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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for initiating this debate and I am sorry to rain on her parade. Over the past couple of days in education the outside world has heard that the Commons Education Select Committee has concluded that there is no convincing evidence for any improvement in standards in academies and free schools. Today we have seen league tables that, on the face of it, show a dip in the improvement in performance. That has provoked huge rows with every aspect of schools, public and private, and of all statuses, about the validity or otherwise of those league tables. The picture out there is not quite as rosy as we have heard for much of the debate.
Before the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, jumps in, I can tell him that he would be quite correct to say that I have never been exactly in favour of the academies programme. I have to tell my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Knight that I was not a great enthusiast even in their day—but I do support the objective of the Labour Party’s programme, which was to help failing schools, schools whose local authority was failing them, or schools in disadvantaged areas. As we have heard, some of that has worked amazingly well. However, this Government’s approach, from the word go, has been to start with the best schools in a locality and get them out of the local authority system, with the ultimate objective of having all schools outside that system. I find that a very difficult proposition, which, as my noble friend Lady Massey indicated, will lead to greater social segregation—some by religion and race—and to a reduction, not an increase, in social mobility.
The Commons Select Committee has found a more nuanced situation. It has found that some academies have done amazingly well. I am aware of that and acknowledge it. Some have seen a great improvement in pupils’ performance, behaviour, morale and results. However, the committee also found that a large number of academies have not seen such improvements, their pupils have shown a mediocre performance, and that some academy pupils did worse than pupils in maintained schools. Academisation is not a panacea for improved performance, whatever one’s ideological position. I admit that I am instinctively against taking things out of local authority control. Therefore, I do not like the idea of a large chunk of education coming out of local authority control. I should declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA, but I am not speaking for that body in this context.
Whatever the structure of schools and their governance, one thing that local authorities ought to have responsibility for is ensuring an adequate number of future school places in their localities. They need to have at least a 10-year time horizon for ensuring that the population in their areas can be educated. Other noble Lords have concentrated on performance and results in this changing structure of education, but I wish to look mainly at the planning aspects of this and the result of having a two-tier system—that is, academies outside local authority control and maintained schools. The net result of that is that education policy has become hugely centralised albeit the Government are supposedly committed to localism. Every academy is theoretically responsible for its resources to the Department for Education, the Minister and Whitehall and not to its own local authority.
The Government are also in favour of parental choice. I think that all of us are but the fact of the matter is that because of the lack of planning, which can really only be done at the local level, many parents are not able to get their children not only into their preferred first choice but also into any school within their locality. One in five parents now finds great difficulty in getting their children started in a primary school. Instead of a Government committed to increasing the number of schools and improving their capacity, we have a Government whose first step in this Parliament was to slash the new school building programme. That was ideology rather than forward planning. Free schools are hardly taking up the slack. Fewer than one in five free schools is in an area of high or severe place shortage, according to the National Audit Office, and 30% of free schools are in places where there is no pressure on places in schools, so the allocation of support and the establishment of free schools is by no means dealing with the problem.
At present, there is a squeeze on the number of places in most parts of the country. London authorities say that they will need a further 70,000 primary school places by this year. Schools are already feeling the pinch. Some authorities are having to commandeer mobile homes, police stations, offices and church halls. Alternatively, they are having to increase staff ratios beyond the recommended level and one or two boroughs are considering split-shift sessions, with one group of pupils being taught from 8 am to 2 pm and another in the afternoon. The provision of school places has failed to recognise the demographic pressure in large parts of our urban areas. That will only get worse as the latest estimates indicate that by 2021 we will need 350,000 additional places in secondary schools and half a million additional places at primary level. Who will plan for that? The Department for Education is not planning for it, although it is looking at the statistics passively, and some of those statistics are actually departmental statistics. The local authorities cannot plan to meet this need effectively when a large chunk of the schools in their areas are not subject to their oversight, let alone control.
The fact that local authorities do not have enough leverage means that addressing future shortages of school places is very difficult to do at local authority level. In one context, the Government have recognised that you need an intermediate structure and have invented a new level of bureaucracy and a non-democratic structure with the introduction of the regional schools commissioners. I recognise that the Conservative Party is now in favour of commissars in the same way that the early Bolsheviks were, but you need some democratic control and some intention of providing education in the context of the development of the community as a whole. I am not in favour of local authorities running schools and am in favour of diversity of provision and innovation. However, local authorities need to be in pole position as regards planning for school places and developing the number of school places that are needed in their area. Local authorities have to do that job: no one else can.