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The noble Baroness said: The whole concept of the Secretary of State setting annual targets is questionable in itself, but the provisions of Clause 99(2)(c) are particularly inappropriate. We now have a situation where the Government have agreed that schools will be responsible for setting their own targets at key stage 2, key stage 3, and at other key stages, and that neither the local authority nor the Secretary of State can impose targets on individual schools. The powers set out in Clause 99(2)(c) would enable the Secretary of State unilaterally to amend targets provided by LEAs or require modification in a manner that could bring unacceptable pressure on individual schools, because targets will be used by LEAs to provide an aggregate target for that authority, as just described by the Minister.
Lord Hanningfield: In moving that Clause 99 does not stand part of the Bill, I will be adding to what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has just said. Clause 99 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring local authorities to set annual targets in respect of schools. There are a number of pertinent questions as to why the Secretary of State should possess such powers and oppose such targets these days.
The recently changed regulations now require schools to set their own targets on improved pupil performance. Formerly, the LEA played an active "challenge" role in the school target-setting process, and LEAs strove to get schools to set targets that would aggregate up to the LEA target. The approach now is that the LEA would only challenge or intervene where the school has set targets outside the range suggested by its data. With this change of emphasis on the school setting its own targets and becoming far more of an independent entity in its own right, which we all support, why does the Minister believe that such targets are still relevant? I believe in devolution too, and I believe in devolution to local authorities and schools, so this is not the sort of thing in which the Secretary of State, in this day and age, should be involved.
LEA targets were set in a dialogue between LEAs and DfES senior officers. I have spoken to a number of senior LEA officials throughout the country, who have said that there has often been pressure from the DfES to inflate LEA targets. Therefore, in interpreting some of this, we might interpret that the Secretary of State might want to bring back LEA-wide targets: I would not approve of that. The setting of overstretched targets has led to such targets ceasing to be motivating for LEAs and schools. Therefore, I hope that the Minister can give assurances that these targets will be set on a realistic basis to reflect the circumstances of schools in a particular LEA. Can he also assure me that local education authorities will be consulted during the target-setting process? Working
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in partnership is a far more effective way of achieving things than having unrealistic edicts passed from the Secretary of State down, if the Secretary of State is going to continue to intervene.
With the development of alternative education schemes for 14 to 19 year-olds who are not benefiting from full-time schooling, there is a growing problem that these pupils' achievements are not captured in the data on GCSE/GNVQ. Schools may be providing appropriate schemes for 14 to 16 year-olds but not meeting targets for GCSE. What assurance can the Minister give that this growing trend will not unduly penalise and distort the results and targets that local authorities are expected to meet?
Lord Filkin: To start with, this is not a new power. This does not impose additional burdens either on local education authorities or schools. Clause 99 maintains the current statutory accountability regime, whereby the Secretary of State requires local education authorities, through regulations, to set annual targets for the educational performance of pupils for which they are responsible and to notify those targets to her. In that respect, I do not imagine that there is any debate between us that local authorities should be setting targets for the schools in their area, both in the specific and the aggregate. That is part of the "challenge" function, to be matched hopefully by the "support" function that the local authority will provide. Perhaps the debate is about the role of the Secretary of State rather than the role of the local authority.
The setting of ambitious national targets and the requirement in turn for local authorities and schools to set their own targets has provided a powerful stimulus for improvements in educational standards at both primary and secondary level since 1997. The existing power for local education authorities to set annual targets for the performance of pupils at key stages 2, 3 and 4; for school attendance; and for children leaving public care has been in place since 2000 through the education development plans. The requirement to produce and submit an education development plan has been repealed under Schedule 5, Part 1, to the Children Act 2004 as part of the streamlining of local authorities' planning arrangements. From 2006, there will be a single children and young people's plan, which will not have to be submitted for approval to the Secretary of State.
The Government believe that it is essential to include a power in this Bill so that local education authorities are required to set educational targets for the attainment and attendance of pupils in their area. As I have signalled, that is a fundamental part of the job of a local authority in giving leadership to its schools, both collectively and individually, to raise their ambition to get better results for their children. That is one of the critical and crucial roles of the local authority in adding value to the education system of its area over and above what individual schools do. We have talked about the contribution of school improvement partners as part of that. Therefore, we do not believe for a second that now is the time to
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sweep away the gains that a stronger system of accountability has delivered. Without being too bureaucratic about it, having accountability expressed in a way that one can measure
Lord Hanningfield: But the targets may be as obvious as the fact that a school must have a playing field. That is the point that we are trying to make. Whether one is talking about targets or trying to improve performance, that is obvious everywhere in local authorities and, if that is the case, local people should be left to get on with it. The Secretary of State might as well prescribe that a school should have doors. It is accepted that targets are part of the system, but it is far better if they are set at a local level because people there know the circumstances and they know what they are trying to improve.
Lord Hunt of Chesterton: As I understand it, the provision is included in the Bill because, if local authorities are the only ones to set the targets, there will be very large discrepancies across the country. I was a governor of a secondary school in Cambridge and I noticed that, depending on where they came from, the people applying for jobs at the school had totally different concepts of what was required in terms of standards and so on. Unless I have misunderstood, that is partly what the Bill touches on. It seems to me to be a question of having the same standards across the country.
Essentially the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, was saying that this issue is so motherhood and apple pie that it is not necessary to have it and therefore we should not bother to include it in the Bill. If he is right in that argumentit is a bold argumentthen there should be nothing burdensome about it.
But, of course, the clause goes further than that and that is what we should engage with. It also states that the Secretary of State is given the power to have a dialogue with local authorities about the targets that they have set. On the earlier group of amendments, on which we had a good debate, I signalled that we have moved away from a system whereby the Secretary of State sets targets, which are meant to cascade down in some way, to a system which is fundamentally much better. In the latter, the schools set the targets, the local authority is challenged to discuss them, the authority locks on to those targets and agrees to support them, and then the targets are set.
Therefore, this a question of whether we really believe that, in all circumstances, it is completely and utterly superfluous for the Secretary of State to have a debate with someit is hoped, very few indeedlocal authorities where, from the evidence, it appears to the Secretary of State that it is open to question that the local authority is setting an ambitious enough target for its area, its schools and itself. It is clear that we would be foolish to throw that away.
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It is true that, from recollection, in primary schools where this system of bottom-up targets has been in place for about a year the Secretary of State has had such a dialogue with only about 25 local authorities. With regard to the other 125, it has been possible to say, "We have confidence. We leave it to you and we won't have a dialogue".
For many decades, the House has seen the spread of local authority performance into every indicator that one chooses to identify between the good, the bad and the ugly, if I may put it so coarsely. There will always be some local authoritiesI hope that there will be only one or twowhere, due to a combination of factors, it appears that not enough is being done to accept responsibility under the Acts to raise children's educational attainment. Then, the role of the Secretary of State is not suddenly to set a target saying, "You must do it". It is exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, signalledto hold a dialogue with the local authority in which the starting point is, "Can we talk to you about whether you are being ambitious enough, given, for example, the attainment of the children in your area in maths or English? Their attainment for their age looks poor in comparison with other local authorities". In such a situation, without any other stimulus, do we leave it completely to the local authority not to have a debate with the Secretary of State? I think that we would be mad to act in that way.
The trick, of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, said, is to ensure that this bottom-up process is in place and that an intervention by the Secretary of State is limited to where it appears that there is a case for a debate. It should be a debate between the LEA and the school about whether or not they have it right and, as a result, they should be able to move forward. That is essentially what this measure is about and it is included because we have a passion for raising the educational attainment of children in our society.
Fifteen or perhaps even eight years ago, people might have said that we can expect only so much from some children and that they cannot go further. Over the past seven or eight years, what schools, local authorities and the Government have done has been remarkable in breaking down some of the old assumptions about what is possible in the educational attainment of childrenparticularly those from poor backgrounds, who might traditionally have been written off in our society.
For that reason, while I hope that we do not need to use this power to a great extent, we would be irresponsible as a government if we did not retain the ability to have a debate with a local authority about whether it was being sufficiently ambitious for the children in its area. Therefore, I believe that it is morally, as well as politically, right for us to retain that power. But I assure Members of the Committee that it is right that local authorities should be realistic and that they should not overstretch schools. There is no point in setting heroic and stupid targets that do nothing but discredit, and the local authority must be actively respected as a consultee in the process. The
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same applies to looked-after children. I think I have said all that I should say at this stage and I hope that that has been helpful.
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