Amendment 59

Schools Bill [HL] - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 15 June 2022.

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The Lord Bishop of Chichester:

Moved by The Lord Bishop of Chichester

59: Clause 29, page 23, line 23, leave out “of its maintained schools” and insert “maintained schools in its area”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment makes the language in this section consistent with language used elsewhere in legislation relating to maintained schools in a church context.

Photo of The Bishop of Chichester The Bishop of Chichester Bishop

My Lords, I rise to speak on behalf of my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who regrets that he cannot be here to move the amendments in this group tabled in his name. I declare his interest as chair of the National Society.

Firstly, I shall say a brief word about Amendment 59, which is a small effort to ensure consistency of language used throughout the legislation relating to maintained schools in a church context. The particular amended line in Clause 23 removes the wording that assumes control of all maintained schools and replaces it with language that is applicable in a church context.

On Amendment 64, diocesan boards of education, as set out by Section 8 of the DBE Measure, exist to promote and assist the provision of religious education in church and other schools throughout the diocese. However, they also co-operate with other educational providers in their dioceses and play a vital role. In the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham’s own diocese, around 50% of schools are academies. Across the Church of England as a whole, it is about a third of our schools, including secondary schools, and this is growing all the time—working in a range of different kinds of multi-academy trusts. There is a strong and growing diocesan trust in Durham, serving the needs of all the community it serves, working in strong partnership with a range of school-led MATs across the north-east. The joint diocesan board of education for Durham and Newcastle has been crucial to the success in the diocese and has contributed much to serving the whole community.

Amendment 64 requires the consent of the relevant diocesan board of education before seeking an academy order on a school for which it is the religious authority. Consultation with the diocesan boards of education before seeking an academy order is an important step to retain the cohesion that they already help to promote, and to ensure that the governance of schools with a religious character is maintained by the religious authority. DBEs will also be increasingly important as the education system nationalises, which is evident in this Chamber as we discuss questions of adequate funding for rural schools and other issues for which more local insight is invaluable.

Amendment 65 and the consequential Amendments 66, 67, 71, 72, 73 and 74 are intended to reflect the position of the churches as partners in state education. Amendment 65 inserts proposed new Section 3B, which mirrors the power of local authorities in new Section 3A and applies the power to submit applications for an academy order to the religious authority for church schools. The drafting also reflects the expectations of each religious authority before applying the power and accounts for schools with a religious character that do not have a religious authority. This would enable the religious authority, or appropriate religious body, to apply for an academy order in respect of its schools, in line with a strategic plan to enable a fully trust-led system.

This is important because the churches and other religious authorities have a strategic role in the development of the educational landscape. The move towards all schools being in a strong academy trust is not something that can be allowed to happen in an ad hoc or piecemeal way but requires strategic planning and the development of a system that works for all schools concerned. It requires the religious authority to be able to propose strategic change to ensure that none of its schools is isolated or left behind. This will be particularly important as we consider the large number of small schools, often in isolated rural communities, many of which, as we have already heard in previous discussions, are church schools.

We need to ensure that the religious authority has the ability to seek change for the good of the whole family of schools, not simply on an individual school basis. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church provide one-third of state schools in England. One reason I believe these are schools that are often sought after by parents is that we have been on the block a long time—more than 200 years—seeking to provide free education for the children of this land. It is essential that those authorities have the same power as outlined for the local authorities, to ensure that they have the ability to function as a strategic partner with the state in this way. I beg to move.

Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Crossbench 4:45, 15 June 2022

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 60A and I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for countersigning it. It is a probing amendment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who I am pleased to see is in her place, said so correctly last week in Committee, this is a very difficult Bill to amend. My amendment was the only way I could find to stimulate a discussion on the point that I raise in the amendment. What is absolutely clear from the debates at Second Reading and the two days of Committee so far is that this Bill gives very great powers to the Secretary of State over any school that receives funding from the taxpayer. The concern that I and others have is how a number of very specialist schools will be treated in future.

I realise that there are many matters in the White Paper that are not included in the Bill and will probably be in another Bill in the future or in regulations. However, it is stated government policy, as I understand it, that all schools should become academies and all academies should, by 2030, join multi-academy trusts. I am particularly interested in two types of schools which may not fit into this standardised structure. As I said at Second Reading, I am a patron of the King’s Maths School. There are four maths schools in England and two more will be launched next year. They are all sponsored by universities and have impressive statistics for numbers of girl students, percentages of students from ethnic minorities and numbers on free school meals, and all the students get into leading universities.

These schools have been a huge success, both academically and socially, and we should have more of them. However, their success comes from their direct and close relationship with the sponsoring university.

I am very grateful to the Minister for two discussions that I have had with her on this matter. As I understand it, the Government’s view is that putting a maths school in a multi-academy trust would spread some of this academic excellence around a number of other schools, but I suggest to the Minister that this is not what they maths schools were created for. The country needs, and the Government at that moment—Michael Gove, I think it was—recognised, that we need many more mathematicians and others who wish to study engineering at university. All students at these maths schools do A-levels in maths, further maths and usually physics as well. The ethos of the schools leads to high levels of achievement. If they were to join multi-academy trusts they would certainly lose this ethos and are likely to cease performing at this excellent level.

I therefore ask the Minister to confirm that these maths schools will not be forced, either by the Secretary of State or any other authority, local or otherwise, to join a multi-academy trust without the consent of the governing body and the sponsoring university. These schools have a very special status and an amazing track record.

The other schools referred to in my amendment are the music and dance schools. Of course, they are very different from maths schools. Here I declare an interest, as my wife was, for 10 years, chairman of the Royal Ballet School. There are, I believe, eight schools within the music and dance programme. They are independent but receive taxpayer support under the music and dance scheme. The students are all selected for their talent. They come from diverse backgrounds, and many are from very low-income households. The graduates go on to perform in orchestras and dance in ballet companies all over the world. These schools must retain their independence and they will always need considerable taxpayer support.

The powers being vested in the Secretary of State through the Bill are so great that I hope to receive from the Minister an assurance that these very special and specialist schools will be allowed to retain their present status and will not, by future regulation, be forced into a multi-academy trust. They must remain independent. They must continue to receive taxpayer support directly from the Department for Education.

The Bill appears to be changing, very substantially, the structure of education in England. There may be many schools—more than the ones I have referred to—that will not fit in to the new Department for Education standard structure. My amendment simply seeks to protect the independence of two particular types of school, and I hope the Minister can allay my concerns and give reassurance to specialist schools.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour

My Lords, I support the arguments just made by the noble Duke about maths schools. I am not sure what the Minister will say—maybe she will solve the problem. I am not arguing that they need to be more independent than any others; the argument about the MAT is about the nature of the partnership the school is going into. I value partnerships—they are really important—but I can see the argument that maths schools need different partnerships from other secondary comprehensive schools that might go into MATs.

This is because we are not likely to have a whole host of these maths schools throughout the country. They are few in number, a bit like the music and ballet schools. Whatever you think of them, their aim is to take the most able children in that subject and support them to reach as high a level as possible. We will never aim to have thousands of them, so I worry that, if you make their key partnership in future—if you do not want them to stand by themselves—to be part of a MAT, you give the ownership of that scarce resource to that MAT. Just as we have competition between stand-alone schools, I am absolutely certain, because it exists at the moment, that we will have competition between MATs. They will not all share their resources; they will compete with each other. That is what they are doing now and will do in future. I am just not confident that the competitive environment in which MATs exist—trying to get more kids and the best results—will lead to them sharing the special skills in the maths schools in the way they should.

The maths schools have a different set of partnerships. Unlike the MATs, they have very good relationships with universities and business. Progress-wise, they look up. So I am not fearful that they will fall prey to the problems of standing alone. I do not think they stand alone; they have a different set of relationships in their partnership. To take them out of that partnership and make them a legal part of the ownership of one MAT would make it far more difficult for them to share their skill across a geographical area. I can just bet which MAT they will end up going into—the one that already has the most high-performing children, because it will think that it can use them better than anyone else.

Go for the partnership, as they already have existing ones, but be really wary of treating them the same as any other academy, as they were never set up in that way. I hope that complements what the noble Duke said about independence; the nature of the partnership needs a great deal of thought.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour

My Lords, I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham’s amendments, so ably spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester. I do not have an awful lot of experience of academies; we do not have them in Wales. I suppose we are a bit old-fashioned, but the system seems to work quite well. However, I have nothing against them. They were introduced by the Government of which I used to be a member and I wish them well.

It is particularly important that church and state schools should have the same opportunities as academies. There is no reason in this wide world why a Church of England school or a Roman Catholic school—I am a Catholic—should not have the same opportunities as a state school. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester rightly referred to the fact that, in England, one in three schools is a church school. Ten per cent of all schools in England are Catholic schools, and 850,000 pupils go to them. Both Church of England and Catholic schools do a tremendous job in very deprived areas all over England—and, indeed, although it does not apply in this debate, in Wales.

There is a very strong case for ensuring that church schools have equal status in the Bill; handbooks and various bits of guidance from the Department for Education are okay, but they are not enough. If there is to be proper equality between church schools and state schools, that has to be recognised in law. Those issues revolve around governance structures, appointments, religious education and collective worship. I know that the Catholic authorities, all dioceses in England and the Catholic Education Service warmly support the amendments spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, as I do. I wish them well.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) , Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:00, 15 June 2022

I should perhaps declare an interest on the amendments moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, given that my children attend academy schools in the area of that diocese.

We would like to put on record our appreciation for the contribution of the Church of England to education in the country. I think it was very well put that there needs to be a strategic approach. The amendments tabled by the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Durham would better able that to happen, so we are sympathetic to the case that was made.

We were already minded to support Amendment 60, and my noble friend Lady Morris made the case better than I could. The issues highlighted prove that the Bill would have benefitted from some pre-legislative scrutiny.

I was particularly pleased to hear comments about fair access and admissions. Should we be forming a government any time soon, we would probably want to explore that and push it still further.

Given the very solid case that was made by both the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and my noble friend Lady Morris, we would want the Minister to be as sympathetic as she can be in response to these amendments at this stage.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I will start by responding to Amendments 59, 64 to 67, and 71 to 74 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for moving these amendments on his behalf.

I acknowledge the very important role played by churches and other religious bodies in state education. As the right reverend Prelate has said, these amendments relate to powers to support schools to join multi-academy trusts, helping to fulfil the Government’s ambition to have all schools in or joining a strong trust by 2030. I welcome the right reverend Prelate’s support for that ambition. I understand that, as he said, the purpose of Amendment 59 is to make the language used in Clause 29 consistent with other legislation relating to maintained schools in a church context. However, the existing wording of the clause already captures these particular schools and so this amendment would have no material effect.

Amendment 64 relates to requirements for local authorities to obtain consents before applying for an academy order on behalf of a school with a foundation. The Government understand the desire for the appropriate diocesan authority, as the religious body for a church school, to be among the bodies whose consent is required for an application. However, as drafted, the amendment captures only the diocesan authorities and not religious bodies for other faiths, and the position should be fair for all religious bodies.

The remaining amendments tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham seek to enable certain religious bodies to apply to the Secretary of State for academy orders in relation to schools for which they are responsible. As I have said, the Government want schools with a religious character to enjoy, like all others, the benefits of being part of a strong academy trust. The Government are sympathetic to the principle of these amendments but further consideration is needed to establish the scope of the religious bodies that could apply for an academy order and the types of maintained school to which it should apply. As drafted, the amendment may not adequately capture all the religious bodies involved in maintained schools with a religious character. It may also inadvertently include bodies which are responsible for schools without a religious character.

Although I have set out some concerns relating to Amendments 64, 65, 67 and 71 to 74, the Government understand the intentions behind them and will reflect further on the issues raised by those amendments and the right reverend Prelate.

Turning to Amendment 60A, first, I want to reassure the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, on a specific point—though this may be unnecessary, because he said that this was a probing amendment. He will know that music and dance schools are typically independent schools, and that 16 to 19 maths schools are already academies. As such, they will not be affected by this clause. However, it would be wrong to exclude any schools in the maintained sector with a music, dance or maths specialism from the benefits of being part of a strong trust. I recognise the importance of preserving the unique characteristics of specialist schools within a fully trust-led system, as we have heard from the Committee. I can confirm that, in the event that a local authority applied for an academy order in relation to a specialist school, the regional director would have regard to the capacity of the proposed trust to preserve and support that school’s specialism. But to be absolutely clear to the noble Duke and the Committee, there are no powers in the Bill that would force an existing academy to join a multi-academy trust, and that might be why he was struggling to amend the Bill to address his concerns.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) , Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am a little confused. In the White Paper, the Government’s intention around MATs is quite clear. I think the noble Duke is seeking some assurance that that will not apply to the schools that he is interested in.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I absolutely understand that point. I was simply reassuring the noble Duke that within this Bill there are no powers to compel anyone to join a multi-academy trust. It is the Government’s vision for every school to be part of a strong trust by 2030. The intention is for the Government to work with academies and to move people with the Government in pursuit of that vision. I was simply saying that there is nothing in the Bill that would compel an academy to join a multi-academy trust. That said, we have consistently seen that schools in multi-academy trusts are stronger together. The collective focus, vision and community creates opportunities, facilitates collaboration, enables resilience and improves educational outcomes.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

I have listened to what the Minister has said, having not joined in on the debate on this amendment before. Are we saying that specialist schools which stand out from the normal run of schools are not expected to join because it goes against their ethos or because they do not fit in terribly well but that it is a jolly good idea if they do? This is a little confusing. We need some clarity before we move on. Effectively, the Government are saying that joining a multi-academy trust is a good idea but that these schools do not have to, but they then say that they want every school to join one. Can the Minister clarify this?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

We are saying that joining a multi-academy trust is a good idea and that we would like everyone to do it. We are encouraging everyone to do it, but there are no powers within the Bill to compel people. The reason we think it is a good idea is that we have seen that schools in multi-academy trusts are stronger together. Of course, it would be open for such specialist schools to, for example, perhaps form a multi-academy trust with each other. We know that there are many high-performing, stand-alone schools that have the capacity to support other schools within the combined accountability of a MAT model.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

I may be wrong, but is there not a route to making it enforceable, or close to enforceable, by way of secondary legislation, given the way in which the Bill is drafted?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I sought to confirm the point that was directly raised by the noble Duke about the powers within the Bill, and I have been given the reassurance that there are no powers within the Bill to force an existing academy to join a multi-academy trust. I will seek further, triple reassurance on that point, but I sought clarity on it before addressing this.

Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her various replies. I am not nearly as expert on these matters as the many former Education Ministers who are Members of this House clearly are. Nevertheless, my concern remains that the way the Bill is constructed means there will inevitably be regulations and other secondary legislation coming forward, or indeed even possibly another Bill. I am trying to seek an assurance from the Government that these sorts of schools will never be forced into a multi-academy trust without the consent of their own governing body. In the case of the maths schools, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, so rightly put it, each of them has an existing partnership with a university. Therefore should a maths school ever be forced to join a multi-academy trust, or the Government of the day forces one, surely it should not be done without the consent of its own governing body and its sponsoring university.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I understand the reassurances that the noble Duke seeks. I reassure him that we understand the unique nature of these schools and we want to see them thrive. We think that is possible within a multi-academy trust model. However, I reassure him that in the Bill before us today there are no clauses or powers that would force an existing academy to join a multi-academy trust. I am afraid it is not possible for me to think about any future Bill that could come before this House. We have a stated policy aim—an ambition—but we have chosen not to put any powers in this Bill to force any academy to join a multi-academy trust. We have been clear that in pursuing that policy aim we want to bring schools and academies with us. That is the approach we would seek to take.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour

My understanding is that the powers in the Bill including ones for single-academy trusts to be subject to all the directions and all the compliance that we discussed on Monday. I believe there is a recent government amendment to make this possible. Therefore, my reading of it would be that the powers are there. If a Secretary of State decides that all single-academy trusts are going to go and they are all going to join multi-academy trusts, the powers are there for them to find reasons to do so and use the powers in the Bill to close down the single-academy trusts, which are then left having to find a home.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I take the noble Lord’s point. I absolutely reassure him that that is not the intention. I will also go away and double check that there is not the ability to do that under those powers. Given the discussions we have had on those parts of the Bill and our commitment to reflect on them, our discussion on this issue and the reassurance that is being sought will also form part of the discussions.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

May I just articulate another problem I have? The noble Baroness used the word “intention”. When I think about the summing up and read the summings up in Hansard, we have been presented a stream of good intentions. The problem is that I do not think Parliament is at all wise or sensible to live on good intentions; we all know where they can take you. I reiterate that it seems that the scheme of this Bill, broadly speaking, allows the Secretary of State to find a way of imposing the policy that every school should be in a multi-academy trust one way or another. At the moment, that is the position. I am afraid that both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Duke must view the future rather pessimistically.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:15, 15 June 2022

I was clear about the Government’s intention for these powers, which is not to use them to make single academies join a multi-academy trust. I also gave two undertakings in listening to this group in Committee. One is to go away and confirm, on the scope of the powers as drafted in the Bill, that it is not possible to do that, but the other relates to our wider conversations about those parts of the Bill where the Government have already given an undertaking, having heard the views of the Committee, to listen and reflect. My noble friend the Minister started today’s Committee by trying to give an assurance to your Lordships that that is what we are doing. Therefore, on this particular question it is important to be clear about the Government’s intention, which I hope I now have been, but I will also undertake two further actions, which speak louder than words, both to confirm on the powers as drafted and to reflect on how we have drafted those powers.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

In that spirit, will my noble friend also discover whether the Government have the power to use the money they give to these individual schools in a way which could in fact insist that they become members of a multi-academy trust? My own experience is that the most important thing is to ring-fence the money from the interference of a Secretary of State who would use it to say, “You don’t get your money unless you join this”, or, “You get more money if you join this.” We need that reassurance too.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend’s contribution falls within the remit of the undertaking that I have already given to the Committee.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

My Lords, to my mind, the various assurances the Minister has given present a further complication. If she is able to give reassurance to the noble Duke about a particular type of school, which is pretty well defined, being able to guarantee its continued independence away from a multi-academy trust, as it were, what does that say to other schools which may have particular characteristics? What is the defining characteristic that distinguishes schools which can remain if they want to from those that cannot?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

To be clear, the undertaking I gave was around the Bill’s powers being used to compel an existing stand-alone academy—the noble Duke gave the example of a specialist maths school but it is not restricted to that—to join a multi-academy trust, not based on any further characteristics of the school. I hope that reassures the noble Lord.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) , Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I think the noble Baroness knows what we are getting at here. She has said that she will endeavour to come back with something concrete for us, and that is appreciated. However, reflecting on this, this is not just about requiring these schools to join MATs. The noble Duke has highlighted for us that the powers contained in the Bill could get to the activities of these schools and undermine the essence of them, which my noble friend described. There is nothing in the Bill to protect those schools from that. Previously, my noble friend said that she would quite enjoy the ability to impose standards across all schools, but I do not think she was thinking of these schools when she said that. There is a bigger problem that we have come across here, which the Minister should also attend to.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The most successful multi-academy trusts build on the strengths of these types of schools. The intention is to build on the strengths that we see in all sorts of academies, including specialist academies, in building the school system that we want to build in future. That is what is set out in the schools White Paper and what we are trying to deliver and achieve. Looking at and building on the freedoms that those kinds of schools have used to strengthen our education system is the direction of the travel that the Government have set out. We certainly want to continue to support that. We believe that these schools do an excellent job and we want to protect them in future.

I think I have gone as far as I can in setting out my understanding of what the Bill does and in seeking to reassure noble Lords that I will go away, check this point and look at it in the context of the wider concerns about the powers in certain sections of the Bill.

We heard in the debate about the partnership model that these schools have and their important role in providing outreach to other schools in the local area; indeed, that is part of the model that they have. Although it is our view that they can be part of a successful multi-academy trust, I have none the less given an assurance about our intention behind these powers and an undertaking once again to go away and confirm that point for noble Lords. With that, I hope that the right reverend Prelate will withdraw the amendment for now.

Photo of The Bishop of Chichester The Bishop of Chichester Bishop

My Lords, the amendment in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has produced far more energy. I have to say, what I think is shared here is a concern that what happens in our schools is not done in a piecemeal, ad hoc way but intentionally. So it is not just about the intention of the powers that are brought but about what their effect will be. Of course, finding that you are alone is a dangerous place to be in a powerful, fast-moving organisational circumstance.

I am grateful to the Minister for her assurance that she is sympathetic to and understands the Church’s concerns over church schools. The need for a wider scope for what we had drafted in this amendment will be considered. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment in the name of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham.

Amendment 59 withdrawn.