Schedule 10

Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 pm on 29th March 2011.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 9:15 pm, 29th March 2011

I beg to move amendment 157, page 82, line 6 [Schedule 10], leave out paragraphs 2, 3, 4 and 5.

The schedule introduces the presumption that a new school will be an academy and restricts the power of local authorities to determine the most appropriate form of school when a new school is needed. It provides that, before publishing proposals for a competition for the establishment of a new school, the local authority must obtain the consent of the Secretary of State. It also provides for the Secretary of State or the local authority, with the consent of the Secretary of State, to be able to halt a competition at an early first stage before the closing date for proposals to be submitted and that academy proposals under a section 7 competition will no longer need to be submitted to local authorities for approval. They will instead be referred to the Secretary of State for him to decide whether he wishes to enter into academy arrangements with the proposer.

Why does the Minister consider it necessary to introduce new powers for the Secretary of State? How will the Secretary of State have sufficient local knowledge to make decisions that in every case are in the best local interest? The NASUWT has told us:

“This prevents public and local community decisions on the nature of school provision in their area. Its prevents elected local authorities from responding to local needs as they consider appropriate. It restricts parental choice of the type of school for their child.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such a provision will effectively take away parental choice?

The NUT said that, under the schedule, there is

“a danger that a poorly managed choice agenda—or one which offers no ‘choice’ at all—could accelerate both the flight of pupils and drain much needed funds from schools in deprived areas. This would further disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged in education.”

What assurances can the Minister give us about that?

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

On a point of order, Mr Williams. Will there be an opportunity to comment on the substantive part of the schedule? I have something to say that does not particularly relate to the amendment.

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

The schedule is meant to increase choice. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Cardiff West seems to be hostile to our proposal. Tony Blair, in the previous Government’s White Paper in 2005, first sought to change the local authority role from being a provider of education to being a local commissioner, so it could champion parental choice pushing for improvement rather than interfering in the day-to-day running of schools. The hon. Gentleman has asked whether the provision will restrict parental choice. No; the intention behind the schedule and the general thrust of the Government’s education policy is to increase parental choice by diversifying provisions and ensuring that parents have a genuine choice of school to which they send their children.

Amendment 157 would remove the presumption for new schools to be academies and, as Committee members will be aware, that would include free schools, which are underpinned by the same legal framework. It would remove the requirement on the local authority to seek academy proposals, and to inform the Secretary of State of the steps that it has taken to do so, before holding a competition for bids from proposers of all types of school.

Amendment 157 would remove the presumption for new schools to be academies. As Committee members will be aware, that would include free schools, which are underpinned by the same legal framework. It would remove the requirement on the local authority to seek academy proposals and to inform the Secretary of State of the steps that it has taken to do so, before seeking a competition bid from proposers of all types of school. It would also enable a local authority to continue to submit its proposals in a competition for a foundation or community school. It would effectively undermine the changes that we are trying to make to the process for establishing new schools.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West asked how the Secretary of State will have local knowledge. The Secretary of State has a team of advisers who work with local authorities, and they will bring the local knowledge with them.

There is cross-party support for the academies programme and its expansion under this Government. For example, Lord Adonis has described the number of academies as “a phenomenal achievement”. Recently, he said in an interview with The Spectator:

“Neither I nor Tony Blair believed that academies should be restricted to areas with failing schools. We wanted all schools to be eligible for academy status, and we were enthusiastic about the idea of entirely new schools being established on the academy model, as in Michael Gove’s free schools policy.”

The academies programme has proved to be a genuine revolution in raising standards in schools across the country. A recent Public Accounts Committee report found that the latest GCSE results show that standards in academies continue to improve faster than the national average. It was on the basis of evidence about the effectiveness of academies and of international evidence from the USA, Sweden and from the far east about the benefits of school autonomy, that the Government moved quickly to introduce the free schools programme and expand the academies programme, including by allowing existing maintained schools to convert to academy status and gain greater freedoms. There are now more  than 450 academies, half of which have opened since September 2010, and nearly 200 of them were schools that chose to convert.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour, Walthamstow

As the Minister has quoted the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member—I took part in its debate on that subject—will he update us about his Department’s discussions on one of our other recommendations, which was that the Department was not ready for a rapid expansion in the number of academies, because it was struggling to deal with those that it already had?

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

We are ready, people are working very hard, and we now have a special system for judging free school applications. The hon. Lady can be assured that we have the capacity and the systems to ensure that the programme continues to roll out.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour, Walthamstow

Just for clarity, will the Minister confirm that he is disputing the findings of the Public Accounts Committee, so that I can feed that back when we look at whether these proposals offer value for money?

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

I am not sure where we are on a response, but the Government will respond formally. I assure the hon. Lady that the Department is coping extremely well with what has been far higher demand for free schools and academy converters than anybody—particularly on the Opposition Benches—anticipated.

The free schools programme will allow the diversity, innovation and commitment demonstrated by teachers, parents and others to be brought into the school system. We have already received 323 proposals, which demonstrates the unmet demand from parents for better provision in their local area. Of those proposals, 40 have been approved to move to business case and plan stage, of which 11 have been approved to move to the pre-opening stage.

There is evidence from the United States that support for schools in the Knowledge is Power Program is strong, with more than 85% of students going on to college despite more than 80% of students on the programme coming from low-income families. In New York, charter schools have dramatically closed the gap in performance between students in inner-city neighbourhoods and those from the wealthiest suburbs. The vast majority of those who have benefited from those schools are the poorest children—90% are on free or reduced-price meals.

On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Cardiff West to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister is right. Of course, there is cross-party support for academies, which, as he has pointed out, were introduced by the Labour Government. We had some support from Conservatives, but none from the Liberal Democrats, whose conference voted against having any academies whatever—they will no doubt vote for them now. He is right that that there was cross-party support between Labour and the Conservatives about the programme to establish academies. In that programme, the Government focused relentlessly on bringing academy status to underachieving schools, where other things had failed. We focused our attention, laser-like, on trying to raise standards for children who had not been given the right kind of opportunity by the  poor performance of schools, which were often in deprived areas. It was right to do that, because those children were most likely to benefit from such input given the sponsorship and leadership that comes with academy status. The Government’s academies are very different; they are a watered-down version in which sponsorship is not required—a different kind of animal, albeit with the same name.

The Minister referred to free schools. I have visited charter schools in America and so-called free schools in Sweden, and I have also considered the research. The evidence is mixed. The Minister rightly points out that, on occasion, a local school system can fail and that some sort of autonomy via a charter school can work. As a generality, however, the evidence suggests that it makes no difference to overall standards. These kinds of school remain a small part of the system rather than being a major component of the national or state education system.

Clearly some are extremely concerned that these clauses will increase Government control over the establishment of new schools, contrary to what the Minister suggested. Unison said exactly that in evidence, and went on to say that they weaken the local authority’s ability to plan an education strategy in its area. If local authorities are to commission schools, options should be available to them. At this late hour, I shall not press for a Division, but we will look closely at what the Minister has to say. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the schedule be the Tenth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

It is a great pleasure to speak at this late hour on a long day. I welcome the warm words of the hon. Member for Cardiff West. It is a continuing journey of academies, which enjoys cross-party support—hopefully and encouragingly including Liberal Democrat Members. That is very noble to hear, and it reflects the generally warm debate that we have had today. There was a frisson of tension earlier between the hon. Member for Walthamstow and my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, but in general it has been a warm debate. We have focused on positive values. In some of our amendments, we tried to flesh out the value of positive local authority involvement in our schools, in a section that would generally reduce their role.

I seek some reassurance from the Minister that the measures that he has put in place, particularly regarding the setting up of new schools, go far enough and that they provide the opportunity and space for inspired educational leaders, and that impediments will not be thrown in their way left, right and centre as they try to fulfil their mission of educating some of our neediest children. I am inspired to ask because of experiences in my area.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West cited Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT. I found some of her comments confusing. This covers the point of opposition that some entrenched forces have, and why it is so important that the Minister goes as far as he can to clear these impediments. I asked Ms Keates,

“Is it correct for your members to hold strikes against plans to become an academy?” 

Ms Keates answered:

“I think it is entirely correct given the profound implications of the irreversible decision to become an academy.” [Official Report, Education Public Bill Committee, 1 March 2011; c. 64, Q125.]

I asked her whether an academy was a local school, but the general secretary of the NASUWT was not able to answer a straightforward question. Her answer was about 15 lines long, but it did not include yes or no. That just connotes the lack of sympathy and understanding in some elements of our educational infrastructure for what the Government are trying to achieve. That is why it is so important that the Minister has done everything he can to provide every opportunity to overcome some of these impediments.

In my community, we have two schools that for a number of years have failed to meet the minimum standards expected of five GCSEs, including maths and English. The percentages of children reaching that minimum standard in one of those schools in the past few years were 32%, 28%, 39% and 33%. In the other school, those percentages were 9%, 20%, 20%, 29%. Those schools are in areas of economic deprivation and educational challenge. Those are the areas that are crying out for new schools to be set up by inspired teachers, who have a vision to provide educational strength and inspiration to students and families in those areas.

I want to ensure that we do not see repeats of some of the impediments that we have seen in my area. We have to understand that local authorities have an enormous remit of official and unofficial powers in doing that. We have been engaged in discussions where local authorities have decision rights over land, over whether they would take a meeting and over how political votes can be used to create impediments. I find that incredibly disheartening. If this is a shared journey that we are taking—I did listen to some of the comments made earlier, and there is always caution when change is made—and if we want to have inspired teaching with freedoms, let us ensure that we have made radical enough change so that inspired head teachers will not find themselves worn down by the intransigence of bureaucracy, which wants to use any weapon at its disposal to extinguish the choice and opportunity that those inspired teachers can provide.

Photo of Julie Hilling Julie Hilling Labour, Bolton West

Does the hon. Gentleman recollect evidence given to us by the supporters of academies? When I asked what they could do as an academy that they could not do as a maintained school, their answer was, “Nothing.”

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s intervention, but I do not have that evidence in front of me either.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Conservative, Stevenage

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of those academy providers said that one thing she could do is give her teachers a bit more of a pay rise, as opposed to having that private time to study lessons, which they found quite disruptive? They felt empowered as teachers to do what was best for the children.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

That is a very good suggestion. That there are record numbers of schools stepping forward, wanting to become academies, is another sign that they see that they can do things differently. In fact, Goldington  middle school in my constituency will become an academy on 1 April. That is another school stepping forward to take advantage of the measures.

Another important point is that these schools must not operate in isolation. The academies programme may create islands, which is why it is important that if we loosen local authority control, we have to have confidence that the other schools will be there to embrace the new schools that are created. As I mentioned on Second Reading, I am proud that, in my community, the Bedford borough learning exchange, which is a collection of local head teachers, has said that it will welcome the head of a new free school set up in Bedford. That is incredibly important. This is a fantastic opportunity, offering people in the poorest parts of our community a choice of two great comprehensives that they can send their children to. That opportunity will not be taken, because the impediments are so great. If the Minister has not used this opportunity to clear all the impediments—every single one—to enable teachers to take up this opportunity, in three or four years’ time he will rue the day that this opportunity was missed. I am seeking his reassurances that, when I vote for this, he has done all he can to give that inspiration to teachers in our country.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford. I was a councillor in his constituency, and my good friend, Dave Hodgson, is doing an excellent job as elected mayor of that new unitary authority. My hon. Friend and I may have different hopes as to who will be elected to that position in May. I hope to see Mr Hodgson re-elected, but we could perhaps discuss that at length outside the Committee.

I do not share my hon. Friend’s obvious enthusiasm and unadulterated passion for academies. Parties often talk about how they are broad churches, and the coalition is, I suppose, an ecumenical movement, where two churches work alongside each other, looking for things on which they agree. It is fair to say, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Cardiff West, that in my party, there is somewhat less enthusiasm for a proliferation of academies, although there are members of my party who are enthusiastic about the process. I recall that during the passage of the Academies Bill last summer, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who was then the shadow Minister, while sharing the aspirations for being laser-like to which the hon. Member for Cardiff West referred to, betrayed an enthusiasm for a growth in the number of academies. At the time, the Labour party said that the academies that it brought in were different from the ones that this Government are now seeking to bring in. The enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Gedling for a proliferation of academies at the time shows that he was perhaps less like a surgical laser and more like one of Mr George Lucas’ extravaganzas. I suspect that had his Government been returned to office, we would have seen an expansion of the academy programme.

I accept what the Minister says about choice, and I can imagine that in an area without academy provision where parents believe that it would be more beneficial to have it, a local authority might want to use the provision in the schedule to explore that option. However, I can also imagine a number of academies in an area, and people and parents yearning to see a more traditional relationship between a new school and a local authority.  I can see things from both sides, and I hope that the Minister will consider those factors in an area where there has been a big expansion in the number of academies, which I accept he is passionate about and wants to see.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour, Walthamstow

Would the hon. Gentleman also like the Minister to consider the strong evidence about the difficulties of financial control with academies, particularly with their rapid expansion? We have already seen evidence that a number of academies struggle to achieve value for money. Their rapid expansion will pose another challenge there. One of the things that local authorities can do is to help with financial controls. Perhaps some of his colleagues in unitary authorities might have severe concerns about schools spending large amounts of money and about passing that money to schools without those controls in place at such an alarming rate.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I have a great deal of confidence in the Minister and his colleagues being able to preside over  that. That is not an area of concern to me. I want to make sure that there is an element of choice in areas where there has already been a great transfer of schools to academy status, and that there is the possibility to explore another option if there is demand for that.

I note that the Government have sought to ensure that schools will have no huge financial benefits from achieving academy status, unlike the previous Government, who gave a clear advantage to academy status by providing schools with more money for participating in the process. This Government are saying that schools would need to look at it for other reasons—the community wants a debate, for example—and there would not be any financial incentive. I welcome the fact that the Government are delivering greater transparency to the funding formula.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(James Duddridge.)

Adjourned till Thursday 31 March at Nine o’clock.