Amendment 171H

Schools Bill [HL] - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 27 June 2022.

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Baroness Chapman of Darlington:

Moved by Baroness Chapman of Darlington

171H: After Clause 65, insert the following new Clause—“Education partnership boards(1) Within two years of the passing of this Act, local authorities must begin to work with schools within their area of authority to establish an education partnership organisation for every local authority in England.(2) Education partnership organisations may offer services including—(a) promoting the needs and strengths of schools in their area,(b) supporting at-risk schools,(c) brokering support with external professionals, (d) offering specialised events, and(e) facilitating collaboration and partnerships between schools.”

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Our Amendment 171H would require the Government to ask local authorities to work with schools in their area to establish an education partnership organisation. I want to say a little about why that is a good idea in the context of all our schools becoming academies. Partnerships are an excellent way to support schools and to tackle some of the area-wide issues that are difficult for schools to address by themselves. This could include music, theatre or sport; brokering support with external providers; sharing facilities; or, in the spirit of the Bill, doing anything else they can come up with when they get around to thinking about it. Our amendment is very similar to that tabled by my noble friend Lady Morris. I am sure she will share her experience with the Birmingham Education Partnership and the benefits that has brought to children in Birmingham.

The thinking behind this approach is that it takes a village—or a town or a city—to raise a child. The whole community has a stake in making sure that we do the best job possible to support and encourage our young people. My experience of this approach comes from chairing the Darlington Children’s Trust, where we were very keen on partnerships to tackle the trickiest issues. We would apply this approach to just about anything, including long-term health concerns, growing older, anti-social behaviour and school exclusions. We think that anything that needs a joined-up, place-based approach is best tackled with multidisciplinary partnership thinking.

Now that local authorities have a much-diminished role in education, with youth services and early intervention and prevention unrecognisably altered for the worse, we need an approach that encourages public services and schools to pull together—to agree priorities, share strategies and even pool budgets to support children and young people. All the secondary schools in Darlington are academies and, although they no longer have to do it, there is definitely a culture of collaboration. However, that is being increasingly tested the more time moves on and as some join MATs based in other parts of the country.

My amendment and that tabled by my noble friend Lady Morris would be a helpful step in the right direction. Her amendment would enable partnerships to bid for resources and be part of the school system, which is an incredibly good idea and something that we would like to see encouraged in other areas of the country. If the Government take the view that these partnerships should be a coming together of the willing, as opposed to compelling organisations to work together—I can kind of see an argument for that—they could at least be more proactive in encouraging them to work more closely together. It might be that we want to discuss ways that this could be achieved.

The noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, have tabled amendments to extend the role of the Local Government Ombudsman. We particularly support this in relation to admissions, where parents are relatively powerless to challenge in any meaningful way. We think that there should be an independent process; that would be incredibly helpful.

I do not have a strong view whether that should be through the Local Government Ombudsman: there might be other locally based, more user-friendly ways to approach it, but I absolutely agree with my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Davies that with so many schools now academies, it is not fair to deny parents the ability to challenge decisions through an independent process. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour

I shall speak to Amendment 171U in my name in this group. I support the other three amendments, but I shall not comment on those that have not yet been moved. I declare my interest as the chair and a trustee of the Birmingham Education Partnership and a member of the Association of Education Partnerships. I also acknowledge that the Minister has already given me and my colleagues some time to discuss this issue, for which we are grateful, but I have come back in this setting because some legislative change could help the work we do.

I emphasise the differences between this amendment and that just moved. I do not have a problem with children’s trusts: if they develop in that way, that is great and they can be a partnership for all services, but my thinking and experience has been of partnerships for school improvement, hence my amendment today, but I am not against taking that wider to the children’s trust idea. The problem my amendment solves is this. The thrust of the Bill into multi-academy trusts is an acknowledgement that schools need to work together: isolated schools are free to fail as well as free to thrive. In schools that are working together, you add capacity to the system.

At the moment, in any geographical area, we have church schools, maintained schools, academies and schools in multi-academy trusts—in one area or beyond. Even if every school in a group is a member of a family, the problem is still not solved because there are still gaps between the groups. Whereas we worried about the fragmentation of individual schools going it alone, even when every school was in a multi-academy trust in 2010, they could fall between the cracks of different groups in any geographical area. At the moment, the problem is worse, because some schools are in multi-academy trusts and some are still maintained, some are still relating to the regional schools commissioner, some to the local authority and some to the diocese.

In an area as big as Birmingham, with more than 400 schools—and it is not the biggest local authority area in the country—that fragmentation is writ large, even if no school is a stand-alone school unconnected to anybody else. Even if we get everybody into a multi-academy trust by 2030, we will still have the gaps between the trusts. That is a problem, in my mind. It is a built-in weakness of the system, in two ways.

Schools have responsibility, first and foremost, for the children in their school. That is what teachers get up and go to work for, and that is where their prime responsibility lies. I have always thought that every teacher accepts a second responsibility, and that is for the children in the area where they teach. They want their children to be best, but they do not want them to be best at the expense of the failure of children in the neighbouring school. They want to accept both those professional responsibilities: primarily, to the children in the school but, secondarily, to the children in their area.

I taught in a Coventry school. If someone asks, “What were you?”, I say, “A teacher in a Coventry school.” It meant something to me. I was educated in a school in Manchester, and that means something to me. That notion of place defined, in part, my experience as a pupil and defined, in a larger part, my experience as a teacher. We have knocked that out of the system.

Even if we get where the Government want us to go, where everyone is in a multi-academy trust, we will have solved the problem of isolated schools but there will be nothing at all that acknowledges place. Who holds the ring for education in Birmingham as a common good, a common endeavour? That is so important: it is what pupils, parents and teachers feel. All the partnership does is act as an umbrella under which every school can come together to recognise their joint endeavour as delivering a local education service. That is not being part of the local education authority; it is an acknowledgement that they, together, deliver the local education service—call it what you want.

Nothing in any of this legislation will allow that to happen. I am aware of more than 30 geographical areas—usually based on a local authority, because that makes sense to people—where schools have, by their own will, because they know it is needed, formed a partnership to deliver their second professional responsibility, which is to act in the interests of every child in that area. You can say, “That’s great: get on with it, go and do a good job, you do not need government to tell you what to do or give you permission to do it”, and indeed you do not and indeed they will. What is missing is a government acknowledgement that they are a player in the system. That is the important thing.

I can give a number of examples. The Government will put out a request for a bid or initiative, ask for volunteers or seek partnerships, but they only do so with the multi-academy trusts, which means that the partnership cannot collectively, on behalf of all its members, bid for the money, try to be a partner or try to be a player in the game. They have to read between the lines to make sure their local area is not deprived of resources.

That is what is missing. I look to the Government to say, “Yes, there is a need in our education system to acknowledge place and deliver for it, and that schools want responsibility for that that goes beyond the children in their class—they want to accept the wider responsibility for children in the area.” At the moment, as we know, every measurement—every accountability structure—militates against that happening. Even in the bidding arrangements, MAT has to bid against MAT in Birmingham for resource for Birmingham children. That does not make sense. Why would you want one MAT to fragment and bid against another to get resource for Birmingham children? If the partnership could bid and the bid go through the MAT—the partnership is no more than the MATs, it is no more than all the groups within the city of Birmingham—that would focus on school improvement and acknowledge the notion of place.

I very much take the point made by my noble friend Lady Chapman about working with other organisations. If a museum in a geographical area, a sports club, the local orchestra, the drama club or a local employer wants to work with the school, because of the demise of the local authority, there is no one to whom they can go to make those links. They end up either just finding a school and working with it because it is easier—that is great, but no one else gets a look in—or they give up because there is no one door through which they can go to say, “I am now working with all the schools in Coventry”. Partnerships are a one-stop shop for any of those essential partners in educating our children to knock on the door to say, “I want to work with Darlington schools.” We could say, “Right, we are the place that can make the introduction.”

For lots of reasons—and now in particular because the system is fragmented, but even when it is as the Government want it to be; I have my own views on that, but I am not going into them now—there is still the need to work in partnership, to recognise place and to mind the gaps between smaller groups that have been reconstructed into local authority areas.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 7:30, 27 June 2022

My Lords, I have two amendments in this group and support my noble friends Lady Chapman and Lady Morris in their Amendments 171H and 171U. I have seen at first hand the huge value of the Birmingham Education Partnership, which my noble friend Lady Morris has led, and the impact that it has had on schools. On this issue of who in education can talk to some of the other sectors, the Minister will know that my principal interest is in health. I have mentioned a couple of times, particularly in relation to mental health, the need for the education sector to have a strong voice around the table of the new integrated care partnerships and integrated care boards that the health service has now established. I do not know who in education in Birmingham will do that, unless we have my noble friend, and have the Government recognising that it has a very valuable role to play. I hope that the Minister will consider this between now and Report, whenever that is—perhaps she will say when Report will be, though I am not hopeful of that.

Turning to my Amendments 171T and 171W, earlier in Committee we had a lot of debate about academisation and the role of parents in schools. Many noble Lords referred to what I can only describe as the chaotic nature of the admissions system to secondary schools, particularly when it comes to academies, where parents are faced with multiple application forms and details of schools. This is bewildering to them and not in the best interests of children. My amendments are an opportunity to strengthen the rights of parents and to increase the public accountability of schools by setting out straightforward, practical changes, to simplify the confusing system of redress that is currently faced by parents and carers if they raise concerns about their child’s education. I am very grateful to my noble friends Lord Davies and Lady Blower for their support, and to my noble friend Lady Chapman for what she said in her introductory remarks, particularly in relation to the admissions system.

The changes that I am proposing can be delivered easily and at low cost, through the logical extensions to the existing remit of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. My noble friend Lady Morris has said that the principle is important and that who does it is a secondary consideration. I accept that, but the Local Government Ombudsman has an important role to play, having had a tried and tested mechanism to remedy public complaints and to improve local services for nearly 50 years. The ombudsman’s remit already includes many education and school-related matters.

My Amendment 171T would enable parents to seek an independent investigation into complaints about admissions to academies if they think that their child has been wrongly denied access to their preferred choice of school. Prior to the introduction of academies, parents had the right to bring complaints about defects in school admissions processes to the local ombudsman. Over many years, this has been a robust system. Indeed, the ombudsman published one of its regular reports just last week, highlighting shortcomings in the admissions process at a popular and oversubscribed school in Surrey. Its intervention resulted in a fresh appeal for the pupil involved and an undertaking from the school to review and improve its system for others in future. It is a practical, transparent and proportionate system that has been proven to work well for parents, pupils, and schools.

However, since the introduction of academies—and we are on a pathway to full academisation by 2030—the complaints process for school admissions has become increasingly disjointed. Although complaints about admissions to maintained and voluntary-aided schools continue to be investigated by the ombudsman, complaints about academy admissions must be addressed to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, a body which does not have the same powers, purpose or independence as the ombudsman. This means that, in practice, parents with concerns about one of their most important decisions regarding their child’s education are potentially faced with navigating two entirely different complaints systems through two entirely different bodies. This amendment will remove this needless complexity by bringing academy and free-school admissions within the single scope of the ombudsman, and we can restore the previous one-stop arrangements for parents and carers.

Amendment 171W proposes an equally practical but perhaps an even more important extension to the rights of parents and pupils: the right to complain about what goes on within the school itself. It is remarkable that schools are one of the only public services in this country for which there is no completely independent right of complaint and redress. People have a statutory right of access to an independent investigation into complaints about their local council, the police, the Armed Forces, the health service, universities, and central government departments, but not about schools.

There is an in-house schools investigation service that operates within the Minister’s department, and which looks at complaints about local authority-maintained schools. There is also a separate academy complaints service run by the ESFA. However, these services are limited in their scope. They are mainly responsible for checking whether schools have followed the required complaints procedure. They do not carry out a fresh investigation into the substance of the issue that was complained about. They do not come to an independent view on whether there has been fault, and they cannot provide a remedy for parents or pupils.

I am not critical of the staff who carry out the current arrangements. However, those arrangements fall a long way short of the rights and redress available in most comparable sectors. My amendment would provide a comprehensive and genuinely independent schools complaints service simply by extending the functions of the ombudsman. It is important to note that this is not a novel or untried proposition. This is a role that the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman already performs with great success. It is a duty that was previously piloted by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman in England under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. Unfortunately, the 2010 election intervened, and the function was not implemented, but it was thoroughly tested at that time in schools across 14 local authority areas.

There is support from the Commons Education Committee for an extension to the ombudsman’s remit so that it might look more effectively at the support given in schools to children with special educational needs. If that is right, and if the committee is right, if it makes sense to extend that to SEND children, then surely it makes sense to extend it to all children in all schools, whatever category. I very much hope that the Minister can consider this.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Labour

My Lords, I support these amendments, particularly Amendments 171T and 171W, to which I have added my name. The case has been set out extremely clearly by my noble friend Lord Hunt, but it is worth emphasising the logic of the proposed change.

To a parent faced with one of the most difficult decisions in relation to their child—choosing a secondary school—it is incumbent on us to make that process as simple and as clear as possible. Unfortunately, because of how the system has developed, that is currently not the case. We have the extraordinary circumstances that in some local authorities the appeals system for academies is run jointly with the local authority. A parent may have applied to a maintained school and to an academy and been dissatisfied with the result but then discover that there is one system of appeal for the maintained school and another system of appeal for the academy, which cannot make sense.

It is reasonable to propose that the ombudsman has considerable experience in the tried and tested process of reviewing problems with school choice. My noble friend said that who should do the job is not an issue of principle, but the ombudsman is there and has been doing this work. It would be wrong to make the system of appealing against school decisions out of line with the generality. If people have a complaint, they should know where to go and should not have the barrier of figuring out which is the appropriate appeal body. There is considerable justification for allocating it to the ombudsman but, if another proposal were to come forward from the Government, we would have to consider it seriously.

The point has been made that the ombudsman currently cannot make judgments on issues within the school gates: it can if it is a local authority issue but, if it is within the school gates, it has no right to pursue an issue on behalf of concerned parents. Again, this cannot make sense. This is a public service. We need a proper system of review by an independent body.

I spent a bit of time trying to discover the argument behind dropping the provision in the 2009 Act, which provided for the ombudsman. Could the Minister enlighten us and explain why it was taken out in the Education Act 2011? It appeared to be a case of the Minister wanting not to lose power to an ombudsman. On balance, I think that the Committee would prefer the ombudsman to make this sort of decision as opposed to it being a matter for the Minister. I am sure that parents would prefer to have an independent expert body looking at the issue, whether the ombudsman or some other body.

I strongly support the amendments and hope that the Minister can give a helpful response.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will make a brief intervention. I agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Davies, said about the ombudsman. A process is being proposed; if you extend the ombudsman’s remit, you have the advantage of a process that is understandable to those who might wish to make a complaint. I very much hope that the Minister might be willing to look at how an amendment could be phrased, perhaps by the Government or by all-party agreement, on Report. That might bring us to a solution on how those who want to make a complaint can be assisted because, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, just said, it would be better if this were done by someone who is perceived to be independent than by the Minister.

The other half of the group relates to partnership boards. Noble Lords explained why there are two amendments, Amendments 171H and 171U. When I read the amendments, I much preferred the one from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, partly because it is quicker: it would force the Government to do something practical very quickly, which is to produce the guidance. The truth is that the two amendments could be brought together. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, said, we should have a culture of partnership rather than competition and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we need a one-stop shop to fill the gap between the groups of schools. All that seems eminently logical and would therefore have my support.

Previously in Committee, I talked about partnerships between schools and FE. Of course, there is the potential for greater partnership working with the independent sector as well. How all that is brought together seems to be of fundamental importance. The whole concept of working education partnership boards is very important to a local area. Again, I hope that the Minister will be agreeable to finding ways in which this could all be brought together through all-party agreement to ensure that there is this local focus created by education partnership boards.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:45, 27 June 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, for Amendment 171H and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for Amendment 171U, both on local education partnerships. I very much enjoyed my meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, a few months ago to discuss her important work chairing the Area-Based Education Partnerships Association. I absolutely agree with both noble Baronesses and other noble Lords about the importance of local coherence and collaboration between different parts of our schools system.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about the importance of school improvement in part underpinning her amendment. She will be aware that, in the schools White Paper, we set out a specific plank of the strong trust framework focused on school improvement. We absolutely support the spirit of her amendment but, as she knows, we believe that this is best done through strong multi-academy trusts.

However, as all of your Lordships have said, it is vital that trusts, local authorities and other actors in the school system work together effectively. The schools White Paper sets out our commitment to ensure that this is the case, and the special educational needs and disability and alternative provision Green Paper outlines proposals to enable statutory local SEND partnerships. We are also establishing local partnership boards in the 24 priority education investment areas that bring together local authorities and strong trusts to help identify local priorities and drive improvement at key stage 2 and key stage 4.

However, we do not believe that either of these amendments is necessary. We have already committed to developing a collaborative standard, which will facilitate effective partnerships between trusts, local authorities and third sector organisations to impact their communities positively in the way your Lordships have described. We will work with the sector to develop the detail of this standard as part of the regulatory review.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about the importance of place. Again, we agree with her. She will be well aware of our work previously on the opportunity areas and, more recently, on the education investment areas.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour

What the Minister just said is very interesting. I was going to intervene to ask what mechanism the Government will use to bring them together. Am I right in interpreting what she said as that the mechanism might be something the Government will look at in the regulatory review? If so, at that point, would she consider partnerships as one of the mechanisms that might bring it about?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am sure that the noble Baroness would not allow me to get away with prejudging the findings of the regulatory review. In all seriousness, the point of the review is to engage intensively with the sector and partners. I was going to invite her to meet to talk about some of these points in more detail as the review progresses. The review will also develop not just the collaborative standard that both noble Baronesses pointed towards but the area-based approach to commissioning, which we articulated in the guidance we released in May on implementing school system reform.

I also point to the work done by the Confederation of School Trusts, which represents many in the sector. It has done a lot of work on public benefit and civic duty, which speaks to the spirit of what is behind both noble Baronesses’ amendments and which we support very strongly. Although we continue to emphasise the importance of local partnerships, we do not believe it is for government to mandate a particular form in every area, and we believe that local partners are best placed to determine the arrangements that are right for their areas.

I now turn to Amendments 171T and 171W, both tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, which seek to extend the role of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman to include complaints about academy admissions. There is already a strong and effective route for complaints by anyone, including parents, about academy admission arrangements, including oversubscription criteria, through the independent Office of the Schools Adjudicator, whose decisions are binding and enforceable. Forgive me: I am not sure I heard the noble Lord refer to that, but we believe that system works very well.

Where an individual child is refused a place at a school they have applied to, the parent always has the right to an independent appeal. We made changes to the School Admissions Code last year to improve the process for managing in-year admissions and to improve the effectiveness of the fair access protocols, the mechanism to find places for vulnerable and unplaced children in-year. The local authority can direct a maintained school to admit a child and the Secretary of State has the power to direct an academy to admit a child. Looking forward, the schools White Paper confirmed that the Government will consult on a new statutory framework for pupil movements between schools and a back-up power to enable local authorities to direct an academy trust to admit a child. More broadly, there is a requirement that every academy trust has a published complaints procedure and, in turn, that this must include an opportunity for the complaint to be heard by a panel containing members not involved in the subject of the complaint and one person not involved in the management or running of the school.

As noble Lords have rightly said, it is important that parents have access to a strong and effective appeals process. The department currently provides a route for independent consideration of complaints about maladministration of appeals in relation to academy schools. To put this in perspective, we received 374 complaints about maladministration by independent appeal panels between 1 April and 31 December 2020. Of these, 123 complaints were in scope and were considered further. However, that is a tiny number compared to the total number of appeals that year, which was 41,000 for academies and maintained schools. We are aware that the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has made proposal in its triennial review, similar to the one supported by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, that it should include maladministration of academy appeals. We are considering its proposals and will publish a response in due course. Therefore, we believe that there are sufficient measures in place for academy complaints and that these amendments are not necessary. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, to withdraw Amendment 171H and other noble Lords not to move theirs.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am very grateful to the Minister for her response. The amendments that my noble friend Lady Morris and I tabled are different, but they come from the same place, if I may put it like that. My experience is more about getting anyone who has any interest whatever in the life of young people in a particular place together, and I found that useful, but I completely understand and support the idea of getting a focus on school improvement. There is a lot to be said for that and it is pleasing that the Government are, I think, starting to recognise the value that brings and the need to allow for a place-based approach. Children live in a particular area and a particular community, and it is a problem when schools do not work together.

As an example, we had a problem with transition between primary and secondary school. We were able to get all the schools to work together and to agree that they would have one week that primary schoolchildren spent in their secondary school and the secondary schoolkids spent at work experience or in their sixth form or FE college nearby. Everyone did it together, it made life a lot easier and it made the experience far more beneficial for the children involved. There are practical things but it needs somebody to hold the ring and to organise and broker that agreement. If you do not have that, these things just do not get done. That is all we are trying to get at.

The other thing it does is to make head teachers and subject leaders, and perhaps a PHSE group in primary schools, accountable to one another. That is so valuable. My noble friend Lady Morris said that she felt she was a teacher in Coventry and had a responsibility to that place in which she had an identity. Mutual accountability brings out the best in school leaders. We are very pleased to hear that the Government are looking at it. I will go away and have a look at the things the Minister referred to, but I wonder whether the approach she outlined is strong or energetic enough to inspire that collaboration at a local level everywhere that needs it. It is interesting that EIAs will be asked to work on that. I would have thought that if it is beneficial to areas with that kind of problem, it would be beneficial to areas that fall just outside the criteria for them. I cannot think of a place that would not benefit from having school leaders and others working together.

On the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, we need to look at the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, but having said what I said initially and having listened to my noble friend make an incredibly good case, perhaps I have to look again at my experience of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, at how user-friendly or not it might be and at whether there is something that could be done quite straightforwardly along the lines outlined by my noble friend that would improve the situation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 171H withdrawn.

Amendment 171I not moved.