Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)


9 JULY 2008

  Q80  Mr. Chaytor: The Government have recently announced the national challenge programme for the 638 schools with below 40% of pupils gaining grades A-C at GCSE. Those are schools for which local authorities have had responsibility since at least the Education Act 1944. What does it say about the capacity of local authorities to performance manage institutions, if 64 years on the Government have to send in a hit squad to sort out the problems of those schools?

  Cllr Lawrence: First, local authorities do not have an issue with the national challenge as a concept. The way that it was portrayed concerning a particular group was somewhat unfortunate. If you looked at a lot of the schools in that list, forgetting English and maths for a moment, you saw that many were already achieving five A*-Cs at a high level. Many were either already achieving above the benchmark in English or maths, although not necessarily in both. Also, for a lot of those schools, looking at the cohorts of pupils, the length of time that they had been there, where they had started and what point they had reached in a short time, progress was sufficient to be recognised by, for example, awards from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and inspectoral reports coming out of Ofsted on their capability. The benchmark—quite correctly, because English and maths are fundamental to the core competencies of young people—changed the basis on which a large number of those schools were considered.

  Q81  Mr. Chaytor: The city of Birmingham, for example, has one of the highest proportions of its schools in the national challenge programme. Does that justify the city now being given responsibility for the performance management of sixth-form colleges?

  Cllr Lawrence: Yes. We have one of the largest number of secondary schools in any local authority.

  Q82  Mr. Chaytor: It is the proportion in which Birmingham scores highly, not the raw scores.

  Cllr Lawrence: And of those 27, after you see the GCSE results of this year, 11 will no longer be in that group. That is the first thing. Secondly, each of them already had, before this was published, an action plan to show where it was and where it is going to be. A number of those schools will be academies in a short time. If you looked at those 27 schools and differentiated what is happening to each, you would see there is only a small number that still cause us some concern. The strength of our actions is that I shall not tolerate failure on an individual basis. I can tell you that lead members around the country do not tolerate failure. Two of the schools on that list I have turned around over the past two years by putting in improvement teams—that was my own decision. We issue warning notices within our city, in relation to primary schools. We are about to put an interim executive board into one primary school. You will find local authorities the length and breadth of this land, irrespective of political persuasion, taking action not only against schools that are perceived as not achieving against benchmarks, but against those deemed to be coasting. It does not matter whether they are foundation, trust, community-aided, voluntary-aided or voluntary-controlled schools. Local authorities take their responsibilities incredibly seriously and will be doing their utmost to ensure that youngsters are not given a second-rate education.

  Q83  Mr. Chaytor: Has Birmingham, for example, closed any secondary schools in recent years, for performance management reasons?

  Cllr Lawrence: Technically, we are about to close two schools, but because we have to do that to turn them into academies.

  Q84  Mr. Chaytor: In terms of the relationship between performance management and commissioning, what interests me is that on the one hand local authorities are now being given responsibility for commissioning, but on the other hand the rhetoric in the Raising Expectations White Paper is all about demand-led funding. How do you reconcile that? Do we have a command economy or do we have an economy driven by individual learner choice? How are you going to reconcile that within your local authorities?

  Caroline Abrahams: There are three things to square off there. First is learner choice. IAG—information, advice and guidance—is going to be crucial for that, partly because a lot of young people are not sure what they want to do, so there is a big task to be performed with them, and with their parents, helping them to think through what is the best option. That is one driver. The second driver is, what are the jobs in the local economy? The fact that local authorities are working sub-regionally on this is very helpful, because that is the spatial level at which the labour market operates. The third component is the targets set for the number of apprenticeships. How that will work in practice is that local authorities will receive an indicative budget at the beginning of the year, within which they will be able to work. Towards the end of the year, they will come back together, as a region, to check that people are not collectively busting the budget and that the entitlement that learners have is being met. That is how it is supposed to work, but obviously we have to test it and see how it works in practice. The transitional year, which people are going to be engaged in from next year with colleagues from LSC, will be important.

  Q85  Mr. Chaytor: May I ask Rob, from the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA), what you are going to do other than bang heads together among local authorities? It seems that the sole purpose of the YPLA's existence is to mediate if the sub-regional groupings of local authorities cannot agree. Is that the case?

  Rob Wye: We are still working through with the Department and with local authority colleagues precisely what it will do.

  Mr. Chaytor: It might be a good idea to decide what it should be before deciding that it should exist.

  Rob Wye: At the top level, it will receive the £7 billion budget and be accountable for distributing it to the local authorities. It will also be responsible for ensuring that the entire commitment is being delivered everywhere—that is a quality assurance role. The bit about which we are still in discussion is the extent to which the YPLA will provide strategic analysis and data, and who will actually collect, analyse and supply the data. That is still being worked through because it involves interaction with the Skills Funding Agency.

  Q86  Mr. Chaytor: But the commissioning function of local authorities and urban areas will be done not by individual authorities but by the sub-regional groupings, and the agency's role will be to mediate that. Why cannot the local authorities reach agreement among themselves? In all the urban areas, there are already sub-regional groupings for police, fire and transport. That is the forum where such things are negotiated. Why is the YPLA needed to do it for them?

  Rob Wye: The expectation is that local authorities will reach agreement. The YPLA is a backstop if agreement cannot be reached or if there is a spectacular failure of some sort.

  Q87  Mr. Chaytor: Does the YPLA have a role in performance management?

  Rob Wye: I think that it will have a role in working with the SFA to determine what the performance framework should be, building on the framework for excellence and working closely with Ofsted, which you mentioned earlier. The operation of the framework will be down to the SFA for adults and the local authorities for young people.

  Q88  Mr. Chaytor: It is not exactly crystal clear where the division of responsibilities will lie, is it?

  Chairman: Hansard will not pick this up, but there was some very interesting body language. You were looking at Caroline in answer to the last question, Rob.

  Rob Wye: That is because we are working closely together.

  Q89  Mr. Chaytor: The local authorities have responsibility for the performance management of sixth-form colleges but not further education colleges. They are responsible for commissioning the 16 to 19 work of the FE colleges but they are not responsible for performance management, which is the job of the SFA. It is difficult to think that anyone could have established a more complicated set of relationships.

  Rob Wye: The basis for that is to have one body responsible for performance managing each institution. The SFA has that responsibility for general FE colleges. It will, of course, have to relate to and talk to the local authority, which is responsible for the 16 to 19 commissioning plan, and feed back information on performance. The local authority may look at the performance and say that it is inadequate but it would intervene through the SFA, so there is only one accountability for intervention.

  Cllr Lawrence: The other element of intervention is that the authority can decommission the provision that it seeks to gain from a particular college if it feels that the qualitative outcomes are not meeting the needs of young people, and that can be very serious for an institution. A chunk of funding just goes.

  Q90  Chairman: Can we just get this straight? I have not heard the figures before, Rob. You said that the YPLA would have a budget of £7 billion. What is the budget of the SFA? Would that be the residual of £4 billion? The Learning and Skills Council has £11 billion.

  Rob Wye: There is £4 billion for adults and £7 billion for young people passing through the LSC at present.

  Q91  Chairman: What about apprenticeships funding?

  Rob Wye: I cannot remember off the top of my head the apprenticeships funding figure, I am afraid.

  Q92  Chairman: What is the ballpark?

  Rob Wye: Just over £1 billion.

  Chairman: Just over £1 billion.

  Rob Wye: And that is within the two sums. About three quarters of it is for young people and one quarter for adults.

  Q93  Chairman: So it is not their own money; they will get it from the other two.

  Rob Wye: Yes.

  Q94  Chairman: Does anybody else have any of this money, independently?

  Rob Wye: No.

  Chairman: Okay, that is clear.

  Q95  Fiona Mactaggart: I am worried that you are trying to negotiate your way through something that seems increasingly complex to decide how some of these things will operate, and that you are looking in and sorting out these kinds of structures at a time when the economy is changing the context for learners quite dramatically. They have different challenges and worries. Our education system should be more fleet of foot and flexible to meet the changing needs of the economy and the anxieties that that creates for learners. You are looking at how we are going to manage all that. Am I right to be worried?

  Rob Wye: It is a risk. Our councillors identified and flagged up to Ministers the severe danger that all those involved in these processes might focus on in sorting out the wiring, the structures and the performance management arrangements. Meanwhile, there is a huge day job of delivering for learners, young people, adults and employers. Our eye is not being kept off that ball. We have talked today about how we can make the machinery of government arrangements work. We are also focused on how we can continue to drive up performance. That is evidenced by the recent satisfying results in higher participation and success rates than ever before and the reduction in the NEET figures. However, you are right to flag that up as a risk. We must keep our eye on the ball.

  Q96  Fiona Mactaggart: You will know that unemployment drives participation.

  Cllr Lawrence: It does. I concur with Rob that an eye should be kept on that tension. As I mentioned, local authorities have an economic development remit. They work closely with employer bodies to ensure that skill needs within localities are not only understood, but that the right courses and processes are in place or are being developed to meet those needs. A concern about the Skills Funding Agency is that it will work on a national basis. It could become divorced from the local market intelligence in parts of the country. Although it can retain a strategic national view on skill needs and sector developments, that must not influence the particular local needs throughout the country. Local requirements need to be fulfilled, otherwise the flexibility to adjust, adapt and respond that has been referred to and the ability to lead within localities will not be provided by the various partners that will be subject to the agreements. This area needs a lot more discussion. That is why Rob and Caroline keep sharing body contact. This kind of discussion is going on in detail between the various bodies within departments.

  Caroline Abrahams: I thought you would find it useful to know that the group of Greater Manchester authorities are using their multi-area agreement, which is based around worklessness, to do lots of things together to tackle employment and benefit issues. They are trying to draw into that how they will work together under the 16 to 19 funding transfer. That is an interesting and progressive example of how this change can help local authorities to be more responsive and to take full account of the needs of this group of young people in a way that was not possible before. That is the only area we know of so far that is using a multi-area agreement to do this, but similar discussions are going on in London. Over the next few months I think that we will see more of this kind of approach.

  Q97  Chairman: You have been very good so far at putting a good spin on what is happening.

  Cllr Lawrence: Spin!

  Q98  Chairman: Not spin. You have been very supportive of the changes. Local authorities are very powerful organisations. We never found out whether you are happy with this because it is what you campaigned for. I asked the previous group of witnesses whether they said to Government, "We hate the Learning and Skills Council way of doing things. We want to be in charge of this." Are you pleased because you lobbied and you won?

  Caroline Abrahams: I do not think it is quite like that. It is true to say that the LGA, the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), the main local authority organisations and London Councils are very supportive of this. Obviously that is partly because of the localist agenda, but it is also because we genuinely see the benefits for employment and young people locally. It is the right thing to do, but that is not to deny—we have not denied this, I think—that there are some big challenges in getting the delivery right.

  Q99  Chairman: Someone like Douglas would worry that far from being localists, you are actually making things far more bureaucratic and there are far more players. All of us have latched on to these sub-regional partnerships, and many of us, knowing your patches quite well, wonder whether these partnerships will ever work in the way that you describe.

  Caroline Abrahams: We are mapping them at the moment. We are doing a lot of proactive work with the ADCS. This is serious business for us; it is a big part of our work—certainly in my policy area at the moment—and we have been engaging very actively with local authority members and officers at a range of levels. We are mapping the sub-regional partnerships as they come along. We have every intention of staying in this with the ADCS and of working with the LSC to support local authorities as the changes go through. There is a shared commitment across all those organisations to see this work, and, so far, the omens look pretty good. Obviously, things will change over the next few months, and there is a lot of work to do. But so far, local authorities are doing what we want them to do, which is to work out who they will work with. They are having conversations with providers and colleges. In some places, they are getting into buddying, mentoring and shadowing arrangements with their LSCs, which is an important prelude to the really important work of transitioning staff across from the LSC into local authorities. That will be crucial. So far, so good, but there is an immense amount to do, which is why Rob and I spend so much time together.

  Chairman: You have taken us into transitional arrangements, and that is our last section.

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