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City Academies

Volume 460: debated on Thursday 24 May 2007

5. When he next expects to meet representatives of local education authorities in East Anglia to discuss the city academy programme. (138957)

I have no immediate plans to meet representatives of local education authorities in East Anglia to discuss academies. However, I am aware of the two academy projects under development in Norfolk. The schools commissioner has recently visited Norfolk and Suffolk to discuss secondary education provision in those areas.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Park high school in my constituency is now planning to relocate to a new site as a city academy? That move has the overwhelming support of the community, the governors and the teachers. The mood is very optimistic, particularly as the Royal Society of Arts has now come forward as a potential sponsor. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the proposal his full support? Will he also make it clear that Her Majesty’s Government are as committed as ever to the city academy programme in spite of some of the cautious comments that have been made by some of his colleagues over the past few weeks?

We are as committed as ever to the city academy programme. I would like to help the Conservatives, while they are transforming their education policy to match ours, by explaining that the ambition to build more academies has to be matched by funding. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will give great consideration to the school in his area. Establishing 400 academies—one in every area of deprivation in the country—will also require funding. The problem with the Conservatives is that they will not be able to match that funding with their third fiscal rule and their commitment to tax cuts. The best way for the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he gets his academy is to keep Labour in government. Conservative Members have been trying hard to do that over the past couple of weeks, and we are very grateful to them.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that 90 per cent. of the academies and specialist schools in East Anglia are members of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust? The Education and Skills Committee took evidence yesterday from Sir Cyril Taylor, and what he and the trust are asking for is a full, healthy discussion about what we are doing in secondary education—not just in academies but in grammar schools. We are also grateful to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) for starting a very good discussion about the future of existing and intended grammar schools.

My hon. Friend has made a huge contribution to this area. The evidence submitted by Sir Cyril Taylor to yesterday’s hearing was interesting, because he identified a need for academies to co-operate and co-ordinate their activities with other schools in their area. That was the one element of criticism in the National Audit Office report last year. Of course, academies have to take these things a step at a time. Sir Cyril also mentioned the importance of the 164 existing grammar schools forging links with failing schools nearby and making a contribution to lifting standards of education in the entire community. That is an important contribution to the debate.

The provision of books to the academies is important in the delivery of education, but does the Minister accept that the role played by grammar schools in East Anglia and across the UK is important in providing choice and good education opportunities? The party to my right has now embraced the Government’s policy on city academies—doing a not-so-elegant somersault on grammar schools and using rhetoric with which the Sinn Fein Minister in Northern Ireland would be quite pleased—but will the Minister assure us that he will not use that change of heart as a smokescreen for launching further attacks on grammar schools?

The Conservatives are indeed a party to the hon. Gentleman’s right; that was an accurate description. During the 10 years that we have been in government, we have given the assurance that we have no plans to get rid of any of the 164 grammar schools. We will not allow any new academic selection, and our admissions code made that absolutely clear. We have put in arrangements for parental ballots if local communities feel that they ought to move to a non-selective system. That is the way to ensure that local communities are happy with their education system and that we make progress in the 21st century. I do not believe that that involves the extension of grammar schools.

Will the Secretary of State not only do everything that he can to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has his city academy, but will he invite the Leader of the Opposition to open it?

It depends on how the Leader of the Opposition takes this forward now. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has made his mark and passages from his interesting speech resonated from “The Future of Socialism” by Tony Crosland in the 1950s. However, with all the knives out behind him, I am worried that he will not manage to make progress. If he does, he will be the Leader—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] He might be the Leader of the Opposition. If he does, he will be the shadow Secretary of State for Education for a long time to come. I very much hope that that will involve him in helping us to open 400 new city academies.

Of course we strongly support existing grammar schools and it is an excellent idea that they should co-operate more with schools that should benefit from their academic expertise. The Secretary of State is right; we have been focusing on how, in East Anglia and across the country, we can use education to improve social mobility in the large parts of the country where grammar schools do not exist. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is rightly concerned because last week, for the first time, the Secretary of State said that there would be “a limit” on the number of academies. The very same week, the BBC reported that the Prime Minister said:

“In a few years time when all schools will be academies, we’ll see a transformed education system.”

So why is it that when the Prime Minister is leaving office, the Secretary of State is taking his foot off the accelerator and going cool on academies, when we on this side strongly support academies and do not see why there should be any limit on their number?

We are hardly taking our foot off the accelerator. There are 47 academies now. We have a manifesto commitment to have 200 academies by 2010 and we have just announced that we are to go on to build 400 academies. [Hon. Members: “Higher, higher.”] I will come to that in a second. Given that the specific intention of academies is to build them predominantly in areas where education has failed generations of children—in areas of deprivation—400 fits that bill. When we get to 400—it will take many years of a Labour Government with the right finance to get there—obviously we can look at where we can go further.

The hon. Member for Havant raised this important issue of social exclusion in a thoughtful speech and mentioned it in his question. He said that

“academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.”

That is absolutely our view, but I have to tell him that it is not the view of his colleagues and it is not the view of the leader of his party. Here is what the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said specifically in response—

Order. I call Rob Wilson. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wanted to ask a supplementary; I saw him standing.

I will ask a supplementary, which, as the question is about East Anglia, had better be about East Anglia. When the Secretary of State finally gets around to meeting the local authorities in East Anglia, will he explain to them in great detail why he has put the limit at 400? I simply do not believe that it is a question of funding. The Secretary of State has been so committed to the academy programme from the very start. Will he please explain to those local authorities and mine why we cannot have more academies?

Let me repeat: we have 47 academies. In 18 years of Tory rule the Conservatives managed to establish only 15 city technology colleges. That was a good idea, but the Tories could not match it with the funding—a pathetic performance. We now have 47 academies; we will have 200 by 2010, and we have announced that we will move to having 400. It is not our intention that every school should be an academy. Academies are an important part of local education provision, but there are many splendid schools that have turned things around. Stockwell park high school is not far from here; 70 per cent. of its children are on free school meals and more than 50 per cent. speak languages other than English. When we came into government, 11 per cent. of its children got five good GCSEs; it has now achieved a rise to 57 per cent. with a 41 per cent. pass rate in English and maths and 85 per cent. in science. Therefore, not every school needs to be an academy. Academies are needed in places where education has traditionally failed and where there is an input of children from deprived areas. They act as bastions around cities and have the effect of lifting education throughout the area. An announcement that we will go 200 beyond our manifesto commitment is hardly taking our foot off the accelerator.