This amendment widens the group of persons that must be consulted about the identity of the academy sponsor or when there is a change of Academy sponsor.
New clause 3—Consultation about identity of Academy sponsor in all cases—
‘After section 5 of the Academies Act 2010 insert—
“5B Consultation about identity of Academy sponsor in all cases
(1) This section applies where an Academy order under section 4(A1) has effect in respect of any maintained school.
(2) Before entering into Academy arrangements in relation to the school the Secretary of State must consult the following about the identity of the person with whom the arrangements are to be entered into—
(a) the school’s governing body,
(b) the local authority,
(c) the Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Schools,
(d) parents of registered pupils at the school,
(e) the teaching and other staff of the school,
(f) registered pupils at the school, and
(g) any other such persons as he thinks appropriate.”’
We are now motoring on to clause 9. As you said, Mr Chope, we are considering amendments 50, 51 and 52 along with new clause 3, which has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley.
Amendment 50 notes that clause 9 provides for consultation about who should sponsor an academy in certain cases, and it widens the scope of the proposed new section 5A to include all academy sponsors. Amendments 51 and 52 provide for consultation when there is a change of sponsor.
The amendments would require the whole local community to be consulted about the identity of sponsors. It is important to note that the identity is a matter of concern not just to faith groups, which the Minister has acknowledged elsewhere in the Bill, but to others. They would require consultation when there is a proposal to change a sponsor, which has happened when chains collapse, such as the Prospects Academies Trust in May 2014, or when schools are taken away from them due to poor performance, and we heard examples of that from the Minister earlier. An academy chain in charge of running six state schools—the Prospects Academies Trust, which we talked about earlier—was forced to close. It was the first example of that happening, which shows that it is extremely important that there is consultation in such circumstances. Communities should not be left in the dark and treated with contempt by the Government when it happens. That is no way to run an education system. I hope that the Minister agrees that under those circumstances, consultation would be the right route to take.
New clause 3 goes a bit further than the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend. It amends the Academies Act to require that a certain number of people are consulted over an academy order in respect of any maintained school, including the chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills; registered pupils of that school; and any other persons that the Secretary of State thinks appropriate. The Government are not fond of consultation—that was made very clear by the 2011 legislation—but the official Opposition are big fans of democracy and accountability. We do not believe that they and school improvement are mutually exclusive.
The amendments are important because, as both sides of the Committee accept, there are good and bad academies. There are “outstanding”, “failing” and now “coasting” academies, and those terms apply to maintained schools as well. If pupils and parents do not have a say in whether their school becomes an academy, it is right that they should have a say in who runs it. If an academy chain such as the Harris Federation was going to run the school, that would be a very different story from its being run by a chain such as E-ACT, which has had so many schools removed from it.
It is important to include the chief inspector on the list of consultees, to ensure that as much information as possible is available, particularly given Ofsted’s press release last week. I know it has been referenced several times, but it is important to the Committee. It included information about the inspection of the Collaborative Academies Trust, which is sponsored by EdisonLearning. Nine academies are in the trust: three in Northamptonshire, five in Somerset and one in Essex. Ofsted found:
“Too many academies have not improved since joining the trust” and that at the time of the inspection,
“there were not yet any good or outstanding academies in the trust.”
The amendment is important because if a school is to become an academy, parents, pupils and all other relevant stakeholders should have a choice in whether the academy is run by a trust such as EdisonLearning or perhaps a local federation, an outstanding local school that can sponsor schools or, possibly, a co-operative trust. If I were a parent—I assure the Committee that that is a thoroughly hypothetical situation—I would want a choice over which sponsor was going to run the school. I would want to know its background, as well as the governance arrangements, and to be given as much information as possible. I am sure that parents and children across the country feel the same. I hope the Minister will seriously consider the amendment and the new clause in his response.
I will take amendments 50, 51 and 52 and new clause 3 together. The amendments and the new clause relate to clause 9 and the consultation about the identity of academy sponsors.
For schools that have failed and have been judged “inadequate” by Ofsted, there should be no debate about whether urgent action is required. It will be secured through an academy solution with an effective sponsor. The regional schools commissioners will decide on the most appropriate sponsor to turn around a failing school.
In some circumstances, however, it will be appropriate for the regional schools commissioners to consult on the best sponsor to turn the school around. Clause 9 requires that, where a foundation or a voluntary school with a foundation is eligible for intervention under sections 61 or 62 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which pertain to “inadequate” Ofsted judgments, and is therefore subject to an academy order under proposed new section 4(A1) of the Academies Act 2010, the Secretary of State must consult the trustees, the foundation and, for schools with a religious character, the appropriate religious body about the proposed sponsor. In practice, regional schools commissioners will, on behalf of the Secretary of State, identify the most suitable sponsor for the school in question and will consult on the identity of the sponsor.
Amendments 50 and 52 and new clause 3, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and has the same intention, seek to widen the requirement so that the Secretary of State must consult on the identity of the sponsor for any type of school, not just a foundation or a voluntary school with a foundation. Amendment 52 further specifies that the consultees must include parents, school staff, the local community and the local authority.
Clause 9 makes it clear that it is appropriate to consult on the identity of a sponsor when the school is a foundation or a voluntary school with a foundation. It recognises the enormous contribution that Church schools have made and continue to make to education in this country. Many successful Church schools have benefited from converting to academy status, and many dioceses have taken on the role of sponsor for their struggling schools. The Diocese of Ely, for example, has established a multi-academy trust that includes both sponsored and converter academies. There are now 13 primary schools in the trust, with a further two joining in September. The diocese is focusing on expanding its school improvement capacity by using school-to-school support models and building a central support team.
It is important that underperformance in any type of school is tackled, but we accept the importance of protecting the ethos of Church schools, which is why the clause identifies certain cases in which the regional schools commissioner must consult on who the best sponsor might be. This is why subsection (2) specifies that the trustees, the foundation governors and, where appropriate, the religious body are consulted by the regional schools commissioner. They will be consulted specifically to recognise their responsibility for the ethos of the school, and to contribute their views on how it might best be preserved. That is why we do not agree with amendment 52, which proposes that a wider group of people should be consulted on the decision.
In many cases, a diocesan sponsor will be the best choice, but where appropriate a non-faith sponsor can be put into place in such a way that the school’s particular ethos is protected. We expect that dioceses and regional schools commissioners will work closely together to agree the best academy solutions. In other cases, consultation on the identity of the sponsor is unnecessary and would serve only to delay necessary improvements. When Ofsted finds a school “inadequate”, or when a regional schools commissioner has determined that academisation is necessary to turn the school around, the local authority and governing body have, by definition, demonstrated that they have failed to uphold standards in the school. I do not see a good case for consulting them on the identity of the sponsor in those circumstances, which is why I do not agree with amendment 50.
Surely the question is whether the sponsor identified by the regional commissioner is necessarily the best sponsor. It may be that the people whom the Minister wants to exclude from the consultation have pertinent information. The Government have had to restrict 14 or 15 chains of sponsors from looking after schools. If they had had that information earlier, presumably they would not have got into such a mess in the first place.
Actually, those consultation were taking place, leading up to this point. We are trying to prevent formal consultation from delaying the process of conversion. I will give the hon. Gentleman an egregious example. In May 2012, Roke primary school in Croydon was given a notice to improve by Ofsted. DFE officials began discussions with the local authority and the school about it becoming a sponsored academy. Opponents reacted angrily, describing it as a “hostile takeover”. In April 2013, almost a year later, Ofsted revisited the school and put it into special measures. The move to academy status was heavily opposed, and a “Save Roke” committee was set up. Due to objections from opponents, the academy consultation had to be extended. At one point, the proposed sponsor, Harris Federation, received a batch of 100 questions to answer. A petition of opposition attracted 2,500 signatures, including some from Australia, for some reason.
The school opened as an academy, sponsored by Harris Federation, in September 2013. In summer 2014, its results had improved from 65% of pupils achieving level 4 in the previous year to 94%. In June 2015, Ofsted inspected the school and judged it “outstanding” in all areas. By becoming an academy, Roke truly has been saved, yet we delayed that whole process by at least a year—a year’s lost education for the children in that part of Croydon.
I congratulate the Minister on finding an example to support his argument. If I were the parent of a child who attended one of the schools that was going to be taken over—by, for example, the Djanogly Learning Trust, the Grace Foundation, the Landau Forte Charitable Trust, the Lee Chapel Academy Trust, the South Nottingham College Academy Trust or the Learning Schools Trust—would I not be entitled to say that I thought there was a risk in that trust being allowed to take over the school? The Minister is going to prevent that. In each case, if there had been consultation, the problems would not necessarily have arisen.
Except where underperforming schools have, in the past, been transferred to those trusts, there has been consultation. The hon. Gentleman is presumably asserting that those academy chains are not performing as well as they should. However, the decision about which academy group is responsible for an underperforming school will now be left to the regional schools commissioner, who knows the academy chains and the area and will choose the appropriate chain.
It is not the success or failure of the process at stake. I am simply pointing out to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that the school acquisitions he cited took place with consultation. He may be critical of their outcomes, but they happened with consultation.
My objection to amendment 50 and new clause 3 is that they will delay the process. In the example that I cited in Croydon, a year of children’s primary school education was wasted. We would have had significantly more children getting good literacy and mathematics results if that process had happened when it was meant to.
What about the academy chains that were appointed and failed those children? What about that waste? By what logic would that be less likely to happen if we do not bother to consult anyone?
The issue with consultation is time. If we take steps out of the process, we reduce the time. The issue of whether a particular academy chain is good or poor is one that we take swift action on. We take much swifter action now in dealing with underperforming academy sponsors than local authorities have in the past in dealing with underperforming schools, which in many instances—not all, but many—have languished in special measures for far too long. The whole academisation process is designed to speed up the process. Where we find that academy chains are underperforming, we take equally swift action to deal with the sponsors.
If the issue is time, why does the Minister not create a time limit? Why does he not issue guidance automatically excluding the signatories to a petition from Australia? Why does he not take normal, sensible steps, rather than denying people the right to express a view, and the right to peruse the information? That would deal with the question of time. He is denying people a voice.
We are denying campaigns such as the “Save Roke” committee that call measures to improve a primary school a hostile takeover. Such ideologically-driven campaign groups are interested not in raising the academic standards in schools but in delaying the process. They are ideologically opposed to the concept of academies. My understanding is that the Opposition are not ideologically opposed to the academisation process; so I would expect them to support measures to increase the speed of the process when a school is demonstrably underperforming.
The example that the Minister gave has resonance for me because in my constituency before the election there was a similar debate and similar protests about a school called Hove Park school. During the lunch break, I introduced the Minister to some of its students. The campaign was vigorous and campaign groups from outside the school community used it as a political football in many ways, and I share some of the Minister’s concerns about how that unfolded.
However, the point for me, as I said at the time, was whether it was possible to deal with people driven by ideology separately from parents, students and teachers who have their own views, wishes and concerns. It seems to me that we do not want to exclude and punish the school community because people campaign for ideological reasons from outside it. Does the Minister agree that it is possible to take that approach?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is right that the community should be consulted when the governing body of a “good” or “outstanding” school wants to pass a motion that it should convert to an academy. I think that there is also a case for discussing an improvement plan with staff and governors of schools in category 3, rather than 4—coasting schools—where the regional schools commissioner wants to try measures short of academisation,.
However, when Ofsted puts a school into special measures it is an extreme thing. It affects a tiny minority of schools. When schools have reached that point of underperformance, we must act so swiftly that there is simply not time to engage in formal consultations. Why was the “Save Roke” committee not established a few years earlier, to try to deal with the underperformance of Roke primary school? I could say the same about Hove Park. It was a pleasure to meet year 9 students from Hove Park academy, if I have the name right.
I understand that that school voluntarily applied to convert to academy status, so it would not fall under the measures in question. I could tell from the teachers I met that it is a good school that has voluntarily sought the freedoms that come with academy status.
Amendment 51 would require the Secretary of State to consult about the identity of a sponsor when there was a change of sponsor. In the vast majority of cases, the sponsor matched to an underperforming school would be successful in delivering the necessary improvements. Those successes include large sponsors such as REAch2, which sponsors the largest number of primary academies in the country. Its schools have improved, on average, at three times the national average rate. I pause in case the hon. Member for Cardiff West wants to jump in. He has not, so that is another fact that we can treat as established.
There are also successful local sponsor arrangements. For example, in the Tall Oaks academy trust, White’s Wood academy, an outstanding academy with a national leader of education as its head teacher, turned around Mercer’s Wood, which was previously in special measures. Since joining the trust, that school has been judged “outstanding”, too.
However, in the scenario where a sponsor is not improving the school, or not doing so fast enough, or where there is any other concern about the sponsor’s ability to support that school, we will not hesitate to take steps to intervene. Regional schools commissioners, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, can issue warning notices demanding urgent action to bring about substantial improvement. Any such notice will set out what must be done to improve in a given timescale.
We do encounter performance issues with academies and sponsors and we are quick to act. As I have said before, we have made new sponsor arrangements in relation to 75 academies and free schools, which include 32 cases in which a sponsored academy had its sponsor replaced. That action is proving effective. Therefore, even though there is no requirement in law for a consultation when there is a change in sponsor, we would expect the existing trust and new sponsor to share information with staff, parents and others on the proposed change of sponsor, allowing them the opportunity to raise and address concerns. We therefore do not believe that it is necessary or helpful to require in law consultation about a change of sponsor and, as such, I urge the hon. Member for Cardiff West to withdraw his amendment.
In the interests of making progress, I will not make lengthy remarks, but we do not see the logic of sweeping away consultation. Our amendment sought to ensure that consultation would take place and we do not see by what logic academy chains are less likely to fail when no one bothers to consult anyone about the correct sponsor in the first place; in fact, surely they would be more likely to fail, and we have had too many failures already. However, given that our views have been put on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(2) After section 5A of the Academies Act (inserted by subsection (1)) insert—
“5AA Designation of Academy sponsors
(1) An Academy sponsor may make proposals to enter into Academy arrangements under section 1 (Academy Arrangements) only if the Academy sponsor is for the time being designated for the purpose—
(a) by the Secretary of State; and
(2) This section does not apply where the Academy sponsor is proposing to enter into an arrangement for a single school.’.’
‘(3) In section 17 (Interpretation of Act) in the appropriate place in subsection (2) insert—
“Academy sponsor” is a person to whom the Secretary of State has entered, or is proposing to enter, into Academy arrangements under section 1 (Academy Arrangements), or a person who wishes to enter into Academy Arrangements with the Secretary of State.’.
Amendment 53 would bring some transparency to the process of selecting academy sponsors. There is currently no public quality control of potential sponsors. Ministers have totally committed to the policy, so they will need to find sponsors at all costs, and regional schools commissioners, as we found out in oral evidence, are paid by results, so they also need to find sponsors.
Someone in the system has to be responsible for saying no to people who come forward if they are not good enough. If that means that schools cannot be converted, that is better than using an inadequate sponsor; another solution or sponsor should be sought. Logically, Ofsted should play that role. Ministers may argue that they can be trusted, but that is hardly convincing because we know that that is not true.
Sponsors’ performance shows that some are simply inadequate and that there are not sufficient checks and balances. Some have misused public money, which the Government profess to be greatly concerned about. Some, such as the Prospects Academies Trust, have collapsed. Some have seriously dodgy international links, such as the Aurora Academies Trust, which is linked to one of the more dubious US chains with a record of failure and scandal.
The Bill will throw up a greater need for academy sponsors, so we require that proper quality control; the independent inspectorate needs to take on that role urgently. We want to know what the Government will do about quality control and what they will do to make sure that it is independent in this extremely murky area, where we have already heard about many failures on the part of academy sponsors. Amendment 54 is intended to gain some clarification on the definition of an academy sponsor. If such companies are to become so important in our education system, we need to know exactly what they are. I hope that the Minister can shed some light on the matter.
Amendment 53 covers the scrutiny of academy sponsors and the academy trusts that they establish. Sponsors are high-performing schools or other organisations that have been approved to sponsor underperforming schools through the academy trusts that they have established. The trusts become responsible for the governance and the educational and financial performance of such schools, in place of the former governing body and local authority.
In amendment 53, the Opposition propose that the Secretary of State should be required to approve such bodies before they are allowed to take on sponsored academies. In practice, the Secretary of State already subjects sponsors and trusts to thorough scrutiny through regional schools commissioners, which consider all new sponsor applications in their regions and approve those that demonstrate that they have the capacity and expertise to turn failing schools around. For example, in October 2014 a member of the north of England headteacher board did detailed work with a prospective sponsor to help it to make sure that its governance structure was fit for purpose. As a result, the sponsor revised its governance arrangements and proposed a small strategic body with a good mix of skills, which the regional schools commissioner judged to be entirely appropriate for a sponsor trust.
The regional schools commissioner applies a rigorous assessment process, advised by the headteacher board of outstanding academy leaders, to ensure that prospective sponsors have a strong track record in educational improvement and financial management, and that the proposed trust has high-quality leadership and appropriate governance. Since 2013, the Department for Education has published monthly a list of approved sponsors. All those non-statutory arrangements have been in operation since September 2014, and I see no reason to place the process into legislation now.
The amendment also proposes that the chief inspector at Ofsted should be required to provide approval. Most academy sponsors—75% of all new sponsors since January 2014—are schools, so they are already subject to Ofsted inspection, and the regional schools commissioner considers their latest Ofsted report as part of the assessment. Ofsted plays an important role in holding schools and sponsors to account. The arrangements for focused inspections of schools within multi-academy trusts provide the opportunity to report on the quality of education support that approved sponsors give to the academies in their trusts. I do not believe that there is any need to give the chief inspector a further role and add a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy to an already rigorous process.
In amendment 54 Opposition Members propose that the words “academy sponsor” should be defined in the Bill, and they offer a definition. The term does not appear in legislation, and we see no need to introduce such a definition, given the success of current arrangements.
A point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak raised in our debate on the previous clause relates equally to this matter. He read out a list of sponsors, all of which have been paused by regional schools commissioners, so no further brokerage of schools to those sponsors will take place pending improvements in their school improvement service. That process is already in place, and I am absolutely convinced that the system allows us to approve and monitor sponsors, so we do not need to change the legislation.
It is interesting to hear the Minister confirm that all the academy chains and sponsors on that list have been paused by regional schools commissioners. Presumably, those sponsors were approved, and deemed to have the capacity and expertise to turn around schools, in the first place by the same regional schools commissioners and Ministers. That makes our point for us: regional schools commissioners and Ministers do not have the capability to assess accurately whether sponsors have the capacity and expertise to turn around schools. If they had, they would not have had to pause them before taking on any more schools, and we would not have had the failures of academy sponsors and chains that we heard about earlier.
There are real issues with the current arrangements, despite the Minister saying how wonderful and successful they are, and it is absolutely sensible that there should be a rigorous assessment process beyond the current process, which he says is rigorous but which is creating the need to pause the particular academy sponsors on the list that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak read out.
Can I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are 735 approved sponsors, and that 597 of them are responsible for 2,675 academies and free schools? When he cites one, two, or half a dozen academy chains that have been paused, it is a very small number out of 735 approved sponsors. I think that 14 is the number that were paused, and the number on the list that he was going to read out is a very small proportion of the total number.
At least my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak gives out examples in 14s rather than in ones and twos, as the Minister does when he wants to prove his case. I thought that my hon. Friend was being very generous in providing all those examples; he might have held some back for later on in our proceedings and just leaked them out one by one, in the same way that the Minister does. I do not think that the Minister has proved his case.
The point is that, yes, there are a large number of approved sponsors, but that number will become even larger, and therefore we might expect that unless there are some changes in the quality of the assessment of academy sponsors, the number of failures and the number of pauses in future will increase by the same proportion; there is no reason for us to believe that that is not the case. Therefore, there is every need for a better level of quality control, which is, of course, what we propose in the amendments.
Once again, I think we have won the argument, but I sense that we might not win the vote if we pressed the matter to a vote at this stage. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The clause inserts new section 5A into the Academies Act 2010, which imposes on the Secretary of State a duty to carry out a consultation when, under section 4(A1), my right hon. Friend makes an academy order in respect of a foundation or voluntary school with a foundation before entering into academy arrangements in relation to the school. In such a case, the Secretary of State must consult about who she proposes should be the sponsor, and that consultation must be with the trustees, the foundation and, where the school has a religious character, the appropriate religious body.
For schools that have failed and been judged inadequate by Ofsted, there should be no debate about whether transformation via academy conversion is needed, and urgent action is required. A new start is needed, to be secured through an academy solution with an effective sponsor. That is why we have sought through this Bill to impose on the Secretary of State a duty to make an academy order in such cases.
However, we appreciate the great contribution of the foundation schools, which is why there is an exemption for church schools and dioceses that have taken on the role of supporting struggling schools.
On that basis, I urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.
The clause limits the requirement to consult about an academy order to foundation schools and voluntary schools with a foundation. We see no reason to limit consultation in that way, for the same reasons that we have outlined in debates about other parts of the Bill. We will not vote against the clause standing part of the Bill, because at least it allows for some consultation; there is a little bit left after the Minister has swept through the consultation landscape in the way that he has proposed. At least there is some consultation and we hope that it will be expanded further on Report or when the Bill reaches another place, given the sheer illiberality of sweeping away consultation. However, on that basis, we will not vote against the clause standing part of the Bill.