Academy Status (Haringey)

– in the House of Commons at 5:58 pm on 12th January 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—( Jeremy Wright .)

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham 6:00 pm, 12th January 2012

I am grateful for the chance to debate the decision of Ministers to force four primary schools in Haringey to become academies, against the wishes of their governors, parents and teachers. Those schools are Downhills primary school and Coleraine Park primary school in Tottenham, and Nightingale primary school and Noel Park primary school in Wood Green. I am sad to see Lynne Featherstone leaving the Chamber as I begin this speech.

Although this debate concerns those four schools primarily, Ministers have suggested that hundreds of schools around the country could be forced to convert into academies. Schools in Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Essex, Kent, Lancashire, Leeds and Northamptonshire could be next in the firing line, so this debate is of interest to Members throughout the country and on both sides of the House.

I will deal with three issues. The first is the absolute importance of standards in primary schools and the other interventions that could be made to drive up standards. The second is the fundamentally undemocratic way in which Ministers are taking this decision. The third is the need for collaboration, not confrontation in ensuring that our pupils achieve the maximum that they are capable of achieving.

My remarks will focus on Downhills primary school, but they apply just as strongly to the other three schools in Haringey that are affected by the Minister’s decision. I have known Downhills since 1975, when I first stepped through its doors as a pupil. The school has been serving the local community for more than 100 years. Last week, I received a letter from a gentleman who attended Downhills during the second world war, which stated:

“I have memories of an excellent education—I was even appointed School Captain. My primary education at Downhills led to later success. I was not alone there. We were encouraged to succeed. I hope your current efforts to secure the appropriate status for Downhills Primary School will be successful and that they will help present and future pupils to have a brighter future.”

It is not just me who shares that history and is angered by the Minister’s decision.

I want to make it clear that I do not oppose academies. I support academies that work with parents and the local community to raise standards. I am a pluralist in education. I supported the academies programme of the previous Government, of whom I was a member. However, just as there are good community schools and poor community schools, so there are good academies and poor academies. The Government’s attempt to force schools in Haringey to become academies assumes that academies are the only way to raise standards and that academies always raise standards. Neither is true. The Government’s actions also ignore the fact that schools perform best when central and local government work in collaboration with parents, teachers and governors, rather than against them.

I will start by focusing on school standards. The Secretary of State has branded the parents, governors and teachers at these schools as

“ideologues who are happy with failure” and “enemies of promise”. However, not one of us is an apologist for poor results. That is why Downhills is under a notice to improve, and we support that. It is worth looking at the Downhills governing body—the very people who are supposed to be opposing this action for ideological reasons. It covers the whole range of the community. It has a solicitor, a former nurse, a senior civil servant and a hedge fund manager, all working for free to make the school better. Is that not what the big society is all about? Should not those people be praised rather than removed? How will getting rid of all of them and imposing a sponsor make the school and society better?

The governing body and I know that if a pupil leaves primary school without the basics, they will struggle at secondary school and potentially struggle throughout their life. We had riots this summer that reminded us of that fact. We are at the coal face, and we do not need to be lectured by those who, frankly, have limited experience of the inner-city context.

We believe in supporting a school to improve, and that is exactly what we are doing at Downhills. Results from 2011 show that the school is above the Government’s floor target for English and maths. Some 64% of pupils achieved the national average level in both subjects, and among pupils who had been in the school for at least four years, 75% did so. More than 90% of parents are happy with the school. We are not resting on our laurels with that 64% figure, because it still leaves too many pupils who do not succeed, but the argument that the enormous upheaval being foisted on the community is justified by the results just does not hold water. Downhills is above the national primary school average. Will its improvements continue if the school is forced through the process of becoming an academy over the next few months, against the wishes of the entire community?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for how he is representing his constituents in support of Downhills school, which is an improving school. Like many in the country, it is improving because of investment, people’s determination, parents’ support and teachers. Does he have any idea why Downhills and a couple of other schools in Haringey have been selected for this treatment, when other schools have not? Is there a process by which the Department for Education is threatening all primary schools in the whole country?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is not clear why, perhaps apart from political reasons, Haringey has been selected. I certainly want to know whether the Department intends to go after the 2,500 primary schools in the country whose performance is lower than that of Downhills. I will come on to that point.

At Downhills, 72% of pupils have English as a second language and more than 40 languages are spoken by the pupils. More than 45% of pupils are eligible for a free school meal—I mention that fact because I, too, was eligible for free school meals when I attended Downhills—and the number of families living in deprivation is double the national average. Enormous numbers of pupils join and leave the school during the school year, and it has one of the largest Roma populations in the country.

I raise those points not to make excuses for failure, but to point out that pupils from deprived backgrounds at Downhills actually do better than the national average. Speaking another language at home or being from a deprived background is absolutely not taken as an excuse for failure at the school, whatever the Secretary of State might think. We can just look at the results—they speak loud and clear.

Looking further into the figures, the capricious choice of Downhills becomes even more dubious. In 2011, 2,594 primary schools obtained worse results than Downhills primary. In the Secretary of State’s own education authority of Surrey, 26 primary schools obtained the same results or worse. In West Sussex, the area of the Minister of State, Mr Gibb, who will respond to this debate, another 26 schools obtained the same results as Downhills or worse. Does he propose—I hope he will answer this question—to force those 2,594 schools to become academies as well? If his answer is yes, we really will be seeing a revolution in education in this country, and it will certainly get him on the 10 o’clock news. Is that about standards, or is it about politics and ideology? I want to hear the Minister’s answer when he stands up. When we look at the results, we find that London schools do much better than schools in other parts of the country. That is not complacency; I am simply pointing out that if the Minister’s choice of schools to target was based purely on results, he would not be targeting schools in London to begin with.

If the Minister were motivated solely by results, would he not have waited for the second Ofsted inspection into Downhills school, which will show how the school has raised its game since the notice to improve? I remind him that when Ofsted made its monitoring visit in September, it said the school was on the road to improvement and praised the senior management team, including the head. Why is the Minister casting Ofsted aside and saying from Whitehall, “I know best”? Can he explain that new approach to localism, which has emerged in the past few weeks?

The Minister must ask himself whether now is an appropriate time to cause upheaval in the Tottenham schools system following the riots of last September. I urge him to demonstrate the sensitivity that is required after a constituency has experienced what mine experienced—it was witnessed on TV screens not just by hon. Members, but by the rest of the country and internationally.

By focusing only on forced academies, the Government have ignored all the other tried and tested ways in which standards in primary schools can be raised. A relentless focus on teaching and learning, booster lessons, a renewed management team, federation with thriving schools and new buildings all contribute to improving standards in education. All could be tried, and many have been or are being tried, but they have all been cast aside and ignored by the Government.

At Downhills, six teachers have been replaced in a year. A new head was brought into Coleraine Park school to turn the school around 18 months ago, and a new deputy head was brought in from an outstanding school just a few miles up the road. The results show that those changes are working. The trouble is that the Government are ignoring the results and focusing only on forced academies. That approach ignores the fact that, just as there are good community schools and bad community schools, so there are good academies and bad academies. The last results for Marlowe academy in Ramsgate were even described by the former principal as “disappointing”. Mossbourne academy in Hackney is rightly held up by all as a vision of what can be done, but that goes to show that a one-size-fits-all approach to reforms in struggling schools does not work.

It is clear that those reforms need funding. I understand that times are tough, so this is not solely about spending, but it is right to put on record that the Government set up a free school in Muswell Hill last year that will cost the taxpayer £6 million. It has 30 pupils at the moment. For the Minister’s geography, Muswell Hill is a few miles up the road in the London borough of Haringey. The Secretary of State could have given £100,000 to every Haringey primary school and reached 30,000 children rather than 30. Given Muswell Hill’s demographic, the Minister will understand why my constituents are a little concerned and alarmed.

The Minister has remarked that Haringey’s primary schools are the worst in inner London. They are. So why does he not fund them at inner-London rates? Haringey has the same challenges as Islington, Camden and Hackney, but receives £1,500 less per pupil in schools than those areas. For Downhills, that underfunding is worth about £600,000 a year, which is equivalent to one extra teacher in every classroom. Where would Downhills primary’s standards be if we had the money in the London borough of Haringey that we deserve? The Minister’s account in the newspapers this week suggested that mine is an inner-city constituency, but one that has suburban funding. I hope he will say something about what he will do to redress that balance so that we can achieve the improvement we want.

The reforms are working, and the results are improving. Results and standards are vital, and although the Government might ignore the results, we will not. We say loud and clear that standards matter, and we do not tolerate poor results or low aspirations—I certainly do not, and there is no record of my doing anything of the sort in this House over my years as the MP for the area. Results have not been good enough, but they are improving, and we will be relentless—working, I hope, with the Department—in seeking to improve them further. People want the best for their children. This mixed community, which is represented by the governing body, but also by the wider deprivation demographics I mentioned, wants the best results for all its young people.

I am also concerned about the undemocratic way in which these things have been done. In 2010, the Secretary of State said that academies could become the norm, but that it was “down to individual schools” to make the decision, and I support that. Has he changed his mind, or was it always his intention that schools could decide their own destiny, as long as they chose the destiny he had chosen for them?

Two of the schools affected—Nightingale primary school and Noel Park primary school—are in the Hornsey and Wood Green constituency. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green supports forced academies, but her party’s manifesto in 2010 promised to give all schools the freedom to innovate. It is a strange freedom that allows schools to innovate on the ground, but only so far as the Secretary of State will allow from Whitehall.

That freedom is not worth the name, and it is fundamentally different from the freedom the previous Government’s academy programme offered parents and pupils. The Labour academy programme took failing schools—schools that parents were running away from in droves, and where discipline had gone out the window—and gave them the freedom to innovate in the best interests of pupils, with the support and assistance of teachers and parents. That differs hugely from the current programme.

The Government talk the language of localism and pluralism, but when it comes to the crunch, we see something quite different, which is driven solely by mandarins in Whitehall. That is fundamentally undemocratic. There is no collaboration whatever. Given that the Department’s Ministers are so well educated, it is a disgrace that not even the elected MP was worthy of a phone call or a letter. That is not the way one would usually expect Ministers to behave when such massive decisions are being made. The Minister has not even sought to get to the school or to spend any time there. Indeed, there is no record of his having spent any time in a Haringey primary in Tottenham. That is of huge concern, given the decision he is about to make.

The proposals are a massive shift and a departure from the policy under the previous Government. The intellectually bankrupt idea that excellence is synonymous with only one structure is of huge concern, and it does not hold water. It should be abandoned, and I ask the Minister to give some contrite indication of a change of position.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 6:18 pm, 12th January 2012

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I know he has a close personal and constituency interest in the issue.

Last June we made it clear that our absolute priority is to turn around underperforming primary schools by finding new academy sponsors for them. Our motivation is simply to raise standards for children. We want to find lasting solutions to underperformance so that all children have the same opportunities in life—opportunities that are enjoyed by children in areas neighbouring Haringey.

The 2011 key stage 2 tests show that Haringey primary schools went backwards, dropping 4 percentage points and taking them below the national and London averages in English and maths. Haringey primary schools are the worst performing in inner London. They have the highest number of primary schools currently below the floor—

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

If I may, I should like to make some progress. The right hon. Gentleman has had plenty of chances to make his point—

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

I must ask the Minister to correct his use of the term “inner London”. The Department does not categorise Haringey schools as inner London schools, and it certainly does not fund them as such. Will he also confirm that the performance of the Isle of Wight, the Medway towns, Peterborough and Norfolk are all below that of Haringey, and tell us whether he will be seeking to ensure that they, too, will be forced to have academies?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, we agree with him that the funding system, which we inherited from his Government, is unfair and opaque. We want to increase its transparency, and we have put out a new approach for consultation. We will report on that in due course. We are taking action against all underperforming schools in the country. We are working co-operatively with local authorities that are co-operating with us. A different approach is being taken by Haringey, however, and that is why there is a difference in this particular instance.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

I think that the leader and the chief executive of Haringey council would want me to place on record that they have been very co-operative with the Department in holding conversations about this matter. The Minister will know that the mainstay of resistance in Haringey has come from the schools themselves.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

That is very good to hear.

I should like to continue with the point that I was making. Haringey has the highest number of primary schools currently below the floor, out of all London authorities, and 12 primary schools there have been below the floor for three or more of the past six years. Demographically similar local authorities such as Hackney, Camden, Newham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets all outperform Haringey at primary school level.

The floor standard is a basic acceptable level of performance by a primary school. For the record, a school is below the floor if fewer than 60% of pupils are achieving level 4 or above in English and maths or failing to make average progress in English and maths. Insisting that schools educate their pupils to level 4 standard is not a huge objective; nor is it unachievable. Level 4 involves just the basics. To achieve a level 4 in reading, pupils need to be able to interpret and understand the meaning behind a simple story. In maths, all that is required is to be able to understand simple fractions and to add, subtract, multiply and divide without the help of a calculator.

It is unacceptable that so many children in Haringey are being let down. As the right hon. Gentleman said, if a child leaves primary school without the basics, they will struggle at secondary school and throughout life. Those pupils face real disadvantages when starting secondary school and have extreme difficulty in catching up later.

In my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s speech last week at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham college, he said that pupils cannot read to learn if they have not learned to read. They cannot begin to deal with more advanced mathematical concepts, or with physics or chemistry or any number of other subjects, if they have not grasped the fundamentals of arithmetic. No matter how good a secondary school is, there is a limit to the extent to which it can pick up the pieces. It is for that reason alone that we want to take action to secure sustainable improvements in a number of Haringey’s underperforming schools.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I will not, if the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I want to continue to make my argument and address the points that he has made.

Those are schools whose history of underperformance and ability to sustain improvements are causing us real concern. Downhills primary school was judged inadequate by Ofsted in 2002 and placed in special measures. It came out of special measures three years later in 2005, but improvements were not sustained, and in January 2010 it was again judged inadequate by Ofsted and required significant improvement. Key stage 2 results show that the school has failed to meet the floor standard since 2005. In 2011, 61% of pupils achieved level 4 or above in English and maths, with the other 39% of pupils failing to achieve that basic level. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it is unacceptable for any school to have a large proportion of its pupils failing to achieve minimum standards year after year. We know that those standards can be met, however.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Let me make this final point before giving way. We know that that can be done. There are schools across London with intakes as challenging as those in Haringey, with proportions of pupils on free school meals and where English is not their first language, that are performing well above the standard. Let me cite one school I have visited in Tower Hamlets. In Osmani primary school, for example, 95.8% of pupils have English as an additional language and 58% are eligible for free school meals, yet that school has 88% achieving level 4 in English and maths. That is what we want to see happening in Haringey.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

We all want to see that, but I say again to the Minister that in the boroughs that he prays in aid, each pupil is funded a great deal more than pupils in the London borough of Haringey. Why does he imagine that we do not need extra teachers and extra support to bring up those pupils’ standards, but that a structural change into an academy will fix that problem? Will he say something about why the structural change per se will fix that problem? Where there are academies that are failing—and there are—what will he do about it in five years’ time, given the autonomy that academies have?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I have to say that the academies programme was inherited from the right hon. Gentleman’s Government, as indeed was the funding system. Academies have made a tremendous difference in transforming underperforming schools, especially in secondary schools where this approach has been applied. The professionals have autonomy and new leadership is brought in. It has worked in practice.

Let me make one or two things clear to the right hon. Gentleman. First, no decision about any school in Haringey has been taken at this stage. Officials have met the local authority regularly since July and they have met the relevant head teachers and chairs of governors in October, offering to visit any school wanting a further conversation. At all stages we have been clear that our goal is school improvement, and that we believe that the best route for achieving that is through schools becoming sponsored academies. We have sought to work with the local authority and schools to find solutions on which everyone can agree, as we have done successfully in many parts of the country, and as we continue to do successfully throughout the country.

I agree about the importance of consulting the governing body, and this is why officials sought another meeting with each school in early December asking for their views on these proposals. The schools in Haringey have been given time to provide representations to the Secretary of State on his proposed action. Before giving us their views, we fully expect them to engage with the wider school community. We have already received a number of representations from parents, governors and the local community, both in support of and against the approach we are taking in Haringey, which we will take into consideration. When we have the representations from the schools, we will take a final decision and inform them. It would therefore be inappropriate and premature for me to comment further on the specific Downhills case until we have fully considered all those representations and the circumstances of the case.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

Will the Minister confirm that the officials gave the governing body three weeks in which to find a sponsor—three weeks in which to go out and find some captain of industry to take over the school?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Discussions with the local authority have been going on in Haringey since July, and this is part of that process.

Let me say that this is not happening in Haringey alone. The last Government opened 203 sponsored academies and we have opened another 132 since the election. We are working with local authorities across the country to secure better outcomes for their pupils by transforming these underperforming schools. Over 300 schools have now opened as sponsored academies, a further 1,194 have converted to academy status, and more than 700 maintained primary schools are either open to becoming academies or in the pipeline. Those range from small rural primaries to large urban primaries such as the 843-pupil Durand school in south London.

I would like to assure the right hon. Gentleman that we recognise the real effort that the governing bodies and staff of schools are making to improve the standards of education at their schools in the most challenging of circumstances. We want to help schools that, despite the best efforts of the staff, are struggling to sustain improvements. We believe that substantially different solutions are required—solutions that will help the most disadvantaged pupils to succeed. Academy status led by a strong sponsor is the best way of providing quick and sustainable improvements in order to prevent more children from leaving the school without at least the basic literacy and mathematical skills.

Academy status has been very successful; it is a tried and tested model. A large body of evidence of pupil performance and independent reports show that the academy model—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).