Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)


23 MAY 2007

  Q140  Mr Marsden: Sir Cyril, when we did a major inquiry on special educational needs, the results of which, again, have been published recently, you may recall that there was some swapping of statistics about how well academies did or did not do in terms of admitting children with special educational needs, and I think Lord Adonis actually produced, at least produced to my mind, some rather cogent figures suggesting that intake was reasonable. It does not alter the question that that is just as it is at the moment. There is no requirement for academies, in the way there is for schools within the state system, to conform to policies on admission of SEN children, as far as I am aware. Why do you not put yourself within the system and therefore avoid accusations that you are not taking your fair share of children with special educational needs?

  Sir Cyril Taylor: I have to disagree with you. The admissions code applies to academies and they must give preference to children with special educational needs.

  Q141  Mr Marsden: You are saying that the position in terms of academies is exactly the same as in the state sector?

  Sir Cyril Taylor: Absolutely.

  Q142  Mr Marsden: There is a legal requirement for that?

  Sir Cyril Taylor: Yes, a legal requirement.

  Q143  Mr Marsden: That was not the information that we were given originally so I would be interested to see the detail of that, if you could let the Committee have it.

  Sir Cyril Taylor: We would be happy to supply that.

  Q144  Mr Marsden: I just want to move from that. The issue, of course, of SEN inclusion as opposed to special schools raises the much broader issue of the extent to which there is co-operation between academies and schools in the community around. You talked earlier about the importance of specialist schools in spreading ideas across the community. Are you satisfied that academies have begun to do their bit in terms of expanding best practice to schools in LAs?

  Sir Cyril Taylor: I think it is early days.

  Q145  Mr Marsden: Can you give me any specific examples of it? Can Liz give any specific examples of where academies are working with the broader set of local authority schools?

  Ms Reid: I think that, for example, the Peckham Academy has been thoroughly integrated into the local family of schools in Southwark. I believe that the principal of the academy has chaired the local Excellence in Schools partnership and is fully involved in all of the deliberations with secondary head teachers.

  Q146  Mr Marsden: Is that something as a principle—and again, it is an anecdote, and it is an impressive anecdote—that you within the Trust would be arguing is part of your future work, that academies should co-operate more with the local family of schools?

  Sir Cyril Taylor: Absolutely.

  Ms Reid: It is a principle that we are acting out now. I said in an earlier answer, Chairman, that we have all of the academies in membership of the network, that all academies are participating in the network and participating in a range of continuing professional development opportunities, events, conferences and workshops, and working very much with other schools. Of course, at this point in their development, many academies are deploying the best practice that has been developed in specialist and in other schools, because the principals of academies are generally previously principals of ...

  Q147  Mr Marsden: That is deploying it for their own benefit. I am talking about deploying it for the benefit of the broader family of community schools.

  Ms Reid: As I think we have made clear, academies have a very difficult task in many cases and they are not yet at the stage necessarily where they have developed innovative new practice. They are using existing practice and deploying the experience of the generality of schools actually in tackling some of these very entrenched difficulties.

  Chairman: Can we now move on to last section, on trusts.

  Q148  Fiona Mactaggart: I am muddled about the different categories that we have here. I feel there has been a bit of mission creep and it would be helpful to try and be clear what all these different kinds of schools do, trust schools, academies and so on. As I said, when I looked at the original point of academies, I thought it was to replace schools that were so bad that we needed to start again, and yet there seems to be some shift in that, with private schools, volunteering, federations and so on. That seems to be one shift. There is the trust school drive. I am not quite sure that I really understand what all these different things are for and, because the definitions seem to change over time, I think it is quite helpful for us to have a very clear view right now from you.

  Sir Cyril Taylor: These two documents spell out precisely what specialist schools are and what academies are. The prime purpose of academies is to turn round low-attaining schools. There are particular areas where a new school is required, like in Southwark; the City of London Corporation sponsored that. In Liverpool the Belvedere School is providing a huge expansion in high quality post-16 courses which are needed locally but the prime purpose of the academy is to turn round these failing schools. We are always talking about what individual head teachers and their governing bodies want to do. Ninety per cent of them have said they want to be specialist and they have to re-bid every three years to keep that status and Ofsted are looking into that. Academies are primarily focused on the 400 low-attaining schools. The trust structure: it is early days although, surprisingly, 200 schools have already raised their hands and said they want to do that. I think that is potentially very exciting as a way of encouraging collaboration and co-operation between groups of schools, joint post-16 provision, apprenticeship programmes, but again, it is up to the schools to decide. I do not know whether you have had a chance to glance at the book that I wrote with Conor Ryan, Excellence in Education: The Making of Great Schools. The National Foundation for Educational Research visited, on two series of inspections, 20 of our best performing schools to identify what were the characteristics, what created a good school, and I keep going back to those principles: leadership, ethos, but you can use different legal mechanisms to achieve that.

  Q149  Fiona Mactaggart: I completely agree with you about leadership. One of the things that I feel anxious about in relation to trust schools is that if the leadership of a trust school decides that it does not want to collaborate, that it wants to whirl off on its own, I do not see what the mechanism is that anyone else can encourage that collaboration, apart from hoping they will, and I am wondering whether you can tell me whether there is a mechanism. If you are saying there is this great opportunity to collaborate, great! I really like that. That is why Slough became a better education authority, because the schools decided it was worth collaborating with each other in Slough and they had not seen the point in Berkshire. I want to know how we can do that. We emphasise leadership. Sometimes leaders decide "I want my own territory here and you can't touch it", do they not?

  Ms Reid: Two things, if I may. The first is that trust schools are local authority maintained schools, they are part of the local family of schools; that is how they are structured. The second thing I would say is that there is this big interest in trust schools. There are over 200 already signed up and many more exploring it now. Those are all schools that are active in our network and in the network they collaborate. That is the purpose of the network. So I am actually quite confident that the schools that are really interested in being trust schools have collaboration pretty much hard-wired into the way they go about their business.

  Sir Cyril Taylor: The Co-op movement, which is a living example of collaboration and co-operation, are strong supporters of trust schools and we would like to have many Co-op schools.

  Q150  Fiona Mactaggart: Let me be clear: I am not opposed to them but the reason I asked who does what at the beginning is because I see trust schools as a kind of successor to foundation schools and I have had some struggles in encouraging foundation schools lately to collaborate in this way, because they say, "We don't have to."

  Ms Reid: If I may, Chairman, I think one of the things that has changed over the last 10 years is that schools, if they ever really were, are certainly no longer islands unto themselves. They are not focused inwards; they focus outwards, they focus outwards to the community, to the great range of organisations, including business in the community, they engage differently and more effectively with parents, with young people in schools in terms of engaging and listening to young people. Schools have opened up, and there are a whole range of policies that support that: 14-19 collaborations, the extended school collaborations, the community part in the specialist schools programme, the sponsorship requirement that we were talking about earlier. All of that has led to a shift in the culture and schools now expect to collaborate with a wide range of organisations, including other schools, because there is so much now to be gained, and that is one of the things that is actually floating and driving the rising standards in schools.

  Q151  Chairman: Is not the big difference though that where collaboration really works is when there is money in it, and there is not much money in this particular focus, is there?

  Ms Reid: It does help but I would argue that one of the reasons the Trust is a successful organisation is that the collaboration that drives the network is voluntary and in fact schools pay for it, and they pay for what they value because it helps them do their work. So I do not think collaboration always has to be about handing out money. Sometimes people are willing to contribute resource in order to collaborate in ways that make sense to them and are effective in supporting schools in a myriad of ways, because each school is unique, in helping them to raise standards for their students.

  Q152  Fiona Mactaggart: On that point about contributing resource, when it comes to potential trust sponsors, are there any about which you have thought "Actually, we don't want you to be sponsors"? I do not expect you to break a confidence but what type of criteria might ...

  Ms Reid: Chairman, we might have, as an organisation, views about sponsorship but the decision about the suitability of sponsors lies with the Department.

  Sir Cyril Taylor: Plus the local authority.

  Ms Reid: Indeed, and I think the other thing just to say about trust schools in passing is that it does not necessarily involve a financial relationship. A partnership can be structured that can involve the use of expertise, knowledge and resources and, of course, there is a very wide range of partners in trust arrangements: universities, further education colleges, other kinds of learning organisations, and that may yet be one of the most interesting features of the way this develops, that schools, colleges and universities become used to working together in tighter partnerships, so that you begin to see vertical partnerships of a kind that we have not seen before.

  Q153  Fiona Mactaggart: Do you think this ever creates issues in relation to competition? We have very strong mechanisms in the commercial world which say actually, there needs to be a fair playing field in terms of competition and so on, but if you had a partner who had a particular way of doing things, are there issues about fairness and competition within a school?

  Ms Reid: I do not think we have seen such an issue or an instance of difficulty yet. That is not to say that it could not arise but up and down the country now schools have a myriad of different relationships. What I would say about that is that I think they nearly always work for the individual school, and that is the issue, because it keeps coming back to ethos and leadership and distinctiveness and what drives and motivates a school.

  Sir Cyril Taylor: I do not know whether you are aware or not but academy sponsors are now very carefully vetted. First of all, we want to know whether they actually have the money to put up. We found that some of the ones who said they did have the money did not, and some we just do not think are appropriate to be involved. The academy initiative is not open to anybody who has £2 million. There are people we will not take the £2 million from.

  Q154  Fiona Mactaggart: Who decides who not to take?

  Sir Cyril Taylor: The Department, the Ministers basically. They use highly prestigious City accounting firms, who will do an investigation. Obviously, it is confidential. I think the trust is more of a movement of schools joining together. There was this fascinating example we learned about yesterday in Reading: Thames Valley University is actively involved in that partnership. That is wonderful, to have that sort of initiative.

  Q155  Fiona Mactaggart: Let me tell you about another partnership between a grammar school and a failing school—a failing school which is actually shortly to become an academy but it has nothing to do with that—which happens in my constituency, with Langley Grammar School, the best grammar school in Slough in terms of its results. I do not believe that that is being driven by any of these relationships. There is just a sense that in a town with four grammar schools and a number of secondary modern schools there is a duty to actually partner. I am just wondering. This is to do with the feeling amongst the head teachers and the governors and a desire to improve the standards of education in the town. Some of my questions might have sounded hostile. It is partly because I cannot work out what it is that you do and that these structures do which is any different to that or which adds anything to that. That is what I cannot unpick.

  Ms Reid: It is difficult to unpick, Chairman, and I think we need to be careful not to claim too much. What I would claim is that the Trust's networks, which thrive and grow and are very, very active, have made a contribution nationally to changing the climate about co-operation and working together, because that is what the network is about and that is what happens on the ground. I do not think anybody would want to claim any credit for something that two schools are doing together, but I do think that there is a climate now that makes it easier for people to see that this is the right way to go and that, indeed, there is a model of responsibility to develop these kinds of partnerships because that is the bread and butter work, day in, day out, that I and the schools that my colleagues and I work with—and increasingly, of course, we talk about the Trust having a large number of employees; many of them are colleagues who have come from schools and have been back to schools, and in that sense it is very porous. We are an organisation of schools.

  Q156  Mr Chaytor: Sir Cyril, the office of Schools Commissioner was established largely to promote the expansion of trusts schools but you also, as Chairman of the SSAT, have an involvement in encouraging and promoting trust schools. Where is the dividing line between the Schools Commissioner's statutory responsibilities and your voluntary activities?

  Sir Cyril Taylor: We have no statutory powers over anybody; we are an advisory group. We maybe have influence. Sir Bruce Liddington is one of our former head teachers in Northampton. It is a boys' specialist school. The Secretary of State has the statutory power, together with the LA, that if the school is in special measures and their period of probation is not showing signs of progress, then together with the LA they have the right to close a failing school and that is, I think, a very important focus because it will concentrate the minds of people, especially the local education authority. We work very closely with Sir Bruce. He has a very wide remit.

  Q157  Mr Chaytor: Can you define more clearly what your role is? I am not challenging the fact that you do have a role or should have a role but what is the dividing line? Who is actually responsible for seeking out potential sponsors of trust schools?

  Ms Reid: We have no responsibility in that matter and I honestly do not think that sponsorship is the key issue here. The question is partnerships and I think partnerships generally where business is involved are more partnerships in kind, support of various kinds rather than ...

  Q158  Mr Chaytor: There cannot be a trust school without a sponsor, surely. It is intrinsic to the concept of trust schools that there has to be an external partner.

  Ms Reid: They are generally partners and very often they are more than one partner and more than one school.

  Q159  Chairman: Does a trust have to have a sponsor?

  Ms Reid: Not in the way that you understand it for a specialist school or for an academy, no.

  Sir Cyril Taylor: I do not think trust schools are required to raise sponsorship.

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