Clause 7 - Duty to make Academy orders

Education and Adoption Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 9 July 2015.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 12:15, 9 July 2015

I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 7, page 6, line 5, at beginning insert—

The amendment requires the Secretary of State to take advice before using new provision.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 40, in clause 7, page 6, line 5, leave out “must” and insert “may”

There may be a good reason why the school should not be academised, and this amendment allows for mature reflection of the need for academisation.

Amendment 46, in clause 7, page 6, line 6, after “intervention”, insert “for the first time after 1 January 2016”

The Bill does not make clear when the Government will implement this new power. This amendment would provide that the power could not be used retrospectively.

Amendment 24, in clause 7, page 6, line 8, at end insert—

‘(A1A) Prior to making an Academy Order in respect of a maintained school under subsection (A1), the Secretary of State must arrange for an independent assessment of the impact of conversion into an Academy on vulnerable pupils, including but not limited to—

(a) children with statements of special educational needs,

(b) children with special educational needs without statements,

(c) looked after children,

(d) children with disabilities, and

(e) children with low prior attainment not otherwise falling under (a) to (d).

(A1B) A report of any assessment conducted under subsection (A1A) shall be laid before each House of Parliament by the Secretary of State.

(A1C) Where a report under subsection (A1B) indicates any risks of negative impacts on vulnerable pupils, the Secretary of State must accompany the report with a statement of the steps he is taking to satisfy himself that reasonable mitigating steps will be planned and implemented to reduce such risks.”

Amendment 42, in clause 7, page 6, line 8, at end insert—

‘(A2) For the avoidance of doubt, subsection (A1) does not apply to a maintained nursery school or a Pupil Referral Unit.”

The amendment is to clarify whether the new provision applies to maintained nursery schools and Pupil Referral Units.

Amendment 45, in clause 7, page 6, line 10, at end insert—

‘( ) in section 19 of the Academies Act 2010, in subsection (2), insert at start “Except subsection (A1) of section 4” and insert after subsection (3)

( ) Before the Secretary of State makes an order commencing section 4(A1) she will lay before Parliament an independent report demonstrating the improvement, or otherwise, of schools which have been academised, or not, after being eligible for intervention by virtue of sections 61 or 62 EIA 2006.”

The amendment requires the Secretary of State to demonstrate that academisation is the best solution for schools which receive an inadequate Ofsted judgement.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

We now move on to clause 7, which is another clause where the Secretary of State takes considerable power, and we will consider this group of amendments. As the clause stands, the Secretary of State need take no professional advice about the appropriateness of an academy order. The decision is, in effect, taken in advance by the absolute duty that would be placed on her by the clause. The clause is unusual in that it places an absolute duty on the Secretary of State to academise under certain circumstances.

With amendment 39, we are simply urging the Secretary of State to pause and listen to the best available advice. She ought to take each case as being potentially different, and should inform herself of the circumstances. It is hard to imagine why the Secretary of State would not want to take the opportunity to listen to the best available advice, unless the concern is that the advice that she might be given would not fit well with the predetermined ideological position on what should happen.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

On that point of pausing, is not the problem with some of the amendments, specifically amendment 40, that schools will potentially be left in a state that is causing concern for too long? The explanatory statement with amendment 40 says that

“this amendment allows for mature reflection of the need for academisation”.

Is “mature reflection” simply another phrase for “undue delay”?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

No, it is not. It is what one should be doing when considering the best way to improve the school, which is to look at the evidence. What is the  evidence that suggests that a particular approach should be taken? The problem with the clause is that it simply fetters the Minister from any other action, even if that action is one the evidence shows would be better. Mature reflection means considering all of the evidence available.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

On a minor point, I notice that the Government have announced this morning that there is going to be a period of “mature reflection” on their plans for EVEL. Is that actually the Government deciding to waste time?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Obviously we are now to have two versions of EVEL. I assume that the one they are going to do now is the lesser of two EVELs. I apologise for that. We shall see in due course whether that is the case.

I will come back to amendment 40 later. Returning to amendment 39, we are simply asking the Secretary of State to take the appropriate and best available advice. Her Majesty’s chief inspector is an independent voice in the system—so independent that Ministers seem to have lost a little bit of faith in his willingness to do whatever they would like him to. Nevertheless, the role has independent status for a good reason.

The chief inspector will have a view on the strengths and weaknesses of the school concerned and the kind of support it needs most, and on the effectiveness of sponsors. In our view, he should not be obstructed from scrutinising sponsors much more carefully than happens now. He will also have a view on the effectiveness of particular local authorities and on schools that might be involved in providing support to another school that needs it. Why would the chief inspector not be listened to? Why is the Secretary of State so sure that she knows best in every case and that she does not need the view of the person paid to be her principal source of independent advice?

The current chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, may not always say what people want to hear. All sorts of people might not want to hear what he has to say, but that is a poor reason for not listening to him. There may be a very good reason why a school should not be academised. As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole pointed out, amendment 40 allows for an opportunity for mature reflection. Perhaps the word “mature” is otiose because I was not going to propose any immature reflection, but amendment 40 allows for a period of reflection on the need for academisation. It is entirely possible to debate whether, in particular circumstances with particular sponsors, the academy model is the best. There are clearly cases in which it has worked, and we very much have supported that approach when it is appropriate.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

An example of where it works would be Magna Academy, which is now a sponsored academy in Canford Heath in my constituency. Two years ago, the school was in special measures but, in the past two weeks, it has received an “outstanding” in every single category, which I am told is a first in the south-west in that framework.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

May I take the opportunity to congratulate the school on achieving that outstanding rating from Ofsted? He is quite right. There are cases  where academisation has been an extremely successful model for school improvement. In other cases, other models have worked, and it is only fair that we consider some of those.

The Catholic Education Service has kindly provided some examples in which it thinks other methods have worked well. For instance, St James the Great Catholic primary school in London used an executive headteacher. The school had a section 5 inspection in June 2012 in which it was given grade 3 for three categories except for leadership and management, which was given grade 4; the school received an overall grade 4 with notice to improve.

As I understand it, in such a case under clause 7 of the Bill, the Secretary of State will have no choice but to order the academisation of that school. St James the Great used an executive headteacher despite pressure from an academy broker to join an academy chain. The chain was not acceptable to the school because it is a Catholic school and did not want a non-Catholic sponsor. The diocese brokered a package with St John’s Catholic primary school in which the headteacher of St John’s became the executive headteacher of both schools. A school improvement plan was implemented immediately, which included teachers from St John’s going into St James the Great—we all know about that sort of approach. St James the Great was inspected a year later and as a result of that intervention it went up to an overall grade 2. That is a good example of an alternative approach to school improvement, brokered at a local level, which, effectively and astonishingly, will be banned by the clause. As the Minister wants to intervene, perhaps he can confirm that that is the case.

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

The point about those examples is that the bodies that oversee those schools have done so for many years, often decades. The question we are asking is: why had they not intervened until now to bring about school improvement? We have lost patience with allowing children, year after year and decade after decade, to go to underperforming schools. That is what we seek to deal with and that is why the Bill is so important.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I think that is confirmation that the use of an executive headteacher in circumstances such as those would be banned by the clause.

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

The hon. Gentleman will have heard in earlier discussions on other clauses that the issuance of an academy order is step 1 of the process towards academisation. There is then a period of time when other intervention measures such as IEBs and executive headteachers can be used to try to get improvements happening before a sponsor is put in place. He is therefore wrong to say that other interventions are banned in the interim period before a funding agreement is signed.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Indeed that is the case, which is an admission that the approach I am outlining can work and that, in effect, academisation is taking place only because of the ideological prejudices of Ministers to that approach, rather than because of evidence.

Case study No. 2 is Corpus Christi Partnership and St Joseph’s Catholic primary school in Crayford. The school had a bad inspection, as academies sometimes  do, which led to an overall grade 4 with special measures. The diocese provided a support programme led by the headteacher of St Catherine’s Catholic secondary school in Crayford—in other words, its intervention used a partnership, with schools working together to try to bring about improvement. The school, which was inspected under section 5 a year later in June 2013, had improved in all areas and gained an overall grade 2.

That was so successful that all Catholic schools in Bexley—seven primary, two secondary and one sixth-form college—formed the Corpus Christi Partnership, a school improvement and support board in which the schools are committed to collaborative working and supporting schools where support is needed. That approach, however, will be trumped by the requirement of the Secretary of State to academise that school, despite clear evidence of the improvement brought about by that collaborative working and partnership approach.

Case study No 3: federation to try to bring about school improvement. The Regina Coeli Catholic primary school in South Croydon had a section 5 inspection in September 2013. It also had an overall grade 4 with special measures. An interim executive board was put in place—we just debated them—and again there was pressure from an academy broker and a local authority for the school to join a multi-academy trust, but the diocese did not agree that that was the best solution for the school. Again, that would be trumped by the Secretary of State’s requirement in the clause to academise.

The diocese arranged for the headteacher of St James the Great Catholic primary school in Thornton Heath to become executive headteacher of both schools until a permanent arrangement was agreed to join a local federation. Key staff from the other school, including the deputy head, who was seconded, were used to support staff in the weaker school. The school joined the federation of Catholic schools in Sutton on 1 November 2014. The Regina Coeli school benefited immediately from a well-established school improvement programme already in the federation, including the leadership of the existing headteacher. There was a significant and quick improvement, and a year and a half later, the school was graded 2 in all areas.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 12:30, 9 July 2015

Was the diocese aware of the problems in that school before Ofsted came in to inspect, or had it taken action only since the Ofsted inspection?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I could equally ask if sponsors of academies are aware of the problems in academy schools before Ofsted comes in and frequently finds them to be inadequate. Of course, the diocese became more aware as a result of inspection. The purpose of inspection is to find out whether a school is working and up to scratch; that is the whole point of inspections, and it applies equally to academy schools and other schools. The point is that the diocese, having been made aware of real problems in the school as a result of the inspection, was able to find a solution and bring about genuine and rapid school improvement using methods other than simple academisation.

Academisation might well be the best solution for schools in many cases. Where it is, we all ought to support it. However, I have outlined alternatives such as the use of an executive headteacher, of partnership or of federation. Where such alternatives are available, they should not be precluded from being the means of school improvement simply because the clause says that the Secretary of State must—not may, must—academise a school found to be in this Ofsted category. Many academy schools are found to be in that category. If the answer is always academisation, what is the answer when a school is already an academy?

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

We expect the same effective oversight of academies by multi-academy trusts as we expect of local authorities. When we believe that a multi-academy trust is not capable of overseeing the schools within its group effectively, we take action to remove the sponsors of those academies. We have done so in the case of 75 academies so far, and we will continue to take swift action where we are convinced that multi-academy trusts are not engaged in proper oversight of the academies in their group.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I am not disputing that the Government have done that, but they are saying, “The only answer is to academise.” The 75 schools that the Minister talks about have been academised, so the answer for those cannot be academisation; the answer is, “Let’s try something else. Let’s try an executive headteacher from another sponsor or better partnership working.” The simple act of academisation does not bring about school improvement. That is why the clause is so ludicrous, frankly; it fetters the Secretary of State’s freedom to act according to the evidence.

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

But those measures—an executive headteacher or collaboration between schools—should have been in place before Ofsted came in and awarded a “special measures” grading to the school. That is what we want to happen in local authorities and multi-academy trusts. If it is not happening under a local authority, the schools have to become academies with a strong sponsor. If it is not happening under a multi-academy trust, we will find a new sponsor for those academies. The essence of our approach is that we want strong oversight of academies and schools. If the local authority cannot do it, it will be in a multi-academy trust, and if the multi-academy trust is not doing it, we will find another multi-academy trust to run the group.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Reductio ad absurdum is the Government’s policy here. Ultimately, what improves schools is stronger leadership, better headteachers, better trained staff, more effective organisation and all those sorts of things. I have given several examples of where that has happened without following the academisation path. The Minister has helpfully given many examples of where academisation has not resulted in school improvement and where inspectors have had to come in and rate those academies “inadequate”.

Putting in the Bill a requirement for the Secretary of State to academise a school is an example of not only a one-club golfer—the analogy we used earlier—but of what has happened to Rory McIlroy ahead of next week’s Open golf championship. He has effectively shot  himself him in the foot by injuring himself before the tournament begins. He has hobbled himself, and he cannot carry out his job properly. That is what the Secretary of State will be doing if she has no discretion when Ofsted gives an “inadequate” rating.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

I wonder whether, like me, my hon. Friend has heard the Minister more than once today use the phrase “academies and schools”, which suggests that he does not regard academies as schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that if I were a parent—in fact, I am a parent—

Photo of Margot James Margot James Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

You are eligible to run for leadership of the Labour party, then.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

I am extremely concerned to hear that one of my children goes to something that the Minister of State does not regard as a school. What does that say about his attitude and the Government’s education policies?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Can I confirm that I, too, am a parent? In fact, I come from a long line of parents. I therefore think that I am particularly eligible to run for the leadership of the Labour party, as the Government Whip just suggested. You will have to hold your breath on that one, Sir Alan. I have no intention of doing so—I want to prevent any rumours from starting, following this debate. I think that the Minister made a slip of the tongue. He probably meant to say “academies and maintained schools”.

For the Government to introduce a clause that states that the Secretary of State must follow one particular path of school improvement alone is, at the very least, not very sensible. Ministers seem to believe that there is only one pathway to school improvement heaven—so much so that they regularly descend to abuse anyone who disagrees with them in a manner that is not appropriate to their office. Their ideological position is to regard private sponsors as always better than a public authority —or even a Church authority, as in the example I gave. In particular, they regard private sponsors as better than local authorities, regardless of their party affiliation. They apply their contempt equally to Conservative-led and Labour-led authorities.

The amendment states that decisions should be made according to the circumstances of the particular case, which I think is an eminently sensible proposition. Ministers have all the powers that they need. Under the Academies Act 2010, they can already make an academy order for any school that has received an adverse Ofsted finding. With this clause, the Government are tying their own hands.

Even if a high-quality sponsor is not available—there will be a rapid expansion and there is a limited number of high-quality sponsors, so a number of low-quality sponsors have been given an opportunity to run the schools that our children attend—even if the local authority or diocese has a strong record of stepping in and improving schools, and even if the parents and the school propose a credible alternative approach that has proven evidence of success, Ministers will not even be able to entertain an alternative to their prescription. They are set on removing their ability to exercise discretion or make exceptions.

We know already that the Government have not been able to convert all the schools that they could have done in the past five years, and not just because of the opposition of ideologically driven local activists, who perpetrate and orchestrate campaigns for ideological reasons, otherwise known as parents. There are often delays and difficulties when the Government try to academise a school, including bureaucratic delays in the Department and other legal issues, which we will return to when we debate the later amendments. What makes the Government so sure that they will be able to manage the 1,000 more to which the Prime Minister has committed himself? In some circumstances, academisation will clearly not be the best route, but the clause will tie Ministers to it regardless of whether it will do the school any good.

I will speak briefly to the other two amendments that we have tabled. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central will speak to his amendment which is part of this group. Amendment 42 is intended to clarify whether the new provision applies to maintained schools and pupil referral units. There is some ambiguity about what is covered by the phrase “maintained school”. The amendment is designed to remove that ambiguity. Perhaps the Minister will make that clear in his remarks.

The provisions on academisation in the Bill are based on Ministers’ assertion that turning a school into an academy is always the best solution. That assertion has been widely questioned by a range of researchers. Neither the Government majority on the previous Select Committee nor the RSA/Pearson Commission set up on the assumption that academies were the future was able to say with conviction that there was clear evidence for the superiority of the academy model.

Amendment 45 would allow the Secretary of State to try to prove her case, so the Government should welcome it. The way to make schools improve is not just to cherry-pick a few anecdotes to illustrate the point, or to abuse statistics, at which the DFE has become infamous and expert in recent years. The independent UK Statistics Authority has had to rap Ministers’ knuckles about that on more than one occasion in recent years.

The Government should commission independent research from a trustworthy source into the impact of turning schools into sponsored academies. They should listen to the evidence and make policy that is driven by the evidence rather than by uninformed ideology. I know that that is a radical suggestion for the Government, Sir Alan, but commissioning independent research and listening to the evidence would be a good way forward.

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

Was it uninformed ideology that led Lord Adonis in the previous Labour Government to adopt this very policy for failing schools and turn them into academies? By the time the previous Labour Government left office, there were 200 such academies. Are they all based on ill-informed ideology?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

No, it was not, Sir Alan. I supported Lord Adonis in what he was doing. He was making a targeted intervention, which was very well supported by Ministers and quality sponsors, and using it to try to turn around schools. As I have made clear, I am not opposed to that. I am opposed to the idea that only one solution can ever be attempted and that Ministers should not even be allowed to attempt another solution to bring about school improvement.

We are moving to a system in which many more schools will be subject to academy orders, and Ministers will be scrabbling around looking for suitable sponsors for those schools. We already have plenty of evidence, even from the current academy programme, that low-quality academy sponsors have had schools removed from them because they have failed to do their job properly.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Shadow Minister (Education)

Is not this the Minister’s problem? Lord Adonis was creating an additional model, something that we could do that was different and extra, where we felt that we had tried everything else and the school had continued to fail. The Minister is seeking to sweep all of that away and now have one single model and, when it fails, or when it cannot raise good-quality sponsors, the Minister will be in a straitjacket of his own making. Is that not the fundamental problem?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

As ever, my hon. Friend has put it far better than I could; he is absolutely right. Amendment 45 would allow the Secretary of State the opportunity to prove her case, by commissioning that independent research in order to see whether only this pathway is the right one for school improvement.

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

I am pretty sure that the hon. Gentleman was here when we debated clauses 2, 3, 4 and 5, which are packed full of other interventions that can be implemented to ensure that schools improve. Clause 2, for example, includes issuing warning notices, and clause 4 would make schools enter into contractual arrangements with school improvement organisations. Those are other types of interventions. We are discussing just one clause here, clause 7.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 12:45, 9 July 2015

We are discussing clause 7, which says that if a schools gets a failing Ofsted report, all those other interventions ultimately cannot be used to improve that school. That is the problem with the clause. The Secretary of State already has the powers that she needs on the matter. The proposals fetter the action of the Secretary of State and future Ministers in an unhealthy way, which is why we have tabled these amendments.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Before I speak to the amendment in my name, I want to make a few comments about some of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West made extremely good points about the range of options available. As evidence, he mentioned the success of federation, school-to-school support, collaboration, school improvement measures, and different types of activities over a great many years. In previous debates, I mentioned the example of success that is readily available for the Government to draw on—the London Challenge. Its various iterations around the country were never allowed to flower when the coalition came in, in 2010. The coalition Government sadly failed to look at the evidence of London Challenge’s success, which my hon. Friend asked them to consider. They were dismissive of it and decided not to continue it in Knowsley and the Black Country among other places.

My hon. Friend also touched on the importance of inspection and the fact that it gives the opportunity for improvement using a range of measures. It occurred to me that we have again come to the point of debating the difference between what the Government say and what they do on devolution and localism. The Government clearly do not trust local schools, communities and people to know best about how to improve schools in their areas. If they did, they would allow more than one route for school improvement. The approach is very clear and very worrying indeed; it is not evidence-based. If it were, the Government would look at what the Select Committee found—not only our conclusions, but the evidence that we took from many people around the country about what works—rather than dogma.

The Minister mentioned, quite rightly, the success of the relatively small number of schools—several hundred—that were converted to sponsored academy status, following the work of Lord Adonis in the last Labour Government. The Select Committee has looked into that. There has been sufficient time to determine that the Labour academies were a success; that they raised standards and improved outcomes and results for children at those schools compared with schools in similar situations faced with similar difficulties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said, academies were never intended to be more than an additional tool in the box—an additional means of school improvement.

The Select Committee was advised by the charter schools in America that these sorts of approaches should only ever be used in a small number of cases at a time, because that gives an opportunity to evaluate their success or otherwise. I only wish that the Government had listened to that advice, rather than ploughing on with changing many thousands of schools in one go. As the Select Committee said, it is impossible to know whether the changes have worked or not, because so much has been changed so quickly.

Amendment 24 relates to the situation of some of the more vulnerable children in our schools—children with statements of special educational needs, children with special needs without statements, looked-after children, children with disabilities and children with low prior attainment not otherwise covered by the categories listed in the amendment.

Headteachers in my constituency and elsewhere over the years have raised concerns that not only academies but schools generally sometimes suggest to parents, “This school is not for your child.” Schools do that because it is a challenge to ensure that children with additional needs receive the education that they need to progress without affecting the school’s accountability measures.

The Children and Families Act 2014 has an important presumption of mainstream education for children and young people with special educational needs. However, a concern has been put to me and to the Committee in written evidence that if a school is required to become an academy under clause 7 because it requires improvement or special measures, some children might be deemed to challenge or threaten the school’s ability to hit its targets when it comes to progress measures or more general results. That could lead to undesirable behaviours or, if I can put it this way, unintended consequences. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that concern.

The provision in the 2014 Act stating that mainstream education should be the presumed approach is definitely the right one, and we should consider carefully anything that moves away from that presumption. Amendment 24, like so many of the amendments, is an attempt to get the Minister to think carefully about the consequences of what he proposes. The last thing we need is the exclusion of disabled children, looked-after children or any children who might adversely affect a school’s results.

Figures given to me suggest that children with special educational needs are four times more likely to be excluded from academies. If that is true, it is certainly a concern and would justify the amendment. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that figure.

The structures available in multi-academy trusts allow for alternative provision as a main option. That is not consistent with the presumption of mainstream education provision in the 2014 Act. Concerns have been expressed by the Academies Commission that alternative provision  is being offered by setting up a free school, to ensure that the children I described are not included in performance data. If that is true, and if the point about the likelihood of exclusion from academies is true, amendment 24 is certainly worthy of our consideration.

I hope that the Government’s intentions are as good as their word—namely, the 2014 Act’s presumption of mainstream education. The points I have made about exclusion and alternative provision using the free school model, as well as the anecdotal evidence that I cited of some children being rejected from schools because of their effect on performance data, are of great concern. I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that he will understand why I tabled the amendment.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Margot James.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.