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Clause 237

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 26th March 2009.

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Information about planned and actual expenditure

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment 78, in clause 237, page 139, line 14, at end insert—

‘(1A) The Secretary of State may direct a local authority in England that is a partner in a Local Education Partnership (LEP) to provide information about the acoustic quality of schools to be built or refurbished by that LEP.’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 289, in clause 237, page 139, line 14, at end insert

‘, including expenditure on pupils with special educational needs.’.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Clause 237 is about information about planned and actual expenditure. Under the clause, the Secretary of State can direct a local authority to provide information about its planned and actual expenditure in connection with education and children’s services. Amendment 78 would add a new subsection. The point that it contains may seem to be an obscure one to bring to our deliberations, but the amendment raises a specific concern that reflects wider concerns about some of the architecture and buildings that have come out of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Some people have termed it “Building Schools for the Sixties”, because a lot of the architecture is designed to reflect an approach to education that is progressive in the pejorative sense.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Well, I use “progressive” there as a pejorative term, rather than the benign term it usually is when I use it. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman did not convey any of that to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings.

There is genuine concern about some of the architecture being used. The National Deaf Children’s Society has raised particular concerns with me about the acoustics in some of the new buildings. It said in its briefing to the Committee that open-plan teaching spaces were being promoted without proper consideration of how to ensure high-quality acoustics in such spaces, which is a real concern for deaf or hearing-impaired children, and we need to address it.

Light is also an issue. Several years ago, Sig Prais of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research did an interesting study on the architecture of schools in Switzerland. He concluded that some of the old-fashioned Victorian buildings with high ceilings and ample window space were the best environments in which children could learn, rather than some of the buildings that were thrown up in the 1960s with flat roofs, low ceilings and fluorescent lighting, which is very damaging for children.

I hope that this probing amendment will trigger the Government and those involved in the architecture of schools looking at the specific case of the acoustics of classrooms in new-build schools. Moreover, they should use that as an instance in the wider issue of architecture so that we have an evidence-based approach to school building and design, as well as an evidence-based approach to education policy more generally. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Turning first to amendment 78, I have some sympathy with the concerns about building design. In particular, I mentioned yesterday—or some time this morning—a Policy Exchange report on the school systems in Sweden, the United States and England. I recommend that the Minister read it when he returns home to South Dorset later today.

The report criticises some of the developments in relation to the academies building programme and claims—I suspect that this is accurate, but I am happy to take an intervention if it is not—that the flexibility and freedom given to sponsors on the design of their buildings has been eroded over the past few years. There has been a greater tendency to go for a standard build, often  excluding the sponsors from direct involvement in shaping the buildings that they are in. I understand that that may be motivated by desire to keep down the cost of some of those projects. Some academy projects have become quite expensive, but that might also relate to the particular sites involved.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that one of the risks of the Government’s huge school-building project—I dare not touch on the college-building projects at the current time—is that we could build a lot of the same types of building in a very short period. If we get the design of those buildings wrong, we will end up repenting at leisure over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. We will then find that we have to spend huge sums to fix all those things.

That suggests that we should be very thoughtful about the design characteristics of schools, including in respect of the details in amendment 78. Moreover, it cautions us against having some sort of blueprint that is in fashion at one point and rolling it out everywhere until it is discovered to be the wrong model and replaced everywhere by something else. A certain variety and experimentation are probably a safeguard against getting everything wrong at the same time.

Amendment 289 is also probing and designed to explore issues relating to expenditure on people with special educational needs. As has been pointed out, clause 237 says:

“The Secretary of State may direct a local authority in England to provide information about its planned and actual expenditure in connection with—

(a) its education functions;

(b)its children’s services functions.”

The amendment would add a third category to the requirement in subsection (1)(b),

“expenditure on pupils with special educational needs.”

Its purpose will probably be obvious to the Minister.

Parents with children who have special educational needs frequently report back concerns about the lack of transparency and of budget that schools and local authorities have for special educational needs. They are concerned about how the money is allocated, which often undermines confidence in the authority and in the ability of the parents to secure the education that they believe their children need, particularly to overcome SEN problems.

A duty to provide information about SEN expenditure would be one small step in addressing the lack of confidence in local authorities and it would help to enable parents to hold their local authorities to account and to ask questions about existing provision in the education budget and future plans. I hope that the Minister, in the spirit of that probing amendment, will comment on those issues.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families 11:30 am, 26th March 2009

I shall first speak to amendment 78. There is no need for further powers to gather information about acoustic quality in schools. The Secretary of State has general powers to collect information in support of his functions and the Department has frequently conducted surveys on the condition, sufficiency and suitability of school buildings. It would be possible to gather information about acoustic quality under those existing powers.

The acoustic quality of new school buildings is covered by other legislation including building regulations made under the powers of the Building Act 1984. In addition, regulation 18 of the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999 provides that each room or other space in a school building shall have the acoustic conditions and insulation against disturbance by noise appropriate to its normal use. The particular requirements of pupils with special educational needs, including those with special hearing requirements, are catered for by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, which provides that every local authority must have a strategy for improving the accessibility of schools for pupils with a disability.

As part of the continuous review of the relevant regulations, the DCSF and the Department for Communities and Local Government are currently reviewing building bulletin 93, which gives guidance on compliance with acoustic standards for schools. The two Departments are liaising with the National Deaf Children’s Society and other stakeholders to ensure that the needs of deaf children, those with special hearing requirements and those with speech and language communication difficulties are fully considered in the review. The inclusion of the amendment would not, in my view, produce any additional improvement to the work already being undertaken in that area.

Amendment 289 is an important proposal for the collection of financial information from local authorities to see how they are supporting the provision for pupils with special educational needs. It offers a welcome opportunity to discuss the issue of funding for pupils with special educational needs. Local authorities and schools are funded to provide SEN services mainly through the dedicated schools grant. The Education Act 1996 requires local authorities, schools and early years settings to have regard to the SEN code of practice, which provides advice on their statutory duties to identify, assess and make provision for pupils with special educational needs. The code is clear that schools have a statutory duty to do their best to ensure that necessary provision is made for pupils’ special educational needs. It is also clear that whole-school measures can be affected in addressing some special educational needs and preventing others.

The Department collects data on what local authorities budget to spend on children with special educational needs and every mainstream school is given a notional sum for SEN as part of its budget information. We also collect outturn data on what is spent in maintained special schools and on pupils who are supported in non-maintained special schools and independent schools. However, as far as mainstream schools are concerned, the way in which they use their funding to fulfil SEN responsibilities does not necessarily entail having some staff who work exclusively with children with SEN, while other staff work exclusively with other children. In practice, most staff work for children with SEN as part of their wider responsibilities. If schools were required to account for the use of their funding for SEN purposes, they would have to attribute a proportion of each member of staff’s time to their SEN responsibilities. It would be likely that different schools would estimate their SEN spending in different ways, so the information returned to the Department would have little meaning.

However, to ensure that they are making the best use of their resources, schools find it helpful to be able to estimate what they are spending on each activity to fulfil different responsibilities, and what impact that spending is having on pupil outcomes. In May last year an interactive resource pack was published by the Audit Commission to help schools to determine whether their spending on children with special educational needs offers value for money and makes real improvements to outcomes with those children. What matters most is the impact SEN spending has on pupil progression and outcomes. All schools should be monitoring and evaluating the progression made by children with SEN and considering what additional or alternative interventions might have more impact on progress. Inclusion of the amendment would not produce meaningful or reliable additional information to the Department’s already comprehensive data collection. On that basis, I invite the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to consider withdrawing his amendment.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the Minister for her initial positive comments about amendment 289. I feared, however, that she was toying with me when she led me to believe that she was suddenly going to adopt amendment 289. She then veered away from that, but she gave us a full response and that will be useful to both the Committee and to those in the wider world who are rightfully concerned about these issues. For that reason, I am satisfied with the Minister’s response.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

There were some encouraging words from the Minister on amendment 78. She said that building bulletin 93, which sets out the Government’s standards on acoustics, is being reviewed, and that the Government are consulting the National Deaf Children’s Society as part of that review. That is welcome to Conservative Members, because the

“NDCS has uncovered evidence that new schools are being built which effectively ignore the Government’s standards on acoustics and which make it impossible for deaf children to listen and learn effectively in the classroom.”— those are the words of the NDCS itself. Therefore, I hope that the Government review will go beyond simply changing the wording of building bulletin 93, and look into how that bulletin translates into design when it comes to the Building Schools for the Future programme. According to the NDCS, there is yet

“no statutory requirement to test the acoustics of a school pre-completion to ensure that the standards have been met. Derogations from the standards are permissible and leading school designers and builders have told NDCS that this is widespread.”

Therefore, I hope that the Government, when reviewing the bulletin, will look into that issue as well, rather than just carefully crafting a new phraseology for the bulletin. However, given that the Minister has reassured the Committee that there is a review under way, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We now come to clause 237 stand part. It was proposed provisionally that that should be discussed along with Government amendments 560 and 561 and Government new clause 28, which were all tabled on Tuesday. If the Committee were meeting next Tuesday, they would not have been starred. But because we are effectively still meeting on Thursday 26 March, those amendments are starred. As I indicated at the  outset of our proceedings, I was not going to be minded to accept starred amendments, and I do not intend to change my mind on that ruling. Therefore, those Government amendments and the new clause will not be selected for debate.

Clause 237 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 238 to 247 ordered to stand part of the Bill.