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I understand that the previous position of the Conservative party was that it wanted academies to continue to be under the oversight of Westminster and the Minister. We do not believe that that is sustainable. It might have been sustainable with one Minister who was very engaged in the programme when the Government were running 20 or 30 academies, but it is surely not sustainable when there are 100, 200, 300 or 400, and it certainly will not be sustainable if the vision for the education system set out by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in his speech on 5 November
comes to fruition. He made it very clear that the Conservative party's long-term goal was for academy status to become the norm not just for secondary schools but-I assume from the thrust of his comments-for primary schools as well.
If the Conservative party, or Members of Parliament in general, really think that the Department would be capable of holding to account 3,500 secondary schools and 23,500 primary and secondary schools from Westminster, it and we will be making a grave mistake. I do not see how that could possibly be consistent with many of the criticisms made by the Conservative party of big government and the system of running everything from Westminster and Whitehall. I would also say gently to the hon. Gentleman that if he is concerned with political interference in the academies movement, there could not be a better guarantee of uncertainty in that regard than putting the Secretary of State and the Department in charge of the oversight of academies. That is because whenever there is a Minister or Secretary of State who is unenthusiastic about academies, they might easily and rapidly implement changes to undermine the academy movement. Therefore, those who support academies might want some elements of their oversight or freedoms to be at a greater distance from Secretaries of State. I would have thought that this might be a concern that the hon. Gentleman would have in respect of the current Government. It does not appear to me to be at all obvious that we should stick with the existing system, and it appears fairly obvious that we should move towards a different approach.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting this in amendment (a). I assume the amendment is not a serious proposal, but that it has been tabled to make a point. If implemented, however, it would either make the YPLA entirely responsible for the oversight of academies or lead to the appointment of so many principals to it that the YPLA would become obsessed by academies and would pay little regard to many of its other responsibilities. It would therefore effectively end up being a regulator of academies.
Because we do not think that that is a satisfactory approach, my party has not been able to support the Government or the Conservative party on this matter. Such an approach could leave some parts of the country with regional branches of the YPLA that have oversight of a tiny number of academies and that would duplicate the oversight that is already supposed to be in place from local authorities. From my understanding of what happened in Committee, it would also leave us with a deeply unsatisfactory situation in which the Government essentially set up a YPLA to take on the oversight of academies because they do not trust local authorities with the oversight and performance management of schools, and particularly of those schools with high levels of disadvantage and poor levels of overall performance. It seems to me pretty astonishing that the Government might put in place a system of oversight for these schools that suggests that they have no confidence in the other mechanisms that are used for the oversight of the vast majority of schools in this country.
If there are problems with local authority oversight of either academies or existing schools, it seems more appropriate to deal with and address the deficiencies in
that oversight than to seek to set up a separate organisation such as the YPLA to do the job or perhaps to end up-this could be Conservative party policy, depending on which branch line it takes in its current review-with the oversight of 23,500 schools from one ministerial office in Westminster.
Many of the concerns about academy oversight and independence-which I think are shared by all three Front-Bench teams-could be met by addressing three separate issues. First, the freedoms of academies need to be protected, and could be effectively protected by legislation. Secondly, there should be support for the establishment of academies where it may not be sufficient to rely on local authorities providing that support if they feel those schools are competing with the existing local authority family of schools. Authority for that could rest with either the Department or a much smaller agency of the type that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton suggested. In our view, that ought to leave the oversight of academies and all other state-funded schools with local authorities, and they themselves should be under very rigorous oversight from an independent educational standards authority of a type that, frankly, we do not have at the moment. That lets down not only those schools that could come under the oversight of local government, but the thousands of other schools that have to rely on a performance management mechanism, which the Government seem to feel is so defective that they are having to set up a separate body to do this for the academies.
We therefore believe that amendments 178, 72 and 73 offer some welcome tweaks from another place, but we believe that the fundamental issue of the oversight of academies has not been dealt with. We certainly do not believe that the right way to go forward is through amendment (a), which seems more of a probing amendment than a serious proposal.
Mr. Coaker: Our brief discussion on this group of amendments has been useful and interesting. Let me repeat and put on record that academies are an essential part of the Government's educational reform programme. They play a significant role in the improvement of educational standards in many of the poorest areas of our country and they have been, in most part, very successful. The fact that we now have 200 academies across the country with a commitment to extending that to 400 academies by 2011 is an extremely important statement of what the Government are seeking to achieve.
I regularly meet academies and speak to the sponsors. I, along with the Secretary of State and other members of the DCSF ministerial team, do all we can to expand and develop the programme. I referred the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) to the argument about the need for academies to be developed more quickly as though they are the answer in every situation, because one or two Conservative authorities across the country-or perhaps more-are not following the policy that he has just articulated. If it is, indeed, Conservative party policy that every school should be an academy and that they should be the answer to educational deprivation and underachievement all across the country, he needs to speak to one or two local authorities and tell them that. I have to tell him that in one or two cases where we are seeking to provide an
academy solution to a problem, it is not Labour authorities, the DCSF or me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who are preventing that from happening; it is one or two people from his own party.
Mr. Coaker: The point I am making is that we want academies to be the solution where that is appropriate, and we need to overcome any obstacles to that. The only point I am making to the hon. Gentleman is that it is not just Labour authorities that are sometimes standing in the way of the academy solution. The Secretary of State has been very clear that academies are an important solution to the problems of educational underachievement. They are an important solution to some of the problems we have seen when social deprivation and educational achievement remain linked despite the efforts that have been made, but they are not the only solution. That is the difference between us. The Conservatives see academies as a solution in every single situation-in every single secondary school and every single primary school-whereas we say that there may well be other solutions, including the national challenge trust. Locally, an academy might not be the best means of improving educational standards in an area, but we will pursue an academy solution if we believe that it is appropriate.
The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) mentioned local authorities. We might go to the local authority and ask it to come to agreements about educational transformation in its area and develop a strategy for change, perhaps using Building Schools for the Future money. It is up to the local authority to determine how to do that. The difference between us and the other parties is that we want local authorities to come forward and tell us what the solution is-and that may well be an academy, or it may well be a national challenge trust or another sort of federation. We will not tolerate, however, local authorities who will not come forward to grasp difficult issues, but we will work closely with local authorities on the school reform programme.
We have introduced the YPLA simply because, as the hon. Member for Yeovil said, it simply is not sustainable for the Department to run academies from the centre and to become, in essence, a national local authority for hundreds and hundreds of them. If there were only a few academies, such an arrangement might be appropriate, but as we expect to have 400 of them in a couple of years' time, it simply is not in this case. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has said:
"There is a general consensus that the administration and oversight of academies should, because of the growing number of academies, be performed by some form of agency acting for the Secretary of State". --[ Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 19 March 2009; c. 427.]
He may not accept the YPLA, but he accepts that some form of agency, aside from the central DCSF, would be the appropriate body and that suggests that he accepts the need for another body to help run the academy programme, rather than to have the whole programme run centrally.
Mr. Coaker: In our discussions, local authorities constantly talk to us about the performance of schools in their areas. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have said just recently that what he suggests is not acceptable for the academies in the national challenge or for the one or two that are in an Ofsted category. However, we will work closely with them and with local authorities to do all we can to ensure that academies are held to the same stringent account for performance as other schools.
Mr. Coaker: Performance management, ultimately, will be done by Ofsted; it will draw problems to the attention of local authorities, Ministers or the sponsors. Indeed, some academies welcome Ofsted and conduct Ofsted-type inspections of themselves to see how they are performing, and how their improvement programmes and strategies are working.
We have said that the YPLA will provide better value for money and that a dedicated agency would help to save nearly £1 million. The existing regional infrastructure will allow quicker, more focused support resulting from better knowledge of the local context and more regular contact. Academy funding functions fit in with the YPLA's main remit: the funding of education and training places for 16 to 19-year-olds. We are working and will continue to work with academies to make sure that they are supported in ways that work best for them.
We have built in safeguards. The Secretary of State will remain legally responsible for all the academies' functions, including negotiating and signing the funding agreements, as I have said. The Secretary of State will be directly involved in key decisions, such as terminating a funding agreement or appointing new members to the governing body. Academies will have the same legal remedies available to them as now if they are unhappy with how they are treated. There will not be a loss of academy autonomy. The YPLA will not have the power to impose new duties on academies and it will be required to exercise its academy functions in accordance with arrangements and guidance set out by the Secretary of State's key principles.
I do not see that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is appropriate or necessary. We have said that the YPLA board should represent all the responsibilities that the YPLA has, so we would expect significant-not "majority", as his amendment proposes-academy representation. Also on that body would be sixth-form colleges, local authorities and further education colleges. We have set up an academy reference group, and we regularly meet academies and academy hosts. We have a director of academies who will now work within the YPLA, so we are trying to address what the amendment is getting at: the need to ensure that the YPLA, important as its work will be, does not have an adverse impact on the autonomy of academies, does not slow down the real progress that academies are making in tackling educational underachievement and does what we want.
In opposing the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but in supporting the Lords in their amendments, may I say that academies are and will remain a fundamental part of our educational reform programme? We believe that their autonomy within a collaborative framework is important, and that importance is shown, as he pointed out, by the excellent results being achieved in many of those academies in areas where that excellence simply did not exist before-all of us, whatever the type of school we wish to see introduced, want to see that. This evening's debate, as well as the one that has taken place alongside this Bill, will help all of us to bring about the educational transformation that we all wish to see.
Mr. Wright: The establishment of an independent regulator for qualifications and assessments is an important part of this Bill, and I think that there is a strong and welcome consensus behind the establishment of Ofqual. We are all sick and tired of clichéd, lazy and untrue accusations of the dumbing down of standards in exams. By making Ofqual truly independent from the Executive-it will report directly to Parliament, not Ministers-this reform provides the opportunity to ensure that qualifications standards are maintained, and that the public can have well-founded confidence in those standards.
A large number of amendments have been tabled in response to concerns raised in this House and in the other place regarding Ofqual. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to group my speech around four main themes: the governance of Ofqual; the powers that the regulator has and, within that, the crucial relationship between Ofqual and the Secretary of State; Ofqual's reporting requirements; and minor and technical amendments.
It is, of course, of paramount importance that Ofqual is, and is clearly seen to be, independent, and its governance arrangements are crucial to establishing that independence. We listened carefully to concerns raised in both Houses and were grateful for the support for the amendments that we tabled in another place. Lords amendments 188, 192 and 193 amend schedule 9, so that the power to appoint and dismiss Ofqual's deputy chair lies with Ofqual, rather than the Secretary of State. We agreed that there should be a duty on the Secretary of State to consult the chief regulator before appointing or dismissing members of Ofqual, and Lords amendments 190 and
194 allow that to happen. The provisions also allow for circumstances in which it is not practicable to consult the chief regulator or their deputy. The Secretary of State can appoint or dismiss before consulting only in exceptional circumstances-where it is considered necessary to do so.
Under clause 126(6) the Secretary of State can require Ofqual to have regard to specified aspects of Government policy. It is important to stress that Ministers cannot use that power to force Ofqual to do anything; it is only a requirement for Ofqual to "have regard", but the regulator must at least consider the policy in question. Again, we listened to the concerns of those in another place and we tabled an amendment-Lords amendment 118-requiring the Secretary of State to publish any such direction given to Ofqual, in the name of transparency. These amendments all help to reinforce Ofqual's independence of governance, and ensure the transparency of its relationships with Government.
We need a regulator that can protect standards and ensure that qualifications provide value for money. It is therefore important that Ofqual has the ability to cap fees and to withdraw recognition, for example. Those powers are absolutely essential if Ofqual is to be the robust and effective regulator to which we are all committed to having. They enable it to deliver its efficiency and standards objectives. However, we have recognised and appreciated concerns about the extent of the powers and whether there is sufficient accountability over their use, and we have tabled amendments to increase the safeguards around their use.
I turn to amendments 119 to 121, and in particular the capping of fees charged by an awarding body for a qualification. The amendments do two things. First, Ofqual may now impose a fee-capping condition only if it is necessary to do so to ensure value for money. Secondly, any reviews of fee-capping decisions must now be the responsibility of someone independent of Ofqual with relevant skills. In the interests of transparency, we have also placed a new duty on the Secretary of State through amendment 121 to publish any fee-capping guidance given to Ofqual, paralleling the requirement to publish any directions on Government policy that I mentioned earlier. We are similarly proposing to amend clause 146 through Lords amendment 127, so that any reviews of a decision to withdraw recognition must be carried out by someone independent of Ofqual.
The power of the Secretary of State to determine the minimum requirements of qualifications is important: it reflects the fact that Ministers-not Ofqual-are accountable for the curriculum, even though the curriculum is often, in part, specified through Ofqual's qualifications criteria. Ministers have a perfectly legitimate interest in the content of qualifications and are accountable to Parliament in doing so.
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