Academies Bill [HL] — Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 7th July 2010.

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Photo of Lord Hill of Oareford Lord Hill of Oareford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 5:00 pm, 7th July 2010

My Lords, these selection issues are important, and I know how important it is that I provide as much reassurance as I can. I know that when I met the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and Members on the opposition Front Bench, he was very clear, and I obviously understood, that selection is a touchstone issue that is extremely important to the party opposite. I hope that he will also accept by the same token that that is extremely important to Peers in the coalition Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made it very clear that he is not interested in fighting old battles and reopening the question of selection, which I know will disappoint my noble friend Lord Blackwell. I hope, therefore, that I can provide some of the reassurance that noble Lords opposite and on these Benches have been asking for.

In part, one of the issues underlying all this, and which we touched on in the first group of amendments, relates to the reassurances provided through the funding agreement. That remains the case. Amendments 8 and 10C would require academy arrangements to include terms that provided that academies be treated as maintained schools for the purposes of their admissions policy under the schools admissions code. As I previously confirmed and my noble friend Lady Walmsley made clear, academies must comply-as is the case with maintained schools-with admissions law and the codes, and that is achieved through the funding agreement. I confirm that all future academy arrangements will contain this requirement. This is not, as some may fear, a voluntary requirement but a contract that is enforceable by the Secretary of State. The approach is consistent with that taken by the previous Government, who never sought to require in legislation academies' compliance with the admissions code. We do not see any reason to change that.

I will respond to one question from the noble Lord, Lord Knight. There may be other points on which I will have to speak to those excellent officials to whom he referred, and write to him. The detailed admission arrangements are in the annexe to the funding agreement that was shared with noble Lords earlier, perhaps before the noble Lord joined the House-I am not referring to the one that we shared yesterday. The model funding agreement published yesterday makes it clear that academies will continue to be bound by the same arrangements.

Amendment 10A, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, seeks to remove the requirement that an academy should provide the majority of places for pupils who are wholly or mainly drawn from the area in which it is situated. We discussed this in response to amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who was particularly concerned about boarding schools and those with a particular specialism. The words "wholly or mainly" require that more than 50 per cent of the pupils of an academy are drawn from the area in which the school is situated. My noble friend Lord Lucas asked why one should not simply do away with this. We believe that the requirement that an academy is a local school is important, as we want to ensure that local children have access to good quality schools. I think that point is welcomed by Peers on all sides of the House.

The phrase,

"the area in which the school is situated", like many such phrases, must be set in context. In practice, it depends on the nature of the school. If the academy is a boarding academy, or an academy with a particular specialism, the area could be very much wider than that which would be applicable in the case of an academy without special features. That is how it has worked in practice. We discussed this in Committee in the context of boarding schools and schools with a particular specialism. Following that debate, I pursued the point with officials, because I wanted to make sure that that was the understanding. The definition has not proved to be a problem in practice. I am very happy to write further to my noble friend Lord Lucas to follow up on his specific points.

Amendment 17B seeks to include provisions in academy arrangements to ensure compliance with academy characteristics, while Amendment 33A seeks to achieve similar aims by allowing selective schools to continue to select by ability. As I said in Committee, the Bill requires that the academy arrangements will oblige the academy proprietor to comply with the Clause 1(6) characteristics when establishing and running an academy. The Secretary of State ensures at the outset of an academy project that the academy meets those characteristics. Thereafter, compliance with them, and with all aspects of the funding agreement, is monitored by the Young People's Learning Agency. If anyone has concerns that an academy is not complying with the required statutory characteristics or the term of its arrangements, this can be brought to the attention of the YPLA or the Secretary of State, who will look into it and take appropriate action.

Amendment 32A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, seeks to prescribe in legislation a requirement that would prevent a selective school from increasing admission numbers once it becomes an academy. The Bill contains provisions that allow selective maintained schools to retain academic selection if they become academies; but, as we have discussed and as I am happy again to put on the record, it does not allow for new selection.

One point that perhaps has not been made before is that any independent school seeking to become an academy, which people may worry is a possible back-door route, would have to cease to be selective. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, pointed out, under current legislation, the Education and Inspections Act 2006, any maintained school, including a selective school, may increase its admission number as part of any changes to its admission arrangements, subject to consultation. We propose no change to this in the Bill; in fact, we seek to maintain the status quo. The amendment would reduce the right to expand for one set of schools. It seems wrong to bar one set of successful schools from responding to demand for more places when that opportunity is currently open to them in the maintained sector.

Finally, I turn to the issue of faith schools raised by Amendment 32B, and I shall speak in support of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. We had a keen debate about faith schools in Committee. As is rather the case with selection generally, the aims of the Bill in relation to faith schools are very modest, and the right reverend Prelate made the point well and fairly. We are simply asking to maintain the status quo, which I think is the point that he made. Nothing in the Bill will make an increase in faith schools easier, nor is there anything that seeks to change their character, but we believe that a faith school should have the same chance to become an academy as any other maintained school. We are not convinced that it would be right for faith schools seeking to convert to academy status to have to go through an additional application process simply to stay as they are. We think that designated faith schools are a key element of a diverse school system, and that they provide parents with an important choice.

We know from experience that academy arrangements involve a sufficiently robust safeguard. Earlier, we heard about a Trojan horse. In reply to the right reverend Prelate, it did not work out very well for the Trojans, or indeed for most of the Greeks. There is no back door to selection in the Bill. Having gone into this matter carefully and listened to the points made from the Benches opposite as well as from this side of the House, I believe that that back door is locked, bolted and padlocked. I hope that that reassures the noble Lords who have spoken and, in the light of that, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.