- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)


1 APRIL 2009

  Q80  Mr Stuart: To what extent do you think that choice has a role to play in challenging under-performance?

  Cllr Lawrence: The first thing to say is that we have to be very careful around the use of the word "choice". The LGA and all the political parties in it have been very strong in seeking to get clarification on that. If you are talking about, for example, parents exercising a preference as to where they would like their child to go to school, be it primary or secondary, it is only a preference, because it is not a choice in the strict sense of the word. You are given options, but as for making a specific choice to place your child in a school—which, technically, exists in the independent sector—in the state sector it is exercising a preference. The exercise of that preference can indeed—you are right—be a mechanism for providing a challenge to the school in one sense. But equally there are schools that actively encourage parents to participate in the life of the school, which itself becomes a challenge. Parents who are concerned about the outcomes for their children provide not only a challenge but additional support to schools to ensure that the education being delivered to the young people is in a form and to a standard that they feel is appropriate, so it is a partnership again at that level. If parents feel that they are not getting the right education for their child, either they can appeal to the local authority or, in extremis, they can go direct to Ofsted and ask it to intervene. It is an interesting area for debate, but I think that if you tried to exercise strict choice you would bring instability into the school system, which would be to the detriment of the overall provision of education.

  Q81  Mr Stuart: It would seem to be the opinion of both the main political parties that that instability would not have the effect that you mentioned, but in fact would help to challenge deep-seated under-performance in certain places. For example, the Conservatives are looking more towards the Swedish model of freer schools—basically taking this Government's reforms further and making them less diluted. Does the LGA reject the idea that greater freedom to set up new schools would provide the ultimate accountability of allowing parents to go to new institutions?

  Cllr Lawrence: The LGA's position has always been that the diversity of types of education within each local authority is to a large extent one of the strategic roles of local authorities, which is why you have still got some local authorities such as Kent which have grammar schools. You have got authorities such as my own where we have not only grammar schools, but single-sex schools and faith schools, and in a sense you are providing a wider degree of preference for parents to find an education most suited to what they believe are the needs of their offspring. Some authorities have gone for a single type of school within their local authority. I think that that type of diversity and flexibility across local authorities itself provides a challenge. If you look at the Swedish system you see that there is now quite a lot of debate as to whether the free school system has caused a degree of dissent and division within the communities themselves. As I understand it, looking at recent debates in Sweden, they are beginning to wonder whether they need to go in the opposite direction, having been through the experiment—it has taken them about 20 years to create 900 of these schools, separate from the other more traditional schools. Even that takes a long time to evolve, and I do not think it is something that you could achieve overnight even if you had legislation.

  Q82  Mr Stuart: What do you think of the provision in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill to make academies accountable to the new Young People's Learning Agency as opposed to local authorities?

  Cllr Lawrence: The LGA's position is that—I will not quite describe it as ambivalent—it does not really worry us to any extent.

  Q83  Mr Stuart: What do you see as the rationale for the very complex set of performance management processes that have been put in place for the 16-19 age group in particular?

  Cllr Lawrence: We have some concern at the plethora of bodies: the YPLA, the SFA and the NAS, to name but three. We think that is a slight overkill. We worry that there is a danger of what we call—not mission creep, but you know what I am getting at. It is a mechanism for exercising greater centralised control than is necessary to exercise the new powers for the commissioning of 16-19 provision. We also have some concern at the apparent intention to dictate the size of the YPLA. We understand that it is going to comprise around 500 people, and we still have not worked out within our mechanisms exactly what each of those people is likely to do. Therefore, the larger it is, the more it will seek to find something to do.

  Q84  Mr Stuart: The LGA has talked about having a harmonised accountability system and a desire—rather than for competition and choice—for what seems to be the idea of a need for greater collaboration between providers within this harmonised accountability system. Could you explain a bit more about that thinking?

  Cllr Lawrence: At the end of the day, if you take it from the outcome, what we want is quality provision that allows each young person to find the most appropriate route to develop potential after the statutory school system. Therefore, we need to be able to ensure that what is being provided, being commissioned, is of high quality at each and every stage. That means that not every institution is going to be able to do it. What you are doing is commissioning on the basis of need not on the basis of demand. What tends to happen at the moment—and there is good evidence both real and anecdotal—is that you can have a lot of colleges each competing for the same pool, trying to provide the same thing, the same type of course. At the end of the day, the quality is not always the same in each and every institution. Whereas if you challenge each of the institutions to be the best, then those that are the best will be the ones commissioned to provide. Those that are not quite up to the mark will have to look at another niche area and develop that skill.

  Q85  Mr Stuart: That rationale will be familiar to anyone listening to—I don't mean yourself as a bureaucrat—bureaucrats through all time who have thought that central planning and control and a rational division of responsibilities from them is the right way to go. We get astonishing quality through our supermarkets without an arm of the state intervening and telling Waitrose to concentrate on these things and Tesco on something else.

  Cllr Lawrence: Supermarkets have a freedom that colleges do not. They can target different groups of people based on their ability to pay. So you will have the "basics" and you will have the "finest"—I am not saying Tesco is the best, I am just using it as an example—and then people can mix and match. We cannot afford to have a 16-19 system that is predicated on the basis of a student's ability to be funded at different levels. They have all got to be funded to get the best quality outcome and we have to use the colleges, work-based learning or the third sector to provide an education, combined sometimes with training or employment, to ensure that that young person continues to fulfil their potential and gain the skills that will benefit not only them but wider society, be it the private, public or third sector.

  Q86  Mr Stuart: Could you talk us through the information that local authorities rely on to assess their skills. To what extent is it Ofsted-determined or contextual value-added? Can you comment on the quality of that? Do you feel there is a commonality in the way that local authorities use the data?

  Cllr Lawrence: In the statutory sector local authorities now have a database of information that enables them to track attainment very successfully, not only on an age, ethnicity and gender basis but on a collective basis, school by school, locality by locality. That certainly is being used to provide differentiated support to different parts of local authorities. If you take some of the inner areas of our cities, you will find young people who at three, four, five and six have little or no skill in English. Therefore you can target support. Equally, with working-class white boys or black Afro-Caribbean boys and Bangladeshi boys, you can target those groups with support to raise their levels of attainment. It is perhaps a sign of the times that girls outperform boys at all ages, irrespective of ethnicity. Whether there is some hidden aspect there, I am not sure. But because of that, you are able to see, first, where schools are not achieving to the extent that they should be and, secondly, what support is necessary to support improving levels of attainment. Thirdly, you have a mechanism to show to communities, and especially to parents, how schools attain and how they are succeeding with their young people.

  Q87  Mr Stuart: That all sounds marvellous, yet the number of NEETs we have after the doubling of education expenditure over the last 12 years is the same as it was 12 or 13 years ago. The number of children who leave primary school unable to read and write properly and the number who leave at 16 without five good GCSEs are deeply depressing figures. From what you have just said one might consider that local authorities were intervening early and were able to track the individual pupil to tackle the under-performance of white working-class boys for instance, but there is no evidence that it is being tackled.

  Cllr Lawrence: If you look at the rates of improvement in many local authorities over the last four to five years, you begin to see that data being used very successfully. Yes, it has taken a long time. Do not forget that those who are NEETs now started their school careers many years back. The point that I was making to David Chaytor is that we have had this constant change, dare I say it, ever since the Baker curriculum reforms. Much of that was very good but the curriculum was being prescribed to the nth degree from the centre. We have moved a long way back to giving a lot more flexibility in terms of the curriculum construct now. Therefore we are having to operate in this constant state of change. A period of stability would be very helpful to enable us to bring about the type of improvements that we are beginning to achieve now, simply because we have the data to hand and the powers to intervene. I think that over the next three to five years that will bring about the type of standards that we all want for our children and young people. Yes, you are quite right. Local authorities have not been as good as they should have been over the last decade in challenging and seeking to raise the levels of attainment of young people.

  Chairman: Your answer suggests it was over the last two decades. You mentioned Lord Baker as the starting point.

  Cllr Lawrence: I sometimes forget how long I have been involved in local government.

  Q88  Paul Holmes: I was interested in your comment that the debate in Sweden has now moved on from the glowing view that free schools have been an unbridled success. Are you aware that the Swedish national educational agency's analysis of free schools showed that it was only the middle class who made use of them effectively, and that they had led to an increase in racial and social segregation in the areas where they were set up?

  Cllr Lawrence: That is the evidence that the LGA has begun to gather. Some important benefits arise from involving communities more in the life of a school and the direction in which the school is going. There is an opportunity for local authorities to utilise some of that to encourage and embed schools within the communities in many parts of the country. In some areas the level of aspiration within communities acts as a barrier to young people further attaining. Pupils are only in the school environment for a certain period of their life. A school can only take the level of aspiration in a young person so far, because once they go back into the community—the home—there is a depressing effect on that aspiration level. Therefore, if you can engage communities within the life of the school such that you had adult learning going on alongside the young person's learning—actually using the school as a community resource in a wider context—you can then begin to develop the aspiration of the community as a whole. If you do that, the teachers and the teams in the classroom can raise the aspiration levels of the young people further. In that sense, there is a benefit that comes out of the Swedish model, but it has to be adapted to the English culture and way of life.

  Q89  Paul Holmes: I quite understand involving, for example, adults in school or having adult education classes, which I have seen in lots of state schools in this country, but why does that have to be part of a free school movement?

  Cllr Lawrence: It does not. In many local authorities, it has been utilised because it has had some interesting benefits. For example, adults beginning to learn themselves means that they have been able to engage with their young children at home, discussing what the young people are learning and therefore what is consistent with their homework. Actually sitting around the table and having interaction within the family has itself been of benefit. That has helped to reduce misbehaviour, truancy and all sorts of by-products. So, yes, it does not necessarily come out of the free school movement, but the evidence shows that the more you can engage communities in the life of the school there is consequent benefit.

  Q90  Paul Holmes: Last question. In your experience, and you could write to us about this rather than telling us now, are you aware of any hard evidence from Sweden of the free schools actually challenging and changing the curriculum in mainstream schools? When I was in Sweden, visiting both free and state schools, no one could provide any evidence. There were some people who made the assertion, "The free schools have made things change," but no one could actually provide one single piece of evidence to that effect.

  Cllr Lawrence: We shall certainly write to you on that. My colleague behind will take a note and we shall get back to the Committee fairly quickly.[6]

  Chairman: More work on the Swedish model. Fiona.

  Q91  Fiona Mactaggart: I am interested in school improvement and in how local authorities see their responsibilities and deliver them. For example, the evidence from the NFER is that, at local authority level, this is done in a more collaborative and less exigent way than perhaps at national government level. Is that a deliberate strategy? Perhaps you could tell us about that.

  Cllr Lawrence: It is a deliberate strategy. I know it is repeating the same message, but the family of schools is the partnership with the local authority. At the end of the day what you do not want is a whole series of institutions working in different ways, to the detriment of each other in some cases, and to the detriment of communities. What we want is to raise all the schools to a level such that each community has a good school within it, both primary and secondary, because we believe that is fundamental to the development and cohesion of communities. That is the first thing. Secondly, we also want schools to help and assist each other. That is one of the things that you will find in the NFER document—one of the things that we encourage is high-flying, successful schools to assist schools that are perhaps struggling at a particular time, with a particular cohort of pupils or a particular subject area. Certainly in maths, English and some of the sciences, we need schools to collaborate, to share what are fairly scarce resources. Equally, when a school takes on a new head, the local authority likes to support that person into their post, and to use mentoring from long-standing heads with that new head, to enable their start to be as successful and as smooth as possible. So that is using a whole series of different methodologies to bring about the partnering and collaboration that Graham was seeking.

  Q92  Fiona Mactaggart: How do you know if they are working?

  Cllr Lawrence: That has to be done by monitoring the outcomes at various stages. There are the key stages and ongoing assessments that take place within schools. The relationships with the advisory teams, with the SIPs, is important in providing feedback and in challenging governing bodies to ensure that they fulfil their function of checking on what is happening within the school. There are a number of different strands.

  Q93  Fiona Mactaggart: You talk about your role in challenging governing bodies. One of the things that I am interested in is the way that National Challenge is being received at local level. I wondered if you would say what your view is of National Challenge, and whether it has helped improve those schools that are not achieving five A-C grades, including English and maths, or whether it has hurt them.

  Cllr Lawrence: In terms of what is happening on the ground, there is now general recognition that the methodology and the way it is being implemented is assisting significantly in turning round a number of schools. The issue was that a lot of time and energy had to be diverted to deal with the fallout from the way that the measure was presented and announced, and then the unfortunate appearance in the national press. Many of the schools that were within the categories deemed to require National Challenge had a high contextual value added and were often dealing with youngsters that many other schools were not able to deal with. They felt that they were being categorised not wholly in recognition of what they were doing, so that the word "failing" immediately became the kitemark of the school. The issue was presented as being one of English and maths, but if you look at the figures, a lot of those schools were already either high performers in English or in maths. There were not that many schools that were underachieving in both. The presentation of the intent was not effective, but on the ground a collaborative and beneficial outcome is being achieved. You will see a significant number of schools within the National Challenge going above the 30% barrier this coming year. The other aspect, which we have raised with the Government and are still worried about, is the degree of sustainability. It is all very well to target a particular age group—those who will take GCSEs this year—but we must ensure that the improvements, additional resources and emphasis on that year group are translated right down the school to those who joined year 7 in September last year. Sustainability is one of the fundamental outcomes that must be achieved. We have serious concerns that that emphasis, support and ongoing challenge will not remain once the immediate impact has occurred.

  Chairman: That sparked you off. I will come back to Fiona. Graham?

  Q94  Mr Stuart: You talked about the pressure that was put on these schools through the accountability arrangements and National Challenge. Do you have any concerns about the distorting impact that kind of pressure can have on schools? I am thinking about the possibility of pupils being directed towards what could be perceived as easier courses. There is a proliferation of people doing media studies. There is an increasing contrast between the types of courses that are being taken in independent schools, which are often chosen for their rigour, and those that are chosen in many schools that are struggling desperately to meet standards, tick the boxes and get over that 30% target. Although it looks like improvement, could we be undermining the quality of education that the children are receiving?

  Cllr Lawrence: Not if we continue the concentration on English, maths and some aspects of science. As long as it is within those narrow bounds, that diversion will not occur. But I re-emphasise that we are worried about the sustainability, because it is no good concentrating on just one or two year groups; once achieved, you have to embed it into the culture of the school and the delivery of education, such that it becomes a matter of normal practice within that school. That is what the National Challenge advisers have been tasked with ensuring. As well as working with the leadership of schools, they are also now ensuring that the government bodies are brought in and that those bodies understand what is happening and take up the accountability reins. Furthermore, as local authorities are now fully engaged, have to report collectively and are responsible for the National Challenge advisers, I think we have a chance to ensure the sustainability and to ensure that we are not diverted towards inappropriate courses. However, we still need to emphasise the importance of the vocational strands, because not all young people are skilled and able to do the academic ones. If the vocational strands have rigour and robustness built into them, they will be just as challenging and will help fulfil potential.

  Q95  Fiona Mactaggart: I think the frustration was that in some schools the sustainable model was one in which the children did not achieve as much as they were capable of, which is what, in a way, created the National Challenge. I understand your concern that this is a good policy badly communicated—if I am summarising you correctly. I am interested in the balance between central government and local government in terms of accountability. Central government seem to use their challenge and warning powers, whereas local government seems to emphasise collaboration and partnership. Maybe local government is more able to deliver that, while central government are more able to deliver the stick thing. If I have characterised that correctly—correct me if I have not—is the balance correct between, on the one hand, the relative role of local government as the kind of partnership creator, supporter and chivvier and, on the other hand, the role of national government as the alert, warning and challenge institution? Do you think there is sufficient understanding between central government and local government of their different roles and of what the other is doing?

  Cllr Lawrence: The answer to the latter question is no, I do not, which in part is as much the fault of local government as it is of central government, in that we perhaps do not ensure that the communications between us are as clear, concise and precise as they should be. That is something that we in the LGA are seeking to address, not only with the current ministerial team, but also with all the political party Front Benches. I agree that things are badly communicated. Going back to my response to David, what worries me is that the time scales within which central government operate do not always fully take into account the time that it takes to actually deliver and implement a policy initiative that has been announced. If you think about it, the full extent of any policy change within education takes the full 10-year cycle to actually show the ultimate benefits. The National Challenge is in part trying to change the culture of low expectation, which in some cases can be very easily embedded within certain environments. When you seek to change a culture, it requires a step change in terms of the challenge of getting people to refocus and, if necessary, move on and bring in people who will bring about change. Then, in conjunction with staff, the nature of the work that the young people are engaged in changes, such that they begin to achieve in a fairly short space of time. That is happening in some National Challenge schools. I think that the recognition many schools have undertaken of what they need to achieve will bring about the change, but it has to be sustainable. The other strand is that National Challenge brings with it additional resources. The trouble is that once National Challenge ends, those resources will no longer be there and we will have to make certain—as local authorities that have to carry on—that that support and change stay, albeit not within the same financial framework as during the concentrated period of the National Challenge.

  Q96  Fiona Mactaggart: Have there been any innovations at local authority level in recent years that have been designed to improve accountability to parents?

  Cllr Lawrence: It is difficult to give specific examples because so many local authorities do it in different ways. There is no single identifiable strand across all local authorities. It often depends on the nature of the communities in which those schools exist. For example, in one or two very rural authorities the school has become the total centre of the community. It is used for just about anything and everything besides learning, and is used during the holiday periods and in the evenings as a community resource. You will find that in the inner areas of some of our major urban centres schools are used very much to enhance and develop social cohesion because that engages the community in the purposes of education and helps to raise its aspirations. It is very differentiated; there is no single strand as regards a method of engaging parents.

  Q97  Chairman: Councillor Lawrence, coming back to the overview of what you think has worked and what has not worked over a period of time, all the areas that we have been looking at—testing, assessment, National Curriculum and now accountability—are mechanisms to improve standards. Which do you think has been most successful?

  Cllr Lawrence: There has been an acceptance over the past two decades that schools need a degree of autonomy to operate in recognition of the communities that they serve. If you try to control too centrally, either at local or national level, schools tend to try to operate to a common denominator, whereas I think that you will find that most schools have their own little subtleties in the way in which they operate, which is designed to bring the best out of the young people they are seeking to serve. I also think that the way in which the teaching profession has been remodelled has been one of the major changes that have brought about an improvement in attainment over the past three to five years. That is because recognition of the professional competence of the teaching work force, with the teacher at the centre of a team in the classroom, has enabled a lot more individual, personalised work to take place with pupils, in a way that recognises the individuality of each pupil, moving away from what I often used to call the "block teaching method"—you taught to the norm. It has also enabled the whole emphasis to be not only to assist those at the bottom end who need a lot of help but to stretch and challenge those who are in the gifted and talented groups. That has been one of the most pivotal changes over the past five years, I believe, in terms of turning round and moving us towards vastly raised attainment levels.

  Q98  Chairman: But, reading between the lines of your answers, I take it that you like the scaled-down and less intrusive Ofsted inspection system, compared to the regime that Chris Woodhead ran?

  Cllr Lawrence: We would certainly like consistency within what Ofsted does. We also think that there is a place for what I call the snap inspection, because one of the regime's drawbacks, prior to the subtle changes that have occurred recently in Ofsted, was the length of time schools had to prepare and get all the paperwork in place and get everything looking almost perfect. Many of us in local government feel that the odd snap inspection, with 24 hours' notice, is also a good way of providing insight into what is actually happening at a point in time. I will go back to the point that we need consistency, because if you do not have consistency, you will lose integrity; the inspection process will not be respected and people will always question the judgments that come out. If we can get that back into Ofsted, I think we will have the independent body with the quality we require.

  Q99  Chairman: Coming back to 16-19, in both your written evidence and in what you have said today, you have expressed unhappiness with the complexity of 16-19 accountability. You complain about that, but when you gave evidence on the school report idea, which after all is a simplification system to put everything in one transparent document, you seemed to want to have your cake and eat it. On one hand you are complaining about too much complexity in 16-19, but on the other you are resistant to the school report coming along, which some of us think will simplify the whole process. How do you square those two views?

  Cllr Lawrence: I will have to go away and think of an appropriate answer.

  Q100  Chairman: You do not want to tell me more than that. Tell me a little bit more about why you do not like school report cards.

  Cllr Lawrence: It is the extent to which the cards' outcomes are likely to be utilised, and I think that, again, that does not recognise the diversity of types of education you will find in different authorities. It is almost trying to impose one centralised system, albeit a simple one, right across the board, but it does not have the flexibility to recognise the different types of schools and the different types of communities they serve.

  Chairman: Councillor Lawrence, we are coming to the end of the session, but Annette wants to ask a further question.

  Q101  Annette Brooke: If we are to have a new model for local authorities, which I am very much in favour of, are the current systems for their assessment adequate? I can give an example of an authority that has its pupil referral unit languishing in special measures, two special educational needs schools in special measures and two schools in the National Challenge, and that is in an affluent part of the country, with schools thriving in the affluent parts of the constituencies. How can a local authority get away with that and be given four stars and goodness knows what? Surely there is not enough accountability for local authorities?

  Cllr Lawrence: The new Comprehensive Area Assessment system, I think, is designed to try to make the inspector framework more relevant and more appropriate to a point in time. The annual performance assessment, for example, came out last December. It covered the period from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2008, so it was reporting on a period that was distant in time. If you take the attainment levels that APAs refer to, you will see that was in the summer of 2007. Other attainment levels were already published for 2008, so in a sense the credibility of that part of the inspection regime was very much called into question. Equally, the overall local authority judgment was also very distant in terms of time. Certainly, with a CAA, the Audit Commission want to apply it in such a way that it is more relevant to the performance of an authority at the time you are reporting. Within that—and I think this is where we can improve on the point you are raising—Ofsted is developing a methodology to do much more of what I call snap inspections of children's services, that is, not only the non-educational, but also the educational part.

  Chairman: That's the rub.

  Cllr Lawrence: I think that will bring about a greater degree of rigour and challenge, and will make local authorities much more subject to their own oversight internally and will stop them from allowing things to drift and to get into the kind of situation that you have referred to. We have not fully developed the other part, which is the scrutiny function within local Government. If the scrutiny function in local Government was really working, that type of situation would clearly come into the public arena. I have to say that executive members are sometimes afraid of scrutiny, but I like it and I know quite a number of colleagues who like it. We really need to develop that area over the next few years, because if we do not, we will not be able to hold our heads up and say that we are really doing the job that I was trying to convince Graham that we have started to do.

  Q102  Annette Brooke: I will just ask a supplementary question. What role will the LGA play in making sure that there is far more training on scrutiny for opposition members right across children's services, not only in child protection but also in schools?

  Cllr Lawrence: We are very closely working with the Improvement and Development Agency and we have a series of what we call "things to know", "things to check" and "things to do" lists. Those are not only for lead members, but also for scrutiny Chairs. The three group officers of the LGA are working collectively to ensure that our database of opposition members is also enjoined within the discussions, because, at the end of the day, we recognise that you need both political as well as professional challenge within the system, therefore, succession planning is absolutely essential. That does not only mean lead members within a party; we also have to recognise, quite properly, that parties change control within local government and those who come in must be fully skilled and capable of bringing about seamless change, such that most services can move on without detriment.

  Chairman: Councillor Lawrence, thank you very much for your evidence this morning. We have learned a lot. We hope to maintain our communication with you over the course of the inquiry. If you think of things that you should have told the Committee, but we did not ask the relevant question to get the information, please let us know. Thank you very much for spending your time with us today.

  Cllr Lawrence: Thank you for the rigour and the courtesy, Chair.

  Chairman: Councillor Lawrence, if you would like to stay with us for the next three witnesses, you would be welcome.

6   Note by witness: The LGA is continuing to undertake work on the Swedish model and is looking at the empirical data which accompanies the system. There are significant differences in political opinion within local government as to the possibility and ramifications of introducing the Swedish model in England which must be taken into account as discussions continue. Back

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