Education and Adoption Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Fergus Reid, Glenn McKee, Joanna Welham, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
“If the Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills advises”.—( Kevin Brennan .)
The amendment requires the Secretary of State to take advice before using new provision
There may be a good reason why the school should not be academised, and this amendment allows for mature reflection of the need for academisation.
The Bill does not make clear when the Government will implement this new power. This amendment would provide that the power could not be used retrospectively.
‘(A1A) Prior to making an Academy Order in respect of a maintained school under subsection (A1), the Secretary of State must arrange for an independent assessment of the impact of conversion into an Academy on vulnerable pupils, including but not limited to—
(a) children with statements of special educational needs,
(b) children with special educational needs without statements,
(c) looked after children,
(d) children with disabilities, and
(e) children with low prior attainment not otherwise falling under (a) to (d).
(A1B) A report of any assessment conducted under subsection (A1A) shall be laid before each House of Parliament by the Secretary of State.
(A1C) Where a report under subsection (A1B) indicates any risks of negative impacts on vulnerable pupils, the Secretary of State must accompany the report with a statement of the steps he is taking to satisfy himself that reasonable mitigating steps will be planned and implemented to reduce such risks.”
‘(A2) For the avoidance of doubt, subsection (A1) does not apply to a maintained nursery school or a Pupil Referral Unit.”
The amendment is to clarify whether the new provision applies to maintained nursery schools and Pupil Referral Units.
‘( ) in section 19 of the Academies Act 2010, in subsection (2), insert at start “Except subsection (A1) of section 4” and insert after subsection (3)
( ) Before the Secretary of State makes an order commencing section 4(A1) she will lay before Parliament an independent report demonstrating the improvement, or otherwise, of schools which have been academised, or not, after being eligible for intervention by virtue of sections 61 or 62 EIA 2006.”
The amendment requires the Secretary of State to demonstrate that academisation is the best solution for schools which receive an inadequate Ofsted judgement.
Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab): I want to speak briefly in support of amendment 40, which allows us maturely to reflect on the need for academisation before the Secretary of State imposes her will on an underperforming school. Before the break, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West laid out many examples of alternative methods of school improvement and made the case that academisation is not the only option. In 2012, 559 schools were judged inadequate. Of the 294 that remained maintained, and therefore were not engaged in the academisation process, only nine remained inadequate a year later. On re-inspection, 152 were deemed good and six were rated outstanding. We have heard today that local authorities are not taking the necessary action to improve standards in schools, but those figures clearly suggest otherwise. Furthermore, sponsored academies are twice as likely to stay inadequate as maintained schools.
Does he not think it logical for the Secretary of State to consider the case for academisation first, given that it is not the silver bullet that the Minister seems to think it is? Rather than placing a duty on the Secretary of State to force academisation, it would be good practice to allow the Secretary of State, in consultation with the chief inspector of schools at Ofsted, to make a decision based on the available evidence and the circumstances of individual schools. Amendments 40 and 39 would allow the Secretary of State space to use her judgment, rather than having her hands tied arbitrarily. In the event of a warning notice being issued, a school having been found to require significant improvement or a school being in special measures, the amendments seek to give the Secretary of State time to consider the case for academisation properly.
Amendments 39, 40, 46, 42 and 45 all relate to clause 7, as does amendment 24, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Sefton Central. Clause 7 places a duty on the Secretary of State to make an academy order for any maintained school that Ofsted has rated inadequate, removing any doubt about how we will intervene in failing schools: they must become academies with the support of an effective sponsor to give them the necessary support and challenge to turn the school
Amendment 39 seeks to make the duty to issue an academy order dependent on whether the Ofsted chief inspector advises that such an order should be made. The Government of course greatly value the independent advice of the chief inspector on school performance, but I consider the amendment to be unnecessary and likely to lead to a less efficient process for taking the necessary action quickly once a school is identified to be failing. Ofsted judgments on a school’s performance are made under the powers of Her Majesty’s chief inspector, as set out in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. When Ofsted judges a school inadequate, the chief inspector has already sent a clear signal to the school, local authority and the Secretary of State that he judges the school to be failing to provide an adequate education. Once a school is deemed inadequate, there should be no further question about whether the school should be converted into an academy. In such cases, the school is failing to provide an adequate education and requires academisation as quickly as possible. Regional schools commissioners are then responsible for taking the necessary action to secure improvements, and they are accountable to Parliament through the Secretary of State.
The amendment would create a further review stage for the individual school before an academy order is issued, but when Ofsted has already given a clear judgment that the school is failing. That additional step is unnecessary and runs against our aim to make intervention more effective and efficient. In short, we will have already asked for the opinion of Her Majesty’s chief inspector, and that will have been provided when Ofsted awards a school a category 4 grading.
Amendment 40 would remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to make an academy order when a school is found to be inadequate. In every case in which a school is found to be inadequate, it must have a fresh start immediately, secured through an academy solution with an effective sponsor. The duty that the clause places on the Secretary of State to make an academy order in respect on any maintained school that Ofsted has rated inadequate removes any doubt about how we will intervene in failing schools: they must become academies, with the support of an effective sponsor.
Since 2010, sponsors have taken on more than 1,100 such schools. The replacement of the governance of a failing school with the support of a strong sponsor is an effective way to secure rapid improvement. By 2014, results in sponsored secondary academies open for four years had risen by an average of 6.4 percentage points compared with their predecessor schools. During that same period, results in local authority schools rose by an average of 1.3 percentage points—[ Interruption. ] In previous sittings we have debated whether that is a valid judgment. I contend that it is, because it puts in perspective what those 6.4 percentage points mean in terms of how standards are rising overall through the system.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): As the Minister is using that same statistic again, will he ask his officials to crunch the numbers for schools that were in similar positions and tried other methods of improvement to
Mr Gibb: We are always crunching numbers when comparing schools and we are always looking at how individual schools and academies are faring. We pore over all kinds of crunched numbers the whole time. That is a particular role of the regional schools commissioners, who do similar analysis to identify schools, and indeed academies, that are failing.
We do take swift action when academies are failing. Thetford academy, for example, was put in special measures in March 2013. The sponsors acknowledged that they did not have the capacity to make the required improvements, so the Department brought in the Inspiration Trust, who took the school on in July 2013. Results in the next academic year showed that the number of students achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs including English and maths increased by 10 percentage points. In December 2014—just a few months later—Ofsted judged Thetford to be “good”, with outstanding leadership. Its report described the school as “transformed beyond recognition” and said that the trust’s leadership and support had
That demonstrates that we are equally as rigorous when dealing with underperforming academies as we will be when dealing with underperforming maintained schools under the Bill. The difference is that we have the powers to deal with underperforming academies through the funding agreement between the trust and the Secretary of State. We do not have similar powers for maintained schools; that is what the Bill is about.
Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab): The Minister is generous in giving way. The example he gave was of a failing academy being removed from a chain. Do powers exist to remove coasting academies from their chains with the same enthusiasm? It has been reported to me many times that good academies trapped in bad chains struggle to get the same freedom to move between chains that he proposes for schools to break free from local authorities.
Mr Gibb: We will use the Bill’s definition of coasting schools to assess the performance of academies. The regional schools commissioners will start a similar discussion with academy trustees or the chief executives of those trusts where schools or academies in the trust are coasting.
There are no plans to allow schools to leave academy chains; that is not how they work. If we are unhappy with the governance of a school in a chain, it is the sponsor that we are concerned about. We would be concerned not just about that one school, but about every school in that academy chain.
Peter Kyle: It is interesting that the Minister outlined the process by which you can engage in conversation with governors at such times, yet previously you talked about the need for efficiency in dealing with maintained schools. Do you think that the process is more important when dealing with academies, and that, when dealing with a maintained school, efficiency is the priority?
Mr Gibb: We are taking the same approach. Clause 7 deals with schools that have been awarded category 4 in an Ofsted judgment. Therefore, we will take swift action to turn that school into an academy. When a school is coasting, whether it is maintained or an academy, those discussions start. If the regional schools commissioner is convinced that there is an adequate plan to deal effectively with that coasting, they will support that plan. It is only after those discussions lead the regional schools commissioner to believe that it does not have an adequate plan that the Secretary of State will use the powers under other provisions in the Bill to move towards academisation.
Kevin Brennan: The Minister said that the Bill gave power to the Secretary of State in those circumstances. Will he confirm that under the 2010 Act the Secretary of State can make an academy order in relation to any school that has received an adverse Ofsted finding? Therefore, the Secretary of State has the power. What this proposal would do is restrict the type of action that the Secretary of State is able to take.
Mr Gibb: The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a “may” power. The Secretary of State may issue an academy order under that provision of the 2010 Act. The provision in clause 7 would make it automatic, so that the academy order is automatically issued on the day or day after Ofsted awards a judgment of “inadequate” for that school. That fulfils our manifesto commitment to take action from day one, when a school is demonstrated to be failing. We make no apology for bringing in a Bill that changes that “may” into a “must”. That demonstrates the seriousness of the swift action the Government intend to take with failing schools.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I want to clarify something the Minister said because I do not know if I misheard. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove, the Minister said that it would not be possible for an academy—an individual school—to leave the chain. There is no provision for that. If there were a problem, he would seek to deal with the sponsors. Is he saying that schools are locked in in perpetuity under this arrangement? Is that what we are legislating for?
Mr Gibb: No. There are many examples where the Secretary of State has removed academies from chains. For example, the E-ACT and AET chains have both had their academy rebrokered into other academy chains. There is scope for doing that. I am talking about the provisions about leaving a federation that do not apply to academies leaving an academy chain.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that, if a school wants to leave, it cannot? The examples he gave were of chains in trouble, which had to be broken up because there were very real concerns from the centre. If an individual school wants to leave, I cannot think of a single example where that has been possible. In fact such schools have less freedom, not more, than they had in the maintained system. Will the Minister confirm that is the case?
Mr Gibb: Yes, I can. There is no power for a governing body of a school within an academy chain to vote to leave that academy chain. One can see the reasons for that. If a school is underperforming and objects to improvement measures, those measures need to go ahead. The governance of that individual academy within an academy chain should not be able to avoid those measures by leaving the chain. We want academies tied in to strong academy arrangements, so schools cannot choose to leave a strong arrangement. The Secretary of State can change sponsors when there is evidence that they are not delivering high-quality education. Through that mechanism, the Secretary of State can move academies from an underperforming academy chain.
Steve McCabe: I want to pursue this, because I wonder whether this is really where the Minister wants to end up. What would happen if a school was locked into a particular sponsor chain, but all the surrounding schools were locked into another, possibly because they academised later? If the rationale for the school leaving and joining the second chain were that it would lead to a more efficient distribution of the service in the area, is the Minister saying that that would not be permitted?
Mr Gibb: One of the things that my noble Friend Lord Nash has done is to ensure that academy chains and groups, as they grow, evolve around geographical clusters. That does not mean a geographical monopoly with all schools in one chain. That would not be desirable, but nor would it be desirable for an academy chain to be dispersed throughout the United Kingdom, which would make the practical issues of travel and efficiency very difficult.
Altering clause 7, as amendment 40 proposes, would have the effect that the Secretary of State does not have to make an academy order when a school is found to be “inadequate”, which would create unnecessary delays and uncertainty. We all have a responsibility to ensure that failing schools improve as quickly as possible.
Amendment 46 seeks to prevent clause 7 from applying to schools that are judged “inadequate” by Ofsted before January 2016. As I have just said, we think it is wrong for a child to spend time in any school that is failing to provide the level of education that all children deserve. We want to raise standards swiftly across the board, which means turning around all failing schools with the same urgency. We would not achieve that by applying an arbitrary date for the new power granted by clause 7, as proposed by the amendment. A school judged “inadequate” is failing, regardless of whether the judgment was made before or after 1 January 2016. After the Bill receives Royal Assent and the provision is commenced, proposed new section 4(A1) will apply to all schools judged “inadequate” by Ofsted at that point.
Amendment 42 seeks to prevent the Secretary of State’s duty to make an academy order from applying to maintained nursery schools and pupil referral units. All children are entitled to a good education, regardless of their circumstances, and that includes children in pupil referral units. We are committed to taking swift action where that is not happening. As with maintained schools, the Secretary of State can impose an interim executive board to replace the management of a pupil referral
The Secretary of State also has the power to make an academy order in relation to a pupil referral unit judged by Ofsted to be “inadequate”. If a pupil referral unit is failing and is not viable, the Secretary of State also has the power to direct the local authority to close it. When that happens, the local authority must provide the Secretary of State with information about the arrangements it is making to ensure pupils receive suitable education. There are already many “good” or “outstanding” alternative provision academies. For instance, there is the Bridge alternative provision academy, which was rated “outstanding” by Ofsted in May 2013. It has gained national prominence, and is frequently visited by representatives of other schools and local authorities to see what lies behind its success. At present, clause 7 does not apply to pupil referral units. The Secretary of State will therefore not be under a duty to make an academy order for any PRU that is rated “inadequate”. It will be possible, however, to apply such a provision through regulations in the future if the Government wish. We therefore do not want to exclude the possibility of doing so now, so we are able to consider whether we want to take that approach with pupil referral units.
The amendment also seeks to confirm whether clause 7 applies to maintained nursery schools. I can confirm that it does not. Current legislation does not allow maintained nursery schools to become academies, and the Secretary of State cannot make an academy order for such provision. That is because maintained nursery schools do not fall within the definition of maintained schools for the purposes of the Academies Act 2010.
Amendment 45 proposes that before we make an order commencing proposed new section 4(A1), the Government must publish an independent report demonstrating the improvement of academised schools. Under section 11 of the Academies Act 2010, the Government are already required to publish an annual report on the performance of academies. The latest report, focused on the 2013-14 academic year, was published on 30 June 2015 and sets out many examples of the progress made by academies. At Wyndham Primary Academy in Derby, for example, which is sponsored by the Spencer Academies Trust, after just two years, 90% of pupils are achieving the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics—up from 64% at its predecessor school.
Making an academy order enables us to move quickly to replace poor leadership and governance under the guidance of an expert sponsor. The last Ofsted annual schools report, published at the end of last year, said:
Nothing in the Bill removes the requirement under section 11 of the 2010 Act to publish an annual academies report, containing information on the academy performance. I hope that I have satisfied the concerns of the hon. Member for Cardiff West and that he feels able to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 24, tabled by the hon. Member for Sefton Central, would require the Secretary of State to arrange for an independent assessment of the impact of conversion before issuing an academy order in respect of a school
Between 2013 and 2014, key stage 2 results for pupils eligible for free school meals in sponsored academies improved at a faster rate than those in local authority schools. The proportion of free school meal pupils achieving level 4 or above in reading, writing and mathematics improved by seven percentage points in sponsored academies, compared with four percentage points in local authority schools.
Steve McCabe: Will the Minister say why a specific requirement to consider the needs of children with special needs, which I am sure he will concede is the most overlooked group in the education system, before a school changes to an academy would simply be extra bureaucracy or administration? Is he not concerned about that? It is too late to be concerned after it has happened.
Mr Gibb: We are concerned about that. We are of the view that an effective, highly performing school is the best place for such children to be educated. That is best achieved through an academy if the predecessor school has been failing to achieve that level of education.
Steve McCabe: Perhaps the Minister looks at different schools from me, but it is perfectly possible to have an effective, highly performing school that has a lousy record on kids with special needs. In fact, some of them are so highly performing that they go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that youngsters with special needs cannot get access. It is not extra bureaucracy to say that this particular category of children deserves a bit more attention.
Mr Gibb: May I disabuse the hon. Gentleman of that last comment? Academies do play their part in providing for children with special educational needs. Sponsored academies actually have a higher proportion of pupils with special educational needs than the average across all state-funded schools. In January last year, 22.1% of pupils in sponsored secondary academies were identified as having some form of SEN, compared with 17.8% of pupils in all state-funded secondary schools. The figures are similar for primary schools.
Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is correct, because that is not the interesting comparison. It is hardly surprising that sponsored academies have a higher number of children in that category since they are the schools that were likely to have been causing concern. The real
Mr Gibb: I hope to be able to do that, but in the meantime I can tell the hon. Gentleman that academies perform well as far as children with special educational needs are concerned. Between 2013 and 2014, key stage 2 results for pupils with special educational needs in sponsored academies improved at a faster rate than those in local authority schools. The proportion of SEN pupils who achieved level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths improved by six percentage points in sponsored academies, compared with four percentage points in local authority schools.
Kevin Brennan: The statistic that the Minister just read out—inadequate as it is, as we have already pointed out—shows that academies are doing worse with special needs pupils than with other pupils, given the statistics he read out earlier.
The hon. Gentleman keeps asking about a like-for-like comparison. The Department has published detailed analysis comparing the performance of sponsored academies and similar maintained schools. Analysis published in 2012 and 2013 showed sponsored academies performing at a faster rate than maintained schools with similar prior attainment, levels of deprivation and pupil starting points. Last week, the NFER published data comparing the 2014 GCSE performance of academies open for two to four years with those of matched maintained schools. It found that the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs in sponsored academies was 2.9 percentage points higher than in similar local authority schools. With that statistic, I hope to have put this debate to rest once and for all.
Bill Esterson: Far from it. The Minister accepted the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about children with disabilities and SEN not making the same progress as other children, whether in academies or elsewhere. That is surely why the amendment is so important. There must be a proper review of children with the greatest needs before any changes are made.
Mr Gibb: We are against not analysis but delays to academisation. This kind of well-intentioned proposition can and probably would lead to delays, which we believe damage children with special educational needs as much as, if not more than, children without special needs.
Bill Esterson: The Minister says that he does not want delays to academisation. Ofsted finally published today its report from three months ago about the Collaborative Academies Trust. One of its concerns was the failure to close the gap between the most disadvantaged children and everyone else. Does that not show that the rush to academisation is the problem? We need this kind of amendment in the Bill so that there is a proper review, especially for the most disadvantaged children.
Mr Gibb: We are working with the Collaborative Academies Trust to ensure that it has a robust action plan to help make improvements in its schools. Whenever there are failures in sponsored academies, we take swift action. The record shows that we take swifter action in those circumstances than has historically been the case in many local authorities, where there are examples of schools languishing in special measures for many months, if not years.
Kevin Brennan: On that point, will the Minister confirm that every time an academy receives an “inadequate” Ofsted rating, it will be removed and given to another sponsor the very next day, in the same way that he proposes maintained schools should be academised or have an academy order issued the day after receiving that Ofsted rating? That would show he is serious about parity of treatment.
Mr Gibb: We are certainly taking swift action. The difference that the hon. Gentleman fails to understand is that a new system of academy chains is now developing. There are more than 400 academy chains of at least two academy schools evolving into successful chains. Some are taking time to become effective in their overall governance and school improvement support services. Where they are struggling, we take action to remove the sponsor or to insist that reform takes place.
We are trying to make the evolving system work so that we have a collection of effective academy groups and chains that we can see developing. We have Ark and Harris at the top of the performance table, but other academy chains such as Outwood Grange are busy developing effective models of how to run multi-academy trusts. I am optimistic and excited that, in the future, we will have a very effective governance system. Be in no doubt that where we see academies graded as category 4, we will take swift action with their multi-academy trusts. If we believe that they are not capable of managing their school improvement, we will take action to remove that sponsor.
The final point I will make before I give way to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is that the academies movement, initiated by the Labour Government before 2010, has been in place for less than a decade. The problems that we are encountering in local authorities have been there for several decades.
When local authority-maintained schools are put into category 4 by Ofsted, my view is that the local authorities have had their chance to deal with them and that is why academisation is now the automatic route. Some academy chains have been in place for just a matter of months or a few years and some of them need a little more time to ensure that they get their school improvement measures right. Sometimes, we believe that those chains are not capable of getting that school improvement service right. In such cases, we remove the sponsorship, as we have done to 75 academies.
Steve McCabe: I have an awful feeling that, in a little under a decade, we may well find ourselves saying, “We told you so,” as we recognise that the mad rush to academisation at all costs had some downsides that the
Mr Gibb: That is a good point. The law is clear: under part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 at section 43, academies are treated as maintained schools and so can be named in a pupil’s education, health and care plan, which means that that school—that includes academies—must take that pupil.
Steve McCabe: I apologise; perhaps I was not terribly clear. When a child already has an education, health and care plan, the maintained school that they currently attend will be listed. Without excessive bureaucracy, how will that be transferred across? Will we have to modify such plans? Who will be responsible for ensuring that that happens and that the plan is transferred in total to the new arrangements?
Mr Gibb: That is a technical point. My instinctive answer is that, of course, if an education, health and care plan names a maintained school that converts to be an academy, that plan will apply equally to the successor academy school. However, given the technical nature of that point, I will ensure that I have got my answer correct, so I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.
Kevin Brennan: We have had an interesting debate on this group of amendments, in which we have teased out some interesting points from the Minister. One is that when academy schools and chains are deemed “inadequate” by Ofsted, he is happy for them to evolve—I think that is the word he used—out of the situation. Evolution is the preferred option for academy schools that are found to be “inadequate” by Ofsted.
The Ofsted report on the Collaborative Academies Trust mentioned Lumbertubs primary school in Northamptonshire, which was a predecessor school before it was academised. It received grade 3 in its final inspection before academisation, which means that it was definitely requiring improvement; there is no question about that. However, in the school’s most recent section 5 inspection since academisation, it was given grade 4—special measures. The school was turned into an academy and went from a grade 3 to a grade 4.
Under the Bill, if that school were a maintained school, the Secretary of State would have absolutely no choice but to issue—the very next day, we have been told—an academy order for the school to be academised. That is a bit difficult when the school already is an academy and has gone from grade 3 to an “inadequate” special measures situation. Under those circumstances, it is allowed to evolve out of the situation in which it has been deemed “inadequate”. As I said on Second Reading, so much for the Secretary of State’s professed view that no child should be allowed to languish in an inadequate
We have teased at least that point out of the Minister and have had a good knockaround with the amendments. So much more could be said, but I think we have said most of it. We want to move on to the debate on clause stand part, so I will not press our amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Mr Gibb: The clause places a duty on the Secretary of State to make an academy order for any maintained school that Ofsted has rated “inadequate”, whether by virtue of being in special measures or of being judged to have serious weaknesses. This removes any doubt about how we will intervene in failing schools: they must become academies with the support of an effective sponsor to provide the support and challenge necessary to turn that school around. The clause is therefore a crucial new power to strengthen our ability to deal with failure and to do so more quickly.
We are clear that becoming a sponsored academy is an effective way rapidly to transform a failing school. There are numerous success stories of failing schools being turned around by the leadership of a sponsor, and of the huge improvement that can make to performance. For example, Meopham school was judged inadequate by Ofsted in 2012. Attainment across all subjects, especially mathematics, was poor. The Swale Academies Trust took on sponsorship of the school in 2013 and appointed two new assistant headteachers who were both specialists in maths. Extra classes were introduced to support students. Ofsted described the impact of the trust as transformative and judged the school to be good in 2012.
By requiring the Secretary of State to make an academy order in respect of a failing school, the clause will make it automatic that failing schools must become sponsored academies. When a school is found to be failing, a transformation needs to be able to take place from day one. Our experience over the past five years shows that in many cases where it was most needed, transformation was delayed by unnecessary debate, delaying tactics and obstruction of a process. The Bill seeks to put an end to such delays, which do nothing to improve the quality of education that pupils receive.
Kevin Brennan: The Minister keeps referring to this as a new power. As I pointed out, the Secretary of State already has the power to academise. This is not a new power; it is a new restraint on the Secretary of State. It limits their power to take another action that might be the appropriate one when a school is found “inadequate” by Ofsted.
The Minister went on to describe academisation as an effective way—he did not use the definite article—which suggests there may be other effective ways. That is the
I want to make it clear that we are completely on board with the concept that, in certain circumstances, the use of a sponsored academy can be the right approach to school improvement. If there are the right sponsors and real quality, it can be a powerful way to turn a school around. However, the clause would place a requirement on the Secretary of State to issue an academy order the very next day, according to the Minister, no matter the circumstances or how many sponsors are available, their quality or whether they are to be trusted with a large number of schools.
Whatever their previous record, without their being vetted—another issue, Mr Chope—the Secretary of State must hand over the school, via an academy order, to an academy sponsor whatever the current circumstances. That means the Secretary of State does not have to take professional advice or worry about whether it is appropriate. The decision is, in effect, taken in advance under this clause. It is not surprising that there is opposition to the clause from all sorts of quarters.
“The lack of guidance on the face of the Bill on how the Secretary of State should exercise these discretionary powers could lead to uncertainty across the system and unacceptable variation between the ways in which different cases are handled. It should be a minimum expectation that these powers should be used in a way that is transparent and consistent. This clause seeks to apply an ideological ‘one size fits all’ approach to school improvement, regardless of local circumstances or evidence.”
That is exactly the point that we have been making. We gave copious examples of other forms of school improvement during the debate on the amendment. We think that the clause is not fit for purpose. The debate is not about whether academies sometimes work; it is about the proposition that they always work, and that nothing else ever works as well. In making those presumptions the Ministers are ignoring what the Select Committee said. The cross-party Select Committee—with a Conservative majority—in the previous Parliament called on the Government to “stop exaggerating” with regard to the success of academies.
I am glad the Minister in his last remarks provided us with some new data we can get our teeth into, and we will enjoy doing so. Perhaps he could stick to that in future rather than the pointless comparisons that he sometimes makes.
Earlier I cited evidence from the Catholic Education Service, as well as case studies it provided of alternative routes that have been taken successfully. Like us, the Catholic Education Service is not opposed to academies but is clear and has proven that other ways of intervening in and supporting schools can work, yet the Government cling to their belief that, in the words of their press release, the Bill will
There is little real difference between the improvements in results. The Minister should stop exaggerating, as the Education Committee suggested. It is easy to swap anecdotes—Opposition Members have been doing that a bit too, to give the Minister a taste of his own medicine. No one would deny that there are great examples of sponsored academies working well, but anecdotes are not proof. In reality, being a sponsored academy does not always work, as we have shown. We need to look at the data and the evidence, which is what we have been calling for.
That is great, and we hope it will happen. However, the NAO has reminded us that Ministers have little idea what is going on in the academies that the experts are supposed to be responsible for, let alone in the many maintained schools that they will take responsibility for as a result of the Bill. We need to hear a lot more about who these experts are, because some of them are presumably the people who ran the 123 schools that have been found to be “inadequate”. I presume the Minister thought that those people were experts when handing over the schools, yet the schools have been found to be “inadequate” and have been made academies as a result. There is nothing to stop the Secretary of State acting on these schools, but all the best education experts out there should be doing so.
Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the qualities of the sponsors the Government have found have sometimes been lacking. The Sutton Trust found that there are more academy chains that perform significantly worse than chains that perform significantly better. Just before the general election, the Department slipped out its own research, which showed that in a combined league table of local authorities and academy chains, 47 of the top 50 are local authority jurisdictions. That might not be a fair comparison, but those are the DFE’s figures.
The Government have resisted tooth and nail allowing Ofsted to inspect the chains, but when Ofsted looked at groups of schools in chains, it found a huge amount of poor practice. Even the Government have found it necessary to prevent 14 chains from taking new schools and have removed schools from some chains because their performance is so poor. That is despite a number of those chains paying their senior staff far more than any headteacher—indeed, more than the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, and no doubt more than the Minister himself.
In reality, the Government do not have any case for the clause. They cannot go on asserting that sponsored academy status is always the best answer, because the data say otherwise. The people who are best placed to know, such as the chief inspector or the Education Committee, also say otherwise.
Steve McCabe: As my hon. Friend demonstrated, there is little evidence to support the Minister’s arguments. In truth, the clause is the authoritarian face of this Government. This is the Government at their dictatorial worst. The Minister will be stripped of all flexibility as a result of the clause, which he should call the “compulsory academisation at all costs” clause, because that is what he really seeks to achieve here.
Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend, once again, is right. We have to wonder what the Secretary of State’s problem is. Does she not trust herself to make the right decision? Why does she have to legislate to ensure she makes the right decision? It is a highly unusual clause, and I am racking my brains to think of something similar to it. I am sure that some constitutional experts, many of whom will be following our proceedings, will dig some up. I hope that this peculiar clause will be removed from the Bill, if not now then at a later stage, not because it is not vitally important that we do everything we can as quickly as possible to improve our schools, because it is, but simply because it is extremely foolish for Ministers to tie their hands and prevent themselves from carrying out other forms of intervention that might be the right pathway for improving schools in the long term.
The Government do not say enough about pupils who are languishing in failing academies—25% of failing schools are academies. From listening to Ministers’ wonderful anecdotes about academies that are thankfully successful, it would be easy to think that failing academies do not exist. We believe that a judgment about the future of a school should be based on evidence and on the particular circumstances of the school and the community. There should be a proper, open debate about that. There should be no stitching up of things behind closed doors.
Suella Fernandes (Fareham) (Con): Is it not clear from the evidence we have heard that some academy chains perform excellently and some do not, and some maintained schools perform very well and many do not? It is a mixed picture, but it is clear that the academisation programme over the past decade has produced success. The academisation of a school in my constituency has taken it from below average to “good”, and it is on track to “outstanding”. That must surely be progress. Anything that empowers that process and takes it a step forward must be supported.
Kevin Brennan: I agree with everything the hon. Lady said in the first part of her intervention, and I am very pleased about the success of the intervention in her constituency that she talked about in the second part of her intervention. She said that that kind of improvement can take place in the maintained sector or under a sponsored academy programme. She was lucky that the Collaborative Academies Trust—those great experts who are supposed to take over and improve our schools—did not take over the school in her constituency, because if they did the school might have ended up in special measures. That example makes my point that we must not tether the Secretary of State to a particular course of action, which is what clause 7 does. Turning around an “inadequate” school requires the right course of action, with the right leadership, the right people and the right solution.
We need more evidence about the degree to which the fragmentation of what is intended to be a national system of schools is linked to the concerns my hon. Friends expressed about the treatment of special needs pupils and the socioeconomic segregation between schools. We need to look carefully at that. Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University pointed out in his written evidence that we should be very careful about that fragmentation and ensure it does not cause socioeconomic divides and issues around special needs, which we spoke about earlier. On that basis, I ask my hon. Friends to join me in opposing clause 7 stand part.
Mr Gibb: The Bill is not driven by ideology but by tackling underperformance, and we are happy for local authorities such as Bristol to do their work. GCSE results in Bristol have risen for 10 years in a row. Ofsted has judged 85% of primaries and 90% of secondaries to be “good” or “outstanding” and 100% of nursery and special schools are now judged “good” or better.
Kevin Brennan: I am pleased to hear that, but the clause says that should a Bristol school have an Ofsted inspection tomorrow and receive an “inadequate” rating, the Minister would not be prepared to work with the local authority and an academy order would be granted the very next day.
Mr Gibb: Yes, that is right, because Bristol’s oversight of that particular school, of which it would have had oversight for decades, would have been proven not to be effective. We are not prepared to tolerate or risk a further decade of unsuccessful oversight. We are looking at underperformance. Where regional schools commissioners see high performance in schools, they are simply not interested in using their resources to intervene. That is the system to which we are moving.
Bill Esterson: I was pleased to hear the Minister praise a local authority for the quality of its support—I have not heard him do that often—but if Bristol or another local authority is doing a good job and an academy in that area is classed as category 4, would the Minister consider allowing the local authority to take over from the existing sponsor? The process seems to be moving in one direction only.
Bill Esterson: The Minister has forgotten what has been happening for the past few years. A large number of “good” or “outstanding” schools have been converted into academies. In fact, for a time, they were allowed to convert only if they were “good” or “outstanding”. If those schools end up in category 4, the logic of the Minister’s argument suggests that a good local authority should be able to take them over.
Mr Gibb: Those schools will have converted voluntarily and many still stand alone. Collaborating with other academies is the long-term answer even for stand-alone academies. That is happening. We now have 400 or 500 sponsored academies, many of which started life as “good” or “outstanding” schools. When a converter academy goes into special measures, we would expect it to collaborate and be taken over by a successful sponsor, because, as Ofsted said in its annual report at the end of last year,
Turning to two of the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, I can confirm that the technical answer I gave him regarding education, health and care plans is correct. Also, he said in an intervention that clause 7 has stripped us of all flexibility in all circumstances, but that is incorrect. Clause 12 gives the Secretary of State a power in certain exceptional circumstances to revoke an academy order made under proposed new section 4(A1) or section 4(1)(b) of the Academies Act 2010. The Secretary of State has the flexibility in some circumstances to revoke her own order, but we will discuss those rarefied circumstances when considering clause 12.
This amendment makes clear that consultation on an application for Academy status must occur before an application for an Academy Order is made.
A consequence of requiring consultation before an application for an Academy Order [see amendment 47].
Under the Academies Act 2010 there is a duty to consult on an application for academy status, albeit a fairly loose one, put on the governing body to consult who “they think appropriate”. Such a consultation can happen before or after an academy order is made and it is only on whether a school should be an academy. There is no such duty on the Department for Education, despite the fact that in many cases it will require the conversion to happen, nor is there any consultation on who should be a sponsor.
On schools eligible for intervention, the clause removes all requirements to consult, which is a familiar theme in the Bill. Earlier last month, we heard the Secretary of State present the Government’s true intentions in the Bill: it is seen as a way to
otherwise known as parents. The objections she referred to are mostly those of parents with affected children and members of the local community. It really has come to something when parents’ genuine concerns about the Government’s rather dogmatic approach to schools policy are treated with such contempt by Ministers.
Amendments 47 and 48 would rescue the requirement to consult, which vitally gives a voice to the local community that the schools in question serve. It has been said that, under the clause, governors will no longer have a duty of care to their children; instead they will have a duty to implement Government policy, and that that in itself is an attack on freedom of speech. It is not surprising that governors around the country are concerned.
“The proposed Bill removes the requirement to consult parents, pupils and staff on the decision to change the status of the school, if the school is eligible for intervention and subject to an academy order. We accept in clear cut situations, school improvement should not be delayed, but in the interests of transparency, NGA suggests that the case of an academy order over and above other forms of interventions, in particular an IEB, should be made public.”
We know that the Department has a history of favouring closed-door policy making and believes that it always knows better than everyone else, so it is a slight inconvenience for the Department that we live in a democracy. The Government do not always know best, so we should not assume that they always do.
Mr Gibb: Clause 8 removes the requirement to consult where a school is eligible for intervention. An academy order will be made either under the existing section 4(1)(b) of the Academies Act 2010, where a school is eligible for intervention, or under the new section 4(A1), where an academy order must be made because a school has been rated “inadequate” by Ofsted. The effect of the clause is that, where a school is eligible for intervention, a consultation is not needed on whether it should become an academy, but a governing body will still need to consult if it proposes to convert to academy status by choice and is not eligible for intervention.
Amendment 48 would require the governing body to consult when a school is to become an academy as a result of intervention by the regional schools commissioner. The Bill makes it clear that any school judged by Ofsted to be “inadequate” will become a sponsored academy. In some cases, a regional schools commissioner may also require schools that are eligible for intervention for other reasons to become sponsored academies, such as where a school has met the coasting definition and the regional schools commissioner has judged that it does not have a sufficient plan to improve. Where a school is underperforming and an academy solution is required, we want the improvements in standards to begin immediately. The process should not be delayed by ongoing debate about whether the school should become an academy. An academy solution, with the support and leadership of an effective sponsor, is the best way to turn around that school.
Our experience over the past five years shows that, in many cases where it was most needed, transformation has been delayed by unnecessary debate, delaying tactics and obstruction of the process. Twydall school, for example, was judged to be inadequate in March 2014. The Department wrote to the school and to the local authority within five working days of the Ofsted judgment to outline that an academy solution should be considered, and in May 2014 the governing body voted to become an academy. Subsequently, however, there has been a series of drawn-out consultations, which have prevented a sponsor from being agreed and put in place. Between June 2014 and May 2015, Ofsted conducted four section 8 monitoring inspections and found that the education of pupils at that school has continued to suffer throughout the period of delays caused by consultation. The Bill seeks to put an end to such problems, which do nothing to improve the quality of education that pupils receive. Amendment 48 would serve only to defer those essential improvements, which is why I urge colleagues not to accept it.
The position is different for high-performing schools that wish to benefit from the additional freedoms that academy status provides. Such schools are currently required to consult on academy conversion. They should discuss that decision with staff, parents and others who have an interest, and they should take account of those views before entering into academy arrangements with the Secretary of State. Clause 8 makes it clear that that requirement will continue, but amendments 47 and 48
There are good reasons why it is usually most appropriate for a formal consultation to take place after the academy order is made. Before the order is made, the governing body will prepare an application to the regional schools commissioner to convert to academy status, and that application may not necessarily be accepted. For example, the RSC may judge that a school that has applied to convert to being a stand-alone academy should instead join a multi-academy trust or benefit from the support of a sponsor. For that reason, it will generally be most appropriate to consult after the regional schools commissioner has considered the application. If the application is approved, the regional schools commissioner will make an academy order. This is an enabling order. It is a first step in the administrative process that a school will go through to become an academy. It acts as an agreement, in principle, that the school will be permitted to become an academy, but it is not a guarantee. There are further processes between an academy order being made and a school becoming an academy to work through, such as the arrangements for the transfer of staff, land and assets. By consulting after the academy order is made, the governing body has more details about the implications of conversion that will help inform the views of staff and parents.
The crucial decision-making point is when the school and the Secretary of State enter into academy arrangements, which is when the funding agreement is signed. It will therefore be more meaningful for schools voluntarily converting to academy status to consult about whether to enter into academy arrangements with the Secretary of State at that point in the process, so that staff and parents can give informed consideration to what is best for the future of the school.
Although the statutory consultation generally takes place after an academy order has been made, governing bodies are able to carry out some consultation before making their application, if they wish. For example, they may informally consult the staff prior to making an application and then consult more widely after the academy order has been made. Clause 8 does not prevent the first informal consultation from happening for schools voluntarily converting. I therefore do not agree that the approach to consultation proposed by the hon. Members for Cardiff West and for Birmingham, Selly Oak in amendments 47 and 48 is necessary or appropriate. I urge them not to press their amendments.
Kevin Brennan: We remain concerned about the withdrawal of consultation in the Bill for all sorts of reasons. It is not my intention to press the amendments to a vote, but we have laid our concerns on the record and they remain. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Currently, legislation does not require a majority decision of the Governing Body of a Federation to apply for a federated school to become an Academy. This amendment rectifies this position.
This is a probing amendment, which reflects the fact that legislation currently does not require a majority decision of the governing body of a federation to apply for a federated school to become an academy. It might be a sensible provision that the majority of the governing body of a federation applying for a federated school to become an academy should agree with that decision. If a majority of concerned governors oppose the academisation of a federated school, it seems that, superficially, the desires of that majority ought to be honoured. I should be grateful if the Minister would elucidate that point.
Mr Gibb: The amendment seeks to change the consultation process required for a federated school to become an academy. It proposes that the decision on who to consult when making an academy order application for a federated school should be made by a majority of the governing body, not simply by the governing body, as explained by the hon. Member for Cardiff West. The amendments would have no material effect because all decisions of a governing body, including who to consult, are already made by majority vote. Therefore, we resist the proposed amendment.
If, however, the intention of the amendment is to change not the consultation process, but the application process for a federated school, I can confirm that the Department has recently consulted on changes to regulations to require at least 50%—not 100%—of prescribed governors to approve an academy order application. The consultation closed on Friday 3 July and we are now considering the response. Any changes will be made to the regulations in September. Therefore, there is no need for the matter to be addressed through the amendment or in primary legislation. On that basis, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
Mr Gibb: Clause 8 inserts into the Academies Act 2010 a new section 5 concerning consultation on academy conversion. The new section 5 preserves the requirement to consult on the proposed conversion in the case of schools that are voluntarily proposing to opt for academy conversion, and maintains the freedom of the school’s governing body to carry out such a consultation before or after the academy order, or an application for an academy order, has been made. As now, consultation must be with those the governing body think appropriate. The significant difference made by this clause is that the new section 5 provides that where the academy order is to be made because the school is eligible for intervention, there is no duty to consult.
Where a school is underperforming and an academy solution is required, we want the transformation to take place from day one; we do not want the process to be delayed through debates about whether a school should become an academy. Our experience, as I have said, is that in many cases where it was most needed, transformation was delayed by such debate, delaying tactics and obstruction of the process.
I have spoken already about the case of Twydall school. Another example in which the principle of conversion was agreed but the process became unnecessarily drawn out involved Bydales school in Redcar and Cleveland. That school was found by Ofsted to require special measures in December 2013, but did not benefit from a sponsor until February 2015. Outwood Grange, a high-performing sponsor with a strong track record, was identified for the school, but the governing body and the local authority were not supportive. The process was delayed while the local authority attempted to persuade others to sponsor the school, despite none of the alternatives having the experience and track record of Outwood Grange. That resulted in the process taking twice as long as it should have done, while the school remained in special measures.
Louise Haigh: Outwood Grange operates an academy in my constituency, and if Outwood Grange were about to take over another school in my constituency, I would want parents and pupils to be aware of its track record of governance of that school, because it has expelled a number of SEN pupils and pupils from backgrounds of high deprivation. Headteachers of other primary schools in my constituency have expressed grave concerns, as have staff at the school. I am particularly interested to hear the Minister give the example of Outwood Grange, given my experience and the experience of parents and pupils in my constituency.
Mr Gibb: I cannot comment on the specific example that the hon. Lady gave, but Outwood Grange as an academy sponsor is highly effective; and so far as the school that I cited, Bydales school, is concerned, it is still early days since Outwood Grange took it over, but the indications are that it is making good progress.
The Bill seeks to put an end to the delays that I have described. They do nothing to improve the quality of the education that pupils receive. We want the transformation of a failing school to begin from day one. However, this clause retains the requirement that where the governing body of a school is proposing voluntarily that it should become an academy, it must consult on whether the conversion should take place. In these schools, the governing body is expected to take account of that consultation process in deciding whether to go ahead with becoming an academy.
Kevin Brennan: Clause 8 represents an extraordinary departure from the normal processes of governmental decision making. The Secretary of State is empowered under this clause to make a decision without making any attempt whatever to listen to pupils, parents, teachers, governors, employers—anyone at all who might be thought to have some knowledge of the situation on the ground. In fact, concern has been expressed by the NASUWT in its briefing that the provision might breach article 26(3) of the universal declaration of human rights:
That is really the attitude expressed in the Bill to any concerns, or anybody who ought to be consulted. Of course, it is based on the absolute presumption that the Secretary of State’s view and solution is always best, but as we have demonstrated time and again during our debates, that is not always the case. To put it generously, there is no evidence that her case has been made and that academy conversion is more likely to lead to improvement in an inadequate school than adopting other school improvement approaches in particular circumstances. And there is plenty of evidence, from Ofsted and from the DFE’s own analysis of results, that there is enormous variation in effectiveness among sponsors. That is why, as we found out earlier, Ministers always mention good sponsors when talking about academies but never really emphasise the bad sponsors until we press them and make them do so. The idea that every sponsor who comes forward has some unique level of expertise is frankly not true.
What is most likely to improve a particular school in particular circumstances is a matter of judgment. Exercising judgment requires evidence, and gathering evidence means listening to those who have views. Dismissing those who have different experiences and different views is not an acceptable, or even a sensible, way to carry out any branch of government. It inevitably leads to bad decisions, and certainly worse decisions than would have been made in general, had they been made after obtaining the views of those who have some knowledge locally.
There is a case generally for consultation and a case for consultation on specific issues. Local communities should not have particular sponsors imposed on them without having some say in the matter. They are not just interchangeable; they have different and particular approaches to managing schools and the curriculum, and they have different records in terms of their effectiveness and of managing public money. Despite the strenuous efforts of Ministers to prevent Ofsted from inspecting academy chains, we know from Ofsted how inadequate some chains are. From the Select Committee evidence, for example, we know that one chain, the Kemnal Academies Trust, takes pride in having sacked 26 out of 40 headteachers and holding the axe over the heads of the rest, with targets to be met every six weeks. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Ofsted did not think much of its record.
Communities are entitled to say that they do not want this regime locally, and then there are the cases in which the proposed sponsor is given the job of carrying out the consultation. That is hardly a way of guaranteeing that the process is open and above board. It is wrong that it is done behind closed doors—not only in principle, but it makes the whole process of improving a school harder than it needs to be. A sensible Government negotiate and seek to persuade local people. They listen and are prepared to amend their views, and recognise that there is not only one source of wisdom. Schools are not lollipops to be doled out to Ministers’ friends, supporters and party donors. Government should not leave themselves open to the charge that they have favourites and will support them regardless of evidence to the contrary.
It may ultimately be that after consulting, the Government decide to carry on with their initial view. That is fine, but not to consult at all is wrong. On Second
“Amazingly, the Bill says that parents should not be consulted, so the very people who know about a school will not be allowed to have a say. In this country, we consult, we do not dictate, and that is one of the key areas that judges will look at in considering whether a decision is lawful.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 684.]
The Minister and the Government are opening themselves up to that kind of challenge. I agree with my hon. Friend and we will continue to pursue this matter as the Bill progresses, although we will not press clause stand part to a Division.
Clause 9 provides for consultation about who should sponsor an Academy in certain cases. This amendment widens the scope of the new section 5A to include all Academy sponsors.
This amendment provides for consultation when there is a change of sponsor.
(zb) school staff,
(zc) local community,
(zd) local authority,”
This amendment widens the group of persons that must be consulted about the identity of the academy sponsor or when there is a change of Academy sponsor.
‘After section 5 of the Academies Act 2010 insert—
“5B Consultation about identity of Academy sponsor in all cases
(1) This section applies where an Academy order under section 4(A1) has effect in respect of any maintained school.
(2) Before entering into Academy arrangements in relation to the school the Secretary of State must consult the following about the identity of the person with whom the arrangements are to be entered into—
(a) the school’s governing body,
(b) the local authority,
(c) the Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Schools,
(d) parents of registered pupils at the school,
(e) the teaching and other staff of the school,
(f) registered pupils at the school, and
(g) any other such persons as he thinks appropriate.”’
Kevin Brennan: We are now motoring on to clause 9. As you said, Mr Chope, we are considering amendments 50, 51 and 52 along with new clause 3, which has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley.
Amendment 50 notes that clause 9 provides for consultation about who should sponsor an academy in certain cases, and it widens the scope of the proposed new section 5A to include all academy sponsors. Amendments 51 and 52 provide for consultation when there is a change of sponsor.
The amendments would require the whole local community to be consulted about the identity of sponsors. It is important to note that the identity is a matter of concern not just to faith groups, which the Minister has acknowledged elsewhere in the Bill, but to others. They would require consultation when there is a proposal to change a sponsor, which has happened when chains collapse, such as the Prospects Academies Trust in May 2014, or when schools are taken away from them due to poor performance, and we heard examples of that from the Minister earlier. An academy chain in charge of running six state schools—the Prospects Academies Trust, which we talked about earlier—was forced to close. It was the first example of that happening, which shows that it is extremely important that there is consultation in such circumstances. Communities should not be left in the dark and treated with contempt by the Government when it happens. That is no way to run an education system. I hope that the Minister agrees that under those circumstances, consultation would be the right route to take.
Louise Haigh: New clause 3 goes a bit further than the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend. It amends the Academies Act to require that a certain number of people are consulted over an academy order in respect of any maintained school, including the chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills; registered pupils of that school; and any other persons that the Secretary of State thinks appropriate. The Government are not fond of consultation—that was made very clear by the 2011 legislation—but the official Opposition are big fans of democracy and accountability. We do not believe that they and school improvement are mutually exclusive.
The amendments are important because, as both sides of the Committee accept, there are good and bad academies. There are “outstanding”, “failing” and now “coasting” academies, and those terms apply to maintained schools as well. If pupils and parents do not have a say in whether their school becomes an academy, it is right that they should have a say in who runs it. If an academy chain such as the Harris Federation was going to run the school, that would be a very different story from its being run by a chain such as E-ACT, which has had so many schools removed from it.
It is important to include the chief inspector on the list of consultees, to ensure that as much information as possible is available, particularly given Ofsted’s press release last week. I know it has been referenced several times, but it is important to the Committee. It included information about the inspection of the Collaborative Academies Trust, which is sponsored by EdisonLearning. Nine academies are in the trust: three in Northamptonshire, five in Somerset and one in Essex. Ofsted found:
The amendment is important because if a school is to become an academy, parents, pupils and all other relevant stakeholders should have a choice in whether the academy is run by a trust such as EdisonLearning or perhaps a local federation, an outstanding local school that can sponsor schools or, possibly, a co-operative trust. If I were a parent—I assure the Committee that that is a thoroughly hypothetical situation—I would want a choice over which sponsor was going to run the school. I would want to know its background, as well as the governance arrangements, and to be given as much information as possible. I am sure that parents and children across the country feel the same. I hope the Minister will seriously consider the amendment and the new clause in his response.
For schools that have failed and have been judged “inadequate” by Ofsted, there should be no debate about whether urgent action is required. It will be secured through an academy solution with an effective sponsor. The regional schools commissioners will decide on the most appropriate sponsor to turn around a failing school.
In some circumstances, however, it will be appropriate for the regional schools commissioners to consult on the best sponsor to turn the school around. Clause 9 requires that, where a foundation or a voluntary school with a foundation is eligible for intervention under sections 61 or 62 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which pertain to “inadequate” Ofsted judgments, and is therefore subject to an academy order under proposed new section 4(A1) of the Academies Act 2010, the Secretary of State must consult the trustees, the foundation and, for schools with a religious character, the appropriate religious body about the proposed sponsor. In practice, regional schools commissioners will, on behalf of the Secretary of State, identify the most suitable sponsor for the school in question and will consult on the identity of the sponsor.
Amendments 50 and 52 and new clause 3, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and has the same intention, seek to widen the requirement so that the Secretary of State must consult on the identity of the sponsor for any type of school, not just a foundation or a voluntary school with a foundation. Amendment 52 further specifies that the consultees must include parents, school staff, the local community and the local authority.
Clause 9 makes it clear that it is appropriate to consult on the identity of a sponsor when the school is a foundation or a voluntary school with a foundation. It recognises the enormous contribution that Church schools have made and continue to make to education in this country. Many successful Church schools have benefited from converting to academy status, and many dioceses have taken on the role of sponsor for their struggling
It is important that underperformance in any type of school is tackled, but we accept the importance of protecting the ethos of Church schools, which is why the clause identifies certain cases in which the regional schools commissioner must consult on who the best sponsor might be. This is why subsection (2) specifies that the trustees, the foundation governors and, where appropriate, the religious body are consulted by the regional schools commissioner. They will be consulted specifically to recognise their responsibility for the ethos of the school, and to contribute their views on how it might best be preserved. That is why we do not agree with amendment 52, which proposes that a wider group of people should be consulted on the decision.
In many cases, a diocesan sponsor will be the best choice, but where appropriate a non-faith sponsor can be put into place in such a way that the school’s particular ethos is protected. We expect that dioceses and regional schools commissioners will work closely together to agree the best academy solutions. In other cases, consultation on the identity of the sponsor is unnecessary and would serve only to delay necessary improvements. When Ofsted finds a school “inadequate”, or when a regional schools commissioner has determined that academisation is necessary to turn the school around, the local authority and governing body have, by definition, demonstrated that they have failed to uphold standards in the school. I do not see a good case for consulting them on the identity of the sponsor in those circumstances, which is why I do not agree with amendment 50.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Surely the question is whether the sponsor identified by the regional commissioner is necessarily the best sponsor. It may be that the people whom the Minister wants to exclude from the consultation have pertinent information. The Government have had to restrict 14 or 15 chains of sponsors from looking after schools. If they had had that information earlier, presumably they would not have got into such a mess in the first place.
Mr Gibb: Actually, those consultation were taking place, leading up to this point. We are trying to prevent formal consultation from delaying the process of conversion. I will give the hon. Gentleman an egregious example. In May 2012, Roke primary school in Croydon was given a notice to improve by Ofsted. DFE officials began discussions with the local authority and the school about it becoming a sponsored academy. Opponents reacted angrily, describing it as a “hostile takeover”. In April 2013, almost a year later, Ofsted revisited the school and put it into special measures. The move to academy status was heavily opposed, and a “Save Roke” committee was set up. Due to objections from opponents, the academy consultation had to be extended. At one point, the proposed sponsor, Harris Federation, received a batch of 100 questions to answer. A petition of opposition attracted 2,500 signatures, including some from Australia, for some reason.
The school opened as an academy, sponsored by Harris Federation, in September 2013. In summer 2014, its results had improved from 65% of pupils achieving level 4 in the previous year to 94%. In June 2015, Ofsted inspected the school and judged it “outstanding” in all areas. By becoming an academy, Roke truly has been saved, yet we delayed that whole process by at least a year—a year’s lost education for the children in that part of Croydon.
Steve McCabe: I congratulate the Minister on finding an example to support his argument. If I were the parent of a child who attended one of the schools that was going to be taken over—by, for example, the Djanogly Learning Trust, the Grace Foundation, the Landau Forte Charitable Trust, the Lee Chapel Academy Trust, the South Nottingham College Academy Trust or the Learning Schools Trust—would I not be entitled to say that I thought there was a risk in that trust being allowed to take over the school? The Minister is going to prevent that. In each case, if there had been consultation, the problems would not necessarily have arisen.
Mr Gibb: Except where underperforming schools have, in the past, been transferred to those trusts, there has been consultation. The hon. Gentleman is presumably asserting that those academy chains are not performing as well as they should. However, the decision about which academy group is responsible for an underperforming school will now be left to the regional schools commissioner, who knows the academy chains and the area and will choose the appropriate chain.
Mr Gibb: It is not the success or failure of the process at stake. I am simply pointing out to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that the school acquisitions he cited took place with consultation. He may be critical of their outcomes, but they happened with consultation.
My objection to amendment 50 and new clause 3 is that they will delay the process. In the example that I cited in Croydon, a year of children’s primary school education was wasted. We would have had significantly more children getting good literacy and mathematics results if that process had happened when it was meant to.
Kevin Brennan: What about the academy chains that were appointed and failed those children? What about that waste? By what logic would that be less likely to happen if we do not bother to consult anyone?
Mr Gibb: The issue with consultation is time. If we take steps out of the process, we reduce the time. The issue of whether a particular academy chain is good or poor is one that we take swift action on. We take much swifter action now in dealing with underperforming academy sponsors than local authorities have in the past in dealing with underperforming schools, which in many instances—not all, but many—have languished in special measures for far too long. The whole academisation process is designed to speed up the process. Where we find that academy chains are underperforming, we take equally swift action to deal with the sponsors.
Steve McCabe: If the issue is time, why does the Minister not create a time limit? Why does he not issue guidance automatically excluding the signatories to a petition from Australia? Why does he not take normal, sensible steps, rather than denying people the right to express a view, and the right to peruse the information? That would deal with the question of time. He is denying people a voice.
Mr Gibb: We are denying campaigns such as the “Save Roke” committee that call measures to improve a primary school a hostile takeover. Such ideologically-driven campaign groups are interested not in raising the academic standards in schools but in delaying the process. They are ideologically opposed to the concept of academies. My understanding is that the Opposition are not ideologically opposed to the academisation process; so I would expect them to support measures to increase the speed of the process when a school is demonstrably underperforming.
Peter Kyle: The example that the Minister gave has resonance for me because in my constituency before the election there was a similar debate and similar protests about a school called Hove Park school. During the lunch break, I introduced the Minister to some of its students. The campaign was vigorous and campaign groups from outside the school community used it as a political football in many ways, and I share some of the Minister’s concerns about how that unfolded.
However, the point for me, as I said at the time, was whether it was possible to deal with people driven by ideology separately from parents, students and teachers who have their own views, wishes and concerns. It seems to me that we do not want to exclude and punish the school community because people campaign for ideological reasons from outside it. Does the Minister agree that it is possible to take that approach?
Mr Gibb: I think that the hon. Gentleman is right that the community should be consulted when the governing body of a “good” or “outstanding” school wants to pass a motion that it should convert to an academy. I think that there is also a case for discussing an improvement plan with staff and governors of schools in category 3, rather than 4—coasting schools—where the regional schools commissioner wants to try measures short of academisation,.
However, when Ofsted puts a school into special measures it is an extreme thing. It affects a tiny minority of schools. When schools have reached that point of underperformance, we must act so swiftly that there is simply not time to engage in formal consultations. Why was the “Save Roke” committee not established a few years earlier, to try to deal with the underperformance of Roke primary school? I could say the same about Hove Park. It was a pleasure to meet year 9 students from Hove Park academy, if I have the name right.
Mr Gibb: I understand that that school voluntarily applied to convert to academy status, so it would not fall under the measures in question. I could tell from the teachers I met that it is a good school that has voluntarily sought the freedoms that come with academy status.
Amendment 51 would require the Secretary of State to consult about the identity of a sponsor when there was a change of sponsor. In the vast majority of cases, the sponsor matched to an underperforming school would be successful in delivering the necessary improvements. Those successes include large sponsors such as REAch2, which sponsors the largest number of primary academies in the country. Its schools have improved, on average, at three times the national average rate. I pause in case the hon. Member for Cardiff West wants to jump in. He has not, so that is another fact that we can treat as established.
There are also successful local sponsor arrangements. For example, in the Tall Oaks academy trust, White’s Wood academy, an outstanding academy with a national leader of education as its head teacher, turned around Mercer’s Wood, which was previously in special measures. Since joining the trust, that school has been judged “outstanding”, too.
However, in the scenario where a sponsor is not improving the school, or not doing so fast enough, or where there is any other concern about the sponsor’s ability to support that school, we will not hesitate to take steps to intervene. Regional schools commissioners, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, can issue warning notices demanding urgent action to bring about substantial improvement. Any such notice will set out what must be done to improve in a given timescale.
We do encounter performance issues with academies and sponsors and we are quick to act. As I have said before, we have made new sponsor arrangements in relation to 75 academies and free schools, which include 32 cases in which a sponsored academy had its sponsor replaced. That action is proving effective. Therefore, even though there is no requirement in law for a consultation when there is a change in sponsor, we would expect the existing trust and new sponsor to share information with staff, parents and others on the proposed change of sponsor, allowing them the opportunity to raise and address concerns. We therefore do not believe that it is necessary or helpful to require in law consultation about a change of sponsor and, as such, I urge the hon. Member for Cardiff West to withdraw his amendment.
Kevin Brennan: In the interests of making progress, I will not make lengthy remarks, but we do not see the logic of sweeping away consultation. Our amendment sought to ensure that consultation would take place and we do not see by what logic academy chains are less likely to fail when no one bothers to consult anyone about the correct sponsor in the first place; in fact, surely they would be more likely to fail, and we have had too many failures already. However, given that our views have been put on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(2) After section 5A of the Academies Act (inserted by subsection (1)) insert—
“5AA Designation of Academy sponsors
(1) An Academy sponsor may make proposals to enter into Academy arrangements under section 1 (Academy Arrangements) only if the Academy sponsor is for the time being designated for the purpose—
(a) by the Secretary of State; and
(b) has been approved for this purpose by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills.
(2) This section does not apply where the Academy sponsor is proposing to enter into an arrangement for a single school.’.’
There is a need for public scrutiny of Academy sponsors. This amendment provides for the Secretary of State to maintain a list of Academy sponsors and for sponsors to be approved by Ofsted. Subsection (2) relieves sponsors of schools converting to Single Academy Trusts of the need to be designated.
‘(3) In section 17 (Interpretation of Act) in the appropriate place in subsection (2) insert—
“Academy sponsor” is a person to whom the Secretary of State has entered, or is proposing to enter, into Academy arrangements under section 1 (Academy Arrangements), or a person who wishes to enter into Academy Arrangements with the Secretary of State.’.
Although the Bill uses the term “Academy sponsor”, the Academies Act does not define an Academy sponsor. This amendment corrects that omission.
Kevin Brennan: Amendment 53 would bring some transparency to the process of selecting academy sponsors. There is currently no public quality control of potential sponsors. Ministers have totally committed to the policy, so they will need to find sponsors at all costs, and regional schools commissioners, as we found out in oral evidence, are paid by results, so they also need to find sponsors.
Someone in the system has to be responsible for saying no to people who come forward if they are not good enough. If that means that schools cannot be converted, that is better than using an inadequate sponsor; another solution or sponsor should be sought. Logically, Ofsted should play that role. Ministers may argue that they can be trusted, but that is hardly convincing because we know that that is not true.
Sponsors’ performance shows that some are simply inadequate and that there are not sufficient checks and balances. Some have misused public money, which the Government profess to be greatly concerned about. Some, such as the Prospects Academies Trust, have collapsed. Some have seriously dodgy international links, such as the Aurora Academies Trust, which is linked to one of the more dubious US chains with a record of failure and scandal.
The Bill will throw up a greater need for academy sponsors, so we require that proper quality control; the independent inspectorate needs to take on that role urgently. We want to know what the Government will do about quality control and what they will do to make sure that it is independent in this extremely murky area, where we have already heard about many failures on the part of academy sponsors. Amendment 54 is intended to gain some clarification on the definition of an academy sponsor. If such companies are to become so important in our education system, we need to know exactly what they are. I hope that the Minister can shed some light on the matter.
Mr Gibb: Amendment 53 covers the scrutiny of academy sponsors and the academy trusts that they establish. Sponsors are high-performing schools or other organisations that have been approved to sponsor underperforming schools through the academy trusts that they have established. The trusts become responsible for the governance and the educational and financial performance of such schools, in place of the former governing body and local authority.
In amendment 53, the Opposition propose that the Secretary of State should be required to approve such bodies before they are allowed to take on sponsored academies. In practice, the Secretary of State already subjects sponsors and trusts to thorough scrutiny through regional schools commissioners, which consider all new sponsor applications in their regions and approve those that demonstrate that they have the capacity and expertise to turn failing schools around. For example, in October 2014 a member of the north of England headteacher board did detailed work with a prospective sponsor to help it to make sure that its governance structure was fit for purpose. As a result, the sponsor revised its governance arrangements and proposed a small strategic body with a good mix of skills, which the regional schools commissioner judged to be entirely appropriate for a sponsor trust.
The regional schools commissioner applies a rigorous assessment process, advised by the headteacher board of outstanding academy leaders, to ensure that prospective sponsors have a strong track record in educational improvement and financial management, and that the proposed trust has high-quality leadership and appropriate governance. Since 2013, the Department for Education has published monthly a list of approved sponsors. All those non-statutory arrangements have been in operation since September 2014, and I see no reason to place the process into legislation now.
The amendment also proposes that the chief inspector at Ofsted should be required to provide approval. Most academy sponsors—75% of all new sponsors since January 2014—are schools, so they are already subject to Ofsted inspection, and the regional schools commissioner considers their latest Ofsted report as part of the assessment. Ofsted plays an important role in holding schools and sponsors to account. The arrangements for focused inspections of schools within multi-academy trusts provide the opportunity to report on the quality of education support that approved sponsors give to the academies in their trusts. I do not believe that there is any need to give the chief inspector a further role and add a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy to an already rigorous process.
In amendment 54 Opposition Members propose that the words “academy sponsor” should be defined in the Bill, and they offer a definition. The term does not appear in legislation, and we see no need to introduce such a definition, given the success of current arrangements.
A point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak raised in our debate on the previous clause relates equally to this matter. He read out a list of sponsors, all of which have been paused by regional schools commissioners, so no further brokerage of schools to those sponsors will take place pending improvements in their school improvement service. That process is already in place, and I am absolutely convinced that the system allows us to approve and monitor sponsors, so we do not need to change the legislation.
Kevin Brennan: It is interesting to hear the Minister confirm that all the academy chains and sponsors on that list have been paused by regional schools commissioners. Presumably, those sponsors were approved, and deemed to have the capacity and expertise to turn around schools, in the first place by the same regional schools commissioners and Ministers. That makes our point for us: regional schools commissioners and Ministers do not have the capability to assess accurately whether sponsors have the capacity and expertise to turn around schools. If they had, they would not have had to pause them before taking on any more schools, and we would not have had the failures of academy sponsors and chains that we heard about earlier.
There are real issues with the current arrangements, despite the Minister saying how wonderful and successful they are, and it is absolutely sensible that there should be a rigorous assessment process beyond the current process, which he says is rigorous but which is creating the need to pause the particular academy sponsors on the list that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak read out.
Mr Gibb: Can I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are 735 approved sponsors, and that 597 of them are responsible for 2,675 academies and free schools? When he cites one, two, or half a dozen academy chains that have been paused, it is a very small number out of 735 approved sponsors. I think that 14 is the number that were paused, and the number on the list that he was going to read out is a very small proportion of the total number.
Kevin Brennan: At least my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak gives out examples in 14s rather than in ones and twos, as the Minister does when he wants to prove his case. I thought that my hon. Friend was being very generous in providing all those examples; he might have held some back for later on in our proceedings and just leaked them out one by one, in the same way that the Minister does. I do not think that the Minister has proved his case.
The point is that, yes, there are a large number of approved sponsors, but that number will become even larger, and therefore we might expect that unless there are some changes in the quality of the assessment of academy sponsors, the number of failures and the number of pauses in future will increase by the same proportion; there is no reason for us to believe that that is not the case. Therefore, there is every need for a better level of quality control, which is, of course, what we propose in the amendments.
Mr Gibb: The clause inserts new section 5A into the Academies Act 2010, which imposes on the Secretary of State a duty to carry out a consultation when, under section 4(A1), my right hon. Friend makes an academy order in respect of a foundation or voluntary school
For schools that have failed and been judged inadequate by Ofsted, there should be no debate about whether transformation via academy conversion is needed, and urgent action is required. A new start is needed, to be secured through an academy solution with an effective sponsor. That is why we have sought through this Bill to impose on the Secretary of State a duty to make an academy order in such cases.
However, we appreciate the great contribution of the foundation schools, which is why there is an exemption for church schools and dioceses that have taken on the role of supporting struggling schools.
Kevin Brennan: The clause limits the requirement to consult about an academy order to foundation schools and voluntary schools with a foundation. We see no reason to limit consultation in that way, for the same reasons that we have outlined in debates about other parts of the Bill. We will not vote against the clause standing part of the Bill, because at least it allows for some consultation; there is a little bit left after the Minister has swept through the consultation landscape in the way that he has proposed. At least there is some consultation and we hope that it will be expanded further on Report or when the Bill reaches another place, given the sheer illiberality of sweeping away consultation. However, on that basis, we will not vote against the clause standing part of the Bill.
This amendment adds to the persons who are placed under a duty to facilitate academisation to include those listed in the new section 5A(2) as found in Clause 9.
A consequence of amendment 55.
A consequence of amendment 55.
Kevin Brennan: Amendment 55 is a probing amendment and seeks to discover the Government’s thinking behind why some people are placed under a duty while others are not. It is not necessarily about whether the Opposition think that the duty itself is the correct approach. The other two amendments are a consequence of amendment 55.
Clause 10 places a duty on a school governing body and the local authority to “take all reasonable steps” to help the conversion of a school when forced academisation is required under clause 7 or when the Secretary of State chooses to go down the forced academisation route for another reason. If the Secretary of State notifies a school and local authority that they want a specific academy sponsor, the school and local authority must “take all reasonable steps” to help the Secretary of State and the sponsor to reach a funding agreement.
Clause 11 enables the Secretary of State to give specific directions to school governing bodies and local authorities about the forced academisation process, presumably when they think that the local authority or school governing body are not taking reasonable steps. Such directions relate to section 8 orders regarding the transfer of staff, contracts for photocopying, cleaning, school dinners and so on, moveable property such as minibuses, intellectual property used by the school and part 1 of schedule 1 orders to do with the transfer of land owned by the local authority and not by a governing body, foundation body or trustees, which is covered by part 2 of schedule 1 of the 2010 Act.
Bodies other than the maintained school governing body and the local authority have a role to play in expediting academisation, the most important of which is the owner of the school building and land when they are not owned by the local authority or a foundation school without a trust. Voluntary-aided schools, voluntary-controlled schools and foundation schools with a trust are likely to be occupying land owned by bodies that may not be directly concerned with the academisation process. In particular, the bodies listed in new section 5A(2) to the Academies Act 2010, as inserted by clause 9, are bodies that either own the school land and buildings or have an interest in preserving the religious identity of the school on forced academisation, including the trustees of the school, the person or persons appointed by the foundation governors and, in the case of a school with a religious character, the “appropriate religious body”—defined for Church of England and Roman Catholic Schools as the diocesan authority, but all faith schools are included.
I accept that this is a complex area, but we need clarity. There was a time when any proposal by the state to remove Church-owned land occupied by Church schools from Church control might have resulted in some considerable controversy, but times have changed. Sorting land ownership on academisation can be a lengthy process that has nothing to do with the school governing body or local authority. These amendments are designed to probe why such bodies are not included in clauses 10 and 11, without accepting the premise of the clauses.
He commented that the delays were not “extensive”, but they are delays nevertheless. Perhaps the Ministers can quantify those delays. One of the law firms with a financial interest in such things is Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, which has helpfully placed an article on its website that analyses the issue:
“Neither the school governors of voluntary or foundation schools (acting in their capacity as the trustees of the GB as a charity) nor the site trustees of such schools may be required to facilitate conversions or directed to do so if to comply would result in a breach of their trust. This is not recognised in the Bill as it stands and appears to us to be a major defect.”
In other words, these lawyers see the difficulties arising from the dual responsibility of school governors who are charity trustees when the Secretary of State selects the sponsor in a forced academisation process. They continue:
“Secondly the question will we think inevitably arise as to whether an academy (or a school about to be converted into an academy) may lose its religious character without closing and being re-opened as a new institution. The DfE has imposed ‘as is’ in respect of gaining or losing a religious character with regard to conversions under s4(1)(a) but we suspect may want to remove a religious character without closure in respect of conversions under s4(1)(b) or under the new s4(A1).”
“The Bill certainly reads as though this is either expected to be the case or the issue has not been considered and will become a problem. We argue most strongly that removal of religious character without closure is not possible and that the power in Regulations for the Secretary of State to remove independent schools from the list of those designated with a religious character cannot be exercised if the objective criteria governing designation still apply.”
As the Government have not sorted out that issue, lawyers are likely to get involved. That means delay and cost, which are likely to be borne by the local authority as the maintaining authority, so there will be an overall increase in costs to the public purse.
Ministers should know what is going on and what is delaying academisation. Helpfully, the Commons Education Committee inquiry asked about the academisation process and faith schools. Regrettably, only three local authorities responded. One of those authorities, Kent, which has many Church schools, commented:
“The proposed sponsor sometimes makes considerable extra demands upon the LA and its financial and capital resources towards the end of the process of transfer of a school to an academy chain. This slows down, and can hinder the conversion process and can interfere with the urgent school improvement work required.”
That sounds like the point in the academisation process where lawyers start to make their money, and it could result in significant delay to an academy order. That delay is caused not by the issues outlined by the Minister—ideologically driven people, otherwise known as parents—but by the legal minefield involved.
Perhaps it is the sponsor who should have a duty under the Bill to take reasonable steps. By imposing a duty on one party to take reasonable steps in the academisation
Mr Gibb: We are now considering clauses 10 and 11. Clause 10 inserts a new duty on governing bodies and local authorities to facilitate the conversion of a school into an academy. Clause 11 inserts a new power to give directions to governing bodies and local authorities when progress is slow and direction is needed. Both the duty and the power are placed on governing bodies and local authorities because they are the responsible bodies that must take swift action to ensure an academy can open.
The hon. Gentleman’s amendments seek also to place that duty on any trustees of the school, the person or persons by whom any foundation governors are appointed and, in the case of a school with a religious character, the appropriate religious body—he has lifted the list of consultees from new section 5A(2) of the 2010 Act. The amendments will place duties on independent charitable bodies, such as dioceses or historical foundations, that do not have a direct relationship with the Secretary of State and are not accountable to Government. In this context, placing a direct duty on independent bodies would be disproportionate. Local authorities and governing bodies are in a different position as public bodies that are funded by the state. The Bill does, therefore, place them under a duty to facilitate conversion. Putting an additional duty on trusts, dioceses and charitable bodies would be unnecessary as their interests are already engaged through their stake in the school’s governing body, which will be under a duty to facilitate conversion. I hope that, with that explanation, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Kevin Brennan: Well, I did say that they were probing amendments. I have raised very real issues, which I hope the Minister will take some time to ponder. I do not know whether he—having received some in-flight refuelling—wishes to say anything further on it. I would have paused a bit longer if he did, but he does not. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(3) A reasonable step does not include a step that would result in additional expenditure by a local authority or a school governing body.”
This amendment seeks clarification about the meaning of “reasonable step”.
This amendment requires direct parliamentary accountability for the use of the new power by the Secretary of State to direct bodies to carry out unspecified actions to facilitate the conversion of a school to an Academy.
‘(4) The Secretary of State must provide reasonable compensation to a local authority where a direction under subsection (1) causes additional expenditure or the loss of capital assets.”
Requires the Secretary of State to pay for the cost to local government of her directions.
Kevin Brennan: Amendment 57 seeks clarification about the meaning of “reasonable step.” Amendment 58 requires direct parliamentary accountability for the use of the new power by the Secretary of State to direct bodies to carry out unspecified actions to facilitate the conversion of a school to an academy. Amendment 60 requires the Secretary of State to pay for the cost to local government of her directions, and we have already heard how those costs for academy conversions can spiral—I understand, sometimes into six-figure sums.
Amendment 57 is about the loose phrase, “reasonable step”. What may seem reasonable to Ministers may not be quite so reasonable to someone else. The amendment seeks to put some limit on what can be required by saying that it should not require additional expenditure by a school or local authority.
Amendment 60 is designed to protect the financial position of the local authority by requiring the Secretary of State to meet revenue costs and any loss of capital assets in the process. Amendment 58 says that, when the Minister is making a specific direction, it should be done with transparency and with the possibility of parliamentary and public scrutiny. Those directions are likely to be about property, and significant amounts of money will be at stake. It is essential that there is a proper process for ensuring that public assets are protected. I am sure that the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office will be interested to ensure that as well.
Mr Gibb: The amendments relate to clauses 10 and 11. Clause 10 inserts new section 5B into the Academies Act 2010, ensuring that, when a failing school has been issued with an academy order, the school’s governing body and local authority
If that does not happen, clause 11, which adds new section 5C to the Academies Act, allows the Secretary of State, via regional schools commissioners, to direct the governing body or local authority to take specified steps for the purpose of facilitating that conversion into an academy. The effect of the two clauses is to require local authorities and governing bodies to facilitate, proactively, the conversion of failing schools into academies, removing the roadblocks, which have sometimes delayed necessary improvements to underperforming schools. The measures will not place any additional burdens on the governing body and local authority but will ensure that they work efficiently to progress an academy conversion.
Amendment 57 seeks to ensure that a local authority or governing body does not incur additional costs as a result of the duty in the Bill to facilitate academy conversion. I recognise that there are costs to the schools
Amendment 58 seeks to ensure that when a regional schools commissioner directs a governing body or local authority to take specified steps to facilitate conversion to an academy, such a direction is made by order. That would mean an order contained in a statutory instrument under section 181(1) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and subject to parliamentary scrutiny and the negative resolution procedure.
The amendment would introduce a more onerous process than other direction-making powers available to the Secretary of State—for example, the new power in clause 5 to direct the size and composition of an IEB or the terms of appointment of its members. It would only serve to add delays and complexity to a process that we are trying to streamline through the Bill’s measures.
If the regional schools commissioners gave a direction in relation to a conversion, it would be because a conversion had stalled and any necessary actions by the governing body or local authority were not being taken. For example, Shuttleworth College in Lancashire has been rated inadequate twice in six years, and not better than “requires improvement” in between. A suitable sponsor has been found, but the governing body has refused to pass a resolution to join the academy trust and continues to resist becoming a sponsored academy. If the regional schools commissioner had been able to direct the governing body to act, the school could be beginning to benefit from the academy trust’s support and be well on the way to improvement. Such decisions would not be taken lightly by the commissioners, who are already accountable to Parliament through the Secretary of State. Using a parliamentary procedure that is for secondary legislation and for closing motorway slip roads would be disproportionate.
Amendment 60 would require the Secretary of State to compensate a local authority for any additional costs or loss of capital assets when directed to take specified steps to facilitate conversion. Such a direction may include requiring the governing body or local authority to prepare a draft of a scheme under section 8 or paragraph 1 of schedule 1 to the Academies Act 2010 relating to the transfer of property.
Suella Fernandes: Does my hon. Friend agree that the clause allows governing bodies and local authorities to be involved in the conversion process, which is key to the local connection and will only bolster the leadership and transformation to academy status?
It would be wrong to introduce a new requirement for the Secretary of State to compensate local authorities in these circumstances. The clauses do not require the local authority or school governing body to do anything more than would be required for an academy conversion. As a school converts to an academy, it will be granted a 125-year peppercorn lease to operate on its land. The land continues to be used for educational purposes, and the local authority retains the freehold. In view of that, I hope that the hon. Member for Cardiff West will feel reassured enough to withdraw his amendments.
Kevin Brennan: I thank the Minister for that full explanation. As I indicated, these amendments were intended to probe what the Government meant by “reasonable steps” to facilitate conversion. Once again, the Minister used examples of successful academies, but I emphasise that things can go wrong from time to time. We hear news that the much-lauded Perry Beeches III academy—part of the Perry Beeches academy chain in Birmingham visited by the Prime Minister; there are copious photographs of that occasion—has been rated “inadequate” by Ofsted.
Superficial examples of superheads are all very well, but we need to look at the evidence. We all know how from time to time particular academy sponsors might superficially present an effective PR case for their school, so we need to be careful about requiring people to take reasonable steps when they might have reasonable concerns.
Mr Gibb: With your permission, Mr Chope, I will speak to clauses 10 and 11, as the powers that they take are inextricably linked. The purpose of the two clauses is to tackle the long delays and blockages that governing bodies and local authorities can create in securing a sponsored academy solution. Where a school is underperforming and an academy solution is required, we want the transformation to take place from day one. We do not want the process to be delayed unnecessarily.
Our experience is that governing bodies and local authorities have used delaying tactics, including long debate. One example of progress being unnecessarily delayed was when the City of Derby academy opened in place of the failing Sinfin community school in 2013. The school has come out of special measures and improved its GCSE results in the first year of its academy status. Ofsted confirmed that since becoming an academy, the quality of teaching has improved, pupils are progressing more rapidly and pupil behaviour and attendance has improved. Unfortunately, the turnaround was held up by a prolonged campaign that sought to delay the school becoming an academy.
Clause 10 will ensure that, where regional schools commissioners make an academy order in respect of a school that is eligible for intervention, the governing body of that school and the local authority must take all reasonable steps to facilitate the conversion of that school into an academy. Clause 10 will also ensure that where the regional schools commissioner tells a governing body and a local authority that they are minded to enter
In the majority of cases, the effects of clause 10 should ensure that governing bodies and local authorities take the necessary action to ensure that a sponsored academy solution is in place quickly, but clause 11 is still necessary in the event that they do not. Where an academy order has been made in respect of a school that is eligible for intervention, clause 11 allows regional schools commissioners acting on behalf of the Secretary of State to direct the governing body or local authority to take specified steps for the purpose of facilitating the conversion of a failing school into an academy. Under section 8 of or part 1 of schedule 1 to the Academies Act 2010, a direction may in particular require the governing body or local authority to prepare a draft of a scheme relating to the transfer of property.
Clause 11 also allows regional schools commissioners to specify the period within which any steps for facilitating the conversion must be taken. Where a governing body or a local authority fails to act according to the duties in clause 10 and is not taking all reasonable steps to facilitate conversion, the regional schools commissioner can more specifically direct them to take certain steps by particular deadlines. It is crucial that regional schools commissioners have the powers in both clauses 10 and 11 to prevent delays in transforming failing and underperforming schools and to ensure that improvement is brought about as swiftly as possible.
Kevin Brennan: I am also happy to accept that approach. Clauses 10 and 11 are intended to avoid delay in academisation, but when the Government are asked for evidence on the details of delays beyond one or two of their favourite anecdotes, Ministers can be surprisingly unforthcoming.
Recently, I asked a question of Ministers and received an all too typical non-answer in the form of a written answer from the Minister for Children and Families—I presume that the Minister for Schools is a bit too grand to answer written questions these days. The question, at column 2649, was:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Education, how many schools whose governing body had made an application for an Academy Order on or before 31 May 2012 had not been included in an Academy Agreement with her Department by 1 June 2015”—
“To ask the Secretary of State for Education, how many schools which had an approved Academy Order on or before 31 May 2012 had not been included in an Academy Agreement with her Department by 1 June 2015.”
“The list includes all schools that have applied to convert and those that have received an academy order. It is updated monthly…Since the Regional Schools Commissioners took up their positions in September 2014, the individual decisions to approve or decline an academy order have been published on their website”
I thought, perhaps naively, that my question would have been much easier to answer than it turned out to be for Ministers and their civil servants. If I asked you, Mr Chope, how many cups of tea you drank yesterday—I do not know whether you drink tea, but it is a hypothetical example—you might say three or five, or, if you could not remember exactly, you might say, “Somewhere between four and six.” I would not expect you to refer me to your website to try to find the answer, or even to someone else’s website, as I was referred in the second part of the answer to my question.
As my question to you would have required, Mr Chope, the question I asked Ministers simply required the correct number to be given as an answer. After digging through all these websites, doing the work of Ministers and civil servants for them, it was possible to find the answer, if one had to hand the 2012 list—which has long since been removed from the DFE website so is not readily available at the hyperlinks provided. The answers to the questions about how many schools had applied for an academy order but had yet to be converted, and how many already had an academy order but had yet to be converted, were 160 and 95 respectively.
Why has the Minister not properly analysed the real reasons for all these delays? They are not all caused by ideological individuals—otherwise known as parents. Such analysis might show that the real reason is not orchestrated campaigns but departmental bureaucracy, complications of ownership, private finance initiatives and, as I pointed out earlier, sponsors using expensive lawyers to get one over on the taxpayer, which is what is actually going on in many cases. Perhaps clauses 10 and 11 are further examples of legislation being made up on the hoof in order for the Government to be seen to be doing something tough, based on prejudices, rather than on the evidence that I was seeking to illicit from the Department through my written questions.
Kevin Brennan: I would expect that, which is why I did not ask about those schools that are in the process of converting; I asked for those that had taken more than three years to get to this stage, and I ended up with those figures. I am not sure whether they are right—perhaps the Minister has the actual figures—but from digging around myself, I believe them to be 160 and 95 respectively. In the case of the second group, that is three years after an academy order has been granted. I put it to the Minister that that cannot be down to the reasons that he has given. That is why we are legislating here, for the most part.
The tone of these clauses extends the approach that we have seen throughout the Bill. The Government are determined to have their way and will brook no alternative view. They have removed all opportunity to protest or appeal against decisions, and now the Secretary of State wants to take the power to enforce active collaboration with the decisions that people were not consulted about. She clearly has so little confidence in the strength of her arguments that she feels it is necessary to require those who disagree with her to act as if they do agree with her. That is what this clause means.
No one wants lengthy and unnecessary delays over the future status of a school—it does nobody any good—but Ministers need to understand that their refusal to listen to alternatives and their insistence on having their own way at all times through profoundly undemocratic processes will inevitably provoke a reaction. People do not take well to being bullied, which is what these clauses do.
That the Government think these clauses are necessary is a sort of confession of failure, because they know deep down that they are not convincing people sufficiently with their arguments. The evidence is not on their side, but they will plough on regardless, shut their ears to other people’s views, and, through clauses such as these, go beyond that to enforce their wishes and turn school governors into ventriloquists’ dummies banned from voicing their concerns and forced not only to concede to actions that they disagree with but to actively promote them.
In effect, the Government are legislating so that the governors’ duty of care to the pupils at their school is replaced by a duty to implement and promote the policy of the state, even when they sincerely believe it to be against the interests of the pupils who are under their duty of care. So it is hardly surprising that many governors wonder why they bother, given the Government’s open contempt for their efforts.
This Government claim to have been converted to devolution. As I pointed out earlier, there is little evidence of that in the Bill. We see a combined authority approach as a much better way of trying to bring about devolution than that outlined by the Minister.
Clause 11 continues the approach of clause 10. The Local Government Association said that the Bill contradicted the rhetoric of the Secretary of State, who spoke at the Sunday Times festival of education at Wellington College on 18 June. She said:
“It’s not the fact of being a free school or an academy that leads to this excellence. Rather, it's what being an academy or a free school stands for. Freeing up schools and governors to make decisions that are right for their pupils.”
By giving the Secretary of State powers to require governors to take specified actions, the clause removes the freedoms of school governors to make decisions that are, as the Secretary of State said, “right for their pupils”.
Suella Fernandes: Does the hon. Gentleman not consider that if a school has reached such a condition that an academy order is being taken forward, governance will have been one of the elements that was failing or required intervention, so it would not be responsible to allow governors a free rein, and this includes them in the participation.
Kevin Brennan: No one is suggesting that anyone should be given a free rein, to use the hon. Lady’s expression, and neither is anyone suggesting that it might not be appropriate in certain circumstances for an interim executive board or an academy sponsor to have to step in to run the school, but the clause goes way beyond that contention.
Steve McCabe: Following the logic of the hon. Lady’s argument, would it not also be reasonable to assume that if the school had got to such a state, the Secretary of State must have been negligent in her duty and would therefore be ill equipped to make a judgment?
Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, every academy that is rated “inadequate” is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, and is now the responsibility of the regional schools commissioners. Their failure has to be accounted for according to the logic of the Government’s approach.
I simply ask, given the rhetoric of the Secretary of State, how on earth the Schools Minister can square such rhetoric with the reality of the clause. Is it not the case that the freeing up of governors mentioned in the Secretary of State’s speech was just empty rhetoric? Removing their freedom is the reality.
Mr Gibb: I sense that the hon. Gentleman simply does not have the same sense of urgency to deal with underperformance as we on the Government Benches have. I accept that he wants to improve schools and that he accepts the academy programme as a good programme in certain circumstances, but given the accumulation of his amendments and the points that he made in his speech, I sense that he does not have the impatience and sense of urgency that we have to improve the education of children in schools that are underperforming. That is where we will have to agree to differ.
Kevin Brennan: I will not agree to differ in this sense—I am impatient, but I am also impatient with reckless decision making that can lead to unsuitable academy sponsors being selected, as we have already seen. That is why we need good-quality decision making. We will agree to disagree on many things during the course of the Bill, but I am glad that he acknowledges that we can both agree that we want to see schools improve rapidly.
Mr Gibb: Good. On the face of it, however, it sounds like an argument in favour of the measures that we are taking in the Bill to improve the speed with which schools are moved from an academy order to a funding