Clause 20

Part of Children, Schools and Families Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:00 pm ar 4 Chwefror 2010.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 1:00, 4 Chwefror 2010

Like the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, I am convinced of the need at least to touch on the issue of home education, even though we clearly have not been given enough time for the scrutiny of the Bill. Before we get to home education, however, we have to deal with a couple of incredibly important clauses, which could have a major impact, for better or for worse, on the schools system. One of those issues is the licence to practise, which we will come to in a moment, and the other one is the provision of information about schools. In shorthand terms, that is known as the school report card.

Given the time constraints, you probably want to avoid a stand part debate, Mrs Anderson, so I hope that you do not mind if I set out some of our views at the beginning and then link in the amendments.

We are sympathetic to the idea that the existing school accountability framework needs fundamental review. All sorts of different elements of school accountability have grown up over time. John Dunford, the widely respected head of the Association of School and College Leaders professional group, often presents to me—and, I suspect, to those in the other two major parties—a diagram with schools in the middle surrounded by the vast array of different organisations and mechanisms that are supposed to hold them to account. When he first showed me the diagram a couple of years ago, I did not even know what all the bodies were, because there were so many.

School accountability is clearly incredibly important, but so is accountability not being excessively expensive, not replicating itself, and being useful to parents and those responsible for holding schools to account—from the head teacher and the governing body to local authorities and others. At the moment, there is concern that the accountability system replicates a lot that need not be replicated, and does not often provide information that is useful to parents when making decisions. Teaching organisations are often critical of the league tables, although my response is that once information is available about school matters and school performance, keeping such information secret is impossible, as we have discovered in this place.

A legitimate concern is that existing league tables reflect to a large extent the social catchments of the schools in which they sit, and do not always give us an idea of whether schools in tough areas are performing  particularly well or badly set against their challenges. Sometimes the tables do not give us an idea of whether schools in leafier areas, or in middle-ranking areas for social deprivation, are doing a good job.

If we are not simply to end up with an unreasonable focus on the bottom 10, 20 or 30 per cent. of schools, but are to hold them all to account, we need to find a better mechanism. That has been offered to us in the school report card, a version of which I have obtained from the Minister, who kindly circulated a draft the other day—I assume that the size had been blown up to help those with defective eyesight. It was useful to have a copy before the debate so that we could reflect on how useful it will be and on whether the process will get rid of information that we do not need.

My first comment is that I was expecting the Government’s idea to be a rather big one—something rather radical—that would, for example, help me, as a local MP, to make judgments about the schools in my area. I expected to see more refined information about how schools were performing set against their catchments so that we could compare performance to the degree of challenge. However, when we look at the report card and, even more so, the impact assessment—I commend its precision, detail and helpfulness to the Committee—we discover that we have not a mountain of a policy but a bit of a molehill.

Instead of the report card delivering a better, more refined judgment about individual schools, the impact assessment says that all it will do is consolidate existing available school information on, essentially, one piece of paper, and deal with what is described as the market failure of imperfect information by combining information sources, therefore presenting economies of scale. Another clue comes from the annual cost of the proposal: a total annual cost for the entire thing, in net present value terms, of £1.269 million. The costs all appear to be one-off, up-front transitional ones, because some information is already collected by the Department, while other information is held by Ofsted and other bodies. The assessment says that “significant additional running costs” are not expected, so there will be a tiny set-up cost and, apparently, no average running costs at all, as well as no collection of additional information or any processing of data—that is why there is a low cost.

I wonder whether the report card will deliver the real improvement in school accountability that I hoped we might see. As I have said, I do not think that the existing mechanisms of school accountability are good. The way in which the Home Office now compares the basic command units of different police forces is an example of better practice, although not necessarily of best practice. If I want to compare the east Somerset BCU with other forces, I compare it not with a tough part of Bristol that will always have more crime, and so always flatter east Somerset, but with BCUs with a similar level of challenge.

The Government will probably say that the pupil progress element demonstrates an element of value added, but I think that this is a missed opportunity. We should find an accessible way—pupil progress is not accessible for most people—in which to compare schools depending on their catchments so that people have a clear idea of whether a school is performing well or badly compared with other schools with a similar level of challenge. No doubt other hon. Members will have better suggestions on how we could compare schools.

We need to get away from the problem that much of what is in the league tables—although not all of it, before the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton says anything—is determined by social catchment. That is not to say that we should have low expectations of schools in tough areas. We should have high expectations of all schools. There are schools with all kinds of social catchments that perform incredibly. A comparison using a simplistic league table of a school in the richest community in the country with a school in the most chaotic community will deliver meaningless information. My concern is that this is a missed opportunity to deliver more meaningful information.

I am sceptical about whether much of the information on the report card will prove useful. I might sound a little Gibbish or Bognorish saying these things, but I baulk at the bits about pupil perception, parent perception, pupil well-being and partnership working. I fear not only that it is all rather vague and meaningless and does not come to the crunch of whether a school is doing a good job, but that those things will be put into the computer somewhere in the Department for Children, Schools and Families—I will come back to that later—to produce the overall grade in the corner of the school report card, which is the only new element. I assume that the six measures from pupil progress down to narrowing gaps will be turned into one grade that sums up the quality of the school.

At first, I was sympathetic to the idea of straightforward and blunt accountability and thought that delivering one grade would give clarity. I say that with reservations because if hon. Members were asked whether our performance should be measured by one grade, we would quickly come up with 20 or 30 good reasons why doing so would be meaningless. One of those reasons might relate to the experience of school report cards in New York. I understand that when they were first introduced, the grade was regarded as giving a clear signal of where improvement needed to be made. There was a fairly predictable distribution of grades among the schools, with about 20 per cent. of schools getting As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es. Although I do not have the figures at my fingertips, I read recently that over the past few years, the number of schools graded A had rocketed and that the overwhelming majority now have As.

Precisely the same thing would happen if MPs were graded on five or six things, such as making interventions in Committee or signing early-day motions. We would all sign every daft EDM without any scrutiny because we would want to move up the league table. We would also do all the other things and all suddenly get As. Everyone would realise that it was a waste of time because all the MPs would have As, whereas people would know that they were not all As.

I therefore think that the A, B, C, D grading might be counter-productive. It will certainly anger schools and it will lead to the inevitable inclusion of all sorts of other things. Schools do not want to be compared only on the basis of attainment and results; they want a wide range of other issues to be taken into account, but the measure would start watering that down. The only new thing in the school report card will probably not be valuable, and needs to be dumped.