Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

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Jim Knight: Short stay schools.
Mary Creagh: Thank you. My brain is not functioning quite as quickly as it was this time yesterday morning. I am reassured by what the Minister has said about introducing regulations to make sure that they are included. I just wanted to press her on accountability and the reporting of crimes.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Amendment 85 would negate the new duty on all maintained secondary schools, academies, city technology colleges and city technology colleges of the arts to be members of school behaviour and attendance partnerships. As I have said, school behaviour and attendance partnerships are designed to support and improve outcomes for pupils with behaviour and attendance issues, who are some of the most vulnerable pupils in our schools, so it is important that partnership working is as effective as it can be. Partnership working on behaviour and attendance is also designed to improve low-level disruption across the whole school and thus has a positive impact on all pupils.
It is important that partnership working is made a statutory requirement in order to reinforce the strength of partnerships and ensure that good practice is further embedded by making a statutory requirement for schools to have regard to the DCSF guidance on partnership working. Such legislation is necessary, because in order for partnership working to be truly effective, all secondary schools must be involved. Refusal by even one school can have a detrimental impact on partnership working locally, as the partnership then cannot represent the needs of children across local secondary schools and the principle of collective responsibility at the centre of partnership work is undermined. Schools need to be confident of their partners’ commitment and confident that partnership working is a long-term approach. The legislation shows that the Government are committed to that approach in the long term and ensures that schools are also committed.
Our current guidance suggests that the local authority should play a role in facilitating links between schools and promoting partnership working, and we would expect the local authority to support schools having any problems arranging who is to be in which partnership. We will continue to recommend that the local authority plays that support role when the guidance is redrafted, as it becomes statutory. Ofsted also assesses schools on how well they work in partnership with other organisations, and the new school report card will include information on partnership working.
Mr. Gibb: Will the Minister confirm that the local authority’s role in facilitating and supporting the arrangements will not, in practice, become enforcing them?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We have no intention of coercing schools into partnerships; local authorities will have other levers. They will be able to direct funding to school partnerships and, if they feel that such partnerships are not operating as they should, to withhold it. Furthermore, Ofsted will have the power through inspection to see how well schools are doing on partnership working. Local authorities have no powers to force schools into partnerships.
Mr. Gibb: The Minister hinted at funding. Will a school lose significant sums of money for dealing with behavioural problems, if it does not enter into partnership with a school of the local authority’s choosing?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We do not expect local authorities to undertake this measure coercively. There is no point having a partnership if both partners do not want to be partners. Local authorities will want to collaborate with schools to encourage them.
Mary Creagh: Is not the point, however, that schools that do not want to become partnered are often those with the biggest problems—where the head teacher may be isolated, defensive and in need of greatest help? The Bill strikes the appropriate balance between encouragement and saying, “It’s not good enough just to put your head in your hands, hide under your desk and say, ‘It’ll all get better with time,’ or, ‘These are difficult children.’”
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I agree, which is why I do not support amendments 258 and 262, because they would allow a school to refuse to enter into arrangements with another school, which would undermine the clause. I must reiterate to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that local authorities will not give funding to the partnership, but they will continue to fund schools individually.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield mentioned accountability, which is really important. There are many ways in which we could strengthen the accountability regime, and one option is an annual report to the children’s trust. That is an interesting way of extending accountability, and it may meet my hon. Friend’s requirements. I shall reflect on it, and we may return to it after further consideration.
Although the exact composition of local partnerships will be locally determined, as I have outlined, the crucial point is that every secondary school should be in a behaviour and attendance partnership with at least one other school. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the Minister for again providing some reassurance that schools will not have their partners chosen for them by local authorities. It is good to have that on the record. I was slightly alarmed when talk of funding crept into our discussion about voluntary arrangements, and the idea that support from local authorities would carry the stick that behaviour partnership funding might disappear if schools did not accept the support with the alacrity that the local authority expected. I was reassured by the Minister’s response to my concern, however, when she said that she does not want local authorities to engage in coercion and that any partnership that is not entered into voluntarily will not work. In the light of those helpful words, to which I hope all local authorities will adhere, I shall not press the amendment. I hope that any guidance the Minister issues will be in that spirit. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
10.15 am
Mr. Laws: I beg to move amendment 288, in clause 235, page 138, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) reduce exclusion rates for pupils with special educational needs.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 80, in clause 235, page 138, line 10, at end insert—
‘(2A) In performing their duties under this section, relevant partners must seek to ensure that all pupils are able to work, study and learn in a safe, secure and ordered environment.’.
Mr. Laws: The amendment would add to clause 235(2), which specifies the details concerning relevant partners making arrangements to co-operate with other relevant partners regarding specified subjects. It adds to existing concerns about the promotion of good behaviour and discipline by pupils and about reducing the persistent absence of pupils. The amendment would add a new requirement to consider the reduction of exclusion rates of pupils with special educational needs, and would complement the other paragraphs in that subsection.
It is a concern in many schools in many parts of the country that we have such high exclusion rates of youngsters with special educational needs. We must look not only at what we can do to reduce those rates, but at how schools can co-operate, particularly where there is good practice to draw on or where staff have expert knowledge of particular areas of special educational needs within partnerships to reduce exclusion rates. With this probing amendment, we invite the Minister to consider whether to add this consideration to the Bill, and to explain how the existing duties will relate to youngsters with special educational needs.
I cannot help thinking that there is some trick to amendment 80, because it seems to fail the test of putting a “not” in front of everything. It states:
“In performing their duties under this section, relevant partners must seek to ensure that all pupils are able to work, study and learn in a safe, secure and ordered environment.”
That seems difficult to oppose, but I suspect that the ingenious hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has something lurking in there that he will raise in a moment, so I look forward to hearing from him.
Mr. Gibb: The lurking element is that we want to make schools into safe and happy places for pupils and children. We need to ensure that when behaviour partnerships are entered into, the desire to find new places for children who have been excluded does not jeopardise the safety, security and orderliness of any school to which they are sent. That must be the overriding aim when partnerships are entered into. It is almost tautologous, as the hon. Gentleman has hinted, to have that as an overriding aim, but I am worried that the overriding aim in some partnerships might be to find places in mainstream schools for children whose behavioural problems are such that they ought to be not in mainstream schools, but in high-quality, alternative education that will help with their behavioural problems. I shall return to those issues when we debate the next clause.
The behaviour partnership should not lose sight of the fact that its aim is to produce the kind of ordered environment in schools that, I am afraid, is increasingly the exception rather than the rule. Children are suffering from bullying at too high a level in our schools today, and there is too much low-level disruption across the state sector school estate. That is increasingly becoming the single biggest problem facing education today.
I know that Ministers are sincere in believing that school behavioural partnerships are an answer to the problem, which they may well be, especially if the partnerships are voluntary. However, they might just be a revolving-door attempt to shuffle around the system children who have severe behavioural problems that need to be addressed by professionals with experience and expertise in helping children tackle and deal with behavioural problems that are almost certainly not their fault. If a child has behavioural problems, many people are to blame—their parents, society, the police for not patrolling the streets and keeping order and, possibly, the school environment.
One person who is not responsible for behaviour is the child. Children are the creatures of us all. They are the creatures of the parents, of the school and of society. There are children with behavioural problems who need help. Simply shunting them off to another mainstream school that also has behavioural problems will not help the child, and the child being at the school will not contribute to the school’s effectiveness. The purpose of the amendment is to make sure that it remains the prime aim of all schools to create a safe, happy and secure environment when dealing with behavioural problems and not to allow other aims to supersede that. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I appreciate the sentiment behind amendment 80. It is important that all pupils can learn in a safe, secure and well-ordered environment. However, the clause already requires schools to co-operate to promote good behaviour and discipline on the part of pupils, and the intended outcome of such co-operation is just that—making schools safe and orderly places in which pupils can learn.
Schools are already legally responsible for the safety and well-being of their pupils. Head teachers also have a clear statutory power to exclude pupils, when they think that it is necessary. We have repeatedly stated that we fully support heads who make the difficult decision to exclude. Behaviour and attendance partnerships aim to support head teachers in developing strategies that reduce the need for exclusion. When there is still a need, we fully support the right of the head to exclude.
School behaviour and attendance partnerships help schools to support those pupils who have behaviour or attendance issues, including through early intervention, to address problems before they escalate. The intended outcome of behaviour and attendance partnership working is that, both as a consequence of targeted work, and as a result of other wider strategies of partnership working, low-level disruption and behaviour issues throughout schools are reduced.
Amendment 288 would make a reduction in exclusions among pupils with special educational needs one of the key areas with which schools must co-operate. I am sympathetic to its aim, but it is not necessary. In our current guidance on school behaviour and attendance partnerships, we make it clear that we expect a reduction in the need for permanent exclusions to be a key outcome of partnership working. That is an expected outcome of co-operating with a view to promoting good behaviour and discipline on the part of pupils.
Mr. Gibb: Does the Minister understand that we cannot have in guidance the ruling that there shall be fewer permanent exclusions? If we make that a policy, it will be achieved, but it will not necessarily improve behaviour in a school. It will simply be the case that head teachers are deterred by such guidance from excluding permanently children, who should be excluded permanently and receiving help for their problems. It is no good expecting such guidance to be effective. It will simply compound the problem both for the child by their not receiving help and the school by having a disruptive child in the school and not receiving the help that they need.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The whole point of the partnership is to enable the strategy to get the early intervention work in place and to learn from good practice in other schools, so that permanent exclusion is not the first resort, but the last resort. We also state in guidance that we expect schools to place emphasis on reducing the differential rate for exclusions among black or minority ethnic pupils and pupils with special educational needs.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: There are many examples of good practice, as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Working in a partnership, those examples of good practice can be shared, particularly on outcomes. On another point, for the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, I did not say that we expect a reduction in permanent exclusions to be the outcome; I said that we expect a reduction in the need for permanent exclusions to be a key outcome of partnership working.
I reiterate that our guidance expects schools to place emphasis on reducing the differential rate for exclusions among black and minority ethnic pupils and pupils with special educational needs. The current guidance will be redrafted, as it becomes statutory, but it will continue to include those expectations. Reducing exclusions among pupils with special educational needs will therefore be a key focus of partnership working. It is not necessary to state that in the Bill, as it would give a message that SEN exclusions are more of a priority than other issues, and would suggest that the issue has to be a priority even for partnerships that have a low rate of SEN exclusions. Therefore, I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendment.
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