Academies Bill [HL] — Second Reading
Lord Low of Dalston (Crossbench)
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 debated the previous Government's Children, Schools and Families Bill in this House last March. On the one hand, the then Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, could claim that we had the highest ever standards of education in this country. She pointed to the increased capital investment, the 4,000 new, rebuilt or significantly refurbished schools, more than 40,000 more teachers than in 1997 and more than 20,000 support staff.
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,
"balanced and broadly based curriculum",
"education for pupils of different abilities".
According to Clause 1(5), it must be organised,
"to make special educational provision for pupils with special educational needs".
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 special educational needs. I should declare my interest in these matters as a vice-president of the Royal National Institute of Blind People.
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 in 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 and is something which the Government should wish to foster. I am sure that the intention behind the academies programme is not to reduce the role of parents in relation to their child's education; however, there remains the problem that, even where the statements contained in a funding agreement are clear, they do not offer parents the same right to redress and protection that is offered by the current legislation. Here again we need to import into the academies framework the protection for the parent's voice contained in the current legislation.
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.