- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 67-79)


1 APRIL 2009

  Chairman: We welcome Councillor Les Lawrence. He is not an unfamiliar figure in this Committee. It is a pleasure to see him here again in these—for us—rather acoustically challenging circumstances. We will all have to shout a bit.

  Cllr Lawrence: Is it because it is 1 April?

  Q67  Chairman: I wish that there was a sensible reason. I did not know this for years, but you have to queue up at 6.45 am to book a room, and Jenny, a member of our wonderful staff, has been doing that for a very long time with none of us knowing about it. Les, you know what the inquiry is about. When this Committee was formed, we took it very seriously that we would look at some of the main planks of educational reform over the past 20 years. We looked at testing and assessment. Did you come in for that one? Was it the last time you were here?

  Cllr Lawrence: Yes, I did.

  Q68  Chairman: It was a long time ago when we did testing and assessment. Some people thought that we wrote quite a good report on that, and you know what has happened since then. Our report on the National Curriculum comes out tomorrow so poor old President Obama will probably not get a look-in in the newspaper columns. This is the third of the sittings on accountability, Ofsted and all that. In parallel with that, we shall also be looking at the training of teachers. We have looked at some of the pretty fundamental aspects of schooling, and we are getting into the meat of that today. Do you want to say anything to get us started or do you want to go straight into questions?

  Cllr Lawrence: Let's dive straight in.

  Q69  Chairman: What is the Local Government Association's view on the Government's policies at the moment? Are you co-operating with the Government's policies or do you take Eric Pickles's line that non-co-operation is probably a good way forward—certainly for Conservative authorities?

  Cllr Lawrence: The broad thrust of the Every Child Matters agenda—the emphasis on attainment, the concepts around school improvement, giving local authorities the strategic role in determining the nature of educational provision within the local authority and the role of being the champion for the child and the young person within the school context, as well as the wider service context—is one that local authorities are very keen not only to carry out, but further develop. When I appeared before the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, we at the LGA were able to say that we were very supportive of the changing emphasis on and strengthening role of local authorities in the 16-19 arena because that fits into the overall 0-19 responsibility for the delivery of children's services in all its elements. In that sense, there is a broad welcome, especially for the recognition of the role of local government. That is not to say that there have not been significant areas where we have had robust discussions with the Government and when at times we felt that there was an overly strong sense of direction, or what some of my colleagues called the centralised control of localised planning. That relationship is evolving. In regard to some of my colleagues, I have to say that the law of the land is the law of the land. Legislation is in place. Local authorities have a duty to implement that legislation, but we take great pride in actually taking the legislation, moulding and adapting it, and using flexibilities to best serve those whom we have been elected to serve within our localities. If any local authority acted ultra vires, it would soon be called to account. In the constitutional context, that particular pivotal role in the relationship between central and local government is sometimes not fully appreciated by those in the House who, quite properly, have a specific role to fulfil.

  Q70  Chairman: I am not trying to make a party political point. The chronology of the development of the National Curriculum, which we have just finished looking at, has been pretty cross-party over 20 years with the centralisation of the control of the curriculum. We get used to those parameters being as they are. It is quite remarkable. I was talking to people from Bury this week, who said that the Bury view is to take Eric Pickles's recommendations—for example, there should be no co-operation with a programme of Building Schools for the Future. Is that just the idiosyncratic behaviour of one council, or is it the advice from the LGA?

  Cllr Lawrence: The advice from the LGA is that the Building Schools for the Future programme gives local authorities a pivotal role not only in improving the facilities that our children and young people will learn in, but in being innovative and looking at each of the learning environments they are creating. We should be creating not bog-standard comprehensives—to use a terrible phrase used by a certain person—but environments within which youngsters can learn in different ways. They should be very flexible alternative environments. They should be provided in such a way that over the next 20 to 25 years they can be adapted to suit the changing types of learning that will be promoted by the teaching profession and the technologies that will support the delivery of that education. They should support the nature of the curriculum as it adapts to meet the changing needs of the wider society. You cannot just use the same traditional methodology. Pedagogical change will drive the nature of the learning environment. Young people will have to become more flexible because over their lifetimes and careers they will face a series of different challenges and changes. You therefore want to try to create young people who are not only good at inculcating, adapting, analysing and utilising information and knowledge, but are themselves capable of being flexible and adaptable.

  Chairman: I have totally misled you, Councillor Lawrence. For Hansard, it was Dudley, not Bury. Let us get down to the main point of this meeting. David is going to lead on the accountability regime.

  Q71  Mr Chaytor: What should schools be accountable for?

  Cllr Lawrence: They should be accountable for ensuring, in conjunction with the local authority, that each young person fulfils their potential. That may sound very simple, but they must look at the capability of each young person and, within the constructs of the National Curriculum, seek as far as possible to develop the learning environment for that young person to enable them to be encouraged, supported and challenged and to fulfil the potential that exists within each and every young person. Obviously, they must then monitor that through the various mechanisms at the various key stages and ultimately with the public examinations at 16.

  Q72  Mr Chaytor: What about financial accountability?

  Cllr Lawrence: Yes, the money that is passported through the direct schools grant down to each school via each local authority's agreed formula has to be the basis on which the school is managed not only financially, but in terms of the overall resources that are available. That can be done in conjunction with the governing body and the local authority in partnership. The local authority provides the oversight and the financial support to enable the school to manage on a day-by-day basis and must do so without interfering in that day-to-day operation.

  Q73  Mr Chaytor: You have said in terms of accountability for both development of potential and the use of finance that the school has joint responsibility with the local authority. Should the school be responsible to the local authority? If not, to whom should the school be responsible?

  Cllr Lawrence: You will find that local authorities tend to look at the family of schools within their jurisdiction as a partnership and, yes, leave them to operate on a day-to-day basis. They allow the head teachers, with the governing body, to oversee that day-to-day operation, but it is still a partnership, because although they have the autonomy to work in that way, they cannot do all that is required—diplomas are a classic example—on their own. Therefore, they need to be in partnership with the local authority. However, you could equally argue, quite properly, that schools are accountable to the parents and the young people themselves for that which is provided to the young people and for how they report to, engage with and enable the parents to participate as well. But it all has to be done on a partnership basis. It is not people operating in silos, or being part of, or separate from: it has to be a partnership, otherwise success cannot be achieved to its fullest extent.

  Q74  Mr Chaytor: That sounds a little bit like blurring responsibilities. If something goes horribly wrong, who is responsible: the head teacher, the chair of governors, or the Director of Children's Services?

  Cllr Lawrence: At the end of the day, the local authority is the accountability of last resort. It is for the local authority, by working in partnership, to seek to ensure—using all sorts of performance management techniques that do not interfere, but just provide oversight; a comfort blanket if you like—that the trends of attainment and the processes of financial management of the school are such that you can detect at an early stage if things are going slightly awry, be it at a particular key stage or throughout the school as a whole. You will then seek to intervene by using SIPs or an advisory service at an early stage. If a school descends into special measures, then certainly many of my lead member colleagues and I feel that that is a failure on behalf of the local authority for not having had the foresight to use the powers that we have to intervene earlier. I agree that there are occasions, however, where something can go very badly wrong, very quickly; for example, if a governing body and its members decide to go off on a particular tack, or there are a whole series of new members and they decide to, shall we say, have an agenda that is not necessarily in the interests of the total school population. That does not happen that often, but when it does the local authority has to take very serious and urgent action, often having recourse to the Secretary of State.

  Q75  Mr Chaytor: You have put a lot of emphasis on the local authority's role, understandably, but where does Ofsted fit into all that? Do you think that the existing powers and procedures used by Ofsted are appropriate?

  Cllr Lawrence: Ofsted is an important part of ensuring that the accountability framework is working, but more importantly that the levels of attainment are being achieved for all pupils, not just a few. I think that it is quite right for a body that is independent to provide additional challenge, at regular intervals, to ensure that the processes, methodologies and practices are appropriate for the outcomes that are expected.

  Q76  Mr Chaytor: From the local authority's point of view, are you satisfied with the current Ofsted inspection framework and, for example, the frequency of inspections?

  Cllr Lawrence: On the frequency and the framework, there are concerns within local authorities about the consistency and the quality of inspections. Perhaps, in part, there are those who still hark back to the days of the HMI where there was a recognised respect, integrity and quality, although the inspections often took a very long time. But these days there are concerns about the quality and capability of some of the inspection teams. Also, with the more snap inspections, there are concerns about the extent to which they fully engage governing bodies. There are certainly concerns within some governing bodies that the degree to which they are allowed to participate and be engaged is not as great as it could be.

  Q77  Mr Chaytor: You have not mentioned at all the role of central government, but it is they who legislated for Ofsted and the testing regime, and to reduce the National Curriculum. What is the school's responsibility to central government, in terms of accountability?

  Cllr Lawrence: The school's accountability to central government is, in a sense, vested in the local authority, ensuring that together they are meeting the legislative framework and the standards that are expected—through the various national indicators and other statutory targets. Quite rightly, if that is not being achieved—collectively or individually—then government have every right to call to account individual schools or local authorities, or both.

  Q78  Mr Chaytor: Finally, as a representative of local authorities, are you satisfied with the current accountability regime that the Government have imposed, particularly in respect of testing?

  Cllr Lawrence: I will give you a politician's answer and say yes and no. Sometimes I think that there is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the time scale between setting a policy and its implementation on the ground in a school or across the local authority, and seeing the proper outcome from that policy being enacted. There is a tendency, at times, for it to be rushed. In rushing, you do not necessarily allow that policy to be fully implemented to the extent that would bring about the total outcome that is being sought. Without appearing to be unkind, sometimes the life cycle of Ministers itself hinders the full implementation of policies, whereas the life cycles of elected Members and school processes are such that they have a life of their own. Sometimes governments of whatever party—this tendency has been there for the last 20 or 30 years—try to get an outcome that can be utilised in a way that is not always to the benefit of policy implementation on the ground.

  Q79  Mr Chaytor: Perhaps I could ask one final question. If you had the power to change one aspect of the current accountability system, what would it be?

  Cllr Lawrence: I am not sure that there is any one particular aspect that I would want to change, other than to ask whether we could have a break from initiatives. I know that it is difficult, because a Secretary of State, of whatever power, might come in and say, "We are going to have a moratorium on legislation and initiatives for three years. We are going to bed down, ensure that everything that is in place is working and then subtly adjust those areas that aren't." The trouble is that in a very short space of time the media would be on everybody's back, challenging why nothing was happening in this or that area. But if I had the chance, I would ask for a moratorium on legislation and initiatives for about three years.

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