Children, Schools and Families Bill

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Mr. Laws: Like the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, I am convinced of the need at least to touch on the issue of home education, even though we clearly have not been given enough time for the scrutiny of the Bill. Before we get to home education, however, we have to deal with a couple of incredibly important clauses, which could have a major impact, for better or for worse, on the schools system. One of those issues is the licence to practise, which we will come to in a moment, and the other one is the provision of information about schools. In shorthand terms, that is known as the school report card.
Given the time constraints, you probably want to avoid a stand part debate, Mrs Anderson, so I hope that you do not mind if I set out some of our views at the beginning and then link in the amendments.
1.15 pm
We are sympathetic to the idea that the existing school accountability framework needs fundamental review. All sorts of different elements of school accountability have grown up over time. John Dunford, the widely respected head of the Association of School and College Leaders professional group, often presents to me—and, I suspect, to those in the other two major parties—a diagram with schools in the middle surrounded by the vast array of different organisations and mechanisms that are supposed to hold them to account. When he first showed me the diagram a couple of years ago, I did not even know what all the bodies were, because there were so many.
School accountability is clearly incredibly important, but so is accountability not being excessively expensive, not replicating itself, and being useful to parents and those responsible for holding schools to account—from the head teacher and the governing body to local authorities and others. At the moment, there is concern that the accountability system replicates a lot that need not be replicated, and does not often provide information that is useful to parents when making decisions. Teaching organisations are often critical of the league tables, although my response is that once information is available about school matters and school performance, keeping such information secret is impossible, as we have discovered in this place.
A legitimate concern is that existing league tables reflect to a large extent the social catchments of the schools in which they sit, and do not always give us an idea of whether schools in tough areas are performing particularly well or badly set against their challenges. Sometimes the tables do not give us an idea of whether schools in leafier areas, or in middle-ranking areas for social deprivation, are doing a good job.
If we are not simply to end up with an unreasonable focus on the bottom 10, 20 or 30 per cent. of schools, but are to hold them all to account, we need to find a better mechanism. That has been offered to us in the school report card, a version of which I have obtained from the Minister, who kindly circulated a draft the other day—I assume that the size had been blown up to help those with defective eyesight. It was useful to have a copy before the debate so that we could reflect on how useful it will be and on whether the process will get rid of information that we do not need.
My first comment is that I was expecting the Government’s idea to be a rather big one—something rather radical—that would, for example, help me, as a local MP, to make judgments about the schools in my area. I expected to see more refined information about how schools were performing set against their catchments so that we could compare performance to the degree of challenge. However, when we look at the report card and, even more so, the impact assessment—I commend its precision, detail and helpfulness to the Committee—we discover that we have not a mountain of a policy but a bit of a molehill.
Instead of the report card delivering a better, more refined judgment about individual schools, the impact assessment says that all it will do is consolidate existing available school information on, essentially, one piece of paper, and deal with what is described as the market failure of imperfect information by combining information sources, therefore presenting economies of scale. Another clue comes from the annual cost of the proposal: a total annual cost for the entire thing, in net present value terms, of £1.269 million. The costs all appear to be one-off, up-front transitional ones, because some information is already collected by the Department, while other information is held by Ofsted and other bodies. The assessment says that “significant additional running costs” are not expected, so there will be a tiny set-up cost and, apparently, no average running costs at all, as well as no collection of additional information or any processing of data—that is why there is a low cost.
I wonder whether the report card will deliver the real improvement in school accountability that I hoped we might see. As I have said, I do not think that the existing mechanisms of school accountability are good. The way in which the Home Office now compares the basic command units of different police forces is an example of better practice, although not necessarily of best practice. If I want to compare the east Somerset BCU with other forces, I compare it not with a tough part of Bristol that will always have more crime, and so always flatter east Somerset, but with BCUs with a similar level of challenge.
The Government will probably say that the pupil progress element demonstrates an element of value added, but I think that this is a missed opportunity. We should find an accessible way—pupil progress is not accessible for most people—in which to compare schools depending on their catchments so that people have a clear idea of whether a school is performing well or badly compared with other schools with a similar level of challenge. No doubt other hon. Members will have better suggestions on how we could compare schools.
We need to get away from the problem that much of what is in the league tables—although not all of it, before the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton says anything—is determined by social catchment. That is not to say that we should have low expectations of schools in tough areas. We should have high expectations of all schools. There are schools with all kinds of social catchments that perform incredibly. A comparison using a simplistic league table of a school in the richest community in the country with a school in the most chaotic community will deliver meaningless information. My concern is that this is a missed opportunity to deliver more meaningful information.
I am sceptical about whether much of the information on the report card will prove useful. I might sound a little Gibbish or Bognorish saying these things, but I baulk at the bits about pupil perception, parent perception, pupil well-being and partnership working. I fear not only that it is all rather vague and meaningless and does not come to the crunch of whether a school is doing a good job, but that those things will be put into the computer somewhere in the Department for Children, Schools and Families—I will come back to that later—to produce the overall grade in the corner of the school report card, which is the only new element. I assume that the six measures from pupil progress down to narrowing gaps will be turned into one grade that sums up the quality of the school.
At first, I was sympathetic to the idea of straightforward and blunt accountability and thought that delivering one grade would give clarity. I say that with reservations because if hon. Members were asked whether our performance should be measured by one grade, we would quickly come up with 20 or 30 good reasons why doing so would be meaningless. One of those reasons might relate to the experience of school report cards in New York. I understand that when they were first introduced, the grade was regarded as giving a clear signal of where improvement needed to be made. There was a fairly predictable distribution of grades among the schools, with about 20 per cent. of schools getting As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es. Although I do not have the figures at my fingertips, I read recently that over the past few years, the number of schools graded A had rocketed and that the overwhelming majority now have As.
Precisely the same thing would happen if MPs were graded on five or six things, such as making interventions in Committee or signing early-day motions. We would all sign every daft EDM without any scrutiny because we would want to move up the league table. We would also do all the other things and all suddenly get As. Everyone would realise that it was a waste of time because all the MPs would have As, whereas people would know that they were not all As.
I therefore think that the A, B, C, D grading might be counter-productive. It will certainly anger schools and it will lead to the inevitable inclusion of all sorts of other things. Schools do not want to be compared only on the basis of attainment and results; they want a wide range of other issues to be taken into account, but the measure would start watering that down. The only new thing in the school report card will probably not be valuable, and needs to be dumped.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): The reason why report cards for MPs are not necessary is because we are on maximum five-year contracts. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that schools should be put on a five-year contract. Will he concede that, in the absence of anything else, it will be helpful to parents?
Mr. Laws: I am not sure whether teachers would share that view. I think that they would say, “Look, we are accountable day to day and term to term in all sorts of ways.” If parents do not like a school, they can take their children away, and there is immediate accountability. As a Member of Parliament, we have accountability every five years, which is not very much. If someone was in an area that has always had a Conservative or Labour MP with a 20,000 majority, or even a Liberal Democrat MP these days—with a large majority, anyway—the amount of accountability, if they are unhappy, is quite limited. I think that when the hon. Gentleman meets his local teachers, they might not be quite as attracted by his argument. There are also all the other things that do not give us a clear idea, such as partnership working, to which I suspect the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will object in a moment.
It therefore seems likely that the measure will be—I say this with great disappointment, and without a determination to resist it for its own sake—a bit of a waste of time and a big missed opportunity, which is something that I care about. This mechanism could be valuable, and we could end up with two or three—please not four, five, six or seven—meaningful comparators. It would not initially be perfect, and schools would complain about it, as would be the case with comparators of MPs, but it would be fairer than existing league tables. It would shed light on why some schools do better than others and enable us to be fair to the people who teach in and govern schools when we make comparisons about their jobs.
The amendments that we have tabled, to which I will speak briefly, try to address some of the problems. Amendment 200 and the Conservative amendment 69 address the question of whether it is worth the candle to collect all the information to put into a school report card that is not delivering anything new from schools, but no doubt imposing some burdens on them. Amendment 201 suggests that as part of the school report card, there should be a better attempt to assist people to make informed judgments by facilitating comparisons of schools and colleges that have similar people characteristics, in the same way in which the Home Office compares BCUs.
Amendment 202, which I have not touched on so far, questions whether it is sensible for the Department for Children, Schools and Families to be the guardian of the school report card. One of the things that has been corrosive to education over the past 10 years is that because the Government are so determined to improve schools, for all the right reasons, we have ended up with incentives for the Government to conspire in a situation in which results are seen to be rising—where we put all the attention into the continuing development borderline—instead of one of trying to deliver for all young people. If we are to have a school accountability system and the As and Bs are published annually, the Minister will get it in the neck if the number of As go down, as the system will also hold the Government to account. What is the point of the Government being held to account in such a way when they themselves are the guardians of the new system? If the new system is to be effective, it should be run either by local authorities, who should, in our view, be the first tier of accountability, or, if we do not trust local authorities because they are compromised by their job of school improvement, by Ofsted. The last people who should be running the system are the DCSF.
Finally, amendment 225 would require the information collected on schools in this way to be subject to an annual report to Parliament.
I hope that the Minister will comfort us on those issues. However, at the moment, I fear that this is a good idea badly delivered, and not worth implementing in its existing form.
Mr. Gibb: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I share many of his observations regarding the school report card. He is right that there are many things in here that, as he described, are “Gibbish”, although I am not sure when I became an adjective—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman meant “gibberish” rather than “Gibbish”.
Parents’ perceptions are an important factor when judging a school. Leaving that aside, I share many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the card. Clause 20 amends the Education Act 1996 to enable the information to be gathered for the Government’s policy of a school report card. The consultation paper said that the report card was necessary because league tables contain so much information that
“they can be difficult for parents to use, do not signal clearly the relative importance of different academic outcomes and, with the exception of the pupils’ attendance rate, do not contain information about outcomes relating to other aspects of pupils’ wellbeing.”
That is the view of the consultation document. The answer, according to the Government, is to have a school report card with an overall score.
We take the view that we should publish all the data currently held on schools, whether that is the proportion gaining five or more GCSEs, the proportion gaining eight or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, or the proportion gaining an A or B in physics GCSE. Different parents have different priorities about what they want from a school for their children, and we do not believe that it is possible to provide an overall score, which will inevitably involve a very subjective judgement.
1.30 pm
When I looked at the example of the report card that the Minister circulated last week, I was concerned that the GCSE figures seemed to have been transformed into a bar chart setting out whether the pupil progress, or pupil attainment, was A, B, C or D. There was no mention of five GCSEs at A* to C, including English and maths, so there is a reduction in the amount of information available, not a consolidation of the data.
The school report card is not an original idea, as the hon. Member for Yeovil said. It was introduced in New York in 2007, and last year’s scores showed that 84 per cent. of the 1,058 elementary and middle schools were awarded an A rating, and 13 per cent. received a B grade. The New York Daily News said at the time—that sounds like a song from Barbra Streisand—that:
“The report card system makes a mockery of accountability. No one can be held accountable when almost everyone gets an A or B. No one can tell which schools are getting better or worse. Nor do parents get enough information to make good choices.”
We share the concerns expressed by the people of New York about the report card system as introduced in that city.
Amendment 69 would add a new source of information about a school’s performance, in addition to the views of prescribed persons, which is already provided for by clause 20. We would add details of the proportion of pupils who go on to further and higher education and the ultimate employment and training that such pupils undertake. If we want a more rounded set of data to describe the outcomes of a school, this would be far more pertinent information in so far as parents are concerned than some of the nebulous, “Gibbish” and subjective criteria set out in the White Paper and consultation document.
I wanted to keep my remarks brief so that we could get on to the home education provisions as quickly as possible, so with those few words, I await the Minister’s response.
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