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Q 8Annette Brooke: That is probably an area that we need to revisit to ensure that the measure is practical—thank you. On the behaviour and attendance partnerships, does making something statutory necessarily make it work better?
In my opinion, schools need to work in partnership. I was an autonomous head teacher for 23 years and loved it—well, I was an autonomous head teacher for 18 of those years and loved it, but for the first five years I was not. I would never want to take that autonomy away from schools, as it has been beneficial for them and for children. Autonomy, in my book, has to exist within certain parameters, and we should tell schools that we expect a certain minimum element of co-operation, because that not only meets the needs of children in the wider community, but is helpful for schools.
I am interested in the concept of schools creating the capacity to be able to pick up problems through joint appointments between them, as suggested in the children’s plan. As a head teacher, I could have used a psychiatric social worker but would not have been able to keep them in full-time occupation. However, if I had been in partnership with three or four schools and had easy access to someone who could pick up problems and then perhaps help the child or school through the system, the benefits would have been enormous. I think that it is right and proper to say to schools, “Yes, you ought to work in partnership.” I do not think they should do that at too high a level, because the autonomy of schools is very important, but they have to work inside a community. They are not just separate items but are responsible to the community and to each other.
Q 9Annette Brooke: Following on from that, are all the necessary players who might be part of that specified in the Bill? For example, I do not think that pupil referral units are specified.
Sir Alan Steer: No. However, I gather that PIUs will be included—this is where I will flail a bit—through subsequent guidance.
Q 10Annette Brooke: I have one final question. This morning, one of our witnesses commented on that and suggested that it might be possible for one school not to pair up and almost not to be chosen for the team, as it were. Is there a danger that you might get some really strong partnerships, but that perhaps the school that needs to be supported is left out on the edge?
Sir Alan Steer: I agree with you, as that is a danger. I noted that the document, “21st Century Schools”, which came out before Christmas, referred to the involvement of the local authority in helping to guide the formation of partnerships. That might be necessary in time, because the last thing you want is a partnership with all those who, in a sense, did not need to be in partnership with all the ones that needed to be on the outside of that. That needs to be looked at to ensure that it does not happen.
Q 11The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): My apologies for being late, Mr. Chope. The Bill, as currently drafted, relates to secondary schools, and I wonder whether you thought that we should go wider and include primary schools.
Sir Alan Steer: I did consider the issue of primary schools and behaviour partnerships but concluded that, unless one was careful, they would become such large and unwieldy organisations. I have described the concept of partnerships as exciting, and my fantasy—it will not be me who is engaged in this in five or 10 years’ time—is that you will have groups of schools working much more closely together, and I very much want that to be cross phased. The example of efficiency resource use shows that it is often the small primary school that can least afford to get the specialist services. I have worked in partnerships, and in my experience we worked in closest partnership with our primary school. However, with regard to the initial development, one should get one’s behaviour partnerships going in a manageable number without making them so large that they would possibly be unwieldy. That was the thinking.
Q 12Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Carrying on with the behaviour partnerships, obviously you have been around a great number of schools, and presumably you have examples of good practice. What would be the best way for us to disseminate that good practice throughout the partnerships?
Sir Alan Steer: I saw some outstanding practice. I saw a practice in Leeds and one in Waltham Forest—I think it was in the report—that actually made me quite emotional. The quality of what was being done for some really quite troubled children between schools was exemplary. As I said, it was quite an emotional experience. I think that there is a very fine balance between the Government setting the parameters for things to happen and getting too much into micro-management. I might be accused of too much micro-management with the recommendation on the compulsory element of schools in partnerships, although I do not accept that. We need to create a situation for schools and then enable and encourage them to run with it. You will find outstanding examples of such practice. This is something that we always need to remember.
In our system, we have outstanding examples of good practice. Our problem is that we have variation; we do not have consistency, which is a word that I go on and on about in relation to all sorts of issues. That is one of the things we need to put a driver on. However, we need to create the baseline, parameters and expectations. It seems legitimate for the Government to say, “These are our expectations for a state service”, but then hopefully we can let the schools develop and learn. I have found that some people are not only doing what I have recommended in this review, but going much further than I ever thought of. That is one of the joys of being in the educational world.
Q 13Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I want to follow Annette Brooke’s question about the remarks this morning of our NUT witness. He said that he was concerned about there being only one relevant partner, and he mentioned using the local authority. Do you think that the local children’s trust board could have a role to play in this? Would that be effective?
Sir Alan Steer: It could have a role to play, but that is a difficult one to answer, because of course that is very much embryonic. When we consider the role of children’s trust boards and the representation of head teachers it is looking into the future. If children’s trusts meet our aspirations for pulling together all the services around the child, it would certainly be good, but that is very much speculating on a desired outcome, rather than evidence that one can see at the moment.
Q 14Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Do you think it important that academies are included in the partnerships?
Sir Alan Steer: It is important that all schools are included in partnerships. If some are not included, it will have a devastating effect on everybody else and will be harmful to those schools. Schools cannot be islands. The most dangerous situation for a school is when it looks into itself all the time without outside influence and support. In my view, if academies are to meet our aspirations for them, which includes changing what are often very difficult circumstances, they must also have things to teach. If they meet that aspiration, which we hope they will, they will have expertise and contributions to make to people in the community, too. Absolutely, I think that all schools in an area need to be engaged with each other, without removing their autonomy—as I said, I was an autonomous head teacher. I think that that is perfectly possible to do.
Q 15The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): In the absence of other questions—I would hate to be accused of hogging anything—I would like to know what the benefits are of changing the name of pupil referral units and calling them schools for the first time.
Sir Alan Steer: They are educational institutions. They are about children learning, not about putting them somewhere because we do not know what else to do with them, which has sometimes been the situation. Any child of school age ought to be in a school and the concept ought to be of them learning. Why do we assume that because a child goes to a PRU they are not capable of passing exams or doing well? One of my closest educational friends, and the head of an extremely able and high-performing school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, went to an emotional and behavioural difficulties school and, according to him, was illiterate until the age of 15. We lose that concept. Right back in 2005, we called our report “Learning Behaviour”. The whole concept is that the vast majority of children are capable of learning, improving and removing their problems. We have always got to hang on to that. PRUs ought to be seen as schools; they are learning institutions.
Q 16Jim Knight: This morning we heard John Bangs from the NUT express concern about reporting the use of force. Do you think that there is a significant danger, about which we should worry, of situations whereby an incident has taken place in school and is reported to a parent, who is consequently violent towards their child?
Sir Alan Steer: It is not a new problem. As a head teacher, a situation would occasionally occur where one was aware of a problem family and an issue would arise, which you jolly well knew that the parents should know about. You would approach that situation with, hopefully, skill and expertise. You would, perhaps, see the parent, or make sure that it was presented in a certain way. As I said earlier, if you were really concerned that that child was at physical risk, you would be duty bound to have taken certain steps already, under specific child protection procedures, possibly involving social services or the educational welfare service.
However, I do not think that you should remove the—in my eyes—absolute guiding right of parents to know whether their child has been physically restrained. If my child had been physically restrained because they needed to be, and I did not know about it, I would be furious. It is an absolute right of parents to know what is happening to their children in school. In those extreme cases, we have to be skilful and clever in order to deal with them, but the absolute right of parents to know what is happening to their children at school seems to me unanswerable.
Q 17Jim Knight: Finally, this is a slightly dangerous question, because I do not know what your answer will be. All members of the Committee would acknowledge your expertise and the importance of the work that you have done in your reports on behaviour. Is there anything else, in the context of behaviour, about which we should legislate? Is there anything that we have not done in successive pieces of legislation that we use to implement our work?
Sir Alan Steer: The key things about improving the system are sometimes the simple things which, because they are so simple, do not excite us. I used the word “consistency” earlier and I always use it when I do presentations to groups on behaviour. I often say to them that the trouble is that it does not sound sexy. Our task is to make the word “consistency” sexy. You say that to people and they nod wisely, but they instantly move on and I feel that, in their minds, they think that that is a bit boring. It is not boring, it is hugely significant. There is so much research about the impact of good quality teaching on children, especially the most vulnerable. It is one of the most significant equal-opportunities issues that you can think of—who gains most from good quality teaching?
I am going around the houses to answer your question, but my answer is that our task is to implement what we have got and do it well. As I said earlier, we have got outstanding practice—outstanding practice—but I understand that the variation in these schools, not only between but within them, is one of the highest in OECD countries. If we could only close that variation and lift the weakest up to the standard of even the average, we would probably meet—and exceed—all our targets. I actually think that it can be—I do not know if this is parliamentary language—a cop-out always to search for the big solution. We have the solutions; we just have to get on and implement them.
Q 18Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Can we go back to the question of whether primary schools should be included? I do not know if you have had the opportunity, as part of your research, to look at the work done in Plymouth by the Plymouth Excellence Cluster?
Sir Alan Steer: No, I have not.
Sir Alan Steer: The Bill does not preclude them, does it? It makes a requirement of secondary schools to be in a partnership, so in a sense there is flexibility in areas such as Plymouth.
Q 20Alison Seabeck: So others could be drawn in?
Sir Alan Steer: Part of my thinking is that schools are in partnerships, but our problem is that they are in a huge number of them, in all directions. My school was a specialist school in technology and languages and also a training school; I was the leader of the Redbridge network, which contained 56 schools, and there were other links, too. The danger, as Estelle Morris said a few years ago, is that too many relationships are a bit like bigamy: you cannot get a deep relationship with anybody. Real partnership depends so much on trust between people.
My image is one of fewer schools working in partnership, but there is no earthly reason why combinations could not be put together. I cannot imagine a successful system that does not engage with, and link the different phases of primary or further education. If we want genuinely close partnership, we need to think about the optimum number of relationships that a school can have and meaningfully carry them forward.
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