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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 4:10 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Perry on securing this important debate and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.

Delivering the best schools is a key part of this Government’s long-term economic plan that is successfully driving Britain forward. We want every child to have the opportunity to go to a good local school where they can acquire the knowledge, skills and values that they need to fulfil their potential and succeed in life.

We now have 1 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools—more than ever before—and this is under a tougher inspection framework. Under the previous Administration, our schools fell dramatically down the international league tables, with the number of pupils studying an academic core at GCSE falling from 50% to 22%. Our reforms to GCSEs are helping to reverse the decline, with the figure now back up by 71% to 39%.

We have also toughened up the curriculum to ensure that every child has the knowledge and understanding to succeed. This builds on groundwork in primary settings, with our focus on phonics helping 100,000 more six year-olds to decode simple words and learn the joy of reading. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, talked about having the confidence to be learners. My noble friends Lord Harris and Lord Forsyth also spoke of the importance of confidence, and these early programmes are instilling this.

As our young people progress through education, the new Progress 8 headline measure will stop the focus on the C/D borderline and reward schools for teaching all their pupils well in all their subjects and for every increase in grade in every subject. Picking up points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Jones, this measure gives more scope to include arts qualifications, as it measures eight subjects instead of five. It allows schools to include English, maths, three of the EBacc subjects and any other three approved vocational or academic subjects. Therefore, it allows greater value to be given to arts subjects if that is what suits the pupil.

These achievements, of which we are rightly proud, form just part of our school reforms, which are helping to build the citizens of the future. The Government recognise that the school environment impacts on a child’s learning and their attainment. That is why we took swift action following Ofsted’s findings in 2013 that 700,000 pupils were in schools where behaviour was not good enough. We have updated our behaviour advice to schools to make it as simple as possible, reducing the overall amount of advice on behaviour and related issues from 600 to 60 pages. My noble friend Lord Lucas made mention of behaviour in his contribution. We can see the fruits of that already, with three-quarters of teachers saying that behaviour in their schools is good or better than when this Government came to office, and the number of persistent truants fell by more than 30% during the last academic year.

School buildings also have a bearing on children’s learning. We are spending £18 billion in this Parliament building or improving almost 900 schools, with more than 200 new school buildings having been completed since the election. We are targeting that money on the schools that need it most, but of course there is more to be done. In addition, as an economy, we have halved the costs of running the department in real terms.

One of the key achievements that we inherited was the academy programme. Thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, whom I am delighted to see in his place, these grew alongside the city technology colleges introduced by my noble friend Lord Baker. When we came into power, there were 203 academies—15 of them CTCs—and that number has now grown to more than 4,000. A key pillar of the Government’s school reforms is the academies and free schools programme, which we are complementing with reforms designed to give power back to teachers and heads.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, commented on the academy reserves. It is right that schools should plan for the future and keep some funding in reserve. Academies are prohibited from operating while insolvent, so naturally they will hold a higher cash balance than maintained schools, which, in contrast, are allowed to run up deficit budgets. However, we exactly take her point that this must all be in proportion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, among others, referred to the House of Commons Education Select Committee report on academies and free schools, which has just been published. The committee’s research has led to wide-ranging recommendations. It acknowledges that it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall. It concludes that both academies and state-maintained schools have a role to play in system-wide improvement by looking outwards and accepting challenges to ensure high quality education for all children. At this point I pay tribute to the contribution of the right reverend Prelate when he set out the part played by the Church, which has always been significant over the centuries.

We are firmly on the side of people who want to work hard, get on and provide a decent education for their children so that they can reach their full potential. Parents, teachers, faith groups and social entrepreneurs who are successful in the rigorous application process have opened new state schools, and more than 250 free schools are up and running. Seven in 10 mainstream free schools are delivering good quality places in areas which need school places. More than half have been set up in our most deprived communities. My noble friend Lady Perry, the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lady Evans referred to the locations of these schools. Once fully operational, all existing and planned free schools will provide around 200,000 new places, and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Evans for her work with the new school networks.

The noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Whitty, referred to the need for strong governance. Certainly this Government take that very seriously. Academies and free schools are subject to more rigorous oversight than maintained schools and the regional school commissioners increased the oversight and promotion of effective governance in academies and free schools. My noble friend Lord Forsyth reminded us that educational initiatives are often not really new. It is a case of déjà vu all over again.

These additional places are run alongside £5 billion of funding for school places and the 250,000 more school places available since 2010, with plenty more in the pipeline. Almost a quarter of free schools are rated outstanding compared to a fifth of other schools. Free schools up and down the country are making the most of their freedoms to raise the standard of education for their pupils and 84% of free schools collaborate with neighbouring schools, or plan to. Around half have an extended school day.

To come back to the university technical colleges and studio schools, I commend my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott for her work as a patron of the Rye Studio School which gives young people a unique opportunity to learn the skills needed for a career in the creative industries, which play such a vital part in our national life. The UTCs and studio schools bridge the gap between educational provision and the job market by putting employers in the driving seat to design a curriculum that reflects the technical skills needed for successful careers in their industries, as my noble friend Lord Baker set out so clearly. I welcome the fact that the percentage of NEETs by the end of 2013 was 7.6% compared to 10% in 2009 for those students who had been to UTCs and studio schools.

I was also interested in the concept of the intelligent hands, or indeed intelligent digits, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, mentioned. Obviously the impact of technology affects us all. A number of noble Lords mentioned the recent reports of faith-free schools—my noble friend Lord Farmer and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey came at this from very different perspectives. We have made clear our expectation that all schools should actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs. Ofsted’s embedding of fundamental British values within its inspection frameworks for all types of school means that every school in England can and will be held accountable for its performance on fundamental British values.

What is important in regard to individual schools is to look at the inspection reports. The schools that have been highlighted as giving cause for concern have weaknesses in a number of areas and we are working closely with these schools to resolve the issues. My noble friend Lord Farmer raised concerns about the inspection of faith aspects, and I understand that inspectors are trained to ask appropriate questions, which take account of the ages of different pupils to get at some of the difficult issues, such as prejudiced-based bullying. Inspectors need to ask pupils questions, but I assure the noble Lord that the promotion of fundamental British values, democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect of tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs should not be new to schools. It has always been at the heart of effective, spiritual, moral, social and cultural education.

This Government’s structural reforms are also tightly focused on turning failing schools around. We have increased the number of sponsored academies by more than 1,000, which has transformed the life chances of thousands of pupils. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and my noble friend Lord Knight. I am sorry; it is the other way around. It is the noble Lord, Lord Knight and my noble friend Lord Harris—although we are all friends in this House. They, along with other successful academy sponsors across the country, have transformed the life chances of thousands of pupils. It was most heartening to hear my noble friend Lord Harris speak of the success of his academies.

As sponsored academies mature, they continue to improve. In sponsored academies open for three years, the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths has increased at double the rate in local authority maintained schools; 12% against 6%. We have also enabled good or outstanding schools to enjoy the benefits of autonomy, and more than 3,000 schools have seized the opportunity to raise standards by varying the curriculum, extending the length of their school day and employing the best teachers.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, all made reference to the impact of technology. Indeed, we cannot ignore the fact that technology and digital learning open up more innovative ways of teaching and learning. The Select Committee report recommends that curriculum freedom be made available to all schools. As for primary schools, the first primary sponsored academies that opened in September 2012 have seen the proportion of pupils achieving level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths increase by 9% since opening. This is double the rate of improvement across all schools, which stands at 4%.

While a place at a good school and an environment that encourages learning is critical, the Government recognise that, in some cases, pupils need further support to ensure that they are able and ready to learn. Nutrition is the foundation of effective learning and development, which is why we are funding free school meals for all infant school pupils. Already, we are seeing some very positive results in learning, behaviour and health. We have also provided additional funding for disadvantaged children through our flagship policy, the pupil premium, so effectively promoted by my right honourable friend David Laws. This is worth £2.5 billion this year, and £8.8bn in total, to close the gap and aid social mobility.

The proportion of disadvantaged pupils at key stage 2 achieving the expected level in reading, writing and maths combined rose by 6% between 2012 and 2014, and the gap narrowed by 2% over the same period. In its pupil premium update report published in July 2014, Ofsted noted:

“The pupil premium is making a positive difference in many schools, especially where there is good or outstanding leadership and a school-wide commitment to raising achievement for pupils who are eligible for free school meals. Most schools are now using the pupil premium funding more successfully to raise attainment for eligible pupils.”

We know that the barriers to educational achievement can arise from a child’s early years, which is why we are extending the pupil premium, with £50 million of funding for the early years pupil premium. My noble friend Lord Storey set out eloquently the importance of the early years in children’s development.

My noble friend Lord Addington spoke passionately of the importance of children with special educational needs, including those with dyslexia, getting the support they need, and of the importance of training for staff. The reforms introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014, which came into effect in September, are designed to work for all children and young people, regardless of their type of need. We are taking action to improve professional development across the piece. This includes improving training for the early years workforce, developing specialist resources for initial teacher training and funding an online portal, the

SEND gateway, offering access to free, high-quality information and resources. We have also funded around 11,000 new SENCOs, through the master’s-level national award for SEN co-ordination. In response to my noble friend Lord Storey, we will review the impact of SEN reforms over the next few years and report to Parliament.

None of our reforms would be achievable without the dedication of our invaluable teacher workforce and, as my noble friend Lord Harris reminded us, of the support staff, too. This Government are fully committed to stripping back the back the bureaucracy and unnecessary workload that can stand in the way of teachers doing their jobs and compromise their well-being. We have increased school autonomy and streamlined duties, guidance and paperwork for schools. We are taking further steps to address teacher workload. Our recent Workload Challenge received more than 44,000 responses from teachers, and we are working closely with teachers, unions and other organisations to come up with an action plan to tackle unnecessary workload.

We are helping schools focus on effective professional development by spreading outstanding evidence-based practice through a growing network of more than 600 teaching schools. Our A World-Class Teaching Profession consultation, which closes on 3 February, proposes that we establish a new fund for high-quality evidence-based professional development for teachers.

We have excellent teachers in our classrooms, with record levels of highly motivated top graduates entering the profession. Our School Direct programme, the significant expansion of Teach First, bursaries and scholarships are helping encourage even more talented teachers into the classroom. Our reforms to teachers’ pay and conditions enable schools to reward performance and attract and retain the best teachers.

As my noble friends Lord Lucas and Lord Addington mentioned, teaching is unique among the professions in not having an independent body to represent the promotion and development of the profession. We agree that this should be rectified. Our A World-Class Teaching Profession consultation sets out the support the Government are willing to offer those in the sector seeking to establish a new independent professional body—perhaps a royal college of teaching. Expressions of interest are welcome until the close of the consultation period on 3 February.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Perry that it is disappointing that the NUT and NASUWT remain in dispute with the Department for Education over pay, pensions and conditions. The Government’s reforms are vital towards securing high-quality teaching—the most important factor in a child’s education. The department continues to work with all teaching unions on matters of policy implementation through the ongoing programme of talks.

Our aspiration is for all our schools to prepare all our young people for life in modern Britain, to inspire them academically but also to develop a range of character attributes, such as those outlined by the right reverend Prelate—resilience and grit—which underpin success in education and employment. To achieve this, we are investing £5 million to expand capacity in character education, build evidence of what works and deliver a national awards scheme to recognise existing excellence. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, we are currently reviewing ASDAN’s certificate of professional effectiveness and its position in performance tables, but I will pass the noble Lord’s request for a meeting on to the Secretary of State.

My noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott spoke with her passionate expertise about the importance of preparing young people for life, for the transition to adulthood and work, and helping them to find their destiny. I note her point about a personal coach for young disadvantaged people. I am afraid I cannot promise her that—that is way above my pay grade—but I will take back her request to the department.

There has been much concern about the quality and quantity of careers education but we are addressing this with the establishment of a new careers and enterprise company, which will transform the provision of careers education and advice for young people and inspire them to take control of and shape their own futures. Published destination measures clearly indicate how successful a school has been at preparing its pupils to progress to an apprenticeship or other forms of education or training, or secure work. I note and appreciate the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on the importance of vocational education and skills. The key stage 4 measure is included in school performance tables and we have received overwhelming support for our proposal for destination measures to be a top-line performance measure. Ofsted is ensuring that careers guidance and pupil destinations will be given greater priority in inspections.

My noble friend Lady Perry expressed disappointment that Ofsted reforms have not yet taken place. I assure my noble friend that the Government have looked carefully into these reform proposals and agree that the highest importance must be given to issues of leadership and quality in inspection and that inspection teams should have appropriate experience in the areas that they inspect.

By creating a system which gives schools the freedom to innovate while also holding them to a higher level of accountability, we are giving our children and young people an educational foundation enabling them to fulfil their potential and succeed in life. This has been a stimulating and wide-ranging debate. If I have not responded to all the issues raised, I hope to do so in writing. Meanwhile, I repeat my thanks to my noble friend Lady Perry for initiating the debate and to all noble Lords for such insightful contributions.