Select Committee on Education and Skills First Report

6  Conclusions

144. We have produced this report following our short inquiry into the Schools White Paper in order to try to influence the content of the legislation. We have therefore concentrated on what we considered to be the most significant proposals. In particular we have attempted to separate out from the White Paper what is actually proposed rather than what some of its critics have alleged that it contains.

145. Much of the White Paper is not new and has been included in the Five Year Strategy or the Labour Party's Manifesto for the 2005 election. It is also clear that much of what is proposed needs little or no primary legislation. For example, Trust schools are a development of foundation schools, and the Schools Commissioner in its proposed form can be established by the Secretary of State without legislation.

146. We have looked carefully at the Government's White Paper proposals on admissions and have made recommendations which will mean some of the core elements of the School Admissions Code of Practice will become mandatory, but we have also proposed a vigorous new role for local authorities and the Schools Commissioner in ensuring that all admissions authorities comply with the requirements of the Code of Practice. The important issue here will not be the number of admissions authorities but the context in which admissions decisions will be made.

147. We have concluded that the role of local authorities will be enhanced by these proposals rather than diminished, given that they will retain their provider role for so long as community schools remain in being. The commissioner role which the Government sets out for local authorities appears to consist of the traditional role of oversight of local requirements with some enhanced responsibilities over school standards, and responsibility for specific services such as special educational needs, as well as the co-ordinating role on Every Child matters. We make the further recommendation that local authorities should have a duty to monitor admissions arrangements in their area and to establish benchmarks for the social composition of school intakes.

148. We have also considered the role of the Schools Commissioner. We believe that his or her role in respect of Trust schools should be less vigorous than the White Paper envisages, consisting principally of advice and assistance, but we believe that the Commissioner should also have responsibility for strategic oversight of the admission process and of the way in which schools discharge their wider social responsibilities on social segregation. We also believe the Commissioner should have regard for how Trust schools spread good and co-operative practice across their local authority area and that their admission policies should not disadvantage children with special educational needs, and monitor the effectiveness of local authorities in statutory duties to this effect. The Schools Commissioner should report annually on all these issues.

149. Our aim in this report has been to make recommendations which will improve the chances of all our children being treated fairly by the school system so that all have the opportunity to receive the best possible education. There is already a diverse range of school types across the country, and the Government is keen to promote that diversity. There are concerns that diversity leads to greater social segregation. We think that any such segregation is not the result of diversity per se, but of the way in which children are admitted to those schools. The key to equity across the whole system is a fair admissions process.

How the school system is performing

150. The school system is constantly under scrutiny, and we know more about what is happening in schools today than in any previous era. In his final annual report as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, published last October, David Bell said:

"This year's Annual Report again presents an encouraging report card, highlighting many strong features of both childcare and education, including:…

I am cautiously optimistic about the capacity of our schools and colleges to improve further, but the challenge of dealing with some persistent weaknesses in our education system—such as the underachievement of many of our most vulnerable young people and the variation in standards achieved from one school to another— should not be underestimated."[102]

151. More recently, the National Audit Office has published a report on Improving poorly performing schools in England.[103] It said that in July 2005 there were 1,557 poorly performing schools in England serving around 980,000 pupils.[104] In its summary, the report says:

"A large proportion of schools provide high standards of education. GCSE and equivalent performance in England has improved, with 56% of pupils achieving the benchmark five or more A* to C grades in 2005. And primary schools are preparing more of their pupils with the basic literacy and numeracy skills that the pupils will need for their secondary education…These achievements reflect the hard work of pupils, teachers and school leaders.

"Nevertheless, a sizeable number of schools encounter problems that put children's education at risk, and some of these schools do not provide good value for money. In 2004-05, around £837 million was spent in England through a range of national programmes to help improve schools that were failing or at risk of failing."[105]

152. There is therefore evidence that the Government's analysis is correct; much of the schools system is working well and providing a good education for pupils, but there is still considerable room for improvement, particularly in the levels of attainment of disadvantaged children. As we have already said, this is the expressed aim of the Secretary of State: to improve attainment for disadvantaged children. She told us:

"I think that as a result of measures in the White Paper we will end up with a system that will target more resources at disadvantaged areas and schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils in particular. It will give every child the individual support and teaching that that child needs. It will promote social mobility, it will promote equity and it will promote a fairer and ultimately more competitive society as well."[106]

153. We wholeheartedly agree with the Secretary of State that these are objectives that the DfES should be pursuing. However, she sets out the Government's aims much more clearly than does the White Paper. The document itself gives the impression that independence of schools, increased choice and more parental involvement are ends in themselves rather than the means to deliver better education to all, and particularly to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The Secretary of State was keen to correct that impression in evidence to the Committee, but the impression persists.

154. We do have concerns about the proposals, but we also have positive recommendations to improve them and to help the Government achieve its aim of helping disadvantaged pupils. In essence, we believe the Government has been thrown off course by professing that its aim was to build a system of independent maintained schools. The concept of independent schools has a particular resonance, and many people consider that the notion of independence runs counter to the idea of a network of schools strategically organised for the benefit of local children.

Trust schools

155. We have established that these are not a new concept; the Government has re-branded one type of foundation school and sought to promote it as the way forward for schools. Much more detail and clarity is needed on the process involved in becoming a Trust school, which the Trust Schools prospectus does not provide. If the Government wants to allay fears about how Trust schools will operate, it needs to provide this detail and clarity as soon as possible.

156. The Secretary of State has told us that there will be no incentives offered, or pressure exerted, to encourage schools to become Trust schools. The decision to become a Trust will be for individual schools. We welcome these assurances. That being the case, the Schools Commissioner is likely to perform a much less executive role in relation to Trust schools than the White Paper suggests.

157. We are also not convinced that Trusts need to have absolute control over their physical assets in order to function effectively. If the degree of control was more limited it would allay fears about disposal of assets. We recommend that the Government looks at this issue again with a view to establishing much greater safeguards on the transfer of assets to Trusts through detailed restrictions on disposal of assets and other issues or by a leasehold-style arrangement.

Local authorities

158. It is clear that local authorities will continue to have a vital role in the organisation of education in their areas. Rather than having their role reduced, local authorities have significant and even increased responsibilities. On a number of issues—such as expansion of schools, parental lobbying for new school provision, the duty to intervene in failing and coasting schools—responsibilities need to be clearly defined and the powers given to local authorities need to be sufficient to ensure that issues are dealt with effectively and expeditiously.

159. It is imperative that schools work with local authorities and other agencies on Every Child Matters and we recommend that schools be given the formal duty to co-operate on these issues.

160. From the evidence we received it is clear that there will continue to be a significant number of community schools, which means that local authorities will retain their role as providers, albeit at arm's length. In those circumstances, we consider that the Government's rationale for banning the establishment of new community schools does not apply. We therefore recommend that when a competition for a new school is held, a local authority should have the right to put forward a proposal for a new community school.


161. The admissions process is a key issue and it needs to be strengthened in order to ensure fairness and to ensure confidence in the system. Many have expressed concern that an increase in the number of admissions authorities will lead to a greater degree of covert selection and that greater safeguards are needed. On the other hand, we recognise that the School Admissions Code of Practice cannot simply be made mandatory as it stands. We recommend that the Secretary of State brings forward as soon as possible new regulations to bar the use of interviewing in the admissions process. We also recommend that the DfES examines the Code to see whether any other provisions might also be the subject of regulations.

162. We recommend that under the forthcoming legislation all local authorities should be given the statutory duty to monitor admissions practices in their areas and make an objection to the Schools Adjudicator where it appears they do not comply with the Code. The effectiveness with which authorities do this should be monitored by the Schools Commissioner.

163. We welcome the Government's decision to increase the length of time for which the Adjudicator's decisions are binding from one year to three years. We consider that this, together with the duty on local authorities to monitor the process systematically, will make the admissions process considerably more effective.

164. Given concerns about social segregation in schools and the ways in which schools engineer the admissions process, we recommend that local authorities be required to provide benchmarks for each of the secondary schools in their areas for the number of pupils they should be admitting in Year 7 eligible for free school meals or working families tax credit. They should make annual reports to the Schools Commissioner, who in turn should report to Parliament through this select committee.

165. Taken together, these recommendations on admissions and social composition, giving new duties to the Schools Commissioner, empowering local authorities and strengthening the Code of Practice with regulations provide the effective practical means to ensure that the Government's aspirations on fair access can be realised.


166. The Government sets great store by choice as a lever for change in the schools system. It proposes a number of initiatives to help those from less affluent social groups to operate choice more effectively; in particular, the introduction of choice advisers and extended free transport to school. If choice is going to play an increased role in determining the shape of the school system, then measures such as these to improve equity are necessary. Only experience will show how effective they will be and we expect the Government to make a full evaluation of them.

167. A concern is that the operation of choice tends to lead to a movement of pupils away from schools in the inner city towards those in the suburbs, yet it is in the urban areas that schools are most necessary as a community resource and where the extended schools initiative is most likely to bear fruit. We recommend that the Government develops its proposal to provide extra funding to those areas with the lowest levels of prior attainment by pupils entering secondary school by seeking a means of providing extra funding for individual pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

168. While parental choice is an accepted part of the landscape of schools provision, there must still be a role for the local authority in shaping the educational provision in an area and to make sure that the views of those with the loudest or most persuasive voices are balanced by considerations affecting the population of an area more generally. If the law requires parents to educate their children, which for the vast majority will mean sending them to school, then there is a duty on the state to ensure that there is adequate provision in terms of quality and ease of access for all children.

In-school reforms

169. We are generally in favour of the proposals relating to activity within schools on managing behaviour, personalisation of learning and workforce and leadership development. We do have some concerns that certain aspects of the personalisation proposals, including the gifted and talented programme and setting, could work to the detriment of disadvantaged pupils and those from minority ethnic groups unless care is taken in the way in which they operate, and we look forward to the guidance from Government on those issues.

170. In the end the form of governance of a school is less significant in determining the attainment of its pupils than the nature of its pupil intake and the quality of teaching and leadership. Trusts may turn out to be effective vehicles for co-operation between schools, but they will not be immune to the pressures facing other schools. No doubt at some point a Trust school will be taken into special measures, and when it does it is likely that the fact that it is a Trust school will not be among the reasons for its failure. Schools need to have a sound structure of governance and accountability, and this can take more than one form, but in the end it will be what happens in schools, whatever their designation, that will decide whether the attainment of disadvantaged children in our school system will be improved.

102   Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools 2004-05, HC 451, 19 October 2005, page 5. Back

103   HC 679 2005-06, 9 January 2006. Back

104   There were five categories of poorly performing school; three assessed by Ofsted (Underachieving schools, schools in serious weaknesses and schools in special measures) and a further two by the DfES (Under-performing secondary schools and low-attaining schools). Back

105   Improving poorly performing schools in England, page 1. Back

106   Q 640 Back

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