The issue of secondary education in Colchester has widened since I secured this debate, because on Friday Essex county council published proposals to shut not only Alderman Blaxill school but a second school, the Thomas Lord Audley school and language college. The county wants to build a 1,200 place academy on the site of the latter. That will result in a net reduction of 500 secondary school places in Colchester—one of the fastest growing towns in Britain—and in future years will cause a knock-on effect at all the other secondary schools as parents scramble for a place.
Parental choice is already a myth for hundreds of parents. The loss of 500 places, if Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley close, will make choice of school even more of a lottery. The closure of Alderman Blaxill school will be contrary to the Government's sustainable communities objectives and their programme of safe routes to school, and it will be a victory for the right-wing Tory county council based 30 miles away in Chelmsford, only one of whose members represents a county division in Colchester—and he used to run his own private school. The town is otherwise represented by three Liberal Democrat and two Labour county councillors. Sadly, Colchester has to suffer the consequences of being ruled by Tories who do not live there. Surely the Minister does not want to jump into the same bed as the county Conservatives.
There is massive opposition in the Shrub End area to the closure of Alderman Blaxill school, which has been at the heart of the local community since it opened just over 50 years ago. It is a much loved community school. Petitions have already attracted more than 2,500 signatures. Special appreciation goes to the Colchester Gazette, the town's daily newspaper, which has launched a campaign to save the school—repeating what it did 15 years ago when the county Tories last tried to shut the school but were thwarted by people power.
The Gazette campaign, which is regularly covered in the newspaper, has its own distinctive logo with the words, "Alderman Blaxill Must Stay Open—Save Our School". Indeed, tonight's Gazette leads on that very issue. I call on the Minister tonight to give his backing to the local community and not to the right-wing Tories at county hall, who have no interest in Colchester other than asset stripping and reducing services, as witnessed already this year by the decision to close the town's adult community education college at Grey Friars, which is to be sold, and by the closure of the Colchester record office, with the transfer of the historic records of Britain's oldest recorded town to Chelmsford.
There is a widely held belief in Colchester that the county Tories want to sell the Alderman Blaxill school site, with its extensive playing fields, for residential development. I have little doubt that the Minister's briefing from his officials—ably assisted, I am sure, by officials from Essex county council—will paint a bleak picture of Alderman Blaxill school. However, I suspect that the county has been quiet about its role in how the school got into its current position. To put it simply, Essex county council is culpable. It is largely responsible for what has happened, and now it is seeking to shift the blame on to the school, and looking to the Government to help it out of the situation that it helped create by shutting Alderman Blaxill, leaving it with a prime site to sell.
As I have already stated, we are now talking about the closure of two secondary schools—Alderman Blaxill at Shrub End and Thomas Lord Audley on the Monkwick estate. The county wants to build a huge academy on the Monkwick site, which, presumably, it expects pupils from Shrub End to attend. But will they? I shall say more about the proposed academy later.
For the moment, let me deal with Alderman Blaxill school. It is named after a highly respected Colchester business man and educationist, who served the town with great distinction for most of the first half of the 20th century; a former mayor who was granted the freedom of the borough, he lived in Colchester. In those days, councillors and officers lived in the community that they sought to represent and serve. Unfortunately, education today is in the hands of Essex county council. I believe that, had Colchester borough council been a unitary authority, the proposal to shut Alderman Blaxill school would not have been made; nor would the town have lost its record office and adult community education college. There is no way that a unitary borough council would have allowed Alderman Blaxill school to get into the position that the county Tories—by deliberate actions and neglect—have permitted. That is a further reason for calling on the Minister not to support the Tory-controlled county council's closure proposal for Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools.
Until about three years ago, none of the town's six comprehensive schools was in special measures. I could proudly claim that all of them—we also have two selective schools, plus a Catholic college—were good schools. I visit them all, and speak well of every one. However, first one, then two and finally three of the schools were placed in special measures. Only six secondary schools in the whole of Essex were in such a position. So how was it that, almost overnight, half the town's comprehensives found themselves in special measures?
Essex education authority bears collective responsibility for that. There has been a failure to monitor what was going on and neglect to the point where the charge of dereliction of duty must be levelled at the education authority and its political rulers. In the case of Alderman Blaxill school, there has been what I can describe only as a deliberate attempt to undermine it so that the county could proceed with its dastardly proposals to close it—as it had tried to do in the past.
In a feature article in the Gazette on
"There is something going wrong somewhere with education in Colchester—and no-one seems prepared to say what it is."
I urge the Minister to hold an inquiry into the competence of Essex education authority and its politically motivated actions involving Colchester's secondary schools. Perhaps the education authority should be put in special measures.
I also urge the Minister to step in and halt the closure proposals. At a stroke, that would lift the blight on Alderman Blaxill school—a shadow that discourages some parents from sending their children to a school whose future is in doubt. Such a positive move by the Minister will give parents the confidence once again to choose Alderman Blaxill school, and give the school the encouragement to continue its programme under its new head, who has been in post for little more than a year, to restore its good name and reputation, which it had enjoyed for the best part of five decades.
Indeed, Ofsted has praised the new head, Ms Faith Spinlove, who was appointed in March 2006, for identifying the school's problems and introducing
"innovative ways to bring about improvement."
That positive endorsement from Ofsted needs to be matched by ministerial support for the school and not the destructive behaviour of Essex education authority. Incidentally, at a packed public meeting for parents, as reported in the Gazette on
"was handed a resounding vote of confidence" by the 100 people who attended. She had set out the "tough reforms" that she said she had embarked on to turn the school around.
"We think this school, and the unique support it offers to Army families and children with special needs, should stay open for the people of Colchester."
Alderman Blaxill is the smallest of Colchester's secondary schools. That should be cherished, not destroyed. Not every child is happy in a large school. Another special characteristic is that between a fifth and a quarter of Alderman Blaxill's pupils are children who have a father—and sometimes a mother—serving in Her Majesty's armed forces and based at the Colchester garrison. The school has years of experience in helping such youngsters, which I witnessed for myself when just about every soldier from the garrison was deployed in the Iraq war. A further special characteristic is that Alderman Blaxill has the only child dyslexia unit in the north of the county, which was opened by five-times Olympic gold medal winner Sir Steve Redgrave.
There is one characteristic, however, for which Essex education authority should hang its collective head in shame. It has deliberately used Alderman Blaxill school as a dumping ground for dysfunctional pupils whom Colchester's other secondary schools do not want. Gazette features editor Iris Clapp observed in an article on
"Alderman Blaxill School doesn't only teach children from Shrub End and Colchester Garrison. It provides desk space for all those teenagers expelled from the town's other secondary schools, has a very high proportion of special needs children, and crucially, houses the only child dyslexia unit in North Essex."
With the lack of support from the education authority, is it any wonder that the school has had more than its share of difficulties, which has led to the criticisms from Ofsted?
Incidentally, the importance of Alderman Blaxill school in the welfare and education of children of Colchester-based soldiers was highlighted in a report by the Select Committee on Defence published on
For how long has Essex education authority been secretly plotting to close Alderman Blaxill school this time around? Has that been done with the knowledge and connivance of county councillors? It is obvious that discussions long pre-dated the Ofsted inspection in May, but I have not been able to establish when they started or, most crucially, at what point it was decided that the closure of Alderman Blaxill should be pursued and who was involved. Can the Minister throw any light on the sequence of events? Either officials of Essex education authority had deliberated without the knowledge of councillors or councillors were part of the discussions and had known for some time. If they did know, they kept that secret from residents of Shrub End before this May's crucial borough elections in what is Colchester's most marginal three-way ward, for fear that it would be electorally damaging to the Conservatives in fighting the defending Labour councillor, who lost his seat.
About five years ago, the popular head of Alderman Blaxill school left to take up an appointment at a bigger school elsewhere in Britain. Long-serving governors tell me that, despite their objections, they were forced by the county education authority to appoint a head in whom they had little confidence. He did not last long, and quit in 2005 following undisclosed allegations. Former chairman of the governors, Mr. Ray Norris, was reported by the Gazette as saying that the county had failed to support Colchester schools. In the issue of
"poor performance and lack of investment in Colchester schools."
"We feel that the County Council has invested in education in South Essex and neglected Colchester."
Some months ago, the head of Thomas Lord Audley school left following a critical Ofsted report. That clearly helped the county with its intentions to close both schools—in effect, to merge them and create a new school, albeit one outside the traditional local education system, namely a so-called academy on the TLA site.
This morning, I visited Thomas Lord Audley school, which is well on the way to coming out of special measures. A few weeks ago, I attended a special evening for potential year 7 pupils at Alderman Blaxill school.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Blizzard.]
While it is true that the number of year 7 pupils in Colchester has fallen in recent times, it was not that many years ago that parents were beating a path to my door because there were seemingly no vacancies at the town's secondary schools. Parental choice was something of a myth for hundreds of parents. History tells me that the numbers will rise again in due course—within the next few years, in fact. Therefore, we should not be talking about reducing the overall number of secondary school places, particularly in a town where there is a huge amount of house building going on.
In his briefing, has the Minister been told that about 2,500 dwellings—yes, 2,500 homes—are to be built on the site of the former Colchester garrison? All of them fall within the traditional catchment areas of Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools. Does anyone believe that such a huge housing development will not have children of secondary school age? On Friday—the very day on which the schools broke up for half term, which is perhaps why that day was chosen in an attempt to bury bad news—Essex county council published its proposals for an academy on the TLA site to accommodate 1,200 pupils. We can safely assume that the county's so-called consultation will be a sham, and nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. It is deaf to reason and blind to the obvious. Our only hope is that the Government will realise that the county's costly plans do not add up.
The current combined authorised admission number for TLA and Blaxill is 1,700, so the academy proposal would result in a reduction of 500 places in south Colchester, totally ignoring the 2,500 new houses being built at the former garrison. I acknowledge that the current number of pupils is well below the published authorised figure, but the number of pupils currently in year 11 at the two schools totals 300, indicating that, even before the population growth resulting from new housing at the former garrison, south Colchester requires a minimum of 1,500 places in the age group 11 to 16—school years 7 to 11. Evidence that I obtained this morning shows, from the number of children born in recent years, that, by 2015, the number seeking year 7 places will match the number currently in year 11 at Colchester's secondary schools. That is before we take into account the number of children who will move into Colchester to live in the thousands of new dwellings that are being built.
Can we trust Essex education authority when it comes to forecasts? No, we cannot. Just look at the monumental £24 million blunder of the Bishop Park school at Clacton. It opened only five years ago, yet it is now under threat of closure because it has too few pupils. I suggest that the education authority is so traumatised by its incompetence, following its overestimate of the projected numbers at Clacton, that it is now deliberately underestimating the numbers in Colchester for fear of repeating the financial consequences of what happened at Bishop Park.
In relation to value for money, I suggest that, instead of spending some £27 million on a new academy—the average cost according to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the academies programme—it would cost the public purse considerably less if money were invested in upgrading both Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley. This would maintain each as a community-based school serving its distinctive local community.
Let me now deal with the consequences of shutting Alderman Blaxill School and requiring youngsters to travel from Shrub End to Monkwick. Although they are in neighbouring wards, there is no community of interest between the two; indeed, they are separated by the largest super-garrison in Britain. Building work on the second phase is currently taking place; it is a massive complex. There is only one road linking Shrub End and Monkwick. For much of its distance, it is a narrow country road, and an extremely busy one at that, with large stretches without pavements and street lights. There have been several fatalities. It is not a safe route to school. There is no bus route linking Shrub End with Monkwick. Roads on the St. Michael's and Montgomery Army estates are not public thoroughfares: they are maintained by the Ministry of Defence and can be closed whenever required for security reasons. Access by the civilian population is not encouraged. It has been suggested that transport will be provided for children from Shrub End to Monkwick. Will the Minister confirm that free transport is available only for those who live more than three miles from the school?
Yesterday, I drove from the front gate of Alderman Blaxill school in Paxman avenue to Thomas Lord Audley school. The distance to the entrance into the school playing field, off Monkwick Avenue, is precisely three miles. The main entrance, however, is a quarter of a mile further away in School road—a narrow cul-de-sac that the TLA shares with Monkwick infant school, Monkwick junior school, Berechurch community sports and youth centre, and the Ormiston centre, a sports complex. It is already a traffic nightmare. For Shrub End parents, I can foresee lots of disputes over who is entitled to free travel and who will have to pay. At least two thirds of pupils from Shrub End will not be entitled to free transport, thus adding a financial burden on families, many of them on low incomes.
A second issue is that of the additional traffic that would be drawn into the Monkwick estate to reach the greatly enlarged education establishment, using narrow residential roads not built for such heavy traffic. That is not something that local residents will welcome. What is guaranteed is increased traffic chaos and more road safety dangers for everybody. Incidentally, today has the been the first day of half term and the roads in Colchester were free of traffic. I suggest that the education authority and the highways authority engage in some joined-up thinking, as much of the traffic congestion in the mornings is caused by school-related traffic.
It is worth observing how differently Essex education authority has treated the governing bodies of the three secondary schools put into special measures. Those at Sir Charles Lucas and Thomas Lord Audley were allowed to remain in place, and given time and encouragement to turn their schools around. The governing body at Alderman Blaxill, however, has been sacked. Why? Governors had drawn up an action plan to tackle the problems and, as already mentioned, Ofsted has praised the new head for the steps that she has already put in place. The sacking, I submit, is pure spite by the county Tories who resent the determination of the governors to make a success of Alderman Blaxill school.
I discovered today that the interim executive board has already met twice in secret. Nobody knows who sits on the board; the chairman is a mystery man; all parent governors have been removed. What I can say is that, even though there is unlikely to be any confidence in a governing body that has been imposed on the school, the campaign to save Alderman Blaxill school will not be silenced by such an anti-democratic manoeuvre. There are weekly meetings of the parents and community forum, which is made up of people determined to resist the school's closure. Last month, they organised a successful fun day. They have unveiled a "tree of hope" in a town centre shop, launched by the town crier. Will the Minister promise that he will, at the very least, insist that the democratically elected parent governors should be restored to the governing body?
Let me now turn to the prospect of an academy, as disclosed officially for the first time by Essex county council last Friday. What the public announcement does not mention is the prospect that the academy may be sponsored by the Chelmsford diocese of the Church of England. Several weeks ago, in conversation, a clergyman based at Chelmsford casually told me that the diocese had hopes of taking over the then rumoured academy in Colchester. I decided to check that out. Confirmation of such a possibility has been given to me by the chief executive of Essex county council. Although I was assured that
"no specific agreements have been made in respect to the Diocese and Essex County Council sponsoring an academy in Colchester", the chief executive confirmed that such a possibility in Essex had been discussed several months ago.
Although I have a Christian upbringing, I am not an Anglican, but come from good nonconformist stock. I have serious misgivings about two of Colchester's local secondary schools being shut down and their replacement academy handed over to the Chelmsford diocese. If the diocese wants to have a secondary school to promote Anglican teachings then let it, like the Brentwood Roman Catholic diocese, organise its own school in Colchester to serve the whole of north Essex for those parents who wish to have such a denominational school—not impose itself on a particular geographic area of the town whose parents may not necessarily wish to have their children taught under a religious regime. What parental choice will there be for those in Monkwick and Shrub End who do not want their children to attend a religious academy? Will other secondary schools in Colchester have places available to accept them?
Academies have a less than impressive track record and are widely opposed by, among others, many Labour MPs and the National Union of Teachers. At a public meeting in Colchester, Mr. Alasdair Smith of the Anti-Academies Alliance observed
"An academy is owned and controlled by its sponsor and is a law unto itself.
We elect Councillors to a local education authority and parents elect the Governing Body of a school, but at an academy the democratic involvement of the community is removed."
Will the Minister confirm that Mr Smith's statement is correct? Will he confirm that an academy sets its own admission policy, and that it is not subject to national agreements on staff pay and conditions? Will he also confirm that the proposed academy in south Colchester would not have to guarantee a place for every child from Monkwick and Shrub End whose parents sought admission?
Will the Church of England have competition? The prospect of a Church of England-sponsored academy contrasts with a statement made in June by an Essex county council spokesman who was reported in the Gazette as saying:
"It is possible for the Army to become an academy sponsor."
That took Colchester garrison by surprise. The Deputy Commander said that nobody had discussed it with him. Will the Minister comment on whether his Department has had discussions with the Ministry of Defence about the MOD's sponsoring an academy in Colchester?
"Colchester Garrison will be asked to make a significant cash investment in creating an academy for Colchester.
Under the plans, leaked to the Gazette, the Thomas Lord Audley and the Alderman Blaxill Schools would both be shut down and demolished to make way for a new 1,200 place academy.
It will be built on the site of the TLA while the Alderman Blaxill site, in Shrub End, would be sold off for housing."
Has the Minister seen the plans that the Gazette says were leaked to it? Is he satisfied that he has been given the full pack of cards? There appears to have been some dodgy dealing on the part of the Essex education authority
Colchester is a growing town. Huge new developments are taking place, with several thousand more homes to come in the north, in the central areas, in the former port area in the east, and in the west of the town. Of major significance are at least 2,500 planned new dwellings on land whose nearest local secondary schools are Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley. The education authority's projection, which shows a reduction of 500 secondary school places in south Colchester, is ridiculous.
Whatever "here today, gone tomorrow" Chelmsford-based officials and Tory county councillors are saying, the reality is that the closure of Alderman Blaxill school would be short-termism at its worst. I therefore urge the Minister to get to grips with the county hall wreckers and give Alderman Blaxill school the support and continued future that it deserves, and which the local community looks to the Government to deliver.
The hon. Member for Colchester should not be surprised that the Tory authority in Essex is keen to implement a Tory policy—that of closing down proper community schools and introducing privately run, privately sponsored, privately managed academies. Unfortunately, however, that is not being done only by Tory authorities: the hon. Gentleman's own colleagues in the north of England have been pushed into the position of accepting an academy as part of its Building Schools for the Future programme, and as a condition of being able to look after its other secondary schools. The same has happened in Labour authorities, including mine. If I may say so—and this is totally separate from anything that happened in Essex—the Labour-controlled Wolverhampton authority and its education policies are beyond criticism, but none the less—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but an Adjournment debate, by its very nature, is narrow, and we are discussing Alderman Blaxill secondary school. I am not so good on the geography of England, but I think that Wolverhampton is some distance from Colchester.
As ever, I am grateful for your superb guidance, Mr. Speaker, and I will stick to that very narrow point by making precise comparisons.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned church schools, which are bedevilling—forgive the pun, which was not intended—education in his constituency. The reason given for establishing academies there is that they will provide more parental choice. My constituency has three private schools, a girls grammar school, four Church schools, two foundation schools, a city technology college, Walsall academy, St. Thomas More Catholic school and a raft of specialist schools. In fact, the situation has become impossible for a liberal-minded parent who wants a school for their child that is non-selective, non-sectarian and non-fee-paying. This is how, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, like mine, the choice agenda has resulted not in a wide liberal choice for progressives, but in a narrowing of opportunities, which are restricted basically to those of a regressive understanding of education.
I shall pick up on a point that concerns our constituencies that has been made by the Public Accounts Committee. It has found that the academy movement is overspending both in capital and start-up, that it does not provide best value, that the sponsors are taking contracts from their schools and that there is a high exclusion rate. I think that you are perhaps getting ready to get to your feet again because my comments are not narrow enough, Mr. Speaker, but I am trying my best to reinforce the hon. Gentleman's point. A Tory policy is being implemented by bully-boy tactics, and it is not, in most cases, in the best educational interests of the young students of this country. I am happy to support the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate.
I congratulate Bob Russell on securing this debate. He has raised the situation with me a number of times through parliamentary questions, and I welcome the opportunity to debate the issues, even though we may not see completely eye to eye. I am sure that Essex county council will take note of his many comments about it, through reading either Hansard or the faithful reporting of this debate in the Colchester Gazette.
The background to this debate is the importance of standards in schools, and the circumstances in which robust intervention, particularly secondary special measures, can become necessary. I want briefly to give some national figures to put the Colchester case into perspective. The hon. Gentleman asked whether Essex county council itself should be put in special measures. He will be disappointed to hear that I am advised that, generally, Essex is assessed as being strong on children's services. Its main weakness is in secondary provision and I shall make some comments about that, but children's services as a whole are in reasonable shape, according to the inspectors of Essex county council—not that it is my job to be its advocate.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of acknowledging the particular problems faced by schools that serve a large number of children from service families. That is one of the reasons why I took measures to ensure that the pupil count—the school census—takes account of and records the children of service families. I made that promise to the Select Committee on Defence when it examined that subject.
Nevertheless, a serious situation undoubtedly remains in these Colchester schools. In 2005, only 38 per cent. of pupils at Alderman Blaxill were achieving five or more grades A* to C GCSEs, which is well below the national and county average of 56 per cent. That should have sent a warning signal both to the local authority and to the school's governors, but rather than improvement, there has been a fall in attainment since. Figures for 2006 show only 34 per cent. achieving their five GCSE passes. Provisional figures for this year are even worse at 24 per cent. If we look at the same figures including English and maths—the basics that are essential if children are to prosper in the future—they fell from 16 per cent. to 14 per cent. between 2005 and 2006. At the same time, Thomas Lord Audley's figures were 26 per cent. in 2005 and 38 per cent. in 2006, and 20 per cent. and 28 per cent. including English and maths, showing an improvement.
Sad to say, the provisional 2007 results, this time including English and maths, show Alderman Blaxill school with 17 per cent., Thomas Lord Audley school 27 per cent. and Sir Charles Lucas school 26 per cent. In those three Colchester schools, only around one quarter of young people, sometimes less, are leaving with the qualifications they need. So none of us should be satisfied with that. It is clear that pupils in schools like Alderman Blaxill and other local schools have not shared in the school improvements and rising standards of recent years.
Alderman Blaxill is in a very serious position. The Ofsted report from May this year highlighted the rapid staff turnover, unsatisfactory teaching and learning, inadequate leadership and management, insufficient challenge from the governors, falling rolls and increasing deficit. I should like to quote what the Ofsted inspectors said about some of those points:
"Students' achievement is unsatisfactory. Standards at the school are too low and are declining. Relatively few students leave with good GCSE results, and many leave with poor literacy and numeracy skills. Students are not appropriately equipped for further study or employment. The school's expectations for students are too low. Assessment and monitoring of progress are weak.
Most students are not clear what they should do to improve....Unfilled vacancies mean that students have too many temporary teachers so continuity is poor. One student commented that 'there is no point coming to school because we have different teachers every day'".
On achievement and standards, for which the school received the lowest category, the report said:
"Overall progress during Key Stage 3 is significantly slower than expected and has declined since 2005. Students' progress in mathematics and English is weak."
I could go on at length. On leadership and management, which also received a grade 4, the report said:
"Leadership and management are inadequate. The school fails to provide a satisfactory standard of education for its students."
Let me now address the concerns of the hon. Member for Colchester about the replacement of the governing body at Alderman Blaxhill. The report also identified serious weaknesses in the way in which the governing body was operating:
"Governors have not challenged the school's poor performance sufficiently. Pupil numbers are falling, and this is putting additional pressure on the school's financial deficit. The governing body has not ensured that there is a clear strategic direction."
Similarly, when analysing leadership and management in the school, inspectors found that:
"Governors, though supportive of the recent changes introduced by the new headteacher, do not challenge or hold the school to account. For example, they have not challenged the school for the lack of improvements since the last inspection and have not ensured that there is clear strategic direction."
There was also a deterioration in the relationship between the local authority and the governors—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that—which resulted in a delay to the submission of the statement of action following the special measures designation. For those reasons, together with the poor performance I noted earlier, the local authority has taken the step of seeking the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to replace the governing body with an interim executive board, as the hon. Gentleman said. This is an important step towards immediate improvement, though clearly much work needs to be done locally to drive longer term change.
Local authorities are becoming increasingly aware of the benefit of interim executive boards as they invariably drive forward the necessary changes for schools to recover from special measures. An IEB is usually a small focused group with typically between three and six members, appointed for the full period that it is expected to take to turn the school around. It takes on all the responsibilities of a governing body, including the management of the budget, the curriculum, staffing, pay and performance management, and the appointment of the head teacher and deputy head teacher. The IEB's main functions are to secure a sound basis for future improvement in the school and promote high standards of educational achievement. Members will often have experience of turning round other schools in difficulties or be members of a local authority school improvement service. The members of this IEB have more experience than the former governing body. The chair is Martin North, a consultant head from Havering, and he will be joined by a national strategies expert— [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend Mr. Purchase says it is a mockery—
I shall not give way to my hon. Friend. He did not have the courtesy to inform me that he intended to speak in the debate, which is the custom of the House, so I shall not offer him the courtesy of allowing him to speak further.
My Department is working with the local authority urgently to consider plans for improvement at all those schools as well as for the overall future strategy, which is an obligation for us, the local authority and everyone involved in the Colchester community, because the children of that community deserve better. Despite the comments of the hon. Member for Colchester, I believe replacement of the governing body was fully justified. Moreover, to preserve some continuity, the chair of the governors has been invited to sit on the board, although not as chair.
The position is difficult, but academies are one model that can help to turn the situation around. They represent a fundamentally different education model, with greater independence and greater involvement of local partners, helping to involve the whole community in a transformation of the school. Academies are set up to address entrenched problems in areas such as Colchester. We do not expect all of them to be an overnight success, but to make steady and sustained improvements in achievement.
I am not in a position to talk about the sponsor; those discussions are at an early stage. However, the local authority will have a place on the governing body, which would have to abide by the admissions code—that would be written into the funding agreement—so the questions the hon. Gentleman raises about admissions do not follow.
Some academies are already having a dramatic impact; for example, last year the number of children in academies with five GCSEs at grades A* to C improved by 6 per cent. compared to 2 per cent. nationally. The impact of those improvements should not be underestimated in communities with long-standing legacies of underachievement. The real test of that success has been the way in which parents have responded, flocking to take up places in academies.
Academies are proving to be an effective and popular solution in communities such as Colchester, which is why the option is being explored by the local authority. What is clear is that there can be no tolerance of the status quo in this place; as I said, the pupils and their families deserve better. The popularity of academies contrasts with the current situation at Alderman Blaxill. I realise that the hon. Member for Colchester said that the school is massively popular with the community and much loved, and he referred to the signatures on the petition. However, there are only 70 pupils in year 7 and only 16 first preferences for admission next year, with one week to go.
What does that suggest about parents voting with their feet.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, school organisation is a matter for Essex county council. Decisions about closure and merger are ultimately for the council to make and he needs to continue his robust exchanges with the county council, campaigning, as he does so assiduously, for his constituents and their interests as he sees them.
I recognise the problems the Minister describes, which I would lay at the door of the local education authority that has allowed the situation to occur. What would happen if the consultation showed that the people of Monkwick and Shrub End wanted the £27 million to be invested in their two community schools rather than in a new academy? Will the Government allow them to have that capital for their schools?
The capital investment to which the hon. Gentleman refers will come about only on the basis of something that is proven in turning around results. Investing in academies is not about investing in buildings; it is about investing in improved leadership, focus and an ethos that turns around standards. That is the consistent record of the 83 existing academies.
The hon. Gentleman referred to 2,500 new homes. That, too, is an issue that Essex county council has to address, but we will work with the council on serious interventions to improve things.
In conclusion, I invite the hon. Gentleman to rethink. He is well known as a champion for Colchester and he is impatient about the lack of standards, so I hope that he will want to work with us to ensure that the academy proposed by Essex to address the poor standards at Alderman Blaxill is a success. I am sure that is what his constituents want him to do. In the end, we can all agree that the standards in those Colchester schools are not good enough for his constituents. We should all work together to resolve the problems.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.