- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-459)


8 JULY 2009

  Q440 Chairman: Minister, you can see the point that I am trying to make.

  Mr Coaker: Yes, I understand the point.

  Q441 Chairman: Where is the grit in all this? Of all the accountabilities that we are going through, where is the bit of accountability that says, "We are separate from the Department; we'll say things that the Department really doesn't want to hear"? I do not see, in the accountability evidence that we have taken, that there is any real grit. It does seem to be very cosy, and if it is cosy it cannot be right, surely.

  Mr Coaker: No, it shouldn't be cosy, it isn't cosy and it won't be cosy. It is a partnership which has brought about this. Where we go to in the future will no doubt be a matter for discussion, but it is something that we have worked with Ofsted to develop. This is where we have got to at the present time. We think it is now something we need to go out and pilot, which we will do for two years, and, as I say, we will see how that works. But we believe it is a fundamental reform. As I say, we also respect the work that Ofsted has done and will do.

  Chairman: Well, let us see if there is a cosy relationship with local authorities. Derek.

  Q442 Derek Twigg: In terms of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, the Secretary of State is going to take powers to direct local authorities to use their statutory powers. There is also reference made in the White Paper. Do you have a hit list of local education authorities that you are going to do this to?

  Mr Coaker: No, we do not have a hit list, but you will have seen in the White Paper that we have taken action with four local authorities: the most serious action was taken with respect to Milton Keynes and the second most serious was obviously Leicester. So we do not have a hit list, but we have schools that we are concerned about, we have national challenge areas and we have a clear remit that says that if we think that, notwithstanding all the efforts that are being made, a local authority is not being as quick and as determined to tackle some of the underachievement in their area as it should be, we will not tolerate that and, if we have to take action, we will.

  Q443 Derek Twigg: I think this is an issue with local authorities—the collaborative, sort of personal, informal working relationship, which clearly works well in a lot of authorities, because we have seen significant improvements. Is there a misunderstanding by Government of that approach, and is it really more of a stick rather than carrot approach that the Government prefer? Is there a misunderstanding of some gap between local authorities and government about how this should be best approached?

  Mr Coaker: I think the important thing is to have it as a balance. I do not think you should start off with the desire to take over a local authority to intervene. I think you should start out with the desire to work with them and to collaborate to improve standards where they need to be improving. But if at the end of the day, clearly, progress is not being made or it is too slow or there is resistance to change because it is difficult, young people are left with substandard schools. What we are saying in the White Paper is that we are no longer prepared to tolerate that and that unless we get that progress and that collaborative approach, which is about bringing about the change that is necessary, we will intervene.

  Q444 Derek Twigg: Do you think that we could give local education authorities more powers?

  Mr Coaker: I think they have got significant powers. I think part of the problem is that at the end of the day we need to ensure that they realise that if there is continuous failure, and continuous failure to address that failure, the Government will intervene, because we think it important to do so for the welfare and educational entitlement of those young people.

  Q445 Derek Twigg: Whether we talk about report cards or the powers the local authority or Ministers might have, is not the single biggest issue, as always in schools, leadership? If the leadership is wrong or inadequate then the school is most likely to perform poorly. We can put all the structures we want in place and all the changes, but what we have not done is got to the bottom of the problem, which is to have a quick removal of head teachers where schools are failing and they cannot see any improvement. We need to develop a pool of very good potential head teachers, which can be put in place over the years, particularly where schools are poorly performing. That is what they do in the armed forces, for instance. They coach and groom potential leaders. Isn't that what we should be doing, rather than going through all these different systems?

  Mr Coaker: I think the leadership provided by the head teacher is fundamental. It is the right point to make. In the short period of time that I have been in post, inadequate leadership has been dealt with in a number of schools in a number of ways. Indeed, the White Paper looks at how we can have more federations of schools where excellent head teachers take on and work with schools that are failing. They can bring their leadership skills and develop leadership abilities in those schools. There is also the National College for School Leadership, which has—I cannot remember what they are called—

  Jon Coles: National leaders in education.

  Mr Coaker: Yes. They go and share their experience and their ability. You are quite right to say that we cannot tolerate failure. Graham often makes the point about classroom teachers. We simply have to accept that if we have failing head teachers—it is a small number as the vast majority work very well—we should not be afraid of taking the action that is necessary. Increasingly that is being done.

  Q446 Annette Brooke: My understanding is that the White Paper gives much more autonomy to schools to make decisions on CPD and school improvement. Is there a tension between your view that local authorities have to be more challenging, and giving these extra powers at school level?

  Mr Coaker: I do not think that it is a contradiction or something that should be seen as difficult. We are saying that schools should be the vehicle for school improvement and they need to work with local authorities to do that. Ultimately, schools challenge themselves and schools often individually will bring about that change, but sometimes they will need the support of others to do that and the local authority can help with that. You often need a local authority to help with the overall strategic planning for an area.

  Annette Brooke: I wonder whether I could go straight into asking about school improvement partners—

  Q447 Chairman: May I stop you just for a second before we finish. Could I keep you on local authorities for a moment and leadership. If part of the accountability is the local authority, surely you want strong leadership in the local authority, not just heads. Some of the evidence that this Committee has seen in Building Schools for the Future shows that the leadership is not there. We found instances under your new system of having a head of children's services where the head of social services is running children's services and does not understand schools. They may be very good at child protection and very good at that side of things, but they are really very poor at leadership on schools. We are detecting a real problem of leadership in terms of Building Schools for the Future and in terms of giving sufficient leadership and help to schools that are struggling.

  Mr Coaker: I think the leadership issue, whether it is in local authorities or in schools, as Derek has said, is fundamental. It is not just about leadership with respect to officers—directors of children's services—but sometimes about difficulties with political leadership in local authorities. One of my points about Derek's point is that what we are signalling in the White Paper with the four authorities that we have named is that where the Government need to step in, they will. But what we want to do first of all is encourage strong leadership at a local authority level. We do not want to say, as a first resort, that we are going to step in; we want to say, "Sort it out," but we will take action if necessary.

  Q448 Chairman: In some places, it is a triumph of hope over experience, isn't it?

  Mr Coaker: I think hope should be time limited, if you understand the point that I am making. You cannot hope for change all of the time; you sometimes have to act.

  Q449 Chairman: You haven't done anything dramatic recently, like taking over a local education authority or a children's services department, have you?

  Mr Coaker: We have intervened quite strongly in Milton Keynes. I'm not sure that "taking over" is the right phrase, but we have certainly intervened very strongly.

  Q450 Chairman: David Blunkett used to do it, didn't he? He took over Leeds and Bradford, and put a new team in Hackney. Are you all becoming a bit too cosy with local authorities?

  Mr Coaker: No, certainly not. As I said to you, in the first instance we want to help and support local authorities, but we also signal in the White Paper that we are not frightened to intervene if necessary.

  Chairman: We will go on to SIPs.

  Q451 Annette Brooke: When we met some SIPs, I do not think that we really got to the bottom of their dual functions to be a critical friend and to be sufficiently challenging. Again, I see tensions between those different roles. How do you actually view the SIPs, and how can they be a really good friend and then tell tales to the local authority?

  Mr Coaker: There are always those sorts of tensions in professional relationships—it does not have to be with a SIP and a school. When I was a deputy head, one of the people that I had to discipline was a very good friend of mine. Those sorts of tensions always emerge, but you have to be professional about them. One of the things that we have done, and that you have seen, is say that to overcome some of the problems that may exist with cosiness, instead of five years with a SIP, it will be three years. We are seeking to develop the professionalism, training and support that are given to SIPs. As you know, the National College for School Leadership is responsible for the accreditation, and we will work with it to see how we will develop the role of SIPs and improve their training and accreditation. We will also continue to look at giving SIPs a licence to practise. We will look at how to improve that, and we think that that will help significantly.

  Q452 Annette Brooke: I had the impression from some of the SIPs that we were talking about that there was a lot of concentration on getting the data right. It sounded as if they were being taught how to tick the boxes, as I recall. I would like to ask Jon: what is the hard evidence that SIPs have brought about a real improvement? After all, you are rushing into expanding, so you must have some evidence.

  Jon Coles: First, I think that your analysis of the issue is basically right, which is to say that too often SIPs are very focused on the data. When they are in the schools, they spend a great deal of their time in the head teacher's office. They spend less time in the school understanding what is going on, reading the school, diagnosing the problems and prescribing what the solutions might be, and then coaching and supporting the leadership of the school to address the problems in the right way, and brokering in the right support to make that happen. That is the role that SIPs can most usefully play. The evidence for saying that that is an effective role comes from the London Challenge and from the City Challenge, because that is the role that the London Challenge advisers, who have been working with the least effective or the lowest-performing schools in City Challenge areas, have been playing. For example, London has gone from being the region with the largest number of schools below the then floor target to the only region that, in 2006, achieved the floor target entirely within all its schools. I think we have evidence that that role is effective, and therefore, the White Paper says that that is the reform that we will make to the system to develop the role of the SIP, from being too focused too often on the data to being a broader role, which is about reading a school, challenging it and brokering in the right support to shift it. That is the evidence base for it.

  Annette Brooke: I think I have some relief there that it might get beyond the data.

  Q453 Chairman: Are you sure that it is not just to give jobs to all these people who do not have jobs, now that they are not doing National Strategies?

  Mr Coaker: No, absolutely not.

  Q454 Chairman: No? But they're all out of work, aren't they?

  Mr Coaker: The contracts are until 2011, and then it may be that when schools get their devolved funding down, they may think that these people are very good, and that they should employ them—but that would be a matter for them.

  Q455 Chairman: How much are you saving? Was it £100 million?

   Jon Coles: The contracts are £100 million.

  Q456 Annette Brooke: I see that you are going to increase the number of days of SIP support to 20. How does that sit with recruiting practising head teachers to do this? I think the Government initially saw them as rather important players.

  Jon Coles: I want to emphasise that it is up to 20 days, and it will be differentiated according to the performance of the school. The National Challenge advisers, who are working with the lowest-performing schools, are effectively SIPs who are taking on this new role now in the system, and are doing 20 days. But we would expect the number of schools that are not in the lowest-performing category, where the SIP does 20 days, to be quite limited. So it will be differentiated, and the highest-performing schools will get less SIP time than the lowest-performing one. That was the first point. The second point is that National Challenge advisers are doing this anyway. We do have a good proportion of head teachers doing that role for the National Challenge, either current head teachers or very recently retired heads. I absolutely agree that it remains important that we get a good proportion of heads or people with very recent headship experience doing the job. The experience of the National Challenge is that there is still a pool of people with that experience who will do it.

  Chairman: Annette, I will call you again in a second. The Minister has got to go. Two quick questions for the Minister.

  Mr Coaker: I have a debate at 11 in Westminster Hall.

  Q457 Mr Chaytor: If every school is going to have a SIP, are you confident that the pool of potential SIPs is there, particularly given the new accreditation and training procedures?

  Mr Coaker: There are more people wanting to do it at the moment than there are places available. I think the issue then is quality and ensuring that we have the right people doing it. That is something that we are going to work closely on with the national college.

  Q458 Mr Chaytor: You still have fewer head teachers working as SIPs than originally envisaged?

  Mr Coaker: That is the case, but going back to Derek's point, I think good head teachers sharing their practice is something that we want to encourage, and we need to look at ways to increase that number.

  Q459 Mr Chaytor: It is the same question about governors. In the White Paper, there is great emphasis on recruiting more governors and providing better training for them, to deal with the problem that many schools are struggling to recruit governors. Surely, if the burden on governors through extra training and more responsibilities has increased, that is less likely to encourage people to want to take up the role.

  Mr Coaker: I accept the point to an extent, but I think it is also about ensuring that governors—this is obviously a matter for local recruitment, which is difficult—feel that they are valued, that it is worth while, and that they are making a very real contribution. I read what the National Governors Association said to the Committee Chairman about how governors sometimes feel as though they are tagged on as an afterthought. I think the role of governors is absolutely crucial in schools. Certainly, while I am in this post, I will seek to encourage them, speak about them and praise them, and in that sense, try to change the environment in which people decide whether or not to become a governor.

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