Skip to main content

Academy (Isle of Sheppey)

Volume 451: debated on Monday 30 October 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

It is with a sad heart that I have had to call for an Adjournment debate on the mooted academy for the Isle of Sheppey in my constituency. I had many meetings with Lord Adonis, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, before Christmas in which I explained the special nature of the island. I talked the matter through with Graham Badman, the director of education at Kent county council, at the end of December 2005, and I visited Dulwich college, one of the two possible partners, three times between September and December 2005. I met the chairman of the shadow board eight months later in August 2006. The progress on announcing the academy has been too slow and Kent county council’s management of the two consultations has been abject.

Let me give some background to the situation. We have had a single upper secondary school—it is now called Minster college, but it was previously called Sheppey comprehensive school—on the same site on the Isle of Sheppey for the past 30 years or so. Sadly, for most of that time, it has seriously underperformed. It has rarely scored more than 25 per cent. of grades at A to C at GCSE, which contrasts greatly with its counterparts in Sittingbourne—Fulston Manor school, Westlands school and Sittingbourne community college—which have all made hugely impressive strides and score somewhere between 45 and 50 per cent. of grades at A to C, even though they are secondary modern schools. Although that should not be the sole criterion on which a school is judged, I noted recently that Sittingbourne community college’s score on added value made it one of the best in the whole of Kent.

For the past 30 years, the Tories on Kent county council have largely sat on their hands, content to ignore the life chances of the children on the Isle of Sheppey, which is an appalling attitude to our children, their children and their children’s children. The Government have, through the building schools for the future programme, promised to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England over the next decade or so. That decision has been applauded throughout the length and breadth of the country.

None the less, into that mix, the Government introduced six years ago a catalyst for failed secondary schools, called academies. They built on the city academies that were first mooted in 1988. So far, we have had three in 2002, nine in 2003, five in 2004, 10 in 2005 and 19 in 2006. We have ambitious aims of having 200 by 2010. I believe that it will take 10 years for any academy to settle down, but some of the omens are good. Those academies that have replaced failed schools have experienced a 19 per cent. improvement in grades at A to C at GCSE, and there have been other year-on-year improvements. Keeping the status quo of a failed school is not intellectually sustainable.

The Labour Government have been unbelievably generous to my constituency, especially the Isle of Sheppey. It is hard to recall any significant inward investment to our island between 1979 and 1997, except at Eastchurch county primary school. However, since 1997, we have had a £100 million new bridge, which opened in July. We have also had a £13 million new hospital, just under £2 million for Sure Start, which is now based at Rose street, and UK online centres at Leysdown, Warden bay, Eastchurch and Sheerness. There have also been extensive new building projects at Queenborough, West Minster, Rose street, Danley and Minster college, and we have a new further education college. Earlier this year, we announced £19 million for the Rushenden relief road, so the total spent is nearly £200 million, which is large by comparison with anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have made what I would call the hardware investment. We have put the infrastructure in for the island, so we now need the software, which is much more important. We need to invest in the future generation of our islanders. However, the problem is that unlike the rest of Kent, the island has a three-tier system of schools, including three middle schools. These schools have, by and large, performed well, but when their students have left for the single upper school at Minster college, something happens and their performance drops off considerably.

In February 2004 KCC initiated its plans for changes to the system on the island, but curiously took a further two years to put them into the public domain. The void between announcing and not announcing has led to a campaign by local people, the Sheppey Parents Action Group—SPAG—to stop any reforms whatsoever. When one examines the evidence, that clearly does not stack up, but one cannot blame them for the action they have taken, such has been the core incompetence inside the Tory executive and the education department at KCC. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the two talk to one another.

Notwithstanding the opposition of a single group—I have offered to meet SPAG over the next week or two, after this evening’s meeting—I hope that common sense will prevail and that our island parents will see the sense of moving from a three-tier to a two-tier system. I am also hopeful that our three political parties will support such a move and see the sense in working together to make the academy proposals work for the good of our children. I would happily chair a joint committee of county and borough councillors, the head and chair and governors of Minster college, and the head and acting head teachers of the middle schools and their chairs of governors. We want the best for our children, and we are better when we work together. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will say whether he would accept a visit from the group.

The island feels that it has been appallingly let down and that KCC owes it an apology. Let me explain. First, KCC announced that it would undertake two consultations, one on moving from a three-tier to a two-tier system, and one on an academy. Somehow it persuaded us that we should spend £1.3 million on the consultation. Most of that has been a waste of time. KCC announced the academy consultation first, before the three-tier to two-tier move, then it changed its mind. That confusion has not helped the process or the island come to terms with what the county has in mind.

KCC then employed a company called Mouchel Parkman. It is not clear to me who carried out the consultation and who agreed those consultants. If it was the Department for Education and Skills, I hope it feels ashamed of itself. If it was KCC, it should stand in the corner and write out 100 times, “We should have done better”. If the consultation seems to have fallen between the two organisations, that gives some idea of the confusion out there.

A glossy eight-page brochure entitled “Proposals for an Academy on the Isle of Sheppey”, states on page 6:

“Autumn and winter 2006: Consultation on the academy. Kent County Council then to consult on moving from a three to two-tier structure.”

The brochure goes on to state towards the end:

“Key benefits: new modern buildings, high quality teaching, improved student performance and behaviour, £40 million investment in education in Sheppey, no council tax increases.”

It does not say where the buildings are or what they are. It asks our people to make a decision on the academy, not knowing what it is or where it is, before deciding about the move from a three-tier to a two-tier system. It is clearly not beyond the wit of man to move from a three-tier to a two-tier system first and then to the academy. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and eventually the council changed its mind, but when people have waited two years for the plans to be put into the public domain, such confusion at the outset does not help the case.

How could any parent decide on an academy before voting on the three-to-two consultation? Anyway, how could anyone vote on an academy without knowing what was proposed? How could the academy be imposed on us without islanders having much greater representation on the shadow board, which is chaired by Mr. Ronnie Norman, a non-islander and a former Tory county councillor? There has been no project or public relations management by the education department at KCC or by the shadow board on both consultations. They do not understand the island or its community.

If I were Roger de Haan risking a million or two of my hard earned money on the academy, or Dulwich college, whose chairman of governors is Lord Turnbull, a recent former Secretary to the Cabinet, no less, I would be seriously considering withdrawing from the fiasco. However, I ask them to take a deep breath and stay the course. We need them and so does the island. We need them to help us up our game by 1,000 per cent. Help us do that. It will be worth the journey. Take the lead. They have so much more expertise that we do not want to lose them; we cannot afford to lose them, nor can the next generation of island children.

Let me outline a way forward. Let us continue with the three-to-two consultation, but can we put some facts before the parents? The public consultation document, “Planning Sheppey schools for the future”, which was provided by KCC, does not include a single fact about A to C grades or a single comparison between island schools and mainland schools. How can parents make a decision? More than 600 children currently travel from the island to mainland schools. We are asking parents to decide whether to keep their children on the island, but how can they do so without the facts to help them decide?

The Department must join KCC in ensuring that there is a professional project management system in place, which is currently the fatal flaw. Will the Department take a deep breath and halt the academy consultation? Will it reorder the shadow board and reconstitute it with an island business man or woman who knows and speaks for the island as chair? Will it make sure that an equal number of islanders and non-islanders are represented on the board? As I have said, a full-time project management and public relations team should be appointed to work with the new board. We should go back to square one and analyse whether the £40 million on offer is enough to rebuild secondary education on the island.

The system is currently back to front. How can we decide which are the best options when they are not on offer and have not been costed? It is not clear whether the Department agreed the £40 million figure on the back of a cigarette packet. The calculations should be in the public domain so we know what KCC originally proposed. Before the board recommences its work, it needs to put into the public domain the underlying philosophy behind why an academy is necessary. The issue should be about offering excellence to our children and choice for parents, and the options should be increased at each level of education. Given today’s announcements on carbon, perhaps a carbon-neutral assessment is needed, too. A detailed analysis of footfall and car journeys should be conducted for each and every option, all of which should be fully costed.

To my mind, there are several options. The first option is a federated academy comprising three 11-to-16 schools at Chenyne, St. George’s and Danley and a twin-site, newly combined sixth form at Sheppey and Minster colleges. The second option is a federated 11-to-16 academy at Cheyne, Danley and Minister college, and a twin-site, newly combined 16-to-19 centre at Sheppey and Minister colleges. The third option is a federated 11-to-14 academy at Cheyne and Danley, and 14-to-18 provision at Minster college. The fourth option is a single site academy at Minster college of 3,000 students, which would be madness but should at least be costed. Such a site would lead to the sale of Cheyne and Danley schools, which would decimate the communities of Sheerness east, but let us make sure that any sale of land goes to the academy and not to KCC.

My preferred choice is three tightly focused 11-to-16 schools with three specialisms. One school would have a boarding element based on the house system at Dulwich college. One of the 11-to-16 schools would house the 16-to-19 centre, which, as I have said, should be a joint venture with Sheppey college, which would allow us to speak with one voice at that level.

We should consider offering three specialisms. Sport and art should be offered at Cheyne, which should include a brand new iconic building on a completely rebuilt Cheyne site. The site backs on to Barton’s point, which is owned by Swale borough council, and it would make a good sporting centre for the Olympics. Sheppey has some of the best windsurfing in the world, so a boarding school that could double as an events centre is perhaps worth considering. That is the poorest part of the island, and a 24-hour school would make a difference. It would be exciting if we were to involve the Sorrell Foundation, which would allow local people and local children to be involved in the school’s design.

The Tories at Swale borough council do not recognise sport on the island. Already, the local football league has asked its players and friends not to vote for Tory candidates in the May elections given the cost of renting a football pitch. Sport matters on the island, and we are fed up with the intransigence of the local Tories. A federated academy could be asked to look after all the sports facilities on the island in a trust. We could then introduce NVQs and GNVQs in groundmanship and ground care in our 16-to-19 centre, which would allow us to secure £2 million from the Football Foundation to overhaul sport on the island. Within five years, we would have our own trained staff looking after our pitches, which is why I recommend sport and art at Cheyne.

We need computer scientists and mathematicians. Abbot Laboratories is one of the world’s truly great international pharmaceutical companies. It has its headquarters in Chicago and has a substantial base in Queenborough. We must be able to build a substantial relationship with that company, so that it steps outside its footprint and supports us. One of the schools, perhaps Danley, might then establish a permanent relationship with the company. Whatever happens, given that last year alone 800,000 computer scientists graduated from China, the island must accept the challenge of globalisation and move forward with one of its schools dedicated to the subject.

Now that we have nearly completed the hard bit of the infrastructure—with Rushington to come—we should provide education relevant to the needs of the population. We need to encourage our boys and girls to turn their business and entrepreneurship potential into wealth for future generations on the island. A partnership with the island business community, and the opening of small workshops on a school site, will offer our children a firmer understanding of the business world and begin to establish our own future wealth generators. That is the exciting prospect of a federated academy. Once we have put our prejudices aside to work for the good of the island’s children, the sky is the limit.

There it is. If the Minister cares to check the record over the past 10 years, and the number of Adjournment debates that I have secured on local matters, he will find, almost without exception, that my judgment has been uncannily accurate. This time, we are not talking about the £200 million of hardware that the island desperately needed back in 1997, to which the Government have generously contributed, but the challenge of India, China, Sweden, Slovenia, Brazil and Russia to future generations of children on my beloved island. I hope that he will not disappoint us and offer mealy-mouthed words and inaction. We urge him to take over the project, reconstitute the management and bring on board some of my suggestions, especially a project management team. He should work with us, not against us. If he takes such courageous decisions this week, we can rebuild confidence in the notion of a federated academy. If not, we may lose the confidence of the islanders and, as a result, KCC and the Government could condemn our island’s children, and their children’s children, to failure for ever. In my book, that is simply unacceptable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. His concern for his constituents is admirably demonstrated by his detailed understanding and constructive approach to the issue. He is a powerful advocate for his constituents. He will be pleased to know that I also represent a number of islands, including Portland, which has a number of schools and, incidentally, the best windsurfing in the country.

Before I discuss the process and problems behind the debate, I want to remind the House why an academy is being considered for the Isle of Sheppey. My hon. Friend and I agree that Minster college is not offering young people the standard of education to which they are entitled and that they deserve. Just over a quarter of its pupils get five A* to C GCSE passes, compared with almost 60 per cent. nationally. It was put into special measures in 2004. Ofsted found low expectations, poor behaviour and poor management. As my hon. Friend has said, the school is rejected by many parents, who choose schools further away for their children.

Other interventions have been tried but have failed to deliver improvement at the school at an acceptable rate. Although my Department does not publish a list of failing schools, it is fair to say that Minster is a school in dire need. That is why the sponsors have asked us to consider replacing it with an academy. The proposal is backed by the interim management at Minster college, who see it as the only way to deliver the radical changes needed.

Academies are already having a major impact on attainment levels in areas that, like the Isle of Sheppey, have a history of low expectations and low achievement. The good teaching, excellent facilities and motivated pupils deliver real improvements in educational standards. As my hon. Friend suggests, given the legacy of underachievement that academies must overcome, we cannot expect them all to be an overnight success. But we do expect all academies to make steady progress. Most already show dramatic improvements. Results reported by academies already open and offering GCSEs speak for themselves. This year, the proportion of pupils gaining five or more good GCSE passes rose by over 6 per cent., compared with a national average rise of 1.8 per cent. Those successes are repeated at key stage 3.

I fully acknowledge that the proposal for the Isle of Sheppey is a complex one, with many issues for parents and local stakeholders to consider. It is made more complex by the two consultations mentioned by my hon. Friend—simultaneous consultations on separate issues: building an academy and the broader issue of reorganisation. That would not happen in an ideal world, but I think that I understand how it came about. The academy will be a central part of the overall solution to the problems in the area, and it therefore cannot be seen in isolation. It might have been preferable to consult on the move to two tiers, but that would now delay the arrival of a much needed academy. Moreover, we should not subject pupils and parents to two rounds of upheaval and uncertainty, potentially stretching over several years.

I know that there are intense and understandable concerns among some parents who want to defend their familiar middle schools, and who fear that an academy on the same site as the existing school will fail to deliver change. To help inform the debate, we need to ensure that people are in full possession of the facts. Parents need to know the subjects that the academy will teach, how it will be governed and what it will offer the local community. The academy’s project steering group is working to resolve those questions so that it can provide answers. Parents are not being deliberately kept in the dark; it is simply that the location will have a big impact on what the academy will be able to offer, and the group wants to make absolutely sure that the project will really work. My hon. Friend sketched out some options involving locations, the number of schools and various federated academy models.

I know that the sponsors are wholly committed to coming up with the best possible project. That, of course, will mean building on the good work that is going on in all local schools, including middle schools. I should add, however, that my ministerial colleagues would not proceed with the academy proposal if the two-tier solution were rejected. It would mean going back to the drawing board instead of taking the action that is needed. If that is the outcome of the consultation, there are other options that we can discuss. I certainly do not want to influence the outcome unduly, but I feel that it is fair to be upfront with my hon. Friend.

Let me clarify the process of setting up an academy. There are two stages. First the feasibility stage tests the viability of the sponsors’ proposal; then the sponsors and the Department enter into a funding agreement. The second stage is the implementation stage, when the vision becomes a reality. This academy is progressing through the feasibility stage. The sponsors have set out their vision and how it will work in practice, from the curriculum to staffing needs. This is also the stage at which site options are surveyed and costed. At present £40 million is set aside for the academy, and the feasibility stage will test that out.

Consultation and engagement are a crucial part of the feasibility stage. My hon. Friend was very critical of the way in which the local authority has handled its consultation on reorganisation, but that is a matter for the authority. He raised other concerns about consultation. I reassure him that the process is adhering to the standards specified by the Cabinet Office. The entire cost of a feasibility stage for any academy is typically between £250,000 and £300,000, including spending on consultation. The amount spent on consultation is certainly not the £1.3 million that has been suggested by some, although that could perhaps be the full cost of feasibility stage and implementation combined.

The pamphlet mentioned by my hon. Friend is only the start of a process; it is not the final word. It has already been sent to 15,000 houses, and there have also been public exhibitions and meetings. As my hon. Friend will know, the sponsors have engaged a professional PR company, and they will be arranging focus groups to listen to the views of parents and other interested parties. The consultation will continue until December. If the project is approved, consultation will continue until opening day so that parents and local people have a real voice in the decisions that are made.

There are many different options for the academy, some of which my hon. Friend mentioned. I agree with him that a single location would not be large enough for 3,200 pupils: that is why the consultation focuses on two preferred options, both involving more than one site.

As my hon. Friend said, it is very important for the end result to meet the needs of the community, and I appreciate his efforts to secure the best possible solution. He has brought up some important issues and made several interesting recommendations. I understand that he has met the sponsors to discuss those. It seems to have been a fruitful meeting, but perhaps further such meetings are necessary.

I want to add my own reassurances. This is neither a closed consultation nor a foregone conclusion. All options are on the table and will be considered fairly and transparently. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to work with the steering group to reach a constructive solution. The consultation report to the project steering group and then to my Department is expected in the new year. That report must fully address all the options and make a balanced and honest recommendation. It will also take into account the decision on the move to two tiers. By January, we will know the proposed location for the academy and the way forward on reorganisation. There will be another five months to work up detailed, surveyed and costed proposals.

As regards my hon. Friend’s concerns about project management, I want to reassure him that all academies are delivered through professional project managers using best practice, which guarantees a rigorous process delivering best value for money. However, I hear his criticisms and I will certainly reflect on them and discuss them with departmental officials.

I genuinely appreciate my hon. Friend’s commitment to engaging in and supporting this process through to a successful conclusion, and welcome his determination to find the best solution for his area. I hope that he will keep in touch with me and with my noble Friend Lord Adonis as the project develops. I will take a personal interest in it and would be pleased to meet a delegation led by my hon. Friend, as he requested. If it is clear in the final report that there is local support for an academy and we can answer the various questions that he rightly asked, I am certain that it will deliver radical and much needed improvements for the young people of the Isle of Sheppey. That is something on which we can all agree.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes pastTen o’clock.