David Laws: local government's role in improving education

David Laws speech at the Local Government Association (LGA) education conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Laws

First of all, thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

Local government has a massive and crucial role to play in delivering education.

It does now. It will in the future.

I want us to stay closely in touch, for 2 reasons.

Firstly, because I want to hear from you about any problems or issues at “ground level”, so that we can deal with these together.

Secondly, because we need to work together if we are to secure the best outcomes for young people in this country. The Department isn’t able to deliver our ambitions without your support and participation.

The Department’s communication routes with the Local Government sector are changing, as some of you know.

But I want to ensure that our contact is just as productive, indeed more productive, than in the past.

That will include a new, small, and focused “reference group” which will meet with me on what I envisage being a quarterly or bi-monthly basis.

And the Secretary of State and other ministers will also of course engage regularly and through their own mechanisms.

I have been asked to speak today on the subject of “Raising Ambition; Achieving Potential.”

Whether intentionally or not, this choice of subject has a double meaning for me.

Firstly, because it is obvious that we need to work together to raise our ambitions about what young people, including from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, can achieve in their education.

We need to ensure that every young person can meet his or her potential.

We know that this is not presently the case.

Until recently, only 40 per cent of children secured good grades at GCSE. It is now 60 per cent. Improvements are always good news. But moving from a 40 per cent to 60 per cent system remains completely unacceptable.

We now need to move to a system in which 80 or 90 per cent of children can reach their potential. That includes stretching the most able.

But the key element of this must involve closing the appalling gap between the outcomes for disadvantaged children and the rest.

It is intolerable that in this country life chances are being so determined by social circumstances rather than innate ability and commitment.

Local authorities in inner London have helped transform the opportunities of disadvantaged young people over the last decade.

That is great. But it also highlights how badly we are failing these same young people in other parts of the country.

Young people only get one real chance to get their education right. That is why school improvement must be all about what both Martin Luther King and Michael Gove refer to as “the fierce urgency of now.” That is why government ministers are intolerant of failure and impatient for dramatic change.

Local government must not only be our partners in delivering these changes.

You must be leaders and innovators.

Local government is so used to being dictated to by successive central governments that there is a risk that, at best, we just turn you into a delivery arm of central government.

But this risk is much, much, greater if you simply wait for us to dictate to you.

My message is this: identify the impediments to success in your area; work to demolish them; tell us what we can do to help. Bang on our doors. Do not wait for us to bang on yours.

In that sense, the title of this speech is not just about children.

I want local government to have a greater ambition for its own role in improving educational outcomes. And I want all of local government to achieve its potential, not just a few flagship councils.

Local authorities have a key strategic oversight role in education. It is local authorities which have the legal responsibility to ensure that there is a school place for every child in their area. This is an important role, particularly in areas with rising pupil numbers.

Local authorities not only have to ensure provision, but they are vital in making the school admissions process work. It is local authorities which help deliver fair access for all.

There are many other strategic areas where local authorities are and will remain important. Take school transport, for example. It may not be glamorous, but those school buses are of critical importance for many pupils.

Local authorities can and must do much more than fulfilling their statutory duties.

Critically, they can and must support schools, challenge schools, and - where necessary - intervene in schools.

The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, made it clear in his most recent report that more children than ever before are in good schools. That is fantastic news.

He has been clear that there are areas of the country where almost all schools are excellent or good. That, too, is fantastic news.

But progress and performance are not uniform across the country. Sir Michael has been equally clear that there are areas of the country where only a minority of schools are good enough. That is both tragic and unacceptable.

According to Ofsted, two million school children are in schools that are not good enough. No-one should be willing to accept that.

This, surely, is the biggest challenge of all.

And if local authorities want to retain their important role in schools then they must act when schools in their areas need to improve.

Too often in the past local authorities have failed to act to deal with failure or mediocrity.

Too many local authorities have felt that it is their job to champion “their” schools, regardless of whether these schools are delivering for their children.

But your job is to be champions for parents and pupils, not apologists for performance which isn’t good enough.

For sure, more schools are now academies than ever before. And for sure, the relationship between local authorities and schools is different when a school becomes an academy. But the overwhelming majority of schools are still part of the local authority family of schools.

These schools need your support and, sometimes, your challenge.
Ofsted, as you know, is now raising the bar on inspections.

“Satisfactory” is no longer good enough. It now “requires improvement”.

Bluntly, there is no way my Department has the capacity to intervene in the number of schools which may now need intervention and support.

That is why you are so important.

If you did not exist, you would need to be invented.

And you do not need re-inventing as Schools Commissioners or some regional arm of my department.

You just need to deliver.

You all need to do what the best councils are now doing.

I do not want to use this speech to single out those who are at the bottom of Sir Michael’s local authority list.

You all know who they are. Rather I want to concentrate on those at the top, places like Camden, Sefton and Trafford. I want to challenge those places to work with other local authorities who need assistance.

And I want you all to learn from the most successful local authorities.
Local authorities are stronger when they work together and can achieve more when they co-operate. Learning from each other is a necessity, and not a choice, if schools are to improve, and if local authorities are to remain an important part of the school system.

There are many ways for local authorities to intervene.

They can offer school support directly. They can encourage schools to form self-improvement clusters. They can find suitable sponsors for underachieving schools.

There is not one single option for delivering change.

But nor should there be an option for tolerating failure and mediocrity.

The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has recently written to some local authorities highlighting problems in school performance in their area. Those letters have provoked strong reactions. Some people have welcomed them, and described them as fair. I admit that such comments have largely been private, but I assure you that they have been made.

Others have been upset, or even angry to receive them. Two groups have made representations along those lines. The first do not believe that Ministers should write such letters. I disagree. It is perfectly proper for the Secretary of State for Education to write to local authorities about the standards of education in their area.

The second group of people protested because they felt that the particular letter that they received was not a fair letter. Where that is the case, you should indeed tell us. Just as it is fair for us to write to you, so it is fair for you to reply. We will take your letters seriously - just as we expect you to take our letters seriously.

But in the interests of the children of this country, we need to set aside bruised egos and get on with working to ensure that the laggards come up to the standards now being delivered by the best. And quickly. Because each child has just one chance.

Ofsted will continue to shine a strong light on local authority performance in this area. And I will fully support them as they do this. Sir Michael Wilshaw has rightly said that he will hold Academy chains to account as well. This is not about picking on local authorities. It is about tackling failure - wherever it is occurring.

That leads to me on my next theme: the relationship between national and local government.

I want to highlight three legitimate expectations that you can have of us.
We should offer you the financial support that you need, we should be fair, and we should trust you, while ensuring that you are held properly to account.

Let me start with financial support. The coalition government took the decision at the start of the parliament to ring-fence the schools budget.

That spending is, therefore, protected come what may.

Not only that, but we also created the pupil premium that will deliver around £6bn of funding for children from poorer backgrounds over this parliament. That money can and must have life changing effects for those children.

But let me say this: all ministers in my department are aware of the basic need pressures in many parts of the country.

We know that there is a rise in the number of children, and we know that there are implications for school capital requirements.

We are also aware that schools need maintaining - that is why we are looking at the quality of the school estate at the moment.

We have fought hard to make sure that Treasury understands all these needs just as well as we do.

The government has a responsibility to treat you fairly.

The department has recently concluded its consultation on the future of LACSEG. Clearly reform is needed, and we are striving to be fair to maintained schools, academies and free schools.

We are listening carefully to what you have to say.

We are also working hard on a national funding formula for schools.

The current system is hard to defend, and that is why we are working on a new approach.

But equally we know that we cannot move quickly from the current system to a new formula, for any new formula will create both losers and winners.

It is fair that we move to a national formula, but equally it is fair that we move carefully, and protect the losers. As you know, we already have a minimum funding guarantee in place at the moment, and we will want to build on this approach as we move to a national formula.

Fairness has many attributes, and financial fairness is only one of them. The department also needs to be fair in the way that it treats different types of school.

Make no mistake, as I said earlier, we will hold all schools to account, whether they are maintained, academies or free schools.

There are challenges ahead, for both of us.

There are delivery challenges in providing the relevant number of places for two-year-olds, and ensuring that they are of good quality. Those challenges are particularly intense in the second year of delivery, when 40 per cent of children will be eligible for a place.

There are challenges ahead in terms of raising the participation age. We have a duty to fund places for every person who takes them up, whether they want to stay at school, go to college, or take up an apprenticeship. We will fulfil that duty.

You, in turn, have a legal duty to ensure that people of relevant age are in full time education or training. We expect you to fulfil that duty.

Already the best local authorities in the country have impressive programmes in place. They identify young people at most risk of becoming NEET, and develop programmes to engage them. They work with schools, colleges and children’s services, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable. This includes referring those who are eligible to the new youth contract.

In such areas the number of young people who are NEET is very low. That is what we should all want to see, and again, local authorities should work with central government and learn from each other.

In other areas of the country there are still far too many young people who are not engaged in education or training. It is essential that the lower performing areas learn from the best and close this gap.

Let me conclude.

The relationship between local authorities and national government has not always been a good one. I regret that. Of course there will be points of tension, and points of disagreement. I understand that.

But equally, I believe strongly that we can and must create a new working relationship.

This new deal will be based on honesty, fairness, trust and accountability. And above all it will be based on both sides working together towards a common goal. That goal, of course, is to raise ambitions and achieve the potential for each and every child in our country.

To do that we need to raise the ambitions in local government and ensure that the potential of local government is realised in every part of our country.

Thank you.

Published 18 December 2012