Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


16 JANUARY 2008

  Q20  Mr. Chaytor: Is there not a further category of independent schools which may wish to re-enter the state system?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Yes. That is a separate piece of policy; the Government welcomes independent schools that want to enter the maintained sector. So independent schools are sponsoring Academies, such as Wellington School, which is sponsoring an Academy in Wiltshire. Winchester is about to come in with an Academy project in Hampshire. But there are a small number of independent schools—Belvedere in Liverpool, William Hulme's in Manchester, Bristol Cathedral and Colston's Girls in Bristol—that are coming into the system as Academies. Belvedere is a very high-performing school, and William Hulme's and Colston's Girls are above average performance schools.

  Q21  Mr. Chaytor: So the Academy concept is now far more flexible and variable than it was just two years ago?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Yes.

  Chairman: Graham, did you want to come in on the same point?

  Q22  Mr. Stuart: Yes. Going back to the evidence that you just gave, Minister, on the Charity Commission, I wonder whether the evidence that you have given is compatible with what the Secretary of State told us last week, when he said that he wanted to get rid of a two-tier education system. You seem to be welcoming additional places in the independent sector if they are provided by that sector and not by state funding.

  Jim Knight: As I think I said to David, as far as I am concerned, the best outcome is that charitable status is demonstrated by access to facilities and expertise for a large group of people. The more we can blend and blur the edges between the independent and maintained sectors, the better we will achieve what the Secretary of State is setting out about moving away from two-tier systems within education. Various examples of those have been around in the past. We should try to get something that is consistent with equal opportunities for every child in this country.

  Chairman: Graham, I will call you again later.

  Q23  Mr. Heppell: One of your duties is to promote Academies, specialist schools and so on, but at the same time, you say that you are trying not to be prescriptive. How have you helped local authorities that have rejected the idea of Academies out of hand? Are there examples of where you have steered such authorities through? I hear what you are saying about being pragmatic. I have some experience of councillors who may be pragmatic and who may not be pragmatic and will dig their heels in. I am sure that there must be areas where people have said that they will not have Academies. How do you help those areas with the Building Schools for the Future programme?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: The critical point on which I engage them is what their alternatives are for their underperforming schools. The one thing that is not acceptable to the Government is to have underperforming schools that nobody is doing anything about. The role of local authorities in challenging underperformance was strengthened in the 2006 legislation. Local authorities can now issue warning notices as soon as they have concerns about a school. They do not have to wait until it goes into Ofsted special measures. They can remove the governing body of a school and put an interim executive board in its place. That removes what local authorities have said to me over the past seven years, which is that quite often, when there is a low-performing school, it is the governing body that is the problem for the local authority because it is in denial. The Prime Minister has made it much easier for me and my office by indicating how to deal with the 639 schools that are below 30%. I do not have the exact figure including the 30th percentage point, but I expect that it would be about 670. The Prime Minister has unequivocally said that those schools cannot remain—in five years' time, they must not exist. The major problem will be if those schools do not exist, but there are another 670 that have slipped below the floor target. Let us hope that we can avoid that. We will avoid that. In my conversations with local authorities, I do not say that they must have Academies or they will not get their Building Schools for the Future money. I do not say that and never have. What they must do is come up with a plan that will address the low performance of those schools. I do not care whether it is an Academy, a trust, a federation or whatever, but it needs to be successful. The Academy policy is a tried and tested way of dealing with the lowest-performing schools. Therefore, if a local authority that has one or more low-performing schools does not want to have an Academy, I challenge it to come up with a solution that will work just as well as an Academy solution, if not better. Local authorities have the opportunity to do that.

  Q24  Mr. Heppell: It seems to me that there is a bit of a contradiction in saying that local authorities should be seen as leaders in their community, they should shape the direction of schools and they should pick what are the local circumstances. I hear what you are saying, but I have a suspicion that you are almost making people an offer they cannot refuse. You are saying that you want to see their options, but if they do not come within your narrow remit, they are unlikely to be successful. Councillors have said to me that they are going along with Building Schools for the Future, they are getting a good deal on it, but are not happy with the way that they have to do it. That is not my personal view, because mine is the complete opposite view. However, some local authorities are saying that they do not want Academies or the changes, but know that they have to have them to get the money. I am quite happy with the idea that there is a strong direction centrally, but you seem to be saying that there is not.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: The situation that you are describing perhaps applied five years ago. Now, particularly with the changes that have come into sway since Ed Balls became Secretary of State, local universities can be Academy sponsors, as can good local schools, good Further Education colleges and good, known independent schools. Let me give an example. In somewhere like Bolton, where they did not want to have any Academies at all five years ago, they are now going to have four Academies, which they welcome. One of them will be sponsored by Bolton School, the good independent school. These changes that have been introduced by the Secretary of State mean that having an Academy is less a step into the unknown than it was five years ago, when you had a rich man with £2 million who was coming along on a metaphorical charger. Now the local authority—which can itself co-sponsor the Academies—can come up, as Manchester and Birmingham have, with its own sponsors. It remains involved in the Academy project. It is less a step into the unknown, and more an opportunity to seize the chance for the robust and necessary step towards independence. Frankly, the image I occasionally have is of the witchfinder general going round leaning on local authorities to do things they do not want to do.

  Chairman: He is not the Chief Inspector any more.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: No. I see my role as helping local authorities to understand the range of options they have. In particular, shooting down some of the urban myths about Academies, but above all being persuasive so that local authorities can see that they have to face up to the challenges and that we will not let them just stay as they are.

  Mr. Heppell: I still do not see you as Mary Poppins.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: That show is closing.

  Chairman: I am conscious that this is the biggest the Committee has ever been. There is a fantastic attendance. There are even more people here than there were for the Secretary of State last Wednesday, and everybody wants a bite. John, have you finished?

  Mr. Heppell: I have finished.

  Chairman: Andy, you wanted to come in very briefly on one point?

  Q25  Mr. Slaughter: I will be as brief as I can. You paint a good picture of the function of Academies in raising standards, and I am sure you would say the same about BSF. You now have the imprimatur of The Sunday Telegraph, which says that BSF is being used for social engineering and destroying grammar schools. I do not know whether you think that is a badge of pride or not. Realities on the ground can be different, as we know. If you have a local authority which is seeking to use the Academy Programme or BSF money to do the opposite—to set up schools which will increase social division and will be selective by fair means or foul— what powers do you have to address that issue nationally?

  Jim Knight: We have to agree on the strategic vision. At some stage it goes back to the sort of question that John asked, about whether this is genuinely locally determined or only locally determined as long as they do what we say. We do need to agree the strategic vision with the authority, and we have a very clear position which has near unanimity among Front-Bench Members that there should be no new selection. We certainly would not want to see opportunity restricted for some by systems being put in place in areas that would do that.

  Q26  Mr. Slaughter: What can you do if that is being done, either by the front door—by some selective process—or by the back door? We all know that selection and admissions can be done in quite subtle ways.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: May I answer that?

  Chairman: Briefly.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: The admissions code does not allow schools to fiddle around with their admissions. I was head of a very oversubscribed, grant-maintained school: a school that was its own admissions authority. I know what schools do. The code now has statutory weight, so that if schools are not sticking to it they are breaking the law, and that has concentrated the minds of a lot of schools, particularly schools that are their own admissions authorities. Under the 2006 legislation, admissions authorities have a duty to monitor the admissions system and challenge any examples they see of admissions not being done correctly. I remind local authorities and admissions authorities of that very regularly. It is not in anyone's interest for some schools to do less than adhere to the code, and my office would monitor any Building Schools for the Future plans that looked as if they were leading to segregation and selection. An interesting statistic is that, whereas the national average of free-school-meals children in all schools is about one in seven, the number in Church of England and Roman Catholic voluntary-aided schools is very little lower than that, about one in 10. The key difference is in selective schools, where the incidence is about one in 50, or in some selective schools, one in 100. It is little known, but the voluntary-aided schools, Church of England schools, Roman Catholic schools are a good deal closer to the national statistic than people would think.

  Q27  Annette Brooke: How do you promote diversity and choice in those areas that still have grammar schools?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Local authorities that have grammar schools have four-fifths more schools for the remainder of their children to go to. There is nothing to stop a grammar school becoming more diverse and in places like Kent and Buckinghamshire, where I live, the grammar schools have shaped their brand to make sure that they look different from each other because they no longer feel, rightly or wrongly, that they will necessarily be the school of first choice. With the remainder of the schools in the local authority, I have the same conversation as I do in non-selective local authorities, encouraging them to have more Academies, more trusts and more federations, to amalgamate good and weak schools, close schools which are not viable and have more specialist schools in a strategic way.

  Q28  Annette Brooke: Is that just a second-best solution for those families and pupils who cannot aspire to the grammar school?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: It is not the policy of this Government to close grammar schools.

  Q29  Annette Brooke: Right. I just wonder whether there is even more that should be done in those areas that have grammar schools. Because you have the downside of the secondary moderns, do they not need even more help?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Let me give an example. I mentioned the pilot that Lord Adonis announced yesterday. Two of the schools in the pilot, and I hope a third school to be brokered within the next few days, are Kent grammar schools which have each undertaken to take on responsibility for a Kent secondary modern school with a view to making that school into an Academy. A grammar school cannot become an Academy, it is not in the legislation because Academies have to take children of all abilities, but the intention is that there will be, for example, collaborative post-16 provision so that the youngsters who go to the secondary modern now and typically leave school at 16 will have the opportunity of the high-quality grammar school post-16 provision. The good quality education that exists in the best grammar schools—not all of them are the highest achieving or have the highest contextual value-added either, but the two in the pilot do—will be shared with the other school in the federation. That is a construct that Lord Adonis is very keen for us to roll out across the country with more grammar schools.

  Q30  Annette Brooke: Thank you. Could I just ask about local authorities as co-sponsors of Academies? When I first heard about this, it surprised me because it seemed to be against what I thought Academies were there to do for the Government, which is to get independence from those nasty local authorities. Is this just local authorities deciding, at least we will get some power this way? What is the real gain of having local authorities in terms of the Government's vision for Academies?

  Jim Knight: Let me start and Bruce will finish. I think the gain is that as local authorities develop their commissioning function and expertise, local authorities can see the value of Academies. They see their independence, their flexibility and innovation and the strength of governance that comes from the main sponsor. Those are all things that they want to see in their areas as part of turning around the schools that they have been struggling with. They also see that, as a commissioner, they can be part of guiding how that Academy is set up and run. They are a minority stakeholder on the governing body and, in terms of recruiting the sponsor, they can be involved as a co-sponsor. That is good commissioning as far as I am concerned.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I would want to make the distinction between the situation as it applied when the policy started, and as it applies now. Back in 2000, there were a depressing number of local authorities that needed intervention because the standards of education provision were so low. At that time, the Government did not encourage sponsors of early Academies to work closely with local authorities. That situation has changed over the years as more and more local authorities have come out of intervention and started to provide good quality service for the children in the schools there and as the Government have given local authorities a clearer, sharper role on challenging low performance.The Secretary of State's view is that it would be perverse if an Academy sponsor now took an Academy forward in isolation from the local authority's provision of education in that area. In places like Sunderland, Manchester and Birmingham, we have been more than happy for the local authority to find or help find its own sponsors and to have two members of the governing body, rather than one, which is the norm for local authority representation on an Academy governing body. That said, we still expect there to be a lead sponsor as the focus of the development. You should not ignore the degree of independence that an Academy has from the local authority. It is funded by the Department, it can opt out of the national pay and conditions of service, and we still expect the lead sponsor to have the majority of governors on the governing body. So the role of the local authority is enhanced, but it certainly is in no way a takeover or something that simply preserves the status quo. In my view, there would not be very much point in that.

  Q31  Annette Brooke: Finally, is that two-way traffic then—those Academies which are perhaps totally independent from the local authority at the moment are being brought more clearly within the strategic framework of the local authority?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I would have to answer that question in two stages. Statutorily, the funding agreements of the early Academies can be varied only by consent or by a long notice period. Ministers have not been enthusiastic to impose changes on those agreements, which tie Academies into a lot of the legislation for maintained schools. We are changing the funding agreements of new Academies. For example, the Secretary of State has decided that, from July, new Academies will all do the National Curriculum.

  Jim Knight: In core subjects.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Yes, in core subjects. We cannot impose that on the early Academies without a lengthy process which, as I say, Ministers have not been enthusiastic to go into. But I think that the second part of my answer would be to say that even those early Academies have recognised the fact that isolationism is no longer regarded as being acceptable in the educational world at present. I look back to the time in 1993, when, as head of a grant-maintained school, I was summoned to a meeting in Birmingham by John Major and John Patten. We were told that we should do whatever we wanted to in our own schools: select if we wanted to, interview if we wanted, and take no notice of anybody else's agendas. If you got a group of education professionals and leaders together today and said that, you would be booed out of the room because people now recognise that collaboration is actually better for the children in the school. You cannot do the 14-19 vocational offer, for example, as an isolated school. You have to work with others. Increasingly, those early Academies are coming back into the local fold. I know of one where the Principal of the Academy chairs the local authority Heads Group. I know of another, south of the river from here, where the Academy has willingly signed up to the protocol that the other local authority schools have got, to place hard-to-place children. Increasingly, even the early Academies are coming back into the fold.

  Chairman: Sir Bruce, we have to move on. I would like Adam to lead on fair access.

  Q32  Adam Afriyie: Thank you. We have some wonderful words in politics, and one of them is "fair". The questions that always spring to mind are, "Fair to whom?" and, "Fair on what criteria?". Initially, my question to the Minister is, what is your definition of "fair access"? In an ideal world, fair access is operating perfectly, as you envisage it—what is the outcome? What do we see?

  Jim Knight: That every child, regardless of background, has an equal chance—does not have obstacles put in their way—of being able to access schools. That obviously has to be within reason as, for example, there might be issues like distance that make it difficult for them to get home every night. Having a uniform can be prohibitively expensive, so people from poor backgrounds cannot access that school. Things like parental interviews are selection by the back door in terms of income. That is the sort of thing that we have sought to get rid of through the new admissions code, which every admissions authority must act "in accordance with", as opposed to having "due regard to", as it was previously.

  Q33  Adam Afriyie: I wonder whether I could ask the same question of Sir Bruce—what would be your definition of "fair access"?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I have always said that giving parents a choice between a good school and one or two indifferent or poor schools is no choice at all. My job description says that I am the national champion for choice and diversity. What that means to me is that there have got to be more good places in good schools in the right places. An eloquent example of that is in Carlisle, where there are falling rolls to the extent that, quite unusually, there are empty places in good schools. There will be two Academies, each of which will be the amalgamation of two schools. I visited two of those schools that are going to become one Academy. One is a good school and the other, which serves a white, working-class estate, is in special measures. I said to the head of the school in special measures, "Why does anyone come to this school?" It has only 250 on roll and there were more than that number of spare places in the good school, in the centre of Carlisle, about three miles away. He said to me, "Eight pounds a week." That is what it would cost the youngsters from that white, working-class estate to get on a bus and go to the good school in the town centre, because under the old legislation, if there were places nearby, the local authority did not have to provide free transport. Now local authorities have a duty to address issues like that. Now that issue will be addressed, because the school on the white, working-class estate will close. For me, fairness is giving every child the opportunity to get a good place in a good school in the right place.

  Q34  Adam Afriyie: But that is with caveats, in terms of geography. If there is not a school above the national average within, say, 10 square miles of where someone lives, then surely there is some form of restriction on equal or fair access for each child. I am just checking whether it is recognised that there are constraints?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: It is. I said to my line manager last year, when the results were published, that I would rather become the national champion for expression of preference rather than choice, because it is not possible to give everyone a free choice. As you know, there is a government policy to expand good and popular schools, which is one of the things that I go around encouraging local authorities and schools to do. However, there is an Academy in south London that is the most oversubscribed school in the country. It would have to expand to have 35,000 children on roll, if it was to give everyone their first choice. That is not possible.

  Jim Knight: I represent a constituency where one town of over 10,000 population has no post-13 education at all. Everyone has to get on a bus to access their education beyond Key Stage 4. The other option is to get on a ferry, which does not run for one month of the year, and go across the water. That is a reality. That is one of the reasons why, in the Children's Plan and elsewhere, we have talked about trying to improve parental and pupil voice— [Interruption.] The policeman warned us about mobile phones.

  Chairman: A £50 fine for charity.

  Jim Knight: We are ensuring that in areas where choice does not operate very effectively, we are still driving forward improvement.

  Q35  Adam Afriyie: I was just doing a reality check. There is an understanding and acceptance that you are never going to have equality on all variables for all children in the entire country.

  Chairman: Okay, do you have a question?

  Adam Afriyie: The question is about the choice advisers that we now have, the transport for children on free school meals and the admissions forums. Does the Minister think that those are sufficient measures to support your definition of fair access, or is something missing?

  Jim Knight: No, the only thing that might be missing at the moment is proper understanding and rigorous enforcement of the new statutory obligations. In order to address that, I will be writing this week to all the local authorities in England to remind them of their duties under the Act. That will inform them of some of the concerns that have been raised with me, anecdotally, about the lack of understanding and rigorous enforcement of the code. We are serious about this. Tomorrow also sees the new admissions appeals code coming into effect. I think that the basic framework is right and I do not think that we need to add to it. We will keep these things under review because we are very serious about these matters.

  Q36  Adam Afriyie: Sir Bruce, with your responsibilities, do you think that anything is missing from the code of admissions and the other three measures? Would anything else assist in achieving the objective?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I support everything that the Minister has said. The additional dimension that perhaps I bring is an insistence that local authorities and other admissions authorities monitor the effectiveness of the admissions process and are prepared to challenge it where it is not being done properly. For example, in one London borough, the director of children's services indicated that because of the large number of voluntary aided schools and Academies in the borough, he was no longer able to fulfil his statutory duty with hard-to-place children. We put together the protocol that I mentioned earlier, which was agreed to by not only all the remaining community schools, but all the Academies, voluntary aided schools and the City Technology College—which does not have to fit into it. The local authority had never approached the oversubscribed voluntary aided schools with a view to them taking their share of hard-to-place pupils. That is something that I talk to local authorities about because I believe that hard-to-place pupils should be spread around the system rather than be put into just the lower-performing and empty schools.

  Q37  Adam Afriyie: I think that you have brought us to the next set of questions, which is on monitoring. I will ask the first question on those lines. The admissions forums have the power to produce a report on social segregation and several other issues on an annual, bi-annual, quarterly or monthly basis, but they do not have a duty to produce that report. Do you think that they ought to have the duty to report, at least annually, on the effectiveness of their activities in a particular area?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I think that it would be premature to say that we need to change the legislation to introduce that duty until we see what their reaction is. I anticipate that they will want to report on those issues and my office will be encouraging them to do so.

  Q38  Chairman: How often?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Probably in line with the fair access report that I have to make to Parliament every two years.

  Q39  Chairman: Minister, do you concur with that?

  Jim Knight: Yes, I would want Bruce to strongly encourage admissions authorities to produce a report. They will probably want to produce it annually, but my hope is that they will at least produce a report to coincide with the cycle that Bruce has mentioned.

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