeds schools, along with our friends' children, our neighbours' children and our constituents' children, and we care deeply about that responsibility. We understand the importance of good education to children's life chances, and I defy Ministers in the Department for Education and Employment to imply that we care less than they do. The implication that we would put political or educational structures before the future of Leeds children is, rightly, regarded as insulting. We want the best for our children, and we have fought and will continue to fight for that objective.
The second point that needs to be placed on record is that not one hon. Member who represents a Leeds constituency regards the LEA as perfect. I challenge the Minister to say that the DFEE is perfect. Like most big cities, Leeds struggles against problems and difficulties of which the Government are aware. It is not easy to run an authority that covers a large inner-city population, with all the attendant problems. In addition, problems have been encountered in finding a director. People accept the fact of and want to end bad provision in some of the services offered to schools. I am not trying to minimise the problems involved, but nor should the Minister try to exaggerate them. It is understood that the authority is working hard under its new management team to tackle a range of problems.
Where do those two key points--first, that the objective is to provide the highest-quality standard of education for children and, secondly, that the authority needs improvement--lead us? We could debate the Ofsted report and the PricewaterhouseCoopers report that followed it, but would that be sensible or productive? What it would amount to, after the dust has settled, is that I, like many others in Leeds, feel that Leeds is an average authority in most ways but is acceptable, given that its primary school results are above the LEA league table average and are improving at above the average rate of improvement. Although its secondary element needs improvement, its primary element is doing well.
Why did both Ofsted and the DFEE single out the authority? It is one of the biggest Labour authorities, and there is a feeling that everyone would take notice if Leeds were made an example of. It is that type of syndrome. If the Minister reads the press, she will discover that the mood in Leeds has become worse as the saga has developed. The authority may not be perfect, but the grotesque picture painted by Ofsted does no service to anyone, unless the political agenda is to destroy local education authorities. We now know that the increasingly eccentric chief inspector finds that proposition attractive; it touches a nerve with him, which should come as no surprise. We do not yet know the DFEE's intentions, but we know the Conservative party's. The Minister should spell out the Government's approach to LEAs, in relation to that of the Conservatives and the chief inspector.
I have enlarged on my original point and returned to where I started. Would it be sensible or productive for the Minister to fill Hansard with an attack on the Leeds LEA, as reported by Ofsted and PricewaterhouseCoopers? The only result would be to increase the bitterness and anger felt in Leeds over the issue.
Given that we share common objectives, we should decide whether the proposed joint venture company is the most appropriate way forward. In discussions in Leeds, officials from the DFEE and PricewaterhouseCoopers have conceded that the venture is new and unique. Does the Minister accept that, and does she think it appropriate that children's education should be gambled with in such a way? Officials have even used the word "experimental" to describe that joint venture company. Does the Minister think that Leeds children, whom she and the DFEE care deeply about, should be experimented with by handing over their education to an untried body?
Can the Minister tell us of the educational track record of the various firms listed by the DFEE as suggested partners? That list includes W. S. Atkins, Serco Ltd., Prospect, Include and Ensign consortium. None of those names falls readily from the lips of educationalists when the subject of running an education authority is raised. Will the Minister tell us whether it is a fact that none of those firms has a track record of running an education authority? Will she tell disbelieving Labour Members that she is prepared to employ Group 4 to run Leeds primary schools? In the previous Session of Parliament, Group 4 was seen as a joke for losing prisoners. The firm has gone from running prisoners to primary schools in one Government--that is quite a leap in quality, is it not?
Is the joint venture body not simply a body set up to allow the DFEE to run Leeds schools from 200 miles away? It will be good if the Minister disagrees with that theory, but can she explain why her officials continue to insist on the Secretary of State choosing both the chairman and the council nominees? Despite the fact that the Secretary of State once led a local authority, there is the suggestion that councillors would not be acceptable as board members. Does that suggestion have the Minister's approval and backing? If so, could she tell the Leeds council members and the Chamber why it is so?
Will the Minister clear up the confusion between the parties about who sets policy and strategy? Will the joint venture board deal with operational matters only, and is it absolutely accepted that the council will deal with policy and strategy? If that is the case, will she confirm that the outsourcing of services, which is clearly a policy matter, is a decision for the council?
Will the Minister tell us what length of time is needed for the experiment? What levels of performance are required and, when they have been reached, will the service revert to being run by the democratically elected council? If not, why not?
Finally--I know that many hon. Members wish to speak on this important subject--I ask the Minister to consider the following points. It is unacceptable that Leeds children will be experimented on by a company that has no track record in delivering education and it is disturbing that a Labour Government cannot work with a Labour council to agree a common strategy. Leeds does not claim perfection, but it wishes the best for the children and will work with anyone who shares that objective. Foisting an experimental system with untested private sector partners on a large city seems an irresponsible and insensitive approach by a Labour Government. I ask the Minister, although I imagine in vain, to reconsider the matter.
Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I support my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie). The questions of whose interests we seek to represent, and whether those interests are best served by the people in Leeds elected to do that job or by an outside body appointed from central Government, have been posed to us many times over the past few months.
I want to start by giving a brief outline of my education and that of my family. I was born and educated in Leeds. I have four children, who all went through the Leeds educational system; three of them obtained university degrees and the fourth won a college place in Leeds and obtained a vocational qualification. I have four grandchildren in Leeds. Anyone who questions the interests of the Leeds MPs should understand that we are the organic, elected representation of the people of Leeds. We represent both roles.
Leeds looked long and hard for those managerial skills. For several years, it looked for a director of education who could take on the perceived weaknesses--and managed in the intervening period. Ofsted's identification of several weaknesses in the LEA in Leeds therefore came as no great surprise. At least the problems were being identified by elected representatives--slowly and persistently, one might say, but solutions were being sought. Every time I think of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the Beatles song, "Paperback Writer" comes to mind:
I can change it round.
The report has no street credibility in Leeds whatsoever. The big issue for me is that of democracy. The vital questions are whose education it is and who will manage, control and own it. Democracy is not simply a matter of a snapshot of one frozen moment of history or public opinion. It is about ownership, control and management of the structures of our society and it is extremely important in ensuring people's confidence in those who manage and control, and in the measure of control that they in turn have over those managers. Democracy is at the centre of all things, and as we speak in this place we are acutely aware of our role.
We are concerned with a public agenda, but we have been recently worried about what other agenda is at work. The recent lessons of the Rover car company flooded to mind when it became self-evident that the questions of ownership and control were extremely important to the people in a certain locality.
Make no mistake: the people of Leeds want their children's education back in the control of their elected representatives. The suggestion that it would take five to seven years for the required management skills to be instituted, and therefore before the return of control and management of the educational system to the city's elected representatives, was beyond my ken and that of everyone else in Leeds. The system has served the people of Leeds well for generations.
It is an undisputed fact that large sums of public money are involved. It seems possible that such sums will be handed over to people who need them, for five years or seven years, and the reasons for that are beyond the understanding of the people of Leeds. The Members of Parliament for Leeds suggested that if the expertise in educational management existed outside all local authorities of educational significance, we could buy it in, as we do in many other situations, until we had managed to raise any weaknesses to the required level of expertise. We cannot understand why such a simple solution--a self-evident way forward--was not adopted.
Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): It is clearly evident from the two contributions so far that there is genuine passion about education in the city on the part of all those who are present to represent it in the Chamber, but there is also concern about how the people of the city will be able to influence education in future.
I share others' view about there clearly being aspects of the educational system in Leeds that need to be improved. I say that not least because head teachers have told me so when I have visited schools. From talking to those same head teachers, however, I also know that there are great strengths in the system. In passing, I should say that on Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a dinner in Leeds for 200 people from schools to celebrate the fact that nearly a quarter of schools in Leeds have achieved Investors in People status. I doubt whether there is an LEA elsewhere with such a high proportion.
Many people have also expressed the view to me that, whatever problems are identified in the Ofsted report, Leeds should have the opportunity to solve them itself. However, I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) that the city council has acknowledged the need for outside support to address the scale of the problems that it wants considered.
One of our big problems is the fact that there remain many questions about how the new arrangements will work. One can be forgiven for thinking, from reading some of the newspaper coverage of the proposals, that Leeds LEA will cease to exist and that elected members will have no say in, influence over or contribution to make to the future of education in the city. That is not the case, as I understand it, and it would help if my right hon. Friend the Minister would confirm the reasons for that.
The LEA remains in existence as the body that decides the level of education expenditure in schools. It remains responsible for key decisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East made an important point about where the balance of responsibility will lie. Crucially, the LEA will be responsible for drawing up the specification to which the new partnership board will work. I hope that, as a result of that process, the LEA will take the opportunity to lay down clearly what it wishes to be provided in terms of educational services. It should focus on further raising standards to build on the success to which my hon. Friend referred. On the other hand, head teachers should have the opportunity to lay down clearly what support they want to help them in their principal job, which is to support children in learning and progressing in their school lives.
On the issue of accountability, I have no doubt that the council, having drawn up the specification--and, as I understand it, having legal responsibility for ensuring that services are delivered according to the contract that it has determined--will use the scrutiny mechanisms, which it recently established, to ensure that that is the
There is another reason why I think that some of the fears may be misplaced. As a newcomer to Leeds during the past year, I am conscious that the council has used its influence, which is a result of its democratic legitimacy, over many years to make many things happen. As an outsider, my observation is that much of the success of Leeds as a city is owed to the influence and leadership of the council in partnership with other bodies. The council has little formal control over those bodies, but the legitimacy that comes from being elected puts it in a strong position. My hon. Friend was rightly concerned about major questions of policy. I do not believe for one second that when the elected representatives of the city of Leeds speak clearly and with one voice on such matters, on behalf of the people whom they represent, the partnership board--two of whose members are appointed by Leeds, while the third is appointed by the Secretary of State from a list of persons agreeable to the city--will say, "We don't care what you think; we're going to do something different." Accountability and democracy is not just about how the relationship is established. It must be about an on-going dialogue. As democratically elected representatives, we need not be too pessimistic about our ability to influence others.
Some crucial details--such as contract length, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East referred--are yet to be determined. It would help if, in responding to the debate, my right hon. Friend the Minister would deal with the important question of how the decision will be taken in relation to what happens when the contract ends. Assuming that the issues identified by the city council and the Ofsted report have been successfully addressed--and given that the city council makes the contract with the partnership board--will she confirm that the city council will determine, subject to satisfactory progress, how it wishes the delivery of education services to continue in the future? It is difficult to understand how a view on the outcome can be expressed now, because it is difficult to prejudge the situation in five years' time. It would encourage greater confidence and clarify many questions if my right hon. Friend were able to deal with that point.
I ask all these questions because I am a strong believer in the principle of democratic accountability and in the need for a local authority, in the proper sense of those words. An organisation that is elected by the people and democratically accountable is necessary to hold the ring, ensure fairness, deal with problems that arise and hold to account all those who are responsible for providing education. With great respect to the Conservative spokesperson, I cannot say that I look forward to his contribution. However, I shall listen to it with interest, because the Conservative party's proposal to do away with LEAs constitutes the real threat to the democratic oversight and scrutiny of education.
The final point is that the new arrangements, whatever they are, must be made to work. I feel strongly that Leeds, the subject of the debate, has suffered enough from the Ofsted process. It has gone on long enough. Parents, teachers and pupils, elected members
I know from my one year's experience in the city that anyone there will say that, in order to address the problems of a two-speed Leeds--the fact that some parts of the city and some people who live there do not share in the city's prosperity--it is most important of all for the city to make education a priority. That is why all those Members who represent Leeds constituencies feel so strongly about the issue.
Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell): I should like to add my voice to those of my hon. Friends because, like them, I wish to see educational standards raised in Leeds, and I am anxious that whatever is done is successful.
I speak frequently with the local authority about the needs of the children and parents in my constituency and, like other hon. Members, I am frequently disappointed with the response; and the parents on whose behalf I have spoken are often frustrated by the actions taken by the authority. Some of those experiences have been identified by Ofsted as areas of weakness, particularly in special needs provision. Although the city council recognises that assistance is required, change is needed in the attitudes of those who deal with the issue at some levels in the city council's administration. I remain to be convinced that the departmental approach will bring about the necessary changes, particularly in the attitudes of the administration. Like other hon. Members, I hope that it will be effective in raising standards in Leeds, and in putting right those weaknesses that have been identified.
I hope that the structure of the joint company, which received general assent from hon. Members, comes about, and I hope that the company's chairman will be acceptable to the Leeds authority. I hope that it will be possible to have a public-public partnership rather than a public-private partnership, because authorities not a great distance from Leeds have expertise in matters that have been found to be weak in Leeds. One such authority worked closely with West Yorkshire council when I was leader. The area has some strengths where Leeds was found to be weak. A public-public partnership would be more acceptable to many people in Leeds.
I hope, too, that the city council will have the pivotal vote in deciding which services to outsource to the joint company. It has identified and accepted weaknesses, including the one that I mentioned. I trust that discussions between the Department and the city of Leeds will identify those weaknesses more clearly. Leeds must have the strongest voice in determining what is outsourced and the length of time during which that takes place.
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey): It is a pleasure to follow my colleagues from Leeds. Like many who have participated in the debate, I come to this Chamber not only as a Member of Parliament but as a parent, former governor and former councillor.
The individual weaknesses identified by Ofsted were predictable, as my hon. Friends explained. Wearing my various hats, I have, at one time or another, raised most of those. I have no vested interest in excusing the inexcusable. My loyalty to my children and my constituents' children is greater than any that I have to Leeds city council or the Labour Government. But where I and many others part company from Ofsted is on the way in which the weaknesses have been assembled into an unrecognisable picture of a desperately failing authority. Many respected head teachers in my constituency, although critical of aspects of the LEA and sharing the criticisms of Ofsted, reject outright the doomsday scenario painted by Ofsted and subsequently by PricewaterhouseCoopers. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Minister--I hope that we will remain friends--will refer to the questionnaires that were completed by head teachers during the Ofsted process. I suspect that the outpouring of criticism was a cathartic experience for heads. It resulted not only from frustrations with the LEA--of which there were many--but from the intensifying pressures of Government initiatives.
My hon. Friends have questioned the role of the chief inspector of schools. He appeared on the scene like a grave robber, anxious to have life pronounced extinct or even to assist in the demise of the hapless victim. That he has his own agenda is beyond doubt. His recent forays into the political arena must make that clear to anyone who may have doubted it. We ask ourselves in Leeds whether the chief inspector of schools is servant or master. It is clear that he possesses delusions of being the latter.
I would not want anyone to run away with the idea that we are simply debating a disagreement between Leeds Labour MPs and the Labour Government. As several hon. Members have pointed out, it is also a disagreement with the philosophy of the Conservatives. It will be interesting to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who has turned up to be the spectre at this Leeds feast.
Of course, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have sought to make political capital out of the Ofsted report. They echoed the claims of political interference made by Ofsted, yet they all colluded in one of the major examples of so-called political interference. The chief inspector singled out payments from miscellaneous improvements in the community and environment, or MICE, as it is called in short. The scheme allocated £3,500 to all councils for investment in local projects based on their knowledge of their areas. That is why it
Historically, Leeds has spent more on education than its standard spending assessment. Expenditure rose to £18 million more at one stage under the Conservative Government. Before we become too focused on specific issues, I should remind hon. Members that much greater damage would have been done to our children's education by retaining the spending levels of the Conservative Government than by anything of which the LEA has been accused. All parties have been involved in campaigns to keep schools open. Is that political interference? Some would say that it was, as it has meant that schools have not closed and surplus places have not been removed. Indeed, that has been the subject of another Ofsted criticism. The Conservatives have cried crocodile tears about Government interference in Leeds, while announcing at the same time their plans to abolish LEAs.
The post-Ofsted debate has resolved the question whether the Leeds LEA has the capacity to achieve improvements in all the weak areas identified by PWC and Ofsted. I shall quote one relevant section from PWC's report. It states:
As far as I know, however, there has been no definition or clear description of an acceptable time frame. A year will elapse before the so-called joint venture company is set up. It is suggested that the period of the contract should be five years. What sort of time frame for improvement is that? What are the Minister's views on it? It appears to question the speed with which even the new experimental arrangements can deliver. It also fails to acknowledge that the project is an experiment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) said. Experiments can go wrong and five years is a long time to give such an experiment the opportunity to do damage.
I add another question that concerns me greatly, but which I shall not explore in too much detail. What consideration has been made of the staff caught up in this maelstrom of change? I think that the answer is precious little. Cost is another issue that has not been broached as emphatically as it might have been. Will the Minister ensure that, given the money that is going into making this experiment--I make no apologies for using that word--work is not diverted from my children and those of my constituents?
My understanding is that the original aim of the exercise was to assist the LEA in tackling the weaknesses identified by Ofsted. I do not think that there was any convincing argument to suggest that external support was not required. Why is there now a refusal to say, all things being equal, that the service can return entirely to the LEA, subject to the meeting of targets? Fixed-term support to address weaknesses is one thing, but are we really going to persist indefinitely with this rag-bag of arrangements? It exists not only in Leeds, but in other local authorities, whose number will probably increase in future.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has been unequivocal in stating his party's education policies. LEAs are to be abolished under the Conservatives. The policies promulgated by the right hon. Gentleman are crass. They probably represent straws that will break the backs of overburdened schools with more administration. They will herald back-door selection. They contain the most spurious financial calculations and will be utterly destructive to our children's education. However, they have one merit: they are clear. In conclusion, I ask the Minister this: why can she and her colleagues not be equally clear in giving their commitment to the future of local education authorities?
Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East): I, like many of my colleagues, have a deep vested interest in the future of Leeds LEA. I have three children at school in Leeds. I want them to succeed as I want all my constituents' children to succeed. I want the schools to be of the highest possible excellence that we can achieve.
I chaired Leeds education committee for only one year; I take my small share of the blame for what has gone wrong, although by no means did all of it happen in that one year. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said when he talked about the conclusions drawn by the chief inspector of schools regarding the real deficiencies of the LEA, which were clearly marked out in the Ofsted report. Those conclusions clearly equalled far more than the sum of the parts. Many of us could go along with the criticisms in the report because we knew the LEA and that the criticisms were valid. We knew also that they could be put right. However, the conclusions drawn by the chief inspector were a gross exaggeration of those parts.
I received a phone call this morning from councillor Peter Gruen, who is the lead member in Leeds city council responsible for schools. He rang to tell me that the early indications, which the LEA had gathered in the past couple of days, showed that the standard assessment test targets for 11-year-olds set by the Government would be more than reached this year. Indeed, we are heading for the more rigorous targets of 2002. Those are the early indications; they have not yet been verified. However, such SATs results are not the sign of a failing LEA.
In 1992-93, the LEA established the Leeds schools commission. That was when the then Conservative Administration wanted to see schools opting out of local authority control and taking control of their destiny--a policy similar to that promulgated by the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The purpose of the commission was to ask all Leeds schools what they wanted from the LEA, what money they wanted devolved to them and what services they wanted the LEA to continue to provide. The study was detailed and all the schools in the city took part through representatives--head teachers, governors and stakeholders in the wider community. The exercise was unique; very few LEAs held similar consultation exercises. It went on for about six months.
There is no evidence that a private sector scheme, opting out, the contracting out of many LEA functions, or even a joint venture company would succeed in rapidly improving LEA services. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister have any evidence that such rapid improvement is possible through the involvement of private sector organisations or a joint venture company? The Government and the chief inspector rightly said that there should be a rapid improvement in LEA services. Why, then, must we wait nine months for the establishment of the joint venture company, and probably a few more months for it to be up and running properly and efficiently?
We could start making improvements right away. We do not need to wait for a joint venture company to be set up. If we brought in private sector partners and consultants right away we should fulfil the Government's requirement for private sector involvement in rapid improvement, but immediately--or certainly within a few weeks. Why can we not, for example, bring in private sector recruitment consultants to ensure the replacement of staff who leave, and the appointment of the management team needed to ensure the rapid improvement, which can be dealt with much more quickly than by waiting for the joint venture company to be set up?
Like my hon. Friends, I wonder how long the company will be in operation. Is what is being done an exercise in improving LEA services so that the democratically accountable local education authority can continue to provide services, but of a much higher standard than at present, or is it an exercise in permanently removing the relevant functions from an organisation that is regarded as incompetent?
PricewaterhouseCoopers' report, which was published this month, contains the results of the preliminary evaluation of options in a table on page 61, setting out the criteria used and the different options--retaining in-house services, public-public partnership, joint venture company, outsourcing and strategic partnership. The table gives scores--a bit like credit scores, really, but less scientific--relating to the different criteria, under headings such as legal and regulatory, operational acceptability, cost acceptability, ease of implementation, rapid improvement and incentives to sustain the service. The total of the scores is given, from which we conclude that the joint venture company gets 45 points and total outsourcing gets 48.
One of the problems in Leeds is the general public's perception of Ofsted's report and the post-Ofsted action plan. When the report was published, the headline across every page of the Yorkshire Evening Post was not "LEA in Crisis" or "Ofsted Report" but "Leeds Schools Crisis". That is why, when I went to Roundhay St. John's primary school in my constituency shortly after the report was published, staff told me, "We have just had an Ofsted report. Ofsted says that we are one of the best primary schools in the city. Why are we being told by the Government that we are rubbish?" It was not understood that the Ofsted report on the LEA did not mean that Roundhay St. John's was failing to provide its pupils with an excellent education. That is a serious problem.
I reject utterly the Conservative party's policy of complete abolition. Schools have enough to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said that the head teachers in his constituency--as in every constituency in the city and throughout the country--have more than enough to do. They do not want to have the functions of an LEA thrust upon them as a result of the abolition of such authorities. That is not an option.
We are concerned about the democratic accountability of the local education authority and the provision of an efficient and effective service that will drive up standards in schools. Most of our schools in Leeds have a good record of achievement, in terms of the league tables. The results are very good--I have mentioned the early indications on the targets for SATs for 11-year-olds--and we shall continue to have such results in Leeds. We do not have failing schools, although we are told that the authority is failing.
I hope that the Minister will answer the crucial questions about the length of time for which the joint venture company will operate, and assure us that the purpose is not the abolition or privatisation of our LEA. We must return the existing LEA, as the most excellent authority that we can have, to democratic control and allow it to continue its work of ensuring that our schools and the education of our children are improved.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): When I entered the Chamber this morning, I noticed that the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) was looking surprised. He said that it was strange to see a Sheffielder at a debate on Leeds. The friendly rivalry between our cities might make us think that the best thing to come
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, East and the other Members of Parliament for Leeds on the solidarity that they have shown by coming here today. Debates in the Chamber can be used to advance the cause of a particular area, and it is important that Ministers hear the views of hon. Members representing the entire area. We try to do the same for Sheffield, despite the fact that we have a political divide. Leeds is certainly at the cutting edge of the LEA debate, and we in Sheffield cede that position gladly. It seems that the Government are experimenting with their agenda for LEAs in Leeds. Several hon. Members have said that; it is an experiment. I would be concerned if it were to take place in my area, as would most other hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Leeds, East said at the beginning that he wondered whether the LEA reports had been mixed up, as there was a report on Sheffield at about the same time. The reports were not mixed up, but there was some awful spinning going on--perhaps people in West Yorkshire know more about the spinning industry--at the time of the inspections. Education correspondents were saying, "Leeds will say this" and "Sheffield will say that." There was a strong political agenda involved, and such spinning was not taking place by accident.
My party has a general concern about the Government's adoption of the whole Ofsted agenda, and that of the chief inspector in particular. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) mentioned the chief inspector's strong political views, which have been repeated frequently. The hon. Gentleman and I are, I hope, equally concerned about those political views, and the decision to adopt the chief inspector's agenda is part of the problem with the way in which LEAs are portrayed.
The LEA inspections are being used as a big stick to make local authorities go cap in hand to the DFEE, saying, "Please don't hit us. We will do A, B or C if you let us off." Some local authorities have managed to get off, but others have faced the full punishment of being told what they should do, with no options and no let-out. All the LEAs that have been through the inspection process feel that their independence has been challenged and that they must now go cap in hand to the Department, in order to come up with some kind of package to allow them to continue, rather than be forced down a route that they would not choose.
We are concerned that we are moving into an era in which the integrity of the LEA is being challenged. I am pleased that hon. Members have raised that issue, as part of the wider picture. We are specifically discussing Leeds, but the question of where local authorities are going in general is also relevant. There is room for evolution, but the key element is who controls the service and whether the local authority co-operates in
There have been successful examples of LEAs choosing to use the private sector. Islington, for example, has chosen to work with a private sector company, against a poor background. Other local authorities are doing that--some in ways that I would not support. Some of the experiments by Conservative-run LEAs, for example, have involved engagement with the private sector in ways that make me nervous--but they have a right, as an LEA, to do that. That is different from contracting out the whole LEA operation, as is happening in Leeds. If there are other examples of that, I stand corrected.
Mr. Allan : My understanding is that the LEA concerned will take a more positive view of the route that it has chosen than that put forward today by hon. Members representing Leeds. It is not just an issue of a single muddle--which is none the less important--but a question of who controls that muddle. I shall come to the issue of control, which is important in the context of LEAs.
We believe that LEAs need evolution rather than revolution--Darwinism rather than Trotskyism. LEAs can evolve. They have already evolved strongly, for example in terms of the local management of schools and the delegation of budgets, which have taken place co-operatively and sensibly. Listening to some of the Conservative spokespeople, one would not believe that LMS has occurred. There seems to be a perception that LEAs are the same as they were in the 1970s. That is not the case. LEAs have demonstrated a tremendous ability to evolve and to respond to schools' concerns.
The history of the LEAs is interesting. They have controlled education for about 100 years. The Local Government Association has pointed out that their name is confusing: why do we talk about a local education authority when we do not talk about a local social services authority or a local housing authority? LEAs are part of local government and, in the ideal model, part of a joined-up package of services. By naming them separately we have given the impression that they are distinct from that package. The LGA has pointed to a different route of evolution to that proposed in Leeds. It is pointing to the model of Cornwall, for example, where the council social services department, the education department and the Cornwall Healthcare NHS trust have jointly established a child and family service. It is talking about joined-up government and about bringing education together with other local government services such as social services and outside services such as health care services.
One of my concerns about the Leeds experiment is that it will reinforce "departmentalitis" and place education in a bunker. It will now be in the hands of a partnership that is involved purely with the delivery of the education service and will ignore some of the other possible evolutionary routes, such as those proposed by
We are concerned about centralisation. We are told that we will have an independent chair, who will none the less be chosen by the Secretary of State. Many people in local education are now chosen by the Secretary of State and there are concerns about how that will operate in practice. We are concerned about the DFEE list of possible partners, to which the hon. Member for Leeds, East referred. We are concerned about how those partners will be selected and what input local government will have, as opposed to central Government, in deciding the kind of partners that it wants.
In the short term, we are concerned about morale. Contracting-out processes, such as the one that happened recently in Sheffield with the housing benefit service, which went to a company called CSL, can cause incredible staff morale problems. I am concerned that there may be chaos in the Leeds education system for two years, given the big window that has been given for the process until April 2001. Naturally, there may be a fall in morale as a result of the major changes that are occurring. That is not an insult to staff members because, at a time of transition, it is natural for staff not to be able to focus 100 per cent. on their jobs because their thoughts are taken up with transition issues.
Finally, I should be interested to know what will happen if the new arrangements fail. We have had problems with the outsourcing of all sorts of services. The service that we are discussing is crucial--all hon. Members who have spoken have mentioned its importance--and we must have an option available for if, or when, a service change fails. What will happen if there is major disruption to the service? Will the big sticks be in the hands of the Leeds LEA, as they have been for other contracts, so that the authority is able to sort things out?
It is not simply a question of having a paper contract that states that, in certain circumstances, the authority can impose fines and do this or that. The authority must have a way of reasserting control if it is lost through the proposed mechanism. That is the bottom line, which must be established. However, the Government, to satisfy members of any LEA who are concerned about the future of their authority, must first answer the questions that they have been asked about the political driving forces behind the agenda.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): This has been an important debate, but much of it has had a surreal quality, as several hon. Members from Leeds, though not all, coyly declined to debate the detailed particulars
The hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), for whom I have a healthy affection and respect, criticised the chief inspector but did not respond to his arguments. The hon. Gentleman said that the chief inspector was eccentric, but that is a matter of opinion and not a robust political or educational case.
Mr. Benn : The other opinion that matters is clearly that of the head teachers within the authority. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that when Leeds Members have asked head teachers for their views, they have told us that, although there are things that need to be addressed, they do not recognise in its entirety the picture painted by Ofsted? Whose judgment should we trust?
Mr. Bercow : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his insertion of the words "in its entirety", by which he gave the game away. I would not accuse him of telling an untruth and I do not doubt that there are head teachers who share the view that he has just described and are unhappy with the report in its entirety. However, the response rate to the study of Leeds was very high--something like 76 per cent. A great many teachers and head teachers are concerned about the quality of the education provided.
The report was described as shocking by the chief inspector. As he said, in a proud city of 750,000 people there are 117,000 children whose hopes and legitimate expectations have been betrayed by the failures described in the report. He emphasised that, although some schools provide a good education, others need support that the local education authority fails to give them. That is a damning indictment. I am bound to say to the hon. Members for Leeds, East and for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) that they are no mere innocent bystanders in these proceedings. They both have long track records of service on Leeds city council, and both must accept some responsibility.
My principal target today is the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East. He may have been chairman of education in the city for only one year, but he was severely castigated for his record. I think it a matter of no little significance that Leeds city council's solicitor described his attempt to foist Mr. Gus John on the city as evidence of crass political judgment and said that the appearance of blatant canvassing was contrary to any notion of fairness. I do not dispute the good intentions of all hon. Members in the Chamber, or that some have
We have had no response to that pivotal change from hon. Members today. Pages 22 and 23 of the report refer to
being a potentially destabilising influence on schools.
Curiously, we were told that local councillors were able to influence the allocation of extra funds to schools in their wards. That system is not found anywhere else, according to the chief inspector, and he hopes never to come across it again. It reeks of the worst kind of pork-barrel politics, and hon. Members have no reply to that.
Mr. Truswell : Does the hon. Gentleman accept a point that I tried to make, which was that all political parties and councillors colluded in the exercise that he now denounces? Will he turn his accusation of pork-barrel politics on members of the Conservative group on Leeds city council?
Mr. Bercow : I certainly do not accept culpability on the part of the Conservative party. At the material times at which the Labour party was in control of the council, it had responsibility for the policy and determined the direction. It must be held responsible for the consequences. We need to know from the Minister what targets are to be set under the new arrangements; how, in what form and when the findings are to be published; and whether hon. Members on both sides of the House will have the opportunity to debate them. I accept that the matter is of critical significance to hon. Members who represent Leeds, as they must do their constituency duty, but I hope that they accept that it concerns the wider community and the country. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to debate it.
I shall move on to a subject that may be more welcome to some Labour Members, although that is not why I shall do so. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) tabled a parliamentary question in, I think, February. The Minister's reply suggested that in several significant respects the performance of Leeds at key stages 1, 2 and 3, GCSE and A-level was significantly better than the performances of Hackney, Hull, Islington, Liverpool and--wait for it, as it will trip off my tongue--
Mr. Bercow : The hon. Gentleman, with his unswerving knack, rightly detects that I was going to say Sheffield. It is a matter of great importance, for we know that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), has blood on his hands as far as that authority is concerned. It is a legitimate grievance of Leeds Members that they appear to have been singled out, comprehensively briefed against and rubbished in the media. They have been used as scapegoats.
The hon. Member for Leeds, East is a distinguished former Minister. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East has less defence, as he is a new Member of Parliament. Although the record of Leeds seems poor, it is not obvious that it is uniquely poor. We are entitled to ask why less attention has been given to Sheffield city council, that other rotten apple in the educational orchard of the United Kingdom. It is an authority on which--
The Secretary of State served on that authority for no fewer than 18 years, including, if memory serves me correctly, no fewer than seven years as its leader. In an Ofsted report, it is said of that authority:
That authority performs poorly in terms of its educational development plan, support for improving attendance and provision for looked-after children. Its behaviour support plan is lacking, support for ethnic minority children is regarded as unsatisfactory and provision for special educational needs is deemed to be weak. In a press release issued on 2 February, the Department for Education and Employment told us that, despite progress, the overall performance of the secondary sector in that authority remains disappointingly low. This is not acceptable.
For all his municipal misdeeds, educational vandalism and destruction of the life chances of a generation of children in Sheffield, have we heard so much as a word of apology from the lips of the Secretary of State? No. Rather, we have heard a robust, consistent and calculated denunciation of Leeds city council. That denunciation seems justified, but if we are to be balanced, fair and genuinely academic and dispassionate, we should hear why Leeds is considered to be so palpably inferior to Sheffield.
Mr. Allan : Just for the sake of the completeness of the record, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also accept that the report referred to some good signs of improvement recently evident in Sheffield, and that Sheffield may be a good case to advance the argument about why LEAs can perform well when they are subject to political competition. Sheffield became increasingly competitive as the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups became increasingly close, until the Liberal Democrats took control in 1999, and the local authority definitely improved, as the report reflects.
Mr. Bercow : Some improvement has taken place. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, although I am bound to say that the improvement starts from a low base. In case he is considering climbing on to the roof of the building and trumpeting from it the achievements of the Liberal Democrat party, I would be inclined to advise him to hold his horses, as that would be premature. Much progress remains to be achieved.
Mr. Mudie : Despite the fact that the hon. Gentleman clearly has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his sights, a more important issue in questioning Ofsted's subjectivity is the authority that the hon. Gentleman mentioned: Hull. Our primary school figures are good, as is accepted. We fail in secondary provision. Nevertheless, even in failing, our GCSE results are double those of Hull. Hull's GCSE results are about 25 per cent.; ours are in the 40s. Is that not a clear example of the subjectivity of an eccentric body that demoralises teachers and has now moved on to demoralising education authorities?
Mr. Bercow : The hon. Gentleman is wrong to pillory Ofsted. He is right to offer Hull as another example of a poorly performing authority with which he does not believe that his own compares badly, but he is wrong to attack Ofsted, which does a professional job of scrutiny and investigation. It does a proud and admirable job that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches believe that it should continue to do. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman is right to wonder continually why his authority has been targeted, and the Minister for School Standards must explain why.
The Secretary of State has not apologised for a risible record of educational mismanagement in the city of Sheffield over a long period. I have been spoilt for choice--not least because of the hon. Gentleman's helpful intervention--in terms of the number of poorly performing Labour authorities that I could cite. There is a fundamental mismatch at national level between Labour's rhetoric and the reality of its record in office at local level. Its members' words are contradicted by their deeds. They preach excellence but practise failure. The Government's position is fundamentally implausible, and I invite the Minister to reflect that that might be why people are starting to see through them, regard them with cynicism and not believe a word that Ministers utter.
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris ): First, I strongly endorse what hon. Members representing Leeds have said: I never question their commitment to Leeds children or schools. We are united in our objective to attain higher standards. I am happy to place that on the record here, as I have elsewhere.
I have had three meetings with Leeds MPs and four visits to the city over the past few months. It was a great pleasure, on my most recent visit, to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) to celebrate its schools' achievements in working with local industry. In this difficult and challenging time--more difficult than I would want--good work is going on in Leeds schools. We should find time and space to celebrate that success, as I was happy to do a few weeks ago.
Mr. Bercow : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. We can agree to differ on the issue and she can try to spin my words against me, but I did not impugn the integrity of the chief inspector of schools, of whom I have been a supporter since I came out of short trousers. I criticise the Government for the way in which they slant the evidence against one authority and seek to protect Sheffield city council. The chief inspector is an outstanding one and he deserves a better Government under which to work.
Ms Morris : The chief inspector wrote in his report on Sheffield that it was not as bad as Leeds and that it had the capacity to improve itself. We must always act on the evidence in the Ofsted report and if the hon. Gentleman goes back to the Ofsted reports, he will see that that is what we have done.
It is important to put the situation in context. Many local authorities have now been inspected and many have emerged with glowing reports: York, Warwickshire, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea, Birmingham and Camden. All those local authorities, most of which are Labour controlled, are doing a good job in supporting their schools. Hon. Members will know that we are intervening not only in Leeds, but in the 15 LEAs that have a poor standard of service, from Liverpool, where the Liberal Democrats are in control, to Islington, Hackney, Rochdale and Southwark--in a range of authorities of different political complexions. We have demonstrated that we believe that where local authorities are good, they should be praised and left to get on with it, but where they are bad, something needs to be done.
If the Government were against local authorities, the easiest thing to do would be what the previous Government did--nothing. The hon. Member for Buckingham speaks about the failure of Sheffield, but what did the previous Government do about it? Absolutely naught. If it was that bad, one wonders why they did not fulfil their responsibility over 18 years. They failed to step in when local authorities were failing and letting down schools. We have not done that. We are happy to praise some LEAs, but some LEAs are poor, and we will support them.
We have never had a debate on LEA intervention before, and I suspect that we are having one now because reaction in Leeds to the report has been different from that in the other 15 local authorities in which we have implemented intervention strategies. I
I pick up on a word used by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie). He talked about Leeds, as the hon. Member for Leeds, Central did, in an interesting way, and he meant some praise by saying that its schools were average. That is not good enough for Leeds. It is capable of better than average. It is a fine city with a proud tradition. It should be proud of its efforts to overcome the difficulties of the decline in manufacturing. It is a beacon in the north and throughout the country of excellence in the creative and expressive arts. The way in which it has grabbed that new agenda should make Leeds hope for a better than average education system. That is the kernel of the argument. Leeds can do better, and the evidence shows that all the efforts of right-minded people in the past few years have not made a difference.
We need a new set of relationships and we need to increase standards significantly within the time frame. How will we measure that increase? Being okay is no longer good enough for schools, because of the demands on them and the need to improve standards more than ever. I accept that those demands are new. New initiatives always involve risk. I was born in Manchester, and I represent part of Birmingham; places such as those and Leeds, Sheffield and Buckingham have survived only because they were prepared to try something new. I repeat my earlier comments, which were printed in the Leeds press last week. All that we can do when trying something new is stack up the odds in favour of success. I cannot promise that I have done more than that, but I promise that I have put effort into doing that properly.
I shall now discuss the example given about companies. A number of options are available. We could have outsourced, as in Islington. I am happy that Islington councillors were described as willingly agreeing to that. That relationship is good and I am happy for them to take the credit. I do not want the
Some of these companies do not themselves have a track record in education. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East was a touch selective so I shall go through some of the others, starting with Birmingham LEA, Arthur Andersen and APS Keele. My local authority in Birmingham will not go to Leeds with the intent of abolishing LEAs. Its chief education officer has spent his working life defending the right of democratically accounted people. The Centre for British Teachers is a not-for-profit provider of education services. Camden LEA is included, too. Serco has a track record not in education but in local government outsourcing. Given the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East in social exclusion, he might remember it better as "Cities in Schools", a small organisation with a valuable and proud track record of dealing with children who have been excluded from school.
The list includes people in the private sector who have expertise in management--much of what has gone wrong in Leeds is due to lack of management--but it brings together people who also have an educational expertise. We are busy building new alliances for a new challenge that is facing Leeds schools. Whether we get it right will depend on the relationship within those new partnerships and the attitude of Leeds and its schools.
In the remaining four minutes, I should like to consider democratic accountability. First, none of the money that goes to schools, which is 85 per cent. of the total schools budget on average, will go near this new company. It will go from us to the LEA and the LEA will decide the funding formula by which it goes to schools. Nothing changes that. We are talking about how the remaining 15 per cent. is spent to run the central services of Leeds LEA. The company will manage and run those services. The contract, the standards and the targets that the company should achieve will be set out by Leeds LEA, not by us, the private company or Ofsted. The democratically elected councillors will agree what the company should provide. They will hold it to account through scrutiny. They will build into that contract penalties if the company does not reach the targets and rewards if it does.
That is a clear role for Leeds local councillors. The council might not deliver those services itself, but it will ensure that they are delivered. When it next goes to the electorate it can explain what money it has given directly to schools, what it has asked the provider to do and how it made sure that the services were delivered. Its opponents will be able to argue the contrary. The
For the first time in the history of LEAs, the councillors will know what they are doing; the company will know what it is doing and the schools will know what both are doing. That will be the secret of success. There is clear accountability. Everyone knows what to expect for the money. We have devised something new in Leeds. It is a partnership and a board that is not just part of a private company, but is shared 50:50 with Leeds LEA. Although the chairman is appointed by the Secretary of State, he will come from a list compiled by Leeds LEA. The city's history has been one of meeting challenges. Leeds must put Ofsted's arguments behind it and seize this opportunity for the good of the city and its children, schools and teachers. They deserve it. Leeds has represented them well so far. Let us go forward and ensure that the new system works, so that Leeds becomes a flagship for excellent education, as it is in so many areas.