HL Deb 30 June 1999 vol 603 cc271-4

2.42 p.m.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the recent Ofsted report on Summerhill School.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, Ofsted has reported that Summerhill School fails to meet statutory minimum standards of accommodation, welfare and instruction, and is not providing adequate education. We have served a notice of complaint, requiring the school to make specified improvements within a year. We have also asked the school to submit an action plan within three months.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does the noble Lord think it appropriate to consider closing, after 78 years, a unique educational institution in the private sector which has such massive support from pupils and parents? Does he accept that, despite Ofsted's disclaimer that it is not sitting in judgment on Summerhill's philosophy of pupil democracy, that is exactly what it is doing?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the key issue is children's entitlement to minimum standards of education and welfare. The Ofsted team was an experienced HMI team. The inspection lasted five days. It took place against a background of many years of promises to take action which were not achieved.

As to whether it is an attack on the principles of the school, it is perfectly possible to argue that there is no requirement on the school to change its ethos. It is about ensuring that pupils pursue a broad and balanced curriculum, whether through lessons or prim ate study, that their progress is monitored appropriately, and that acceptable levels of achievement are attained.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, since when has it been the policy of the Government to take a view about the philosophy and education of private schools? This is a school which attained 75 per cent A to C passes in 1998 and 63.9 per cent in 1999. Those figures are well above national averages. There is no truancy; and there is the highest possible level of parental satisfaction with the school. When those parents are paying their money and know what they are paying for, who are we to take a different view about the philosophy of education in a private school?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the situation is straightforward. There is a duty to ensure that independent schools reach and maintain standards laid down in the 1996 Education Act 1996. The inspection identified problems of attendance at lessons, progress not being properly assessed and poor teaching in a quarter of the lessons observed. The inspection reached its conclusions on that basis, following which a notice of complaint was served.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, does not the Minister's last reply suggest that the remit of the inspectors may not be wholly appropriate in examining schools such as Summerhill, which has deliberately set itself out to promote qualities of character and personal development rather than those of strict educational attainment as measured in classroom performance? Those who, like me, live near the school understand the international reputation which it has gained and the extraordinary effect which will be brought about by its closure and the impact on its friends abroad.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I repeat that the statutory provision relating to minimum standards must be operated. The inspection team concluded that there were serious weaknesses which had to be addressed. Of course it is open to the school to make representations to Ofsted about the inspection and the report. It is also open to the school to appeal to the Independent Schools Tribunal within one month of the service of a notice of complaint. But I am satisfied that the inspection was carried out properly and that the conclusions reached were in accordance with the statutory responsibilities.

Lord Tope

My Lords, reflecting on the wider implications of the threat to Summerhill School, does the Minister agree that the beacon of innovation, flair, imagination and lateral thinking which ought to characterise teaching in our schools has all but been snuffed out by the overload of government prescription and an overcrowded national curriculum? Can the Minister tell us of any government initiative that will assist teachers to re-establish their professional independence and, at least as important, their own innovation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we have certainly travelled some distance from Summerhill School. The Government are concerned to raise standards in all our schools. That is why we allocated extra resources; made the classroom size pledge; published the teacher Green Paper; and are tackling failing schools. That is why the public are supportive of the action we are taking.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is it not a fact that in many respects Summerhill School has been a pioneer of many educational ideas which have subsequently been incorporated into mainstream school teaching and practice? Is it not also true that to do anything which would destroy such a school, different as it may be from most independent schools and others, would damage the whole educational system?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am sure that all schools, Summerhill included, have lessons which they can offer to the rest of the school system. However, I do not believe that the inspectors' request that the school effectively monitors the progress of pupils, that acceptable levels of achievement are produced, and that health and safety provisions are properly put into place cuts across the ability of any school to innovate and to develop good practice.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the levels of achievement are well above the national average of our own state schools.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness to refer back to the report of the inspectorate. That report identified serious weaknesses in terms of health and safety issues, teaching and non-attendance of pupils at lessons. It also identified that progress was not properly assessed. In the light of those conclusions, it was inevitable that the report would be produced as it was and that my right honourable friend took the action he did.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, this is a splendid old school which does excellent work. Its standards and philosophy are quite different from those of Mr Chris Woodhead. Thank heaven there is at least one school where they are different. It would be an outrage to close down this school. Parents send their children there because they want to. Its achievements, including its educational achievements, are high. Please do not try to iron out all schools in accordance with the ideas of Mr Woodhead.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, there is no intention of prohibiting parental choice or the freedom of the independent sector. However, as I said, the inspection identified serious weaknesses which need to be addressed. The hope is that the school will get down to addressing them.