After Clause 62 — Academies

Education Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:29 pm on 15th July 2002.

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Votes in this debate

Lords amendment: No. 37.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos 35 and 36.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

Lords amendment No. 37 gives effect to our intention to require academies, formerly known as city academies, to take part in statutory admission forums and have regard to their advice—an obligation that we have included in their funding agreements. We have already put in place robust arrangements to ensure that academies will be inclusive schools, and that they will agree their admission arrangements in partnership with local education authorities and other admissions authorities.

I shall spell out those arrangements for the benefit of the House. Academies are an integral part of the Government's wider programme to raise standards for all and transform secondary education, and are a new and distinctive kind of school. We are confident that they will offer great opportunities to pupils from some of the most disadvantaged communities in England. As independent schools, academies will have certain freedoms and will be different in certain ways from other maintained schools. We have ensured that they have the flexibility and the freedom that they need to respond to the demands and challenges that they will face. At the same time, we have made sure that, on certain key and fundamental points, they comply with requirements on maintained schools, most notably in relation to admissions.

First, on differences in freedom, academies will have the freedom to offer staff terms and conditions outside the teachers' pay and conditions document, and significant freedom to tailor the curriculum, its development and delivery to meet pupils' needs. There is also great flexibility in the make-up of the governing body of each academy.

Academies are part of the local schooling system, not separate from it, however. Let me explain. They must comply with admissions procedures and requirements as they apply to maintained schools. Their arrangements must be fair, transparent and objective. They have no more ability to select than do maintained schools. They must have independent panels to consider appeals against non-admission, in the same way as maintained schools. If they band by ability, those admitted must reflect the ability of those who apply.

We want to make sure that academies' involvement in their local admissions networks is transparent and strengthened. That is why we have tabled the amendment. I have already said that academies will be required by their funding arrangements to participate in forums. However, the amendment will put a statutory duty on admissions forums to promulgate their advice to academies as well as maintained schools within the forum's area. It will also put a statutory duty on the governing body of an academy to have regard to such advice, which will be in addition to its contractual duty to have such regard through its funding agreement.

Mandatory admissions forums will enable us further to improve the admissions process for parents and pupils. They will consider how well local admissions arrangements are working and they will broker agreements on difficult local issues, such as arrangements relating to challenging and vulnerable children. Well run admissions forums already consider such issues.

A typical forum—for example, the one operating in west Sussex—meets three times a year. At its first meeting of the year, the west Sussex forum considers information to parents, assessing how user-friendly and helpful admissions prospectuses and forms are to local parents. The later meetings review the admissions round, considering what went well and where there are problems to be resolved. From that, the forum might make recommendations for improving the process. In the course of looking at those issues, the forum might identify other issues that it will also address—for example, issues relating to applications outside the admissions round or to applications from neighbouring authorities.

It has always been our intention that academies should have regard to the advice of local admissions forums. The amendment simply makes that position clear and unmistakable. It is important to understand that this is not an impediment to the success of the academies programme. In fact, the academies programme is proving extremely popular with sponsors, LEAs and local communities. In all cases, all parties have agreed that the academy should be a member of the admissions forum and should have regard to its advice.

We have recently awarded development funding to a further five partnerships of LEAs and sponsors working to establish academies to serve their areas. Those new partnerships are in Bradford, Leeds, Liverpool, Northampton and Sandwell. Letters have been sent to the hon. Members for the constituencies concerned.

I draw attention, by way of example, to one of those projects, not because it is more important than others, but because it illustrates an important point. The Sandwell academy is the second to be sponsored by the Mercers Company and Thomas Telford online, joining the existing project in Walsall; so one of the CTCs is sponsoring not one, but two academies. Those sponsors understand and accept entirely that academies are different from CTCs. They are perfectly happy with the position. Sir Kevin Satchwell, head of Thomas Telford school, is the project manager for the new academies sponsored by the Mercers and by Thomas Telford. He has said that he is happy for the academies to be part of the admissions forum. Thus there are CTCs that wish to take advantage of the provisions in the Bill to convert into an academy.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 9:45 pm, 15th July 2002

Does the Minister think that grammar schools are a good thing or not?

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have always opposed the 11-plus. I am proud that I went to a comprehensive school. We should be proud of the success in doubling GCSE achievement at age 15 over the past 30 years. The Government are seeking to build on what comprehensive schools have achieved, not turn the clock back.

I was speaking about the wish of some CTCs to convert to academies. Djanogly CTC in Nottingham, for example, is making excellent progress with its plans to become an academy. At the same time, the new academy will replace the existing Forest school in Nottingham. I hope that these examples give some flavour of the popularity of the programme as it is, not as Opposition Members might wish it to be. I commend the amendments to the House.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

At the outset of this brief exchange, perhaps I should respond in kind and say that I am proud to have been educated at a grammar school. Even though the Minister was not prepared to pay tribute to the excellent work done in our remaining grammar schools throughout the country, I certainly will. They are a vital part of the fabric of education in our country. It is instructive that the Minister was prepared to congratulate comprehensive schools, even though some of his colleagues believe that they have failed over the past 20 or 30 years, but he was not prepared similarly to congratulate excellent schools that happen to be selective in intake.

The Government are clearly somewhat confused in that regard. In the past few days, the Prime Minister, in comments quoted in the Daily Mail of 13 July, said that it was the "core mission" of the Government's three-year spending plan being unveiled today to spell the end of what he described as the

"one-size-fits-all comprehensive".

It appears that the Minister is perhaps the last defender of the one-size-fits-all comprehensive. Perhaps, since he has not been so close to the Prime Minister, they have been starting to diverge in policy. We also heard on 30 June that the Secretary of State had referred, in relation to Labour's mission to consign the bog-standard comprehensive—a phrase used by Mr. Alastair Campbell, not the right hon. Lady—to history, to getting rid of a

"one-size-fits-all culture" of failing schools and schools that she would not touch "with a barge pole".

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a lamentable failure on the part of Ministers not to answer a reasonable question and name the schools that they do not think that people should touch with a barge pole?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are waiting to hear a response from Ministers. I am sure that, in due course, they will supply a list in response to the questions tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Green.

This is a classic case of our trying to help the Government to achieve what they say they want to do. They say that they believe in a more diverse schools sector, more autonomy for schools and less bureaucracy and red tape, but they are imposing a new statutory arrangement on all schools: the statutory admissions forum. In another place, my noble Friend Lady Blatch tried to amend the Bill to remove the whole paraphernalia of the admissions forums. She said:

"If admission forums are thought to be a good idea by schools in an area and a majority of schools deem that there should be a forum, they should determine whether to have one."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 3 July 2002; Vol. 637, c. 292.]

That is a very clear and permissive approach, which does not burden schools with unnecessary regulation and red tape. The Government are now placing a new statutory duty on schools, however, which gives the lie to everything that they say about believing in diversity, using a light touch and allowing maximum autonomy to schools.

Will the Minister explain exactly what the new legislative requirement will mean in practice? What does the new duty to "have regard" to the forums mean? Is it a duty to follow the instructions of the forum, or merely a fig leaf to allow Ministers to claim that city academies are covered, or a meaningful legal requirement? The Minister said that academies must be inclusive and that they are already required to be so. Indeed, in his opening remarks, he implied that the change was not necessary, before going on to advise the House to accept it. Is not the whole arrangement meaningless anyway, because the sweeping powers taken in part 1 give Ministers power to make exemptions from that legal requirement? Once again, even though city academies will be required to have regard to the views and advice of the admissions forum, that very requirement could be removed. The Minister is legislating to give himself power to remove the very restriction that he is trying to put in place.

The provision is a needless constraint on academies. The Opposition believe in city academies. We believe that they are an exciting opportunity and that they can be a new type of school that will free up innovation and autonomy in schools, provide a new direction, and act as a model that can be followed by other schools throughout the country. However, Ministers who claim to believe in the model of city academies and in freedom and autonomy for schools are contradicting everything they say that they believe by trying to restrict that freedom; they are obstructing schools that could go on to be beacons of excellence in our cities by trying to restrict them in a needless and counterproductive way.

We strongly urge the House to ensure that city academies are given the true freedom and autonomy that they need to go off and flourish in a thousand different ways that Ministers cannot even imagine. If Ministers really believe in autonomy for schools, this is the opportunity for them to prove it and to show that they are prepared to trust schools and give them the freedom to allow them to go out and succeed in our cities.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman protests too much. It is sad that people on the two Opposition Benches are finishing the evening on a discordant note. This is a key issue. We were delighted that Baroness Sharp was able to get the support of Baroness Ashton in getting the amendment through in another place, and I hope that it will be supported tonight.

Mr. Brady mixes up two matters. This is not about the future of academies, but about the future of who can go to those academies. The one thing that guarantees children of all backgrounds, creeds and colours fair access to our schools is a fair admissions policy. That is all we are trying to do, and that is why we support the Government. It may be true that CTCs flourished and were successful, and I do not want to decry their success at all. However, the reality is that Dixons city technology college in Bradford, which is a very successful school, has an arrangement for admitting children that differs from all the other schools in Bradford, and it therefore takes its pick before everybody else. Although it may have a fair and even distribution of students, that skews the whole process. If we are to have voluntary aided schools, more faith schools able to select their own admissions policies, and CTCs and academies with their own admissions policies—all with a different timetable—what is ultimately left for youngsters who had no one to advocate their case? I am delighted that an admissions forum is considering the admissions to all schools at the same time.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

No, I want to finish in the remaining three minutes. Most heads and governors are happy to engage in that process.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

All right—how can I resist?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should be able to select people who are better at, say, soccer or ballet to go to schools that specialise in those areas, or does he think that anyone should be able to go to those schools?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

With respect, I do not want to re-run the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 argument. I agree that the process of selecting by aptitude is nonsense. Indeed, Mr. Dorrell made that point at the time. How do children at that stage display an aptitude, rather than an ability, in something? However, I do not want to go down that road. This is about fairness in the admissions system, and I hope that the Government will continue to support the amendment.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

It is revealing that in 10 minutes we can expose the fact that fair admissions is controversial even for the modern Conservative party. We are discussing the simple principle that we should have inclusive schooling in our communities and that the new city academies should take pupils from a wide range of abilities. Labour Members are happy to stand behind that principle.

Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Minister of State (School Standards), Department for Education and Skills

City academies are an innovation in our schooling system, and I am pleased to say that they will admit pupils from a wide range of abilities. He may be obsessed with the future of 164 grammar schools, but we are not. We are obsessed with the future of 3,500 secondary schools, which are the heart of secondary education. Today we heard from the Chancellor about the investment that will go into our schools over the next three years. We have heard about investment that Conservative Members oppose.

Tomorrow, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West will hear about reforms to our secondary education system to improve teaching, the quality of leadership and school structures, and to establish the partnerships with local communities that will ensure that teachers and head teachers are not on their own in raising standards but are supported by the wider community, including parents, businesses and universities. I commend that vision of secondary education to the House.

It being Ten o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker, put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

The House divided: Ayes 354, Noes 132.

Division number 310 Education Bill — Lords Amendment on Academies' Admissions Arrangements

Aye: 354 MPs

No: 132 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 169 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 37 agreed to.

It being after Ten o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the remaining Questions required to be put at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].

Remaining Lords amendments agreed to.