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Children, Schools and Families Bill

Children, Schools and Families Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. David Amess, †Janet Anderson, Mr. Clive Betts
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Flint, Caroline (Don Valley) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Johnson, Ms Diana R. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Sarah Davies, Sara Howe, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 4 February 2010


[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Children, Schools and Families Bill

Clause 19

School improvement partners
Amendment proposed (this day): 68, in clause 19, page 17, line 33, after ‘other’, insert ‘educational’.—(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 198, in clause 19, page 17, leave out lines 35 to 38.
Amendment 194, in clause 19, page 17, line 38, at end insert—
‘(2A) After subsection (2) there is inserted—
“(2A) A person may not be appointed as, or remain, a school improvement partner unless he is for the time being approved by the governing body and head teacher of the school.”’.
Amendment 87, in clause 19, page 18, line 3, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
Amendment 199, in clause 19, page 18, line 5, leave out subsection (4).
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Welcome back to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. Before the Committee adjourned, we were discussing the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and those in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. I was looking at the impact assessment, which is always interesting on this Bill, and I mentioned the criticisms in that impact assessment of the existing SIP system, which was described as an inefficient use of resources.
The impact assessment also makes clear what the clause is designed to tackle—the inability of SIPs to get involved outside the narrow area of educational attainment—and the issue is whether the system could be restructured to provide SIPs with a greater role and to reduce the role of link advisers. The amendments relate directly to those issues and to whether this is a sensible way of focusing the role of SIPs and whether the expenditure of public money is justifiable, especially as the Government estimate it to be about £325 million at present values.
I should like to echo some of the criticisms and concerns that were expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. Amendments 68, 198 and 199 raise the issue of whether we want SIPs to have a wider focus. Do we want them to be involved in well-being and other matters, or is it sensible for them to focus on what is presently the core responsibility of educational attainment?
In part, the answer depends on what role we see for SIPs. In our view, SIPs could play a role as part of the accountability mechanism that enables schools to deliver, particularly on their core educational requirements. That could be a mechanism for local authorities to engage with schools through individuals with relevant expertise, so that they understand what job they are doing, find out whether educational attainment is being improved, and potentially, as the Government indicate, broker support from other organisations. Some people might feel that the local authority is often not qualified to offer much of that support, but there could be a role for SIPs in brokering support. However, there is an issue about whether that is the right way for SIPs to deliver on that responsibility.
The amendments raise three issues. First, whether it is sensible for SIPs to have that responsibility for well-being. I am not clear that it is sensible, which is why amendments 198 and 199 essentially support the thrust of amendment 68. The second issue relates to amendment 194, tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and is whether schools should have a veto over their SIP. That is not something that we would support, as we believe that SIPs should have a role not only in supporting schools, but in holding them to account.
We certainly would not want local authorities to ignore the situation where a school expressed concerns that a SIP was not appropriately qualified. If that is part of the accountability mechanism, we are not convinced that it makes sense for schools to have an outright veto over their SIP, as it is possible that the SIP might deliver unpleasant news or have a view that a school is failing. If the governing body is able to veto the SIP that seeks to hold it to account, it would not be a very effective mechanism for holding a school to account.
Is this the right way to deliver that type of school improvement and accountability in the future? We need to look at the prescriptiveness involved, not only in the way that the Government want to widen the role of SIPs, but in the assumptions made in the impact assessment about how SIPs will operate in the future, the number of days that they will spend in individual schools and how that will be linked to highly or poorly performing schools.
We appear to have a prescriptive, top-down mechanism for central Government to deliver a system of local accountability and improvement. Typically for this Government, the system is not genuinely localised: local authorities cannot decide whether they want SIPs, whether they want to use existing link advisers, how they want to support schools and how many days they want the SIPs to spend in schools. It is extremely top-down and prescribed.
We are also worried whether the policy will deliver the zero net impact, which is what the Government are estimating and which depends heavily on the assumption that the scrapping of links advisers would offset the additional costs of school improvement partners. Amendment 87 would allow local authorities greater freedom and flexibility in how they use SIPs. It would allow them to opt out of the guidance that the Government otherwise intend to impose on local authorities.
Such changes would genuinely deliver a SIPs system that would be adaptable on the basis of a local authority’s priorities and correspond with its views of what it needed to support school improvement. It would not be a top-down approach that would tell local authorities how to use SIPs to deliver local accountability—a role that should be provided by the local authority. The clause is typical of the Government, and what we fear is embedded in it.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Good afternoon to you, Mrs. Anderson, and members of the Committee. The amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and for Yeovil would remove the two emphasises given to the SIP’s role to improve the well-being of pupils at the school. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton believes that the clause would dilute the emphasis that a SIP should have on improving educational attainment at the school. Both emphasises are necessary.
In many of the schools that have featured in our debates, we cannot talk about improving standards without considering the well-being of the pupil. Someone acting as the broker between the school and the local authority would need to be involved in what was happening outside a school in respect of health, families, youth provision, social services, children’s services, employment and housing if that person is to address school improvement overall. The school improvement partner is the right person to do that. We will not take away the responsibility from the local authority, but the person will act as a direct contact with the school. Action or improvement plans will be a matter for the school to work out to the SIP’s satisfaction. I am a little surprised at the amendment, as it is a fundamental part of a SIP’s role not to see the school in isolation.
The hon. Member for Yeovil is right that significant investment will be used in such matters. It is expected that SIPs will spend more time working with schools to deliver an outcome, which is extremely important, particularly if it is seen in the context of the holistic view of improving standards in schools. Of course, it matters to the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and for Yeovil that we focus on educational standards. I am not saying that there should be no such focus, but just that well-being should be a part of it.
On a further point made by the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and for Yeovil, a national strategies survey indicates that 80 to 90 per cent. of head teachers think that their schools benefit from school improvement partners. Another amendment proposes that schools should be able to disregard advice with respect to SIPs. I do not accept that; we would to go too far if we said that a SIP could not stay in role if the heads and governors say that they did not want them. It may be that there is a breakdown in the relationship or that a head teacher is not willing to confront the improvement that is necessary in the school, rather than the school improvement partner being the problem.
If we were to pass amendment 194, tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, a head teacher could say, “We don’t like that improvement plan,” even though most other people thought that it was a good idea, and the school improvement partner would be left with no role at all, which would not be an appropriate way forward.
School improvement partners are an important part of the school reform system. Including well-being as part of their tasks and responsibilities is a crucial part of raising standards and ensuring that opportunities exist for all our young people in all our schools. With those remarks, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Laws: I shall not prolong the debate too much. It is clear that there is a difference of opinion between ourselves and the Minister on at least two of the issues in the amendments. I want to register our continuing concern that, although the rhetoric of Government policy focuses on local accountability, the extent to which the provision seeks to prescribe how each local authority should essentially run its own systems of school accountability and the delivery of advice about school improvement is very depressing and reflects still a mentality in which Westminster and Whitehall know best, rather than assuming that local areas have the skills and ability to design systems that are based on their own needs, rather than on some central prescription.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I am keen to progress rapidly, so that we can get to the home education clauses. Many people, both inside and outside the Committee, are keen for us to consider such important issues for a considerable time, so I shall make two quick points. I do not believe that a concern over diluting the emphasis on educational standards is my worry; it is whether the same person can, with expertise, advise both on raising educational standards and on the well-being issues, because they are very different matters.
My second point relates to a breakdown in the relationship between the SIP and the head. Such a breakdown may well be the head’s fault in some circumstances. None the less, if a SIP is meant to be a critical friend and not an adversarial inspector, regardless of who is to blame for the breakdown in the relationship, a new SIP is needed. The National Union of Teachers is concerned about that and feels that there should be an appeals process for governing bodies in the event of a breakdown and the SIP is regarded as unsuitable. I have made my two comments; we have had a good debate; and I ask leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

Provision of Information about Schools, etc
Mr. Laws: I beg to move amendment 200, in clause 20, page 18, line 9, leave out subsection (1).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 69, in clause 20, page 18, leave out lines 11 to 16 and insert—
‘(a) for subsection (2) there is substituted—
“(2) For the purposes of this section—
(a) information as to the views of prescribed persons about the school,
(b) information about the continuing education of pupils leaving a school,
(c) information about the employment or training taken up by such pupils on leaving a school,
is to be treated as information about the school.”’.
Amendment 201, in clause 20, page 19, line 15, at end insert—
‘(c) assist in making informed judgments about the comparative effectiveness of individual schools and colleges in providing high quality education, by facilitating comparisons of schools and colleges which have similar pupil characteristics in relation to special needs, economic advantage and disadvantage, and other relevant factors.’.
Amendment 202, in clause 20, page 19, line 19, after ‘England’, insert
‘the OFSTED, subject to the approval of’.
Amendment 235, in clause 20, page 20, line 3, at end add—
‘(4) The use of any information obtained as a result of this section shall be the subject of an annual report to Parliament.’.
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