My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who showed an interest in this Bill during the humble Address debate on the Queen’s Speech last week. I welcome the shared interest in delivering high-quality education, and in keeping our children safe, that was witnessed across all sides of the House.
Over the past 12 years, we have seen great improvements to the school system. The proportion of schools rated good or outstanding has increased by 19 percentage points, from 68% in 2010 to 87% in 2019. While my predecessors delivered significant progress, the Government recognise that yet more must be done to level up the school system. We must, therefore, bring forward vital reforms which will support children, schools, teachers and parents. This Government have a vision to create a fairer and stronger school system that works for every child. All children should have a safe and effective education and, as both Houses have consistently argued, we must ensure that no child is left falling through the cracks.
In March, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education published the schools White Paper, setting out the Government’s long-term vision for a school system that helps every child to fulfil their potential by ensuring that they receive the right support, in the right place, and at the right time, founded on achieving world-class literacy and numeracy. This included our ambition that, by 2030, 90% of primary school children will achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas of the country will have increased by a third.
The Bill sits within a wider programme of steps that we are taking to deliver this ambition, including a parent pledge for any child who falls behind in English or maths, investment in teacher training, teacher starting salaries set to rise to £30,000, a new arm’s-length curriculum body, and the creation of education investment areas to increase funding and support to areas most need in need, plus extra funding in priority areas facing the most entrenched challenges.
This Bill seeks to level up standards by supporting every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong trust. To achieve this, we must play our role in ensuring system quality by rethinking the way in which we uphold trust standards, so that our legislative framework is fit for purpose for a fully trust-led system. We are seeking the power to deliver, for the first time, a coherent single set of regulations on academy standards. This will set transparent, publicly available standards that academies must meet, replacing a diverse set of contractual and funding arrangements with each individual trust. Alongside this, we are seeking new intervention powers, to ensure that action can be taken to tackle serious failure if it occurs. These measures will lay the foundations for a successful, fully trust-led system.
We must also ensure that all schools can feel comfortable joining a trust without losing their individual characteristics. That is why we are putting clear protections for faith schools and grammar schools into primary legislation to provide confidence that their unique characteristics can be retained within an academy trust. We recognise that local authorities can play an important role in this journey, so we are giving them the ability to request conversion of their schools. Outside the Bill, we also plan to enable local authorities to establish their own trusts.
To build a genuine level playing field for children, we need to ensure an equitable distribution of resources. There remains too much variation in funding between comparable schools in this country. That is not right, and our long-planned reforms for funding will be delivered through the Bill, enabling us to resolve it.
The Government have already made great progress in reforming the school funding system. In 2018 we introduced the national funding formula, a system which meant that local authority areas received consistent funding based on a single formula for the first time. However, the current system still means that the local authority’s own formulae determine how much each school is ultimately allocated.
The Bill takes us to the next step, moving to a direct national funding formula, meaning that each mainstream school is allocated funding on the same basis, wherever it is in the country, and each child can be given the same opportunities, based on a consistent assessment of their needs.
The Bill also introduces new measures on attendance. Clearly, to benefit from a high-quality school education, consistent attendance is vital. We made good progress in the years between 2009-10 and 2018-19, with levels of pupil absence falling from 6% to 4.7%, meaning that students were spending an extra 15 million days in school. That being said, the Government understand that more needs to be done. Pre-pandemic levels of persistent absenteeism were at one in nine pupils, and these figures have risen further during the pandemic. We recognise that these absences greatly enlarge the gap between vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils and their peers. We know that schools are working hard to ensure that pupils are attending lessons, but reforms are needed to provide them with the right support to do this effectively.
The Bill will require schools to publish an attendance policy, as well as putting attendance guidance for schools, trusts, governing bodies and local authorities on a statutory footing, making roles and responsibilities clearer. This will build on their existing work on attendance and deliver greater consistency of support for families across England, and focus better, more targeted multi-agency support on the pupils who need it most.
The Bill also seeks to deliver this Government’s commitment to introduce registers of children not in schools—something that this House has persistently debated and rightly requested. The Government acknowledge the great value that a good home education can bring and support the principle of choice for parents, but we know that some children miss out on high-quality, full-time education because they are missing from the system.
In 2020-21, there was an estimated 34% increase in children whose parents chose to educate them outside the school system at some point during that period. The children not in school registers will provide accurate data and enable local authorities to identify children in their areas who are not receiving efficient, full-time education. We also recognise the need to support families who are home educating, and therefore we will require local authorities to offer support to interested parents of registered home-educated students.
The Bill will protect more children by expanding registration requirements for more educational settings that provide all, or the majority of, a child’s education. We will work closely with Ofsted, enhancing its powers to investigate registered independent educational institutions that are breaching relevant restrictions and unregistered independent educational institutions that are being conducted unlawfully. These additional enforcement powers will provide the ability to suspend registration pending further investigation.
This Bill will also broaden the scope of the current teacher misconduct regime so that it includes more educational settings. This will ensure that children who receive their education at further education colleges, special post-16 institutions, independent training providers, online education providers and some independent educational institutions will be protected and safeguarded by the teacher misconduct regime. It will clarify that teachers who have committed misconduct at any time when not employed to undertake teaching work can be investigated by the Secretary of State, and that misconduct uncovered by departmental officials can be referred without the need for it to be referred by a party external to the department.
I feel hugely optimistic about what we will collectively deliver once this Bill has had the benefit of the minds and experience in this Chamber. The Bill provides the opportunity to continue progress in reforming the school system so that it works for all children, supports teachers and provides parents with the confidence that their child is receiving the best and safest possible education. Reforming the school system is not a quick fix and work will carry on long after we consider the legislation before us today, but this Bill takes essential strides towards creating a stronger, fairer and safer school system that will improve the education of children across this country. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the Minister, and I very much welcome the tone of her words. Obviously, we have concerns about the Bill and the missed opportunity that it represents, but I look forward to working with her and getting to know her as we try to improve this legislation.
Before I begin, I wish to acknowledge the work of my noble friend Lord Watson, who held this post before me. I hope he does not mind me saying how fortunate I feel to have someone like him sitting behind me to guide me and allow me to benefit from his experience and knowledge as the Bill proceeds.
Although there are welcome measures in the Bill, it is a profound disappointment to us because it is a missed opportunity. We feel that it shows that the Government have barely begun the thinking that is needed to address the immediate challenges faced by our schools. Right now, 200,000 children are in areas without a good or outstanding primary school, secondary school class sizes are growing, children are leaving education without the skills they need, mental health needs are unmet, particularly since the pandemic, and the Government are not saying anything of any substance about social mobility or careers advice. Teachers, Ofsted and the Government’s own early years review expressed concerns over the rise in reception children who are not school-ready—and we know how difficult it is for those children to catch up later in their school lives.
Unfortunately, there is much more to say about what is missing from the Bill than about what is there. The Bill lacks an ambitious, substantial plan to support children’s recovery from the pandemic. The OECD tells us that older children, and even 16 to 24 year-olds in England, have worse literacy and numeracy than those in comparable counties. Where are the proposals to improve teaching standards or to tackle the exodus of burnt-out school staff? Where are the measures to equip our students with the skills they need for the industries of the future in an ever-more globalised and technologically advanced economy? After 12 years, the Tories are still not sure about what academies are for, and the Bill proves it. If the point is freedom, why is the Education Secretary seeking direct rule over their standards? I think we know why. It is for the same reason that the Government have taken to using legislation to give Ministers powers to act, rather than being clear about what they intend to do with those powers. It is because the Government are running out of ideas and energy, and on this topic we simply cannot afford for that to happen.
With an 80-seat majority and able effectively to make any changes they like, the Government could be doing so much more, but they are seeking to confer unprecedented powers on the Education Secretary without, it seems, any clue about the direction they want to go in or how they want to act to help children and families. In taking these powers on a whole range of issues, from the curriculum to the length of the school day, Ministers have not explained—they really ought to—what they intend to do with these powers. They might find that there is agreement across the House. We agree that the national curriculum should apply to academies. Is that what the Government think? If so, let us discuss it—and why then would the Secretary of State want the power when there could be agreement across the House?
For all the White Paper’s claims to be following the evidence, the Office for Statistics Regulation had to write to the Department for Education to highlight issues around the transparency, replicability and, most importantly, quality of the statistics presented in the evidence note underpinning the White Paper. We are concerned about this: pushing ahead with full academisation without being clear why the Government are doing it and without having evidence to support the plan—the ideology about structures—when what is needed is a focus on educational attainment, standards and children’s experience in the classroom.
We on these Benches have proposed a national excellence programme, which would drive up standards and make sure that every child leaves school job-ready and life-ready. We would end charitable status for private schools and use the money saved to fill workforce vacancies. Our children’s recovery plan would deliver small-group tutoring for all who need it, as well as breakfast clubs and after-school activities for every child, quality mental health support for children in every school, and continued professional development for teachers to improve teaching and learning, and it would target extra investment, from early years to further education, to support children at risk of falling behind.
This Bill gives the Secretary of State his own to-do list. There are broad powers to set standards for academies, including in critical areas such as the curriculum and school-day length. Can the Minister tell us whether this marks the end of what the Government have described as the “trust-led approach”? It certainly looks like it. This could be described as a power grab. Is that needed because academies are not to be trusted to manage their own affairs, perhaps? Or do the Government intend to deal with the eye-watering salaries of some academy heads? If that is what they want to do, they should say so, and introduce proper measures to address the problem rather than simply taking the power to consider fixing it at some unspecified date in the future.
These powers include the curriculum, so does the department intend to use this power, for example, to educate our children about credit scores, applying for a mortgage, understanding employment and rental contracts, and digital skills? We should all hope so, because these are sorely needed—but we just do not know from what is on the face of the Bill.
We will be tabling amendments to ask the Secretary of State, at the very least, to consult on these powers and, in the interest of transparency, report on how they are to be used. We are keen to maximise parliamentary oversight of the standards and their implementation, and for opportunities for parents and carers to influence the education of their children. It should be noted that there has not been an opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny, as the Government have chosen to start this Bill in your Lordships’ House. In the other place, a committee of MPs would be able to take evidence from stakeholders to help inform their deliberations. Would the Minister be open to suggesting that this stage could be included when the Bill reaches the other place? That kind of scrutiny can be beneficial.
Local authorities will be able to apply for any and all of their schools to become academies. They will have to consult governors but will not need the agreement of governors—so we will be pressing the Government on this in Committee. We think that local school governors should not be steamrollered if they have concerns about becoming an academy, because this would be damaging to parental confidence.
Local authorities will be required to give parents of children not registered in a school educational support if they ask for it, so what are the Government going to do to make sure that councils are resourced sufficiently to do that? Will guidance as to the kind of support that the Government have in mind be available in Committee?
On admissions, what do Ministers anticipate the role of local authorities to be in future? Ensuring honest brokerage is vital to fairness and for parents’ confidence.
There are aspects of the Bill that we welcome. We very much welcome Ofsted being given the powers it needs to inspect unregistered schools. This is a situation that has persisted for too long and we will support the Government’s efforts to resolve it. Similarly, we are pleased to see teacher misconduct regulations extended to cover supply and part-time teachers, and to more settings. Children deserve to be safe in their classrooms, and teachers who break that trust should be held to account.
Schools will have to devise attendance policies in future and we do not disagree with that. They will need to set out new responsibilities for staff, but we all know that they are already at breaking point in terms of workload so will there be guidance, training and support, and will the Government make that available, to make sure that what happens is effective and has the impact that we all want to see in schools?
There are some welcome measures, but why is there nothing on several pressing issues that our children are facing, including crumbling school buildings, unqualified teachers, the lack of school food standards and the lack of transparent financial arrangements? We will attempt to help the Government by tabling amendments on all these issues to strengthen the Bill where we can.
We should not forget that schools are struggling with the exact same cost of living crisis as the families they serve. Do Ministers have a plan to help them to keep up with the rocketing price of food, to help them to improve inadequate broadband or for children suffering terrible mental health due to their financially precarious home lives? So far, the Bill is just silent on these issues.
The Queen’s Speech said that education was at the heart of the Government’s agenda. I am afraid that is not the message that the Bill sends. Teachers, children and parents need action and leadership from the Government. They could be doing so much more. We do not expect Ministers to engage and agree with us on everything that we suggest, but we look forward to working with noble Lords from across the House to turn what is unfortunately an unambitious and lacklustre piece of legislation into an Act that does justice to our children and their families.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank those organisations and individuals that have been kind enough to send out briefings, particularly the NEU, Professor Anne West at the LSE and Dr David Wolfe. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Watson, here; his contribution on education in your Lordships’ House has been enormous, and I thank him for that.
Last Tuesday we debated the glorious speech—sorry, the gracious Speech, though it was probably glorious as well. Many Peers spoke on education, and this Second Reading gives us an opportunity to reconsider some of the excellent and important points raised then. I said that I wanted every pupil, no matter the type of school, to have the same educational opportunities and resources. I also said it was important that the parent voice was heard loud and clear in schools and that transparency, accountability and openness must prevail.
To my mind, transparency should be the hallmark of the Bill. Part 1 sets out a new framework for the regulation of multi-academy trusts. In launching the schools White Paper, the Government said they wanted all children to
“benefit from being taught in a school in, or in the process of joining, a strong multi-academy trust”.
Stand-alone schools in multi-academy trusts have no individual control over governance, admissions, finance and destiny, so let us remind ourselves that academies in MATs have no legal identity of their own.
These individual academies have precious little of the individual independence and decision-making that they were promised when the programme was first espoused. It is the MAT that has the legal status and it is the MAT that has the contract with the Secretary of State, which means the school has no automatic right to make decisions or policies relating to the running of the school; stand-alone academies and maintained schools do. The school becomes a satellite of the all-powerful centre, with head teachers and governing bodies virtually powerless. With some MATs having schools all over the country—say, from the north-east to the south-west—there is a real concern about how, for example, local circumstances and ethos are reflected.
Decisions in academies are often made without transparency by trustees whose appointment is opaque. Often, they have little or no experience in educational matters. Is this really the best way to run educational schools? School academies in MATs have no individual power over governance arrangements and are often locked into a contract that is no longer appropriate for the values and educational direction of staff, pupils and parents.
Finally, MATs, while having accounts signed off by an external auditor—who, by the way, they appoint themselves—do not have to provide detail of how public money is spent. Data published by the MAT can mask financial decisions regarding individual schools in the MAT. The lack of financial transparency leads to concerns about how public money is used. We see, for example, excessive salaries paid to trusts’ chief executives. It can also use public money to pay out compensation claims and non-disclosure agreements, all hidden from the public, whose money it is. We have seen how procurement contracts can be a murky area, with contracts going to family and friends without proper transparent arrangements. Maybe we should consider Ofsted, when it inspects academies, applying the same rules as it does to maintained schools and looking at the financial arrangements as well. We will be tabling a number of amendments to ensure that transparency is the order of the day.
I turn to the other important issue in the Bill: school funding and the national funding formula. We very much welcome these proposals but want to raise the issue of the funding of small village schools, which are the centre of many rural communities and of which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke during the Queen’s Speech. It is sad to reflect that between 2000 and 2019, 183 rural schools closed. We need, through the funding formula, to do all we can to support these rural schools and the communities they serve.
Similarly, this is an opportunity to look at transport for school students, an issue that has never been properly addressed. In Northumberland, for example, pupils have to travel long distances to get to an FE provider or sixth-form college. We think free transport should be extended to the age of 18. Community should be at the heart of educational change.
I hoped that the Bill would set out a clear role for local government and that a partnership could develop between local government and multi-academy trusts. There are a number of areas for which LAs are ideally placed, having local knowledge and expertise, including admissions, expulsion appeals, school place planning and working with Ofsted to tackle unregistered schools—an area where a partnership approach would be so beneficial. The 2016 White Paper proposed three roles for local authorities in an all-academy system:
“Ensuring every child has a school place … Ensuring the needs of vulnerable pupils are met … Acting as champions for all parents and families.”
It did not, however, propose any new powers to help them fulfil these roles. It is also vital that an element of local discretion is used in the national funding formula, allowing councils to take local priorities and the needs of their area into account.
I congratulate the Government on listening and being prepared to tackle the issue of unregistered schools. No child should be placed in a school where unacceptable practices bordering on indoctrination take place. We must liberate children from such dangers. Similarly, home schooling needs to be regularised. Home-school educators do a fantastic job, and we should pay tribute to their commitment, or the commitment they take on—by the way, with no financial support—but is it right and proper that home educators are not registered? Perhaps they need a light touch in terms of support as well. I have no doubt that your Lordships have faced a deluge of emails from the home-school educating lobby complaining of any changes, but it is not acceptable for hundreds of thousands of children that we have no idea where they are. Their safety and well-being are paramount, and I congratulate the Government on this simple measure.
Finally, I want to raise an issue which is very important to me: the issue of pupils who are permanently excluded from school. These are the most vulnerable children who need the most care and attention. They invariably have special needs, whether behavioural or emotional, and certainly have learning difficulties and often difficult family circumstances. If they are excluded from school, they might be lucky that there is a pupil referral unit on the school site, but in most cases it will be left to the local authority to find an educational placement for them. Because local authorities still have huge budgetary pressures, they often place these damaged young people with the cheapest provider they can find, and that provider will be unregistered. Some of the educational practices of these unregistered schools are frankly not acceptable. Because they are not registered, they do not have to be inspected by Ofsted, so we have no knowledge of what is going on. All excluded pupils should be placed with a registered provider so that they can get the best possible support and educational opportunity. Remember: some of these young people, as well as being sent to an unregistered school, might also be with an unregistered care provider. My goodness, this is the 21st century and we are treating children in this way.
I was interested in the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on the curriculum. Over the next eight years, when the Government hope to implement these proposals—of course, there will be a general election during that period too, and goodness knows what will happen then—we are going to have a system where some schools will have freedoms in the curriculum and others will not. I hope we will come together and start looking at ways to ensure that all schools have the same opportunities and freedoms, which can go together, and that way be better prepared if and when they become academies.
Covid has been a real shock to our schools and education service, with pupils missing huge amounts of schooling, falling further and further behind with their education, having increased mental health problems and Covid disproportionately affecting children from poorer families and communities. Boosting education, ensuring the resources and best teachers are there for all pupils, is the best way to level up.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to teachers. I believe teaching is one of the most challenging jobs anyone could do and today in particular they face multiple challenges, not least the mental fragility of so many pupils, as outlined so powerfully in today’s news. The Bill raises a range of concerns, and I will be listening carefully to those who address them as well, of course, as to the Government. In the limited time available I will confine myself to one issue, which is to sketch out the background to an amendment that I will be introducing in Committee on fundamental British values.
I believe that it is more important now than ever before that pupils understand the fundamental political values upon which our life together is based. They are under threat all over the world, not just from totalitarian states like China and Russia but in countries that still claim to be liberal democracies but where, in reality, there is a significant loss of those fundamental freedoms and rights that are integral to a true democracy.
The teaching of fundamental British values has its origin in the 2011 Prevent strategy. This was taken up in 2014, when schools were directed to promote the fundamental British values of
“democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”
When these values were first announced, they met with two kinds of opposition. First, there was a worry that, because they came in as part of the Prevent strategy, their formulation had in fact been skewed in one direction—tolerance of all faiths—to the neglect of other fundamental values. The second criticism was that they claim to be British values when, it was argued, such values belong to other societies as well.
Concern about this wording and recommendations for a slightly different formulation were put forward in 2015 in Living with Difference, the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life—of which I was a member—set up by the Woolf Institute in Cambridge and chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It has also been taken up by two House of Lords special committees of which I have been a member, in particular in the 2018 report The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, from a committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. So this amendment has not come out of the blue but has been marinating for 12 years.
The first question that arises is whether the phrase “fundamental British values” is still the right one. Should it not be “the values of British citizenship”? That title does not claim that these values are exclusive to our society, but it rightly and legally claims that they are the values of anyone who is a British citizen, whether by birth or by adoption.
On the values themselves, democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty—or, perhaps better, freedom—must surely remain in place. But, although the rest of the list—
“mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”— is indeed essential, what about equal respect and concern for every person as such, able or differently abled and of whatever race or background? Would it not be better to talk about individual worth and the equal respect and concern due to everyone, whatever their beliefs? The word “tolerance” is somewhat uneasy in this context; there are some beliefs that we should not tolerate. But we should respect people and their right to hold beliefs, even if we do not respect the beliefs themselves.
I will talk in more detail about the exact wording when I move my amendment. I just emphasise that its purpose is to strengthen the statement on values by making it less lopsided and more philosophically coherent. However, in the amendment, I will include one addition to the values already there. It is clear that the one value that clearly resonates with young people more than any other at the moment is the environment. So should we not, in addition to including respect for people, take this opportunity to add respect for the environment? This would mean taking into account the systematic effect of human actions on the health and sustainability of the environment, both within the United Kingdom and on the planet as a whole, for present and future generations. I believe that such an addition would be widely welcomed as strengthening the teaching of values in our schools.
I believe that it is absolutely fundamental that pupils in our schools should be fully conversant with the political values upon which our society is founded.
My Lords, I declare my specific interest as chair of the National Society. Noble Lords will know that the Church of England started mass education for the poor in England in 1811 through the work of the National Society. We built thousands of schools which have been at the heart of our commitment to the common good ever since. The state joined in this educational endeavour 50 years later. A strong mutual relationship developed, culminating in the dual system settlement in the 1944 Education Act.
Since a Labour Government introduced academies in the early 2000s, that system has been evolving but bringing complexity and fragmentation. Free schools added to this. Academies started as an innovation to bring fresh approaches to improve outcomes, especially for children in the most disadvantaged areas. There has been much success, although not in every case. Academies are now the predominant school type. As the system moves towards all schools being academies in a strong trust, it is right that we give detailed attention to ensure that academies are placed within a firm legislative context rather than rely on the largely contractual nature of the present arrangements.
One-third of our 4,700 schools are academies, but, with two-thirds still to convert, our schools need to know that the future of the partnership between Church and state, and the principles maintained since the 1944 Act, remain secure with sufficient safeguards. We welcome the comprehensive clauses relating to schools with a religious character. They set out how that settlement between Church and state continues when much of the existing maintained legislation can no longer be used as the basis for their operation.
We are very grateful for the way in which DfE Ministers and officials have engaged with us so that the areas of policy with specific relevance to the future of schools on sites that have been provided by the Churches are addressed. These include the governance, both individual and within MATs, the arrangements for worship and religious education and the question of land ownership. The Minister will understand that in Committee we will continue to test that the detail in the Bill fulfils that need, including ensuring that guarantees are in the Bill and not simply left to regulations. This may mean bringing amendments where we consider change is required.
We are not only interested though in the parts of the Bill which relate specifically to the schools provided by the Church of England, the Catholic Church and other faith communities. Our vision is for the common good and the best possible educational outcomes for every child. Church members work in all types of schools, parishes engage with all character of schools and our training is accessed by teachers and heads from schools other than our own.
We have a clear vision that education is for every child to experience life in all its fullness. It is for wisdom, not simply knowledge. This means enabling children to be creative, enjoy sport, build strong relationships, explore spirituality and learn languages, alongside equipping them with numeracy and literacy and preparing them for the world of work. When we reduce education to simply being about literacy, numeracy and the workplace, we sell children short.
We know that giving children a safe, loving environment in which to learn is essential, so knowing where children are matters. Thus, attendance and registration are important, but the collection and use of data needs careful consideration to make sure that the balance between safeguarding and freedom of choice is maintained. This will include the right to home education, which is significant for some children. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who cannot be present today, plans to engage further in Committee on this. With many families struggling to juggle complex issues of poverty, additional health or special educational needs, we need the state to provide support, not simply punitive measures to enforce attendance.
Every child having a good teacher is at the heart of the Government’s strategy, but I am concerned that the current process of reaccrediting initial teacher education providers seems somewhat flawed, with many established providers being unsuccessful in the first round. This is likely to exacerbate the teacher supply crisis.
It is vital to ensure the sufficiency of teacher education provision; then those teachers need to be inspired, developed and given the maximum resources possible to deliver excellent education in every single school. The proposed changes to the funding system describe how the funding will be used and distributed. We need to ensure that such provision works for schools in areas of disadvantage and for the huge number of small schools that are at the heart of our rural communities. We cannot escape the hard reality that, with all the pressures on school budgets, the reforms and aspirations of the Government will be made possible only if we invest courageously in the education of our children. We need a big vision for our schools, and we need to ensure that this legislation is the best that it can be to effect that vision.
My Lords, the Schools Bill clearly supports the Prime Minister’s ambition to improve schooling for all children and to even out spending across education. In looking at evening up spending, an important area is left very uneven—the provision of mental health services for children. It is extremely varied across the country, as we know, and is currently at the stage where schools have an expectation that there is a mental health lead in the school, but no particular separate counsellor at this stage, and no provision or funding for a counsellor for children.
Every generation of schoolchildren has its own challenges, but by far the biggest challenge for this generation of schoolchildren is mental health. Opinions vary as to why that is the case, but the situation is running very strong in schools at the moment. The Bill as currently configured, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and others have noticed, makes no provision for mental health. At the very heart of an even approach across education that will secure fairness and equality for children, there needs to be much stronger provision and a much more direct approach—and, frankly, urgent access to counsellors in schools. As we know, the current position is that, in extreme situations, children are passed across to CAMHS in the NHS. But it is completely impossible that CAMHS will have sufficient capacity—and it never will have sufficient capacity. The problem lies in schools, and the schools need more support.
Beyond getting children back into school—obviously the Bill reflects where we are post pandemic—and making sure that they are all in some form of education, and I welcome the provisions to make sure that that is the case, the Bill provides some degree of support for well-being and mental health. But beyond that there is another set of problems in secondary schools at the moment, and it is another area that we should look at urgently, certainly while the Schools Bill is making its progress. It is the area of eating disorders and gender. In that area, schools are facing a bewildering set of issues that arise and are passed to teachers, who often have very limited training and limited ability to handle the situation.
The legal environment around this is still somewhat ambiguous. Despite the Education Act 1996, which provides that parents should always be involved, and despite the Equality Act 2010, which should always ensure that there is a balanced discussion of difficult topics within a school environment, the legal environment is very difficult for schools. In this position, teachers face a bewildering set of issues, and children are finding all manner of ways in which to make life quite difficult in schools. Teachers therefore experience a situation in which women’s rights and privacy is eroded, parents’ participation is neglected and free speech is ignored. In this environment, teachers in schools need much stronger guidance from the department and from Ofsted. That is another area that we might take a look at.
I do welcome the Bill. It is extremely important that we even up spending for all children—but, in the current environment in schools, part of that should be about addressing mental health. As a matter of urgency in secondary schools, and in particular to protect the needs of teenage girls, we should look very quickly and urgently at the legal environment around these gender, self-harm and depression issues.
My Lords, I have a declared interest as the honorary president of the Association for Citizenship Teaching. I agree entirely with the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. I just wish that citizenship teaching was taken more seriously, from the top and right through the system, from headteachers to Ofsted in particular. I know that the Minister will listen today, because she listened earlier this year. I hope that she can take back to her colleagues in the department the comments from this afternoon and those in Committee. I also hope that, when she comes to respond to the debate today, she will say something about the juxtaposition between the special educational needs Green Paper and consultation and this Bill, and whether proposals will be brought forward when the Bill reaches the House of Commons.
I commend what has just been said in relation to mental health, the way we need to take it much more seriously and how that then needs to be co-ordinated so that local authorities and local health services have a very key role to play. Of course, this is highlighted by today’s report on safeguarding and children in care, which shows that we have a scandal on our hands. This might not have been so bad—although it would not have resolved it—had Sure Start not been destroyed in what I consider to be a criminal fashion.
I turn now to the Bill. Not everything in an education Bill is actually about education. I very much appreciate that a lot is going on elsewhere. However, we have a crisis in recruitment, including a shortage of 30,000 teachers. We have a shortage of male teachers and role models. One in seven who starts teaching drops out in the first year. We have had a 25% cash cut on the amount spent on repair, maintenance and renewal compared to 2010, and we will get back to 2010 levels for revenue funding only in two years’ time. The situation is scandalous. While the Bill has a number a very good elements in it which have already been mentioned—including the role of Ofsted in the registration of children who are allegedly taught at home—there is so much left out. It is a mouse of a Bill. As my noble friend Lady Chapman on the Front Bench has described it, the Bill is a lost opportunity.
I will concentrate on trying to wheedle out where we are going with the structure, functions and accountability of the service. We started in 2010 with the mantra that every school would be free-standing: free to do what it wished, and free to adopt the curriculum or not. Thank God that we have moved away from this and returned to the idea which all education institutions—or at least 90% of them—understood to be the case: you need a family of schools in which schools worked, contributed and spread success together. We are moving back to that, albeit under the multi-academy trust model. This actually makes free schools a complete anomaly—that is, the idea that you can create a new school only by calling it a free school, even if it is not free because it is part of a multi-academy trust which, as has already been spelled out, will now be dictated to by the department itself. We have moved seamlessly in 12 years from everything being part of an isolated, fractured and “fragmented education system”—as the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, called it seven years ago—to putting them into multi-academy trusts. We have moved from, “You do it your way and all flowers will bloom”, to giving the Secretary of State powers—which I actually welcome on the whole—to intervene to avoid failure.
However, we are not really providing any accountability; it has already been said in this debate that the missing element is accountability. This involves the engagement of parents and governing bodies with some role and power to ensure that this is a function of the whole community and not just the creation of isolated multi-academy trusts peppered across the country. This also involves ensuring that those recruited as trustees—and, I hope in the future, as governors—of the schools themselves are appointed on a transparent basis. There is so much to do to rethink the curriculum and assessments, and to work out how best to teach in the modern era, what to teach and how to prepare young people for a very different future. Very little of what is in this Bill will affect the fundamentals of our education system for the future, and that is a great shame.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, made a number of very important points, comments and suggestions to the Minister on special educational needs and mental health, and he reminded us of some of the big problems that face the school system—not least recruitment and the cut in the repairs budget over the last decade. I have asked a few people over the last few days who are heavily involved in the school system if they could do one thing to improve life in their schools, what it would be. They said, “Repair our school buildings—have the money to do it”, so that issue could be addressed outside the context of this Bill.
I agree absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, too, about the concept of a family of schools and the role of governing bodies as local entities; both those points were very important. But as my noble friend Lord Storey said, there are a whole range of issues around multi-academy trusts that we need to address as a part of the passage of the Bill—the powers of the academy trust over the local authority, the school itself, its governing body, the head teacher, and, of course, the Secretary of State.
The purpose of this Bill is to
“Level up opportunity by delivering a stronger and more highly performing school system that works for every child, regardless of where they live.”
That is most welcome, but it says nothing about overall resources, and nothing about the curriculum. I am doubtful if it can be done without both those issues being addressed.
I am content to support a national funding formula to eliminate some of the inexplicable differences that occur within the current structure, but some schools are small, some schools are rural, some are in very deprived areas, and we must look very carefully at the methodology of a new funding formula. To say that each mainstream school will be allocated funding on the same basis wherever it is and that every child will be given the same opportunities based on consistent assessments of their needs will prove very hard to deliver unless local authorities have a role in identifying schools in need of extra support. I hope the Minister might be able to respond to that point when she replies to the debate.
The briefing that accompanied the Queen’s Speech said that there would be four main benefits of the Bill. I think the Government should use “could” or “might” or “hope” rather than “would”, because there is a huge problem around the issue of resources.
I recognise the importance of strengthening of the attendance regime, particularly post-Covid. Yes, all schools should publish an attendance improvement policy—attendance matters profoundly, as research shows us, so putting attendance guidance on to a strategy footing seems right. But we need preventive measures to encourage high attendance and there has to be a shared debate about what that means and what needs to be done to ensure that schools can increase their attendance.
There has been a lot said about safeguarding children wherever they are in education, and Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill are important: they address child protection and, as my noble friend Lord Storey rightly identified, this is about children’s rights, and we have to consider that in the context of what Parts 3 and 4 propose. I am in favour of registration by local authorities of children who are not in school; I think that most of the general public would be surprised to learn there is not a register of this kind. It will therefore be important for local authorities to have one and to provide support to home-educating families.
Part 4 of the Bill proposes increasing the powers of regulation via Ofsted to inspect any place providing a majority of education for more than five children. I am interested to hear from the Minister why the figure of five has been decided on, as opposed to four or three. I understand the complexity of that question—there has to be a number—but the justification would be interesting because there could be a case for making it lower.
I agree that we should not allow more loopholes to exist that prevent Ofsted carrying out its legal duties, such as claiming that an educational institution is part-time or providing further education. I just say to the Minister that I would like to explore in Committee whether prosecution, where there is unlawful activity, should lie with Ofsted or Ofsted’s role should be as the witness and the local authority should provide the legal support.
In my final minute or so, I note that I hope that the Minister will understand the importance of confirming the role of a local authority handling appeals and exclusions, school place planning, admissions policy across a local authority area and guaranteeing the necessary standards for special educational needs.
I must say, however, that I find the Bill a missed opportunity. There is nothing about primary schools and careers guidance—careers guidance occurs only from year 7, but it should start much earlier so that there is no loss of aspiration when children move from primary to secondary school. As Sir James Dyson said recently:
“Children are creative, they love building and making things … but as they get closer to GCSEs and A-levels all that is squashed out of them.”
I would like to explore what we can do to help the other 50% in our schools who do not plan to go to university.
My Lords, I shall speak principally to Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill and applaud the Government’s proposals to fill the gaps in the law that have inhibited action until now to close illegal schools. We know that the education provided in many unregistered religious schools is narrow in scope, predominantly scriptural in content and deeply conservative, intolerant and extreme in outlook. Because these schools have been able to evade inspections, bad practices of all kinds appear to have developed. Former pupils of such illegal settings told an all-party parliamentary group in December of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they had suffered. They also talked of the narrow religious curriculum, with no English, maths or science in their school experience. I therefore welcome the compulsory registration of children not in school. This will help close a loophole exploited by proprietors of illegal schools who claim that they are merely providing supplementary religious instruction to children otherwise educated at home. The problem has been that such children can be entirely invisible to the authorities.
I also very much welcome the Part 4 increase in Ofsted’s power to inspect “independent educational establishments”. However, I hope we can have meaningful discussions with Ministers about the definition of an independent educational institution, restricted as it seems to be in the Bill at the moment to those that provide “a majority” of education for more than five children. This definition risks those establishments wishing to remain below the radar simply dividing their service in two—a morning school and an afternoon school—thus avoiding inspection. Can the Minister explain the thinking behind the limitation of Part 4 to institutions providing the majority of education? Do the Government have a solution to deal with these illegal schools seeking to evade inspection?
No doubt we have all had a briefing from Taunton Home Education asking us to oppose Parts 3 and 4. I have to say that I do not believe that these parts have anything really to do with Taunton Home Education, or indeed any other upstanding educational organisation. However, it may be helpful if the Minister can give some assurance to those sorts of educational establishments that this is not what Parts 3 and 4 are about.
Turning to religious education in schools, I hope this House can ensure that the content of religious education and worship in all schools reflects the full ambit of freedom of religion and belief and that a pluralistic and critical approach is adopted. I hope that comment chimes with the very important comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, whom I respect so much, I certainly do not wish in any way to say something contrary to what he said.
Finally, a huge issue not dealt with in the Bill, it seems, is child mental health. There is no doubt that mental health services for children are frighteningly underfunded and inadequate. The pandemic has greatly increased the number of children with challenging mental health problems, so we now have an issue of crisis proportions. I understand that the Government have agreed to roll out mental health support teams to just one-third of the country. Surely this cannot be acceptable. The Schools Bill provides the opportunity for us to roll out these mental health support teams throughout the country as a matter of urgency. I hope the Minister will agree that this is something we need to think about.
We have heard from a number of organisations representing children with different conditions and disabilities. There are clearly concerns that children with special educational needs will be compelled to attend a school from which they cannot benefit. I hope these fears are misplaced. It seems that families of autistic pupils, for example, fear they will be punished with fines for poor attendance when their child simply could not benefit from going to school. These concerns are surely genuine and I hope the Minister, in her reply to this debate, can make absolutely clear that the families of any child with a special educational need or disability will not be punished under the provisions of Part 3 for non-attendance at a school from which they cannot benefit.
On a positive note, I hope the Bill will ensure a much needed improvement in educational opportunities and support for young people with ME, the terrible disease that affects so many children as well as adults. I look forward to this House coming together with Ministers to prioritise amendments on these important issues.
My Lords, with children sitting GCSEs, BTECs, A-levels and other qualifications, it is rather apt that today this Bill is having its Second Reading. Many noble Lords will, like me, be waiting with bated breath for the full performance and attainment gap data that will, sadly, perhaps confirm that Covid has disproportionately affected our most disadvantaged students. I welcome the Bill for the changes it makes for those students, but I am concerned about some missed opportunities.
Perhaps 20 years ago there was an ideal world of home education, done solely by parents who truly believed in it and did it very well. If those halcyon days ever existed, they are over, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his persistence and foresight in this matter. It is important to recognise, however, that there are parents who educate at home who have not chosen to do so for ideological reasons but because failures in provision for special educational needs children made them feel forced to remove their children from school and educate them at home.
The current situation was drawn to my attention by concerned head teachers. If a child in year 9 or year 10 is falling behind, any good school will engage persistently with parents, and sadly a tiny minority view that as a hassle. Some have cottoned on to the idea that if you tell the school you are home educating, the hassle from the school goes away. That is the story of some of the young people in our towns and cities today, and the local authority needs to know their details at the very least. They are vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation as well as to not getting an education. There is the risk that some parents may choose to keep their children away from other influences and expose them to truly extremist views. Then there are those who home education allows to harm their child physically and emotionally. Home education, or not being on a school roll, has been a factor in a number of the most serious cases of harm to children and in harm done by children who end up in the criminal court system. Although the Bill puts a duty on parents who are doing a good job, for the common good it is time to legislate.
Part 1 may seem technical, but it is essential to delivering better education for our most disadvantaged and SEND children and sorting out some of the messy world of trusts. It deals with the amber lights; I will come to the red lights later. The changes since 2010 mean that the Secretary of State has direct responsibility for the quality of education in our schools. I believe it has enhanced the role of the MP as it is the MP’s job to hold central government, not local government, to account. In theory they are better qualified to come to the Secretary of State who purchases the services and should sort of them out. The Secretary of State may, inter alia, already see an amber light in relation to an academy’s finances or may be aware that a trust has got hold of some Section 106 money and is embarking on an extensive building project with scant construction resources on the trustee body. Currently the Secretary of State may be powerless to intervene, but if you can catch problems, whether with finances, building or governance, you can sometimes get into a school or trust before the education of the children suffers.
All this intervention is about preventing failure and making good use of public funds, and most academy trusts do a very good job. But rather like the great parents who home educate, the Secretary of State must have power to sort out the trusts which are in breach of standards or agreements. I have numerous questions in relation to the clauses and I hope we are not going to end up with a blend, with some matters dealt with in standards and some left in the agreements, which seems to be a possibility under the Bill. But I look forward to discussing those matters in Committee and hopefully in meetings beforehand.
If the red light of an “inadequate” Ofsted judgment can be avoided by these interventions, so much harm will be prevented. Once there is an “inadequate” judgment, the school’s contract can of course be terminated, but inadequate schools tend to have disproportionate numbers of SEND and free school meal children in them, so intervening early is essential to prevent this. Despite the best help from the House of Lords Library, the DfE, which produces the data, does not seem to produce free school meal and SEND figures separately for inadequate or RI schools. The Children’s Commissioner did her best in her Ambition for All report, saying:
“If you are a child receiving free school meals, you are 1.4 times more likely to be going to a school that is less than good.”
In short, children who are most in need of a good school are the least likely to be going to one. I do not often speak of Members in the other place—and particularly the right honourable Angela Rayner MP—but she did ask a question about this before the pandemic. It was maybe in a bit too much detail to give the department its dues, but I hope my noble friend the Minister will rectify this, as it is essential that MPs and Peers are able to look at the cohort of children in our failed or failing schools.
I am grateful that this Bill sits alongside the consultation on RI schools, as repeat “requiring improvement” judgments should be a red light and be able to end the role of the trust or the local authority with the schools. This has to stop, and two RI judgements should be that red light.
My final red light issue, which I will raise in Committee by way of an amendment, is, as many noble Lords have talked about, the state of school buildings. There is a school rebuilding programme, but there remains significant concern about certain building materials used in hospitals, schools and other public buildings. It is the expertise of your Lordships’ House to think through the unexpected consequences and ensure that the Secretary of State has the requisite legal powers should there be an issue with building materials affecting numerous schools which becomes relevant. Letters of comfort may not be enough if the responsible body’s lawyers advise them that they can be exposed to liability governed by the Health and Safety Executive.
I am disappointed that none of the barriers that cause local authority-maintained schools to get stuck and not transfer into the academy system are not addressed in this Bill. Nor are the changes to trust law that can help certain transfers. I am disappointed that the parents of children at a grammar school, rather than a wider electorate, can ensure that the school remains selective. As of January 2021, only 4.9% of children in our grammar schools had free school meals; this really cannot be helping social mobility. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister—as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, outlined—could consider whether there are matters to do with the admissions code, which the Government used persuasively for looked-after children, that can be looked at in this regard.
I applaud the vision of the Bill, but it has to lead to a nimble and quick solution for academy trusts that are failing. While this legislation will give the Secretary of State the ability to intervene, it has to be used urgently and should be like a 999-urgent situation when a school is failing.
My Lords, I declare my interest in connection with Birmingham Education Partnership, to which I may refer at different stages of the Bill. I want to begin—as many of us have done—by welcoming the provisions on the register of children not educated in school, and the extension on inspection. That is to put on record my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Soley, whose Private Member’s Bill—a few years ago I think—laid the groundwork for the measures which we see today. I want to recognise that, and the very close way in which the Minister’s officials work with my noble friend Lord Soley and the group supporting him, so that we are where we are today.
I know that I have worked with my noble friend Lord Blunkett for many years, and I think we get on quite well, but I have now found that he is reading my mind, as I am addressing almost exactly Part 1, which are the measures that he addressed. I am going to try to find different words to say more or less the same thing, but to extend it in some places.
This is important. It is very tempting to look back and say, “I told you so; I said 10 years ago that it would go wrong, and it has gone wrong, and doesn’t that make me feel good?” I do not want to spend more than 30 seconds doing that, but the reason why it is important is that where we are now is part of a story—a narrative—and we will not get the future right unless we understand how we got to the point that we are at.
Quite honestly, this Bill could be called the 2022 academies (abolition) Bill, because if those of us who were around at the time think back to that Bill, we will recall that we were promised that we would be a nation of independent, autonomous schools, free from the control of local government and charged with innovating and raising standards in response to the market. Right at the front of this would be free schools that were thinking the unthinkable.
That has not happened; it is not a description, a decade on, of the school system facing us now. That train has hit the buffers. In its main parts, this Bill tries to remedy the faults that were created by the coalition Government in the years following their election. It does so in two ways: it tries to remedy the legal fault in individual schools, which are academies, and in the school system, which is the multi-academy trust.
There are many good academies, but they are no more successful than any other type of school. MATs are good, but have not proved to be that vision of a school system that will serve all children well and raise standards across the board. At this stage, I want to look at the approaches to both those problems that the Bill outlines.
The proposals in the Bill on academies are incredibly tight. If we look down the list of powers that the Secretary of State is taking for himself, we see that they cover absolutely everything—from governors to the length of the day, the term and the curriculum. Anybody—I look at the noble Lord, Lord Nash—who went through that Bill and served in the department in those days knows that that was not the vision that the academies programme set out to achieve. This Bill is dealing with the failures of past policies.
Like my noble friend Lord Blunkett, I do not mind that. I am probably too much of a centralist—if you have no levers, you cannot implement change. However, I question why the Government and the civil servants are best placed to lay down those standards. There is nothing that recognises expertise, experience and good will at local stages. I worry about that and will want to return to it in Committee.
What worries me most is the multi-academy trusts, and I think that is because we have not really explored them as much as we should. I am in favour of multi-academy trusts; they have always been the godsend of pretty awful legislation in 2010. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in making that his life’s work in the department—to try to get away from fragmentation to partnership and working together. So I am in favour of them, but there are risks, and the lack of autonomy for schools within a multi-academy trust now is immense. In fact, the Bill makes all academies maintained schools and gives them all the restrictions that apply to maintained schools but leaves them with the name academy. Make no mistake: that is what the Bill does, and it deserves some thought. As much as I like MATs, I am worried about the even greater lack of autonomy and ability to express their own character that schools within a multi-academy trust will get. They are even told about pedagogical approaches, let alone the character of the school. I worry about that.
I also worry that there is no evidence on MATs, because the Government did not let Ofsted inspect them—no body of evidence on MATs has been built up. The Minister said on previous occasions that, as the phrase goes, MATs make good schools. That is not true. Good schools make good MATs. It is a very subtle reversal of what we think. Our challenge is to look at what makes a good school and replicate that; not what makes a good MAT and replicate that. We have no evidence on that, but we have evidence on what makes a good school.
I have very much welcomed MATs over the past years, partly because they are the only show in town, but they are not the only way of forming partnerships. Has the Minister looked at clusters and federations? Has she looked at the possibility of getting small MATs to work together, rather than pushing them all into MAT sizes of whatever the Bill says?
I would really like some reassurances on how the Minister has come to this conclusion. If we are going for partnerships and interdependence rather than independence, where is the evidence that MATs are the way? The real problem is this: a decade ago, her predecessor said that there was only one way to raising schools and that that was academies. They were wrong. I think the Minister has the best of intentions, so I do not want her to say that MATs are the only way to partnerships. I do not know enough at the moment to know that that is true, and I suspect that it might not be. Those are some of the issues that I very much look forward to discussing as the Bill passes its stages.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this Second Reading and draw attention to my interests in the register. I was the founding chair of Marine Academy Plymouth, now a successful member of the Ted Wragg multi-academy trust. In addition, I have a long-term interest as previous chair of the Acorn schools in Cornwall, working with students with special needs, and I now sit on the quality committee for Outcomes First, a company which owns several schools supporting children with a range of special needs. In addition, I have a family member involved in secondary school teaching.
I welcome the Schools Bill, particularly the emphasis on enhancing a sound approach to monitoring all children through their school attendance and following up those whose attendance is sporadic, which has a negative impact on their potential to learn and lifelong chances. The pandemic has shown us that we must follow up these children quickly and not leave it till the end of term.
The encouragement for all schools to become academies is, in principle, something I fully support. However, a similar approach was adopted to promote that all NHS trusts become foundation trusts, and is one which we now question following the recent pandemic, looking to other forms of partnership to provide best solutions. Do the Government intend to force all schools to either become or join an established academy trust, even if governors and parents support remaining within the local authority through other kinds of partnership schemes?
The emphasis in the Bill on ensuring equal opportunities for all children through a national formula for funding pupil places is clearly fair. However, in severely deprived areas, is there not an argument for considering not only pupil premium allocation but significant additional investment in new and improved school buildings, IT and sports facilities? I remember when the Conservative Government were elected and the schools building programme which had been instigated under the previous Government was in question. That meant that the money for which we had fought for Plymouth was at risk. I have to say that I came with the then principal and saw the then Education Minister, the right honourable Michael Gove, and the funding came forward in Plymouth to build the new school extension that we had already anticipated. If you go and look at that school, which is now an all-through school, taking children at three through to 18, you will see that it is an example of where new buildings made a significant difference.
Grammar schools are, quite understandably, to be protected. Will these selective schools get the same pupil allocation as other academies, despite the fact that they take fewer students from poorer wards?
As the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, has well articulated, there needs to be a greater emphasis in the Bill on the mental and physical health support provided to students and teachers in school. Too often teachers are undertaking health roles.
I understand that all schools will be required to provide school lunches and will receive funding for those entitled to free school meals. That seems to focus on lunch. Is there not an argument for providing school breakfasts as well? Will this be the subject of local authority funding rather than central funding?
Please could the Minister explain whether there will be an increased emphasis on reducing the number of children referred to pupil referral units? Should we perhaps say that all academies over a certain student-roll size—for example, 3,000—be required to make provision within the academies themselves for pupil referral units? This is a really important issue, and one that I hope we will explore as we take the Bill through the House.
I welcome the tightening of managing teacher misconduct, but I ask the Minister to clarify the definition of “teacher”. Is it someone with a nationally recognised qualification and/or a graduate who is contributing to teaching?
I note that there is an expectation that all academies should offer teachers the opportunity to access the teacher pension scheme, but what about other terms of service protection for teachers who move from one academy to another? For example, I am aware that some academies employing teachers count their first day of work in the new academy as day one, despite them having over five years’ teaching experience, for rights to sickness benefits outside those of statutory requirements.
I look forward to working constructively on the Bill in its passage through the House because I firmly believe that it is necessary to improve and enhance the education that pupils receive in future.
My Lords, this debate is not really about education; it is about the governance of schools. I think many of us in this House would prefer to be debating education, how to improve curriculum assessment and how to introduce technology and data skills into our schools—for schools of this century, not two centuries ago—but we cannot do that.
This is a cross-roads Bill, in that it increases the powers of the Secretary of State and the Department for Education in a way unprecedented since 1870. It gives them powers that I, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and Michael Gove never had. They are sweeping powers, including the power to make every academy sign an agreement with the Secretary of State, basically saying that it will do what they say—it will no longer be guidance, it will be direction. It is amazing that this power is being taken.
After that, if the Secretary of State gives an instruction for the school to improve and it does not, they will then issue a warning of termination. If it does not get better, they will terminate the school. This gives Secretaries of State a power to close schools—a power that they have never really had since 1870. The only schools that have been closed by a Secretary of State since 1870 are schools about which Ofsted has said there is huge financial fraud or abuse of children. I did not close any, and about only two every decade have been closed, but the Bill gives them the power to intervene in a very complete way. Every academy has to sign an agreement with the Secretary of State saying that it must accept whatever advice is given—in fact, it is no longer advice or guidance; it is direction.
The Secretary of State will actually be able to change the governors of schools. Suppose that—I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman—a school in Darlington gets into trouble and the Secretary of State says, “I’m going to cancel your governing board.” How can they know the people in Darlington to appoint as governors? They cannot. The same civil servants will be dealing the next day with a school in Weymouth, the following day with one in Plymouth and the day after that with one in Dartford.
We have to be very aware that this is an important Bill. It is a real grab for power by the Department for Education. We must remember that, since 1870, the Department for Education has never run a school. It does not know how to appoint heads or how to determine any of the aspects of running a school because it has never had to do that, but now it is going to take complete control over the education system. It should be watched—not least by members of the Church of England, because I know how delicate the relationship is between Secretaries of State and the Church.
One of the reasons why I am alerting the House to this is a situation that arose with the schools that I have been promoting: university technical colleges. About two and a half years ago, three of the colleges were having a bit of difficulty with recruiting, so my trust provided improvement programmes for them with local employers and the local university. We gave them more resources and they were all on the road to recovery. However, the department involved would not accept that and issued a termination notice to close all three. I said to the Secretary of State, “If you do this, we will challenge each one through judicial review”, and the department immediately withdrew its opposition and its attempt to do that because it knew it would lose. That was a direct abuse of power, and it was only because my charity could afford a judicial review that the schools were saved.
However, if they decide to close a school in future, they do not really need to take any notice of what the community says, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said. He waxed eloquent about the role of the community—the school in the community. They listen to the local parents and to the councillors and balance up whether the school should be closed. There is nothing in the Bill about this at all. So I am just alerting the House to the fact that this is a game-changing Bill of a very significant nature, and it is totally unproven that the Department for Education knows very much about the improvement of schools—and I say that as a former Education Secretary.
I like one bit of the Bill very much indeed—the Government will be quite surprised to hear that. I warmly recommend the bit on the registration of home educators. We should pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, who has conducted a campaign over the years to do this. Several Secretaries of State promised to do something about it. I see that my noble friend Lord Nash is in his place; he must have promised to do something. I am very grateful that something is being done about it. However, it goes a bit further. It is not just registration; local authorities will have the power to intervene, visit schools and determine what the nature of home education is. Some of it is excellent, but some of it is very questionable indeed, and it is not clear whether the students can cope with difficult subjects such as quadratic equations, trigonometry, the difficulties of physics and chemistry and things of that sort, and whether they have sufficient time for relaxation and sport. So that is a step forward. I strongly support that bit of the Bill.
I think the Government will take the Bill forward because it characterises their whole attitude. The Prime Minister today is going to create a department for the Prime Minister. He has already appointed a Cabinet Minister to report just to him. He will increase his staff dramatically so that he can challenge every department and every Secretary of State on any issue of policy so that he secures his will, his whims or his prejudices. That is a fundamental constitutional change in our country and I am simply amazed that Cabinet Ministers today are not prepared to object to it. The Prime Ministership has been described in our history as the “first among equals”. In the future it will just be the first—there will be no equals. That is again a grab for power at the centre.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I listened to what my noble friend Lady Morris said about following our noble friend Lord Blunkett and, very strangely, I find myself in exactly the same position with the noble Lord, Lord Baker. It is quite odd.
I should remind the House of my interests in the register as an owner of Suklaa, which is an education consultancy, and in particular as chair of the trust board for E-ACT, a multi-academy trust of 28 schools around the country.
I say at the outset that I am happy with the measures in the Bill around attendance, the regulation of independent educational institutions, teacher misconduct and the home-school register. I join noble Lords who paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, who unfortunately could not be with us today. I may be persuaded on the national funding formula as well. I remember, as a Dorset MP, consistent concern about how my political opponents in county hall were not passing on through the schools forum the amount of money that the more deprived schools in my consistency needed because they were spreading it evenly across the shire county.
However, like other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Baker, I have real concerns about Part 1 in respect of academy standards and regulation. The Government are trying to solve the right problem: the problem around academy agreements and the multitude of contracts between the Secretary of State and the academies and how confusing that is, the inability of Parliament to be able to easily legislate around what happens in academies, and the use of the academy handbook. For that to be regularised is the right problem for us to solve. However, the solution is jaw-dropping: making the Secretary of State effectively the chief education officer for 25,000 schools, and what is being proposed around standards, intervention and termination.
I understand that, if you are in the centre, you see when there are failures and you want to be able to use all those powers, but the problem—I say this quietly as far as my Front Bench is concerned but ask government Ministers to listen—is that, even if they think they will use these powers only when they need to and in the best possible taste, what about future Secretaries of State? They will not be in office for ever. Do they really want to give future Secretaries of State the power to do what on earth they like to schools in this country? That is what this Bill allows them to do. I do not think they really want that, or that the system that will implement this has the capacity to do so well.
The reality is that regional schools commissioners will have teams of officials who in the end will be going out to multi-academy trusts and telling them what to do. I like to think that they will all be of the calibre needed to be able to do that but, in the end, I am afraid that I do not believe it. Unfortunately, when the Bill talks about academy proprietors, it is silent on the difference between members and trustees. I want to be able to explore that in Committee because there are some real differences, for example around termination.
I did a bit of rough maths. If every school were to become part of a MAT, with 10 schools in a MAT and 10 trustees in each MAT, that would mean 25,000 trustees you have to be able to recruit. We have to work out whether a system in which you are dictated to on everything you have to do is the right environment for people to want to be trustees; I would question that. I see this as potentially the end of innovation in schools and the end of academy freedom. In particular, I ask the Minister whether this is the end of the curriculum freedoms that academies want to be able to enjoy.
This Bill doubles down on the direction of travel of the last 12 years, as my noble friend Lady Morris said. It is not empathetic. Will it help to recruit more and better MAT trustees? Will it help to get us more and better school leaders and teachers? It is understandable from the centre, but not in terms of incentivising us to be involved in the system. As others have said, we need a Bill that sets out a different vision for schools. There is a growing consensus for change in this country. The Government’s targets for education by 2030 will not be met unless we do things differently.
The noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, talked about mental health and well-being, as others have done. I read this weekend that 420,000 children are being treated every month in this country for mental health issues. That is a crisis. Josh MacAlister’s report on children’s social care and the need for a family health service in schools is out today. We need to be putting children first and designing a school system. It is a universal service for children that should think properly about how we help children, especially the most vulnerable, to have the breadth of knowledge, of skills and of behaviours that they need to thrive, emotionally, socially, environmentally and economically. Then, with that vision, I think we can all go forward together in this House.
My Lords, the range of speakers in this debate indicates how close schools are to your Lordships’ hearts. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lords, Lord Baker and Lord Knight, and realise that our passion for schools transcends party politics.
I taught in a number of schools during a peripatetic life with my wonderful RAF husband—we moved 24 times in 30 years—in between working as a filing clerk and a copy typist; I was a “thinking copy typist”, which got me into trouble as copy typists were not supposed to think. So, we come to your Lordships’ House with a wide range of experience. Teaching for me was always the most challenging, rewarding and occasionally terrifying work. My supply-teaching woodwork class remains an experience I would never wish to repeat. From time to time I taught my subjects, French and Spanish: but whatever class I was called upon to cover, it always seemed to me that education should be enjoyable and that learning should be fun—which was quite a challenge with French verbs but not impossible.
I would be thrilled to see a Schools Bill setting out the importance of music, art, drama, creative skills, coping skills, financial skills, preparing young people for adult life and, as my noble friend Lord Shipley mentioned, careers guidance, all the while stressing that learning must be relevant, and seen to be relevant, in order for young people to put their energy into their education. I strongly support the amendment on values as set out by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. However, there is none of that in this Bill; nor has there been in any of the other educational offerings from this Government. Even the skills Bill managed to be dull—quite a feat when we think how exciting and inspirational skills can be.
Having got that off my chest, I turn to the Bill. We have grave concerns about the provisions for special educational needs, but I shall leave my noble friend Lord Addington to speak on those areas that he is an expert in.
As a party which believes in localism and decisions being made as close as possible to the action, we are concerned at the growth in multi-academy trusts and the move further away from local authorities. My noble friend Lord Storey set out some of our major concerns about MATs. Surely local authorities need to have new functions in planning school places and co-ordinating managed moves, especially where children might be at risk of exclusion. Every school should have its own governing body, since every school is different and parents and others close to the school should have a say in how the school is run and what the priorities are, and an awareness of particular issues and problems.
Councils need backstop powers to direct academies to expand school places, to deliver on councils’ duty to ensure that there is a school place for every child who needs one, and to respond quickly to local needs and influxes in population. It is also for councils to have adequate powers to shut down illegal schools. That duty cannot be delegated to multi-academy trusts. Of course, as we have heard, home schooling will always be a hot potato. Home schoolers can be passionate about their choice and are already lobbying us on the provisions in the Bill. There are excellent reasons why some children thrive better with home schooling, but we must ensure that those children are not lost to the system.
Every child is entitled to protection from exploitation. We would like any adult in charge of a child to have a DBS check. This should be no problem at all for caring parents or guardians, and it would bring them into line with all other adults who deal with children. We need much better checks on unregistered schools, to ensure that the education they are providing is of good quality, fair-minded and caring. We have no truck with excellent home schoolers, but we must have a way of monitoring non-attendance at school.
Again, it should be for councils to have powers to check on children who are not in school, to ensure that they are receiving a suitable education, and for safeguarding purposes. We cannot give in to some of the more robust tactics of passionate home schoolers, who may be paragons of virtue themselves, but who cannot guarantee that all those who claim to be home schooling share their high standards of education and loving care.
There was once a proposal for a unique pupil number, so that each child could have their progress followed and could be traced if they fell out of the system. I do not know what happened to that. Registration of pupils is a modest measure. Surely no one could object to some means of ensuring that all children not in school were known, were not in danger, and were learning. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, set out, we will always be concerned if additional powers are given to Secretaries of State—Ministers who are here today, gone tomorrow; I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Nash—who often have no teaching qualifications or educational specialism. Please let us not resort to that as a backstop position. It should be for us in Parliament to take decisions on such important matters as education.
We also notice with great concern the growth in mental health problems in schoolchildren. What steps are the Government taking to increase provision for those who need support and counselling to help them through? Many of these measures impact on further education colleges. What discussions have there been with colleges about the proposals here?
Parts of this Bill are good, even if they are unambitious and differ substantially from the Bill that I would love to see, but we will be scrutinising with care where positive amendments can be made.
My Lords, I mention my interest as the governor of a specialist music school. There is clearly much to debate in the Bill, but I will focus on two areas of provision: grammar schools and home education.
I welcome the safeguards in the Bill for existing grammar schools, but I regret that it is not taking the opportunity to open up the development of new grammar schools. There are now just 163 grammar schools, in 36 LEAs, which means that children in 75% of England do not have access to a free academic school. I recognise that there are of course conflicting views on how much better children of high ability do at grammar schools, but you do not need statistics to appreciate that these children are stretched and motivated when they are in a cohort of children of a similar standard and that this allows the teacher to move at a faster pace and cover more material.
But it is not just about academic progress. What those who have not experienced these schools often fail to understand is the lifting of aspirations and confidence when those from less privileged backgrounds are in an environment and social mix where they can be encouraged to aim for the top. A top stream in some comprehensives may be able to replicate this, but most do not have enough children at that level. Sadly, this is most likely to be true for schools in deprived social areas. So, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, once observed, the elimination of grammar schools has replaced selection by ability with selection by postcode. If you are a talented child living in the wrong postcode—in the 75% of local authorities without grammar schools—your chance of getting the top-class education that you deserve has been taken away.
Of course, critics say that selection unfairly favours the children of middle-class parents. That may be true, but those children will benefit from their parental support in any system. That is no reason to take away the opportunity for high-ability children from less advantaged backgrounds to at least have a chance of gaining an education that can transform their lives.
Just to be clear, I am advocating not the return of compulsory 11-plus but simply the availability of free academic schools for anyone with the ability to apply to them. This is similar to the German gymnasium schools, for example, which operate so effectively. I do not understand why, in this country, it is rightly regarded as acceptable to single out the highest youthful talent in, say, football, swimming or drama and give it special support, while it is regarded as divisive to provide the same special support to children with academic talent. These are individuals who may go on to take valuable leadership roles in society.
The new Labor Prime Minister in Australia summed up his philosophy as:
“No one held back. No one left behind.”
That would be a good subtitle for the Bill. Expanding access to grammar schools is an important aspect of ensuring that our brightest children are not held back. I hope that it might be possible for the Government to go further on that aspiration.
The second area that I wanted to touch on is the provisions for home education. An estimated 80,000 children are not in school and are being educated at home. For the record, I note that that number includes some of my own grandchildren. Although the law puts the responsibility on parents to ensure that their children get an adequate education, it is of course important to ensure that these children are actually getting that and that the freedoms of home education are not being abused. So I strongly support the introduction of a simple register that, for the first time, would enable us to know who these children are. But I am not sure that it is appropriate for the Bill to say that a child can be taken out of a school and placed on that register only if the school agrees. It may be that a conflict with the school is the primary reason for choosing home education.
I fear that the Bill then goes too far in enabling local authorities to prescribe and collect detailed and potentially intrusive information about the means and methods by which parents are providing this education. If a local authority judges that the curriculum or teaching methods do not conform with its view of how children should be educated, it would then have extensive powers to require the child to attend a regular school. That provision leaves many parents worried that their existing freedom to choose how they educate their children will in practice be denied.
I recognise this is a difficult balance, but I urge the Minister to listen to the arguments on this and consider whether it might be better to monitor the output from home education rather than giving LEAs powers to control the inputs—for example, having an advisory service with home visits that can make informed assessments about whether each home-educated child is making the progress expected. If there are not adequate resources to do this for every child, parents could perhaps be required to provide an annual report setting out what progress the child has made, which might highlight specific cases where inadequate or unconvincing reports raise concerns.
I suggest that the Government need to review these provisions in the Bill carefully to ensure they do not go too far in giving local authorities excessive power to impose conformity on the freedom that is there for those who want to challenge conformity.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a member of Middlesex Learning Trust and a trustee of Artis Foundation. When I spoke in the debate on the humble Address last week, I focused on things the Bill does not address. I am not going to go back to them, but I have not forgotten them, and I am very pleased that quite a lot of them have been addressed by others.
Today I want to concentrate on one aspect the Bill does address, which has already been touched on—I think—by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who is no longer in her place, but I missed a tiny bit of her speech, and certainly implicitly if not directly by the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham. These are the new provisions dealing with school attendance. In doing so, I acknowledge an excellent briefing from Ambitious about Autism.
I am assuming I do not have to explain in this very well-informed company what autism is. On current evidence, one in 57 children are affected. The briefing from Ambitious about Autism reveals that 31% of autistic children and young people—that is, over 43,000 students—were persistent absentees in 2021. Autism is a spectrum disorder, so different people present in different ways. I want to try to describe what it is like for one family with a charming, funny, articulate and highly intelligent autistic adolescent for whom school is a nightmare—not schoolwork, but school itself, the environment and the social demands. This is an ordinary middle-class family with two parents with high-pressured senior jobs, one of them in education. It is my family.
As most of us know, living with adolescents can be pretty gruelling at the best of times. An adolescent with an autism diagnosis and significant mental health problems, especially one who is highly articulate and intelligent, presents a whole different level of challenge. There are good times and bad times, of course. At good times, life goes along in a reasonably normal way; at bad times, it is very different. There is extreme volatility and unpredictable behaviour; there is acute distress leading to extended meltdowns and self-harm; there is frequent disruption to family and professional life, including mine, caused by the struggle to get the young person to school and keep them there, which is sometimes impossible. There is the limited availability of help and support, both in school and from other agencies such as CAMHS, which has already been alluded to. This is not from want of good will, but from want of resources.
Then, there is the stress, guilt and corrosive anxiety of trying to keep daily life more or less stable, which wear away at the mental and physical health of the parents, and there is the impact of constant disruption on other children in the family. It is relentless, exhausting and heart-breaking to see. What possible value could there be in adding to the pressure by threatening these parents and others in the same situation with fines and penalties?
Six in 10 young people say the main thing that would make school better for them would be to have a teacher who understood autism. I have heard a version of this many times over the years, but only half of teachers—53%—feel they have been adequately trained to support autistic children in the classroom. I know only too well what a difficult job teachers and school leaders have coping with everything that is asked of them. Most of them are doing their absolute best, but young people like my family member need special attention, which they often do not get.
Ambitious about Autism says:
“Compelling these young people to be at a school … without the support they need to attend, will not help them learn.”
We hear from parents and teachers that, when autistic young people are forced into a classroom where they cannot access the learning, they may go into shutdown, completely detaching from what is happening around them, or have meltdowns that affect other children and teachers and are very distressing for the young person themselves. It is just so.
What evidence does the Minister have that the provisions in the Bill will reduce absences in SEND groups, specifically among students with autism? Ambitious about Autism says punishing families of autistic pupils with fines for poor attendance will not make a positive difference;
“it will just further penalise families who already struggle to get support for their children.”
I am sure the Minister does not want this to happen. I hope she will accept the necessity to amend the Bill to ensure such potential—I hope unintended—consequences are avoided. I beg her to do so. My family and others like it do not deserve to have further pressure put on them. Their lives are difficult enough already.
My Lords, I rise to speak about home schooling and hopefully to correct two or three of the misconceptions that have already been outlined by noble Lords. It is obvious that school does not suit everybody, and I declare an interest: three of my five grandchildren have been home-schooled, and they are turning out brilliantly. I think home schooling suits some people and suits some parents. Therefore, to put further measures and pressures on those parents could be a mistake.
Parents who home-school come from a huge range of backgrounds, and they have chosen to educate their children outside school, providing an individualised education to their child, suitable to the child’s age, ability and aptitude, because it is in the child’s best interests, and it is geared to supporting their well-being and future contributions as citizens.
At the moment, there are just over 78,000 children known to be home-educated in England. Many have tried school and found that it failed them. Common factors include a lack of effective special needs support in schools, the pressures of standardisation and testing, failure to stop bullying, discrimination and a lack of support for disabled children and those with medical needs. Registered children are kept track of by local authorities, and this continues at the moment.
The most in-depth study carried out into home education, in 2002 by Dr Paula Rothermel, found that home-educated children demonstrated higher levels of attainment and good social skills. Someone in my wider family has a PhD in astrophysics; they were home-educated, and it has not held them back so far.
Given the intrusive nature of the proposals, I would at least have expected some form of independently reviewed study showing that there is some sort of systemic problem with the freedoms of families who home-educate, which the Government have been unable to address by other means. Where is that study? Where has this repressive attitude come from?
Part 3 of the Bill has provoked a tidal wave of concern and condemnation throughout the home-education community. These proposals have been already rejected by parents and young people in a preceding consultation called Children not in School, so I am wondering why they have come back now. The mandatory registration of home-educated children is not the simple creation of a list. Local authorities already possess and keep such lists. The Bill goes so much further, seeking to treat home education as a problem that needs bringing under control rather than as an asset that should be nurtured and protected. The Government do not trust parents. That is the message that is coming over.
It is a very serious step to compel law-abiding families who are educating their children at home to be subject to statutory inquiries about their children in the absence of any presenting problem. This approach to families crosses a line in the involvement of the state in family life. The state is going to be able to single out a discrete group of law-abiding families from their peer group and then subject them to special monitoring.
Crucially, the Bill introduces no system of oversight of local authority conduct or safeguards for the vast majority of home educators who deliver a high-quality education. Local authorities could misuse these proposed duties to impose standardised requirements on the format and content of education that children receive at home. This would, of course, destroy the whole point of the child-centred, creative and flexible schooling that is characteristic of home education at its best.
In the Green Party we have been careful to develop policy on home education in partnership with home educators and their children, because effective co-operation aligns professionals and citizens as equals and encourages them to work together to create services that are as effective as possible. As a result, society sees better outcomes from its public services. We have received briefings from home education groups not simply explaining the dangers of the proposals in their current form but offering concrete suggestions for achieving the Government’s purported aims in a way that will better achieve the stated objectives and enable positive collaboration between home educators and local authorities, rather than the conflict that many of us can see happening.
If we want effective policy on home education that delivers good outcomes for children and young people, surely it is better to work with home-educating families, rather than against them. I strongly urge the Government to open discussions between now and Committee with home education groups and bring forward changes which enhance the life chances of these children rather than damage them.
My Lords, I welcome this Bill and its direction of travel.
I will raise four matters today. I turn first to the adverse effect on the mental health of children and young people of the disruption to education caused by the pandemic. In this I pay tribute to the important contribution of my noble friend Lord Altrincham. I am grateful to Barnardo’s for its briefing. Barnardo’s conducts quarterly surveys of front-line workers, and these have shown a steady increase in concerns about the deteriorating mental health of the children with whom it works. In January this year, 76% of Barnardo’s front-line workers were supporting children who had not re-engaged in school. It identified unmet mental health and well-being needs as a primary reason for this. Only 39% of children and young people with diagnosable mental health conditions were being treated through NHS-commissioned community services in the year 2020-21. Supporting mental health in schools is critical to educational attainment. It is good news that the Government are committed to improving mental health support through the rollout of mental health support teams but it seems that, under current plans, only 36% of learners in England will be able to access such a team in their school by 2023. Can we do more? This is the opportunity.
This leads on to school absences. In March this year the Children’s Commissioner estimated that, in the last autumn term, 1.7 million children were persistently absent and 124,000 were missing over 50% of sessions. I am pleased that this Bill will ensure that schools publish a clear attendance policy. Better attendance will also be helped by addressing unmet mental health and well-being needs. This strengthens my plea for mental health support teams to be expanded.
Now I turn to bullying, which is also highly relevant to attainment and attendance. Reports in the Times have raised an important matter. A sixth form girl spoke at a school meeting discussing gender issues. She appears to have asserted that women are defined by their biological sex, not self-identified gender. For this, it seems, she was abused as a transphobe. In parenthesis I add that it is clear that identity issues are now prevalent in a lot of schools and must be difficult for teachers to manage—and we have already heard something about that. Schools will need policy help and advice from those experienced in this, and I ask the Minister to consider that.
Although in this case the school appears initially to have supported this sixth-form girl, later on that support was withdrawn. The girl was told she would have to work in the library if she said anything “provocative” in lessons—in other words, anything that other people did not agree with. In due course she could not face that; she left the school last December. I am gratified that the Times reported that the Secretary of State called the incident “hugely concerning” and said:
“Schools have a responsibility to protect that student.”
If open discussion is not adequately protected, this Bill is an opportunity to introduce any necessary amendments to ensure safeguarding or, if there are existing powers, to lay appropriate regulations. I invite the Minister to review that.
Finally, I read that the Scottish Government plan to remove the current requirements for a gender recognition certificate to be granted. It seems that, in future, anyone ordinarily resident in Scotland over the age of 16 will be able, without the need for any diagnosis or medical evidence, to apply to change their registered sex and achieve this in as little as six months.
This could be important to English schools for two reasons. First, a person of male sex might seek to rely on such an ill-founded certificate without any medical backing or any physical changes to use school facilities intended for women and children—by which I mean girls. Secondly, depending on how it is interpreted, such legislation might enable an ill-motivated person—I stress, an ill-motivated person—who has, without physical change, changed their registered sex in Scotland, and hence their identity, to later revert to their original sex under yet another new name by adopting the same procedure, with no checks. This will pose difficulties for DBS and other record checks for schools and other establishments where checks are required, because identity will have changed.
For these two reasons, I seek assurance that the United Kingdom Government will not agree to recognising such certificates elsewhere in the United Kingdom, outside Scotland, and will look carefully at the measures necessary to ensure that our children and young persons in schools are safeguarded in these respects.
My Lords, we have had some excellent speeches from the former Education Ministers present in the House, as well as from the Front-Bench spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and my noble friend Lady Chapman. They focused on tissues around governance and some of the practical issues in Part 1, which are significant. I hope the Government are willing to engage in discussion on these matters.
Like many others, I am concerned at the overwhelming lack of evidence that the Government are a better allocator, that MATs are inherently good or are governed in the right way, or that contractual arrangements will be highly beneficial. Like many in this House, I have been a governor and trustee of schools, and I find it hard to believe that the recruitment of even more trustees will be hugely beneficial, when the real challenge has been finding quality head teachers. I am also concerned by the idea that the enforcing of a contract by the Secretary of State is an attractive recruiting sergeant for those in governance for MATs. There are a lot of practical issues that we need to address in this Bill, and I hope the Government will be open to looking at these as we go through Committee.
I will now address Part 3 and Part 4. I was pleased to see the provisions to establish a register of children not in school and on new regulations for unregulated settings or unregistered independent educational establishments. I congratulate the Government on addressing this long-overlooked area, and I offer them my strong support. I admire those who home-educate, and I know that they will be able to continue to do so even if the provisions in this Bill become law; many of their concerns are simply unfounded. These provisions are utterly necessary, and they need to be fit for purpose at the beginning. We have to deal with one of the realities: the organised denial of the rights of children by groups and intuitions, whether from closed or other communities, is the challenge the Government have to meet here.
The powers needed to remedy these measures need to be extensive and Ofsted needs to be supported, as the perpetrators have become very used to using the existing legal framework—and lawyers—to protect themselves from scrutiny and any remedial action to protect children who, for example, may not even be taught English. We should have no truck with the notion that human rights are being infringed when parents decide not to equip their children to have opportunity in the society in which they live. My concern is whether the definitions and provisions in the legislation are fully effective against a deliberate and determined attempt to evade them, and whether sufficient thought has been given to enforcement measures that can be effective in discouraging disobedience and ensuring appropriate sanctions.
I hope also that the Government will look at where other decisions that they have made may impact on these; for example, they have recently changed the planning arrangements so that now, under the class F classification, a community-use classification can be used for a church as well as a school, which means that any religious establishment, for example, can transfer to a school immediately. This opens up a huge lacuna in the law and the implementation of it to address the issues with which we are concerned.
I am particularly pleased that the balance has been struck by focusing on the role of education providers, not just on fining the parents—many of whom will never have declarable or visible means to pay. However, we should be live to wilful attempts to evade these measures, including organised efforts such as those undertaken by a few communities and groups during the periods of high restrictions during Covid. I hope that the Minister will consider helpful amendments that could assist in this effort, such as a more general anti-avoidance provision, or even, for example, a specific provision that allows for Ofsted to make a determination as to whether an attempt was made by organisers to increase or create a tapestry of providers to make it appear that the amount of hours taught would not require any of the institutions to qualify as the providers of the majority of time of educational provision.
Consideration should also be given to whether measures to deal with inappropriate classifications of institutions as informal educational settings can be used, which may include after-school clubs. Will the Government also consider more stringent measures to enforce fit and proper tests for trustees and institutions, which could include that those who are found to be organising should by default be no longer able to serve as directors or trustees in companies or charities? Further, organisations involved in this process should face swift action from the Charity Commission, by appointing managers, the revocation of charity status and significant investigations to ensure that charity status is not accorded to those involved in helping, assisting or facilitating disobedience.
I am very happy to support the Government on these measures and I hope that they are sufficiently robust to deal with any and all attempts to deny children the education that they deserve.
My Lords, there is much to welcome in the new Bill, as my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and other noble Lords have indicated. In particular, it is good to know the Government’s direction of travel on academisation and the continued emphasis on raising standards. I support the comments made by other noble Lords on the need properly to resource our schools, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, to safeguard the morale of heads, governors and teachers and to pay much greater attention to mental health provision.
It is vital as well to continue to build on secure partnerships across the statutory, voluntary, church and faiths sector. The education of our children has never been the sole responsibility of central government—it is the responsibility of all. These vital partnerships have flourished for many decades to the mutual benefit of all and the common good. It is very good to note the Government’s intention to safeguard those partnerships into the future through the Bill and the process of academisation which will follow. One of the tests of the Bill will be the strengthening of social capital and intermediate institutions.
The Diocese of Oxford where I serve has 284 Church schools and shares in the education of over 50,000 children. We have sponsored and developed two highly effective multi-academy trusts of our own, and we are active partners in a further 18 MATs across the three counties. Over the last decade, our role in education has steadily expanded, and we stand ready to play our part in the academisation programme over the next decade. Some of our schools are large, but many serve small rural communities and are cherished as a vital part of the educational provision across the three counties.
There will be particular challenges in the pace of academisation, which will be needed to meet the Government’s targets, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances in her closing remarks about the vital importance of small rural schools to their communities and about the proper resourcing of what will be very significant and rapid change for them. It would be helpful to have greater clarity on what will govern or limit the size of MATs in future. Will it be the number of schools, which may each be small, or the numbers of pupils cumulatively?
I have found in discussion with our senior school leaders that there is some ambiguity in the Bill around Clauses 19 and 20, and the requirements to make regulation about governance. We note the Government’s assurance to protect governance in MATs, where the majority of schools were formerly church schools of any type, whether VA or VC. However, Clauses 19 and 20 can be read as making a distinction between VA and VC schools and as giving assurance of majority church governance only in those MATs where more than 50% of schools are VA. It would be helpful to have the Minister’s assurance of intention here and an undertaking to clarify this point in Committee.
Finally, the Bill makes provision for local authorities to apply for academy trust orders for all their schools. May I ask the Minister for guidance on the ways in which the Department for Education will ensure that there are no perceived or actual conflicts of interest or preferment between these local authorities spin-off MATs and other multi-academy trusts?
My Lords, I shall try to follow with some thoughts on the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lords, Lord Baker and Lord Knight—but first a short excursion into history. My father was Secretary of State for Education twice, the first time as a result of having provided Harold Macmillan with the materials to build 300,000 houses in a year. The second time, he went to see Harold, who was of course by then Prime Minister, and said that his department was suggesting that he should put forward a Bill to do certain things. Harold Macmillan said, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that, particularly not if it’s an education Bill, because there’s absolutely no chance that anybody will agree with anybody else.” We need to recognise that there is some wisdom in that comment.
Historically, over many years, there has been a stand-off between those who see education as a means to an end and those who see it as an end in itself. I have to admit to being more in the second than in the first camp, and therefore I am in a minority—but we must carry on with whatever we are trying to do. In this Bill, for me the most important thing that is being done is the transfer of academies from contracts to a statutory system. There are many reasons for looking at that very carefully. It may or may not be the right thing to do—I am not at all certain—but there are some things about it which worry me.
The first is that the Government claim they will achieve more consistency. Well, I am not sure that consistency is a good idea if you are indulging in education. The variability of what the pupils going through their education may want to do and how they may want to come out is such a muddle and so deeply variable that I doubt very much whether consistency is a good ambition. You have to be prepared to deal with great variability and, in dealing with great variability, you will of course trouble the Civil Service, which is always in favour of tidying up and never in favour of too much exceptionalism or variability.
The second thing that bothers me is about the people who are—as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said—the trustees and indeed, I would say, the heads of schools? It is all very well having a very tidy and consistent system, but the people who do these jobs—for reasons of public service, let us hope—like a bit of independence. They think they can contribute something by using their own judgment; they see themselves as doing things which do not imply that the divide between policy and day-to-day management will be eroded to the point where they are not in charge of anything. Ultimately, I think, if one puts too much pressure for political correctness or conformity or consistency on to the sort of people who are willing to do these jobs, it will become—as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said—quite difficult to find them. There are quite a lot of examples in areas of our political life other than the Department for Education where we can see that that has happened.
So my plea to my noble friend on the Front Benches is that when this system—this long progression, as the right reverend Prelate said—from contracts to a statutory system gets under way, it is not too prescriptive. Yet, with 20 subjects in Clause 1 and a promise that there will be more because they are only examples, it is quite difficult to be optimistic that the system will not be too prescriptive. But I do urge that it is not and that, as it goes forward, people are listened to very carefully and we go ahead with a light touch and without any conviction that we have exactly the right answer.
My Lords, I wish to address two aspects of this Bill, both of which concern the role of religion in the education of children. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that I am the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group—although the comments I will make are my own.
Since 2014, Humanists UK has been campaigning to close down unregistered, illegal schools. In December of last year, it heard the personal testimony of pupils from such schools. They came from extremist fundamentalists sects of certain religious communities and told us how they were taught. There was very little secular education and much prayer and study of religious texts. Their writing and reading skills were poor, there was no mixing of the sexes and discipline often involved beatings. Ofsted estimates that there are at least 6,000 pupils in such schools. Local authorities—I understand this from research, as it is totally informal—have been loath to intervene, for fear of being accused of harassing minority groups.
So it is with this first-hand evidence on the record that I welcome the Bill’s intention to expand registration requirements for independent educational institutions and to work with Ofsted to expand investigatory powers. I cannot emphasise too much the need to rescue children from such institutions that are outside the scrutiny that ensures their safety and well-being, and a wide-ranging secular education.
The second matter I wish to raise concerns a community in our society currently not provided for in the school religious curriculum. Families who are humanists find that, for geographical reasons, they have no option but to choose faith schools for their children to attend—schools where the curriculum includes faith teaching and collective worship. There is indeed provision for such children, but it is less than satisfactory. This needs to be challenged. Such children are given the right to withdraw from all faith observances if their parents request it. In practice, this is demeaning and discriminatory, and often results in children languishing aimlessly in empty classrooms with no indication of how to use their time profitably. I ask the Government to confront this dilemma for the increasing number of humanist families in our society.
I will just say something about humanism in general. All the world’s religious faiths hold certain tenets in common: a belief in some kind of deity who created the world, the prospect of life after death and some implied divine judgment for people’s behaviour. In defining their own faith and creed, people who follow a religious faith often speak of humanists as “people of no faith”. Such dismissal does not do justice to the broad moral landscape that informs humanism. Humanists are people with a convinced belief in human values, who cherish both the human spirit in each one of us and the sharing of our life here on earth—they are not any kind of spiritual void.
I appreciate that most of the intentions of this Bill concern structure and the administration of educational provision, but there is also a great segment about religious provision. I ask the Government to take on board this heavy, important and significant part of children’s education, and to look to be more inclusive and positive in the treatment of those who have been wrongly defined as “people of no faith”. I look forward to the contribution of the arm’s-length curriculum authority and hope that we will see it modify the existing regulations.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this Second Reading, not least to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, three previous Secretaries of State—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, my noble friend Lord Baker and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris—the former Minister of State, the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and indeed my noble friend the son of a Secretary of State, as we have just discovered: in fact, the son of a Secretary of State twice.
I will concentrate my remarks on the educational attainment gap for disabled young people and what this Bill does not say about that—to which my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has already alluded. There will be some stats, some chat and a question. I turn first to the stats. Already by key stage 2 SATs, at the age of 11, only 22% of young people with special educational needs are achieving the relevant standards in reading, writing and numeracy. At age 11, almost 80% of disabled young people and young people with special educational needs are being let down and left behind by our school system, through no fault of the teachers—41% of whom say that they do not have the necessary resources, support or training to address the issue at hand.
For GCSEs, 54.5% of non-disabled students are achieving a standard around grade 8, while just over 31% with special educational needs are achieving the same standard. The transition rate from school to higher education is 47.5% for non-disabled students, 20% for students with special educational needs and 8% for students with an EHCP. Of those going to higher-tariff universities—such as the Russell group and Oxbridge—just over 12% are non-disabled, 3.3% have special educational needs and 1.1% have an EHCP.
Those are the stats, but behind each one are young special educational needs and disabled people who are not being enabled and who are not able to thrive in our school system currently, despite significant resources being spent to supposedly address this issue.
Turning to the consequences, if you are disabled, you are far less likely to be in employment. If you are in employment, you will be very much at the wrong end of a disability employment pay gap. You are less likely to be in employment or higher education, but more likely to be financially or digitally excluded and to suffer from isolation or mental illness. Those are the stats and that is the chat.
The question is just this: what do the Government intend to do about this? The Bill may be mostly about structure, but this is an issue which runs through every element of our education system; it affects every beat point, every point where somebody with special educational needs could be enabled or empowered, yet the stats tell the story. As my friend the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, what will be the linkage between the SEND Green Paper and this Bill as it progresses? I ask the Minister: why do we not take the opportunity of this Schools Bill to start to take the most important steps of all, enabling young disabled and special educational needs students to succeed in education and have fulfilled careers? For the SEN students of today and for those who will follow them tomorrow, if we do that, all of us will benefit.
My Lords, what an extraordinary Bill this is. It is silent on so many of the pressing issues facing our school system. It is silent on the financial pressures in the early years sector. It is silent on the crumbling infrastructure, to which a number of noble Lords have referred. It is silent on the workforce pressures, particularly in secondary schools, where physics, maths, chemistry and modern foreign languages are facing severe problems. It is silent too on presenting any bold vision of educational outcomes or dealing with the issue described recently by Peter Hyman, co-founder of Rethinking Assessment. As he put it,
“After 11 years of schooling students are given a set of numbers as the sum total of what they have achieved, and for a third of students those numbers indicate that they have failed. Surely young people should leave school with a profile of what they can do (head, heart and hand) and what they are like … That is what employers are looking for and that is what matters in life.”
The Bill has nothing to say on any of these fundamental issues. On the face of it, its focus is on the governance and structure of academies, with one or two useful measures added on. However, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, put it so well when he said that, in reality, it is an extraordinary grabbing of power by the Secretary of State to essentially direct and intervene in the affairs of every school in the country. A number of noble Lords have welcomed the national formula for funding, but when you link Clause 1 with Clause 33, you are giving all the levers of power to one person, aided by an army of officials far removed from local schools.
Clause 1 is quite extraordinary. It sets out 20 examples of standards, ranging from the curriculum, to the nature and quality of education provision to be provided, governance structures, remuneration of staff and spending of money. All this is to be done via regulations with only limited parliamentary scrutiny and those are only examples; the Secretary of State can dream up any number of other standards he or she wishes to have and bung them through by another regulation. I hope we will examine this very carefully. If Ministers are insistent on going down this path, then they surely need to spell out in primary legislation exactly what standards they are going to impose on every school in the country. To leave it as vague as it is is simply not acceptable.
On academisation, I am the first to acknowledge the excellent work in many of our academies. However, I wish the Government could bring themselves, just once or twice, to acknowledge the good work in maintained schools. The noble Lord, Lord Nash, is not in his place. When he was Minister, we made very many efforts to get him to praise maintained schools. I hope the noble Baroness the Minister will do so in in her wind-up because she knows that the Government are slightly selective in the figures that they use to justify academisation, and I applaud the NEU’s recent exposure of this and its vindication.
On schools and academy schools, just as we are seeing aggrandisement of power at the centre, we are also seeing local schools lose power within a multi-academy trust. This is something I am concerned about. There is no doubt that the emergence of MATs has drastically reduced democratic accountability, and once subsumed into the MAT structure the voice, autonomy and legal identity individual schools are lost. Communities are locked out of the MAT system. We now have Ministers empowered to impose academisation and switch academies between different MATs without consultation. That cannot be right.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned the excellent research paper from the LSE by Professor Anne West and David Wolfe. They identified many of the current governance shortcomings in relation to academies within MATs. There are other shortcomings too. I refer to the work of the Public Accounts Committee on the annual accounts of academy trusts a couple of months ago. The issue of academy CEOs’ pay has been well documented, but the PAC complained very recently that the noble Baroness’s department does not have a handle on excessive pay within the sector. What are the Government going to do about that? The PAC also said that
“a lack of transparency in local academy financial information is harming parents’ ability to hold their local academy leaders and the DfE to account, for the services they provide to pupils or for their use of public funds.”
In the work the Government are taking forward, how will they ensure that, locally, parents and other interested citizens see the financial information for local academies, even when they are part of a multi-academy trust, in order for them to be able to monitor, judge and scrutinise the performance of those trusts? I hope we will get answers to this.
My Lords, I declare my educational interests as detailed in the register. I am a governor of a leading independent school and was for nine years chairman of King’s College London. I am also patron of King’s Maths School, which I will refer to later. My wife also has various educational interests. She is a governor of another leading independent school, she was chairman of the Royal Ballet School, she is chairman of an independent prep school, and she is a trustee of a leading music academy.
I wish to talk about that part of the Bill which relates to academies, a type of school originally legislated for by the Labour Government 20 years ago. The coalition Government in 2010 embraced the concept and, indeed, enhanced it. Michael Gove, while Secretary of State for Education, asked King’s College London to sponsor and run a specialist maths school, a suggestion to which we readily agreed. We already had a building, which we were able to convert, and we asked the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf of Dulwich, to chair the board of governors. She in turn recruited an excellent headmaster.
When the school opened with 60 pupils in the first year—it now has 75 in each year group—44% of the students were from ethnic-minority backgrounds and 34% were girls. From the first-year intake, 20% were awarded places at Oxford or Cambridge and all the others went to leading universities. Today, there are still over 45% of the students from ethnic minorities, while 40% come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds and 30% from families where they will be the first to go to university. Each year about 25% of the students are awarded places at Oxford or Cambridge; indeed, already this year 40% hold Oxbridge offers, provided that they achieved their predicted grades.
In December 2021 the school was named best state sixth-form school of the decade by the Sunday Times school guide. In other words, the school has been an outstanding success from its inception. It has been exceptionally good value for taxpayers in terms of academic achievement and social impact. It has produced a good number of badly needed mathematicians and physicists, many coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, as I said, and many of whom go on to read engineering at university. So I suggest that we need more of this type of school.
In 2017 the Government announced that there would be more maths schools, but progress has been slow. Liverpool and Lancaster are now open but Cambridge University and Imperial College London will open only in 2023. In a briefing last week with the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, whom I thank, I asked whether there should be something in the Bill to create more maths or other specialist schools. She told me it was not necessary as the powers already exist, so I ask the Minister to tell the House how many more maths or similar schools will be created before the end of this Parliament.
There is another element of the Bill about which I seek clarification. It is now government policy that, by 2030, as stated in the White Paper, all schools should be part of a multi-academy trust. Although that may be appropriate and indeed sensible for most taxpayer-funded secondary schools, I ask the Minister whether she believes that specialist maths schools will also be required to go into a multi-academy trust. One of the reasons why the maths schools sponsored by universities have been so dramatically successful is precisely their close association with the university academic staff and undergraduates. To tamper with that structure would be a mistake. I hope the Minister can answer my concerns.
I support the Bill but, as the Government have decided to introduce the Bill first in the Lords, I am sure that the extensive knowledge and expertise of many noble Lords will be able to improve it further as it passes through the House. I hope the Minister will have some answers to the important reservations articulated so well by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Baker.
We all share a conviction that the standard of education in this country must continue to improve. It must therefore be right that the Government attempt to give a further lift to that endeavour.