You know the drill, Ministers. We would be pleased if you presented yourselves, your areas of responsibility and your approach to the Bill. Questions will then come from the Committee.
Mr Gibb: We do not have a low regard for Ofsted inspections. In fact, the Bill makes it clear that as soon as a school goes into Ofsted category 4, the Secretary of State will have a duty to issue an academy order based on that Ofsted judgment alone.
With coasting schools, we wanted to have a range of metrics, rather than the Ofsted judgment, to determine what is or is not a coasting school. The other principle that the Secretary of State set out on Second Reading, and is reflected in the regulations that you saw last night, is that the judgment should be over a period of years. In most cases, it is difficult to have an Ofsted judgment over a period of years. There will be one Ofsted judgment, almost certainly, during that three-year period. Here we have three years of metrics and a school is regarded as coasting if it falls below the bar in all three years.
Mr Gibb: It is certainly possible that a school could be graded as good or outstanding. Thanks to many of the reforms and the hard work of the teaching profession, 80% of schools up and down the country are now graded as good or outstanding. We are trying to ensure that every school is delivering the sort of education that means that every pupil will be making progress to fulfil their potential. That is a new ambition that we are bringing to the education system.
One of our witnesses this morning has done a bit of number crunching since then. Apparently there are schools that are currently rated outstanding but will be deemed to be coasting under the definition you released. Does it not make a bit of a mockery of an Ofsted inspection if a group of inspectors goes into a school, judges it to be outstanding and, yet, separately the school is then deemed to be coasting? Why should they get an outstanding rating if it is so obvious that they are coasting?
Mr Gibb: Yes, but, taking the first point first, we will not know precisely how many schools fall into this category until we have had the 2016 results. We will then be able to define precisely what the progress measure is for 2016.
In terms of outstanding and Ofsted, I suspect that we will not find that many. I do not know and I cannot predict that, but we are determined in this Parliament to address the issue of coasting schools to ensure that every child is making the maximum progress they can, and we want to ensure that schools do that. It may be that judgments Ofsted made in a different era—in the previous Parliament, two or three years ago—do not reflect that new ambition.
Given their extra responsibility to issue directions, they have a responsibility to monitor all schools to see whether it is necessary to issue a direction as well as to improve schools.
Lord Nash: I expect in time we may need more regional schools commissioners—they will certainly need more people. They are heavily supported from the centre—the Department for Education—which runs very tight teams of six, seven or eight people. They will certainly need an increase in capacity, but we do not want them to become another arm of the DFE; we want them to be fairly tight-run organisations. I have to say that, having visited all of them and sat in all eight of the headteacher boards, they are performing extremely well.
Lord Nash: I would say not. I have been involved in starting new organisations for 40 years and an early indication of success is early momentum. Frankly, I have never seen a new set of organisations start as well as this, which is not surprising given that they are all experienced professionals who know their regions well.
May I ask you a couple of other brief questions? I am looking for short answers. Should membership of headteacher boards be opened up now to headteachers of all schools rather than just academies, or do you regard headteachers of maintained schools as inferior in some way?
I have a question for Mr Timpson about special guardianship orders. Concerns have been raised with me by adopters that the bar is set lower for members of family to take care of their extended family’s children. Will that be under review or will the Bill include anything on that?
Edward Timpson: One of the reasons why we have set up the review and the expert body that Andy Elvin referred to earlier in his evidence about special guardianship orders is that since they were introduced about 10 years ago—just under—there has not been a full analysis and understanding of what effect they have had. That means analysis of the effect not just on those children who have benefited from special guardianship orders but those for whom it has not worked out; of the types of children that are coming forward for special guardianship; and of how rigorous the assessment is of the carers who have taken them on.
That is all going to form part of the review, because there are some children who are placed under a special guardianship order who may have been subject to that order after only a six-week assessment of a member of their family or extended family, or friend of that family. Those are all issues that we need to look at; but it is true that as a consequence there are lots of children who achieve permanence through special guardianship, and that we need to understand better who they are—has it worked out and was it the right decision for them, and are they getting the support that they need post-placement?
That does not form part of this Bill, because it is specifically looking at the issue of adoption post-decision on permanence; but it is clearly an area that we need to understand better, so that we can be confident that going forward we have the right approach for children who come into care, when we seek to achieve permanence for them.
Lord Nash, perhaps I could put a question to you first, because you did not have the pleasure of being here earlier. Witnesses made some interesting points. They had a huge amount of experience behind them.
We started with Dr Rebecca Allen, who made the point that we do not need legislation; Ofsted can tackle coasting and it should be tackling it. A later witness said that the approach in question would lead to a confusing accountability regime. We heard last from Russell Hobby, who said that the way it will play out will damage the legitimacy of the system in the examination and standards regime.
There was a clear consensus from witnesses, including Sir Daniel Moynihan from Harris, that the academies are one tool; they are part of the solution for tackling coasting, but not the only solution. Do you have any cause for concern that the Bill is too narrow in its focus?
Lord Nash: No, I do not. As we heard earlier, and as I think Minister Gibb said when he was on the other side of the fence talking to Russell Hobby, there is a graduated response. I think Russell Hobby talked about that. So the first question is, “Can the school uncoast on its own?” If it cannot, does it need help? Most likely that will be brokered from a national leader of education or another school and, only if after a period of time that does not work, it may well be that an academy solution is the right answer. It is not going to be by any means the only answer.
Private schools that are registered with the Charity Commission, for example, will receive tax breaks paid for by the Exchequer or a licence granted by the Exchequer. You do not think there is any illegitimacy at all, or that there will be any impact on coasting in private schools?
Perhaps I could ask Mr Gibb. You were here during the evidence sessions today and there was a clear consensus that the Bill was too narrowly focused. That was accepted, and I accept it. I am the chair of governors at an academy school that was a converter. It was a failing school and has seen spectacular results in the four years that it has been in existence. But there was a clear consensus that conversion is one tool, not the tool. Do you not think that the Bill is too narrow and should take account of what all our witnesses said?
Mr Gibb: No, because academisation is only one tool. If you look at the Bill, it has all kinds of other powers. We are asking for the regional schools commissioners to require that a school that is not performing well enough, for example, collaborate with another school or enter into contractual arrangements with somebody who can improve their school. They might join a federation or use the national leaders of education, thousands of whom are doing a fantastic job up and down the country. We want to increase that number to 1,400 and then to 2,000 by the end of the Parliament. Academisation is a backstop if those other interventions, which the regional schools commissioners will be arranging, brokering and discussing with coasting schools, fail. I expect a lot of schools that fall within the definition will have their own plans in place. There may be a recently appointed head with a range of plans to implement. She or he will find themselves below the measure of what counts as a coasting school, but they will discuss those plans with the regional schools commissioner, who will be absolutely convinced that the plan will succeed. That will be the end of the matter and the RSC can move on to another school.
Following on from what Peter said, he referred to clause 7 of the Bill where the Secretary of State “must”, where a school is eligible for intervention, make an academy order. That is an assumption that will not even be considered for any other method of school improvement. Does that not fetter the ability of Ministers to take a decision based on evidence?
Mr Gibb: This is delivering that manifesto commitment to intervene in failing schools from day one. This is what will happen now. It will be automatic that an academy order will be issued for schools that are put into category 4 by Ofsted. We do not apologise for that. We are determined to tackle failing schools.
Mr Gibb: It may be tough talk, but it is tough talk that has delivered. As a consequence of tackling failing schools in the previous Parliament, we now have more than 1 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools than in 2010. That is a remarkable achievement, and we want to build on that now by speeding up the process. Sometimes it can take more than a year to convert a failing school to an academy. We want to build on that further and tackle coasting schools where pupils are not being delivered their full potential. We want to make sure that every child, regardless of background or ability, is fulfilling their potential.
Lord Nash: It is more than tough talk. The regime we have at the moment is basically tough talk. As Minister Gibb says, it means that the average time a school takes to become an academy after being in special measures is more than a year. That is not acceptable. Often the delays are caused by adults putting their priorities ahead of children. We have taken these powers to make it absolutely clear that delaying tactics cannot be used.
It is really good that schools are moving to “good”, and I can see that it is going to carry on. Can you see a point at which we only have “good” or “coasting” schools, because every school has got to “good”? “Coasting”, as I see it, describes schools that are doing well but could do even better.
I am saying that if schools are moving to “good”, we can probably get rid of the other categories—“adequate” or “failing”. Can you see a time when you would just have schools that are “good” or “coasting”?
Mr Gibb: The ambition of this Government and the previous coalition Government is not to have any failing schools. Every local school should be a good school for parents to send their child to, and measures such as this help to deliver that. These structural reforms will be combined with what we are doing with the curriculum to raise standards through more rigorous and knowledge-based GCSEs and what we are doing in primary schools with reading. There are 100,000 more six-year-olds reading more effectively today than in 2010 as a consequence of the phonics reforms. With the Shanghai maths scheme, we are taking the approach adopted by the most successful educational jurisdiction for maths. We are trying to learn from that system and bring it to this country. All those things are designed to ensure we have the best education system we can give to young people. That must be the right ambition for any Government.
Given the evidence we have heard today, should not the definition of “coasting” be based completely on value added and measures such as progress 8, rather than the threshold proposed in the regulations?
Mr Gibb: There are two issues: one is for secondaries and the other is for primaries. The issue for secondaries is that as time goes on, and as we move to progress 8 next year, it will be just based on progress, and we will have a different measure for coasting and for the floor. There were concerns about being retrospective. We do not want to go back and change our approach for looking at floor standards. We are taking the same approach to coasting for 2014 and 2013 as we took for the floor, but we are raising it up from—
Sorry, but the definition of “coasting” contains a threshold and a progress measure. My question is, should the threshold not be removed completely from the definition?
Mr Gibb: There was a combined measure of attainment, which was 40% for the floor, plus a progress measure in English and maths for secondaries for 2013 and 2014. We do not want to make that retrospectively into just progress, but it will be just progress in the future for secondaries when we bring in progress 8. For primaries, we will retain a threshold attainment level of 85% achieving level 4b for the future and level 4 for the past two years. We do not apologise for that, because the figures are very stark: 65% of children who achieved a level 4 at primary school go on to get at least five good GCSEs, but only 5% of children who do not get a level 4 achieve five good GCSEs. We do not apologise for there being an attainment level. Only about 16% of schools are in that attainment level for 4b, so for the vast majority of schools we will be looking at their progress.
Mr Gibb: We have an aspiration that the floor will reach 85% over a period of time. As I said, it is important that children reach that level of academic attainment by the time they leave primary school. In primaries, there is the concept of the mastery level. We want every child leaving primary school to be fluent in arithmetic and mathematics, so that when they start with maths and science at secondary school, they can cope. That is our ambition and it is possible to achieve it. There are schools around the country in the most deprived circumstances that are getting 100% of their children to these levels and that is our ambition for the whole school system.
Is there any scope to include churn in the assessment? Some primary schools, in particular, have a huge level of churn of pupils and are therefore being judged on pupils they may have had for only six months or a year.
Mr Gibb: It is a very good question. Some schools face real challenges. That is why we adapted the pupil premium: to reflect some of the issues that arise with certain professions, such as the military, and with looked-after children and so on. It matters even more that those children receive a high-quality education than it does for other children. We do not want to lower the ambition for the schools that serve those communities. We know it is challenging: that is really what the pupil premium is about—delivering extra resources so that those schools can deliver the quality of education that those children absolutely need.
No one is suggesting that we lower the ambition for the most deprived pupils in our country; what worries me is the impact that the Bill may have on morale in the teaching profession. As we have heard, recruitment and retention are a problem across the board in teaching. Does the Minister not think that the Bill should have measures to tackle that growing issue?
Mr Gibb: As Lord Nash said, the definition of a coasting school is the beginning of the discussion. The regional schools commissioners will discuss with the headteacher their plans for bringing that school above the bar. If those plans are good and likely to be effective, that is really the end of the matter. I do not think that that should damage the morale of the teaching profession.
Lord Nash: It is based on the existing accountability system. Taking your point about schools that have high in-year mobility, obviously these are issues that the regional schools commissioners will take into account. They are experienced professionals and will look at the context of the school when making their analysis and working out with the school how it can improve its performance.
You were not here to listen to most of the witnesses this morning, but as Peter Kyle said, we heard time and again that recruitment and retention of teachers is a serious problem, both for entry-level positions and in senior leadership. That is a major factor in the quality of a school’s education and there is nothing in the Bill to tackle it.
Mr Gibb: The vacancy rate in the teaching profession is about 1% and it has been at that level since 2000. We know that we face challenges with a strong and growing economy: the competition now for graduates is very fierce and we are aware of that. All teaching recruitment organisations—Teach First, the National College for Teaching and Leadership—face that challenge, but you describe this as some sort of crisis. Teacher vacancy levels are very stable at 1%, we are above where we were this time a year ago in terms of acceptances, so I am not complacent about making sure that we have measures in place such as good marketing and bursaries to attract top graduates in shortage subjects such as maths, physics and modern languages. We are doing everything we can to make sure that we recruit graduates into teacher training, but we are actually doing very well considering the strength of the economy and the fact that we have a relatively small number of graduates coming out of our universities this year.
We heard this morning about Downhills primary school and the campaign against its academisation. I am a governor of a school in Stourbridge which is now an academy and the process of academisation there took place against an orchestrated campaign, which ran for more than 12 months. Given those experiences and the potentially even greater struggle that failing schools or struggling schools in poorer areas would have in the face of such a campaign, do I take it from you, Mr Gibb, that the speed with which the measures in the Bill will enable the Secretary of State to turn a failing school into an academy will be the answer to those sort of problems? Under the measures in the Bill, how quickly do you think the improvement in a child’s education and the life chances of those children in a school that was failing will be turned around?
Mr Gibb: We heard from Sir Dan Moynihan this morning about how they managed to turn Downhills school around in two years and it is now good with some outstanding features. He also cited the metrics of the improvement in the proportion of pupils reaching level 4. It is quite staggering. That is in the face of delays that were caused by the “save our failing school” protests. It is a tragedy that any month is wasted when children only get one chance at an education. The Bill is designed to speed up that process and that is why a school that is in special measures or category 4 will automatically be issued an academy order. The whole issue of whether a school is going to become an academy will vanish. There is no point in protesting because that is going to happen and then we can get these outstanding academy groups to take over the school and bring in support and leadership and transform it very rapidly. I think Lord Nash might want to say how rapidly.
Picking up the earlier question from Louise Haigh about morale, I would say that this is a great time to be a teacher. We have between 400 and 500 new academy groups developing that are based on a good school. A headteacher can use their expertise to develop other schools. We heard that earlier today from the lady from Sunderland—her name escapes me—who runs the WISE academy chain. It is a wonderful professional thing to be able to do, to take your expertise and experience and to spread it into three, four or five other primary schools and raise their standards. Those opportunities were not available before the coalition Government came in in 2010 and there will be increasing numbers of those opportunities available to the profession in years ahead.
Lord Nash: Our mottoes are “Every child deserves to go to a good school” and “children before adults”. I know the experiences you are talking about from personal experience as an academy sponsor appointed by Andrew Adonis for a school in Pimlico which was in special measures. We had a group of teachers and parents who were very against the whole idea and came up with a lot of appalling tactics, including breaking into my office and various other things, but two years after we took the school over, it went from special measures to outstanding, thanks to the leadership team and teachers that we recruited. The people I have just referred to asked after a year if they could change their name from, I think, the Pimlico School Association to the Friends of Pimlico Academy. They got quite a short answer from me on that. We do not want other people to have to go through that experience because it is just adults putting their dogmatic prejudices before the interests of children. That is what part of the Bill is about.
Mr Timpson, during the passage of the Children and Families Bill, your colleague Lord Nash here, accepted that a power to require all local authorities to undertake joint arrangements should
“be subject to full and rigorous scrutiny by Parliament.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2013; Vol. 750, c. 622.]
When Baroness Hughes pointed out that the steady use of powers of direction could result in the same effect, she was assured that that was not the Government’s intention and that any direction
“would be preceded by a letter setting out the Secretary of State’s intention…This would explain the underlying reasons and provide the affected local authorities with an invitation to respond. Only then would the Secretary of State take a final decision to issue the direction.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2013; Vol. 750, c. 625.]
Will you follow roughly the same procedure with these arrangements? Is it fair to assume that the risk is still pretty much the same as the one identified by Baroness Hughes?
Edward Timpson: From memory, that was clause 3, but it may have changed during the Bill’s passage through the House of Lords.
As we heard in the evidence earlier this afternoon, the whole purpose of this clause is to have a backstop power in circumstances that we envisage will be extremely rare, if used at all, to enable regional adoption agencies to be fulfilled right across England. We want that to happen voluntarily, to be locally developed and to be done—I think this is where we can have a higher level of agreement on your point, Mr McCabe—in a transparent way. It must be clear who is involved and what will be expected of those who are in conversation with other local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and the Department for Education, so that we get what our “Regionalising adoption” paper sets out clearly: excellence in every regional adoption agency.
The details of how we do that will, I am sure, be discussed in Committee, but I can certainly give an assurance that we want to see a transparent process. Much of that is already happening, as we have heard. I fully expect that to continue with the support we are offering through the £4.5 million over the next year and the practical support that the Department can offer, as well as the adoption leadership board and the regional adoption boards. That will ensure that excellence, where we know it exists, is brought to the attention of local authorities that do not know already about it and are looking to build up a consortia.
For constituents I have spoken to about adoption, the key concern and key failing they identify in the system is the time it takes to achieve permanency. Are you confident that the Government’s proposals in the Bill will speed up the process?
Edward Timpson: I am confident that if regional adoption agencies develop in the way that we expect and are already starting to see, that will help—particularly with the matching process and trying to bring down the time it is taking for far too many children whose plan is for adoption to be matched with their forever family. We know that there are 3,000 children in care at the moment whose plan is for adoption. Over half of those have been waiting for 18 months for that match, despite the fact that there has been a 27% increase in adopter recruitment in the past few years.
We have, in the past three to four years of the coalition Government, seen a reduction of about four months in the time it takes for a child to be adopted. That is good progress, but we think we can go further. The creation of regional adoption agencies will help in that endeavour, as will the area of recruitment and improved support for children who have been adopted—in particular, the specialised services that are not always available in every local area. If those services are commissioned and drawn from a wider area across the region, more families and children will be able to access them when they need them.
Secondly, the first set of witnesses we heard from on the adoption part of the Bill were broadly supportive of the Government’s proposals. The second set—to the extent that they were actually opining on the Bill; in other words, adoption rather than the wider piece—did raise some concerns, one of which was that small voluntary adoption agencies might be crowded out. Can the Government give any reassurance on that?
Edward Timpson: There are several ways in which I can reassure those voluntary adoption agencies. I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to speak to the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies about this at their conference.
First, I put on the record—I will continue to do so throughout the Bill’s passage—my view and that of the Government: voluntary adoption agencies play a key and central role in delivering high-quality adoption services in England and, I am sure, right across the United Kingdom. They will be an essential part of the solution to excellent regional adoption agencies. Secondly, in the paper, “Regionalising adoption”, we have—I think on page 12—clearly set out why we say that that is the case. We will be working with local authorities, as they develop their regional adoption agencies, to ensure that they understand the benefits that they can draw from voluntary adoption agencies if they are not already doing so.
Voluntary adoption agencies that may want to have a different arrangement—obviously, we cannot force them to join the consortium—will still have a vital role to play in providing some of those specialised services for children for whom it has proved more difficult to find the right family. They could also have a role in the training of adopters, so that they feel confident with the challenge, which, I know from my own family, adoption can bring.
I have a follow-up question to Mr Gibb. First, I would like to associate myself with some of the comments that you made about the protests that have emerged around potential converter schools. I returned to secondary school in my mid-20s because I went through a failing school the first time, so I feel this very personally. In my constituency, I have seen cases of people using individual schools as political footballs, which I think is appalling.
We are now moving from an era of rapid conversions of failing schools into one where parents will find out that their school has been declared coasting, and that might be a shock to them. A rapid process may emerge, which will invite this kind of protest, however rapid it is. We could lose any existing community engagement, which could have been harnessed. I am throwing you an olive branch. We all want zero tolerance on young people leaving school and emerging into an area where they will not get the second chance that someone like me did. Is there a way of finding a consultation process that harnesses parent power, rather than, by default, seeing it as an obstacle?
Mr Gibb: There are two questions. One is whether children should be involved in a child’s education and whether the community should be involved in its local school—yes to both. Secondly, should organised political groupings locally be able to thwart the conversion of a failing school into an academy? The answer is no.
I should add that in the Bill if a school is voluntarily converting—a good school that the governors have decided to convert—there is still a requirement for them to consult the stakeholders of the local community. It is only for those schools that have been categorised by Ofsted as failing. When Ofsted puts a school into special measures, it is the truth; it is a school that has not delivered properly for those young people. We cannot have ideologically driven groups deliberately trying to delay and frustrate the aim of raising standards.
My point is that we cannot use that as an excuse to shut out parents. I understand about people making broad political points, but parents of students who are going to the school and the school community are actively engaged. We do not want to push them to one side for fear of a group that is somewhere else.
Mr Gibb: I do not disagree with you on that. It is about the legal process of converting a school into an academy. We do not want that process being delayed by a group of people who are being driven by politics and ideology. Regarding the parents who want the best for the school, are involved with the PTA, are governors and are involved with their children’s education, a good school will always want to embrace and involve them in the running of the school and the school community. Nothing in the Bill prevents that from happening.
Tim Coulson acknowledged earlier that having a key performance indicator relating to the percentage of academies that should be converted in an area could be perceived as a conflict of interest when dealing with coasting schools, in relation to how to approach them. Do you see any conflict of interest being possible there?
That brings us to the end of the time allotted. We are grateful to the Ministers. This is undoubtedly only the opening foray of a period of time that I am sure we will all enjoy. We will examine everything that has been said today by witnesses and the Ministers, and we may come back with some further requests for information. The next meeting of the Committee will be on Thursday 2 July at 11.30 am in Committee Room 12.