- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)


29 APRIL 2009

  Q240  Mr Stuart: Leaving aside the institutional level, we need excellent teachers, and we need to remove those who are below an acceptable standard. Do you think that governing bodies are effective in trying to ensure both those things? Do they need additional powers? What would help them to be able to challenge risk-averse local authorities and get the powers to take action?

  David Butler: Governing bodies are already an effective tool at a school level and also, to a degree, at a community level as well. Remember that part of the responsibility for some schools now moves into the area of extended services. If you look at governors being, let us call them, the board of the school, they are the people who are ultimately responsible for the strategic vision. It is their job to ensure that what is in place will actually deliver what parents want, if you like, from my perspective, which is an effective piece of teaching and learning for the children at that school. Yes, they can do that, and yes, they have the powers to do that, but as Clare has already cited, there are instances where sometimes local authorities may not be quite on stream with the governing body, which just makes it a little bit more difficult for them to perform their role. I suspect that the powers are there, and it is not a question of saying that we should give them additional powers.

  Chairman: Fiona wants to come in on this point.

  Fiona Mactaggart: No, I wanted to come in on the point about governing bodies generally as soon as Graham is finished.

  Q241  Mr Stuart: Deborah, can I follow up on that, particularly focusing on being able to tackle teaching underperformance?

  Deborah Ishihara: That is very difficult. From what we hear on the telephone lines, if a parent has an issue with a teacher because of things that are going on in the classroom, that is almost our most difficult question: how to get at the school to address that without completely destroying the relationship between the parent and child and the school. From our perspective, what we need to see is the ability of governors to act independently, as I have said before, as a check and balance on the school. Very often they can do so, but there are occasions when they can't. For instance, with exclusions, I have heard of governors who make the decision to exclude a child along with the head. In which case, when parents want to go and make representations to the governors about the exclusion, and they worked together with the head in coming to that decision, it is not a proper independent process. I have also heard on the lines about cases where the governors are completely circumvented. I heard of one case a few weeks ago where a year 11 pupil had been excluded for allegedly kicking another boy, but his father said that he had reason to believe that his son had not done it. He was excluded for an indefinite period until a meeting could be held. Then, when the meeting was held, they said, "You can come back to school for one hour a week, indefinitely," which was not exactly an education. The parent said, "I want to complain to the governors about this," and the head said, "No, you can't. I'm a governor, and I've made my decision." I was completely horrified by that.

  Chairman: Can you repeat that?

  Deborah Ishihara: "No, you can't complain to the governors. I'm a governor, and I've made my decision." The head was on the governing body, which is fine—the head can be on the governing body—but not saying, "I'm the governor, and I've made my decision." As I said, I was horrified by that. I have to say that at ACE, we hear about poor practice day in, day out, so we come out with a skewed vision of the world. I know that there is a lot of good practice out there, but equally, we do come across things that need to be addressed.

  Q242  Mr Stuart: The requirement to produce an annual report was phased out, and many governing bodies seized the opportunity not to produce one. If governing bodies do not publish their views on the performance of the school and share them with the parents, is it any surprise that they are perceived, not least by Ofsted, as being less important in the overall accountability system?

  David Butler: If I may be so bold, that is perhaps a red herring. I think that there were a number of reasons why annual governing reports disappeared. I dare to suggest that part of the reason why they disappeared was the considerable lack of interest from parents who wanted to attend a particular annual meeting. I have served my time as governor and gone along to such meetings to find that the governing body outnumbered the parents. Let us not lose sight of the fact that parents want good information and accountability. We must find what is effective today rather than say we should simply bring back the annual reports for governors. That is one tool, but perhaps it is not the most appropriate one. There are other things that we could do today and we should concentrate on that.

  Q243  Mr Stuart: Such as?

  David Butler: We have heard hints that a school report card should be introduced. Our research that we put before you last night shows that there is substantial parental favour for that report card.

  Q244  Mr Stuart: But that doesn't empower governors, does it? It seems to further sideline external people who come in.

  David Butler: I don't think so because it becomes part of the overall accountability process. It would not be fair for us to look at single segments of accountability; there are many things that we can look at. Ofsted is one, as are governors' impact, school report cards, exam results and so on.

  Clare Collins: I want to clarify that what we seized on was the discontinued requirement to have an annual meeting. There were a lot of governing bodies in schools that were very happy to carry on producing a report of some sort. It was long and unwieldy, and most of us are in favour of the school report card as a replacement for that. Much of the stuff that has been reported on by the Government's reports is reported on elsewhere.

  Chairman: Deborah, respond to Graham and then I shall move on to Fiona.

  Deborah Ishihara: Not having an annual report by the governors is a bit of a shame because they produced a lot of very good stuff. In our written submission, we looked back at what governors were supposed to produce and thought that it was very good and included some of those things. I am not sure whether the report card will replace all that, but we are clear that a lot more detail needs to be produced for parents.

  Q245  Chairman: Are you based in Cambridge?

  Deborah Ishihara: No.

  Chairman: Where is your base?

  Deborah Ishihara: Islington.

  Clare Collins: One of the things that fell out when the annual report died was any financial reporting.

  Mr Stuart: It was killed—it didn't die.

  Clare Collins: That is a personal view. It is a shame that there isn't a public report every year on the school's finances.

  Q246  Fiona Mactaggart: In your submission, you used ACE's experience in representing children and parents in dispute with schools to suggest that some of the reports will not include things that are important to parents and schools. If we had a report card, it would not necessarily include those things.

  Deborah Ishihara: We wanted to add two categories—parental complaints and regulatory compliance. We think that those two things will work together well. If you are talking about accountability, you can talk about educational attainment, but that is only one aspect of it. From our perspective, it is about regulatory compliance, but that is difficult to pin down. It is easy to say to schools, "We will produce something that explains how you are complying with the law." However, you also need a parental complaints section in which you can see if there are any discrepancies. For example, a school will say—as sometimes happens on our phone lines—"There is no bullying issue here. We have no bullying in our schools." If something such as that is expressed in a report card on the part of the school and yet there are several complaints about bullying from parents, then you have something you can use to say, "There is clearly a discrepancy here." Ofsted could use that and make a comment in its reports about regulatory compliance. It is difficult to get a handle on the issue, but that would be one way of doing it.

  Q247  Fiona Mactaggart: I was struck by what you were saying in response to Graham, which is that you tend to see the hard end. Because you represent people when they are in dispute with a school, you tend to see the system when it is in failure. I am concerned that, at present, we do not have sensible enough mechanisms to deal with those schools that, for example, turn too quickly to exclusion or expulsion, or where the governors are in the pocket of the head teacher and always back that decision. I don't know about the case that you were talking about, but I can think of a school in my constituency where it is quite probable that the whole governing body would say, "Oh yes, our head teacher is absolutely right and that child can happily be educated for an hour a week." One of the things that I have found—this is a school that is very successful in its results—is that is it difficult to find any mechanism that can hold that school to account about that issue. It educates the children—it educates fine— but guess what? The children that the head teacher doesn't like—it sometimes feels like—get picked on, excluded, and the whole thing is silenced. I am interested—not just for the general report of the Committee—in how we could have a better system of accountability about things like that.

  Deborah Ishihara: I think that you have hit on a very good point here. The better that schools do in educational attainment, sometimes the worse they are doing in these other factors. A rebalancing is needed here. It is very easy for schools, say with something like SEN, to concentrate on getting good educational attainment and therefore be less happy to deal with children who don't fit that mould or who are vulnerable in some way. So you get very skewed emphasis in schools, which means that in some ways the better a school is doing is perhaps, for some children, the worse it is doing. That is the kind of information that it is very difficult for parents to get at, which is why I think you need a whole range of factors to be made clear, and to be put in one place as well, which is why the report card would be good—via the report card, you could access all this information. What you find is that most parents are happy to have a few fairly simple overall marks to do with the school, but other parents, who have a child with SEN or is vulnerable in some way, would need something much more detailed. Exclusions are a very good example; they are often linked to SEN. The other day we had a case in which a boy with SEN was officially excluded for three days, which was all fine—he had a proper letter etc—but at a reintegration meeting he was then told that he could only come in from now on in the mornings, between 9 am and 11.30 am. There was nothing in writing and no end point was set. It is not just a matter of how proper exclusions are done; it is how we get a lot of informal—therefore, illegal—exclusions. It would be very difficult to hold a school to account for that. As I said, we think that you can possibly do it by making a public statement about what you do in a range of circumstances: how you comply with the law, which is asking the school by implication to state publicly that what it says is true, but also to have some other checks and balances in the system, including the governors, but also parental complaints. So, you can get in there in some way.

  Q248  Fiona Mactaggart: Does the school have a duty to record and report to governors all parental complaints?

  Clare Collins: Yes.

  Q249  Fiona Mactaggart: Do all schools do it?

  Clare Collins: It is formal complaints.

  Q250  Fiona Mactaggart: Does a parent know what a formal complaint is?

  Deborah Ishihara: Not necessarily.

  Clare Collins: And governing bodies don't. It is one of the difficult jobs that a chair of governors often has to do, which is to make the decision that a complaint goes formal—you are almost looking for the worst to be put in front of you, for the parents to say, "I am making a formal complaint." A lot of parents don't know. You give them the complaints procedure—every school has to have a complaints policy—and point out to them, which is what I do as a chair of governors, that this is the process and ask at what point each side would want to make the complaint formal. I would then set up the process to make it happen, and my clerk would make the process happen. However, what you are looking at is actually a quite sophisticated level of process and of judgement-making. I started this evidence session by saying that strengthening governance means that you need to have better training for governing bodies and for chairs of governing bodies who are having to make such tricky decisions. It is important that the decisions are right.

  Chairman: Do you want briefly to give me an answer on that one, David?

  David Butler: I am conscious that this echoes some of the points that we put in our own submission about the accessibility of the complaints processes generally. Our submission makes some comments in relation to the Ofsted complaints process, for example, but it applies here as well. It is difficult sometimes for parents to access, understand and know the process. I am struck by what Clare is saying. Where good governance works, it can help parents to understand the process, but that is only when you have very good chairs of governors and very good systems. One of the factors that could make things more accessible is making the language more straightforward. That would be very helpful.

  Chairman: We are hard against time, so I call Edward to take us through to the next session.

  Q251  Mr Timpson: David, could I pick you up on the submission to which you just referred. One of the striking findings from your questioning of parents to get their view of the current system of school accountability was that 96% say that they have a greater demand for schools to be assessed on a wider range of measures. That it is extremely high—you don't need me to tell you that. What wider measures are parents looking for from schools to ensure that the performance of the school that their child attends is at the level that they want it to be?

  David Butler: We initially asked them whether they find things like exam and test results helpful as a measure of accountability. The answer was yes, they do, but that was about 75% or 76%. We went on and asked whether they would appreciate a wider range of measures on which they could judge the school, which is what is proposed in the school report card, and there was, if you like, near universal agreement. One debate to have is on what those wider measures should be. Our suggestion in our submission is that a good starting point would be the various factors that we have in the documentation on Every Child Matters, but, as we heard earlier from Deborah, it is possible that we should introduce an additional feature. I do not think that the debate on what should be in the school report card has ended—there is still a lot of debate to be had—but we are seeing that parents are very interested in having that more holistic view, rather than just a single public pronouncement of exam results.

  Q252  Mr Timpson: There are two different angles from which parents may be coming at this. First, if their child is already at a school, they want to know how that school is performing as the child goes through it. Secondly, some are looking to send their child to a school and making a choice. What type of information do parents want when they are looking to choose a school, as opposed to when they are looking at the accountability of a school that their child is already at? Is there any differential?

  David Butler: I would go back to my point about that wider range of measures. I will give the example of when we were looking at an appropriate secondary school for my son. To a large extent, we put to one side the issues of effective learning and teaching because he presented as someone who ought to do reasonably well, but he had a strong interest in music. We were therefore looking at what music offerings available schools had and at how he could best access them. That was us making a decision for our child. If you have two or three children, you might be looking at two or three different things, because they are not all the same, as we know. You are then looking at what you might call the additional features. How do schools encourage sport, extra-curricular activity or art and drama? How is the child's health and well-being looked after at school? We have got a high level of encouragement and favour for the school report card because it gives those measures.

  Deborah Ishihara: We hear every day that it is very individual, actually. Obviously, educational attainment is one aspect. However, you may have a child, for example, who you know is very sensitive and who has had difficulty with bullying in their primary school. Therefore, you want to know what sort of things a secondary school would do to address that problem. Does it have good supervision, or a good, strong anti-bullying policy? What does the school do if there is a problem, and how supportive is it? That is just one example, but there are many different cases where individual parents come to us and say, "How do I find out about this?"

  Clare Collins: Absolutely, parents are concerned about attainment levels in school and we hope that they are as concerned with progress levels. Those levels will be the next thing that parents will focus on, as there is more data about it and parents become more familiar with that data. In our experience, however, parents are incredibly concerned about behaviour in school. Certainly, schools get a "name" for behaviour and a "name" for dealing with bullying, or for not dealing with those issues, as the case may be. How decisions are made on those sorts of issues is, I think, quite complicated. We would also say that the profile of the school is important for parents when they are choosing a school. Above all, however, we would say that a lot of parents don't have a choice of school and the school that they need to be good is the one that is down the road. Every child in this country should have the right to go to a good local school.

  Q253  Mr Timpson: I want to go back to Deborah's point that each parent is perhaps looking for something individual for their child and they are concerned about what the school has to meet those needs. Given that, how do we go about encapsulating all those separate views and all those different levels of engagement with the education system that parents have?

  Deborah Ishihara: That is why we support the principle of having a lot of information available. For instance, if you have a report card, whatever way it is set out you might have a simple front page where there is quite simple data, but parents would need to be able to drill down to what exactly it is that they as individuals are looking for. That is why we suggest that approach.

  Chairman: We are getting some good information here.

  Q254  Mr Timpson: One of the points that was raised in the previous session was that children learn as much, if not more, outside of school as they do in school. Some schools are very good at engaging children with after-school clubs, school trips and other activities that are generated by the school. How would that sort of information be made readily available to parents in a report card, if a report card is the type of model that you are all advocating? Perhaps I should have asked before if that is the type of model that you are all advocating, but I know that both David and Deborah have spoken about a report card in a positive sense. So, should that type of information about activities outside school be available to parents too?

  Clare Collins: It should be quite easy to capture that information; it is already captured in school prospectuses. What is more important is that we don't just capture certain children. There will always be the A team, who will play football after school. What you are looking for is whether or not you are capturing those kids who are the C team. They like to play football, even though they will not represent the school, and it will do them good to play football and be part of the school, or whatever; football is a simple example. If you can't capture that information, then we might as well all go home.

  Chairman: Excellent. I like that.

  Q255  Mr Timpson: I would just like to put two more short questions. I know that we all have our individual cases, but from my perspective the relationship that you have with your child's teacher is extremely important. That goes back to Graham's point that you need to have good teachers, because the type of information that they can give you as a parent is much better than anything you can get that is written down on a piece of paper. However, teacher turnover is something that a lot of my constituents complain to me about, in that they have to engage with a new teacher almost on an annual basis and sometimes with two or three teachers within a school year. Is that type of information something that we would want, as a progressive part of the child's education, so that the school's turnover of teachers can be taken into consideration by parents when they are choosing a school?

  Deborah Ishihara: I think that we have actually put in as one of the categories in our written submission that staffing arrangements should be reported on.

  David Butler: If you have a good school, a good institution, you rely on your leadership team to deliver a good experience for the children who attend it. Teachers will leave; they might progress and go on to another role at another school, and I think that it is important that the leadership team recognises that. There comes a point when we have to be able to trust some aspects of the system, so I am not sure whether we want to micro-manage too much, but I recognise that if you have a school where every teacher seems to stay only for a term, that gives cause for concern. I want to return to the issue of information flow and how we can ensure that we get information to parents, as well as what information they want to base their selection on. This relates to what you have talked about regarding teachers being able to tell parents about their children. I know that there is progress and I am pleased to see it in terms of making more information available electronically, which I wholly support. But I would not like to see—I do not believe that parents would like to see this either—that replace the opportunity for parents to talk to their child's teacher. Previous research, which is not contained in this submission, has told us that what parents value most is the opportunity for a face-to-face discussion with their child's teacher, because that is when they learn about their child.

  Q256  Mr Heppell: I think that I agree with your point about parents, but surely the new technology is very valuable. I remember that what really frustrated me in relation to my own children was finding out that things were wrong only when I had a face-to-face meeting at the end of each year, when I would be told about something that had been happening for nine months. I like the idea of being able to tap into something where I can look and see what is happening with behaviour and homework. As parents, we have all had the experience of asking our children, "What homework have you got?" and the answer being, "None." That can go on for weeks.

  David Butler: I would absolutely support that, but what I am really saying is please do not make that the only thing available to parents. You are quite right that if you have a good school, a doorway is opening into the information system—most of them now have very good information systems—whereby parents can get answers to questions about whether the homework has been given in, what the homework is for next week, and how a child's attendance and behaviour is. That valuable information should be shared, but please don't remove the opportunity for parents to talk to teachers at the same time.

  Q257  Mr Heppell: I think that I accept that, but I don't want people to be dismissive of new technology. There is an idea that parents will somehow not be able to manage it, but everybody of a younger generation texts and uses the internet all the time.

  David Butler: I wish to put in one caveat, which is that while I believe the ability of parents to grasp such information has grown enormously, when we start to bring this in, let us please encourage those who are delivering it to ensure that it is accessible and that all parents, particularly those in disadvantaged areas and those whose first language might not be English, can understand it.

  Chairman: Okay, we are going to move on.

  Q258  Mr Chaytor: Can I ask Clare and David specifically, in terms of the identification of schools for school improvement programmes, do you have any evidence of situations where governors or parents are utterly outraged by the choice of their school? That is to say, is there ever a conflict between the perceptions of governors and parents on the one hand, and the criteria established by Ofsted for school improvement programmes on the other?

  Clare Collins: Are you asking whether, if Ofsted puts a school in a category, for example, that surprises people?

  Mr Chaytor: Yes.

  Clare Collins: Absolutely; there is evidence of that.

  Q259  Mr Chaytor: I want to try to assess the scale of the problem. There are always going to be isolated instances where some governor says, "Our school isn't that bad," and so on, but what is the scale of the mismatch between the perception of governors and parents, and the perception of Ofsted?

  Clare Collins: I cannot give you hard figures. In my local authority there have been some very nasty surprises in the last couple of years—that should not be happening at this stage of the game—but there is also the other end of the spectrum where the data are so sophisticated that schools that are, in effect, coasting schools are being identified. I think that we have had our first grammar school being put into an Ofsted category, and there has been shock, horror on a lot of faces. I have to say, though, that we have got to welcome that, because it is not just that the poor schools have got to get better; but that the good schools should be even better.

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