Education and Adoption Bill

Written evidence submitted by UNISON (EAB 22)

UNISON

Is the largest education union in the UK, with 350,000 members working for employers ranging from early years, through schools, careers services, further education colleges, 6th form colleges, Ofsted and higher education institutions. Around 250,000 members work as support staff in schools.

Summary

1. Consultation with local stakeholders before a school becomes an academy is an important part of community engagement and should not be abolished. This was agreed by the previous government, after considerable debate in both Houses during the passing of the 2010 Academies Act. Clauses 8 and 9 of the Bill should be deleted and replaced with words that would call for all consultations to be meaningful, open and transparent

2. The proposals to force some ‘coasting schools’ to become academies are flawed and relevant clauses deleted.

Introduction

3. The rapid expansion of the academies programme has seen a focus on structure that has at times diverted attention from the need to focus on improving teaching and learning. Schools, as well as places of learning, also act as community hubs and engines of improvement, providing the workers and ‘good citizens’ of the future. Parents and other stakeholders need to be engaged in decisions that affect their children, so attempts to duck difficult debates will only build resentment and mistrust. Our evidence focuses on two key areas where we think the bill should be amended:

Consultation: Clauses 8 and 9

4. Consultation was not in the original draft of the 2010 Academies Bill. However there was considerable debate in both Houses about the gap in the draft legislation around lack of consultation. Many debates were held on the proposed lack of engagement with local communities and relevant stakeholders when schools were to become academies or on the introduction of free schools. The strength of feeling in both houses and across parties saw the government accept the logic of the debate and insert clauses on consultation. These clauses were themselves subject to strengthening amendments late on.

5. Indeed the government accepted that consultation was valuable. Lord Hill during the Academies Bill supported consulting with the community. He argued against an amendment that would have enforced consultation with local authorities saying: "It is our view that with regard to local decision-making involving individual school, teachers and parent is about as local as it is possible to get"

6. We are therefore surprised that the government’s new Education and Adoption bill attempts to overturn this local scrutiny that both Houses introduced. And we are disappointed that the government wishes to return to its initial draft of the 2010 Academies bill – in effect strong arming through forced conversions in secret and in cases against the will of the local people.

7. Similarly, clause 8 re-introduces words similar to those in the original draft of the Academies bill that allow converting academies to consult ‘after an academy order’ – or a ‘sham consultation’ as Lord Whitty called it in the debate in the House of Lords at the Committee stage in 2010. An argument that the government eventually accepted, deleting the words before the Act was passed.

8. Interestingly, this Education Bill accepts that consultation is important for some. So in clause 9 trustees, persons appointed by foundation governors and the appropriate religious body must be consulted. It is shame that such courtesy will no longer be offered to all local communities and people working at all converting schools, if this bill is not amended.

9. The government has argued it needs to get rid of consultation as the current process has been abused – yet over 4,000 academies and free schools were introduced over the last parliament. Against this a comparatively small number of opposition campaigns became high profile. These have mostly been in schools forced to convert, where the furore has been due to the realisation that once the academy process has begun it is very difficult to turn it around, unless a big fuss is made.

10. If the consultation process were a genuine one; seen to be more open, with a more transparent process and the chance for a considered outcome, we would be more likely to have a considered consultation process. As it is we have seen schools graded as inadequate targeted to become academies that begin to show improvement, but are turned into academies anyway, against the wishes of staff and parents.

11. In a debate at the report stage of the Academies Bill in 2010 in the House of Lords Baroness Perry of Southwark, on behalf of the government, opposed an amendment that sought to identify who should be consulted, saying:

‘ ...and it is unthinkable – absolutely unthinkable – that any school, any head teacher, any group of staff or governing body would want to press ahead in some sort of secretive way without making sure that they were taking the staff, the parents and the local community with them. That is the way schools operate.’

12. Sadly this has not proved correct. In a number of cases the community has not been properly consulted or engaged in the process. It is this secrecy and rapid trammelled change that upsets people and leads to high profile campaigns.

13. In a sensible world the government would be proposing a system to include provision that makes consultation more open and transparent. This would give a fair hearing for the concerns of communities and so when a decision to become and academy or not is taken that it is seen as justified and is respected.

14. In a debate on the Localism Bill in January 2011 Nicky Morgan, now Secretary of State said:

"I particularly welcome clause 102, which requires developers to consult local communities before submitting planning application for certain developments"

So it is OK to consult communities on planning issues, but not on changes to their schools.

15. In an article on shifting power to local people and local institutions in February 2009 The Prime Minister said:

‘The conservative party wants nothing less than radical decentralisation When one size fits all solutions are dispensed from the centre it’s not surprising they so often fail local communities.

When people experience a yawning gap between the changes they want to see and those they can directly affect, it is inevitable that demoralisation and democratic disengagement follow.

There are plans to give people a much greater say over issues that affect their daily lives.....’

It is a shame that the proposals in clauses 8 and 9 do not reflect this.

Coasting schools

16. There are a number of weaknesses in the bill in relation to powers to intervene in ‘coasting schools’

17. There are a number of high profile well researched reports (by NFER, Academies Commission, Education Select committee) that show that academies are not a panacea nor necessarily better than equivalent maintained schools. The government makes a presumption that because some academies are a success that this is the only way forward.

18. The bill focuses only on maintained schools and not academies. There is no equivalent intervention for ‘coasting academies’ which is strange. It is also unfortunate that successful local authorities are not allowed to oversee failing academies in their area.

19. Regional Schools Commissioners have a conflict in their role, both judging whether schools are coasting, whilst being judged by the number of academies that convert in their area.

20. Overall schools whose pupils come from better off homes will do better in both attainment and progress, so attempts to balance the ‘coasting schools’ definition beyond the Ofsted grade will not necessarily even out the playing field

21. Even allowing for a more flexible definition of coasting schools than just Ofsted grades or exam results, there will always be a spread of schools performing at different levels. Not ever child can get A*s children and some will be comparatively ‘coasting’ compared to others. With effective ‘quotas’ on grades (to stop grade inflation), gains by one school will inevitably mean others will do comparatively ‘worse’. Inevitably as more schools become academies there is more chance that they will end up as ‘coasting schools’.

22. We have noted above that only a few academy chains are significant outperformers. They have also tended to be ones that expanded more slowly and sensibly. So they cannot fill the gap – other large chains have been put on hold and new sponsors are a gamble.

23. We also know that schools are reporting difficulties in appointing Heads as the role becomes harder and because potential Heads see that they are more likely to be dismissed if they are judged not to be improving schools swiftly enough.

Conclusion

24. All these points suggest that the proposals in the bill around coasting schools and reduced consultation are unnecessary, unhelpful and reduce the engagement of local communities in their school.

July 2015

Prepared 14th July 2015