Baroness Berridge (Con)
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for tabling this debate. Like many in your Lordships’ House, I would not be here without the great state schools of Catmose College and Rutland County College, which is now Harington School. If these schools had failed, my parents would not have been able to get me to the next secondary school, even though it was a merely 20-minute drive away, as they worked shifts. I think Rutland may be great in terms of the ambitions of the White Paper, as it may be close to full academisation. I hope the Minister can update me.
MATs should free everybody to do what they are best at. They hold land and have changed the Department for Education. I shall make just three points about them. Freeing everyone to do what is best is regrettably not part of what is mentioned in the White Paper. It takes great teachers and leaders to run a school, and the research is very clear about their effect in delivering the best curriculum across their family of schools, but what about great teaching assistants, fantastic estate management and food? In a cost of living crisis with more than 20% of children currently eligible for free school meals, great cooks are needed. Of course, governors are volunteers giving their time to the next generation, and the hidden figures are the school business professionals who are running the operational side of schools, especially the money.
I have to say that I was sad to read a White Paper that neglected to mention the majority of the school workforce. This is what, at its best, the MATs model should deliver by freeing every member to deliver their best. According to Ofsted, after the pandemic leaders in MATs felt more supported, as these back-office functions were done for them. MATs have also enabled some of our best schools to share their best practice, such as Wallington County Grammar School as the anchor school of Folio Education Trust, which has opened Coombe Wood School in Croydon, which is already the most popular school in the borough. I disagree with my noble friend: it is a problem in the system to have schools sitting in what I would term splendid outstanding isolation and not contributing their best to the system, which this grammar school head is clearly leading the way in doing. MATs also enable innovation to come into the system, such as Harmonize Academy in Liverpool which is an outstanding AP free school—outstanding under the new framework I might add—founded by a black-led church group led by Tani and Modupe Omideyi.
This freeing up of everyone to do what they are best at is also important in the context of small rural schools which often have limited resources. I am delighted that the Church of England has publicly stated that it will bring large numbers of these schools into the academy sector. Alas, the increased funding under the national funding formula for such schools and local authority presumption against closure is not bringing the protection that many thought it would. Not all these schools can be saved, but grouping them in a MAT is their best chance of survival and enables them to deliver high-quality education across often very small schools.
To deal with the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, I am not sure that we will ever solve the research problem of proving the results of MATs vis-à-vis the maintained sector. It is a dynamic picture. For many years, every inadequate maintained school has been statutorily converted into an academy, so the comparison data is very difficult, as failure in the maintained sector is brought into the academy sector. With the excellent consultation on dealing with repeat RI-judged schools and the power to make them academised, the data is going to be even more skewed.
On holding land, to my surprise, less than 1% of schools is on land owned by the DfE. It is the local authority, diocese and the occasional university or FE college, private charitable trusts and, of course, now MATs, which have publicly funded buildings on their land. In legal jargon, they are the responsible body for the land and buildings, but the funding for repairs and renewal is on the taxpayers. The DfE is probably England’s largest building client. I pause to give my huge thanks to building contractors, responsible bodies and the excellent DfE capital team. Although the DfE had more than its fair share of news headlines during the pandemic, school places not being built was not the cause of them. When you cannot command building supplies, as you are not categorised as critical national infrastructure, this was no mean feat.
The estate is still mainly that built to serve the post-war baby boom in a time of shortage of building materials—and, therefore, the development was of materials and system builds much of which are at the end, or near the end, of their design life. This might seem a dull issue, but I think that it is an important one. The DfE is, I think for the third time, doing an external survey of the entire school estate, so it has expert evidence of which are the worst buildings. Any of those responsible bodies can be weak—Croydon, of course, recently went bankrupt—or an LA may have recently failed an Ofsted social care inspection. Dioceses have varying degrees of health. The General Synod recently outlined in its report that some are solvent only due to central funds. The Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool is struggling with educational standards, and MATs may be known to the department to be struggling for any of the reasons above. SATs or very small MATs may be the responsible body for some of our worst buildings.
I have been so impressed by my noble friend’s expertise on data, so I hope that this is a question after her own heart. Can she give assurances that data is cross-referenced in the department so that any weak responsible body is checked to ensure that its buildings are not at risk? Much of the time, that would just be a constructive phone call—but if the DfE knows that a small MAT has one of its worst buildings after being surveyed and that it is not applying to the department for the money to do repairs, is a red flag raised? While other building safety issues are in the headlines in the Grenfell inquiry, it cannot be said that MPs are not raising the state of school buildings. It could be one of their top concerns. Alas, noble Lords will remember the issue last November at Rosemead Preparatory School in Dulwich, where a ceiling collapsed and injured—thankfully, not seriously—a number of children. Had this issue had been spotted by the independent schools inspector or Ofsted, whoever inspects it, or are changes necessary to the frameworks to ensure that such matters are noted in future inspections?
Finally, on a changed DfE, it has gone from sending out money to local authorities to fund schools to managing the performance, currently, of thousands of contracts, which may become in the White Paper the statutory academy trust standards. The ESFA and the regions group as well as the capital department means that the DfE is massively an operational department, not a policy delivery model. When the pandemic struck, the DfE already had a small army of officials overseeing the educational performance of contracts with MATs. They already knew the regions, schools, LAs and the issues on the ground, and were turned into what noble Lords may remember were called the REAC teams. I want to thank them. They were led at the time by the National Schools Commissioner, Dominic Herrington, and worked night and day to support schools and LAs during the pandemic. But they also achieved the transfer of many failed schools to new academy trusts while also running the REACT operation.
Disadvantaged children were affected by missing school, and the effects were even more acute if you were in a school that Ofsted had judged inadequate or requiring improvement. The Children’s Commissioner’s excellent report on schools includes all the necessary data on this issue, but I might flag that that report and the White Paper all rely on the pre-pandemic 2019 data. In her report it said that, if you were a child on free school meals, or a child in need or SEND, you were more likely to be in such schools and less likely to get good GCSE passes.
I wholly welcome the consultation on RI schools to give the Secretary of State powers to intervene—currently to cancel the contracts—but it does not make the depth of the issue clear. Although it states that over 200 have been rated “requires improvement” five times or more, some have been RI six, seven, eight, nine or 11 times. These children have been in schools that have been less than good for more than a decade. One school in the system, an 11-RI school, has never been judged good by Ofsted since the very existence of Ofsted.
The areas of the country will come as no surprise. The north-east in general and Stoke-on-Trent have a problem with secondary schools being repeatedly RI. This power of intervention is vital to any levelling-up agenda, but how long will parents whose children are in an inadequate or repeat-RI school, whether maintained or an academy—and we should be as firm about academies that fail as maintained schools—wait for that new leadership? The current MAT system based on contractual regulation or a future system could be nimble and deal swiftly with failure.
While it might be right that MATs should come under a duty to co-operate, failed schools are often stuck, because not all local authorities co-operate, although they are under a duty to facilitate the conversion. Sadly, not all Anglican dioceses consent swiftly to their failed schools going into the neighbouring Anglican diocese’s MAT. Are inadequate schools still stuck in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, as only a Catholic-led MAT will do and there are not enough of them? Or are the schools stuck as the MAT refuses, perhaps rightly, to become responsible for buildings that are in need of significant repair?
Although it is excellent to offer a parental pledge to notify you that your child is behind in English or maths, if they are in a failed school, do you not also need a pledge about the maximum time to get the school under new leadership? Can my noble friend outline how long is the DfE aim for this new leadership to be in place? What is the average time to get a failed maintained school into a MAT or transferred at the moment? Will legislation be needed to deal with any of these issues? Sadly, the White Paper is silent on what are, as I have outlined, some of the main blocks to a swift transfer of failed schools.
Finally, the failed schools in the system, as noted by the Children’s Commissioner and from my experience in the DfE, have disproportionate numbers of free school meal and SEND children in them. Also, too many of our good and outstanding schools have free school meal and SEND percentages in low single figures. I found this infuriating. I was disappointed by the lack of consideration to the use of the admissions code or Ofsted’s framework to insist that all schools take a minimum of the national percentage of both categories or, as the Children’s Commissioner suggests, to give certain categories of children priority admissions, as was done for looked-after children.
Parts of the White Paper are ambitious—the statutory academy trust framework, local authorities directing academies to take certain pupils and the SEND review on national standards across all schools—but if you cannot get disadvantaged and SEND pupils into some of our best schools, I fear the ambition we all have for our most disadvantaged children will not be met.
Rather belatedly, I conclude by congratulating my noble friend on the proficient and accessible way she has taken on her ministerial role. As I hope was clear in my time at the Dispatch Box and in this speech, I am passionate about education, especially for the disadvantaged. If you have to lose your job, it is great to have a friend, not only a noble friend, take it on. I also wish to thank what I used to term “the two Mikes”—the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Watson—whose forthright and knowledgeable opposition I always respected. Although he is not present in your Lordships’ House today, I always valued the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on the needs of SEND children. As I believe officials would testify, this was woven into everything for which I had responsibility.
Although governing during a pandemic was challenging —and I often felt like I was living in a bunker—I cannot conclude without thanking the civil servants who served me and my private office especially when, for long periods, we physically saw only each other. They offered me much wisdom and humour, and I was a better Minister because of them.