|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
In concluding, I will update noble Lords on the response that we have received from schools so far. In a little more than a week, more than 1,100 schools have expressed an interest in applying for academy freedoms. More than 620 outstanding schools, including more than 250 outstanding primaries and more than half of all outstanding secondary schools, have expressed their interest, along with more than 50 special schools. There seems to be real demand for the measures set out in the Bill. Our aim is to meet that demand and to ensure that heads and teachers have the freedoms that they want and need, that parents have the choice of a good local school and that a child's background does not dictate whether they succeed. I know that this is a vision shared on all sides of the House. I am pleased to present the Bill for your Lordships' consideration and I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction. Although it was his maiden speech plus three days, I welcome him again. Just to be absolutely clear, it is a delight to respond to the Minister at Second Reading.
Labour's academies programme supported some of the most deprived communities and children in our country. The academies programme was targeted at schools which were failing their pupils and communities by not raising aspirations enough. When a school underwent a change to an academy, we usually insisted on a change of leadership and always on an injection of outside expertise from a sponsor. Sponsors that were not existing successful education providers or
7 Jun 2010 : Column 510
This was about transforming failing schools, strengthening school leadership and creating hunger for success for some of our most deprived children. As the Government recognised, GCSE results in academies have risen faster than in their predecessor schools and faster than the national average. Some academies have not succeeded: that is true. We understand the challenge that many schools face. However, several academies, as the Minister pointed out, have been established in deeply deprived communities and have become some of the best-performing schools in our country. They deliver GCSE results on a par with-and sometimes better than-schools in much more affluent areas, showing that it is possible that the negative link between aspiration and deprivation can be broken. This is what the Labour academies programme was about.
The Bill represents a new approach. It simply does not compare with the Labour academies programme and does not provide all the support that we used to give to deprived schools. We are very proud of what the programme has achieved. The programme at which we are looking does not represent a continuation of Labour's programme. Labour is proud of the achievements of the pioneering academies. As the Minister rightly pointed out, when we were in government we committed to doubling the number of academies to 400. In so doing, we committed to create real benefits for the most disadvantaged children. However, I note that in the impact assessment for this Bill, the Government have struggled to demonstrate real benefit resulting from their policy of rolling out a scheme which was designed to transform failing schools to the highest performing schools in this country. There is a real issue there.
I believe very strongly that there is a good argument, as the Minister stressed-and we should make no mistake about this-for successful schools to be given more autonomy and flexibility, provided that it is clearly on the basis of fair admissions and funding, and a recognition of, and commitment to, their wider social improvement responsibilities. When in government, we understood that to excel schools need to be interconnected with their communities and supported by their local authorities. It seems to me that unless robust safeguards are in place, there will be serious implications for local communities, local children's services and, indeed, for the schools which are left behind. There are real issues about which the Minister needs to think carefully, as I know he will.
The Minister must answer the question: will creating so many academies in already successful schools create a two-tier system? He tells us that it will not, but we need to know what the safeguards are to ensure that that is not the case. Funding for schools is allocated to local authorities on a formula, taking into account local costs, needs and deprivation. Some funding is retained by the local authority to pay for services
7 Jun 2010 : Column 511
The new academies will, in a similar way to the existing academies, receive all their per-pupil funding as well as their share of the local authority central funds. As the need for these services varies, and already outstanding schools are often less likely to need particular kinds of support than other schools, this could create funding shortfalls in support of the remaining local authority schools. A real issue needs to be thought through there. The per-pupil amount received by academy schools would, as a result of this, be greater than that for neighbouring schools. As the budget for centrally provided services will fall as a result, these other schools will lose important support. We need to understand where the Government are going with that. Under the existing academy scheme, this creates a transfer of extra funds to those schools most in need of extra support. However, under the new scheme, where most new academies will already be outstanding schools, resources will be shifted to those schools which are already performing well. This is the two-tier threat to which Dame Margaret Eaton referred when she voiced her concerns about a possible two-tier system and disadvantaged children losing out. At no point does the coalition explain the impact that this may have on other schools in the area. There must also be clarity on the impact on nursery education, and on care for three and four year-olds, because this is causing a great deal of concern outside your Lordships' House.
As with funding, we need clarity on the admissions code. Local authorities are the admissions authorities for all schools except academies. There is a great deal to be said about academy agreements, which I do not have time to go into here. Greatly increasing the number of academies will have implications for admissions planning. The Government must be clear about how they will respond to this. There are implications particularly for children in care who currently have priority. Will that be maintained with a much greater number of academies? There are implications, too, for disabled children and those with special needs. How will they be catered for by the new model? For example, parents of children with autism are already reporting problems with the admissions arrangements for current academies. How will this translate across the system? In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats were particularly concerned about fair admissions and said that they would replace academies entirely with sponsor-managed schools accountable to local authorities and not to Whitehall. I would be interested to know the Liberal Democrat view. I know that they want to position themselves separately, as well as being part of the coalition.
Our academy programme was one part of a national approach designed to ensure that every school in this country was a good school. This approach led to a significant fall in the number of schools failing to achieve the 30 per cent benchmark that we set of five
7 Jun 2010 : Column 512
I agreed with my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley when she said that it is the quality of teaching that makes the most difference to children from poor backgrounds and disadvantaged areas. I am glad that the Minister, too, liked that contribution. Like my noble friend, I look forward to hearing much more from the coalition Government about the policies that will help with that. When in government, our aim was to make teaching a masters-level profession, with time off to train and a new teaching masters qualification. We enshrined in our Children, Schools and Families Bill a licence to teach that incorporated both time off for continuous professional development and an ongoing assessment of teacher training and development; but sadly, the Conservatives objected to that in wash-up.
This is not part of what I would see as a progressive education policy. I recognise that the Bill is permissive and not coercive; but, as ever, it will be what is not in it that will give greatest cause for concern. It has not enshrined the aspirations that we had in government for a progressive academies programme; and it does not represent a good place to start the coalition Government's programme. If the teaching unions, Matrix Chambers, early-years specialists, local government leaders and parents' groups are to be believed, the Bill will need an awful lot of attention in your Lordships' House. We shall need to work really hard to get it into the kind of shape that it needs to be in before we can comfortably send it down to the other end. With my noble friends Lady Royall and Lady Crawley and our Back-Benchers, I look forward very much to working with the Government to get the Bill into a much better shape.
Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister to his new position. I spoke on Wednesday, not Thursday, last week, so I did not have a chance to do so on that occasion but I am glad to have the opportunity now. I am afraid that I heard only the last half of his maiden speech, but I read it all and agree with everyone else that it represented a most auspicious beginning in this House. I am sure that we shall all enjoy working with him.
It is possible to have more than one view of our education system-it depends on what you choose to look at. This was graphically illustrated when we
7 Jun 2010 : Column 513
On the other hand, the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for the Opposition, made great play of the fact that 40 per cent of pupils leave primary school without being able to read, write or add up properly; half of all pupils do not get five good GCSEs, including English and maths; and every day more than 300 children are suspended from school for assaulting another child. On Thursday, the Minister described this state of affairs as unacceptable and referred to the fact that the UK has fallen from eighth to 24th in maths, from seventh to 17th in reading and from fourth to 14th in science. In his speech introducing the Bill to the House this afternoon, he gave further evidence of ways in which the education that we provide in our schools is not coming up to scratch. A major extension of academies is therefore the Government's prescription but I very much welcome the non-dogmatic way in which the Minister introduced it.
In the debate last Thursday, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, described herself as "deeply suspicious" of the Government's expanded academies programme. I do not know whether I would go as far as that; I would rather describe myself as agnostic. The local authority system has a proud tradition and provides a framework within which consistency can at least be aspired to. With the proliferation of academies, there are understandable worries about the development of a two-tier system, although I suppose that the more academies there are, the less risk there is of that happening. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said in the Guardian recently, the coalition may underestimate the role of state action in promoting equality. I think that the evidence on academies is equivocal and that the jury is still out on how effective they are, but this is the Government's approach. We must hope that having a greater diversity of institutions will help to drive up standards and we must work to make academies as fit for purpose as we can.
The Academies Bill is largely about the process that has to be gone through to establish academy status. As such, it contains relatively little about how an academy has to conduct itself. According to Clause 1(6), it must give an undertaking to provide a,
However, there is nothing about how the academy is supposed to do that, and it is to this omission that I wish to direct the rest of my remarks. In other words, the question that I wish to address is how the Bill can be disability-proofed and what we need to do to make it fit for purpose to meet the needs of pupils with
7 Jun 2010 : Column 514
Twenty-one per cent of children have some form of special educational need. The latest evidence shows that the overall percentage of pupils with special educational needs across academies is 33 per cent-considerably more than the average for England as a whole, which stood at 18 per cent-and that 12 per cent of children with special education needs achieve five GCSEs at A* to C level, compared with 57 per cent of their peers. These statistics vividly demonstrate that a key test of the Government's academies policy will be how they improve outcomes and experiences for children with special educational needs.
The coalition Government's commitment that all new academies will operate a fair and non-selective admissions policy, as well as Clause 1(5), is a positive sign that the Government believe that addressing the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities should be a priority for academies. However, as presently drafted, the Bill does not go far enough or into sufficient detail as to how academies are supposed to do this. Academies do not have the same duty to use their best endeavours to meet the needs of children with special educational needs-a duty which Section 317 of the Education Act 1996 places on maintained schools. There is a lack of clarity as to whether the special educational needs code of practice must be followed.
The most obvious way of remedying this deficiency would be to require that Part IV of the Education Act 1996 should apply to academies as it does to maintained schools. This contains what is commonly known as the SEN framework, which makes provision, so far as pupils with special educational needs are concerned, for the assessment and statementing process, admissions, delivery, the need to have regard to the SEN code of practice and so on. Exclusions and discipline, as they relate to pupils with SEN, are dealt with elsewhere in education legislation. As we go through the Bill, I shall seek amendments to ensure that the SEN framework applies to academies as it does to maintained schools.
Organisations representing disabled people and the field of special education have a number of other concerns about the Bill. They feel that there is a lack of accountability in the arrangements of existing academies. Funding agreements can be inaccessible to parents and cannot be used to obtain a remedy if there is a problem. Those organisations want parents to have a strong voice in the new system, whereby they can work with academies to ensure that their children get the right support, the challenging curriculum and the positive outcomes that they deserve. The SEN framework in current legislation gives parents the means to ensure that their child's SEN are met. These principles remain valid. Academies are independent schools that are funded directly by the Secretary of State and are accountable mainly through the funding agreement, rather than the education Acts.
This raises important questions about how academies will be accountable to parents of children with SEN and disabilities. Empowering parents to engage with their child's education is key to driving up standards
7 Jun 2010 : Column 515
There are concerns, too, about what will be the effect of weakening LEAs, which is bound to be the result of a great expansion of academies. Local authorities currently offer a range of specialist support services for low-incidence special educational needs, such as hearing and visual impairments. Schools cannot be expected to have that specialist expertise to address every individual need, so the ability to access external services is critical. As schools increasingly receive funding direct from central government and local authority education functions are reduced, it is critical that this specialist expertise in SEN and disability is not lost.
A body with an overview of local need, such as an LEA, is able to plan services that, due to low demand, an open market would be unlikely to be able to provide at a reasonable cost. It may prove significantly more expensive for schools to commission these specialist services on a case-by-case basis-always assuming that the expertise is not lost in transition as the LEAs wind down their role and academies gear up for meeting special educational needs. That is what happened in the transition to local management of schools some 20 years ago, and we need to learn the lessons of that experience. I would welcome the Minister's clarification of the Government's view on how the strategic role of local authorities is to be maintained and what alternative ways of commissioning specialist support services are envisaged if local authorities no longer provide them.
Finally, there are a number of other, more detailed requirements applying to maintained schools that benefit children with special educational needs and disabilities, some of which do not apply to academies. Examples of those requirements include the following. Maintained schools are required to ensure that their special educational needs co-ordinator, or SENCO, is a qualified teacher. Maintained schools are required to participate in behaviour and attendance partnerships, which seek to reduce the number of children with special educational needs who are permanently excluded from school. Also, the Local Government Ombudsman can consider the actions of maintained schools that are failing to make provision for pupils with statements.
Those are just some of the aspects of the special education legislation that is intended to protect the interests of the most vulnerable children in our school system-children with special educational needs. These aspects are present in current legislation but are signally absent from the Academies Bill. Along with organisations that are versed in the field of special education, I shall be anxious to seek substantial amendment of the Bill in order to ensure that the protections that exist in current legislation for children with special educational needs are imported into the academies legislation.
The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate in my capacity as chair of the Church of England Board of Education and the council of the National Society which, next year, celebrates 200 years of delivering excellent education across all communities and throughout the country. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has consulted us and co-operated with us as this Bill has made its way to this particular point in the process.
There is much in this Bill that we welcome. We want to be helpful so that it can be fit for purpose-a phrase already used several times in this debate-and enable us to continue to fulfil our long-standing commitment to first-class education for all as an expression of our calling to promote what Jesus called,
The Church of England is the biggest provider of academies-27, with 15 in the pipeline. We are in the business for two reasons only. First, it is a key part of our mission to the most disadvantaged communities in our country. Secondly, it is part of our desire to create 100 new church secondary schools, as recommended by the late Lord Dearing in his report in 2001. Currently, no fewer than 34,000 children, all in areas of significant social deprivation, are being educated in Church of England-sponsored academies.
However, the proposals before us today significantly shift the basis on which we have engaged with the academies programme so far. We identify entirely with the Secretary of State's desire to encourage greater independence for schools with a good track record, but not if outstanding status is largely attributable to particular admissions policies or at the expense of neighbouring schools. That would skew the academy culture towards the more privileged and away from the more disadvantaged in our society, so the Church of England's commitment to disadvantaged pupils and their families-the reason for our being in the academies programme at all-would be diluted. We welcome the Minister's reassurances on that point in terms of the Bill's intentions but, as it stands, we must remain sceptical.
Of course, we welcome the provisions in the Bill for the automatic transfer of religious character and for the protection of land and title, which mirrors that of the current wave of academies-although there are a number of technical issues about the transfer of land, trust deeds, capital and even VAT to which I am sure that others will refer in this debate and which need further attention.
Whether any of our church schools choose to convert to academy status will be greatly influenced by how such issues are resolved. If in the detail the devil resides, we will definitely be supping with the devil on a regular basis over the next few weeks.
The question of what determines the religious character of the school is key. Ethos, values, and curriculum design will all be of critical significance, but so will three matters directly pertaining to the Bill: governance, admissions and partnerships. Let me spend a little time on each in turn. The Bill gives no detail about governance arrangements for schools converting to
7 Jun 2010 : Column 517
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|