Children, Schools and Families Bill

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Mr. Coaker: We have had an interesting, short debate.
As the hon. Member for Yeovil knows, there is a two-year pilot on the report card, which started in September 2009, so it is not the finished article. There is a lot of work to be done on how we take it forward, but if we manage to get the report card right, it will be a fundamental and radical reform that will answer the demand of schools up and down the country, which is, “Do not let our school be judged on just the raw attainment scores.” The hon. Gentleman was at a conference with me earlier today at which that plea was also heard. Doing that is a real challenge, however, because as we all know, people will often look at just that raw attainment score.
As I have often said in Committee, the Government believe that we need to move on from that, and the fact that that is difficult and a challenge should not stop people. We all have experience of schools and, as someone who has taught, I know that people have said over a considerable period that schools should be judged not only on their raw attainment scores, but on the progress that they make with their pupils. The pupil progress part is about trying to do that. For the first time, we are laying out specifically in a report that goes to every parent something that will allow them to make a judgment about that.
Similarly, on pupil well-being—I will be brief, Mrs. Anderson—what is it that parents often say when they go into the school? Of course they are interested in the academic standards in the school, but when I was teaching—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge and others have experienced this—people would ask what the school was like with respect to bullying. They would also ask, “Are people happy? Do they enjoy themselves? Are they looked after?” The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole must agree that that should be part of the whole picture, because everything for which she has ever campaigned in Parliament has been about trying to ensure that the rights, voice and happiness of the child are not seen as some glib accessory that is unimportant. Those things are a fundamental part of any judgment about how well an institution is doing. It is difficult but important to include those things. Similarly, even the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton thinks that parental perception is a good idea.
The big issue that we are all united about is narrowing the gap in pupil performance. How do we narrow the gap between social background and educational attainment? I agree with the point made by both hon. Gentlemen—it is difficult. However, if we were to accept the amendments, we would not have the primary legislation available to bring together the information that is required to try to come to a determination about the grade. Exactly how that is done is part of what the pilots are about. Some 700 schools throughout the country are looking to see how the information is gathered. If we were to pass the amendments, they would not be able to do that, and that would completely preclude any attempt to try to introduce the report card.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): I am not sure why pilots always have to take two years. Will my hon. Friend explain what work has been done in the lead up to the pilots with focus groups of parents and others about what information they want? I hear what he is saying about his background as a teacher and what teachers want, but parents might want something a bit different that gives them a much clearer idea about what is happening in a school. I accept his point that this is not the final article, but I am a little uncertain about whether, in the pilots, parents have just been given a sample to work with, or whether they have been able to intervene on what that sample should be providing for them in terms of oversight of the school and what it is doing.
Mr. Coaker: That is a good point. My right hon. Friend is right to point out the need to understand parents’ views. Indeed, part of the work that was done to bring the measure together involved looking at what parents were saying. Part of the ongoing work through the pilots will be about not only teachers and education professionals, but what parents think and the information that they would find useful, so I can reassure her on that point. We have involved and will involve parents, but they have said to us that, as well as the raw attainment score, they want to know how to find out some of these other things with regards to a school. They want to have some way in which that can be reported to them.
Martin Linton: Does my hon. Friend agree that the only effect of the proposals of the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and for Yeovil would be to drive parents back on to the Ofsted grade and the GCSE score as the only ways by which to judge schools? That would result in all the other information fed into a school report being ignored.
Mr. Coaker: Of course, raw attainment and what Ofsted says are important, but my hon. Friend is right in the sense that, alongside that, we must have a broader picture of what a school is about and what it is achieving in a way that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, is acceptable and understandable to parents and, above all, meaningful to them. We are attempting to do that.
To reach those grades, we need to gather the information. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Yeovil to reconsider whether he wishes to press his amendments further. If we want to see whether we can make the policy meaningful, we must have the power to gather the information.
Mr. Laws: I am, as ever, grateful to the Minister. This is a huge opportunity, and I agree with all that he said about the deficiencies in the existing accountability regime. The problem is that that does not take us any further. It is one thing for the Government to say that the existing accountability regime is poor, but it is another for us to vote through something that does not deal with the deficiencies of that regime. The policy has four weaknesses. First, it should be administered not by the Department, but by Ofsted or the local authorities. Secondly, and most importantly, there is no new content, even though the Government make a virtue of that in the impact assessment, in contrast to the comment made by the hon. Member for Battersea. All the system does is to consolidate things that are already available, and that is part of the problem because the things already available are not doing to the job.
Thirdly, there are already other mechanisms for assessments to be made of the non-educational attainment elements. That happens in all the Ofsted reports. Indeed, the model of the school report card reports the Ofsted judgments on behaviour, safeguarding and other issues. Finally, we have still not resolved the problem of whether or not there should be a grade. It is important to the people working in the establishments that they should have confidence that the grade is derived in a sensible way. Even the Government’s report highlights the possible anomalies that will arise when we grade, for example, one school as grade 2 on effectiveness, pupils’ behaviour and safeguarding and, at the same time, there is an overall score of A. There is already a discrepancy and we need a thought-out and considered process of reconciling an overall grade given by a report card and the fact that it is different from the grade given by Ofsted.
My problem is not that the policy is not well-meaning and not that it is unnecessary, but that it is not right. We are told by people in schools and those who represent teachers and parents, “Don’t legislate for things that are half-baked. Don’t do things that will deliver additional levels of cost and bureaucracy but will not do the job.” It is with sadness that I say that although I will not press any of the amendments to a Division, we will want to divide on clause stand part. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.
Division No. 10]
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Flint, rh Caroline
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Linton, Martin
McCarthy, Kerry
Prentice, Bridget
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Waltho, Lynda
Brooke, Annette
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Laws, Mr. David
Loughton, Tim
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Timpson, Mr. Edward
Wiggin, Bill
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Schools causing concern: powers of Secretary of State, etc
1.45 pm
Mr. Laws: I beg to move amendment 203, in clause 22, page 22, line 10, at end add—
‘(7) The Secretary of State shall not exercise any of the powers conferred by subsections (1) to (6) above without—
(a) consulting the local authority in which the school is located, and
(b) receiving advice supporting the planned actions from an independent body established to make impartial assessments of school standards.’.
I will not detain the Committee long on this amendment. Clause 22 deals with schools causing concern and the powers of the Secretary of State. I think I am right that it amends the last education Act to be passed, which was agreed by Parliament just one week before this Bill was published. The Government are clearly not thinking their proposals through properly and are proceeding with such speed that new legislation is replacing legislation that has not even had a chance to bed down.
I have a sense of d(c)j vu because, as in the last education Act, there is a strong presumption in the Bill that the Secretary of State knows best and that he or she should have powers that can be exercised over failing schools, regardless of the views of the local authority. The last education Act introduced powers for when the Secretary of State essentially did not think that local authorities were being tough enough, and clause 22 will give the Secretary of State new powers to direct local authorities.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult the local authority and an independent school standards body before undertaking intervention action. That would ensure that judgments that overrode a democratically elected local authority on how school improvement was to be delivered were informed by discussion with the local authority, which is accountable for the oversight of local school performance under the Government’s model and ours. It would also ensure that there was ratification of the fact that the school concerned, which could be closed down or have other action taken against it, was a poor performing school on the basis of some form of rational assessment. That should take into account the school’s circumstances, as we discussed under clause 20.
Our concern is that this Secretary of State or a future Secretary of State could unreasonably override a local authority without discussion or independent evidence to show that a school was doing badly, and without considering whether an improvement plan had been put in place. We regard that as extremely heavy-handed, so we ask the Minister to reconsider whether these draconian powers are necessary.
Mr. Coaker: Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the sensible way in which he has presented his amendment.
Nobody wants the Secretary of State to be intervening in every situation. That would be ludicrous, clearly, and would override the rights and responsibilities of the local authority to commission school places and look after school improvement in its own area.
This provision seeks to deal with those few cases in which the local authority has not taken the action that needs to be taken with respect to a particular school. If everyone but the local authority deems it appropriate to give a warning notice to a school, it might be appropriate for the Secretary of State to direct the local authority to issue the warning notice. I am not talking about that as a first step, however. I am not saying that we should immediately jump in and say, “Whitehall knows best.” It should not be an immediate reaction to a particular problem. The situation should arise in only a few instances after a series of discussions with the local authority and local representatives and reference to the school improvement partner. In such circumstances it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to have, as the last resort, the opportunity to intervene with respect to a local authority.
I know that such a provision will not need to be applied to the vast majority of local authorities in the vast majority of situations. None the less, there have been situations—I can think of one or two—in which the involvement and intervention of the Secretary of State has led to an improvement in a particular school. There are also one or two examples of when it has been difficult for the Secretary of State to get the sort of local action that any reasonable or sensible person would expect to happen. The amendment would circumvent the Secretary of State’s ability to take any such action.
Mr. Laws: I understand the point that the Minister makes, but that is not what the amendment says. It says that before exercising such powers, the Secretary of State should have consulted the local authority and received advice supporting the planned actions from an independent body, which under his model would be Ofsted. Is he really telling us that there are any circumstances in which the Secretary of State would not want to do that before taking the serious action that he proposes?
Mr. Coaker: I am not trying to say that at all. I am saying that the amendment is unnecessary because the Secretary of State will consult the local authority before taking action. The Secretary of State will not look down a list of schools and their results and say, “Hey, things aren’t going on very well there,” and then direct the local authority to issue a warning notice. Such a reaction would come about only after the sort of process to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Of course we will consult the local authority. In a small number of circumstances, if a local authority fails to take the necessary action, the Secretary of State should have the power to direct action in the interests of the pupils or communities in that particular area. As for the independent person, the SIP and Ofsted will be involved.
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