Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

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Mr. Laws: I would like to touch on amendments 371 and 84. Amendment 371 is pretty straightforward. It would add
“the management committee of a school falling within section 19(2B) of the Education Act 1996...(pupil referral units)”
to the categories that are considered relevant partners for the purpose of school behaviour partnerships. We would be interested to know whether the Minister envisages including pupil referral units—or short stay schools, as they are to be known—in those partnerships.
On amendment 84, I probably would not say this if my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole were here, because she would throttle me, but whenever I hear the word “partnership” in association with this Government, I tend to think that it is going to be some bureaucratic monstrosity that involves a lot of meddling, intervention, discussions and meetings for no obvious purpose. Therefore, I start with the type of scepticism that I suspect the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has about these organisations.
I heard the evidence given by Mr. Moynihan to the Committee on 3 March. He talked about his concern that school behaviour partnerships were going to become more onerous and bureaucratic. He also said that he believed that there should be an opt-in for schools and that there should not be a forced marriage or forced friendship, which the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about.
I think I can satisfy my absent hon. Friend by putting it on the record that I am happy with the provision as it is, without amendment 84, subject to a couple of comments. The first reason I am happy is that most schools are already part of a school behaviour partnership, as the hon. Gentleman said. The provision will not be quite the imposition on schools that has been suggested and the figures are slightly higher than he indicated. According to the Library research note, 98 per cent. of maintained schools and 94 per cent. of academies are members of those partnerships.
9.34 am
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
9.49 am
On resuming—
Mr. Laws: I was saying that I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole would be happy with me because I feel comfortable supporting the Government’s line on school behaviour partnerships and reflecting on the fact that most schools throughout the country seem to be in such partnerships. Indeed, the Bill’s economic impact assessment refers to the 55 schools that are not members of a partnership. That sounds like an even smaller number than I would have thought, based on a calculation of 2 per cent. of a stock of 23,500 schools. Is the economic impact assessment right to state that 55 schools are not members of a partnership? How many of those are academies? We are talking about a relatively small number of schools.
The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton made a different argument that echoed comments made by the chief executive of the Harris Foundation: schools should be free to choose their friends, and we do not need to legislate and bully people into forming partnerships. The problem with that argument is that sometimes people do not want to be friends. It can be difficult for some people to make friends—I am feeling a little friendless right now, given that there is nobody else on my side of the Committee. However, I would like to deal with the Bognor challenge, so to speak, because it can sometimes be difficult to partner up, which is of concern, because many schools that will have problems finding partners—in relation to issues such as exclusions—will be those in the most deprived catchments with the largest exclusion problems.
Many schools will ask, “Why on earth would I want to partner up with this school, which is excluding people left, right and centre, and has all sorts of problems? I do not want to take on all the children from those schools in this partnership.” We could end up with a residue of a small number of schools left out of partnerships. Also, some schools will have to form partnerships with other schools that are not obvious fits. Therefore, I am not as bothered as the hon. Gentleman by the inclusion of academies and maintained schools in this provision.
The only area where I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman is in relation to the comments made by Daniel Moynihan in response to the question from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport, to whom we all send our sincere sympathies, following the sad update from the Minister. Daniel Moynihan was concerned that behaviour partnerships will be too detailed and prescriptive, and involve many other issues, such as buying in services, whereas when they were established, they were fairly loose and broad.
I understand how academies might fear that such a bureaucratic process could start to compromise the independence that they so value. Will the Minister reassure us that the Government will be careful in developing the partnerships to ensure that they do not become too bureaucratic or place too onerous a set of duties not only on academies, but on all maintained schools, to which those issues are important? With that reassurance, I would feel much more comfortable with the provisions.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Amendment 84 would remove the duty to co-operate to improve behaviour and tackle persistent absence from academies, city technology colleges and the city college for the technology of the arts. The Government do not wish, in general, to make academies subject to detailed education legislation. We are committed to preserving the autonomy of academies to allow them to be innovative trailblazers in education, but some things are just too important for academies to be outside. We have debated one already—children’s trusts—and behaviour and attendance partnerships are another.
Being involved in such a partnership allows academies to draw on the expertise of their partners in dealing with behaviour and attendance issues, commission a greater range of support services by doing so in conjunction with partners and work with other schools to find the most effective solutions for pupils with behaviour and attendance issues. Ninety-four per cent. of academies are already convinced of the benefits of partnership working and are members voluntarily.
However, for behaviour and attendance partnerships to work effectively, every secondary school in a local area must be involved. Refusal to co-operate by even one school can damage local partnership working, as it undermines the principle that all local children are the collective responsibility of all schools and children’s services in the local area, not just the school that they happen to attend. However, I can confirm to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that schools will not be told exactly which other schools to work with, but can make their own collaborative arrangements.
Although 94 per cent. of academies and 98 per cent. of maintained secondary schools are already working in partnerships voluntarily, the extent to which partnerships work effectively varies. The hon. Member for Yeovil asked about the 55 schools—that came from figures for 2007. I can confirm that eight of them were academies.
The legislation requires schools to have regard to DCSF guidance on behaviour and attendance partnerships. It reinforces and secures the strength of partnerships, and increases the extent to which good practice is embedded.
For the same reasons, it is equally important that all pupil referral units are members of behaviour and attendance partnerships. There are further reasons why it is crucial that pupil referral units are full members. I use the phrase “pupil referral units” because we have not yet passed legislation to change the name to “short-stay schools”. One of the aims of behaviour and attendance partnerships is to build stronger links between pupil referral units and other schools, so that the expertise on behaviour that exists in many pupil referral units can be more easily shared, and joint decision making about where a pupil should be placed can occur.
Therefore, I am sympathetic to the motivation behind amendment 371, which would include pupil referral units in the duty to co-operate in the Bill, but our preference is to place the duty in clause 235 on pupil referral units, using regulations made under schedule 1 to the Education Act 1996.
The legal identity of pupil referral units is different from that of all other schools maintained by a local authority. They are also managed differently, through management committees with local authority involvement, rather than governing bodies. Those practical differences mean that, usually, new legislative obligations on schools have been applied to pupil referral units through secondary legislation. We wish to maintain that legislative consistency.
Applying the duty to pupil referral units through regulations will allow us to tailor the exact details of the requirements to reflect the specific features of pupil referral units, which are different from other schools. For example, we may wish to tailor the duty on pupil referral units so that they have to make arrangements with a maintained school or academy, rather than with another pupil referral unit only. We also want to ensure that primary pupil referral units are not covered by the statutory duty, in the same way that primary maintained schools are not.
In practice, pupil referral units will be full members of behaviour and attendance partnerships in the same way as any maintained secondary school, academy, city technology college or the city college for the technology of the arts, but we will bring that about through regulations, rather than primary legislation. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press the amendments to the vote.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for that response and very reassured by what she said about amendment 371. I thought for a moment that she would concede something to me during proceedings on the Bill, and that I would have some amendment or part of legislation to look back on in old age. As ever, that was snatched from me and the amendment transferred across to regulations, but I feel that I may have to accept that modest piece of good news and not press my amendment any further.
Mr. Gibb: I am half pleased and half disappointed. The Minister said that, in general, the Government do not want to subject academies to general education legislation, which is encouraging to hear but does not tally with what has been happening since the Secretary of State took over as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. There have been significant changes to the autonomy of academies in respect of the national curriculum and the involvement of local authorities in the running of academies, and this legislation includes two more changes that reduce their autonomy—this issue and children’s trusts.
The Minister is being disingenuous when she says that those issues are of such paramount importance that some of the autonomy of academies must be taken away. That is part of a trend in recent years. The Government are not committed to the success of autonomy and successful academies, so they are quite happy to chip away at those freedoms whenever it suits them. That is why I am disappointed.
10 am
I was pleased, however, when the Minister said that schools will not be told with whom to work or form partnerships—she is not going infringe the Bognor principle that friendships should not be forced. I am sure that that will also please the academy movement. In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment 85, in clause 235, page 138, line 7, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 258, in clause 235, page 138, line 12, after ‘State’, insert
‘, with any such guidance ensuring that relevant partners shall not be forced into partnerships against the wishes of the governing bodies of those relevant partners.’.
Amendment 262, in clause 235, page 138, line 12, at end insert—
‘(3A) For the purposes of subsections (2) and (3), a relevant partner may only enter an arrangement with another relevant partner if the governing bodies of both relevant partners approve the arrangement.’.
Mr. Gibb: This debate will be almost the same as the one that we have just had, except it applies to not only academies but all schools. The amendments seek to bring about a little bit more voluntarism in the behaviour partnership arrangements.
Amendment 85 would mean that a relevant partner “may” rather than “must”
“make arrangements with at least one other partner in their area to co-operate with each other with a view to...promoting good behaviour and discipline on the part of pupils”.
That fits with what the Association of School and College Leaders has said. The association welcomes the Bill, but the end of its briefing says that it should be clear that schools will form such partnerships by themselves, and that particular patterns of partnership should not be imposed from outside by either the local authority or by the Government or any of their agencies. The ASCL will be encouraged by what the Minister said in the debate on the last group of amendments, and because there is no intention to have local authorities select the collaborative arrangements into which a school can enter.
Similarly, amendment 258 means that “any such guidance” from the Minister should ensure that
“relevant partners shall not be forced into partnerships against the wishes of the governing bodies of those relevant partners”.
Again, that would mean that unless the governing body of a school wishes to enter a partnership with another school, it should not happen, and the Minister has confirmed that.
It would be helpful to the Committee if the Minister were to confirm what would happen if Mr. Nomates cannot find a partner, which the hon. Member for Yeovil alluded to. Will the local authority force the school to partner another school in the area?
Finally, amendment 262 states that
“For the purposes of subsection...(2)...a relevant partner may only enter an arrangement with another relevant partner if the governing bodies of both relevant partners approve the arrangement”.
That is another way of expressing the view that two schools should enjoy mutual attraction rather than be forced into a shotgun marriage, if that is the Government’s intention. More reassurance on those points from the Minister would be very welcome.
Mary Creagh: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Chope, on this bright morning.
I have some concerns about the proposed amendments. They could weaken the provisions and create a Johnny Nomates school, as the hon. Gentleman put it. I should like to press the Minister on those issues. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State said that he would think about the need for accountability and reporting requirements for the partnerships. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and I may disagree on what weight should be given to knowledge versus knowledge skills, understanding, ability and knowledge in practice. The amendments and the clause consider the how—how we teach in schools and the framework in which learning happens.
It is absolutely clear that truancy and poor behaviour by a tiny minority of individuals—and, in some cases, their parents—can totally destroy learning for all other classroom learners. Consistent lateness, poor attendance and poor behaviour can destroy the fabric of a school. I am concerned about the amendments, as I think that they would give certain schools the chance to decide that they are a bit too grand, too special, too clever or too good to partner other schools. That is a concern, because I do not want to end up with a self-selecting market for school behaviour partnerships.
Wakefield City high school, a high-performing state secondary school in my constituency—it is not an academy or anything like that, just an ordinary comprehensive school—is one of the top five highest value-added schools in the country, and it is a specialist school for maths. The head, Mr. Alan Yellup, provides fantastic leadership. I had a letter from him about two weeks ago that discussed the hundreds of schools that he has worked with. As the head of a leading school, he is happy to share his expertise across the sector, the county and the country. It is important that good practice in beacon schools such as that, whether they have a subject or a behavioural specialism, is rolled out across the sector, and I am against any amendment that would weaken that.
How does the Minister think we can take across some of the interesting innovations that have arisen from such partnerships? How can we model the outstanding, so that it becomes standard practice across the sector? How can we roll out strong schools supporting weaker schools to attain zero tolerance of poor behaviour and truancy?
I was pleased to see the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil on pupil referral units, which have a specialist role to play in partnerships. They often have an important role to play in the continuity of education, if a child is going back and forth—hopefully not more than once or twice—between their main school and the pupil referral unit, or whatever the new name is for them.
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