Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680
MONDAY 19 DECEMBER 2005
MP, RT HON
MP, AND MR
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
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 needwell, 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
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
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 nowit certainly is happening
in lots of schoolswhy do we need a major change in the
governance arrangements? In what way will that improve educational
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
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
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
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
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'
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.