Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 740 - 759)



  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 know—and you have confirmed the reports—in 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 heavily.

  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 and matchmaker?

  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 Cyril Taylor.

  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.[6]

  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 relationship.

  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 meals—I put it as simply as that—say 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.[7]

  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 or not?

  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 authority.

  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

7   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

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