Schools Bill [HL] - Second Reading (Continued)

– in the House of Lords at 6:20 pm on 23rd May 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:20 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, I declare my interests as a former general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, which accredits and represents some 1,400 schools, and as the current president of the Independent Schools Association, one of the council’s constituent bodies, which has some 580 of those schools in its membership.

The association’s members are for the most part small in size, often having no more than 200 pupils, with deep roots in their local communities. Striving always to keep fees down and providing as much in the way of bursaries as they can, these schools are far removed from the stereotyped image of Britain’s independent education sector, packed with grand, expensive institutions, which dwells so stubbornly and unfairly in the public mind. The members of this association are far more representative of the true state of the independent sector today than the comparatively small number of well-known schools which exert so much fascination over the media.

What all the diverse members of the Independent Schools Council have in common is a commitment to high standards, and to working in partnership with colleagues in the maintained sector in a whole host of ways, from academic teaching to orchestral concerts, drama and sport. Much is being done; much more is needed. Many independent schools continue to hope that a Government will one day have the wisdom to back a scheme which would enable even more families to gain access to them. It is now more than 20 years since I published proposals for places at all levels of ability co-funded by the Government and the schools themselves.

The schools’ own efforts to make places more widely available continue to expand. They now provide fee assistance, including scholarships and bursaries worth £964 million, to 150,000 pupils. The resources devoted to these programmes absorb—indeed, exceed—the benefit derived from charitable status, which the Labour Party wishes to abolish. Does it really wish to set back the progress that has been made in making independent schools more open and inclusive? It has put forward a deeply regressive measure.

It was good to hear the Secretary of State for Education say recently that he is “very proud” of the work that independent schools are undertaking in conjunction with partners in the maintained sector. Collaboration brings marked benefits to both. As he rightly noted, their combined resources can help overcome the difficulties facing disadvantaged children in Britain today.

Part 4 of the Bill directly affects the interests of independent schools. New measures relating to registration and inspection are to be introduced. Some have the welcome objective—widely commended in this debate—of making certain independent educational institutions outside the Independent Schools Council which have for years evaded any effective checks subject to proper regulation at last.

For their part, independent schools have always accepted that it is the Government’s right—indeed, duty—to determine the basic legal standards and requirements that they must meet to be registered and play their part in the education system. They accept without reservation or complaint that registration requirements will need to be revised and updated from time to time. The guiding principle in making changes should be the strengthening of public confidence. Judged against that principle, the council and its members have no quarrel with those clauses in Part 4 which have a direct bearing on them.

Most significant is Clause 60, which will give Ministers new powers to suspend the registration of an independent school for a specific period in circumstances where pupils are judged to be at risk of harm. At present, the Department for Education’s only option is to get a magistrate’s order to close down the school. At a time of widespread concerns over safeguarding issues, the proposed change is surely to be seen as an entirely appropriate step.

I have just one specific point to raise about Part 4. Clause 59 introduces a new test under which the Secretary of State will determine whether the proprietors of independent schools are “fit and proper persons”. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister would let me know during the Bill’s passage what exactly this test will involve.

This is a Government who understand the value of independent schools. They must continue to give them the encouragement they deserve to contribute even more fully to our country’s education system.

Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour 6:25 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, with education being such a central and critical service to a well-functioning society. Before I continue with my remarks, perhaps I may say that I agree entirely—unusually for me—with the noble Lord, Lord Baker. Less unusually, I also agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Hunt said.

It is a reasonable hope and expectation that an education system will result in people who are critical thinkers and able to present arguments on a clear and reliable evidence base, yet for the third time since 6 April this year, I find myself having to challenge the so-called evidence-led case for a fully trust-led system. I do not in any way impugn the integrity of the Minister, but I hope that on this occasion she will recognise and acknowledge that the UK Statistics Authority and the Office for Statistics Regulation have agreed with the challenge to the government document made by the National Education Union. On transparency, they say:

“It is not always possible to identify the exact data that have been used to produce analysis in the document. Where data are referred to in the text, links to the sources of data should be clearly set out and enable users to easily find the specific data referenced. Our expectations are outlined in our transparency guidance.”

On quality, they say:

“Insufficient information has been included on the methodologies used to produce the novel statistics presented in the document. In addition, the limitations of these methodologies and the implications that these would have on the fairness of the comparisons being drawn have not been fully explained to users. The Department for Education should include clear information on the methodologies and associated caveats so that users can draw reliable conclusions.”

Finally, on replicability, they say:

“The limited transparency around the data sources and methods means that it is difficult for users to replicate the figures presented and to draw their own conclusions. The Department for Education should ensure that sufficient information is included in the document so that users are able to easily replicate the statistics.”

That is a damning position to have taken, and I hope that the Government will have learned from it.

Much has already been said about what is missing from the Bill, but even where there are specifics, as in relation to the expectation that all schools will be in MATs, the talk of the minimum of 7,500 pupils or of MATs running at least 10 schools is a significant problem. Given that only 20% of schools are currently in a MAT of that scale, it is clear that what is proposed would involve large-scale consolidation, mergers and expansion without sufficient evidence to support the value of such disruptive change.

There is, of course, the democratic deficit in the MAT system on both governance and admissions. On admissions, this Bill could be the opportunity to ensure that place planning and admissions are administered and delivered in a fairer and more inclusive manner. The local authority would be the appropriate body to deal with this.

On governance, while the Government have said that all trusts should have local governance arrangements, the fact sheet accompanying the Bill says that

“regulations may introduce some new standards for the benefit of schools and pupils for example, in relation to the handling of complaints and local governance arrangements.”

There is no mention of parents or of the wider school community. Clearly, the best and fairest way to ensure local governance and accountability in MATs is to reinstate local governing bodies for individual academies to include parents, staff and the community—and, I would say, students too—in order to ensure involvement in representation.

I will say just a brief word about funding, which remains a significant problem for the majority of schools. The Education Policy Institute said:

“Through the NFF and subsequent initiatives such as ‘levelling-up’ school funding, the government has weakened the link between funding and need.”

Surely that is a critical link. While there have been large differences in funding across schools and local authorities, recent policies have meant that pupils from more affluent areas are attracting larger increases in funding rates compared with those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Where is the social justice in that?

Finally, I shall say just a word about faith schools and grammar schools, which will have their characteristics protected, as I understand it, in this Bill. But what about stand-alone academies if they are forced to move from a secular ethos to a faith ethos in order to be involved in a MAT? That seems to me to be a completely unreasonable position.

Photo of Lord Lingfield Lord Lingfield Conservative 6:31 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, I remind your Lordships of my registered interests, including as chairman of the Chartered Institution for Further Education, chairman of the Centre for Education & Finance Management and several other charitable bodies concerned with education. I have been conscious for a long while that there have been lacunae in the 2010 and 2011 academies legislation, and I am glad to see that some of the concerns that many of us have had are to be addressed.

Just before the last Recess, I was grateful for the opportunity to move in Grand Committee a Motion to Take Note on academy schools. On that occasion, I was able to call to mind that they began, in fact, with the Education Reform Act 1988, from my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, which created grant-maintained schools, which I had the privilege of leading for some six years. These morphed into city academies and thence in 2010 to converter and other academies as we know them today. In my view, it is vital that any new regulations that affect academies ought to take into account their founding philosophy, which can be summed up in one word—autonomy.

In 2010, heads and governors told us that they wanted to be as free as possible from local and central government restrictions. Their conviction that they could raise the standards in their schools if decisions were taken by governors, heads and professionals on the spot and not in Whitehall or the town hall has largely proved to be correct, and my noble friend Lord Eccles alluded to this. Autonomy is also clearly still what schools want today, some 12 years later, in order to serve their pupils as best they can.

Research published by the Department for Education last November shows this definitively. It revealed that 90% of stand-alone academies—that is, those not in multi-academy trusts—reported that their reason for converting had been to gain a greater degree of autonomy. They had looked for

“greater freedom over decisions” and

“more autonomy over their budgets”

to give

“improved outcomes for pupils”.

Their reasons for not joining a multi-academy trust were fear of a loss of autonomy, loss of control over their spending and the loss of the school’s individual identity.

Multi-academy trusts were originally conceived of not as an end in themselves necessarily but as staging posts for many schools towards the autonomy of which stand-alone academies today make such great use to raise standards. I accept entirely that some schools entering academy status would find it very difficult to go it alone without the support of a multi-academy trust and could need some years of back-up support before they could survive adequately. I accept also that many primary schools would be more comfortable grouped around a secondary school in a small local trust which could provide shared resources, certain central functions and good financial management.

Autonomous schools can swiftly adjust themselves to local needs, including employment requirements. The larger the multi-academy trust, the less that is possible, especially as some have schools in them, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, reminded us, that are spaced many miles apart and no longer have individual governing bodies.

I asked a Written Question of my noble friend in December, and that was to inquire

“whether it is possible for a school in a multi-academy trust … by resolution of its governing body to” opt out of the trust. The answer was no. But last month, she indicated, I believe, that a consultation on that issue would take place. I hope we shall head towards the point where schools that have, in family terms, grown up enough to do well by themselves will be able to do so and via an uncomplicated process.

It seems quite proper that among the freedoms that academies and multi-academy trusts have should be the right to decide salaries. Given that there are a number of trustees who earn between a quarter and half a million pounds each year—which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, reminded us earlier, has been very controversial—in my view, those governing bodies that wish to award salaries over a certain sum, possibly £150,000 or £160,000, should make out a case to an independent panel of the funding agency. I believe my noble friend is to look into this matter. If so, that is welcome, as the optics are not good.

Our long-term aim should not be, as was implied by the recent White Paper, the conversion of all schools into membership of multi-academy trusts with a minimum of 10 schools in each. In my view, the larger the trust, the less likely it will be responsive to local needs and the more susceptible it will be in the long term to mediocre standards and even failure. The maximum number of schools in any trust should be about 10 as the system matures.

However, I welcome the framework changes, which will introduce powers to intervene where academies are likely to fail, as long as they bear down only on those that are doing badly and do not unnecessarily constrict those schools, such as the majority of our stand-alone academies, that are doing so very well.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 6:37 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, we have heard a lot today about the Bill being a missed opportunity, and certainly, as legislation often signals government priorities, it does seem a random mix of parts. But something this Bill definitely does not prioritise is freedom or choice in education. Instead, it promises hyper-centralisation, more regulation, more bureaucracy and more state control. For now, I want to concentrate on Part 3 and the new statutory “Children not in school” registration and changes to the school attendance legislation.

These proposals are not just technical or pragmatic. We must acknowledge that this means a significant increase in the amount of sensitive, personal, confidential data that is being collated and held about children and their families by the state. Counting Children, a non-partisan coalition, warned about intrusive monitoring, risk to privacy and a lack of safeguards. Whatever the worthy intentions, civil libertarians are right to raise the concern that any legislative normalising of the collecting and processing of non-anonymised data about law-abiding citizens should give us pause. The Government’s purpose, we are told, is to tackle an increasing number of pupils who are disengaging from schools and higher non-attendance. But does this need a legislative solution that includes surveillance along with punitive measures for non-compliance?

I remember when Michael Gove, back in 2008, argued against large state databases of children’s data in relation to ContactPoint. He argued:

“We need to invest in people. Strengthening relationships, not building another Big Brother system.”

I say “Hear, hear” to that. This approach was echoed by the Commons Education Committee chair Robert Halfon, who noted that a register is not going to bring back the 124,000 ghost children who have not returned to school post the pandemic. Instead, Mr Halfon has suggested using catch-up funding to recruit more truancy staff to specifically engage with parents of non-attending pupils.

I definitely prefer this human-centred, not data-centred, approach, but even this misses the mark and the elephant in the room. The Education Committee rightly notes that Covid school closures were nothing but a national disaster for children and young people. This is often understood in terms of educational development and attainment, but the real disaster was that when politicians rushed to lock down schools, they taught the young that school is not crucial. What did we expect the lesson would be for pupils and their parents when the Government folded under pressure from teaching unions, media commentators or opposition parties that loudly demanded, to quote Keir Starmer, post vaccine, that all schools must close immediately?

I warned this House then that this was a green light for future truancy and that it sent the message that face-to-face teaching was dispensable, second-order, non-essential. We abandoned children. We left them in limbo for months. We outsourced the job of educating to parents at home. The measures in this legislation, which is panicky, disproportionate and sometimes illiberal, will force-feed the message that schooling matters and that anyone who does not comply will be punished. That will not work to restore trust.

Inevitably, establishing a register of children not in school will also upset home-educating families, as we have heard today. According to Education Otherwise, those families are horrified by the implications of the Bill. Noble Lords have sort to reassure them, suggesting that they might be paranoid, but the new duty of local authorities to provide support to home educators sounds ominous when combined with talk of identifying suitable education at home and an expanded remit of Ofsted. Does this open the door to intrusive inspections of people’s homes that will undermine the legal rights of parents to educate their children at home as they see fit? Is this an attempt at interfering in the “how and what is taught”, in defiance of the legal right to educate at home, according to parents’ values and philosophies, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has already discussed, without state meddling?

Regardless of one’s personal views about home education, these are important principles to defend in a free society, and I worry that the Bill threatens that historically light touch that has worked perfectly well to date in relation to local authorities and home educators. Even more concerning is how EHE registration is helping to identify children who are not receiving safe education, implying a link between home education and the safety of children, yet the DfE’s assessment is that there is no correlation between home education and safeguarding risk. Is this proposed regulatory regime for a small percentage of pupils involved in home education necessary? Home educators find this approach insulting and ironic. Many would argue that they choose to educate their offspring at home because they are not safe at school.

Some opponents of home education suggest that because home-educated children are invisible or unseen by authorities, there is a particular safeguarding risk. This is perverse when we know that many children who are visible and seen daily at school are not guaranteed safety. Think of those contentious culture-war issues in the classroom. We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, about the chaos that gender politics is causing in schools, when teachers are affirming the use of puberty blockers, breast binding and even mutilating double mastectomies as reasonable aspirations when discussing changing gender with year 7 and year 8 pupils.

There are also the safeguarding issues that we know about with regard to group intolerance or viewpoint diversity. We have all read the story of the 18 year-old who expressed doubts about accepting gender identity over biological sex. The noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, spelled it out for us. That young woman was driven out of school and when her teacher, who had whistleblown her story, inquired why she was no longer there, he was told that she was no longer in the system, and that was deemed a satisfactory outcome. It seems that some children not in school matter more than others, and so I worry that the focus of this Bill on the safeguarding of pupils out of school is misplaced. It is a lot more complicated than that, and is to be discussed.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 6:45 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a founding chair of the APPG on Bullying. It has been a pleasure to listen to excellent contributions from across your Lordships’ House this afternoon.

I want to focus my contributions on Part 3, and I have a couple of brief questions on Part 4. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Storey for his long-term campaign for a register of children not in school. There is a place for such a register, but the nature and tone of this part of the Bill is based on penalties and problems and ignores the excellent standards and commitments that many home educators have. But I am also concerned about the holes in the current system, and I ask whether the new system will prevent these problems. I fear, I have to say, that they will not.

I support the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, about children with special educational needs not being harmed by being directed to compulsory attendance at an institution that does not serve their needs. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, spoke movingly about her family’s experience of a child with autism. During the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014, I worked with charities for children with medical conditions to ensure that schools had to take account of a pupil’s medical condition, so we did not have a repeat of the child who died—he died—in his classroom because his asthma inhaler had been locked in a drawer in another classroom, or the pupil with the crippling disease junior inflammatory arthritis whose head teacher did not believe that children got arthritis and insisted that they should do PE.

The statutory guidance for supporting children at school with medical conditions, published in 2015, made it clear that a head teacher must have due regard for the advice of a healthcare professional. Sadly, this guidance was substantially watered down in 2017 and now says that a school can challenge medical advice. The result is that an increasing number of parents are being fined because the school has recorded their child’s absence as unauthorised, despite hospital consultants writing to schools saying that the child should not be in school.

The pandemic has brought this into sharp focus. Schools are saying that immuno-compromised pupils—for example, those on chemotherapy—should be in schools because Covid is now over. The children’s consultants disagree: they want to see HEPA air filters to make a classroom safe for such pupils, or even for a teacher in a similar position. Also, children with long Covid who have severe respiratory problems—some have heart problems—are told by some head teachers that long Covid does not exist. There is no alternative provision for them, and their parents are being fined.

Schools are beginning to off-roll these difficult pupils, as they have done and still do with severely bullied pupils who are perhaps awaiting mental health therapy. The provisions in Part 3 appear to make no distinction between a pupil with a medical need that is not being met and a child who is truanting and regularly absconding and whose parents are not co-operative. I ask the Minister: how will these pupils be helped? The statutory guidance is currently failing them, and I propose to lay amendments to ensure that schools must not disregard the clinical advice of healthcare professionals. The same should be true of those on the not-in-school register.

I turn now to the data elements of the register, which really worry me, and I echo many of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. Will the data, in addition to a pupil’s name and address, for example—as suggested in the Delegated Powers Committee’s memorandum—their ethnicity or whether they have an SEN plan, be published? Under new Section 436F(2), the regulations prescribing persons to whom local authorities may provide information may also do so

“to other persons in certain circumstances”.

That is very broad. Might it include companies such as Palantir, which had a Department of Health and Social Care NHS data grab contract, which was ended, but entitled it not just to analyse data, as per the contract, but to do what it wanted with that data later? The problem is that pseudonymised data is pretty easy to track back to individual families if only a small number of the total pupil cohort are on the register.

I turn to Part 4, on independent educational institutions. The detail here seems to put independent schools on a standards system closer to that of publicly funded schools. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, that poor or unsafe schools need to be dealt with, but should it be the Secretary of State who makes that decision? In Clause 60, new Section 118A(1) says that the Secretary of State needs to be

“satisfied that one or more of the … standards is or are not being met” and to have

“reasonable cause to believe that … one or more students at the institution will or may be exposed to the risk of harm.”

On 19 May, it was reported that Ofsted had issued an updated version of its December 2021 inspection report on Ampleforth College, which is still rated inadequate on safeguarding and leadership. The DfE issued its first warning notice to the school in 2018, so DfE has known that it has now been in an unsafe position for four years. This is the fourth Ofsted inspection that the school has failed in just over a year, having also failed three ISI inspections in the years before that. What is delaying the Secretary of State taking action, and if the powers for decisions reside solely with the Secretary of State, and they choose not to take action, who will?

In Clause 60, new section 118E proposes that a requirement to stop boarding be put in place. Surely, if any school has safeguarding issues so severe that a stop boarding requirement is necessary, continuing the school itself must be in question. Safeguarding is paramount, and the precautionary principle must be in place. Perhaps the Minister can explain this.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 6:51 pm, 23rd May 2022

I declare my position as vice-president of the Local Government Association. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and to speak after my noble friend Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, who covered particularly the issues that home educators have with this Bill. I will cover in our division of labour all other aspects of the Bill, but there are two in particular that I want to focus on today.

When I looked at the Bill, and particularly its provisions on multi-academy trusts, a Denis Healey principle came to mind. It has been labelled “the first law of holes”: when you are in one, stop digging.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, reflecting a view shared by many other noble Lords, said that this is a “mouse of a Bill”, one that fails comprehensively to offer new ideas, new approaches, to tackle the enormous, seemingly overwhelming challenges faced by young people today in a society that is so failing them. Rather, I would say that it is a mole of a Bill. The Government are blindly digging in deeper on a failed policy, a policy that demonstrably does not even deliver what seems to be the one thing the Government are focused on: better exam results in a narrow handful of subjects. It also seems weirdly out of step with what you might think of as Conservative philosophies: more bureaucracy, lack of local control and lack of local democracy.

It is also a policy that you would think, given the problems of corruption in government spending that the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, has so strongly spoken out on in other contexts, the Government might be having second thoughts about. The controls handed to the Secretary of State mean that he will have extreme oversight over what multi-academy trusts do. I note that the extremely valuable briefing from the LSE points out that “related party transactions”—business arrangements between a MAT and a body that is associated with its governance—were worth £120 million in 2015. I know that the Minister may say that steps have been taken to crack down on that, but what if these powers are all handed to the Secretary of State?

But the issues here are bigger, much bigger, than merely money. They are about what schools are. They are not, or they should not be, sausage machines to shove out identikit pupils all around the country with the best possible exam results. They should be integral parts of communities, not just contributing to the education of the young but building strong ties across all ages. MATs do not require local governance, oversight and involvement at any level, but even if they do have some kind of community involvement in governance, they may well be spread across the country, hundreds of kilometres apart. How will local parents and citizens want to contribute, want to get involved and feel it is their school when they have no say?

One phrase in Clause 53 of the Bill that really struck me is where it talks about a

“proprietor of a school in England”.

“Proprietor”, the dictionary tells me, is the owner of a business or the holder of a property. That is a legal definition, but what does it say about the Government’s idea of what a MAT is? We have seen so many sweeping privatisations, and we have failed to recognise that schools are another area where we have lost so much public control and ownership.

Another aspect of the MAT model is striking. I go to an unsigned Department for Education blog, dated 14 October 2021, which, in justifying the government stance, says that MATs

“enable the strongest leaders to take responsibility for supporting more schools”.

So, again, we encounter a profoundly “un-Green” but, more importantly, a profoundly unsuccessful model of leadership. One person blazes the trail and shows the way, and everyone else trudges along behind following the directions of that one person. Instead, why not draw on the talents, abilities, skills and energy of the many—teachers, parents, communities and indeed pupils—to collectively shape their local school? As the LSE suggests, why not restore each school as an individual entity and, if you really want to keep MATs, allow schools to opt in and out as they like. That is not to decry the power of networks, but it would mean schools voluntarily—ideally groups of local schools—joining together and working together. A forced model is not a community; it is a bureaucratic, top-down imposition.

My second point is about mental health. The lack of provisions in this Bill, given our epidemic of mental ill-health, is striking. On 29 March, I asked the Minister about the UK having the unhappiest children in Europe. Her answer was entirely about exam results allegedly delivering better chances for children. Does she really think that deeply unhappy children, or children with mental illness, anxiety or depression or who are self-harming, can really be expected to attain the exam results that she and the Government crave?

I want to ask the Minister two direct questions. Is she prepared to consult two excellent organisations addressing issues around the push in this Bill to focus on attendance and force pupils into school despite the challenges it may present to their health and well-being? These organisations are Square Peg and Not Fine in School; I ask the Minister whether she will listen to what they have to say: that attendance and attainment cannot be at the expense of a child’s mental health and emotional well-being.

My second question is: what have the Government done to listen to pupils in drawing up this Bill? What consultation with young people has there been on its provisions?

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour 6:58 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, we have reached that stage in the debate where there is little more to do than emphasise points made by earlier speakers, in my case particularly by my noble friends. I have to start, however, by pointing out the absence from the Bill of any acknowledgement of, let alone practical steps to deal with, the most pressing educational issue of our time; namely, addressing the aftermath of the Covid pandemic on our schoolchildren.

I will focus on the main theme of the Bill, which is the further centralisation of power over the school system, over individual schools, into the hands of the Secretary of State. The Bill gives the department greater powers in the four areas covered by it: academies, school funding allocations, home education and attendance, and illegal schools. I welcome some of the proposals but, regrettably, the key changes reflect the arrogant approach to schools that characterises the Department for Education. For example, there is a power to determine when fines for non-attendance should be given, but this overweening approach reaches its apogee in it taking the power to determine the funding allocation for every individual school in England.

Of course, the DfE has run a national formula for allocating school budgets for many years. LEAs receive the total entitlement for their schools but can allocate money to schools in line with a local formula—within strict limits and with the agreement of the schools forum. This approach is now to be scrapped and the DfE will determine the funding allocation for every single school. Given the record of the department, it seems unlikely that these further attempts to micromanage the system will lead to any improvement.

The answer is, of course, that allocating funding requires sensitivity to the circumstances of individual schools. Local circumstances matter: most schools are inherently local institutions. That is why we need to keep and improve a tripartite approach—with a role for the department, of course. But individual schools and, not least, the local education authorities have a key role as well. At present, schools have a say through schools forums in how local funding formulae are constructed, working with the community representatives, the local education authority. They will lose that influence entirely as it appears, in the Bill, that decisions will be made exclusively by the department. When problems arise with the funding available to an individual school—as they surely will—few schools will have the capacity to resolve them in discussions with the department.

There has been much discussion here of the section on academies. As previous speakers have made clear, this represents a notable change from the current arrangements; it means a complete reversal of the original academy vision. The original focus was on school autonomy and, in itself, the proposed about-turn is hardly an endorsement of that idea of academies.

However, I do welcome the recognition of the value of families of schools. It is just that this is what was and still should be provided by local education authorities. Education has to be a partnership between devolving and democratising decisions to local educators, parents and the community more widely. Transferring power to the centre has demonstrably failed, not least during the pandemic.

Finally, I have to say something about faith schools. The issue was raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—who is not in his place—who took us through 200 years of history, emphasising the role of the church in the development of our education system. He has every right to do so. But now we are discussing an education system for the 21st century and it is safe to say, speaking as a committed atheist, that views differ on faith schools and that history, in itself, is a poor justification for any policy. So I welcome the opportunity presented to us to discuss the role of faith schools during the passage of this Bill. I think it is going to be an interesting Committee stage.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 7:03 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, I declare my interest as the editor of The Good Schools Guide. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in saying that we are going to have an interesting time in all sorts of extra discussions on aspects of schooling: we are pretty good at being inventive as to how to fit them within the title of the Bill. I look forward to discussions on comparable outcomes, doubtless with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and admissions data, tutor regulation, and mental health with my noble friend Lord Altrincham. I note that the Government have recently endorsed Govox as a solution to mental health in schools. It is a very reassuring name—the voice of Gove. None the less, I think we should be careful in how we go around using apps which are unsupported by teacher training and our mental health services.

Employment skills, too, obviously need to be covered, as well as toilets for women, gender and exclusions. I think that there is a real case for revisiting the argument that, if you exclude a pupil, they stay in your performance tables—you cannot lose responsibility. It is up to you how well you place them, and you should take responsibility for that.

My main interests in this Bill are going to be on academies and home education. On academies, I very much follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth—two friends now, although doubtless they will soon be arguing about which of their towns the House of Lords should move to. But we agree that this is an astonishing end to the founding freedoms of academies: they have been reduced to something less than maintained schools, being looked after by a ministry that has never proved itself able to do that sort of thing. I shall, with my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, be pushing back on this and asking, “What’s the vision, how is it supposed to work? Why should multi-academy trusts flourish in this environment? What is their role, why would it work, and what are the human dynamics of the system that the Government appear interested in creating?” I shall ask, too, how we can reconnect academy schools with parents. As others have noted, they have drifted away, and it is really very difficult for parents to have a relationship with or indeed an understanding of an academy school and the MAT that goes behind it.

On home education, I am very grateful to my noble friend for acknowledging the value and supporting the freedom, as she said. I hope that the Government do recognise that, in many cases, the resort to home education is due to a failure of the state—the school, the local authority or the other support services. It is because a parent cares about their child and is not prepared to let them be failed by the state. I am not unhappy with the register, but it should be universal; every child should be on it. At the moment, children in independent schools are not; as soon as a child gets into an independent school, they are off the data. We ought to be able to follow every child in the UK so that we can really understand where children go before and after home education and before and after exclusion, and really understand what our schooling system as a whole is doing. We might also look at having a universal register of providers. Why should we not know who is providing tutoring services, or indeed any other educational services? It need not come with obligations, but we should know who they are.

This Bill gives a lot of powers to local authorities. Some of them are wonderful: I will name Gloucestershire, Sandwell and Lancashire as three that really do well in looking after their home education communities. They step back, look at the big picture and innovate when it is needed; and they employ people who really know the law and understand how to use it and the wide extent of their existing powers, who want to help home educators, and who are open, responsive and collaborative in their approach. They create an environment of trust, where the community of home educators is open to working with the local authority, and they work with them to help resolve individual problems that occur with individual home educators. But this is not universal; other local authorities are repressive and oppositional, and this Bill, which should be constructed to drive local authorities towards best practice, instead enables bad practice.

There are far too many ways in which this Bill makes home educators vulnerable to bad local authorities—and there is, as yet, no money to support home educators. There is a promise, but nothing in the impact statement. We should ask that registration is not commenced until support is in place, and we should really look at the way in which penalties have been increased and have become very punitive in an area that should be about encouraging discussion, understanding and collaboration. It has made it far too easy for local authorities to resort to the stick. Time limits have become far too short—10 days to respond to a set of complicated questions is not reasonable if you are in the middle of it, living a life and educating children. No local authority will comply with a time limit like that.

The mandatory information to be provided should be basic; Otherwise, you will get into all sorts of safeguarding problems when local authorities start telling people who a child’s father is and where they live, and enabling people to find out what is going on in cases where abuse is taking place.

The Bill must make good behaviour by local authorities the default, rather than bad behaviour.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash Conservative 7:10 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, I declare my interests as a sponsor and chair of Future Academies and a trustee of the Education Policy Institute. Unsurprisingly, I am delighted that the Government are promoting multi-academy trusts, with all the benefits of schools working together in groups. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who is not in her place, for her kind words in this regard.

The benefits are not just the obvious ones of economies of scale, efficiencies and an ability to standardise procedures; I believe that the biggest benefit is in improving the career development opportunities of teachers. MAT leaders who formerly ran one school consistently tell me that, when they did so, they used to lose all of their good people. Now, they can offer them clear career development pathways and promote them, and help develop teachers’ careers in this way. They can offer them evidence-informed CPD and, increasingly, we are seeing MATs providing their teachers with excellent teaching resources that greatly reduce their workload and enable them to focus on delivery and the very difficult task of differentiation between pupils of different abilities. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that I have taught, and I found it absolutely terrifying at times.

Much in the Bill is good. However, while I agree that the Government need powers to intervene in the event of what my noble friend the Minister describes as the “serious failure” of MATs, the Bill purports to go far further than that. The academy and MATs sector is very concerned about the far-reaching, vague and potentially draconian provisions that the Government appear to be seeking in the Bill in relation to intervention powers. They are effectively seeking to tear up many of the existing funding agreements, which are clear contractual arrangements, and to give themselves the power to tear up the rest of them for any breach whatever, apparently, and replace them with vague and draconian powers, and to give the Secretary of State very wide powers indeed to set standards.

This appears to be an attempt by the department to micromanage schools, which it is ill equipped to do and which should be left to education professionals. It is an attempt to drive a coach and horses through academies’ fundamental freedoms. This is a long way from intervention powers for “serious failure”, and I share the concerns of my noble friend Lord Baker and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, about this. Will the Minister confirm that academies’ fundamental freedoms will not, in fact, be tampered with? Will she agree to meet me to discuss how the Bill can be amended to achieve this and to remove the potential micromanaging of schools?

The Bill gives the facility for local authorities to academise some or all of their schools. I urge caution here. We have been here before when, in a rush to academise, the department allowed some groups that were not well constructed to develop. I hope the Government will ensure that there is thorough scrutiny of the record and construction of these groups, the balance between good and bad schools and their geographic focus, and that sufficient independent directors are appointed to their boards.

Turning to elective home education, I am delighted to see that the Bill proposes a register. It has been estimated that the number of children in home education has risen over the last 10 years from 20,000 or 30,000 to 80,000 or, in some estimates, 100,000. The home education lobby is very powerful and consists of some extremely able and articulate people. They will have concerns about the register, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said—I pay tribute to him and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for their work in this regard. However, I invite them to see the bigger picture. Although I have little doubt that the members of this lobby are perfectly capable of educating their children at home, I suspect that, quite possibly, 70,000 or more of that 100,000—if that is the number—are not receiving a suitable education at home, if they are receiving any education at all. I invite the home education lobby to see the bigger picture. The Government are not concerned with them— they have nothing to fear from the register. They have a right in legislation to educate their children at home, but I believe there is a fundamental human right for a child to receive a good education, and that trumps a parents’ right where they are not able to provide it.

If I am anything like right in my view as to how many children are not receiving a suitable education at home, this is not doing the reputation of home education any favours at all. Of course, many parents elect for home education because they are concerned about the reputation of alternative provision and the particular PRU that the local authority will send their children to. This is why I believe we need clear accountability standards for PRUs. I am delighted to see that in the SEND Green Paper the plan is for all AP providers to be in MATs and for MATs to open new ones. However, under the initial existing arrangements the initiative to create new AP provision rests with local authorities. I urge the Government to look again at this, as I believe that some local authorities do not recognise the low quality of their existing AP provision, and the system would benefit from more competition and more AP free schools. I am pleased that the Government are encouraging MATs to set up their own AP provision but, with the exception of very large MATs, most MATs will not have enough students of their own to make this provision viable without pupils from third-party schools. We know that the local authorities control the funding in this regard, which is why it is important to involve them in this.

On primary schools, I am delighted to see that the Government are seeking to raise standards here. There is a tendency for people to focus on secondary education because of the importance of GCSEs and A-levels, for parents to believe that primary is all about happy days, and for people to believe that pupils can catch up in secondary—which of course they can. However, the fact is that, on average, if a child does not do well in primary, they have very little chance of doing so in secondary. During the five years when I was a Minister, if a child did not receive what we regarded as a pass coming out of primary—a level 4B—depending on which year it was, they had only a 6% or 7% chance of getting five good GCSE. I hope that Ofsted’s focus on a coherent and sequenced curriculum in primary—I have to say that a lot of primary curriculums are not well constructed—will help in that regard.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Labour 7:17 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, there may be few times in recent history when new thinking on schools was more important. I share the overview and analysis of the gaps here from the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Knight, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the analysis of state centrism from the noble Lord, Lord Baker; I shall not repeat those points, because I simply agree with them. I will focus on Part 2, on how to optimise learning outcomes and remove impediments through modest changes to growing challenges.

I am unimpressed by the Government’s Pollyannaish narrative about sunny uplands and government levels of investment. It is not entirely the Government’s fault that we are in a deep shadow—quite possibly the deepest social and economic crisis in 75 years. Living standards are close to freefall. Covid has caused deep stresses, and Covid has not gone away. Health and social care is struggling with normal demands and a huge backlog of accumulated demands; half a million are on the social care waiting lists, and one in nine of us is waiting for routine surgery. Quite aside from the growth in demand for food banks and fear of heating bills, an average 2 million adults daily go a whole day without food, most often to try to feed their kids. That is the UK in 2022.

If anybody does not think that all this impacts kids and households very acutely, they must live on another planet. These kids do not inhabit sunny uplands. They are the kids who suffered most during lockdown and they are suffering most through economic recession, which is set to get worse, so please, let us have no platitudes or complacency today about government support. Nearly three-quarters of primary school heads say that catch-up funding barely scratches the surface of the problems that kids face. Head teachers are already diverting the pupil premiums from the most disadvantaged kids to general funds. This is a long-term blight which needs long-term investment or it will hobble our country.

UNICEF research shows that Covid impacted learning everywhere: the acquisition of foundational and socio-economic skills, mental health, and the safety and well-being of children. Here, we know that it spotlighted inequalities in our society, hurting the most vulnerable the most: the poorest and those from ethnic minorities. However, our problems predate the pandemic. A study in 2015 in England showed that, for every pound invested in school mental resilience programmes, England generated a net return on invest of £5.08. Research started in Finland and continued in this country estimates that every pound invested in preventing bullying in UK schools returned £7.52. Initiatives for pupils and teachers in mental health literacy have similar benefits. I am very grateful to the exceptional Sarah Kline, the CEO of United for Global Mental Health, for careful analysis of these data.

To be clear, I am talking not only about the struggles of kids with diagnosed mental illnesses, or those on the rapidly expanding list of spectrums, or kids who routinely see their SENCO at schools, or those with special challenges but without specialist help. These are significant cohorts on their own. I am talking about all kids, parents and a fair proportion of their teachers who are all impacting each other and amplifying major stress. Reliable research in the United States and the United Kingdom—on which Members of this House are experts, including my noble friend Lord Layard—conclusively demonstrates that these stresses subsequently hamper attainment across the curriculum. Put simply, children who are not provided with personal tools in their tool kit to be resilient enough to reach their potential do not reach it. The points made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lords, Lord Sandhurst and Lord Altrincham, go very much to that point. These children’s parents and teachers do not have the training or tools to make enough of a difference. Of course, this is not the case for everyone, but a high proportion of kids are held back this way and a high proportion of teachers and parents cannot really help.

I declare my interest as a member of the board of a charity, Bounce Forward, originally started to respond to United States research on programmes to equip teachers and pupils with greater resilience. It is a small charity which reaches out to UK schools and local authorities, with real success. As you would predict, greater resilience has led to improvements right across the curriculum, in confidence and in reductions in bullying, as well as a hunger to catch up lost education time. Its methods could be embedded in school routines, timetables and teacher practice. The spread of good practice is too slow; mandated time is needed in timetables and modest sums need to be spent specifically on resilience through inset day slots and places in teacher education. It all seems so obvious, and Part 2 of the Bill needs to garner this information. I would like to hear whether the Minister can confirm that there are ways of transforming resilience and, roughly speaking, whether we can organise timetables to make that possible.

I know that I am short of time, but I ask the House’s indulgence for one brief note of real distress that I have about this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, my noble friend Lord Watson and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I have sought and received government assurances from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, that the full range of remedial steps provided to children adopted from care in the UK will be extended to children adopted from care abroad. I was always told—including by noble Lords here—that exclusion of this latter group had been an oversight and not a matter of policy. We all agreed that it was necessary to correct it. The House was repeatedly promised in writing that the anomaly would be corrected at the first available piece of primary legislation. This is that piece of primary legislation. However, the change is not in the Bill so we must amend it. These kids have one chance, not multiple chances. Every time that we neglect to make this correction, a small group of children suffers disproportionately—but we can stop that.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:25 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, the graveyard slot on the Back Benches inevitably leaves next to nothing new to say, and I do not think I am going to break that mould this evening. As almost every noble Lord has said, the overriding theme of the Bill is to further centralise control over the school system and give the DfE greater powers in relation to academies, school funding allocations, home education and attendance and illegal schools. I have few concerns about the latter two subjects, but on the first two I have many.

Part 1 of the Bill highlights the Government’s enduring obsession with academies and the aim of making all schools academies by 2030, despite the absence of independent evidence to support such an aim. There are many good academy schools and I am not anti-academy, although I do not believe they should have the right to set their own curriculum; I have always believed that a national curriculum should be just that. However, Ofsted ratings of local authority maintained schools and those in MATs show that schools that join MATs are less likely to improve their next Ofsted rating, and in fact are more likely to see a regression in that rating.

That is supported by research published by the Local Government Association as recently as this month, which showed that as of January 92% of maintained schools were regarded as outstanding by Ofsted, compared to 85% of academies graded since they converted. That research, which looked at school ratings between 2018 and this year, found that only 45% of academies were able to improve from inadequate or “requires improvement” to good or outstanding during that period, compared to 56% of maintained schools. What does that prove? You may say that statistics can prove anything, but it shows that there is no reason to think that whatever the problem is, academies are the answer; they simply are not. If the Minister has not already done so, she would do well to study that Local Government Association report closely because it will challenge the department’s mistaken view that one size fits all. Evidence rather than ideology should surely underpin legislation.

As my noble friends Lord Blunkett and Lady Morris said, the Bill’s proposals on academies represent a dramatic shift from the current arrangements and are a far cry from the days when academies were introduced with the promise of less regulation and more freedom to innovate. I listened closely, as I always do, to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, and although he was a bit more sanguine than I had expected regarding the proposals in Part 1, we could tell that he is certainly not happy with them.

On that point, my noble friend Lady Chapman mentioned that the Bill gives local authorities the power to request an academy order for any or all of their maintained schools. Although it is not entirely clear, it seems that they can do so even if a school objects. Can the Minister provide clarity on this important matter? The Bill also gives regional schools commissioners the task of allocating to MATs schools converted in this way via local authorities, and it appears that this could lead to schools being allocated to a MAT outwith their local authority. I hope the Minister will confirm that this will not be allowed to happen.

Part 2, on national funding allocations, represents another power grab by the Secretary of State. The national funding formula, which I believe was introduced in 2018, sees local authorities receive a total entitlement for their schools but they can allocate money in line with the local formula, with strict limits and the agreement of the local schools forum. According to the Bill, the local authority stage is to be scrapped and the DfE will determine the funding allocation for every one of the—according to the DfE website—24,413 state schools in England. What could possibly go wrong?

In her opening remarks, the Minister stated that these changes are being proposed specifically because local authorities were deciding on their own funding priorities. Well, quite. That is quite appropriate because allocating funding requires sensitivity to the circumstances of individual schools. Local factors matter. When problems arise, as they surely will, schools will not have local officers to help to resolve them and every appeal will have to go to the DfE, which will be judge and jury. That is a seriously retrograde proposal and, I hope, one that will not survive the consultation that we have been told will take place, as I have read, before summer 2022—which according to my calendar leaves about eight days.

Part 3, on school attendance, is overdue and to be welcomed. I join many noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Soley and the noble Lord, Lord Storey. My noble friend’s 2017 Private Member’s Bill called for the establishment of a register of children not in school, and I am pleased to say his tireless efforts now have their reward in Clause 48 of the Bill.

As the noble Lord, Lord Nash, said, elective home education is a right established by the Education Act 1996. For two years, he and I faced each other at the Dispatch Box on education matters and rarely agreed—I hope we disagreed in relatively good terms—but I absolutely agreed with what he said on this important matter. When supported by parents who have an understanding of the educational needs of their children and the ability to ensure that these needs are met, home schooling is appropriate and usually beneficial. Such out-of-school settings do not present a problem, as he said; it is the others which are a problem. The problem which has to be addressed is that children either never presented to school or subsequently withdrawn do not enjoy such a benign experience.

Some parents are ideologically opposed to formal education and to providing the authorities information about their children—some of them were in the Public Gallery today. I acknowledge their right to hold those views, but it is not realistic to expect that the wishes of a minority of parents should be permitted to override issues of child safety and protection. The issue of most concern is that nobody—certainly not the DfE—knows how many children in England are being home educated, because no records are kept. Thus, children not in school can be entirely invisible to the authorities. That must end; the rights of the child are more important than the rights of the parent.

In conclusion, I shall say something on the gaps in the Bill, some of which my noble friend Lord Triesman has just forcefully outlined; I am thoroughly in agreement with him. There is nothing on careers or skills. How will the Bill link with the Skills and Post-16 Education Act? There is nothing on a number of issues included in the White Paper, such as organising and closing schools, schools changing MATs, admissions, exclusions, and responses to well-being and mental health issues regarding pupils. How will the Bill link with what emerges from the SEND Green Paper or the proposals set out today in the independent review of children’s social care? As with most legislation drafted by this Government, the Bill contains many more questions than answers. Noble Lords made significant improvements to the then skills Bill; it will be necessary to repeat that with the Schools Bill.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 7:32 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said that the graveyard slot for Back-Bench speakers is a difficult one because everybody has already said everything. If I cast my mind back, I thought I had an original point, but at speaker 13 it was basically shot to pieces. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, pointed out that the Government are seizing incredible amounts of power. That is quite right. There are 20 examples of it, but that is not exhaustive, and we all know the old adage about lists. What do you stick on and what do you take out? You can carry on sticking on for ever. We are sticking on powers for ever for the Secretary of State to tell our schools about their structure. That is worrying. How we go about this will be fundamental to whether it stands any chance of working.

Making these regulations is going to be an affirmative process. That has been established. The affirmative process is an odd one, because we will debate the statutory instrument and have the possibility to vote against it, but if we dare vote against it, it will be a case of, “How dare you attack the constitutional system of government? How dare you say you are voting down regulations? It is just not on.” Effectively, we can have a debate about saying that we disagree with it.

If we are going to do this, I feel we should know the background for how each decision is made. What consultation took place every time one of these decisions was made? We should have it published somewhere. I will certainly be moving amendments to this end when the Bill gets to Committee. If the Government are taking on this responsibility and this power, we should know what it is based on. If they have consulted certain interest groups, let us hear that and see that. At least let us know what we are disagreeing with—if we are disagreeing. That would be a reasonable thing to have in this Bill. I hope we can proceed along those lines. If not, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, what happens next? What happens to the next person going down with another set speech? I am not worried about this Secretary of State, but what about the next one? Who knows? Basically, he could have horns, a tail and cloven hooves coming in—and you always find somebody beside you who says, “He already has.”

It does not really matter what is said about this; we have to make sure we know where it is coming from at the very least. The Government should have a good enough case to present to us and say, “Here, we have taken information; this is our argument”, and at least they can stand by it. I hope that we get a better idea about this list of incredibly sweeping powers.

The funding of schools is something that virtually every second person has spoken about. We now have one funding system for an incredibly varied educational need, which is going to need challenge and examination.

We have got other bits of legislation going through and it is at this time I should remind the House of my interests in special educational needs: I am chairman of the British Dyslexia Association and of Microlink, which deals with assistive technology, particularly in the education and employment sector.

We are looking at this now, but then we also have funding going on and an arbitrary set of regulations going through. Can we make sure that the funding represents—or at least has some mechanism in it somewhere to represent—high need? It does not matter how you define it. It can be rural schools—indeed, rural schools will need something, unless you are going to invest a great deal more money in school transport. How we get school transport into this Bill I am not sure, but making sure it goes up to age 18—we are supposed to be in education until 18 now—might not be a bad idea. How are we going to get these things coming together? How it all comes together is probably the most important structure.

How are we going to bring in the work we are doing and the consultation about special educational needs? Somebody said that there is one correct way of teaching. How do we do it? I have already identified in my own little pet bit of that field that many people with dyslexia do not think the way English is taught, with systematic synthetic phonics—it has taken me about 40 times saying that to get it right—is correct. How are we going to ensure that we have enough exemptions so that other ways of teaching fit in? They are not the only show in town.

How do we fit these all together? It is important, and a degree of flexibility will be needed to make this work. On every occasion, arbitrary rules are set down, but you need flexibility to make them work. This is recognised in other bits of law, so how are we going to change that? How are we going to work it through? I look forward to hearing from the Government about this. It will be a challenge, but I am sure we are up to it.

Oh! The flashing clocks are slightly off-putting, but I am in the wind-up spot.

We then get towards the back of the Bill and the idea of the independent sector. Apparently, my noble friend Lord Storey has already had electronically some sort of expression of total hatred for what he has just said about certain religious schools. We should have done this long ago, so I congratulate the Government on that. If we are going to deal with this and make sure we go on, we need, again, an indication of the thinking that will go with it. We should recognise more publicly the idea that you are regulated and cannot just teach a narrow religious focus. It is mainly Abrahamic religions in these schools; I am sure we can find a few more if we look hard enough. Certainly, that type of thing is about not a philosophical basis but equipping people to go forward.

We then come to the idea of a school register and home schooling. I am afraid that I am with the noble Lord, Lord Nash, on this: it is the child’s right to an education that comes first; that is the important thing. I am also on the side of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, because that right education may well be provided at home, but we should know what it is because the schools have got it wrong in the past.

The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, said that there were examples of people who say “Let’s push it away”. I too have heard those examples. Looking at this in the round and making sure that the child is the centre of what is going on is the way forward. If the school has failed or does not have examples or if—let us put it this way—the cock-up school history has applied, if a child who does not have normal educational needs or has been badly bullied does not want to go back into that school and you cannot find another place, home would be the right place. The state should give some support there. It requires us once again not to have an arbitrary look at this. There will be people who will go forward who will not be doing it properly. We must make sure that we realise that there are two patterns of behaviour there. If we do not, we will be letting people down. But if we take on the idea of what education is appropriate for that child, we probably will not go too far wrong.

That requires getting people who understand the individual needs to have a look, especially if we are dealing with special educational needs. If you do not understand autism, you will not know about teaching autistic children. If you do not know about attention deficit disorder or dyslexia, you cannot make that judgment. You are just not capable of doing it because you will not understand the context.

I hope that, as we go through the Bill, we will be able to bring out of the Government where they think the flexibility and give in this approach are, because, at the moment, we seem to have a Secretary of State who will decide and we will comply. It is a guarantee that we will get it wrong periodically, and sometimes classically badly, if we do not build flexibility into this approach—because, basically, the education requirements of individuals and areas are not the same as each other.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:42 pm, 23rd May 2022

My Lords, this has been a high-quality debate with insightful contributions from all sides of the House and a wealth of experience and expertise displayed. Schools and universities across the UK have been profoundly impacted by the pandemic. It is well documented that there is a disparity in the impact between schools in deprived areas and those in the most affluent areas.

I will begin by remarking on the excellent points made by my noble friend Lady Chapman, where she noted the essence of this Bill. There is more to say about what is missing than about what is there. We wanted to see an ambitious, substantiated plan to support our children’s pandemic recovery, but sadly it just is not there. Where are the proposals to improve teaching standards or to tackle the absolute exodus of burnt-out school staff? Where are the measures to equip our students with the skills they will need in the industries of the future, in an ever-more globalised and technologically advanced economy? This Bill does nothing for these crucial aspects of our children’s learning and is a huge missed opportunity. Education and skills will be a critical pillar if the Government are serious about their latest slogan of levelling up, and from the Bill before us, I am not sure that they are. The Bill focuses on structures, not standards. Right now, struggling schools do not need new regulation and new responsibilities: they need more teachers, better mental health support and buildings that are not falling down.

Many points were raised by your Lordships. There were concerns about the opaque nature of the governance of academies, in particular the idea of an all-powerful centre and satellite schools noted by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. There was an interesting idea that young people clearly consider the environment as part of their rights and values, as indicated by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, in the amendment he proposed, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was absolutely right to assert that we should not sell our children short, as seems to be the case throughout the Bill.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Blunkett when he says with experience and eloquence that the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention is nothing short of scandalous. The Bill is a lost opportunity, with the missing element of accountability. The noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Berridge, both alluded to the importance of legislating for children who are home educated.

My noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley—who, incidentally, gave me the largest pay rise I ever had as a teacher—wisely noted that the Bill is trying to redress the coalition agreement, and that academies are no more successful than any other type of school. She asked how the Government and Civil Service are best placed to determine these matters—where is the evidence? Ofsted does not inspect them, and they do not follow the national curriculum. She noted that we need to determine what makes a good school and replicate that.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, is a former Tory Education Secretary of State who did not give me a pay rise but did give me Baker days, which was a welcome addition when we could stop, think, renew and learn as we went along in a sometimes frantic career. His comments were frankly astounding. He said that, since 1870, previous Secretaries of State for Education have never had such sweeping powers as the current Secretary of State is looking to assume in this Bill. It is worth repeating his words:

“We have to be very aware that this is … a real grab for power by the Department for Education”, which

“has never run a school … but now it is going to take complete control”.

My noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth raised the important possibility of what future Secretaries of State might do with the powers that they grab in the Schools Bill of 2022.

My noble friend Lady Bakewell raised some extremely concerning matters regarding approximately 6,000 students in the education system who attend unregulated schools, where little attention is given to secular education and LEAs seem reluctant to intervene. These matters must be clearly addressed by this Bill.

My noble friend Lord Hunt also commented on the power grab idea put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. He further reminded us that we should acknowledge the excellent work that goes on in our maintained schools across the country. He was quite right to point out the financial concerns regarding academies, notwithstanding parents being unable to review the financial status of such schools and the increasingly excessive payments to head teachers of these establishments.

My noble friend Lady Blower was as detailed and incisive as ever with her points on the Government’s casual use of data and the complete reversal of social justice in funding terms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, made some extremely concerning and important points regarding data and its unregulated use.

My noble friend Lord Watson gave a really detailed and insightful speech. He helped me greatly during the passage of the skills Bill in understanding the process of your Lordships’ House. He too noted the Government’s obsession with academies, which appears to be driven by ideology rather than evidence. In terms of home education, he also noted that child safety and the rights of the child must be paramount.

I will reiterate what Labour’s children’s recovery plan would deliver: small-group tutoring for all who need it; breakfast clubs and after-school activities for every child, as we have in Wales; quality mental health support for children in every school; continued professional development for teachers to improve teaching and learning; and targeted extra investment from crucial early years to further education to support children and young people at risk of falling behind.

I conclude that there are some welcome proposals in the Bill, but it has completely the wrong priorities. As the Bill progresses through your Lordships’ House, Her Majesty’s Opposition will be looking to work with the Minister and colleagues across the House to address our real concerns throughout the scrutiny process and will aim to ensure that the Bill can be the best it can be. Our children and young people deserve nothing less.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:49 pm, 23rd May 2022

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. I am deeply grateful for the knowledge and expertise that have been brought to bear on the debate, and I am pleased to hear from so many with great experience in the sector. I echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, about the noble Lord, Lord Watson, although I would like her to put herself in my shoes: she has him behind her; I have both of them across the aisle.

Among the many comments offering support, I have also heard the phrases “limited ambition” and “missed opportunity” on a number of occasions, so I would like to clarify our approach a bit better. In developing this Bill, we have looked carefully at the evidence. We have considered what works, and we are putting that into practice. To paraphrase my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education: arguably, the most ambitious thing a Government can try to do is replicate what is working in some places and scale it across the country. That is what we are trying to do.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, referred to a lack of ambition in supporting children, empowering teachers and supporting parents. I would point her to our schools White Paper, where we have set out all those things in detail, supported by a broad range of programmes, including a “Parent Pledge”, which is a promise to every family that

“any child that falls behind in English or maths should receive timely and evidence-based support to enable them to reach their potential.”

I would also point your Lordships who challenged the Government’s position in relation to careers advice and forward-looking qualifications to the achievements in the skills Act and our work on T-levels.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham suggested that we might be selling our children short if we focus so much on numeracy and literacy. My noble friend Lord Nash put it brilliantly as to why this is so important. Without the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy, all the other subjects and areas of the curriculum that noble Lords have rightly raised this evening cannot be accessed, so I think we are selling them even shorter if we do not focus on those.

We are supporting teachers by providing 500,000 new teacher training opportunities by 2024. We are making sure that teachers have access to evidence-based and world-class training. We are introducing our new professional qualifications, including in relation to early years leadership, which I know is an area that this House rightly cares a great deal about.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked about funding to address the most entrenched areas of educational underperformance, and I would point your Lordships again to the education investment areas. I really hope the noble Lord does not feel that the Government have a sense of complacency about this. If this was an easy thing to turn around, other Governments would have done it already. We are in no way complacent; we absolutely see the scale of the challenge.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, invited me to acknowledge the excellence among some maintained schools. I am more than happy to do that, but I would ask noble Lords on all sides of the House to be equally generous and equally honest in acknowledging the remarkable work of some multi-academy trusts in turning around schools that have been failing ever since inspections were introduced.

In relation to the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, about the statistics that we published recently, I hope they are both aware that we have already updated the relevant document to ensure greater clarity and transparency. I hope they are also aware that the findings and conclusions were completely unchanged as a result of that; it was purely a point of clarity and transparency. I would not want the House to have any confusion about that.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Blunkett, and my noble friend Lady Berridge, referred to the importance of school capital funding. Well maintained and safe school buildings are an absolute priority for the department; that is why we have allocated over £13 billion since 2015 for keeping schools safe and operational, including £1.8 billion committed this year, informed by consistent data on the school estate. In addition, our school rebuilding programme will transform 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising those in poor condition and with potential safety issues.

The noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Addington, my noble friend Lord Holmes, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, all talked about the importance of having ambition and the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities at the heart of our strategy. To enable them to thrive, we want to build an education system where they can get the right support in a timely way and close to where they are. The SEND and alternative provision Green Paper published on 29 March sets out our ambitions in this regard. We are currently engaging in a very broad public consultation on our proposals. That consultation closes on 22 July, and we will then publish a delivery plan setting out how change will be implemented. I hope that the consultation will give an opportunity to the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, to input her questions, views and recommendations in relation to alternative provision and excluded pupils. There are also clear opportunities in that consultation to input on issues around autism, about which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, spoke so movingly in relation to the experience within her own family.

Turning to the Bill, many of your Lordships talked about the centralising move and questioned whether this was a power grab, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Morris, the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett, Lord Davies, Lord Addington and Lord Watson, my noble friends Lord Baker, Lord Eccles and Lord Lingfield, and other noble Lords; I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I have not referred to them all. I really would like to reassure your Lordships about the breadth of matters that could be covered by the academy standards. The examples provided in the standards clauses reflect matters already covered in existing funding agreements, legislation and the Academy Trust Handbook. For example, the model funding agreement includes a clause on the curriculum which states that it must include English, maths and science; the intention is to replicate this freedom in the standards regulations.

My noble friend Lord Eccles talked about a concern around consistency. We are keen on consistency of ambition but very keen not to be prescriptive in how those results and outcomes are to be achieved. Our proposals for a new set of statutory academy standards will provide much more parliamentary and public scrutiny of the requirements placed on academy trusts and the existing regime. We will shortly be publishing expanded fact sheets, setting out significantly more detail on our delegated powers.

My noble friends Lord Nash and Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, also were concerned about the impact on the fundamental freedoms of academies. These reforms will maintain the central freedoms and autonomy of the academy programme. Our “strong trust” definition and standards will set out clearly what we expect all academy trusts to deliver, but trusts remain free to design, innovate and implement operating models that they believe will deliver the best outcomes for their pupils. I would be delighted to meet my noble friend Lord Nash to discuss this further and benefit from his experience and insight on the matter.

A number of noble Lords questioned the capacity of the department to deliver regulation. It is precisely to ensure that we are properly equipped to oversee a system where all schools are in trusts that we are launching a formal regulatory review. That review will establish the appropriate model and options for how best to regulate the English schools system when all schools are part of a family of schools in strong trusts. The noble Baroness asked if I had looked at clusters and federations. I absolutely have and I am happy to share more detail on those conversations with her if she has time.

Many of your Lordships challenged the sense of a local feel of multi-academy trusts, including the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden and Lady Bennett. We recognise absolutely that local schools are at the heart of the communities that they serve and that local governance arrangements also play an important role in enabling trusts to be responsive to parents and local communities. As we set out in the schools White Paper, we want to see all trusts having such arrangements to ensure that they are connected to all their schools and the communities they serve and to make sure that the trusts can make decisions that are well informed by the local context.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford asked specifically about our consideration for small, rural schools. It is an issue of which we are acutely aware and I am very happy again to pick that up in more detail with him if that would be helpful.

The vast majority of trusts already choose to have local governing bodies. We will discuss with the sector the best way to implement these arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, in particular, I think, cited a sense of dissatisfaction about this. If the noble Lord can share specific examples with me, I would be very happy to explore those further.

Your Lordships also asked a number of questions on admissions. In particular, we are planning to consult on a new statutory framework for pupil movement which ensures that a decision to move a child in year is always in the best interests of that child. As a final safety net there will be a new backstop power for local authorities to direct trusts to admit children, with the right for the trust to appeal to the Schools Adjudicator.

My noble friend Lord Blackwell and the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington—who I should congratulate on King’s Maths School being school of the decade—asked about schools in areas of deprivation offering the maximum opportunity to talented local children. We announced in the levelling-up White Paper that we will be looking at opening new free schools for children aged 16 to 19, targeted in areas where they are most needed.

As my noble friend Lord Blackwell said, grammar schools are among the best-performing schools in the country. They also have an important role to play in a future schools system, but we are committed to supporting all disadvantaged pupils in England to realise their potential.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his kind words in relation to the work that my colleagues in the department have done with his colleagues in relation to faith protection. We are working on the land and other issues and are happy to continue to explore those.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised the issues argued by the Humanist Society and others, but she will know that many faith schools have a really strong track record in delivering excellent education and our experience is that they are popular with parents, whether they belong to that faith or not. Again, I am happy to follow up the points that she raised.

On the attendance measures in the Bill, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, suggested that some of the measures on attendance could appear punitive. My noble friend Lord Lucas also spoke on these issues. Our attendance measures are underpinned by the principle of “support first”. The measures will help school absence from becoming persistent or severe by improving, at a national level, the consistency of support offered to pupils and their parents through an earlier and more targeted approach. I urge noble Lords to look at the evidence in this area, which shows a great inconsistency across the country. We hope that the measures will reduce the need for legal intervention overall, so that the existing legal interventions are primarily used where support has not been successful or families have not engaged with that support.

On the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, of course the intention here is not to punish children with long-term health conditions. Again, I would be happy to follow up with her on some of the examples that she raised. That also applies to the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, regarding autism.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lord Lucas expressed concerns about bringing in a register for children not in school. I just reiterate that the Government respect the right of all families to home-educate, where it is done in the best interests of the child. We want parents and local authorities to be supported in ensuring that that education is suitable. The move to require local authority registration is not intended to undermine privacy, nor will it interfere with a parent’s right to educate their child in a way and with the methods that they think are best. Notification to the local authority that a child is receiving home education will help it to plan and target resources at children who are truly missing education. It will help local authorities to plan their resources for complying with their duties under existing guidance and the new duty to provide support where it is requested. It will also support them in identifying children who would otherwise be considered as children missing education, who could be at a safeguarding risk due to not receiving a suitable education, or indeed any education at all, and at risk of harm.

The consultation response did not feature any proposals for additional powers for local authorities, such as to explicitly monitor education or enforce entry into the home. Our view remains that local authorities’ existing powers are sufficient to determine whether the provision offered is suitable. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, invited me to talk to home-educating parents, and I would be happy to hear their concerns.

Turning to the regulatory regime for independent educational institutions, the regulatory regime that we are proposing is tailored to settings that are intended to provide the whole or the majority of a student’s education. Our view is that it would not be proportionate to apply this regime to part-time or supplementary educational settings. We are going to launch a call for evidence regarding part-time settings shortly, but we have worked hard to try to address the questions raised by both the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, about institutions that try to evade the spirit of these regulations. Again, I would be glad to explore that in more detail with noble Lords.

As ever, we are preparing an increasingly long letter, and I know I have not done justice to all the points raised. In closing, I know that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, talked about his amendment on fundamental British values, and I am looking forward to meeting tomorrow to discuss that further. Similarly, I will follow up on my noble friend Lady Berridge’s points on data regarding children on free school meals and with special educational needs, and with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on clarifying points around governance and conflicts of interests for local authorities when they have their own MATs. I will also follow up with my noble friend Lord Lexden in relation to the fit and proper persons test, and with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on adoption from abroad.

I want to spend one moment on a point to which I cannot do justice. Many noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Altrincham and Lord Sandhurst, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Watkins, talked about children’s mental health. I am hoping we will have a chance to talk about this more in Committee. We remain absolutely committed, as are all your Lordships, to promoting and supporting children and young people’s mental health and well-being in schools and listening to what more can be done. Counselling is obviously an important part of that.

On the specific points raised by my noble friends on guidance for schools about trans pupils, we recognise that this is a complex and sensitive area for schools to navigate. We believe they are well placed to work with parents, pupils and public services to help decide what is best for individual children and others in the school. We are working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make sure that we give the clearest possible guidance to schools on these important issues.

In closing, I echo other noble Lords in thanking teachers, teaching assistants, MAT leaders and all who are involved in our school system for the incredibly important and valuable work that they do. As noble Lords have heard me say several times, I am very committed, as are my colleagues in the department, to meeting your Lordships to discuss the issues raised this evening. I also commit to going through the data that we have put together and the evidence base for the choices that we are making for the school system to make sure that we can reinforce your Lordships’ confidence in how we have arrived at those conclusions.

I invite your Lordships to perhaps meet some of the multi-academy trust leaders in your areas, if you have time—we would also be happy to put together a round table—because the picture painted in many of the speeches tonight is not one that I recognise from the many schools that I have visited and leaders whom I have spoken to. Us all having the clearest and broadest possible understanding will be helpful for making the Bill the best that it can be.

In conclusion, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate and look forward to even more detailed scrutiny and challenge as we move to Committee. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.