Select Committee on Education and Skills First Report

4  Local authorities

71. Chapter 9 of the White Paper is devoted to local authorities. In its summary of that chapter, the Government says:

"To realise the vision set out in this White Paper we will ensure that:

  • the local authority becomes a powerful champion of parents and pupils in their area, commissioning rather than providing education;
  • the provision of new schools is opened up to greater competition, with blocks on progress reduced by abolishing the School Organisation Committee, which represents the interests of existing providers;
  • local authorities have new powers and duties to enable them to undertake their commissioning role through which they will:

—  promote choice, diversity and fair access as well as high standards

—  map what is needed in their area, looking at demographics, diversity and demand for children's services

—  ensure a sufficient supply of places, letting popular schools expand or federate, closing schools that are poor or fail to improve, and running competitions to open new schools

—  specify, for new and replacement schools, what the school should provide, the community it should serve, and how it should work in partnership with other schools and services;

—  help all schools improve their standards, through the support and challenge of School Improvement Partners and intervene decisively in schools that are falling below expectations, including 'coasting' schools, by issuing warning notices and taking radical action promptly where necessary."[66]

72. There had been some suggestions in the pre-publication publicity for the White Paper that the role of local authorities was to be significantly reduced. When the White Paper was produced the Government set out details of the role it believed councils should undertake as listed above. In short, the proposal appears to be that an authority assesses what range of provision is required in its area then commissions schools (those already in existence or a new school brought into being through a competition) to provide it.

73. The key question is, what levers does a local authority have at its disposal to enable it to perform its duties successfully? Local authorities need sufficient powers to ensure they can perform their duties effectively and fulfil their strategic aims.

74. The Government needs to make more explicit the powers that local authorities will have in order to discharge effectively their role as commissioners of education and champions of parents and pupils. The policy appears to be pulling in different directions, with greater autonomy for schools potentially obstructing an authority's plans for a strategic approach to education in its area. Christine Davies, Director of Children's Services for Telford and Wrekin, who gave evidence for the Local Government Association, said she believed that essentially the powers were there, but some refinements were needed:

"Those tools, however, will need to be available to us whatever the category of school, and I think there has to be a concern that academies, for example, are not necessarily subject to the same levers of support and challenge as other schools in the local area. It will be critical if we are to secure the well-being for all children and young people and their parents that those tools are available to us to use and there is demonstrated success for all schools in the local area regardless of category."[67]

75. She also emphasised the importance of the local authority in ensuring that every child has a school place:

"I think we would like to see an additional duty on all schools to co-operate with the local authority and other schools in the local area to find every child a school place, and that is particularly important for children who are hard to place, for a range of reasons, have special educational needs or present the greatest challenge."[68]

Although there are to be requirements to accept Looked After Children, there are no such safeguards for pupils on free school meals, or to protect the right of access to a local school for low achieving pupils with parents who may themselves have underachieved at school. This is a particularly important issue in view of the current concerns about the different legal position of Academies in respect of the admission of children with SEN. It is possible that Trust schools could also be exempt from the obligations that apply to all other maintained schools. We recommend, therefore, that all publicly funded schools should be given the same legal responsibilities in this respect.

Every Child Matters

76. There is also concern that encouraging schools to be more autonomous could have harmful consequences for the implementation of integrated services for children under the Every Child Matters reforms. Councillor Alison King, Chair of the Children and Young People Board of the Local Government Association, told us:

"…we are rather concerned that some of the schools in our areas will not necessarily feel that they have the sort of obligation that in fact we believe they should have and that the legislation believes they should have."[69]

77. We asked the Secretary of State how she thought the Schools White Paper meshed with Every Child Matters. She said:

"The Every Child Matters agenda I hope will be developed through stronger and more autonomous trust schools than at the moment partly because they will have more flexibility to respond to it and partly because it will develop an ease of networking in the system that is currently not there. Take primary schools, for instance, which find it difficult to fulfil the extended schools obligations on their own. They have to work in partnership with other schools to deliver them. They could decide to team up together through a trust to deliver extended school services that will enable them to do that in a very quick and simple way. "[70]

78. Even before the Government came forward with these latest proposals for schools, there was concern that co-operation between schools, social services and health services would not be as effective as it needed to be, partly because there was no formal requirement for schools to co-operate with other agencies. The 'independence' of Trust schools has added another cause for concern, although we recognise that many schools have embraced the Every Child Matters reforms. We welcome the fact that Ofsted, under its new inspection regime, is assessing schools against the five Every Child Matters outcomes, but that still does not ensure that schools will co-operate with other agencies. A formal duty for schools to co-operate would put the matter beyond doubt and we recommend that the Government should legislate for that duty in the forthcoming Bill.

Local authorities as commissioners

79. The White Paper says that local authorities will become commissioners of services rather than providers. That proposal seems to be based on the premise that local authorities currently have close control over what happens in community schools. Local authorities own the buildings and grounds, employ the staff and set the admissions policy for community schools, but other responsibilities rest with the head and governing body. For example, the decision to seek specialist school status for a community school, and in what subject, would be a matter for the school's leaders to decide, not the local authority. Since the introduction of local management of schools under the Education Reform Act 1988, local authorities have not had control of schools in the way the White Paper implies and some of its critics believe.

80. The conversion to this commissioning role also appears to depend on the majority of community schools becoming foundations or Trusts. If they do not, local authorities will still have extensive responsibilities for staff, assets and the provision of services. The Bill needs to be drafted to ensure that where there continues to be provision of education through community schools, local authorities are able to provide support as now. This also fits with our earlier recommendation that local authorities should be able to propose the establishment of a new community school in a competition for a new school.

81. There is a lack of clarity in the White Paper in respect of the future role envisaged for local authorities in the provision of services to schools and the forthcoming legislation needs to be very specific on these points.

82. The White Paper says that the Government will support local authorities "in playing a new commissioning role in relation to a new school system."[71] This is not, however, a new role: the LGA argued that local authorities have been operating in a strategic Commissioning role for some time.[72] If local authorities did not continue to have a provider role through community schools then their role would change, but as matters stand it appears that local authorities will be even more central to education provision in their areas than is the case now.

Capital spending

83. Another issue which the Government needs to address is how its plans will affect its capital spending programme. Unison told us about apparent conflicts between greater autonomy for schools and the financing of projects through long-term private finance initiative funding.

"It is also unclear how the White Paper fits in with Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and the constraints of a PFI contract. By loosening up LEA control over the allocation of places and the expansion of schools the White Paper undermines the ability of the LEA to control demand for places in schools which is the main risk they carry in PFI. Liverpool City Council is already threatening to stop a £320m BSF scheme. The council says that the changes proposed in the White Paper 'make it difficult for the LEA to strategically plan school provision' and may force some new schools to close. 'If schools can expand as they wish, how can we (the council) be sure which schools will still be around in 25 years time?' "[73]

There does appear to be a genuine problem here. If authorities cannot have reasonable confidence in the long-term viability of some of their schools, or if they no longer are in charge of the assets of schools because of a change in status, how can they plan for the future, and how can they reasonably be expected to undertake long-term financial commitments? Is there a need for Trusts to own their assets in order to be effective? Could they lease them from the local authority? We expect the Government to issue guidance on the issues raised as a matter of urgency to ensure that PFI projects in the Building Schools for the Future programme are not adversely affected as well as to ensure that public assets are protected in the long term.

Choice, diversity and fair access

84. Another duty laid upon local authorities is that they should "promote choice, diversity and fair access as well as high standards".[74] The implication is that these duties are complementary and all lead in the same direction, but that is not necessarily the case. An authority could fulfil its duty to give parents choice by maintaining a number of community schools but without promoting diversity by encouraging the establishment of faith schools or academies. Pupils in these community schools may well have high standards of achievement. Must the authority then promote other schools in the name of diversity and possibly risk the standards already achieved? And how does fair access fit into this? Which takes priority? Given the Government's commitment to raising standards for the most disadvantaged children, fair access is likely to be the priority for many authorities, but will that be satisfactory to the Government? More guidance on what this duty means is needed to ensure that authorities know precisely where they stand.

85. We are firmly of the opinion that fair access should take top priority, followed by choice and diversity respectively. There is growing concern and a body of evidence about the relationship between school admissions and levels of social segregation and schools need to show that they are aware of their responsibilities to their communities in general as well as to the children whom they admit. We propose that a new duty be placed on all schools to promote social inclusion and community cohesion through all of their institutional policies and procedures, including their admissions policies.

86. We have already discussed the emphasis placed by many submissions to our enquiry, both oral and written, on the need for schools, whether or not they have Trust status, to spread good practice across their locality. But it is particularly important given the controversy that has emerged about Trust schools, that Government should give reassurance and set in place mechanisms to effect this. We recommend that Trust schools should be given the duty to spread good practice and demonstrate collaboration across the local authority area, and that their performance in this regard should be monitored by local authorities, who would report to the Schools Commissioner to produce an annual report to Parliament and to DfES.

87. We have also heard concerns that children with special educational needs should not be excluded from their rightful entitlements as a result of proposals made in the White Paper. This is particularly the case in respect of personalised learning and admission policies where there have been concerns that academies have not always been willing or able to operate effective or equitable admission policies in respect of children with special educational needs. We believe again that local authorities—and possibly the School Commissioner—have a key role in protecting the interests of parents and their children with special education needs. We recommend therefore that Trust schools and others be given the duty to operate equitable admission policies for children with special educational needs across the local authority area, and that the performance of schools in this regard should be monitored by local authorities, who would report to the Schools Commissioner to produce an annual report to Parliament and to DfES.

66   White Paper, page 103. Back

67   Q 89 Back

68   Q 93 Back

69   Q 83 Back

70   Q 667 Back

71   White Paper para 9.3. Back

72   Ev 14, para 9 Back

73   Ev 77 Back

74   White paper, page 108. Back

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