Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660 - 679)



  Q660  Mr Chaytor: Could I ask about SEN next? Parents of children with special educational needs cannot state a preference for an academy.

  Jacqui Smith: They can.

  Q661  Mr Chaytor: They can now state a preference for an academy?

  Jacqui Smith: Yes.

  Chairman: Since when? We were told—

  Q662  Mr Chaytor: Has this changed recently?

  Ruth Kelly: No. They can.

  Jacqui Smith: An academy can be included in a child's statement.

  Q663  Chairman: Can we just get this clear? We were informed at an earlier stage that that was not a right. It had to be with the acceptance of the academy to consider them.

  Ruth Kelly: It is slightly complicated. A child can name an academy on his or her statement. If the academy refuses to accept that child then I as Secretary of State can direct the academy to accept that child. It is a slightly different arrangement because the funding to the academy is directly with the Department rather than with the local authority. If it is a local authority school, if it is a foundation school or a VA school or a community school, it operates in a slightly different fashion.

  Jacqui Smith: And it is worth remembering in that context, of course, that academies have more children both with statements and without statements with special educational needs than the national average than their predecessor schools.

  Q664  Mr Chaytor: Will the same arrangements apply for trust schools? If the argument that academies are a little bit different because they are defined by the Department as independent schools, presumably that will be the same for trust schools?

  Ruth Kelly: No. Trust schools operate within the local authority framework. Trust schools are local authority maintained schools.

  Q665  Mr Chaytor: But will they be classified by the Department as independents in the way that academies are classified as independent?

  Ruth Kelly: No. They are local authority maintained schools.

  Q666  Mr Chaytor: So the issue of SEN and trust schools—

  Ruth Kelly: Does not arise at all.

  Q667  Mr Marsden: Secretary of State, when you introduced the White Paper on the floor of the House I asked you how the philosophy of the White Paper fitted in with the broad thrust of Government policy, and I mentioned in particular Every Child Matters so I want to turn to that again today. The talk of parental choice and autonomous schools has been portrayed by some people as being antipathetic to the philosophy of Every Child Matters. Can you tell us here today how the White Paper works with the grain of Every Child Matters rather than against it?

  Ruth Kelly: In fact it will give schools more flexibility because it devolves power resources to the front line to deal with the Every Child Matters agenda. The Every Child Matters agenda I hope will be developed through stronger and more autonomous trust schools than at the moment partly because they will have more flexibility to respond to it and partly because it will develop an ease of networking in the system that is currently not there. Take primary schools, for instance, which find it difficult to fulfil the extended schools obligations on their own. They have to work in partnership with other schools to deliver them. They could decide to team up together through a trust to deliver extended school services that will enable them to do that in a very quick and simple way.

  Q668  Mr Marsden: So you are telling this Select Committee that you think that the proposal for trusts will make more sense and make more effective the agenda of Every Child Matters rather than the informal federations and structures that exist at present?

  Ruth Kelly: They certainly could. We are not being prescriptive about trusts. First of all, schools will have to want them and to think it is in their interest to have them. It depends on what the local issue is that they are dealing with. It could be used to promote the Every Child Matters agenda. It could be used to promote the 14-19 delivery of the vocational education agenda, again tying in external partners in a way that it has not been possible to do before to deliver that agenda. It could be used, for instance, for secondary schools working with primary schools so that they try and overcome this issue of children when they reach secondary school falling behind, but working very closely with the agreement of schools.

  Q669  Mr Marsden: If you are so positive about the potential in the White Paper for Every Child Matters why, on the face of the White Paper, did you not make a requirement to assess schools on their achievement against the outcomes of Every Child Matters rather than just on issues to do with achievement and behaviour?

  Ruth Kelly: It is an obligation for schools and they are inspected on the basis of the Every Child Matters agenda and that will apply to trust schools just as it applies to other schools.

  Q670  Mr Marsden: So it is an absolute commitment that they will be on that basis?

  Ruth Kelly: Yes.

  Jacqui Smith: I do think it is important to remember that one of the key outcomes of the five Every Child Matters outcomes is to help children achieve better. Everything in this White Paper is about ensuring that children, and particularly some of those who have had more difficulty previously, are able to achieve. There is nothing contradictory between those objectives and the very strong objectives about raising standards and achievement in schools, and schools also increasingly understand that delivering on the other four outcomes is what is going to help their young people to achieve. It is strong, confident and autonomous schools that are able to make all the partnerships necessary in order to deliver on all of those outcomes. As Ruth says, as of this September the new Ofsted framework inspects schools explicitly on the basis on which they are able to contribute to all of those outcomes, so the accountability system already does that and that will be the case with trust schools.

  Q671  Chairman: Accountable to whom?

  Jacqui Smith: I was talking about inspection being part of the accountability mechanisms in schools. As part of the new Ofsted inspection framework—

  Q672  Chairman: Accountable to Ofsted?

  Ruth Kelly: Accountable to the citizens and users, parents and pupils, in the area, and ultimately the elected local councillors in the local authority who are responsible for delivering school standards.

  Jacqui Smith: Chairman, you know from your experience of talking to head teachers and others that what Ofsted includes in their inspection framework is a powerful driver of the significance of what is happening within schools and therefore I think it is very important that as of this September the achievement against those outcomes is included in the Ofsted framework. What we are also proposing in the White Paper is that, in order to ensure what we are confident about: that this synergy between the broader local authority responsibility with respect to developing their children's services and the contribution that school as, of course, the place that has most universal contact with most children most of the time, actually works, is that schools will have a duty as they make their own school development plans to have regard to the local authority's children and young people's plan, everything within the system that is likely to support that synergy.

  Q673  Mr Marsden: Minister, can I take you on just a little bit further from that because I would like you to look at that rhetoric—and I do not mean that in an unfair way; I mean that in its neutral sense—and apply it to a very specific situation in respect of special educational needs. We have had witnesses come before us to talk about the pros and cons of expanding schools. It is interesting that Sir Alan Steer who came before us and who, of course, has contributed very forcefully and strongly to the White Paper, actually said that he would have concerns about expanding the size of his own school. I want to deal with the practical question that, if you have a child with a statement or a special educational need and you have a system in which a school decides to enlarge, what is there to stop that enlarged school, a trust school, having policies that will bar or certainly not increase the proportion of special educational needs children in that school?

  Ruth Kelly: They have to abide by the code of practice legally. The schools adjudicator can make legally binding decisions as to whether they are complying with the code, and in the code it says they have to be fair to children with special educational needs.

  Q674  Mr Marsden: They have to take regard of it. They do not necessarily have to abide by it.

  Ruth Kelly: They have to follow it and that is determined on a legally binding basis by the adjudicator. Fair enough: if there is not an objection it will not come to light, but if they are not abiding by the code and someone objects to it, the adjudicator can legally enforce the position, so to all intents and purposes schools have to follow it.

  Q675  Mr Marsden: Is that not a rather tortuous process to have to go through, Secretary of State, and is it not a process that privileges parents who know their way through the system and might disadvantage parents, for example, from a working-class background or people who do not know their way round the system in terms of that process? Why not just have a clear-cut compulsory system that they have to obey the code of practice, not just take regard of it?

  Ruth Kelly: I think you are suggesting that the code ought to be translated into primary legislation, but correct me if I am wrong.

  Q676  Mr Marsden: Not necessarily, no.

  Ruth Kelly: Correct me if I am wrong, please do. First of all, to make it clear, the code is not translatable into law because it outlines what is poor practice and it outlines what is acceptable and good practice and therefore will be context specific. It depends very much on the location of the school. For instance, if you have got a school on the edge of a city which has feeder primaries from a rural area, it would not be appropriate to set distance from the school as the admissions criterion. In another situation that might be absolutely the right thing to do, so some flexibility within the code I think is a reasonable way of conducting this.

  Q677  Mr Marsden: Let me finally ask the question in another way. Given that there are these concerns, and they are strongly held concerns, about the implications of expansion, and given that you may or may not agree with me that the current process is a somewhat tortuous one but let us say for the sake of argument that many people out there think it is, how would you go about, other than putting it on the face of the Bill, reassuring the people that I have talked about that they would not be disadvantaged in the situation that I have described?

  Ruth Kelly: I admit the system is quite difficult to explain. I think there are advantages when all schools are on the same footing. We have a situation in which voluntary-aided schools are their own admission authorities, in which for community schools the admission arrangements are set by the local authorities, and in which foundation and trust schools are their own admission authorities, which I believe is the evidence from the adjudicator although I have not seen his evidence. When all schools are operating at the level of the school but the enforcement procedure and the framework in which they operate is set correctly, the system should be fairer to everyone than the situation at the moment. That is quite a difficult argument to explain but it is the case that having some schools in a different relationship to the local authority is not necessarily the best way of proceeding. Let me give you a very concrete example of that. If a community school, where the local authority sets its own admission arrangements, is named on a statement of special educational needs and refuses to take that child, the local authority cannot object to that and direct that school to take that child because it is a community school. If a voluntary-aided school named on a statement refused to take a statemented child the local authority can direct it to take that child. That is quite a complicated system. If all schools were their own admission authorities the relationship between the person who is responsible for strategy and the schools who set their own criteria becomes clearer and easier to manage.[3]

Local authorities may also ask the Secretary of State to intervene in cases where they have determined that child should be admitted to a community or voluntary controlled school, but the school has not complied with that decision. There have been occasions when the Secretary of State has had to direct that a child be admitted to a particular community school which has resisted a pupil's admission.

  Q678  Mr Marsden: It becomes clearer in that context, Secretary of State. I can think of lots of other areas where people might think it has sown confusion. Regardless of that will you give this Committee an undertaking that in drawing up any legislation on the back of the White Paper you will have due regard, as you yourself has said, to some of the difficulties and complexities of the present situation because I think there is a genuine concern that if that does not happen the overall objective that you are trying to achieve will be vitiated?

  Jacqui Smith: You set this question in the context of school expansions and I suspect you also set it in the context of new schools.

  Q679  Mr Marsden: I did not mention new schools. I was specifically talking about expanding schools.

  Jacqui Smith: Let us take the issue of school expansions. One of the important things to remember, of course, about school expansions, where they are beyond increasing the intake of 26 pupils or they are at an expansion of more than 25% of the school, is that they will go through a statutory process and one of the things that we are strengthening in the White Paper is the expectation that as part of that process the admissions arrangements will be part of the consideration of the approval of that particular statutory process, so already in the White Paper, both with respect to the proposals made about new schools and the proposals made in respect to expansion, we are, if you like, strengthening the certainty that you are looking for, that the admissions arrangements in those schools will be fair and will not disadvantage a child with special educational needs or other children or young people within that area. That is a strengthening of the current regime.

3   Note by Witness-While legislation on admission of children with statements of special educational need requires a school to admit a child with an SEN statement naming that school, local; authorities also have statutory powers to support them in placing other children. Provision in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 gives them powers to direct foundation and voluntary aided schools to admit named chldren for whom no other school is available. In some cases, this may be children who have special educational needs but do not have a statement. Back

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