Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680 - 699)



  Q680  Mr Marsden: But do you not accept, Secretary of State, and you yourself have dwelt at some length on it here this afternoon, and I am glad you have, that, given these complexities, you have your work cut out to explain that to people?

  Ruth Kelly: I do. I think it is a very complex thing to explain to people. I also happen to think that a flexible code within a stronger framework which has legal force is the right way to go.

  Q681  Chairman: But quite honestly, Secretary of State, I think you are ducking and weaving a bit here, both of you, in the sense that this is a very complex area. You have recently changed the law in respect of looked-after children. Everyone understands that now you cannot evade your responsibilities in terms of what we used to call children in care and now looked-after children right across the piste, including grammar schools. That added a clarity that everybody is very comfortable with and everyone understands. They do not understand all the stuff that you have been replying to Gordon about, and I feel sorry for people watching this at home, as they say, because they were probably gripped by this up till now, but quite honestly there must be a better way. You say, Secretary of State, that you have not seen the schools adjudicator, Philip Hunter's evidence to this Committee. He thinks that the weakness of the system is that the whistleblower is only someone who objects as a parent to the system and that what you really need—well, this is what Philip Hunter said. He thought that if local authorities could object,—

  Jacqui Smith: They can.

  Q682  Chairman: As they can object, but if they had a responsibility to object, if you made it a duty for them to object and to scrutinise,—here we are, all grown up people, we all know something about this educational sector. Surely these rules, even without a full statutory framework, could be a lot clearer and a lot firmer in people's minds?

  Ruth Kelly: That is precisely why we are trying to clarify the local authority's role. In the past there has been confusion between their role with community schools as opposed to their role with other schools in the local area. Over time we would like them to focus more and more on the right and proper strategic role, which of course includes admissions. Indeed, one of the duties that they will have will be to ensure fair access to schools in their area. They will still have the duty of co-ordinating admissions through admissions forums, for example, and indeed they can and sometimes do object about school admission arrangements to the adjudicator, and that is properly what they should be doing as the strategic architect.

  Q683  Chairman: I hear what you say but you made quite a lot of play in your opening remarks about this being clearly articulated. I came back to you and said, "Look: a lot of people are confused about what the White Paper says", and I do challenge you that if you listen to what you have just said and go back to the White Paper it is not very clear to most people what the Government is saying. As you have just said, it may have explained it to some degree but, reading the White Paper, it is very unclear that this is a better, clearer, simpler and fairer system.

  Ruth Kelly: Let me just take the point that you made about local authorities. A number of local authority leaders have come to me and said that they loved Chapter 9, which is about the local authority role, because it clearly articulates what the vision of the local authority is in the future, which is to be the strategic leader of their communities, in charge of regenerating local areas and where they should provide civic leadership and so forth. It sets in that context what their strategic role should be in relationship to schools, to school standards, to diversity and access and so forth. It strengthens their role in school improvement because in a proportional sense, where a school is weak but not in special measures, they should be able to get involved and they are not able to get involved at the moment.

  Q684  Chairman: Surely the code of conduct can be explained, by the time we get to the Bill, and clearly articulated as to what the rules are, so that it is absolutely understandable to every player including Members of this Committee?

  Ruth Kelly: There are always areas that were not covered in the White Paper where people sometimes jump to the conclusion therefore that things have been abolished or we have changed our policy. Just because it was not mentioned, somehow something had changed. It is a task in a White Paper to try and bring out the important changes and reflect existing policy. There is always a balance to be drawn between the two but just because something is not highlighted in the White Paper does not suddenly mean that there is a change.

  Q685  Chairman: This is why all the horses have been frightened because from this White Paper, uniquely it seems, no one really knows quite what they are left with in terms of their powers and responsibilities.

  Ruth Kelly: For instance, a lot of people have discussed with me the school reorganisation powers in respect of the Building Schools for the Future programme and local authorities. We do not go into that in detail in the White Paper because none of the powers have changed. Last week, I set out a fact sheet taking everybody through all the little bits in detail because obviously local authorities are involved in this process. It matters enormously to them. They are managing to get significant investment into their schools and they want the reassurance that that is not going to be disrupted.

  Q686  Chairman: You can understand there has been a serious communications failure here?

  Ruth Kelly: I understand the message you are giving me about being able to communicate this better and I take that on board.

  Q687  Helen Jones: We have heard what you said about trusts earlier but the key question surely is what evidence is there that trusts will raise educational standards, particularly for the most disadvantaged children? Is it a leap in the dark or is there some firm evidence?

  Ruth Kelly: There is a lot of evidence that binding in external partners and working with external partners helps raise standards. We have seen that through everything we have been doing since 1998. We have been devolving power, responsibility and resources but we have also been encouraging schools to work with local partners, local businesses, local charities and others who have an interest in education to improve standards of governance and provide extra expertise in schools. What this does is just take it a step further by giving all schools the opportunities that are there at the moment for voluntary-aided schools. Look at the evidence, for instance, on specialist schools. It is pretty clear that working with an external partner, not just from individual conversations that all of us have with our schools, makes a real difference. If we also look at the evidence on specialist school performance, there is a clear specialist school dividend. If we look at what has happened in the academies programme, we see in a very short space of time a transformation in educational standards. Across the board in recent years academies have improved their performance by about 5% at GCSE level each year. I know we have had a debate about academies and whether they were the same children as in their predecessor schools. At GCSE level, they are exactly the same children as in their predecessor schools because the new intake comes in in year seven and will not have had time to be affected by the changes.

  Q688  Helen Jones: I do not want to reopen the debate about academies except to say perhaps it is worth looking at the evidence Professor Beaumont gave us in the last session. Community schools now work with external partners; they work in federations; they harness energy and expertise out there in the community. If they are doing it now, why do they need a trust?

  Ruth Kelly: Because we are trying to reach a new settlement with schools and define the relationship properly between what should happen at the front line and what should normally happen at the level of the strategic role of the local authority. Over time we want to move increasingly in that direction although clearly we will not be forcing schools to go down this route. We want them to choose to opt into it if there is something that can add value to their results. You are right. Lots of this can happen individually at the moment but it is quite hard to make it happen. Not all schools have the same flexibilities. That causes confusion in the system. VA schools, for instance, can appoint the majority of governors; foundation schools cannot. Foundation schools, trust schools, can own their own assets and so forth; community schools do not. We are trying to bring some coherence to the system so that issues that are best dealt with by the local authority or by the adjudicator are dealt with on that level rather than having this confusion of roles within the system.

  Q689  Helen Jones: I do not quite follow that because if schools can do all these things now why do we need a major change in the governance arrangements? If it is happening in the best schools now—it certainly is happening in lots of schools—why do we need a major change in the governance arrangements? In what way will that improve educational outcomes?

  Ruth Kelly: Because we are trying to get the best of what is there at the moment and make it available as easily as we can to all schools. We have seen the difference that working with an external partner can make to schools, usually in the case of specialist schools. They do not at the moment have the opportunity that is available to voluntary-aided schools for appointing the majority of governors. They also do not have the opportunity to network quickly across the system. When you are talking about raising the achievement of a group of schools, for instance through the 14-19 agenda, quickly and easily, it might well be that the easiest way to do that is through a trust and by binding those external partners into a permanent relationship with those groups of schools rather than trying to rely on ad hoc support.

  Q690  Helen Jones: Let us have a look at that permanent relationship because at the moment you are quite right: some schools work with external partners but those external partners do not have the majority of places on the governing body. If a school wishes to become a trust when it is at the moment a community school and it has to consult before it becomes a trust, who should it consult? The answer your Department gave me on that said, "We will specify it in regulations." Is it not right that we should know exactly who will have a say in such a thing before there is such a fundamental change in the school structure?

  Ruth Kelly: We have been pretty clear about this and there is a fast track to foundation status already in law. Schools, after consulting with parents, can decide by a simple vote of the governing body to become a foundation school. Where they adopt a trust, what we are proposing is through the Bill to put in place safeguards because voluntary-aided schools already have that power. They can appoint the majority of governors, but if it is to become more widespread we think there should be safeguards built into primary legislation and that is why we are proposing to take those powers. We have also said that there should be certain duties in relation to trusts like promoting social cohesion, promoting good race relations and so forth just to make sure that this operates in a sensible way. All we are doing is applying the situation that is currently there in voluntary-aided schools and making it available to schools of a non-religious character.

  Q691  Helen Jones: Would they have to consult the parents of the children already at school or the parents of children at feeder primary schools?

  Ruth Kelly: We will put out illustrative regulations obviously when this is in committee but we are proposing a situation in which schools will consult with parents and, if the local authority has a serious concern about that trust, they are able to object to it. The local authority will have a big say in whether it is a suitable trust arrangement.

  Q692  Helen Jones: Who would the local authority object to? Would that be the commissioner?

  Ruth Kelly: It would be the adjudicator.

  Q693  Helen Jones: You said you wanted to harness the energy and expertise that was out there in the community. If a community school becomes a trust, parents for example will have fewer representatives on the governing body than they would in a community school and the trust would have the majority, even though that trust might not necessarily be—

  Ruth Kelly: That is not quite right. There is the same number of parent governors on a trust governing body as there currently are on a community school.

  Q694  Helen Jones: They would not be elected governors. There is a difference.

  Ruth Kelly: Exactly. The issue is that there could be as few as one elected representative which is a reduction from the situation at the moment. It does not have to be a reduction but it could be which is why we are proposing to build in the Parents' Council to make sure that there is a wider representation of parental voice in the system as an additional check and balance. Lots of people have views about whether elected parents on school governing bodies are that representative of the parental body as a whole or indeed whether there are many volunteers to fill those roles. It might well be the case that parents are more likely to want to get involved in a Parents' Council and you could have a more representative body, including some of the more hard to reach children and parents being consulted through that mechanism which has less executive responsibility for running schools but this is just one model that we are proposing.

  Q695  Helen Jones: Why should non-elected parent governors be more representative than elected ones?

  Ruth Kelly: That is not the argument that I was making. I was saying if you reduce the number of elected parent governors, even though there are still a number of parent governors at the school, you might for instance not get people volunteering to stand for election, which is the case in some situations. It is only right that there is the check and balance to make sure that a representative parent voice is heard, that consultation is made with parents and that a Parents' Council should be set up. If a school does not go down the trust route, they can do that anyway if they like.

  Q696  Helen Jones: A Parents' Council, as I understand it, is not a decision making body, is it?

  Ruth Kelly: No, but it has to be consulted. The model that we are adopting is the one that is used in VA schools at the moment for the composition of the governing body.

  Q697  Helen Jones: It is indeed but they do not have Parents' Councils. What is going to be the way of resolving any dispute between a governing body and a Parents' Council?

  Ruth Kelly: We are just saying that the Parents' Council needs to be consulted and we will be setting out exactly what sort of issues it should cover. We hope it would be a fairly informal relationship and that they test the different policies, but governing bodies have a duty to respond to concerns expressed by the Parents' Council.

  Jacqui Smith: This is quite a considerable broadening of the ways in which parents can become involved in the broader sense in the governance of their schools. At the moment, legally, it is pretty limited to your parental representation on a governing body. My view and what I think quite a few parents would say is that whilst in some circumstances that is an important representation very many parents want to engage with their schools in a different way, which is why research that we commissioned into Parents' Councils showed that, as we have suggested for quite a few parents, a more informal way but nevertheless a way that involved in some cases potentially decisions delegated from the governing body to that Council is one way in which you engage more parents. That is why we are also proposing a duty on the governing body to respond to parental concerns more broadly and it is why we are looking as well at a whole range of ways in which as an individual parent you can get better information about your own child's learning and the way in which you can support that. I do not think there is a magic bullet for parental engagement in schools but what we do know is that it makes a difference. That is the reason for opening up the opportunities for parents in the way in which we are.

  Q698  Helen Jones: We might want to come back to that. What will happen if a trust fails as opposed to a school failing?

  Ruth Kelly: It will be subject to all the usual school improvement regimes.

  Q699  Helen Jones: No; the trust, not the school.

  Ruth Kelly: It will be removed.

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