Education Bill

Memorandum submitted by Birmingham City Council’s Children and Education O&S Committee (E 80)

1. The Children and Education Overview and Scrutiny Committee at Birmingham City Council has discussed both the Schools White Paper and the Education Bill and as the lead members of the Committee we would like to take this opportunity to share some of our comments with you in relation to issues of accountability. We do not feel that it has been possible to comment on the Bill in isolation so we have included our views on the general direction of travel which the two documents set in train.

2. The Children and Education Overview and Scrutiny Committee comprises a cross party group of City Councillors and also includes parent governor, Church and young people representatives. There are two co-opted places for young people on the Committee and these are filled on a flexible basis from a pool of 8 young people who represent the Birmingham Youth Parliament and are elected by pupils from all Birmingham schools. Some examples of the work the Committee has undertaken recently are set out in the appendix.

3. Under current arrangements the schools system in Birmingham operates in a highly collaborative way at both city level and through more localised structures including networks consortia and clusters. Schools work with the City Council and each other in an interdependent manner offering mutual challenge and support, learning and applying effective practice and drawing on expertise. The range of proposals contained within the White Paper will result in major changes to the existing educational landscape. It continues to envisage a strategic role for the Local Authorities including being the champion for children, as well as being responsible for educational excellence, promoting attainment, vulnerable children and access to school places.

4. In future the Local Authority’s key role will be an extension in brokering support. The City Council is committed to developing new ways of engaging with schools that reflect their increased autonomy and purchasing position in the market and Birmingham is currently actively exploring the establishment of new trading models.

5. In our experience even outstanding schools can get derailed over time and in this situation we believe that Local Authorities need to be able to offer support. Therefore they need to have a clearly defined and properly resourced core strategic role to be able to intervene in their schools should local intelligence indicate that the need arises or should there be public concern.

6. The paper implies that Local Authorities have become too corporate and as a consequence that they stifle initiative. However it is likely that over time chains of academies will develop the same tendency and as a consequence will result in the same problems as those that have been perceived with Councils. To resist this in future, Local Authorities can provide challenge to Head teachers/governors/board of academies. A highly effective way to do this will be through Overview and Scrutiny as our experience demonstrates Overview and Scrutiny can respond to public concern (see appendix Special Educational Needs)

7. A key issue is how schools will be asked to account to Overview and Scrutiny - what rights and duties will apply. Schools will give least access where they have most to hide. So it is not sufficient to say scrutiny "may be engaged" as it can only be effective if schools have an obligation to talk to us in some way or another. We therefore need a clear definition of the role of Overview and Scrutiny and one that enables Scrutiny to look at individual schools and requires them to co-operate – just as health scrutiny committees/panels have functioned with powers to summon partners and will continue to do so under the present government’s proposals.

8. Local accountability and good governance of schools is boosted by the involvement of independent governors. Governors are critical friends to schools and need to be encouraged to ask questions. We agree that in some cases school governing bodies are too big and that membership needs to be based upon a recognised skill set. The proposals seem to embed the idea that there should be at least two parent governors and that is welcome – although we stress the need for them to be elected, which was not a requirement under the previous academies legislation. It is also not clear from the proposals if Local Authority governors will continue have a role – although they can play a key role in helping to recruit community governors. It is essential to include sufficient community governors as well as parents otherwise this form of accountability is inevitably weakened.

March 2011

Appendix

1. In Birmingham the Children and Education O&S Committee is made up of a cross party group of City Councillors, parent governor and Church representatives as well as young people representatives. There are two co-opted places for young people on the Committee and these are filled on a flexible basis from a pool of 8 young people who represent the Birmingham Youth Parliament and are elected by pupils from all Birmingham schools. The Committee provides an important means for publicly holding local decision makers to account as part of democratic decision making process. It is also a route to bring together discussions about matters of public concern as part of the debate about the past and future delivery of public services

2. The following examples of our work show how we seek to

· provide critical friend challenge to the executive

· assist in strategic policy development,

· enable the voices of the public to be heard and drive improvement in public services.

Examples of work undertaken by the Children and Education Overview and Scrutiny Committee in Birmingham

Functional Literacy and Numeracy

3. The Committee Members were concerned about the perception that some young people were leaving school, without the necessary skills in English and Maths to engage successfully as citizens, progress in further learning, or secure good jobs within the city. Key questions under this inquiry were to establish what is meant by the "necessary skills" by employers, how many young people currently need additional support with literacy and numeracy and how this was being provided in schools and colleges. It was timely piece of work coinciding with the national development of the Functional Skills qualifications.

4. Committee members spoke to local colleges, employers, schools and young people to find out their views on the matter. They also visited local projects sessions with young people who had emerged from school with little in the way of qualifications and were using NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) programmes to gain a second chance for themselves.

5. Members found that on the whole schools welcomed the introduction of the new qualifications but were concerned that they created additional tensions by adding to the numerous other criteria/ measures against which school success was currently judged. There was a general view that there should be an emphasis on introducing Functional Skills at an earlier level, ideally it was felt that it would be better to start some of this work at Key Stage1 and 2

6. The report and findings was presented to the City Council and provided a series of suggestions for improvement including the need to set a challenging city wide target to raise the attainment of young people in functional skills. Members also wanted to see closer working between schools and further education colleges and felt that more could be done to support schools to develop the capacity to deliver the new qualifications.

Special Educational Needs:

7. The Review of Special Education Needs was undertaken to oversee the development of the City’s Strategy for Special Education led by Cabinet Member.

8. Six public meetings or "scrutiny road shows" were organised and 297 people attended. The events gave parents a chance to meet the members and share their experiences of Special Educational Needs provision within the City and their concerns for the future.

9. Those parents who were unable to attend one of the meetings still had an opportunity to share their views and experiences with the group by using a specially created online form that was available on the Scrutiny website

10. The results from the exercise were complied into a report and were instrumental in influencing the shape of the final Special Educational Needs strategy adopted by the City Council highlighting the benefits of seeing SEN as specialist not special.

Relationship and Sex Education in Schools

11. The idea for this review came from the young people representatives who are co-opted members of the Committee. The young people (who were members of the UK Youth Parliament)

· jointly chaired the review sessions with elected members

· carried out their own research with other young people

· and produced a "youth proofed" summary of the final report for circulation to all schools in the city.

12. This piece of work gained national recognition for involving young people, as well as other groups including the faith communities, young parents and the voluntary sector by winning the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) Good Scrutiny Award for "Community Engagement".

· The review provided a valuable opportunity for community debate about what was, in some communities, a sensitive subject and thee establishment of a multi-faith forum, to enable this debate and dialogue to continue was a key strength of this piece of work, and demonstrates how scrutiny can successfully bring people together.

· It challenged the existing model of SRE provision within the City, suggesting that there should be a clear focus on relationships as well as meaningful consultation with parents and involving pupils in deciding what they would like to see delivered.

School Admissions

13. This review was undertaken to explore the operation of the schools admissions process in Birmingham and the degree to which it enables parents to exercise choice In recent years Birmingham has taken the lead in reforming admissions procedures, creating a single admissions form and handbook for all the city's schools.

14. Our surveys of elected members and of parents revealed a pressing need to disseminate regular and thorough information about the admissions system.

15. We found that parents are being encouraged to exercise choice in their children's education. But it is important they understand the realities of that choice.

16. The internet creates real opportunities here as does the city's structures of neighbourhood management. The majority of the city's children are admitted on the basis of where they live to a school close to their home. In most cases this is what the families want but when the choice of a local school is not available it can cause major distress.

17. The review aimed to see the principle of maximising access to local schools embedded in policy.

18. We examined in detail the city's admissions criteria and found that in most of the city this works efficiently and fairly but it can create anomalies, leaving some neighbourhoods unexpectedly without access to local schools.

19. We found that the admissions process in Birmingham is a well conceived and well administered system.

Primary School Expansion

20. Currently the Children and Education Overview and Scrutiny Committee is exploring the impact of the rapid expansion of a number of primary schools in the city. This expansion has been necessary to respond to the population growth in certain areas. The review will explore

· how well the overall expansion programme has been implemented to date

· the longer term implications for the individual schools , including all staff and pupils

· the impact on the existing school facilities and the wider local community.

21. We are currently conducting in a series of visits to schools and have called for evidence from parents and local councillors.