Clause 6 - Interaction between intervention powers

Education and Adoption Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 9 July 2015.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

The clause requires a local authority to notify the Secretary of State before using its intervention powers. The Secretary of State, through regional schools commissioners, is also required to notify the local authority before they use their powers. From the point that the regional schools commissioner notifies the local authority that they intend to intervene in a school, the local authority’s powers to intervene are suspended.

The clause states that if the local authority has put in place an interim executive board, the Secretary of State can take over responsibility for IEB members. If that happens, the notice given by the local authority to the governing body, setting out that it will consist of interim executive members, will be treated as having been given by the Secretary of State along with anything else done by the local authority in relation to the IEB. The Secretary of State will have as much responsibility for IEB members as the local authority had before.

Once a school is eligible for intervention, the local authority or the Secretary of State can use their powers of intervention. In practice, the clause means that the local authority and regional schools commissioners will need to work together in identifying the action that should be taken in underperforming schools. When the local authority has already intervened in a school and the regional schools commissioner feels that a different approach is needed, the regional schools commissioner can decide to exercise the Secretary of State’s powers. From that point, the local authority will be restricted from intervening further. The regional schools commissioner can give permission for the local authority to continue with its intervention if that is the best thing to do.

Many local authorities, such as Bristol and Essex, are working well with schools to improve educational standards and provisions, but some do not make full use of their interventional powers and are too slow to act in relation  to underperformance and it is these authorities over which we expect the regional schools commissioners to exercise the Secretary of State’s power. The clause will allow regional schools commissioners to understand in which schools the local authority has intervened and to use the powers in the Bill to work with the schools to make improvements. This is all about improving standards in schools where they are not high enough.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Listening to the Minister, I wonder why he does not go the whole hog by abolishing local authorities altogether and replacing them with appointments from the Minister because—[Interruption.] That was probably unwise. I am sorry; I might accidentally have prompted a Government amendment at a later stage of the Bill. Could we strike that from the record?

It makes me wonder: what is the role of a democratically elected local authority not only when the Minister intervenes occasionally when there is an extreme issue and a need for state power to be exercised at a local level in a draconian way, but when he has decided to appoint a group of unelected and unaccountable people who can exercise the Secretary of State’s powers on her behalf and, to use the Minister’s word, restrict what local authorities do? Local authorities have to go cap in hand and ask for the permission of these appointed persons to act in relation to the schools in their area. The Government need to think this through in relation to what is said everywhere else about devolution. There is a disconnect between that and what the Bill will do to our education system.

Clause 6 claims to sort out how the intervention powers of the local authority and the Secretary of State interact. The way that the Minister has described it, it is hardly an interaction. The key is proposed new section 70B, which basically says that the local authority must give way to the Secretary of State or the regional schools commissioner acting on the behalf of the Secretary of State whenever she, or they, want to intervene—no matter how involved the local authority has been and how effectively the local authority might have been working with the school or how effectively the local community thinks that the local authority was working with the school.

Similarly, proposed new section 70C allows the Secretary of State or the regional schools commissioner—an appointed person, accountable to no one other than the appointed Minister of the Crown—to take over an interim executive board that has been set up for the express purpose of taking over from a governing body and taking any action necessary to improve a school.

Photo of Suella Fernandes Suella Fernandes Conservative, Fareham

I note the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. However, what does he suggest should be done if a local authority fails to pick up on a failing school? Sir Daniel Moynihan highlighted that problem in the evidence sessions:

“If a school fails, it will not normally be because of something that has happened overnight; it will be because of a gradual decline in performance over a period of time. The local authority should have picked up on that and used its resources to do so”.––[Official Report, Education and Adoption Public Bill Committee, 30 June 2015; c. 13, Q22.]

Therefore, his view as an independent expert is that there should be a power for someone else to intervene. Is that not what the clause is getting at?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I certainly respect the work that Sir Daniel has done in the field of education, although he is not entirely independent with regard to this issue. He showed in his evidence that he has a particular view about one particular means of school improvement, although the independent evidence does not show that it is the only one that can be successful.

I am certainly not saying that the Secretary of State should not have powers to intervene from time to time. I am just highlighting the extent to which those powers are being massively increased by the clause, and the fact that the general public have little understanding of who and what the people being appointed by the Secretary of State are and what resources and powers they have. The Bill is massively expanding all of that without accountability. At the same time, the Government are saying that the way to improve the quality of every other area of our public services is to devolve power and to encourage bodies that are democratically accountable locally to work together and with the Government.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

This programme is about devolution to the academy level. The regional schools commissioners have no intention of engaging with or intervening in schools or academies that are performing well. In the majority of cases, we expect local authorities and regional schools commissioners to work together to decide where to intervene when there is underperformance, but some local authorities have been ineffective. There are 28 that have never appointed an IEB or issued a warning notice, and Ofsted has judged 12 to be ineffective, often for their poor use of their intervention powers. We need these reserve powers to intervene when there is insufficient action by local authorities.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

On the one in, one out rule, one could say that there are often academy trusts that fall into that category. I am sure that the Minister has seen Ofsted’s report on the focused inspection of the Collaborative Academies Trust, dated 25 March 2015, which points out that there are real problems with the rapid expansion of the academies programme and that there are serious weaknesses from time to time in the work of academy trusts.

Of course it is possible that local authorities will need intervention. My point is that the Government’s philosophical approach, which is to centralise all power with the Secretary of State, not genuinely to devolve power to a local level, is at odds with their approach elsewhere, and it will ultimately lead to the sorts of problems we have seen in lots of areas where there is not that level of accountability.

One has to call into question, as we have done—this has not been answered adequately—the capacity of regional schools commissioners to take on all these additional responsibilities. When we debate clause 1, we will discuss the fact that the huge expansion in the number of schools that will be eligible for intervention by regional schools commissioners will emphasise that capacity problem.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

I am conscious of the Minister’s previous intervention. Does my hon. Friend agree that the powers are not reserve powers? It was made clear during our debate on Tuesday that the  interventions of regional schools commissioners or the Secretary of State would trump local authority warning notices. This is not about intervening when local authorities fail to do so, but about centralising all power in the Secretary of State’s hands, as my hon. Friend is making clear.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend makes a good point because there is no need to justify why they are doing it. There is no need to provide the evidence that the action is necessary. The Secretary of State or the regional schools commissioner, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, can just decide to do it.

That indicates that it is all about trumping what local authorities do, rather than letting them get on with the job effectively. It is about enhancing the power of the Secretary of State; it is a centralisation of power. Again, I emphasise that we would like to see some thinking about a combined authority model in education to ensure that we can genuinely devolve power, rather than have the semblance of devolution, when in fact the centralisation of power to the Secretary of State and his or her appointees is what is going on.

Why does the Minister think that Ministers are always going to be right and everybody else is always going to be wrong? That is patently not the case. That is why we are concerned about the powers that have been taken by Ministers in the Bill. We may well return to this issue rather than test the Committee’s opinion at this stage. We might want to return on Report to further discussion of the combined authority model.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.