Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740
MONDAY 19 DECEMBER 2005
MP, RT HON
MP, AND MR
Q740 Chairman: Why do you have to
drag it out as a new title? Some people who have given evidence
to the Committee have said, "On the one hand you have democratic
accountability. On the other hand, you have all these non-elected
democratic organisations: the Learning and Skills Council, Ofsted,
the adjudicator." None of them is elected and now you have
a Schools Commissioner on top. If you are going to have a balance
between democratically answerable elected and non-elected, the
balance is going over here too far.
Ruth Kelly: I do not quite accept
that. Having a clearly defined Schools Commissioner will help
simplify the system and make it obvious to all concerned who is
dealing with these issues. The Schools Commissioner is directly
there to advise me on my powers.
Q741 Mr Marsden: With respect, we
have asked other witnesses about the role of the Schools Commissioner.
They are extremely confused. They believe that there is, to put
it at its kindest, an innate tension between the business of regulating
or advising on powers and promoting. If I had said to you in other
circumstances, for example in Ofsted, that Ofsted should promote
a particular approach as well as regulating it, I suspect you
or some DfES civil servant would have cut me off at the knees;
yet on this particular issue you are proposing to keep it in-house.
By keeping it in-house, are you not fuelling the concerns of those
people who say, "This is not going to be an objective process
at all because the civil servant will come and go through whatever
door the Government wants it to go through at any particular moment"?
Ruth Kelly: What we are trying
to do is clarify within the Department who is responsible for
dealing with these issues. It will help people outside the Department
to know who to deal with. It seems sensible to me that the Schools
Commissioner, who is the person who knows the team working with
us in the Department, who understands best local contexts and
situations because they are dealing with setting up trusts and
so forth, is also the same person who advises me on when things
are clearly not going well.
Q742 Mr Marsden: Let me be blunt
about this. The concerns that have been expressed both formally
and informally to this Committee and to others are that the role
of the Schools Commissioner, particularly in respect of local
authorities, might appear to be that of an enforcer. The Schools
Commissioner would go along and say, "You are not doing very
well on your trusts in this particular area. You are not fulfilling
a government programme. What is going to happen to your investment
in Building Schools for the Future?" I am not saying this
is what would happen. I am saying these are the concerns that
are being expressed. In those circumstances, why does it not make
sense if you need a Schools Commissioner for that Schools Commissioner
to be external to the Department and therefore the advice that
he or she gives can be entirely transparent and not subject to
the vagaries of the Department's pressures on a day-to-day basis?
Ruth Kelly: There are two different
points there. One is do we need to create a whole new bureaucracy
for dealing with trusts. I personally do not think so. I think
we can just deal with this in the way that we have dealt with
the academies programme within the Department in a much less bureaucratic
and more cost-effective manner. The other is: is the Schools Commissioner
going to be able to force local authorities to go down the trust
route? Schools have to choose to be part of a trust.
Q743 Chairman: We all knowand
you have confirmed the reportsin terms of city academies
that when a local authority wants a package for Building Schools
for the Future someone in your Department leans on them pretty
Ruth Kelly: We have discussions
about academies separately but academies are new schools. We are
here talking about schools, governing bodies, choosing to adopt
a trust where they think it is in their interests. The relationship
is entirely different.
Q744 Mr Marsden: Given that you have
said that you see the role of the Schools Commissioner as being
an enabler and matchmaker with local authorities and given that
you have said that you would like to see local authorities taking
an initiative in that area, do we then take it that the Schools
Commissioner has a time expired role and that when you see that
more local authorities are taking up the chase there will not
be a need for the role of the Schools Commissioner as a promoter
Ruth Kelly: There are always going
to be institutions out there who would like to come and discuss
these sorts of issues with someone at the centre rather than a
particular local authority because they might not know how best
to get involved. That is currently the experience of the academy
programme, for example. The sorts of organisations that might
want to be involved with trusts might be broader but it is quite
important that there is someone at least that they can talk to,
who they know has authority.
Q745 Chairman: Do you not see the
point that the Committee is trying to make to you? You have now
explained the Schools Commissioner as not being high profile,
not being that powerful and yet you call him the Schools Commissioner.
People who come here do not see the Schools Commissioner as some
little not very important figure. Our Committee have discussed
this informally. Does he or she report to this Committee? If he
does not answer to this Committee I cannot think of anywhere else
he or she can.
Ruth Kelly: It is an appointment
within the Department, responsible to the Secretary of State for
advising the Secretary of State on their powers as well as to
match make trusts.
Chairman: It is probably another job for Sir
Q746 Mr Wilson: Is it essential to
the White Paper's reforms that all trust schools should become
their own admissions authorities?
Ruth Kelly: It is one of the flexibilities
already in the system and we have no proposals to change that.
Q747 Dr Blackman-Woods: One of the
areas of controversy and one of the areas needing further clarification
is the role of the local authority. Can you tell us how much of
a difference there will be in practice if local authorities move
to be commissioners of education rather than providers?
Ruth Kelly: I hope that this will
enable local authorities to focus more on their strategic role
than they do at the moment. The best already do this but it will
enable that to happen more widely. For instance, to look at special
needs children, to see where the provision for SEN units are across
the locality and to look at all schools on the same footing, whether
they be community schools, trust schools or VA schools and to
propose units at the schools that best meet the requirements of
local children. They cannot do that at the moment. They are able
to place looked after children, for example, in a school that
meets the needs of those children best, no matter what the status
of the school is. That enables them to focus more clearly on their
role in school improvement, not just community schools but all
schools in the local area. We are proposing a new warning notice
or improvement notice system which is much less bureaucratic than
the process they have at the moment, where they tell me that it
is virtually impossible to get into a school that does not want
them to come in, even where it is absolutely clear to everyone
that that school is on the slide and letting down the pupil concerned.
Q748 Dr Blackman-Woods: Would it
be fair and accurate to conclude that if few schools become trust
schools the provider role of the local authority will continue
much as it is at the moment?
Ruth Kelly: We would like over
time to move to a situation in which that role is clearer but
about a third of schools are voluntary-aided schools at the moment.
There are some foundation schools as well and in certain local
authorities over 70% of secondary children are educated in schools
with their own admission arrangements, for example.
Jacqui Smith: We are intending
in the legislation to change the nature of the duty placed on
local authorities which is quite an important shift. At the moment,
the basis of the local authority's responsibility with respect
to the planning it does for school places is about providing sufficient
school places. We are intending to add to that a specific charge
that they should actively promote choice, diversity and fair access
and that they should have a duty to respond to parental concerns
and parents. That is the legal manifestation of what is quite
an important shift in the mindset and the nature of what the role
of the local authority should be. Very many good local authorities
will already see themselves as the representatives of parents
and pupils within the system as opposed to the representatives
of the schools that they provide which frankly, given the progress
that we have made on delegating responsibility and funding to
schools, even before we get to the changes proposed in this White
Paper, becomes much less significant. Clarity of their role both
as a strategic planner and as a champion of parents and pupils
is an important opportunity for local authorities and has certainly
been seen as one by them. Underneath that come the variety of
roles with respect to school improvement, and other areas that
we have spelt out in the White Paper.
Q749 Dr Blackman-Woods: I think it
might be helpful to have a bit more clarity either written into
the Bill or into explanatory notes stating where the main changes
are. Could I draw your attention to line nine in the White Paper?
It says, "Local authorities will need to plan how many schools
their local area needs, where and how big they need to be, what
kind of schools will serve the area best and who the schools should
serve." That to some people sits uneasily with the idea of
trust schools being able to set their own admissions and decide
whether they are going to expand and focus in their mission on
a particular set of children, for example. We need some additional
clarity about how line nine sits with chapter two.
Ruth Kelly: We are all the time
trying to provide that clarity in our discussions with people
and provide extra detail as we go along. Last week we published
a fact sheet by the Department on local authority strategic planning
and the Schools White Paper which I can make available to the
Committee, which dealt with some of those really detailed issues
about school organisation and how it fits in with the role of
more devolution to the front line.
Q750 Dr Blackman-Woods: We will leave
that there for the moment but I hope it has highlighted there
are still some areas where there may be a perceived contradiction
that needs further explanation about how that paragraph can sit
with a lot more autonomy for schools.
Jacqui Smith: One of the things
Ruth made very clear at the beginning was the opportunity that
this White Paper provides us to bring much more clarity to the
situation with respect to where we have got to in terms of the
delegation of responsibility to all schools, not just to those
schools that are foundation, voluntary-aided or in the future
will be trust schools. What does that imply for what the democratically
elected, strategic planning function of the local authority should
be? I would argue that in chapter nine of the White Paper we outline
pretty clearly what we envisage that role being, how we see it
changing, what that will mean in terms of the way in which we
set down the legislation. What we are engaged with at the moment
is that, having set down what the vision of that local authority
role should be, we want to engage with local government about
what would then be the suitable powers or the necessary changes
in order to make a reality of that. It is that vision of what
the local authority role could be that is increasingly being recognised
and welcomed by local authority leaders.
Dr Blackman-Woods: I was not suggesting there
was not enough clarity in chapter nine. I am suggesting there
may be other bits of the White Paper that to some are not clear,
as to how they fit with chapter nine.
Q751 Chairman: Minister, before you
move off that point and Roberta continues with a different question.
Your answer is really revealing, I am going to read it again at
leisure when the transcript comes out. This is the problem, is
it not: large numbers of people who look to the White Paper say
here is all this emphasis on the parent, and they say, "This
might be interesting. It may be one way to harness parent power
to improve schools, standards and everything else", but who
speaks for the students who do not have articulate, pushy parents?
Who does that? You have given the answer, Minister, it should
be the local authority. You have just said it. But it is not in
the White Paper clearly as the countervailing power.
Jacqui Smith: It is.
Q752 Chairman: With respect, Secretary
of State, it is not. Somebody should count how many times you
and the Minister have used the word "clarity" today.
The essential problem has been the lack of clarity about that
Jacqui Smith: I am glad you think
I was clear.
Q753 Chairman: You were. You were
inspiring. I am hanging on your every word.
Jacqui Smith: Oh dear, I am going
to have to read what I said as well, I think. I would not quite
agree with you that the only repository to be a voice for the
parents of those who have not been involved previously is the
local authority. What I think we spell out clearly in the White
Paper is also the increasing role for schools as well to engage
with parents, to reach out to those parents, which some schools
already very successfully do, who have not found it easy to engage
with their schools. It is not a responsibility that is vested
solely in local authorities, it is also vested in schools.
Q754 Chairman: When I said countervailing
power, fine. I am not putting down pushy parents or ambitious
parents or well-organised parents, but if they are running the
school they have got a lot of power within the school and that
is when the school is not going to be a countervailing power and
that is when you need somebody outside. The only naivety I find
in reading this section, Secretary of State, is this one. If there
is this expression of parental wishes, that is not always in the
common good, is it? Many parents want what is good for their children
and their children might be the children like them, or their children,
middle class professionals. I am just speculating. Someone has
got to speak out for the kids who cannot get into the school.
Ruth Kelly: I can think of different
situations in which parents are right and should be able to have
their voice heard very, very clearly in the system at the moment.
The first is when there is a shortage of school places. We have
got that issue in some parts of the country at the moment but
not in all parts. It is good practice for the local authority
to engage with those parents and to try and deal with their concerns,
but it does not always happen. You can certainly envisage a situation
in which it is right that the local authority should listen to
the concerns of those parents and try to make sure that educational
provision is there. I can think of parents, perhaps, with a particular
faith adherence who think, for instance, there is not a Church
of England school in their area and they really would like to
see that provision. Again, I think the local authority should
listen to those parents and if they have got a good argument should
think about how to deal with it. Obviously if they have not got
a good argument then they would not have to, but they should deal
with those parents. I also think that if, for example, a school
is clearly not serving the pupils and parents well, then parents
will probably, particularly in the secondary system, make a fuss
about that failure.
Q755 Chairman: In this new age, if
you have a school, and it may be a faith school because there
is not a good track record in this respect in terms of faith schools,
an Anglican or Roman Catholic school that we know is taking a
very small percentage of children with free school mealsI
put it as simply as thatsay 3%, and outside in that community
there may be 15 or 20%, we all know that by some filtering system,
"Kids not like our kids are not getting into that school",
under the new regime, under the White Paper converting into a
Bill, how do you deal with that?
Ruth Kelly: The local authority
should refer that school to the adjudicator. First of all it should
be discussed by the Admissions Forum and if it is not satisfactorily
dealt with through the Admissions Forum, the local authority should
object or, indeed, a neighbouring school. The record of the schools
adjudicator is very, very sound on these issues. The vast majority
of cases are dealt with quickly. The results of the decisions
of the adjudicator are legally binding and it can be sorted out
for the next admission round.
Q756 Dr Blackman-Woods: Back to exploring
clarity. You say in chapter nine that local authorities will continue
to have the role of ensuring that no child is left without a school
place, so will all schools be compelled to take pupils if the
local authority thinks that needs to happen? Will that include
academies or not? Certainly will it include trusts?
Ruth Kelly: I will come to academies
in a moment because they are independent schools and have a relationship
with the Department. If a child has a statement they can name
the school and the local authority maintained school, no matter
what its status, has to accept that child. If it is a child who
is looked after then we intend to lay regulation so that the looked
after child will have priority as well. If there is a child without
a place then the local authority can direct that a particular
school takes that child unless, of course, it is a community school
that is not accepting the child, in which case they cannot both
set the criteria and object to it. Personally, I think that is
a problem that needs to be dealt with. As schools increasingly
move to set their own admissions then the local authority's strategic
role will be enhanced.
Q757 Dr Blackman-Woods: I was wondering
whether they can direct the trust to take the child and that then
cuts across the argument about whether they are truly independent
Ruth Kelly: Academies are on a
different basis, as I was saying, it is the Department that would
need to sort those issues out in particular cases, but they can
be named on statements and so forth.
Jacqui Smith: 50% of authorities
have already developed arrangements with all the schools within
their authority, own admission schools and community schools,
to take even when they are full particularly hard to place pupils.
Q758 Dr Blackman-Woods: My last question
on local authorities is really how open are you to suggestions
about how the role of local authorities could be altered, perhaps
not precisely as you outline in chapter nine, to enable the commissioner
role but with perhaps not as much independence for the schools?
Ruth Kelly: I think the basis
of these proposals set out in the White Paper is that there should
be more devolution to the front line and as a direct consequence
of that, as it were, there should be a more strategic role given
to the local authority. I think they are two parts of the same
story with clearly a new settlement between schools and the local
Q759 Helen Jones: Just a very quick
question, Secretary of State. The White Paper talks about parents
wanting to set up schools and makes it clear that, in a difference
from what happens now, the presumption is that the parent asks
and the local authority, if it deems there is support for that
proposal, should have to provide the support in developing it
and the land. How do you envisage the local authority testing
that support bearing in mind that one group of parents may want
the school, others may not, and that many authorities, far from
being short of school places, are in a situation with falling
rolls? Do you believe that an authority should be empowered to
refuse such a proposal if it believes it is in the wider public
interest to do so?
Ruth Kelly: Absolutely. We have
been clear about this in the White Paper. What we want to do in
this White Paper is change the mindset of local authorities so
that they are out there really engaging with the local communities
and talking to parents about what is needed. I have said this
already so I do not want to repeat it in great depth. Under what
circumstances do I think this will be particularly important are
(a) where there is a shortage of school places, (b) where there
is a lack of particular provision in a local area and (c) where
the school is letting its pupils down and they have not taken
the action to correct that. In each and every case they have got
to look at the value for money, they have got to think about how
that fits with their strategic school organisation role and they
take the decision.
6 Not printed. Back
Note by Witness-Local authorities have powers to direct
schools that are their own admission authority (ie foundation
and voluntary-aided schools) to admit a named child. These existing
powers will also enable them to issue direction orders to trust
schools (See Q677). Back