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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Christopher Chope, Mrs. Joan Humble
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Chris Shaw, James Davies, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 19 March 2009


[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Clause 74

Academy arrangements
Amendment proposed (this day): 24, in clause 74, page 45, line 25, after ‘State’, insert
‘, subject to the agreement of the relevant Academy.’.—(Mr. Gibb.)
1 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: amendment 26, in clause 74, page 45, line 29, at end insert—
‘(2A) For the purposes of subsection (2) “Academy arrangements” require the YPLA to support the objective of the autonomy of Academies wherever it is reasonable to do so.’.
Amendment 339, in clause 74, page 45, line 29, at end insert—
‘(2A) In exercising the functions in subsection (2), the YPLA must allow academies a right of appeal to the Secretary of State in circumstances where the governing body of an academy believes that a decision taken by the YPLA is unreasonable in the circumstances.’.
Amendment 391, in clause 74, page 45, line 35, at end insert
‘but excluding the power conferred on the Secretary of State by section 482(1) of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) (Academies).’.
Amendment 392, in clause 74, page 45, line 38, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
‘(a) an agreement entered into by him under section 482 of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) (Academies);’.
Amendment 25, in clause 74, page 45, line 39, after ‘section’, insert
‘, except any functions related to the monitoring and assessment of school performance’.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): There are clearly one or two Committee members who had an overexcited lunch, while others are still finishing off.
I was giving some general comments on the debate that we have had. I shall resist the temptation to respond to all the points, because I fear that that would take a disproportionate amount of Committee time. I shall seek to address the amendments that we are debating in this section.
There are a few things to say on the stand part element of the debate. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, as I predicted, wants to quote from the my letter from Mike Butler, and I would not want to disappoint him in his prediction by not quoting back to him the letter that I received previously from Ros McMullen, when she was the chair of the Independent Academies Association:
“The IAA welcome the plans to establish the YPLA and its proposed role in the administration and support of open academies. It has been clear that the growth of this transformational and successful programme requires an agency to deal with the increasing administration. We are especially pleased that this proposition will allow Academies to continue to receive all their funding directly from a single, national agency”—
as opposed to local authorities, as the hon. Member for Yeovil would like.
“We have been discussing these issues with ministers for some time, and fully support these proposals.”
I refute the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that there is little or no support for this move within the academies movement. Indeed, it is worth reiterating what Daniel Moynihan said in the evidence sessions, in response to the hon. Member for Basingstoke:
“It makes sense for the Department to have an agency to take care of academies. Clearly the Department was never meant to be a local authority, so we are perfectly happy with that and we think it will work well.”
The hon. Member for Basingstoke then asked:
“Are you happy that academies will be administered by the YPLA at a regional level?”
Elizabeth Reid, from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said in response:
It makes absolute sense and, as the academies programme continues to grow, it would be anomalous and unusual for a Department of State to take direct responsibility for a very large number of schools when there are other models, both past and present, available to look at. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust views that as a sensible provision.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 43-44, Q107 and 109.]
There are many other quotes that I could use, but I shall not detain the Committee.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): The Minister quoted Liz Reid, but perhaps he could also refer to her evidence on question 125. She was asked about the alternative of having academies under the strategic accountability of local government. All she said in answer to that was:
“There are others you would have to ask. It would depend on the nature of the legislation that could be crafted and considered by the House.”
Do I take it from that, that the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust envisages that it would be possible to craft legislation that would deal properly with those concerns?
Jim Knight: I could not speak for the SSAT, but it is worth looking further on in column 48, at what happened immediately after that answer from Elizabeth Reid. The hon. Member for Yeovil asked:
“You are being very diplomatic. Perhaps it is time for me to bring on Dan. Is that okay?”
Daniel Moynihan then said:
“I am sorry. I am not a politician and I am not good at being diplomatic. My answer would be that local authorities have called in academy sponsors”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 48, Q125.],
going on to say what I quoted this morning. He clearly put the view that he thought that academies would not support the move talked about.
Mr. Laws: I am still unclear whether the reason that the Government have not been willing to put academies under LA oversight is that they believe that they are not capable of performance managing academies or that they fear local government would seek to suck the autonomy of academies away. Which of the two is it?
Jim Knight: Both could be true. Liz was right that it depends on the precise proposition, but my strongly held view is that we should not disrupt the current academies model. Suffice to say that some of the functions performed by the Department should be carried out on an agency basis, by an arm’s length body and in accordance with the Education and Inspections Act 2006, the intention of which was to distance the delivery from the commissioning of services, which is what we seek to do with this legislation.
I want to deal with the point about the role of Ofsted and the YPLA performance management proposals. When the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton thinks about it, he will accept the importance of the softer, earlier intelligence that comes from a regional capacity, which will allow us to intervene earlier before problems become significant. I do not want to dwell overly on the significant problems that arose early this year at the Richard Rose academy in Cumbria. I pay tribute to the leadership of Mike Gibbons, who has taken over as chief executive of the two academies, and to the sponsors, who helped to resolve the issues. However, that situation had been allowed to get out of control, before we made the necessary interventions. It was thanks only to the procedures that we introduced—allowing parents to complain directly to Ofsted—that Ofsted could properly identify the problems at the school in Carlisle.
I want the YPLA to provide the Department with intelligence about problems and be able to act much earlier itself. The hon. Gentleman has allowed ideology to take over his undoubted common sense. Once he allows his common sense to be heard, he will agree that the arrangement is sensible, and, of course, it will not get in the way of the current arrangements, under which, one year after the opening of an academy, Ofsted will carry out a monitoring visit, and three years later a full section 5 inspection. We are not introducing a second form of inspection—it is simply a relationship on the ground to provide proper support before problems become serious. We will work with academy sponsors and leaders to ensure that every single academy is a success.
On amendment 24, it will help to explain the effect of clause 74, which gives the Secretary of State the power to require the YPLA to act as his agent and to carry out academies’ functions. It is important to understand that we are talking about an agency role and that, in that regard, we are preserving academies’ autonomy. We are not moving powers away from the Secretary of State, but stating that certain functions can be carried out on an agency basis. As the programme expands, it is right, as I and others have said, that open academies continue to be supported and that their performance be monitored, owing to the challenging circumstances in which they operate. The Department finds it increasingly difficult to deliver that level of individualised support, which is why we want the delegation. The YPLA will be able to offer the necessary support, and academies will benefit from its regionalised structure. The routine functions currently carried out by staff in my Department, such as calculating and paying grants, will be undertaken by the YPLA on the Secretary of State’s behalf. In addition, the YPLA will oversee academy improvement through academy school improvement partners.
Mr. Laws: Will the Minister clarify the number of regional offices? Where will the one in the south west be based?
Jim Knight: We are currently working on aspects of that. I would expect the regional structure to be coterminous with the Government office regions, but if the position is any different, I will let the Committee know. I do not know whether the detail of where functions will be based in the regions has been agreed in the negotiations, but if I get that information, I will certainly send it to the hon. Gentleman and copy in the rest of the Committee.
If we allowed each academy to chose whether to participate in the proposed arrangements, as amendment 24 suggests, the YPLA would potentially carry out functions for only some academies. The Department would continue to carry out the same functions as it does now for academies that did not agree to the new arrangements. There would therefore be significant duplication of roles and functions, significant inefficiences, significant inconsistencies and increased costs. I would therefore strongly resist the proposition that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton puts forward in his amendment.
The YPLA will also be able to provide more responsive regionally based support to academies—something that the Department is unable to do at the moment and is unlikely to be able to offer in the future. The YPLA can provide better local knowledge, additional local support can be delivered more quickly to prevent crises, and a more personalised service can be offered to meet the needs of individual academies.
On amendment 25, the Secretary of State will retain responsibility for the regulatory framework for all academies and will continue to take key decisions about individual academies on issues such as terminating the funding agreement, appointing additional members to the governing body and developing the academy’s policy.
On amendment 26, the Committee will be aware that one reason why academies have flexibility and independence is that they are regulated for the most part via their funding agreements. The powers in the Bill will not change the content of those agreements and will not entitle the YPLA to impose new duties on academies. Nor will it change the fundamental principle that sponsors provide direction and leadership for the academy.
The Secretary of State and his officials will, of course, have a close working relationship with the YPLA, which will be required to exercise its academy functions in accordance with arrangements set down by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will provide the YPLA with guidance on the delivery of academy functions. Reporting arrangements will ensure that there is regular communication and accountability.
The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton of course questioned whether the YPLA was the right organisation to do the work; indeed, he proposed setting up a completely separate organisation to do it. We must ensure that any academy functions are carried out in a cost-effective way. It is intended that routine academy functions carried out by the YPLA will deliver cost savings, as the use of YPLA resources will, for example, reduce staff costs and prevent unnecessary duplication of back-office functions. The agency’s internal structure, with the main office responsible for finance functions and regional offices responsible for the improved delivery of performance management functions, means that those cost savings can be achieved.
The YPLA will calculate and make payments of grants, supervise and ensure financial control of budgets, and monitor and enforce the funding agreement. That fits with its main remit of funding education and training places for 16 to 19-year-olds. A large number of the officials who transfer their employment to the YPLA will carry out the same funding functions in respect of academies that they currently perform in the Department. There is therefore a good fit in terms of the bulk of what the YPLA will do in respect of academies.
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