I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point. It is not just local academies that are in trouble—there are some much bigger and more serious questions that we need to raise. First, why are the Government doing this? There is no proof whatsoever that academies, per se, raise educational standards. It is a distraction that schools now need to focus on this rather than on their educational attainment. Secondly, how will the Government enable the local political leadership to drive up standards and work together, as worked so effectively with the London Challenge, if the power and decision making is so centralised in Whitehall?
Is the Department for Education even fit for purpose to deal with over 20,000 schools across the country—about 3,400 secondaries and almost 17,000 primaries? There are signs that it is already struggling with its current workload of 4,000 schools. As the Education Committee, of which I am a member, recently uncovered, the Department could not even deliver its annual accounts to Parliament in time and required a statutory extension, and there remains doubt as to when it will ever be able to present them. This mass rush to conversion will only add to the current mess. We need only look at the fiasco of the free schools application process, where there is no clear rhyme or reason to the Department’s decisions to authorise new schools.
We see a Department in disarray. Of particular concern for my constituents is how the forced academisation process will fit alongside the large-scale programme of house building that is planned for our area. As a result of the coalition’s national planning policy framework, some 21,000 new homes are expected to be built in Newcastle by 2030, a large proportion of which will be in my constituency. That will require new school capacity, but who will be the guiding mind that will match and create that new school capacity in an area that will be controlled by Whitehall? Newcastle City Council already finds itself in the impossible position of being unable to establish new community schools to cope with existing demand. How on earth will it be able to deliver the right school places across Newcastle upon Tyne North when every school is accountable to the Secretary of State?
Finally, in addition to the fact that apprenticeships were not mentioned in the Chancellor’s Budget even though we were promised that they would be, another glaring omission was the lack of any announcement about how the Government intend to protect our regional airports from the impact of devolving air passenger duty to Scotland. That is crucial to Newcastle airport, which supports 12,000 jobs in the region, and through which £300 million of goods are exported every year. All talk of a northern powerhouse will be completely undermined if the Chancellor fails to deal with the issue urgently.