Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760 - 779)



  Q760  Helen Jones: Why the change then? Local authorities can do that now, why does the White Paper specifically say that the presumption should be with the parents?

  Ruth Kelly: Because local authorities can do it now but often do not. That is what we are trying to address. There are good local authorities are out there engaged in their local communities really working to make this happen, but there are some that do not do it sufficiently well and that is the challenge. We want everyone everywhere to do this properly and well. It has worked well for children's trusts.

  Jacqui Smith: That is part of the reason for changing the legal duty, of course, because you could argue that you do not have that legal duty as a local authority but you will not be able to argue that after the legislation.

  Q761  Helen Jones: Do you accept that there may well be a conflict of interest, that a group of one parents in one area of a local authority might feel the need for a new school but that might have an effect on the school down the road, and it is the local authority's duty to look at the wider public interest?

  Ruth Kelly: Absolutely, and they will, and they will have to take into account the wider public duty because they are responsible for the use of public funds and all of those issues.

  Jacqui Smith: In fact, we already made it explicit in the guidance we give to decision makers who should be consulted and what factors, including the impact on standards in the area and on other schools that should be taken into consideration.

  Chairman: We have got one last very important section to deal with and we are running out of time, but a very quick one from Rob on this first.

  Q762  Mr Wilson: You may remember last time I asked you about school expansion and I am still waiting with bated breath for a reply to my letter of mid-October following that session. I hope that a reminder will mean that one will be winging its way to me very quickly. You said just then that one of the reasons you would support school expansion was in terms of shortage of places, but what if there are—it follows along similar lines to questions from Helen Jones—already surplus places in an area, and quite a number of surplus places? Would that mean that the old surplus places rule continues to exist as it has done previously.

  Ruth Kelly: There is no surplus places rule. That does not mean to say that a local authority is not responsible for good use of public funds and they do not have to take into account the value for money arguments associated with new school buildings and so forth. That is not a change from the current system.

  Mr Wilson: That surprises me because my local authority still believe there is a surplus places rule and the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time not so long ago said that you had just abolished it, admitting that, therefore, there had been a surplus places rule. Again, if we go back to the very start of the session you can see why there seems to be this confusion amongst people and even amongst this Committee as to whether something is as you say it is.

  Chairman: Who are you asking that to?

  Q763  Mr Wilson: The Secretary of State might be a start.

  Ruth Kelly: The Prime Minister did not say that. That is not the situation. There is not a surplus places rule and sensible decisions have to be taken. Just to expand on this point a little: we can argue about how it operates but the way the organisation operates through the school organisation committee is that the institutions themselves take decisions about school expansion. That means it is quite often the case that a school will not even put forward a proposal if it thinks neighbouring head teachers will not like it very much. I do not think that is the right way to operate. I do not think we should base decisions on what institutions think, we should base decisions on the public interest and the interest of children, educational standards and so forth. Therefore, I think that the local authority is better placed to take that decision than the school organisation committee, because it can take that decision on the basis of what is in pupils' best interests.

  Jacqui Smith: It is interesting that the 2002 Education Act allowed community schools, for example, also to put forward proposals for expansion.

  Q764  Mr Wilson: Would you encourage a local authority to say no to an expansion of a popular school if there were surplus places in an area?

  Ruth Kelly: I do not think that should be the sole criterion on which it is judged, absolutely not. First of all, I want to encourage schools that have sensible proposals to make to put them forward so that they are objectively assessed and the local authority takes the decision on the best interests of pupils in the area. Then I think the local authority should look at those proposals, think, "Yes" and forefront in their mind be that this would create more good school places and, therefore, the presumption should be that it is a sensible good proposition, but also take into account the impact on neighbouring schools and on overall standards in the area and to weigh those things up.

  Chairman: I have got to draw a line under that because we must deal with choice. There has been much discussion and much evidence before this Committee on the relationship between expanding choice and diversity of provision and social segregation. We have had some worrying evidence from some academics that there is research out there which shows that greater choice actually increases social segregation. Jeff is going to lead on this.

  Jeff Ennis: Thank you, Chairman. It is going back to the principle, Secretary of State, of where the trust model came from. There has been a lot of speculation that it came from the Swedish model. I know the Chairman likes Swedish models, for example!

  Chairman: A jibe too far.

  Q765  Jeff Ennis: The evidence coming out of Sweden is where you increase parental choice it leads to further segregation and that works against the children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is evidence that has come from both the academic witnesses we have had and also representatives from the trade unions. Is it the Swedish model that we are going to make the mistake of following, shall I say?

  Ruth Kelly: Before I came to this job at one point I strangely enough studied the evidence on segregation in Sweden. What I can tell the Committee is that this is not based on the Swedish model. The critical thing here is that we have more autonomy for the schools, or at least the ability to take up that autonomy, and we have a very clear framework in which that autonomy operates. We are absolutely clear, for instance, about fair admissions. They have to operate within the code of fair admissions, and also in funding all maintained schools have to be on the same local funding formula and they have to deal fairly with looked after children and children with statements and children with special educational needs. I have looked at the evidence but I am not expert on how each school in Sweden operates but I am convinced it is very different.

  Q766  Chairman: If not Sweden, what about charter schools in the United States?

  Ruth Kelly: I have never had the opportunity to study charter schools.

  Q767  Chairman: There is a parliamentary question here, a reply to Dr Alan Whitehead from Bill Rammell and from Jacqui Smith talking about the Milwaukee charter schools in Jacqui Smith's case and the Minnesota State Education officials who visited the UK and the Department talked to. Is it not this evidence from the United States that informed you?

  Ruth Kelly: Absolutely not.

  Jacqui Smith: I think the specific question was whether or not anybody had ever visited or had ever come to the Department. Well, they had, but then the Yemeni Education Minister has visited me. I have visited Jordan and I have visited Germany. We get out and about in the Department. I think the key point about this White Paper is that it is grown in this country and it has grown from our experience.

  Q768  Chairman: We understand that but the charter schools were much talked about.

  Jacqui Smith: No.

  Q769  Chairman: If you ask colleagues they believe that the charter schools were—

  Ruth Kelly: I must honestly tell you, Chairman, before they were mentioned recently by some of my colleagues, and I am talking about in the last few weeks, I had never had a discussion about charter schools.

  Q770  Chairman: But there is a member of your team who knows a lot about charter schools, you admit that.

  Ruth Kelly: I do not know about that actually because I have never studied the charter school model as I have actually studied the Swedish school model at one time. I can tell you there is not much similarity between what we are proposing here and there. Since then, however, in the last few weeks I have had a brief discussion on one or two occasions about charter schools just to find out how they operate and, again, they are entirely different from what we are trying to do which is operate schools within the local framework where the local authority has strategic responsibility. As far as I understand it, charter schools are completely outside that framework.

  Q771  Chairman: The view is that a bit of this White Paper came from Number 10 and a little bit came from the Department for Education and Skills. Could it be that someone in Number 10 has been influenced by the charter school movement?

  Ruth Kelly: Charter schools do not inform this White Paper. My challenge in writing this White Paper was to deliver maximum devolution to the front line with the proper strategic role for local authorities. Charter schools operate entirely outside such a framework. The trust school model is built on what we know works in Britain, what produces and promotes collaboration and what will drive higher school standards in the system.

  Q772  Jeff Ennis: We recently took evidence from Dr Hunter, the Schools Adjudicator, and I made a note of the exact expression he said in response to one of the questions. He said: "Every school should be treated the same", and I am sure that is something we can all agree to, but if that is the case why can community schools not expand under the new model?

  Ruth Kelly: They can.

  Q773  Jeff Ennis: Can they?

  Ruth Kelly: Yes.

  Jacqui Smith: 62,000—

  Jeff Ennis: Thank you for clarification on that.

  Q774  Chairman: There will be no new ones?

  Ruth Kelly: That is absolutely right. What we are trying to do is to encourage local authorities to look properly at the strategic role and for there not to be a confusion of roles between their responsibility for community schools and the strategic framework. As I have said in relation to other questions, I think that gives rise to some problems. While I would not like to take away the ability from an existing school to stay as a community school if it is doing very well, I think it should be enabling, I would not in the future like to see more community schools set up because I think it aids local authorities in their strategic role if progressively we go down this route.

  Q775  Jeff Ennis: One final question on the potential expansion of the good schools which obviously we are trying to encourage. We have heard evidence from some witnesses that some of the better schools might not want to change the formula at their particular school and not want to expand. Will the better performing schools come under pressure, shall we say, to expand as part of the new regime or will it be entirely up to the governing body, et cetera?

  Ruth Kelly: As I say, the problem at the moment is that schools do not come forward with proposals for expansion. I would like to think that more will come forward when the presumption in favour of expansion is moved from the school organisation committee level to the local authority level. In fact, we are promoting some new strategic powers for local authorities on school expansion as well and local authorities will themselves be able to promote expansion of particular schools where they think the local area would be best served by that. Then again, if there is a disagreement between the school and the local authority there will be the usual appeal to the adjudicator.

  Jacqui Smith: One of the interesting things about the trust model, of course, and one of the areas of interest that we have had particularly from very high performing head teachers, and I think you had two of them in front of the Committee last week, is that actually an important way in which you can expand the influence of a good school and help to ensure there are more good school places is by using a trust model as a vehicle for spreading that good practice and that leadership which has developed over the last eight years across the system more widely. That is a very important opportunity which they can see and which we believe exists in the trust model.

  Q776  Chairman: I want to call David but there is one specific thing. You mentioned at one stage previously, not today, that: "Preliminary conclusions of our research showed there is no correlation whatever between the number of own admission authorities and social segregation". There is no doubt departmental research has been going on on this, can we have sight of it?

  Ruth Kelly: Certainly when it is finished. It is quite a difficult thing to do and there is a lot of technical work going on within the Department to complete that research. It builds on some other research that is in the public domain that we do not feel is very robust actually and we want to take it to the next stage. As soon as it is finished we can do that.

  Q777  Chairman: Does that mean you do not know whether diversity of choice leads to greater social segregation?

  Ruth Kelly: Our preliminary evidence suggests that there is no direct correlation, that other factors are much more important, such as whether there is selection by academic ability.

  Q778  Mr Chaytor: You referred earlier to the differentials in achievement between secondary schools and primary schools, and by and large there are narrower differentials between primary schools. Is that because there is more choice and diversity in the primary sector, or the other way round?

  Ruth Kelly: I do not think it is a function directly of choice actually. I think it is for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are smaller, that there is a lot of attention that has been given to literacy, numeracy and personalisation of lessons, that there is a more consistent approach to behaviour and all sorts of other issues.

  Q779  Mr Chaytor: Do you think the extension of the choice and diversity model for secondary schools, though less so for primary schools, is going to automatically improve levels of achievement?

  Ruth Kelly: I do not think there is an automatic link at primary or secondary, I think it is one factor among many, including having more parental voice in the system, including having a new duty on the local authorities, new strategic powers for local authorities. It is more an element among a package of measures.

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