The reason for that is twofold. First, the surplus is often working capital and secondly, the school may well have been saving money from their revenue funding to purchase a capital item or to build a science block, and so on, and it would be a pity for those plans not to go ahead simply because they were being converted to academy status.
In Opposition, when we were developing our academies and free school policy, we also came to the view that the policy would lead to higher standards not just in academies and free schools, but in local authority maintained schools. Last year, 83% of pupils at St Bonaventure’s Roman Catholic School were entered for the EBacc, up from just 33% in 2015. At St Paul’s Church of England Primary School in Staffordshire in 2014-15, only 50% of its pupils were reaching the expected standard in reading, but last year, that had risen to 87%. I am sure that I could find a lot of other examples of local authority schools that have improved their standards under this Government.
Of course, it does all begin with reading. Central to our reforms has been ensuring that all pupils are taught to read effectively. Pupils who are reading well by age five are six times more likely than their peers to be on track by age 11 in reading, and counter-intuitively, 11 times more likely to be on track in mathematics. For decades, there has been a significant body of evidence demonstrating that systematic phonics is the most effective method for teaching early reading. Phonics teaches children to associate letters with sounds, providing them with the code to unlock written English. Despite that evidence, our phonics reforms were initially met with opposition from some. They were dismissed by some critics as being a traditional approach. I make no apology for this, because phonics works. I pay particular tribute to the former Labour Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, who, in his independent way, promoted phonics and reading in Newham. Despite being an area of significant disadvantage, Newham now boasts the best phonics results in the country. Labour deselected Sir Robin as its mayoral candidate earlier this year.
In England, schools’ phonics performance has significantly improved since we introduced the phonics screening check in 2012, when just 58% of six-year-olds correctly read at least 32 out of the 40 words in the check. Today that figure is 82%, which means that 163,000 more six-year-olds are on track to be fluent readers this year compared with 2012. In 2016, England achieved its highest ever score in the reading ability of nine-year-olds, moving from joint 10th to joint eighth in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—rankings. This follows a greater focus on reading in the primary curriculum and a particular focus on phonics.
We need to go further, of course, so backed by £26 million of funding, we have selected 32 primary schools across the country to spread best practice in the teaching of phonics and reading. Our aim is for every primary school to be teaching children to read as effectively as the best, and I will not stop going on about phonics until this is achieved. Reading is the essential building block to a good, fulfilling and successful life.
We reformed the primary school national curriculum in 2014, restoring knowledge to its heart and raising expectations of what children should be taught, particularly in English and maths. Since 2011, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers has narrowed in both primary and secondary schools in England.