Schools Bill, Second Reading, House of Lords, 23 May 2022

The LGA supports the focus on ensuring all children get the right support at the right time, particularly in the context of the impact of the pandemic and the widening attainment gap. The amount of funding made available to support education catch-up must be kept under review to ensure every child has the support they need to learn, and to support their broader development and wellbeing.


Key messages

  • Boosting education and tackling the attainment gap will be vital to levelling up the country. We welcome the Schools Bill and the preceding Schools White Paper, as a positive step towards tackling inequalities and ensuring every child has the right support to fulfil their potential.
  • We welcome the Bill’s provision to allow councils to set up and lead their own multi-academy trusts (MATs), which the LGA have long campaigned for. Councils’ have an excellent track record in providing a high-quality education for pupils, with 92 per cent of maintained schools rated by Ofsted as outstanding or good – a higher proportion than any other type of school. It is positive that pupils and their families will continue to benefit from this expertise in a fully academised school system.
  • The LGA supports the focus on ensuring all children get the right support at the right time, particularly in the context of the impact of the pandemic and the widening attainment gap. The amount of funding made available to support education catch-up must be kept under review to ensure every child has the support they need to learn, and to support their broader development and wellbeing.
  • Councils have a crucial role to play in education, from ensuring every child has a school place to turning around struggling schools, which they demonstrated when providing vital support to schools during the pandemic. We are pleased that the Government’s reforms set out in the Schools White Paper recognise that the existing education system is fragmented and that it is essential councils should have a continued role at the centre of local education systems.  
  • Councils and maintained schools will need to be convinced that the ambition for every school to be an academy by 2030 and structural reforms, will drive an improvement in school performance and outcomes.
  • To support councils’ vital role in the education system, we are calling for Government to commit to providing councils with sufficient backstop powers within the Bill to direct academies to expand school places. This will be vital to enable councils to fulfil their statutory duties around school place-planning and deliver on local needs.
  • We disagree with the principle of Whitehall setting the budgets for 24,000 schools’ budgets under the direct National Funding Formula (NFF). It is important that an element of local discretion is retained, allowing for councils to take local priorities and the needs of all schools in their area into account, and deal with additional school costs that cannot be adequately addressed through a formulaic approach.
  • The Bill’s introduction of a compulsory register for children not in school is welcome. We have long called for a register for all home educators to ensure children are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment. However, we continue to call for councils to be given adequate powers to check on home-schooled children, to ensure they are receiving a suitable education and for safeguarding purposes. 
  • Action on illegal schools will be key in ensuring children are not taught in an unsuitable or dangerous environment. We are however concerned that Ofsted lack the capacity and local knowledge to act quickly to close illegal settings. The Government should therefore ensure councils, who know their local areas best and are ideally placed to take timely action where these settings are identified, have adequate powers to take action against illegal schools.
  • It is vital that the Government’s education reforms prioritise addressing the wider factors that impact children’s educational outcomes. We will only begin to tackle the widening disadvantage gap in education, with a long-term, cross-Whitehall strategy, that provides children and young people with holistic support and tackles rising levels of financial hardship and poor mental health. We look forward to working with Government to ensure the Bill makes use of councils’ expertise and delivers the best outcomes for all children and young people.

Background

The Schools Bill provides the legislative underpinning for the reforms in the Government’s ‘Opportunity for all Strong schools with great teachers for your child’ White Paper, published in March. The White Paper sets out proposed reforms to the education system focussed on providing an excellent teacher for every child, delivering high standards of curriculum, behaviour and attendance, targeted support for every child that needs it and; a stronger and fairer school system.

School system reform: structures, standards and regulation

  • Part one of the Bill introduces reforms to the school system which support the Government’s ambition to create a fully trust-led system by 2030, with a single regulatory approach to drive up standards.
  • Clauses 1-3 will introduce a power permitting the Secretary of State to make regulations to set ‘academy standards.’ These regulations will set out the requirements on academy proprietors applying consistently across all academy trusts, with the aim of driving up standards across the school system.
  • Clauses 5-9 provide the Secretary of State with a suite of powers to intervene in academies that are not delivering expected outcomes, and terminate academy agreements and master agreements where an academy is failing or in cases of insolvency.
  • The Bill also removes barriers to enable faith schools and grammar schools to join MATs.

LGA view

With sufficient powers and funding councils are ideally placed to act as the ‘middle tier’ between central government and schools, bringing together place-based leadership, with their existing duty to promote wellbeing of all children and wider roles including safeguarding, public health, criminal justice, employment, skills and cohesion.

To support councils’ role in the education system, it is vital that they have strengthened powers to match their existing statutory duty to ensure there is a local school place for every child that needs one. We welcome the Government’s commitment to provide councils with a backstop power to direct trusts to admit pupils, however we are disappointed that a provision to introduce this is missing from the Bill. Councils currently do not have the powers to direct academy trusts to expand their school places, which will increasingly undermine their ability to meet local needs as more schools convert from local authority-maintained schools to academies.

Councils need the flexibility and powers to make timely decisions to expand schools, particularly when there are sudden increases in the number of school-age children in an area, as we have seen with the arrival of Afghan and Ukrainian families in recent months. We do not support the proposal in the Schools White Paper that DfE Regional Directors should take over responsibility for making decisions about school expansion and the creation of new places. As democratic leaders of place, councils are rooted in their communities, know their areas best and are best placed to fulfil this role, acting swiftly to respond to changes in local circumstances.

We are therefore calling for Government to commit to providing councils with sufficient backstop powers within the Bill, as set out in the White Paper, to direct academies to expand school places. This will enable councils to fulfil their duty and meet local needs.

Powers for councils to run multi-academy trusts

  • Clause 29 of the Bill will introduce powers for the Secretary of State to issue academy orders to maintained schools, if requested to do so by the relevant Local Authority. This will enable councils to run their own MATs.

LGA view

We welcome the provision to allow councils to set up and lead their own MATs, which is something the LGA and councils have long campaigned for. Councils in every area should be empowered to create their own MAT, where this is the preference of schools and parents. We are pleased that the Department for Education (DfE) recognises that councils have an excellent track record in providing a high-quality education for pupils, with 92 per cent of maintained schools rated by Ofsted as outstanding or good – a higher proportion than any other type of school – and that this will continue in a fully-academised school system.

We would like to see the Department utilise the expertise of local government and enable councils to support ‘orphan’ schools where Regional Schools Commissioners are struggling to find a strong MAT to take them on. It is still unclear what the Department’s plan is for schools that are in this situation.

It is right that council-led MATs are regulated in the same way as other trusts, however we do not support the proposal to put limits on local authority involvement in trust boards. Councils must be free to appoint the individuals with the most appropriate skills and experience to become members of a MAT Board.

Direct National Funding Formula

  • Part two of the Bill will implement a direct National Funding Formula, so that each mainstream school will be allocated funding on the same basis, based on a consistent assessment of pupils’ needs. Under the existing school funding arrangements councils, with the agreement of schools, can move away from the national funding formula to address local needs. That flexibility will be removed once the direct National Funding Formula has been implemented.
  • The national-determined funding formula will apply to schools in England, and apply to both mainstream academy and maintained schools. The Secretary of State would be able to implement the National Funding Formula for other types of schools, through introducing regulations.

LGA view

We disagree with the principle of Whitehall setting the budgets for 24,000 schools’ budgets under the direct National Funding Formula (NFF). We are calling for the Government to retain an element of local discretion, allowing for councils to take local priorities and the needs of all schools in their area into account, and deal with additional school costs that cannot be adequately addressed through a formulaic approach.

The DfE should clarify how the direct NFF will work in a fully academised school system. Under the direct NFF, MATs will continue to have the freedom to move money between individual schools that form part of their trust via the General Grant Agreement (GAG), without oversight or a requirement for transparency. As a result, there is a possibility that schools in the same area with the same characteristics, will be funded differently depending on the MAT they belong to. This appears to contradict the aim of every school being funded on the same basis.

Schools and parents should know how much money MATs are ‘top-slicing’ from a schools’ budget after funding has been allocated under the NFF. There should be a requirement for transparency on how money that is re-allocated from schools’ budgets is spent, to assess the quality and value for money of services and staffing that this funding is providing back to the school.

The DfE must ensure that councils are in receipt of sufficient locally determined expenditure to allow them to meet the needs of children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) via the high needs block; paydown Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) deficits; fund early years entitlements and fulfil their ongoing education responsibilities or central school services.

School attendance and children not in school

  • Part three of the Bill introduces a requirement for local authorities to maintain a register of all children not in school and to provide support for home educators.
  • It also adds to the legal framework for school attendance support and management. The Bill will enable the Secretary of State to prescribe the circumstances in which the issuing of a fixed penalty notice must be considered, and extend the regulation of granting leaves of absence to cover all types of academy schools.

LGA view

The proposal to introduce a compulsory register for children not in school, and a duty for parents to register home-schooled children with their council, is welcome. We have long called for a register for all home educators to ensure children are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment. A duty on parents to register home-schooled children with their local authority will be vital to allow councils to monitor how children are being educated and prevent children from disappearing from the oversight of services designed to keep them safe.

Many parents are delivering high quality education at home and are willing to work with their local councils, but in cases where parents are unwilling to engage, councils need powers to enter the homes of and see children who are not in school, which councils are currently missing. We are therefore calling for the Bill to be amended, to introduce adequate powers for local authorities to check on home-schooled children, to ensure all children who are not in school are safe and receiving a suitable education.

The LGA shares the Department’s view that good attendance at school plays a vital role in children’s development and for their wellbeing. In our response to the recent consultation on improving consistency of support for school attendance, we set out our support for proposals to introduce a set of minimum expectations developed in consultation with councils. Any new national framework needs to provide clarity for parents, take full account of the discretion given to head teachers to initiate formal legal intervention and should encourage preventative intervention for long-term absence issues.

Independent Education Institutions

  • Part four of the Bill aims to strengthen the regulation of independent educational institutions, by bringing more settings within the scope of the Education and Skills Act 2008.
  • The Bill will expand the definition of an ‘independent educational institution’ to all institutions which provide full time education to at least five children of school age, or at least one child with who is looked after by a local authority or who has special educational needs, meaning that that these institutions must comply with independent educational institution standards and undergo inspections.
  • The Bill also includes provisions to enable the Secretary of State to set new standards for independent education institutions and suspend the registration of an independent educational institution if standards are not met or if students are at risk of harm.

LGA view

Action on illegal schools will be key in ensuring children are not taught in an unsuitable or dangerous environment. We welcome the Bill’s provision to increase Ofsted’s powers to inspect schools that are operating illegally without registration.

We welcome the commitment to continued support for Ofsted’s work to scrutinise and challenge off-rolling and the proposal for legislation to increase Ofsted’s powers to inspect schools that are operating illegally without registration.

We are however concerned that Ofsted lack the capacity and local knowledge to act quickly to close illegal settings. The Government should therefore ensure councils, who know their local areas best and are ideally placed to take timely action where these settings are identified, have adequate powers to take action against illegal schools. We would like to see the Bill amended in this regard.

Academies guidance and requirements regarding religious academies

  • Part one, clause 4 of the Bill would amend the Education Act 1996 so that the power of a local authority to provide milk, meals and other refreshments to any pupils registered at a school maintained by it and their duty to provide lunches free of charge in certain cases is extended to the proprietor of an academy school or alternative provision academy both for pupils who are on the roll of the academy and for people who are not on its roll but receive education there.
  • Part one, clause 24 of the Bill provides that if an academy proprietor is unwilling to provide religious education in accordance with the agreed syllabus in an area the local authority must provide religious education where parents wish for their child to receive it. This provision mirrors provisions for maintained schools designated with a religious character in School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

LGA view

Additional funding must follow any extension of local authority duties to provide services and support to pupils at academies within their area.

The best start and education for every child

The Government set out a range of reforms in the Schools White Paper to boost the education attainment of all students and committed to providing targeted support to pupils at risk of falling behind, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). These measures included:

  • Increasing funding and support to areas in most need, in ‘55 Education Investment areas’
  • Providing up to 6 million tutoring courses by 2024
  • A ‘Parent Pledge’, that every school will provide evidence-based support for children that fall behind in English or maths

LGA view

Education and tackling the attainment gap will be vital in levelling up the country. We therefore support funding being targeted at ‘Education Investment Areas’, to raise attainment in places which have the lowest outcomes.  

However, the pandemic has hit the educational attainment of all pupils, particularly those from vulnerable backgrounds, and the impact of this will be felt for years to come. We are therefore calling on the Government to put children at the centre of the recovery from COVID-19 and work with councils, utilising their expertise, to provide holistic support and ensure all pupils can make up for lost learning.

The amount of funding made available to support education catch-up must also be kept under review to ensure every child has the support they need to learn, and support their broader development and well-being.

Tackling disadvantage

It is vital that the Government’s education reforms include greater acknowledgement of, and action to address the wider socio-economic factors that impact children’s educational outcomes. As a result of the pandemic and cost of living crisis, schools and councils have seen ever increasing levels of financial hardship and poverty in families presenting through increased eligibility for free school meals and higher levels of demand for support from early help services. With up to an estimated 150,000 more children living in poverty by the end of the year, the decline in disadvantaged children’s standard of living and wellbeing risks undermining the Government’s ambitions for education.

We will only begin to tackle the widening disadvantage gap in education with a long-term, cross-Whitehall strategy, that tackles rising levels of financial hardship and instability, and poor mental health and wellbeing. This must be unpinned by adequate investment in local welfare and early-intervention services, to allow councils to deliver support in a pro-active and preventative way, and backed up by a sufficient national benefits system.

SEND

Councils are committed to ensuring that every child with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) gets the high-quality support that meets their needs. Parental confidence in a new SEND system will be crucial for it to work effectively, and we are committed to working with parents, families, and the Government to ensure a reformed system meets the needs of all children and young people with SEND. 

We welcome the Government’s review of the SEND system and believe that the proposals set out in the consultation will help improve the way that SEND support is delivered to the benefit of children and young people with special needs. We look forward to working with Government to get the reforms right, including ensuring councils have the right powers and funding to meet needs of children with SEND and hold health and education partners to account for their contributions to local SEND systems. 

We have always been clear that improving mainstream provision, so that it can meet the needs of more children with SEND, will be central to the success of the proposals set out in the recently published SEND Green Paper. However, we need further detail from the Department on how they plan to support schools to become more inclusive. We are concerned that the aim for every school to become part of a strong MAT by 2030 will not of itself drive a sufficient increase in mainstream inclusion, or provide the tailored support that young people and children with SEND need.

It will take several years for the proposals set out in the Green Paper to be taken through the legislative process, before becoming law. In the meantime, making additional high needs funding available via the ‘safety valve’ and ‘Delivering Better Value in SEND’ programmes is welcome. However, the Government must go further to address urgent pressures within the SEND system. The Government need to review the level of High Needs Funding councils receive and ensure all councils have sufficient funding to meet the needs of local children and young people with SEND. We are also calling on the Government to develop a plan that eliminates every council’s Dedicated Schools Grant deficit, which will be vital to secure the future sustainability of SEND funding.  

Mental health

The number of young people in contact with mental health services in England increased by nearly a third (29 per cent) to 305,802 in February 2021, from 237,088 in March 2020, while it is estimated that 1.5 million children and young people will need support for their mental health as a direct result of the pandemic over the next three to five years. It is vital that that the Government commits to strong action and investment to meet current, unmet and new demand for children’s mental health support that has built up during the pandemic

We support the White Paper’s commitment to ensure that there is a senior mental health lead in each school and welcome the recent announcement of further funding for mental health leads. However, these plans were laid out in the Children’s Mental Health Green Paper in 2017 and have been slow to progress.

To complement the roll-out of mental health teams in schools, it is vital that school-based counselling is rolled out to all state funded secondary schools and academies. This would ensure more than 90 per cent of schools have access to a school counsellor for at least two days a week. The Government’s current ambition for 35 per cent of schools to have a counsellor by 2025 does not go far enough.

Supporting young people’s mental health should not be seen as solely an NHS issue. Local authorities have a vital role in helping children have mentally healthy childhoods, both through co-commissioning direct mental health services and through the provision of affordable and secure housing, green spaces, leisure and culture activities. Crucially, they also help families through community-based early intervention and prevention services, which help children and families stay well and address issues before they reach crisis point. It is important that councils are treated as an equal partner in providing mental health support and are adequately resourced to provide the range of services that support young people and relieve the pressure on schools.  

Contact

Megan Edwards, Public Affairs and Campaigns Advisor

Email: megan.edwards@local.gov.uk