Academies Bill [HL] — Second Reading
Lord Baker of Dorking (Conservative)
My Lords, I must declare two interests: I am the chairman of the Edge Foundation, the largest charity in our country promoting technical, practical and vocational education, and I am chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which was established to promote and develop the new technical academies, university technical colleges. I draw no remuneration from either charity.
It comes as no surprise that I am in favour of the Bill and of extending academies, in that they are the heirs of the city technology colleges that I established in 1986. They were revolutionary in that they were the first schools that were truly independent of the local education authority. They had distinct advantages. First, they were free from the LEA. Secondly, the head was in charge. Thirdly, they controlled their own budgets, particularly on pay and conditions. Fourthly, they had freedom to introduce changes; for example, they started at 8 o'clock in the morning with breakfast and went on to 8 o'clock at night. Those were revolutionary changes in the 1980s, and most local authorities objected to them for other schools. Fifthly, there was some freedom in the curriculum, although most followed the national curriculum, and there was a big emphasis on computer technology. In those days, there were only two or three computers in every school, but we wanted every child to have access to a computer. Sixthly, there was industrial and commercial support. My Ministers and I raised more than £44 million from industrialists such as my noble friend Lord Harris, who was one of the first to take over a very rundown school in Croydon and who has now sponsored 10 academies. To bring not only the cash but the commitment from industry and commerce-I know my noble friend puts that in-was a breakthrough in educational terms.
At the time, the Labour Party was totally opposed to city technology colleges. They were the cuckoos in the nest and were to be destroyed at the first opportunity. Fortunately, David Blunkett and Tony Blair came to like them-they believed they invented them and I do not complain about that-and developed and expanded them substantially and improved the standard of education in our country enormously.
The big argument is whether city technology colleges hit other schools, as the Minister said. They did not. They became beacon schools that other schools aspired to copy. That was the pattern right across the country, so I believe that the fears that the shadow Minister expressed are groundless. She expressed the view that in future academies may not want to do failing schools. On the contrary, I think there is a big opportunity. For example, the Edge Foundation has sponsored three academies with amounts totalling nearly £5 million. The first was a school in Milton Keynes that was failing appallingly. Only 19 per cent of pupils got five subjects at GCSE and 80 per cent of the children had a reading age that was two years lower than their chronological age. The gifted head teacher, Lorna Caldicott, has already started the teaching of basic reading using phonics, and a catch-up is happening in that school. It has been going on for nearly four terms and has been remarkably successful. That school also provides real vocational courses for youngsters that are very popular.
This school and the other academies have increased teaching hours. The Minister will discover, if he has not discovered it already, that teachers cannot work more than 1,265 hours a year. That is imprinted on my soul because I agreed it with the unions in 1986 to settle the strike. It has not changed; it has survived, remarkably. That means that most teachers teach only 25 hours a week. This school has won an extra hour a day, which means 30 hours' teaching a week, principally by abolishing many of the meetings that teachers went to and other tasks that they were doing. The advantage of an extra hour's teaching a day is that on a five-year teaching course you gain a whole year's extra teaching. I hope that the Government will spread that throughout the whole educational system.
The second academy was in Nottingham in a very depressed area. Again, it has a gifted head, Graham Roberts. Again, only 14 per cent of the school gained GCSEs at 16. It has established very strong business links already. There are various things that these schools can do. This school got all the students to design their own uniform, so uniforms are accepted. They wear uniforms up to 16, and from 16 on they dress smartly like for the office.
The third academy was in Telford in a very depressed area indeed. Edge put in £500,000 for a skills centre in a separate building in the school. This now has catering equipment, and youngsters of 12 and 13 make their own buffet lunches, help with the canapés and begin to acquire skills. These are the sorts of things that academies can do for failing schools and will continue to do.
What is left for the LEA to do, as my noble friend Lord Low asked? I will be even more ambitious than him about special education, because I think that it is the one role that should be left quite specifically to LEAs. I hope that the Government will look at this very seriously. The first thing that they have said is that they will look at the definition of special education. I find it very difficult to believe that 20 per cent of students and pupils at schools are classified as having special educational needs. I say that from my personal experience, because during the war I went to a Church of England primary school in Lancashire. In those days, I am absolutely certain that one in five of my classmates did not have special educational needs. I do not know whether this was the luck of Lancashire, but it was certainly not the case that one in five had special educational needs. Looking at the definition of special education is therefore the first thing to do.
Having made local authorities responsible for special education, I must say to my noble friend Lord Low that I would encourage them to establish more special schools. He will know that I have for several years been president of a charity that maintains one of the leading blind schools in the country, and I am greatly in favour of more special schools. The policy of inclusion has not worked well. The author of the policy-Lady Plowden-used to be in the Chamber. She is on record as having said that her recommendation was the biggest mistake of her life. It has been a mistake, and special education will be a very real role for local authorities in the years to come.
Finally, I will plug the schools that Ron Dearing and I worked to establish before he unfortunately died: technical academies for 14 to 19 year-olds, not for 11 to 18 year-olds. We believed that 14 is a more natural age at which to transfer. They are really a revival of the old technical schools that went down with comprehensives, but differ in two very important respects. First, they are for 14 to 18 year-olds, because 14 is a better age at which students themselves can select which school they want to go to. Secondly, they are adopted and sponsored by a university. That increases their status in the eyes of the students, of their parents and of business.
We have three such academies on their way. The first is Aston, which will open in two years' time. The University of Aston wants to tutor and mentor pupils at 14, 15 and 16, and I think it is the first time that a university has ever done this. Twenty are waiting. I will not ask my noble friend for a commitment on these today because he will have to speak to the Secretary of State and his department, but I hope that we will have a network of these colleges across the country in the next few years. They will be of real interest to youngsters, many of whom are pretty disengaged at their local comprehensive schools at 13 and 14 and do not want to continue their studies but want to do something more practical.
In these schools, they will start at 8.30 in the morning with a trowel, hammer, welding machine or spanner in their hands, and in the afternoon they will do English, maths, science and IT under the same roof. I do not suggest that all new academies should be technical academies, but I would like a good share of them to be because they are already proving to be very popular. I therefore warmly support this Bill and the opportunities that it will give to make substantial improvements to the education system of our country.