Clause 44 - Categories of schools causing concern

Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 22nd March 2005.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education) 10:30 am, 22nd March 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 20, in clause 44, page 29, line 28, after ‘failing’, insert ‘or likely to fail’.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 21, in clause 44, page 29, line 29, leave out from ‘education’ to end of line 32.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

We move now to the clause dealing with categories of schools causing concern. The new regime has reduced the range of categories that define a school as failing or needing to go into special measures. These are simple amendments. On amendment No. 20, we think that it is important to identify a school that is likely to fail and to help it not to do so before it happens. On the principle that prevention is better than cure, identifying a school as likely to fail and dealing with procedures to prevent it from going into crisis would be an important measure and an improvement to the Bill. It would save some schools from being identified as failing before they reached crisis point. That is the reason for inserting those few words—to clarify the term “failing” and to introduce a different category of schools that have not quite reached that stage and could be prevented from doing so.

Amendment No. 21, at page 29, line 29, would, in effect, delete paragraph (b) from that category, which reads:

“the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.”

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

May I speak against the amendments? I am not a great fan of the blame culture, but neither am I prepared to come over as particularly liberal and lax at this point. The hon. Lady makes the valid point that, in a sense, the system up to now has been a cliff-edge system. Schools have gone along as they will, and suddenly they can be declared to be in special measures, and all kinds of help are then available. That   is not the kind of model that we want; it is the model that we are sometimes reduced to working with, because local authorities are so disempowered, but we want a model in which, as she said, schools that are declining and not performing as well as hitherto will be supported so that they can improve without getting into special measures.

Nevertheless, the concept of a failing school can fairly readily be benchmarked. Certain criteria that schools ought to be expected to meet can be defined, comparisons can be made with similar cohorts and decisions can be made about whether a school has failed or not. The phrase “likely to fail” is a much more subjective judgment. We all know when a Government or future Government have failed to do something, but it is not always easy to tell in advance when they are likely to fail to do something. That is usually a point of debate, as all the facts or issues may not be before us. Adding the phrase “likely to fail” adds an element of subjectivity to the appraisal process, which is probably undesirable.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education) 10:45 am, 22nd March 2005

I understand that the inspection regime involves a scoring system on a range of one to nine. There must be a point on that scale at which failure is recognised. I do not know where on that scoring spectrum failure is identified, but if an inspector is considering whether, for example, a certain area of school activity should be scored at two, three or two and a half, that may be the point at which the fact that it is likely to fail could be identified.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I accept that point, but there is an element of subjectivity. I use the rather poor analogy of the premier league. Southampton have just crept out of the relegation zone. An avid Southampton supporter would say that the team is going to advance up the league by leaps and bounds. A rather more pessimistic person, or a Crystal Palace supporter, might well suggest that it is likely to fail. The position on the score sheet cannot be used to extrapolate that failure is likely or will continue.

That brings me rather nicely on to my second point. The Government—possibly going soft in their old age, or as they head towards whatever term they think that they are heading towards—have added a further element. They say that a school will be placed in special measures if it is demonstrably failing and

“the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.”

Therefore, there must be some circumstances in which the school is benchmarked. Perhaps it has a new and dynamic staff—people who are capable of turning the school around—in which case it may be decided to hold back on the special measures that the Government have the option of implementing, because there is the capacity to improve.

If a school has the capacity to improve, it should be given the chance to do so, rather than simply being completely taken over. We are all aware that the head teacher is often a crucial element in a school’s evolution and progress. Changing a head teacher, or   the senior management can dramatically turn a school around. The Government are not unwise to say that, in circumstances in which a school is failing, or has failed, relative to other schools, but has the evidential promise to improve, they want to stay their hand a little and to give the school autonomy. That does not necessarily mean failing to give it adequate support.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

I will deal first with amendment No. 20. I appreciate the argument that action should be taken at an early stage when problems are emerging in a school and that matters should not be left until the school is identified by Ofsted inspections as requiring special measures. Schools that are likely to fail will be caught by the new “significant improvement” category that we are introducing in the Bill. The category is defined in clause 44(2), which provides that

“a school requires significant improvement if, although not falling within subsection (1),”— that is, not requiring special measures—

“it is performing significantly less well than it might in all the circumstances reasonably be expected to perform.”

Schools that face difficulties and are likely to fail will therefore fall into the “significant improvement” category. I would expect such schools to be identified and supported at an early stage.

Local education authorities are expected to challenge, support and monitor the progress of all their schools. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) knows, from her experience as a school governor, that that certainly happens. It certainly happened when I was a school governor. LEAs should have a clear strategy for identifying weak schools and should take decisive action before those schools receive an adverse inspection report. Schools should seek LEA support where problems emerge. Effective and open communication between schools, LEAs and other stakeholders is essential in those circumstances. Guidance makes it clear that LEAs should work closely with schools and other stakeholders, including, where appropriate, the local diocese or, in the case of sixth forms, local learning and skills councils in England, or the National Council for Education and Training for Wales.

The guidance also makes it clear that the aim should always be to provide support before formal intervention. However, when intervention is necessary, LEAs have powers to intervene in schools. The powers are available for use before schools are placed in the “cause for concern” category following inspection. The LEA may give a school a formal warning if it has serious concerns about it, and non-compliance may result in the LEA using its intervention powers, which would enable it, for example, to add governors to strengthen the governing body. I personally have encountered a situation in which the LEA brought in additional governors.

Therefore, the “likely to fail” category is not needed to ensure that early action is taken to improve a school. Schools in England will be able to look to their school improvement partner, who will be an experienced practitioner accountable to the LEA and charged with   providing advice and support to schools on improvement matters. In Wales, schools will continue to work with the LEA.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

Can the Minister say a little more about the improvement process for a school that has been identified as needing significant improvement or that is in special measures? What period would elapse before another inspection and what process would a school follow to get out of such categories? Will there be any change from the current regime?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

I will come back to that in a moment, if I may. I would like to continue with some of the matters that I originally intended to cover.

On amendment No. 21, the Bill provides that a school requires special measures if two criteria are satisfied: first, if

“the school is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education”,

and, secondly, if the school’s leadership is

“not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement”.

The amendment would delete the second part of the definition and remove the requirement to take into account the school’s capacity to improve. We have introduced that new requirement, which is an important change to the current definition of special measures, to ensure that inspectors who are making special measures judgments give specific attention to a school’s capacity to improve.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

On that point, can the Minister say a little more about what action will be taken in respect of the individuals in the school who are failing to show leadership or management skills? Obviously, there are personnel implications.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

There are clear implications for the personnel in schools if such measures are taken. I may be able to deal with the matter to the hon. Lady’s satisfaction when we deal with other amendments that she has tabled.

The clause will improve the effectiveness of the categorisation, thus ensuring that the worst cases of school failures are identified and tackled. Let me explain why we are proposing the change.

Occasionally, schools have been placed in special measures because they are not providing an acceptable standard of education despite having acquired the capacity to improve. That may have resulted, for example, from a recent change of leadership that is demonstrably driving the school forward. The school may already have made an accurate self-evaluation of its provision that coincides with the inspection findings, and it may already be well on the way to putting things right. It is not difficult to imagine the frustration likely to be felt by a strong head teacher if the school is then placed in special measures. That could knock the school back. The progress that it was making could be halted by the adverse effect on staff morale of a special measures judgment in such circumstances.

The Government’s view is that it makes no sense to place in special measures a school that is already well on the way to recovery. The Bill’s definition of special measures reflects that, ensures that school failures will continue to be identified and challenged, and that support will be provided as part of the continuing effort to drive up standards. The points made by the hon. Member for Southport reinforce what I am trying to get across.

The hon. Lady asked about follow-up action for special measures. The LEA would take the action and produce a plan, which would be monitored by Ofsted, for combating the problems that required special measures. I hope that that explains clearly and to the hon. Lady’s satisfaction how we would deal with the matter, and that she will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

I am still a little unclear about the implications where individual members of staff are identified as contributing to a school’s failure. I wonder what the logical conclusion of that might be. Could it lead to official warnings or even dismissal in extreme cases?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

In extreme cases, it could. I tried to make that point in my response. Of course, it would be a matter for the school governors and there might well need to be changes in senior management. Again, such measures were first introduced when the Conservative party was in government, and we have now vested greater influence and power in school governors. Their influence and power is certainly greater than when I first became a school governor at the age of 18—

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Wales), Department for Constitutional Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

Around 10 years ago. The hon. Gentleman is now on my Christmas card list.

The change has been beneficial. There is now greater empowerment of local school governors, who can respond to the problems faced by schools in our communities.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

After that explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.