We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I inform the House that in each debate I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Under the powers that have been given to me, the speeches of both Front-Bench spokesmen, and the spokesman of the third-largest political party represented in the House, will be restricted to 20 minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House expresses its concern over recent reports that the Government is retreating on the Academies programme and calls on the Secretary of State to restore the freedom of Academies to operate outside the National Curriculum, to take steps to liberate them further from local authority control, and to recognise that Academies should act as a spur and encouragement to local authorities by pioneering innovative new approaches to helping the most disadvantaged; and further believes that the Academies programme should be expanded and accelerated with not only more Academies but also greater freedoms for new providers who wish to open all-ability schools in the state sector.
First, may I say what a pleasure it is to see the Secretary of State in his place today? Some of us imagined that after the events of the past 24 hours he might well have enjoyed a rapid promotion back to the Treasury, where he would sit at the right hand of the Gord. We will probably have to wait a few weeks before that miraculous assumption happens.
Talking of biblical themes, my mission today is to adapt the words of St. Francis of Assisi and see whether, where there is discord, we can bring harmony. I refer, of course, to the need to heal the breach in the Labour party on education and bring the Secretary of State back into line and on to the side of real reform. One of the most worrying aspects of the Secretary of State’s tenure is a crab-like inching away from the proper reform programme, which began under Tony Blair. In recent weeks, that process has taken on the aspect of a full-scale invertebrate retreat.
It was all so different only two years ago. In those days, the Government had a reputation for competence, and the Secretary of State was only a Back Bencher. The two may or may not be related. Only two years ago, the country was led by a Prime Minister who, whatever his defects, knew where he wanted to take the country. Now, we are led by a Prime Minister who, because of his defects, dare not even go to the country. Only two years ago, there was an emerging consensus on the need for the Government to promote a public sector reform vision, driven by greater pluralism, diversity and choice. Now, there is a growing consensus that the Government do not have a vision and that they are paralysed by cronyism, incompetence and weakness.
Nowhere has that abandonment of a progressive vision been more worrying than in education. On many occasions, the Secretary of State has revealed his anti-reform instincts. I shall run through them shortly. However, there is still time—and hope, in my breast, at least, if not on the Labour Back Benches, that he may yet come good.
I know that some of my hon. Friends doubt that, but I am a generous soul and I like to think that a young lad could rise to the occasion, on this day at least. I hope that he will take the opportunity that the debate presents to repent of his errors or, at the very least, to turn over a new leaf and make clear his commitment to reform.
May I test the hon. Gentleman on his commitment to turning over a new leaf? If he became Secretary of State, would he give permission to a Conservative local authority, such as Buckinghamshire, that presented proposals for a new grammar school?
It is normally the Labour party that raises grammar schools when it wants to divert attention from the divisions in its ranks. However, I can understand, given what is happening to the hon. Gentleman’s candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats—the so-called “Calamity Clegg”—why he wants to divert attention.
I apologise for drawing attention to the divisions in the Liberal Democrat party in that way. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) invites me to talk about our policy—it is the same as it has always been. In those areas that retain the 11-plus, demographic change may mean that additional provision is needed, but we are not in favour of restoring it. In that respect at least, there is a measure of consensus in the House, although it may sometimes be broken by the aggressive instincts of the Minister for Schools and Learners when he is anxious to assert his pit bull characteristics.
Not at this stage, but I will give way later.
Speaking of pit bull characteristics, the hon. Gentleman inevitably tries to intervene because he wants to acquire a reputation as the Rottweiler of the Back Benches. I am afraid that he must stay in his kennel for another couple of minutes. [Hon. Members: “Down boy.”] Indeed.
My purpose, in spelling out some of the matters on which the Government have slipped back in the reform agenda and pointing out ways in which they can fruitfully take matters forward, is constructive. I want the Secretary of State to realise that his tenure will be wasted if he listens to the reactionary voices in his party urging him to give producer interests and the complacent establishment a chance. I want to give him the chance to deploy his intellectual gifts, which are still there, and the powers of his office in the service of reform, which will make opportunity more equal and help the disadvantaged most. My challenge to him is to be a moderniser.
Two years ago, there was a modernising consensus in the House of Commons. It drove the Education and Inspections Bill through and put it on the statute book, thanks to Conservative Members’ votes. The current Secretary of State was deeply unhappy with that at the time, as he told the New Statesman. However, that consensus was built on a powerful set of insights. Improvements in education had to be driven by not only a relentless focus on standards but a proper reform of structures.
In 2005, when the Blair Government published their education White Paper, the then Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State argued for greater pluralism and diversity in schools. They anticipated the development of fully independent schools in the state system. They hoped that local education authorities would play a progressively smaller role. They hoped that all new state schools would be created outside local authority embrace, and cited Florida and Sweden as exemplars. They looked at those states that had enacted thoroughgoing supply side reform with greater parental choice as their models. Schools outside local authority control, such as academies, would act as a goad and a spur to improvement. They would utilise their freedoms to pioneer new ways of doing things. They would also provide parents with a new choice: to take children out of failing schools and place them in more successful ones.
The hon. Gentleman talks about parental choice, but what he would say to the Conservatives in Warrington, who, along with the Liberal Democrats, are closing Woolston high school, contrary to parents’ wishes, while refusing to conduct a review of other schools in the borough? What is his message to his friends who are closing a vastly improved school, contrary to the wishes of people in the area?
My message to them is that I sympathise with them, because of the surplus places rule and the funding arrangements, both of which were put in place by the Government. If they campaign on Conservative proposals for greater choice and control, they will have a Conservative MP in Warrington, as part of a Conservative Government delivering for parents. There is powerful evidence—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is delivering his speech with his customary wit and charm—well worth the £1,000 a week that The Times pays him for pontificating on its pages. If he were to come to Chapel-en-le-Frith in my constituency, he would see a new high school and a new infant school, both of which have been built to replace schools that the previous Tory Government did not replace, even though they were completely derelict. Those schools were built as part of a plan to address the capital replacement needs of schools—a plan that his party has abandoned this week. Is that not completely irresponsible and reckless of him?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is completely irresponsible and reckless: making an intervention without studying the facts. I am afraid that he is completely wrong in his idea that we would abandon the building schools for the future programme. He must insist that the Government Whips Office supplies him with better questions. I like the hon. Gentleman and I enjoy his interventions, but quality needs to rise. I would like to see greater competition from his colleagues, so that he can feel involved and give us better interventions, and we can all benefit.
There is already powerful evidence that choice and competition work. In Hackney, the presence of new academies, such as Mossbourne community academy, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and I were privileged to visit yesterday, has driven up standards, not just for those who attend them, but for all schools. In Sweden, where a more thoroughgoing process of opening up the supply side has taken place, there is a direct correlation between the number of new independent schools in the state sector in a municipality and improvement in standards overall.
Reform brings results. But the question everyone is asking is: does the Secretary of State believe in real reform? There are several reasons why we fear that he does not. The first is the Secretary of State’s complete failure so far to make the case that choice, competition and contestability drive up standards. Professor Julian Le Grand, the then Prime Minister’s senior policy adviser between 2003 and 2005, has written thousands of eloquent words making the case for choice. The preface to the 2005 education White Paper made the case. The co-ordinator of the 2005 general election victory, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), has made the case. He said:
“As a parent I don’t want power in the hands of either councils or schools…I want it in my hands. This is the new political agenda.”
The idea of extending choice to individuals in how they receive public services is more than consumerism. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is
“a compelling social justice case for doing so. For too long those who can afford it have been able to buy choice over health and education. Those without, do without…State control has not guaranteed equality of outcome…School choice programmes in Sweden, Denmark and the USA…show a beneficial impact on performance across schools as a whole.”
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s every word, but words such as those have not yet crossed the Secretary of State’s lips. Unlike the right hon. Member for Darlington, he has not had the courage to take on the reactionaries in his party, the unions and the establishment, and make the liberal, modernising case. Today he can. We look forward to hearing it. If he fails to make that case, we and the world will draw the appropriate conclusion—that he lacks the bottle to fight for reform.
A bigger problem than the Secretary of State’s failure to make the case for choice, contestability and competition is the way in which his actions have spoken louder than his words, and the way in which he has diluted essential elements of the academy programme. This brings me to the second test that he is failing. He must ensure that academies are free from bureaucracy so that they can perform the functions that they were designed to achieve.
I do not like to disagree with my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, but I wonder whether he is being too kind in saying that the Secretary of State lacks the bottle for reform. Looking back over the 10 years of this Labour Government, was it not the Secretary of State’s master, the current Prime Minister, who at every stage opposed the reforms of the previous Prime Minister and prevented the excellence from spreading much more widely?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he makes a powerful case. We happy licence fee payers who were fortunate enough to watch “The Blair Years” on Sunday evening will have seen witness after witness testifying to the way in which the then Chancellor and his aides, supporters and advisers were thwarting the Blairite reform agenda at every turn. But my mum taught me in Sunday school that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and I believe that, even at this late hour, there is an opportunity for the Secretary of State to embrace the reform agenda. He is intelligent enough to follow the logic; I hope that he is honest enough to recognise that now is the time for real change.
I will not give way at this stage.
I want to elucidate one of the areas in which the Secretary of State has so far failed the test. His first act as Secretary of State was to limit the freedom of academies. Under him, academies were stripped of the right to shape their own curriculum and compelled to follow the national curriculum. They were also told that they would have to fall in line with local authority control. Rather than acting as a competitive force outside town hall control and levering up standards, they were to fall under the sway of bureaucrats.
We have already seen how Labour local authorities have succeeded in thwarting new academies in areas where educational provision is weak and the system desperately needs new providers. In Tower Hamlets, where Goldman Sachs wanted to set up an academy, the local authority said, “No, we don’t need no competition”, even though the standards there are so poor that almost half the secondary schools fail to get 30 per cent. of their pupils to the level of five good GCSE passes, including in maths and English.
In Hull, another area of educational weakness where more than half the schools fail to reach the acceptable level of 30 per cent. good GCSE grades, another academy sponsor was prevented from establishing a new school by Labour local bureaucracy. These local authorities are emboldened by the Secretary of State’s words to resist new entrants and competition. They could make it easier for new suppliers to give brilliant schooling to the disadvantaged, but the Secretary of State’s words, and his party, have made that harder.
I am looking carefully at the Opposition’s motion, and I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman thinks that only academies should have the freedom to innovate in the national curriculum. Why should not local authority schools, and all other schools, have that freedom?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making a constructive intervention. We want more freedom for schools. This week, we have been talking about greater freedoms. The key point is that, by applying competitive pressure outside local authority control, academies in Hackney have succeeded in driving up standards. That is what we want to see elsewhere, but there has been no evidence that the Secretary of State has grasped that agenda or that he has made the case for it in the way that his predecessors or the previous Prime Minister did.
Not at this stage.
To follow on from the intervention by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), the people who designed the academy programme knew that the whole point was that they should operate at a distance from local authorities in order to provide a competitive spur. Dan Corry, the former special adviser at the then Department for Education and Skills, has told us—
Not at this stage. I think that this evidence will interest the hon. Gentleman. Dan Corry, who used to advise his near neighbour, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), said:
“Blair and Adonis had an innate belief that local authorities were at the root of all problems. Blair and Adonis wanted autonomous schools everywhere. Neither wanted local authorities to have any real control”.
Lord Adonis might subsequently have been—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not yet. I was talking about Lord Adonis, and I know why the Secretary of State wants to intervene at this point.
Lord Adonis might subsequently have been taken to the Admiral Lord West memorial cell in the Downing street Lubyanka and forced to recant under pressure. He might even now be wandering the corridors of the upper House saying, “I love big Gordon”, but he cannot run away from the record, even though the Secretary of State is now distancing himself from reform. Would the Secretary of State care to make his intervention now?
If possible, let me inject rather more substance into the debate. Yesterday morning, the hon. Gentleman told the “Today” programme that academies would be exempt from the national curriculum: he then went on Channel 4 news at lunchtime and said:
“It’s clear that any school which is set up is going to have to follow the core aspects of the curriculum that binds all schools”.
Can he explain the contradiction between those two statements?
Yes, as there is absolutely no contradiction. As the Secretary of State should know, there is a difference between the national curriculum that binds states schools and the curriculum requirements that independent schools have to follow. Under our proposals, academies would have the freedom that independent schools have.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point: he is absolutely right. One of the core aspects of competence is unity in government, but there is a clear division between the Secretary of State’s position and that of Lord Adonis, as recorded by the Secretary of State’s special adviser and academy sponsors. Let us listen to what those who are actually delivering change say. Jennifer Moses of ARK, an academy sponsor, says:
“Rather than forcing academies back into the local authority family, we should be extending their freedoms to more schools”.
She agrees with the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and with me, but not with the Secretary of State. And who has been most delighted at the retreat? It is those in the union movement, who never wanted academies to have freedom in the first place. Steve Sinnott of the National Union of Teachers says:
“I welcome Ed Balls’ statement giving local authorities a greater say in the planning of academies. This is a direction of travel of which I thoroughly approve.”
So there we have the Secretary of State—praised by the producer interests; disappointing the providers of academies; siding with the existing establishment; making life more difficult for those who want to help the most disadvantaged; U-turning from the position once held by his Government and still held by his junior Minister; and retreating from reform.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for diverting him from his text, but on the particular issue of the curriculum of independent schools, I have before me the regulations that apply to independent schools. They say that schools should draw up
“a written policy on the curriculum”,
which would give pupils experience in
“linguistic, mathematical, scientific, technological, human and social, physical and aesthetic… education”.
All they have to do is draw up a curriculum, but the hon. Gentleman suggested on “Channel 4 News” that the curriculum would stop the teaching of creationism in schools, so he must have been talking about the national curriculum. It is the national curriculum that will stop the teaching of creationism, not the independent curriculum rules. If he is saying that the rules will apply to all schools, why will they not apply to academies?
I was looking forward to the Secretary of State’s intervention and hoped that it might be illuminating, but he is going down a curious alley—and a blind one at that. The Secretary of State and I both agree that the teaching of creationism should not be part of science teaching, and we also agree that there is a distinction between the national curriculum as it applies to state schools and the curriculum that applies to independent schools. We want to give academies the same freedom that independent schools have—one of those clear dividing lines of which the Secretary of State is fond. If the Secretary of State wanted to argue for restricting academy freedom, we would be interested; if he wanted to argue for extending academy freedom, we would be delighted; if he wanted to argue in favour of creationism, I would be fascinated; and if he wanted to join us in saying that religious fundamentalism should play no part in the school curriculum, I would be overjoyed. However, the Secretary of State is attempting to make a distinction without a difference.
I am keen to make progress by listing another aspect of Government retreat.
I want to refer to another bureaucratic change, apparently small in scale, which provides telling evidence of what is happening at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The Department’s decision to place the academies programme within the ambit of the building schools for the future programme has meant that all new academies are now managed by the partnership for schools quango. Thanks to this Government’s change, the construction of all new academies and the building of extensions to existing academies are managed by a centralised bureaucracy.
Far from academies introducing welcome diversity, every new academy has its design, building, layout and even its project management dictated from the centre. Academy sponsors are not allowed to specify any aspect of design or choose the project managers for construction. They are not even allowed to meet the project managers and are permitted only the most limited role during construction. They put up the cash, bear the risk and want to help, but are treated like conscripts.
That policy is already having malign and perverse effects. Among the many virtues of Mossbourne academy in Hackney, which I visited yesterday with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, is the fact that it is a Richard Rogers partnership building— an exceptionally handsome architectural landmark. Mossbourne wants to expand: it has been so successful that it needs to establish a sixth form and build an extension. However, it cannot ask the Richard Rogers partnership to build the extension because it is not on the building schools for the future programme approved list, so it is denied the chance to get the same visionary architect to construct a visionary addition to a visionary building because of the Department’s blinkered bureaucracy.
Can you imagine, Mr. Speaker, if, when they were building St. Paul’s, Christopher Wren had been told by the “building cathedrals for the future” bureaucrat that he could not do that dome after all, because he was not on the Department’s list of state-approved builders? Of course, Sir Christopher Wren placed his own inscription there: “if you require my monument, look around you”. If people look at academies in the future and see that something visionary has been obscured and messed up by something wholly inappropriate and bureaucratically foolish stuck on later, perhaps they will say that if we want a monument to Ed Balls, there it is!
Surely the hon. Gentleman understands perfectly well that in the future people will look around them and see hundreds and hundreds of brand-new schools built by a Labour Government, which had previously been left to rot for generations by the Tories—[Interruption.] Fourteen Etonians!
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that vigorous intervention—and also for drawing attention to the lack of Etonians on the Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman is an old friend of mine and a man of prodigious talent. It is a great pity that someone of his formidable intellect is putting it at the service of class war. He will, I know, receive his reward from the Government in due course, but he does not need to assert his prolier-than-thou credentials in order to win his place on the Front Bench.
Let us return to the question of academies. Will the hon. Gentleman remind us how many of them are currently in operation? How many years have they been in operation and what miraculous assumption leads him to believe that we have the evidence to justify the massive expansion of academies that he suggests?
The success of academies, which are overwhelmingly popular with parents in their communities, in driving up standards and in transforming the educational environment in areas such as Hackney, seems to me—and perhaps to the Secretary of State, given some of his comments—to provide arguments for their continuation. I am interested in hearing more from the Secretary of State about what he thinks of academies. We all know that I support them. What we are worried about is whether the Secretary of State supports them in name only and whether he has the intellectual courage to make the case for choice and contestability.
My hon. Friend has a prodigious memory, and he might like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to the fact that academies developed from an earlier prototype of city technology colleges, which were pioneered by the previous Conservative Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. It was indeed city technology colleges that acted as a template for the academy programme. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bury, North, who, like me, believes in social justice, would be interested to know that city technology colleges, which have a comprehensive intake, actually have better GCSE results than independent schools—a point that we are proud of and that I hope the Secretary of State will embrace in his speech.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, I hope that the Secretary of State takes this opportunity to repent. It would not quite be a deathbed conversion—he is not quite there yet—but it might help him recover from the difficult position that he is in. He has grave difficulties convincing anyone that he is a real reformer. As I have mentioned, only this week we heard on the BBC how the Secretary of State has been an enemy of reform, for years inciting rebellion against former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s education reforms. Last week, I referred to the right hon. Gentleman as the Kim Philby of this Government, outwardly a member of the establishment while all the time secretly working for the Stalinists. I am afraid, however, that my Soviet history was awry. I now realise that he was actually more like one of those grey men from the Kremlin who led the plot against Gorbachev. He launched an abortive coup against a halfway sincere reformist only to end up making himself and his cronies look foolish, and leaving the country desperate for real change at the top.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way, but may I get him off the personal attacks and on to the substance of the debate? For competition and choice to work, there must be surplus places, otherwise that is rationing. How many surplus places would a Conservative Government be prepared to pay for?
Lord Adonis yesterday attempted on the radio to argue that the surplus places rule did not exist under this Government, but that runs directly contrary to the evidence. The Government have said in their guidance circular that—[Interruption.] He asked about surplus places, and I am responding. The Government guidance states that surplus places returns help them
“monitor whether local authorities are taking action to reduce”
the numbers. The question that the Government must answer is whether a surplus places rule applies? Lord Adonis yesterday on Radio 4 said no, but the Government’s guidance, policed by the Audit Commission, says that 10 per cent. of surplus places is the absolute limit.
Our view is that we should allow the development of between 20,000 and 30,000 new school places every year in order to ensure that we can provide an expansion in a new academies programme. The arguments are laid out in our green paper on education, “Raising the Bar, closing the gap”. It is do with providing opportunity for all, and I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman and look forward to hearing more discussion of it.
Would my hon. Friend’s policy therefore be to stop the county councils that are planning to close excellent secondary schools, such as one in my constituency on Canvey Island, from doing so? Would he have them put such plans on ice until we see what the effect will be of, for example, extending compulsory education to 18?
My hon. Friend characteristically makes two good points. We are clear that we should get rid of the surplus places rule and that new entrants to the state education system will provide a goad and a spur to existing local authority schools to improve. Whether in Essex or, as we have seen, in Hackney, new schools entering the system force the existing local authority schools to raise their game and improve their act. That is a virtuous competitive circle, which we would like to be extended, in line with the best Conservative principles, across the country.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way: it shows uncharacteristic politeness. Let me explain the situation: schools can be started up in areas with surplus places, but there is a built-in motivation for the local authority to close underperforming schools in exchange, so that there is a net relationship between the two that conforms to the surplus places rule. What is important is that we motivate local authorities to close underperforming schools, unlike the Conservative party’s proposals.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his elucidation of the existence of a surplus places rule, in contrast with what we were told yesterday on Radio 4 by Lord Adonis—I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has overruled his junior colleague in the House of Lords. Our point is that we want those new entrants that the Government have not allowed to come into the state sector to drive up standards all round. We do not want to see schools close; we want to see schools improve. We do not want the zero-sum game of statist control that we have had in the past 10 years; we want diversity of provision. We want reform, choice and competition to drive up standards.
Given that local authorities are virtually omnipotent as the bodies that assess and decide on, and pay for and provide, services to children with special educational needs, does my hon. Friend agree with me and, rather more importantly, with the Education and Skills Committee that the time has come for the link between assessment and the funding of provision to be broken?
The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend in fact, and a very good friend, too—makes a characteristically good and well judged point. [Interruption.] No, I am not surprised; I am delighted about that. His point is in line with the recommendations of Sir Robert Balchin’s special educational needs commission, and it would be interesting to know whether the Secretary of State agrees with it. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I look forward to agreeing also with another wise eminence on the Conservative Back Benches, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).
Does my hon. Friend agree that the people involved in a school are much more important even than its buildings, and that some of the best schools have old or tatty buildings? Is not the failure of this Government’s strategy that they have no way of changing the leadership in underperforming schools and they have allowed too many such schools to exist for too long?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point: among the most important qualities in schools are leadership, motivation and personnel. One of the great virtues of academies is that their leaders—such as Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne—have the freedom to pay more than the national minimum and to reward good staff with bonuses. They also have the opportunity to recruit and retain the best, and, if necessary, to deal with any weaker teachers. I am sorry to have to say that some of the teaching unions oppose that degree of freedom, but we believe that it is concomitant with the greater freedom in the academy system and that it is necessary to drive up standards, which is our aim.
Unfortunately, there has been a pattern under this Government: instead of change and dynamism, there has been timidity, retreat, paralysis and bureaucracy. We would remove barriers to the creation of new schools.
Not yet. We would ensure that money followed the pupil and, crucially, that pupils from the most disadvantaged homes got more money for their schooling—a progressive policy that I think the Liberal Democrats share, but the Government reject. We would demand high standards, ensuring that every child who can do so is reading after their first two years in primary school, because having learnt to read, they can read to learn. We would restore discipline to our schools, shifting the balance of power in the classroom back in favour of the teacher.
No, I will not give way.
We would then liberate innovative professionals to deliver inspirational teaching. On the Labour Benches, there is an agenda of stasis, centralism and state control. On the Opposition Benches, there is an agenda of change, optimism and hope, which is making the defeat of ignorance its central mission.
I invite the Secretary of State to break free from the tight Treasury embrace that has constricted his free thinking over the past 10 years, and to embrace reform and prove himself to be a moderniser.
I beg to move, To leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
‘notes that investment and reform in schools since 1997 has raised standards and cut the number of underperforming schools, with 100,000 more 11 year olds reaching the required level of literacy than 10 years ago and the number of schools where less than a quarter of pupils achieve five good GCSEs cut from 616 in 1997 to just 26 today; further notes that 83 Academies have already opened, with 230 to be opened by 2010, with more to come as the Government accelerates its successful Academies programme; confirms that over 30 schools became Trust schools in September with over 170 more in the pipeline; welcomes the Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme which will rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country; and supports further reforms to extend educational opportunity for all and not just some, including the introduction of Diplomas and, alongside an expansion of apprenticeships and enhanced support for 16 and 17 year olds through the Education Maintenance Allowance, raising the education and training age to 18 by 2015.’.
It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to debate once again with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). In respect of any failure to pursue school reforms, I hope that we can achieve some clarity about what the Government are actually saying and, perhaps even more hopefully and after all the contradictions in the hon. Gentleman’s policy over the past few days, that we can get some clarity about the Opposition education policy. I have to say that we got very little clarity on that from his performance. We once again had the usual bluster and flourish. It was a nice speech; it was well written, and the hon. Gentleman read it rather well, too—and I can honestly say that we have been impressed by how much he is impressed by himself. Unfortunately, although the speech was strong on style, it was hopelessly weak on content and policy.
The debate is billed as being about the failure of the Government to pursue school reform but, as has been said, the Opposition motion focuses on just 83 of the 22,500 schools in England today. I am happy to have our approach to academies scrutinised. I fear that by the end of the debate it will be the hon. Gentleman’s so-called new academies policy that will need to be scrutinised, because the real revelation of this debate will be that he cannot answer key questions on his own policy. I will show that at best he is simply copying what we are doing and that at worst he is not only confused but putting forward risky proposals. Conservative Members would do well to study the details of the proposals that he has announced this week. I will show that when they do so, they will see what the proposals mean for their constituencies. I fear that as this debate goes on, it may come as a bit of a surprise.
I would like to talk about the details in my constituency. Last week, the Secretary of State said categorically—this is in Hansard—that Leicestershire was the 34th best-funded education authority in the country. In fact, it ranks 149th this year, and will do so next year, in 2009 and in 2010. Will he apologise to the people of my constituency and Leicestershire for misleading them last week?
Of course I will not, because I did not mislead the House last week. I have looked at Hansard, and I said clearly that although I accept that Leicestershire has a lower spending level per pupil than other areas, it will have the 34th largest increase in spending in the next three years. It was in our statement to the House, and it is clearly shown in Hansard. The thing that surprises me about today’s motion is that it does not mention any of the reforms that we have been putting in place over the past 10 years. It does not mention numeracy and literacy; more teachers; more than 1,000 new schools; new disciplinary powers for head teachers; or the fact that more than 85 per cent. of schools are now called specialist schools. It does not point out that over the past 10 years we have delivered rising standards year on year or that we have reduced the number of schools not getting a quarter of their pupils to the standard of five good GCSEs from 616 at the end of the Conservative Government in 1997 to just 26 today.
I will give way in a second.
We know that there is more to do to reach a world-class level, but, again, the motion does not refer to any of the processes that we have set in place in recent months to take forward our next stage of reform. It does not refer to the Every Child a Reader programme and our plans to spread phonics across the country. It does not refer to our one-to-one learning in primary and secondary schools, to our new independent standards regulator, to our 30 new trust schools, to our building schools for the future programme, to our new powers and obligations on local authorities to intervene to tackle failing schools, or to our children’s plan proposals to strengthen links between schools, parents and children’s services—again, that got no mention in the speech by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.
The Secretary of State is yet to give a convincing explanation for his asking the delivery unit in 10 Downing street to look into the academies programme. Will he tell us which academies the delivery unit is examining, and whether Lord Adonis was present at the seminar on 1 November?
I will come to academies in a moment. Like the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I will answer all the detailed points that are raised in the debate.
The truth is that while the Opposition criticise our reforms, they are either stealing our clothes or putting forward risky proposals. The Opposition say that we need to implement synthetic phonics, but we are implementing the Rose review and the systematic teaching of phonics is now compulsory across the country—it is already being inspected by Ofsted. The same is true on the confiscation of mobile phones, because on Monday the hon. Gentleman announces that that is his policy, but it turns out that such powers exist for head teachers in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. To give him some latitude, he did make a new proposal to abolish appeals panels for excluded pupils. That would mean the abolition of appeals panels first introduced by the Conservatives in 1987 and, contrary to what he said on the Marr programme, the policy has been rejected by head teachers. The same is true of his plan to ask pupils to re-sit their final year at primary school and of the Conservatives’ proposals to have compulsory externally marked tests at six. All those ideas are rejected by head teachers and parents.
The Secretary of State talks about synthetic phonics. Why is the Every Child a Reader programme, which uses reading recovery as its reading programme, not a synthetic phonics programme, in line with the Rose recommendations?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for every school to decide, child by child, how they teach reading. We are implementing phonics and synthetic phonics across every school in the country by the Ofsted review. The Every Child a Reader programme is particularly tailored to the needs of every individual child. Of course phonics are being used in that programme and in every primary school across the country.
My right hon. Friend rightly listed a raft of things to which the Opposition motion does not refer. Is he surprised, like I am, by the fact that it does not refer to the collaboration and co-operation needed across local education authorities on the academies programme? The Government have implemented that by a process of incorporation in the national curriculum; the Conservatives propose to take it out.
Of course that is the case. The majority of the first 30 trusts that have been put forward since September are collaborating between schools precisely to ensure that we focus on raising standards for all children and spread the excellent leadership in some schools to all schools. I do not apologise for saying that collaboration is an important part of our programme.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the motion demonstrates the lack of knowledge and the bankruptcy of Conservative policy on schools? The motion on the Order Paper is headed “Government policy on schools reform”. Despite that, it does not contain a single word on the primary schools sector, which the majority of pupils in the state sector attend. That shows that the Conservatives know nothing about where our kids go to school.
I shall give way in a moment.
I find it impossible to understand the position of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and the Leader of the Opposition on grammar schools and grammar streams. We were being told a few months ago that grammar streams would be introduced in every school in the country. It is unclear whether that has been dropped in favour of setting in every subject or in favour of our policy of encouraging setting in individual subjects.
What about grammar schools? Does the hon. Member for Surrey Heath agree with the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts)? He said that
“academic selection entrenches advantage and does not spread it”.
Does he agree with the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who said that he wanted a return to “good old-fashioned academic selection”? Or does he agree with the Tory Buckinghamshire cabinet lead on education, Marion Clayton? When asked whether plans for a new grammar school in Aylesbury—it would be the first new grammar school for 50 years—would contradict Conservative policy, she told the local paper:
“I reject the idea that this goes against current Conservative policy.”
It is certainly against this Government’s policy and against the law, but is it against current Conservative policy?
On Sunday, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath told the Marr programme that plans for new grammar schools, such as those proposed by Conservative Buckinghamshire, are
“a matter for local authorities”.
On the “Today” programme on Tuesday, when asked whether he would say no to any application for a grammar school, he replied, “Absolutely”. What is his policy? Is it his Sunday or his Tuesday policy? Would he like to clarify it now? Would the Conservatives change the law to allow Buckinghamshire to set up a new grammar school? Is the answer yes or no? I would be happy to give way to him on that question—[Interruption.] Again, no clarity there then. We just saw the barely concealed reality, behind all the obfuscation, that large swathes of his party want him to reintroduce selection. At some point, he and his party leader will have to come off the fence on that issue.
If the Secretary of State wishes to show substance, he should talk about the Government’s policy rather than spend the whole time talking about Opposition policy—I know that he has no style. Will he tell the House why the Government do not trust parents to make choices in enough cases and why they do not trust schools to decide how to teach?
Let me turn to academies and the exact issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises. At last, we are dealing with a school reform that is mentioned in the motion.
Academies are central to our reforms to promote excellence for all and not just the few. The ability to replace a weak or seriously underperforming school with a new school that has new leadership and a new ethos is a crucial part of local strategies to tackle failing schools. So far, the evidence from our first 83 academies—evidence we are testing further with the Prime Minister’s delivery unit across the whole programme—is that academies are delivering faster than average improvements in results in areas and, crucially, with intakes that are disproportionately disadvantaged.
In the motion and in his speech, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath says that we are retreating on academies. I know that he wishes we were, but in fact we are accelerating our programme and removing barriers so that, for example, more universities will find it easier to sponsor academies. Our target was 200 academies by 2010, on the road to 400, but last week my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners announced that we are now planning for 230 academies by 2010.
So far, 12 universities have expressed interest in the programme and I can make two announcements today. Three further universities—King’s college, London, Bolton and Gloucestershire—are announcing today that they will engage with the academies programme. Secondly, I have today given the go-ahead for three new academies: the Nottingham university Samworth academy and academies in Croydon and Cheltenham. They will all replace underperforming schools. The hon. Gentleman’s charge that we are backsliding on academies is wrong.
Given the Secretary of State’s warm words about academies, why has he still not explained his reason for asking the No. 10 delivery unit to look into the policy, which suggests he has some concerns about it? Furthermore, he has still not answered the question about whether Lord Adonis was present at the seminar on 1 November.
The answer is exactly the same as the one I gave last week when the hon. Gentleman asked me exactly the same question. When there are large spending programmes it is perfectly normal for the Treasury, the PMD unit and Departments to look at the detail of individual elements to make sure that they work as well as we want in delivering value for money. We are doing that with the academies programme, just as we would with any other programme, and I make no apology whatever for that. Of course, I have had discussions with Lord Adonis and the delivery unit to make sure that the programme continues to deliver what we want—it is doing so. The idea that I should apologise for ensuring that there is proper scrutiny and we get value for money is completely absurd.
I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s reply to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), but is not the truth that the decision to hold a review is political? It is more about compromising the future of academies, including the largest one in England, Thomas Deacon academy in my constituency, while capitulating to the bovine instincts of Labour Back Benchers and the teaching unions.
Of course it is not. That is a completely absurd intervention. It is in the normal pattern of Government to scrutinise spending effectively, which is what I am doing. Furthermore, I am announcing new academies and accelerating the programme. Saying things over and over again does not make them true, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath should wake up to that fact—we are accelerating the programme, not slowing it down.
It is always lovely to hear from the Secretary of State that saying things over and over again does not make them true. It is a lesson I hope he will take to heart. However, the key point is that there is one thing he has not said at all—never mind over and over again—which is that academies, as new providers, give choice, competition and contestability. That is what drives up standards, so will he take the opportunity we have given him today to affirm that that is the case and that he agrees with what the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and others have argued?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to my speech. I said that where schools are underperforming or failing we are bringing in new leadership, new choice and a new ethos, thereby allowing parents a new choice about the school their children attend. That is exactly what we are about. I pointed out that more than 85 per cent. of schools are specialist, thus providing parents with choice.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said that we were wrong to require academies to follow the national curriculum in the core subjects of English, maths, science and IT. Yet again however, as we heard earlier in relation to grammar schools, the hon. Gentleman cannot answer the difficult questions. He cannot explain the contradictions in what he says not just from one day to the next, but from one interview to the next on the same day.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath told the “Today” programme that academies should be exempt from the national curriculum. That was in the morning. Later, on Channel 4 news, he was asked about creationism. He said:
“It’s clear that any school which is set up is going to have to follow the core aspects of the curriculum that bind all schools.”
There is nothing at all in the independent schools guidance that binds schools on the teaching of science or creationism. The only way—
Because I want to explain my point.
In respect of science, the only way that state schools are bound is through the national curriculum, so on Channel 4 news at lunchtime when the hon. Gentleman said “any school”, was he including academies? My answer would be yes, but what is his answer? Does he include academies in the requirement to teach the national curriculum on science? Yes or no?
In these debates, we should try to get to the substance and have some discussion of policy—[Interruption.] The point is that I have made it a requirement that academies follow maths, science and IT, because I believe it is the right thing for them to do. To deal in part with the creationism point, I am making it clear that academies will follow the science curriculum. That is what the hon. Gentleman said on Channel 4 news yesterday, yet when I ask him whether he agrees with what he said yesterday, he cannot answer. If he was not referring to the national curriculum, what does he mean? He says that the national curriculum would bind all schools—[Interruption.] I will read the quotation again. The hon. Gentleman said:
“It’s clear that any school which is set up is going to have to follow the core aspects of the curriculum that bind all schools.”
What does he mean by that if he is not referring to the national curriculum? He cannot be referring to the independent schools guidance, because it includes nothing at all on the content of science. He must have been referring to the national curriculum, but that contradicts what he said in the morning. I keep asking the question, but as with almost everything else, he cannot give me an answer.
Yesterday, we found out what the hon. Gentleman’s real plan is. He proposes to create 220,000 additional secondary school places in what he calls “new” academies. He tries to claim that those new academies are different because they can be set up by parents, but where parents want to set up schools we have already supported them in doing so. The first parent-promoted school was opened in Lambeth in September, with our support. What is different about the hon. Gentleman’s proposal—as was made clear in his speech—is that the commissioning role of local government will be abolished. So yes, there is a difference of view between us and him on that issue.
The Government believe there is a vital role for local government in driving change in local areas and turning round or replacing weak or underperforming schools. That is the commissioning role we set out in the 2006 legislation for which the Conservatives voted. That legislation gives local government a duty to raise standards in all schools and act as commissioner for education in their area, to be held to account for the performance of schools in their area and to use all the levers at their disposal, including trusts and academies, to tackle poor performance.
The hon. Gentleman disagrees with local authorities having that role. He says that he will liberate academies from local authorities, and that I am neutering the programme by working with local government to tackle weak and underperforming schools. So far, 79 local authorities are working with us on academies, and more are coming forward week by week—but in his view, those are 79 local authorities that are holding back the programme. Nine local authorities are going further still: they are not just working with us but have agreed to co-sponsor academies—or in the hon. Gentleman’s view, they are really strangling the programme.
I shall read the hon. Gentleman the list of culprits: Manchester city council, Labour; Sunderland city council, Labour; the Corporation of London, Independent; Cheshire county council, Conservative; Coventry city council, Conservative; Kensington and Chelsea, Conservative; Kent, Conservative; Telford and Wrekin, Conservative; and West Sussex, Conservative. Has he told those Conservative councils that they are strangling the academies programme? Has he told them their support will no longer be required if the Tories are in power? Has he told them that rather than taking the lead in tackling weak or failing schools, they will have to wait for parents and livery companies in their area to come along and do the work for them? That is where we disagree.
I want parents to set up schools if they want to do so. I want parents to be able to choose, and I want diversity in the schools system. However, I also want a role for local government, and for it to be accountable for delivering change and tackling underperformance. I want it to do so quickly, rather than waiting while a school’s rolls fall year by year, damaging the education of children. That is the dividing line between us: I think that local government should deliver and should be held to account on that delivery, while the hon. Member for Surrey Heath wants to walk away from that. He would allow the market to decide and have vouchers, rather than allowing local government to intervene.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his patience in agreeing to give way again. Does he agree that there is a danger that he might get the role of local authorities completely wrong—and that their role should be strategic oversight, and not necessarily to sponsor or co-sponsor each academy? That could cut against the entire purpose of the academies programme.
I am sorry that there was not a Liberal Democrat council in the list of councils that sponsor an academy. [Interruption.] Maybe one will come along. The fact is that we have moved away from requiring local government to run all the schools. Local government now commissions schools and is responsible for key services. Local authorities are also responsible for the education of all children in their area, and accountable for intervening to tackle weak or underperforming schools. That is our policy—and the policy of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath would completely undermine it. He is proposing a policy that promotes excellence for a few and not excellence for all. In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), I believe that for a local authority to sponsor an academy in a particularly difficult or failing school is exactly the right thing to do, and I wish that he would support me on that.
In an intervention I made earlier on the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I suggested that to bring an element of anarchy into the school building programme was reckless and irresponsible. Did the Secretary of State notice that the hon. Gentleman did not choose to deny that?
I have already taken many interventions. Let me turn to the point at which things will get particularly interesting for Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has come forward with a proposal to create 220,000 new school places. To be fair to him, he has told us how he will pay for it. Yesterday he said in black and white in his policy document that the Conservatives would pay for it with a £4.5 billion cut from our building schools for the future programme, which will rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over the next 10 years. However, the Conservatives said that they would honour existing commitments under BSF. The impact on the new academies would therefore apply to those waves where commitments have not yet been made, which would be concentrated on the 76 local authority areas in BSF wave 7 onwards that are not yet engaged in BSF.
Let me give hon. Members the details, and then I shall take interventions. The policy would involve taking £4.5 billion out of BSF from 2008-09 onwards. That is a 15 per cent. cut in all future rebuilding projects. [Interruption.] If I set out the facts for hon. Members, they can then reflect on them.
More than one in seven secondary schools that hope to undertake rebuilding projects would find that those projects will not go ahead under the Conservative proposals. Two thirds of all secondary schools currently in those 76 authorities are hoping to have schools rebuilt. At the moment, all those new schools are under threat. The 76 local affected authorities would lose an average of £60 million each. The largest local authorities will lose more. That is the equivalent in each local authority area of an average of three complete secondary school rebuilds, which would not go ahead under the Conservative proposals.
There would be cuts in every area of England, including Oxfordshire and Surrey.
I shall take interventions after I have listed the authorities that would be affected: Barnet, Bath and North East Somerset, Bexley, Bolton, Bracknell Forest, Brent, Brighton and Hove, Bromley, Buckinghamshire and Bury. Those 10 local authorities have 293 schools under threat—and that is only the Bs.
Have Conservative Front Benchers and the Leader of the Opposition checked their policy out with all the Conservative local authorities that will lose out because of those cuts? Were Opposition MPs informed? The new policy would mean that hundreds of schools—not only in Labour areas, but in Conservative shire counties across Britain—would lose new schools. I can make a full list of authorities available for Conservative Members to check. It will not make for comfortable reading. We can even let them have a draft press release, if that will help.
May I tell my right hon. Friend how pleased I was when he announced the consultation on the prioritisation of the future use of BSF money? At the moment, Stockport is in the last wave. May I tell him how appalled I am to learn that under the Conservative proposals, no money would be given to the local authority to rebuild the schools? We would return to the same situation as in 1996, when we received £1.3 million from the Conservative Government for all the capital spend for all the schools in Stockport.
I can give my hon. Friend little assurance of what would happen if the Conservative proposals were implemented. Unfortunately, Stockport is among those 76 authorities. There are 13 schools in Stockport, and so two schools would not be rebuilt. Stockport has 16,000 pupils, and none would know where the axe would fall if the proposals were implemented.
The Secretary of State is making some sharp political points that are unworthy of him. We are using the building schools for the future programme to build schools throughout the country, including in the boroughs that the Secretary of State and Labour Members have mentioned. How is using BSF to build schools a cut in the programme?
It is easy to explain. The Conservative proposals would take money away from schools that need it to build surplus places in areas that do not need it. By stripping local authorities of their roles in commissioning, the proposals will also reduce the incentives for Conservative and Labour councils to tackle weak and failing schools. All those councils see academies as vital to improving education in their areas. That is why I am right.
Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what effect the proposals would have in constituencies such as mine? In Warrington only two schools are so far carrying out projects under BSF. William Beamont high school, which is in a deprived area of my constituency, was not put into the first wave by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. What will happen to such schools in the future?
I know what my hon. Friend is talking about, because my area is in one of those waves. I know how much work has been done by schools in our areas to get ready for the BSF spending when it comes. We have reassured people that it will come. It has now been put under a substantial threat.
In my hon. Friend’s area, there are 12 schools and the proposals would mean that two would not be rebuilt. I can give her no assurances about which two schools those will be. Until the Conservative Front Benchers tell us, we will not know where the axe will fall. The threat will apply in 76 areas, represented by Labour, Conservative and Liberal MPs. It will mean an average £60 million cut in spending. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend—but other than recommending the election of a Labour Government, there is no reassurance that I can give her.
Was my right hon. Friend as surprised as I was to hear the hon. Member for Surrey Heath say earlier that the best schools have old and tatty buildings? [Hon. Members: “He didn’t say that.”] I wrote it down. I was responsible for education in Trafford, which is now Conservative Trafford again. That area had old and tatty buildings. Under the aspirations of the Conservative party, all the area can look forward to is to keeping its tatty old buildings.
In too many of the areas involved, one in seven schools will still have old and tatty buildings if the Conservatives get their way. They will be postponing the investments that we are trying to put in place to refurbish or rebuild all secondary schools. As I have said, I would like to give my hon. Friend and other hon. Members more reassurance, but I am afraid that I cannot.
I represent a cross-border constituency, and the new schools being built in Tameside under building schools for the future are one of the developments of which I am most proud. In the case of the Stockport part of my constituency, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), am outraged by the Conservative proposals. They would mean that Reddish Vale technology college in my constituency, which is crying out for a rebuild, will not see that work done. We do not need extra new schools. We need to rebuild the school that we have.
Conservative Members are being rather quiet, but I am happy to take this intervention. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are currently 22 schools in Shropshire and therefore that six of them—and their 18,000 pupils—would not get the rebuilding or refurbishment that they are expecting. I advise him that new grammar schools in his constituency will not save him in that respect.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but I must inform him that I represent part of Herefordshire, not Shropshire. When he has checked his notes, will he explain what is going on with the academy that has been proposed for my county? Why does Herefordshire get the third lowest funding per capita, and why do urban schools get almost twice as much as rural schools? Why is it so much cheaper to educate pupils in the countryside? We do not see why it should be.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for misleading the House about the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I was badly advised about it. In fact, Herefordshire has only 14 secondary schools, which means that only four schools rather than six will not be rebuilt. Also, only 10,500 pupils in the county would find that they would not get the new school that they had been expecting.
The Conservative proposal is a direct resurrection of the pupil passport proposed in the 2005 election manifesto. It would deliberately encourage the building of additional new schools with no regard to weak or underperforming schools. It is a sop to the right that will take school reform backwards and not forwards.
Opposition is about more than just speeches and rhetoric: it is about policy, consistency and judgment. The latter is an attribute in which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is rather weaker than he would like to believe. In the past three weeks, he has had three big calls to make. He has had to decide whether to back new diplomas and whether to support education to 18, and he has had to determine Conservative policy on academies and failing schools. In my judgment, he has put himself on the wrong side of the debate on each of those. He finds himself out of step with head teachers, parents, businesses, employers, universities and the interests of his own Back Benchers’ constituents.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath does not back reform; instead, he opposes it. He does not support excellence for all, but excellence for the few. I know that he does not like me saying so, but that is the Tory policy. I shall give him some advice: his job is about more than just writing something witty and hoping that it will be read, smiled at and forgotten the next day. He needs to raise his game when it comes to substance. His best ideas are just that—ideas. When he tries to put a new idea into practice, he has to perform a U-turn. It is his record on reform that is under threat, his credentials as a moderniser that are increasingly in doubt, and his judgment that is looking more suspect every day.
Only one party in this country will deliver school reform and drive up standards for all. Only one party will invest in new schools for all, and deliver excellence for all, not just for some. It is time for the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to go back to the drawing board.
I will when I have had a chance to say more than one sentence.
The debate is also extremely important because of the politics involved and because of what it tells us about the future direction of the Government’s education policy. Moreover, it deals with one of the most important elements of the domestic agenda: that is, how we help children in the country’s most deprived areas. For many years—since long before 1997—they have been failed successively by their local schools. Even with the improvements in GCSE results over recent years, 50 per cent. of youngsters in something like a third of all secondary schools do not achieve five A* to C GCSEs even across the whole range of subjects, leaving aside maths and English.
Will the hon. Gentleman have words with his friends in Durham city, where the county council has opened up an opportunity for everyone within the law to bid for an academy? Even before the council has even seen who is interested in doing so, it is leading a no campaign. The council does not want an academy in the city, even though most people are convinced that that would improve the opportunities for hundreds of children in the area.
That was long intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope that there are some arrangements that will allow me more than an extra minute to make up for it. Our amendment contains no proposal to replace every school in the country with an academy, but many Liberal Democrat authorities—Southwark, for example—embrace the academy programme. Academies have been set up in those areas, and it is probable that every secondary school in Southwark will become an academy.
In a moment. The challenge that has to be met has to do with that minority of schools that have high levels of deprivation and have underperformed for years. Earlier today, I visited one such school in west London that will be familiar to Front Benchers on both sides of the House. Only a decade or so ago, 95 per cent. of pupils at the Phoenix school were leaving without having achieved five good GCSE qualifications. Disorder was rife, and the school had many poor-quality supply teachers. They were teaching so badly that a great many were eventually sent home, with the result that multiple classes were taught in the school hall. Even so, that represented an improvement in the quality of teaching.
To return to the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), I should point out that the Phoenix school is not an academy. It is a specialist school in the maintained sector, with a fantastic head teacher in William Atkinson. He has done a brilliant job in converting the school: if we had a few thousand like him to look after our failing schools, we would not need the academy programme and we would not be having this debate.
I want to make a bit more progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman).
However, we do not have thousands of William Atkinsons. Therefore, 10 years ago the Government rightly sought to bring additional individuals and entities into the education system to try to improve the quality of school governance and leadership, which we know to be vital. The Government also committed themselves to improving the quality of school buildings, and in that they have succeeded brilliantly. Finally, they set out to allow schools to innovate, and it is the future of that programme that we are discussing today.
I give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.
The hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience in these matters, and he is right that other factors apart from school leadership are involved. However, getting the leadership right is the way to start getting all the other elements right, especially in failing schools. The academy programme has been useful in that it has brought into education better governance and more innovation. I am staggered that a Government who have supported that innovation should tell me in a parliamentary answer last month that, in respect of the freedoms enjoyed by academies” they had
“no plans to extend these freedoms more widely.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 890W.]
I find that baffling, and will come back to the matter later.
I want to return to the earlier questions from the hon. Member for Surrey, Heath (Michael Gove), who asked whether we were right to debate this matter today, and whether there really was any uncertainty about Government policy in this area. The Secretary of State invited us to believe that the hon. Gentleman was starting an entirely bogus debate, and that there are no grounds for believing that policy has shifted since he took over his post in the new Government.
There is, however, quite a trail of evidence that the Secretary of State is approaching the issue differently. First, in his very important first statement to the House, he turned on its head what the previous Prime Minister had been saying about standards and structures. He went right back to saying that standards, rather than structures, were the focus, and when he said that, he knew very well that the Prime Minister’s predecessor had said that he believed that structural reform was vital to getting standards right. So that was a deliberate signal, and some of the newspapers and some union leaders were briefed that there would be a change.
The Government then—I have raised this issue before with the Secretary of State—turned on its head a commitment in the last Labour party manifesto, which said that they wanted every school in the maintained sector to become independent. That is no longer the Government’s position; that has been confirmed in a parliamentary written answer, despite what the Secretary of State has said. There we have a cast-iron and clear change in Government policy.
I have made it absolutely clear that we have changed our policy on academies. We abolished the £2 million entry fee, to bring in more universities. We have required new academies to teach maths, science, English and IT under the national curriculum. I am bringing them into the mainstream, and I am also accelerating the academies programme. There is a clear difference between me and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove): I think that having local authority support for academies is a good thing, which will help us to tackle underperformance across the country. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with what I am doing?
I certainly think, as I implied earlier, that there is a strategic role for local authorities, but that is not what the Secretary of State is promoting. The academies programme is still run from the desk of Lord Adonis in Westminster—bizarre, as his work load is getting larger and larger—and it will be impossible to manage 400 or 500 schools from there. Yes, there is a strategic role for local authorities, but the fear is that the Secretary of State is trying to have academies in name but not in substance. That is the issue about the role of local authorities.
I will give way in a second.
I shall invite the Secretary of State in a second to respond to some specific points on that issue, but I ask him to understand that, when he deliberately overturns the previous Prime Minister’s policy on structural reform, he cannot be surprised that people believe that something is going on; nor can he be surprised about that when he asks the delivery unit in No. 10 Downing street to consider the programme without being able to say why it is doing so. [Interruption.]
Order. I am getting rather tired of Front-Bench interventions from a sedentary position; they do not help the debate, and I find them rather distracting.
I am sure that you are quite right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and one of the things that I learnt at the Phoenix school in west London this morning was the importance of leadership in maintaining good order, without which we learn nothing, and I should have thought that the Secretary of State recognised that observation.
Let me raise with the Secretary of State some specific points about the Government’s position on academies, given that it is obvious that he has been nudging away from structural reform and that he has been continuing the policy, which he and the then Chancellor had before the latter took over as the new Prime Minister, of being far more resistant and sceptical about public sector reform than the previous Prime Minister.
The Secretary of State has not yet answered a number of important questions about the delivery unit report. In particular, can he let us know whether Lord Adonis was involved in the seminar on 1 November to establish the review? Can he tell us which academies will be reviewed by the delivery unit? I believe that five academies will be reviewed in particular. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State from a sedentary position says, “All of them.” Is he really suggesting that the delivery unit will go around in a few weeks and look at 83 academies? Why does The Times Educational Supplement say this week that the unit will look at five specific academies, including Knight’s academy in London? If there is a shortlist of those that will be looked at, can we know about it?
On the crucial issue of local authorities, I have been clear about my concern that the Government are getting the involvement of local authorities completely wrong in the academies programme. Ultimately, it seems nonsense that hundreds of schools in the maintained sector could have accountability that will bypass local authorities altogether and that there will be no strategic control. However, the Secretary of State appears to be trying to make it easier for some bodies to involve themselves in the academies programme. To the extent that that is bringing new structural reform and new people into the education system who are aspirational, particularly about schools that have large numbers of deprived pupils, that is very welcome, but we want to be sure that that does not actually involve a reverse takeover of the academies programme, so that the Secretary of State can say that he has got 400, 500 or 600 academies, when their power to innovate and to do things that they cannot do in the maintained sector is compromised.
The Secretary of State should hear the questions first. He has got some new local authority co-sponsors of academies. He mentioned seven of them in Manchester. Can he confirm in those cases where co-sponsorship occurs who exactly will choose the school leader? How many governors will they have? Who will determine whether there will be variations in the length of the school day, in aspects of the curriculum and in hiring teachers? Will that end up, by default, going back to local authority control? In that case, the involvement of local authorities would be precisely the opposite of what would make sense.
The Secretary of State has failed to answer the five or six questions that I have put to him. Those answers might give me the reassurance that I am looking for, and perhaps before the debate concludes, if he needs time to check some of the answers to those questions, he will be able to tell us whether some of my concerns are real—for example, in Manchester, where I understand that the local authority co-sponsors seven academies.
I shall also suggest some other changes that should be made both to the academies programme and to some aspects of the Conservative policy that was laid out yesterday. I have sympathy with quite a lot of the Conservative motion, but I also have quite a large number of reservations, which caused us to table our amendment and prevent me from supporting the motion.
I have already raised the first issue: who has strategic control? If either the Government or the Conservative party is remotely serious about all their warm words about localisation and devolving power, I hope that they will recognise and agree with the fact that it would be nonsense to maintain the academies programme when it includes 200, 300, 400 or 500 academies, run by one Minister from an office in Whitehall. Surely, when local authorities accept, as many of them now have, that they will be much more purchasers, rather than solely providers, of maintained school education, they should have a strategic role in ratcheting up standards and in managing some of the capital and admissions issues. Surely, that is completely different from what the Secretary of State is ending up with by default: a system run by a Minister, with local authority involvement coming at a lower level.
What the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is happening in local authorities now. There is best practice in Tameside in my constituency, where the local authority has set up the Tameside campus, where all the schools—whether academies, comprehensive schools under the local education authority or foundation schools—are in free association with one another, with the local authority as a key partner, to develop a range of education facilities across the borough. Is that not precisely what he is suggesting? And it is happening now in Labour-controlled Tameside.
No, I am not sure that it is; I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is agreeing with me and saying that he hopes that the Government will go in that direction or whether he is disagreeing with me. I think that it is nonsense to imagine that a programme of this scale in the future, with hundreds of schools and academies, could be accountable to a Minister in Westminster and Whitehall.
The Government ought to be thinking about how local authorities can play a core, strategic role, without trying in any way to water down or compromise what is really important about the programme: getting new innovation, new governance and better leadership into those schools in the maintained sector that do not have it, while appreciating that, where they do, that is great. If there is a great school leader—such as the gentleman who is running the Phoenix school, which I visited this morning—there is no need for an academy. He is doing many of the things that academies want to do. I would be happy to take him to any of the Government’s academies, because they could all learn an awful lot from him. However, that is not necessarily the thrust of where we are going on Government policy.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House how he sees local authorities having a core strategic role without their ultimately getting involved in the lower-level issues in schools—if a school were failing, for instance? How would he stop a leaching of local authority influence into the everyday life of the school?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. By talking about failing schools, he highlights precisely the type of strategic role that local authorities should have. It would be totally unacceptable to rely in the future merely on an Ofsted report every three or four years, and a Secretary of State sitting in Whitehall and Westminster, to determine how such schools are doing. Sometimes the governing bodies of dysfunctional schools do not work either, so local authorities should have a role in setting standards and pouncing on schools that are failing, whether they are academies or local authority controlled schools. All those schools, in some way, run the risk; there is no guarantee that any school will have no problems at all in the future. The issue is about bringing in additional leadership.
May I raise two other issues of concern, about Government policy and—perhaps to a greater extent—about Conservative policy? I tried to tempt the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to resolve the issue of his party’s approach to grammar schools, but I fear we are not much the wiser. I know that he is desperate to avoid getting entangled in this net, but if he aspires to be Secretary of State, he cannot avoid it for ever. If he were Secretary of State, he would have Conservative authorities, including Buckinghamshire, asking his permission—it is not just a matter for them—to establish new grammar schools. Unless he is going to change the law and opt out completely, he cannot duck this issue for ever.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, and the Secretary of State, will accept that there is one way of moderating many of the concerns that people have had about the academies system in the past—and perhaps about the Conservative party in the past and in the future. People have been worried that academies will end up as a type of selective education and will improve their results not by doing better for their needy and deprived catchments, but by sucking in youngsters through different forms of selection. If the Secretary of State is having a serious review in the delivery unit, and if the Conservative party want to lance the boil of their selection policy, I invite them both to get rid of some of the totally unnecessary powers that academies still have to select by aptitude and potentially by banding. Those powers run the risk of allowing some academies to choose to improve their results by selecting pupils, rather than by improving standards. It would give great comfort to many on the progressive side of politics to know that academies will have to be judged on the real results they achieve for the catchments that they are there to serve.
If academies and other maintained schools work well, it is possible that their intakes will be more balanced. When a school starts to do better, that is bound to pull back youngsters and parents who would previously have fled and would have done anything to avoid going there—as was surely the case with the Phoenix school before William Atkinson took over and turned the school round. Incidentally, he turned it round from a situation 10 years ago in which 5 per cent. of pupils got five passes at A* to C, to a situation over the past couple of years in which 70 per cent. achieved that. That is a staggering turnaround, which demonstrates to many of us the extent to which our communities can be failed by some schools. I hope that both Front-Bench teams will think about the issue of selection.
The hon. Gentleman has strayed on to the subject of selection. May I ask him his view on a question that I would have liked to put to the Secretary of State? The Secretary of State’s new adviser reportedly proposed that faith schools should no longer be allowed to admit pupils on the grounds of faith, because he considered that to be a form of academic selection—something that I absolutely deny. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view?
Many faith schools do a fantastic job and I certainly would not want to get rid of them. However, the hon. Lady will know that a lot of the research shows that some of the better results achieved by faith schools reflect the fact they have better and more aspirational intakes. I hope that, in the future, faith schools will take a more inclusive approach—
Some do, as the hon. Lady says, but, frankly, some do not. Faiths that want to reach out to a wider community—as the faiths that I respect and admire want to—will want youngsters coming into their schools who do not necessarily have the faith, or parents with the faith, that the school relates to.
My last point—I know that a number of Members want to speak in the debate—is about funding. The Government have done a fantastic amount on school funding over the past decade and deserve a lot of credit for the buildings programme that we have talked about. That is important, as people at the school that I visited this morning said. Having the right setting, aspirations and quality for youngsters who are not used to those things in their home environment sends out every right signal. However, the head teacher I met was the first to say that—as most of us would agree—the leadership in schools and the quality of staff are always more important than the buildings themselves. Those things should go together.
Over the next few years, we are going to have a much more restrained school budget. The minimum funding guarantee for many schools will barely keep place with the rate of inflation and, in some cases, will be below it. So far, I am really disappointed in the Secretary of State when it comes to deprivation funding. He has not seized the opportunity to do something much more radical. I am talking about a system of the type that my party has suggested for a number of years and that the Conservative party is flirting with now—although I note that it has not allocated any extra funding to it, and it will not become a meaningful commitment until the Conservative party does that. I am talking about having a better system for funding deprived youngsters—a system that does not target parts of the country, but tags people themselves, follows them through school, gives more money, predictably, to schools with the greatest deprivation, and also gives schools in the leafy catchment areas more of an incentive to take on some of those challenging youngsters.
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have had this discussion in previous education debates. My constituency covers part of Stockport. As a prosperous borough, it does not necessarily get the same funding as Tameside, even though the part of Stockport that I represent is more deprived than the part of Tameside I represent. Does he agree that the £1.3 million extra that Stockport got for deprivation out of the recent settlement was welcome and will he urge his Liberal Democrat colleagues on Stockport council to make sure that that money reaches the deprived parts of the borough such as Reddish in my constituency and Brinnington and Offerton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey).
I am sure that my colleagues there will do an excellent job, but I cannot welcome the additional money with as much enthusiasm as the hon. Gentleman. The figure is £40 million, which is peanuts. The amount that my party has been talking about—between £1.5 billion and £2.5 billion—would take the 10 or 15 per cent. that constitutes the most deprived youngsters, on free school meals, up to the private school level of funding now. That would be a far more sensible way of funding schools than the Prime Minister’s rather daft and meaningless commitment to raise the level of maintained school funding in the future to the private school level—but the private school level in 2005. That target is not likely to be met until after 2020. I would have hoped that the Secretary of State—who has been so concerned about issues of child poverty and the lack of social mobility, during his involvement in politics and before he came to the House—would take the opportunity of a growing cross-party consensus to do something much bolder on this issue.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could join a growing cross-party consensus that, when pupils, particularly from deprived areas such as Bransholme in Hull, cross over into a neighbouring education authority such as East Riding, they should bring with them the additional funding that has rightly be allocated to them. They should not go to one school, a mere half a mile away, and have £500 a year less spent on them, when they need that support.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right and we would want to see the funding follow the pupil. However, I urge him to lobby his Front-Bench team, rather than me, on the issue. The Conservative party’s proposals on the pupil premium or advantage premium are pretty woolly and vague, and they are not funded. Until they become both clear and funded, they will not mean very much.
This has been an interesting debate so far and I hope that it will continue to be so. I hope that, over the next couple of weeks, the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to clarify, seriously, the Government’s policy on this particular programme. I believe he is to make a speech next week on academies and specialist schools. I hope that he will not leave it until the report of the delivery unit to be really clear about the Government’s philosophy in this area. He needs to get over and to swallow any of the traditional concerns he has about the reform programme. If he fails to do that, it will have serious impacts on the credibility of the Government’s public service reform programme, and on the domestic agenda. Far more importantly, it will mean that in future there will be many more schools that fail their many deprived pupils—we are all aware of that type of school—not for one year or two, but for generations.
In my few remarks, I will try to strike a balance. The last time we discussed education in the House was on the Queen’s Speech. I was rather disappointed by the tone of the Opposition’s amendment, because it fell into the trap that we associate with the rather right-wing think-tanks, such as Politeia. The attitude was that state education was awful and every school was failing. That message does not square with my experience. I am one of those Members of Parliament who visit many schools, most of which are good. They are full of energy and have good leadership, excellent staff and a learning environment. The students seem to be happy. Interestingly, a recent report from the Keele centre of excellence in schools showed that to be the case in many schools.
Not all schools and teachers are perfect, but to go to the other extreme and to make the reductionist argument that almost everything in British education is bad demoralises teachers, heads and parents.
As a new member of the hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I am extremely grateful. I just re-read the motion, because I did not recognise his description of it. There is nothing negative in the motion. It merely expresses a desire that the Government do not resile from the academies programme, but take it forward for the betterment of pupils.
My hon. Friend is a welcome new member of our Committee, but if he looks back at my remarks he will see that I was talking about the last education debate. For me, today’s debate is much better—it is about academies. That was just a warning shot. I do not like it when we say that everything is bad and is going to hell in a handcart. It is not.
We on the Select Committee have always tried, even when the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was a member, to judge the Government by certain standards, one of which is evidence-based policy. Opposition parties should be judged on evidence-based policy, too. When it comes to the evidence-based policy for the recent foray into early years education, I am critical of those on my Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench, who are both getting it wrong because of their passionate love affair with synthetic phonics. The Select Committee inquiry found that any systematic way of teaching children to read worked.
The problem was a lack of any system in too many schools. Indeed, when we went further, we found that the real trouble was that teachers were not taught to teach children to read. We made two strong recommendations. First, we said that we should ensure that teachers are trained to teach whatever system they choose, or whatever is in fashion—and it is very much a question of fashion. Secondly, we said that we should be very careful when extrapolating from the evidence of one piece of research in one part of the United Kingdom—Clackmannanshire. In a sense, I am disappointed with both the Government and the Opposition.
In a minute; let me develop my argument.
Opposition Front Benchers say that a dramatic change is occurring in the Government’s attitude to academies. So far, I have not seen that, and I spend a lot of time talking to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, many of the major sponsors and academies themselves. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening in academies. I do not see, and they do not seem to perceive, a radical change in the academy programme, or restrictions being put on them. The suggestion is that heavy emphasis is being put back on the dead-weight hand of local authorities. After years as Chair of the Select Committee on Children—[Hon. Members: “Schools and Families.”]—Schools and Families; sorry, someone was passing me something. With my experience as Chair of the Committee, I do not see academies being put at risk by local government.
However, there is a problem. Time and again, in every inquiry we undertook, parents, head teachers and people in the education sector and in schools said, “Give us a good, supportive, well-informed, local authority in partnership with us; that is our best option.” That is what they crave, and even those places that do not have that relationship would like it. In a sense, getting that balance right is one of the responsibilities of any Government.
We cannot deny local democracy, although it is sometimes awkward. Councillors make decisions that others do not like. When the Liberal Democrats were in charge of Kirklees, they set their face against academies. I was quietly talking about the possibility of an academy or two in Kirklees and Huddersfield, but I could not get anywhere when the Liberal Democrats were in charge. Two councillors changed in the local elections, and we now have a Conservative-led administration that is in favour of academies, and I support that. Local democracy is like that, and we have to live with it. Sometimes, local authorities are so bad on education and delivery that pretty dramatic action has to be taken. I can name cases in Yorkshire and across the country where such dramatic action was necessary, and education in those areas is much better for it.
There is an unfair, biased balloting system for grammar schools, so why not have a fair balloting system when a local authority says that it does not want an academy, but local people might do so? We have told the Government that it would be good if we had a fair balloting system for selective schools instead of the present rules, under which any proposal for change is defeated. A balloting system might not be bad; I just put that idea in the ears of the Minister for Schools and Learners. It could apply to schools that want to become academies and schools that want not to be grammar schools. It would be a more even-handed approach, but I am not sure how quickly he will grasp it.
I want to say something supportive about academies. Evidence given to our Committee suggests that academies have shown steady improvement, but there will be some challenges. I was interested to hear the caution of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), on banding. In our inquiries on admissions, head teacher after head teacher said, “If we had a school intake that represented our community, we could do wonderful things,” but what happens if everyone who can do so moves to a better catchment area, or puts their children into independent education?
I visited a secondary modern school in Kent where 100 per cent. of the pupils received free school meals, 65 per cent. had special educational needs and there were many looked-after children. With such an imbalance, it is extremely difficult to do a good job for all the children, no matter how charismatic the head. Of course, if children go to a selective school in Kent, they will do well and get a good education, but the majority of pupils who do not get into the grammar schools get a poor education, so on average all children in Kent get a sub-standard education. That is an interesting effect of selection.
The hon. Member for Yeovil responded to an intervention about faith schools. The Committee found that one problem with faith schools was that they did not tend to reflect their community. Ironically, according to their charters, many of our greatest public schools—set up many years ago by kings, queens and notable politicians, if one is prepared to dig back that far—were established for the education of poor children. They are hardly in that business now.
Indeed, I welcome that, and I welcome choice.
It is odd for me as a Christian—I am a poor Christian, although I was the parliamentary church warden of St. Margaret’s, Westminster for seven years—to see schools deliberately, or perhaps subliminally, exclude poor students from faith schools. Often, those are Anglican schools and Roman Catholic schools. One looks at the surrounding community and wonders why the poorer kids—those on free school meals—do not get a fair crack at getting into those schools. There is evidence of a kind of selection—not by entrance examination—because something is going on when the community is not reflected in a school’s membership.
The hon. Gentleman can scratch away as deeply as he likes, but the faith schools in my constituency all have a genuinely comprehensive intake. A Roman Catholic secondary girls school, of which I am a governor, has a genuinely comprehensive intake and its fair share of statemented children and children with disabilities. It has high standards of discipline and behaviour and high parental interest in the education of their children. It takes pupils from a neighbouring, notably more deprived parish, and the children from the more deprived area are often the highest achievers. It is the ethos of the school that is so successful.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Going back to evidence-based policy, we looked closely at admissions. I am not saying anything about the school with which she is involved, but there was a general problem with faith schools. I hope very much that the new admissions code and the provision that enables it to be delivered more powerfully and positively will show results. The Select Committee’s recommendations on the mandatory code, the ability to enforce it through the schools adjudicator and the role for the schools commissioner might make a real difference.
Academies present a challenge. If a bright, new academy, with new staff and new leadership, is created where a school has not performed well, a broader group in the community will support it. That is what we all want. People who were commuting from the old school area will attend the academy. Some critics, especially those on the left of the Labour party, will look at the statistics and say that the academy has been taken over by the middle classes, but that is not necessarily true. What we are seeing is a healthy influence.
I have very little time left.
Academies are doing the job that they were set up to do, but they are criticised when their intake broadens. Where that does not happen, I have always been a strong defender of banding. If we get a fair proportion of the surrounding community into the academy, great things can be done in education.
Where there are challenges in a school—for example, large staff turnover because of its inner-city location and a high turnover of students—it is all too easy to dismiss the efforts of a team that is working hard to deal with them. Such a school is often in danger of falling into the “special” category, and have Ofsted breathing down its neck. If its intake changes even a little during the year, the head teacher can become unemployable simply because the Ofsted inspection took place that year, rather than the year before.
I have much sympathy for schools in the inner cities and inner towns. The Government have tried to help them with their challenges, but they can end up feeling that they have not had a fair shake of the dice.
There is and always will be a problem with our education system. This morning the Committee discussed absence in the early years. In many schools, that starts at 2 per cent. and can reach 11.5 per cent. among pupils of 14, 15 and 16. We need to conduct more research into those not in education, employment or training—NEETs—and tracking the early signs.
The debate is interesting and has been more constructive than the first two education debates in this Session. I hope that we will go back to the guiding principle of evidence-based policy.
I found it extraordinary that the Secretary of State devoted such a large part of his speech to talking about us—the Conservative party and our policies. I should have thought that, particularly in view of the breadth of the Government amendment to the motion, the debate was an opportunity to set out the Government’s policy and to explain what they are doing for education. Most of the Secretary of State’s remarks seemed to be aimed rather more at us. Perhaps his obsession with my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), the shadow Secretary of State, indicates who the Secretary of State thinks is likely to be taking his job in the relatively near future.
In my constituency we have an excellent Conservative-controlled local education authority, but as in the case of one or two other Members who have spoken, it is a member of the F40 group of the most poorly funded LEAs in the country—a problem that Labour promised to fix when it came into government 10 years ago. The gap between my constituents in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and better funded LEAs has not narrowed significantly in the intervening period. That gives my local authority significant challenges in continuing to deliver excellent education.
I am pleased to speak in support of the motion because even in a county such as Gloucestershire, which delivers good results, it is still important to have parental choice and competition to keep everyone on their toes. In a constituency such as mine, which has more than 50 primary and secondary schools, that is important.
The exchanges between Labour and Conservative Front Benchers about the surplus places rule were interesting. In one way, I was heartened that the Minister for Schools and Learners confirmed that there is such a rule, as the Government often pretend that there is not. I want to take a moment to explain one of the impacts in a constituency such as mine. It has a number of very good primary schools, many of which are full. Some are not physically full, but full only in terms of the indicated admission number.
Even in an excellent Conservative-controlled authority, local authority bureaucrats like to take control and manage parental choices. I was involved in helping Pauntley school—an excellent school, in the north of my constituency, that is highly regarded by parents; many more parents want their children to go there. We have had an extraordinary battle in trying to secure extra funding, which I am pleased to say my county council colleagues have approved, to expand the school and replace some temporary classrooms with more fitting buildings so that it can continue to serve the local community.
Local authority bureaucrats have amazing systems of dividing up the world into polygons and deciding that people have to send their children to school according to exactly where they live. Such systems are completely oblivious to parental choice and considerations such as where the parents may need to travel to work, the nature of the child and whether the particular school fits the particular child’s requirements.
I listened with interest to what the Secretary of State said about funding and choice. In my constituency, many parents are concerned about special educational needs. As a result, they wanted to set up a new school that dealt specifically with autism. Such a school was set up in Stevenage and was visited by the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett). However, the parents struggle with getting the funding out of the system; that funding is not recognised in respect of choice because they have set up their own school for special educational needs.
As my hon. Friend says, it is important that there be choice in the system and that special educational needs are not overlooked. Children with such needs should not be shoehorned into going to mainstream schools, where they are not always comfortable; their parents are not always comfortable at their being there either.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. She knows that I have taken considerable interest in special educational needs; indeed, they were the subject of my maiden speech in the House.
The issue of admissions and the improvement of the system’s capacity is one of the reasons why I so welcome our attempt to improve the number of good school places available across the country. One of the problems that parents often have, and on which they often seek my support, is when an excellent school’s indicated admission number does not reflect physical capacity, but has been set, perhaps, at a time when people did not appreciate its importance. Such parents’ children are turned away from their choice of school. Having spoken to the head teacher, visited the school and considered its ethos and teaching methods, those parents feel that it best reflects the needs of their child, and they are turned away. They are always advised to send their children to a school that is failing to attract parents, so that the books can be balanced and the surplus places rule dealt with. That simply puts the needs of children behind the bureaucrats’ need to tidy up the numbers and meet the surplus places rule.
Indeed, the language in this debate—even talking about the concept of surplus places—shows, frankly, that the allocation process is still very much a socialist top-down planning system. We do not talk about having surplus places in other services or businesses; we expect to have a range of choices and to be able to choose where we want to go. Businesses are able to deal with increased demand and provide the extra capacity. If we had more of that in the education system, that would drive up standards and give parents more choices.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the critical element of the improved system that he is discussing is the ability for new schools to start up? If they cannot, the better schools will be monopolised by the middle classes and those who are excluded will find themselves forced into schools that are not forced to change, because of the fact that pupils are forced to attend them.
That is a good point.
As I made my previous remarks, I saw the Minister gesturing in a motion that I presumed indicated that he was referring to funding. I am happy to deal with that issue. In my constituency, we have had a school that was not successful at attracting local parents. As a result, the number of its pupils fell below the level at which the school was financially viable. I was perfectly happy and comfortable about defending the decision to close that school. If a school is unable to demonstrate to local parents that it can deliver successful results, and is unable to attract them, it should close.
The Minister is pulling faces, but I had that conversation and it was not particularly controversial locally. I explained to the school that if it was unable to persuade local parents to choose it over others, it was a bit difficult to force the local authority to continue funding it.
I have a problem when local authorities are forced to close, or are pressed towards closing, good, well-subscribed schools because of funding pressures. That is difficult. As the Secretary of State said, in some ways it is better to allow parents to choose which schools their children go to, even if the schools then expand to take on the pupils. That would highlight failing schools that are not delivering the quality of education that all our children need; it would force something to happen. Preventing parents from getting their first choice, and forcing them to send their children to a school that they do not want, just props up schools that are not delivering and delays the steps that need to be taken to deliver proper education—not only for the area generally, but for the pupils in the school that is not doing as well as it should.
I am pleased with the remarks made about increasing capacity. I would be pleased if schools were able to expand up to their physical capacity and good schools were able to expand still further. That is certainly not what happens locally. The indicated admission number does not always correspond with the physical capacity of the school, and once that number is hit, the school cannot take in any more pupils, regardless of whether the school has the physical capacity. [Interruption.] If the Minister is saying something different, that is incredibly encouraging and I shall pass the news to my local education authority. However, I fear that that will not be the case.
I also want to address the issue of social mobility and raising aspirations. I know that the Minister has views on that, and a number of the speeches have referred to it. As the Minister knows, a while ago the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) said that social mobility had not improved and was going backwards. The right hon. Gentleman said that, because of our systems at the moment, someone from his background would be unlikely today to achieve the position that he reached in becoming a member of the Cabinet. The Minister will also know, although it is not now his Department’s responsibility, that not enough socially disadvantaged young people are able to go to university. In my view, that is largely not the fault of the admissions system—although there may be individual cases—but due to the fact that those children are not given a good enough primary and secondary education and that in many cases their aspirations are simply not high enough.
When making one of our regular visits to schools in our constituencies, particularly those in the more disadvantaged areas, all hon. Members try to broaden the children’s horizons as we talk to them, to raise aspirations and to support the heads and teachers when they try to do likewise. I encourage schools in my constituency to visit this House when possible— although it is a little difficult because of the distance—because that is a good opportunity for the children to experience some British history as they walk around the parliamentary estate and to watch a debate and, one hopes, a good parliamentary occasion. That may enable some children not necessarily to think of a political future but to broaden their horizons and think of opportunities that they may not have previously chosen.
In a ministerial statement just nine days ago, the Minister for Schools and Learners said:
“Narrowing the attainment gap for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is one of the strategic objectives of my Department and is a key priority for the Government.”—[Official Report, 12 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 29WS.]
The Government have been in power for 10 years, and it is a tragedy that that gap is still so wide and that progress has not moved further and faster.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the paper that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath launched yesterday. I particularly welcome the proposals on improving good school places in the state system to shift the balance of power away from the establishment and in favour of parents. That is the single biggest change that we could make, and over the long term it would make a decisive shift in the education system for the good of all pupils, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
I am somewhat relieved that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee has left. I have now been a member of his Committee for one week. I feel that my comments may not match the standard of bipartisanship that he was urging on us, but I will do my best.
We must take Opposition day motions as we find them, but I was astonished when I read this one. It could have been a lot shorter; indeed, it could have been one sentence: “I wish we’d thought of that.” It was rather quaint to listen to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) begin by saying that the Government lacked vision, and then going on to make the most policy-light speech that I have had the misfortune to hear in my relatively short time here. The reason for that lies partly in the fact that the ideas are borrowed. I have it on good authority that when the Conservative policy review body sat down to try to think through those ideas, this was all that they could come up with at the end of a two-hour session with the great and the good. There was nothing that they could do to better the academy programme.
Having run an LEA for 20 years, I am certainly not new to Conservative education policy. I take it as flattery that the Conservatives wish to borrow the policy and try to claim it as their own.
The Government’s amendment sets out their achievements in education. I welcome those achievements in three respects. First, I welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech, with the education and skills Bill, which will extend education and training further to 17 and 18-year-olds, and the Children and Young Persons Bill, which will take steps to address the disadvantaged position of children in care. I thought, perhaps naively, that those proposals would be relatively uncontroversial, and I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), was dismayed to hear how Opposition Members approached them in the debate on the Gracious Speech, in trying to find fault with wholly praiseworthy measures.
Secondly, I praise the investment that the Government have put in. Yesterday I visited Burlington Danes academy in my constituency, where in addition to the £2 million put in by sponsors, £16 million is being put in by the Government to build new parts of the school to an extremely high standard and to give that school, which has gone through some troubled times but is basically excellent, a bright future. Earlier this year I attended the opening of Acton high school, which has been completely rebuilt to an astonishingly high standard. As soon as one walks into such a school, one can see the value that is placed on young people and their education, which I never saw in the dirty, unkempt and distressed schools that I visited when the Conservative party was in government.
I also praise initiatives such as building schools for the future, which will give more than £100 million to schools in my constituency, Sure Start and neighbourhood renewal. I think that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) mentioned Phoenix high school, which is in my constituency, and William Atkinson six times. I am not surprised, because William, who is the head teacher of Phoenix, is a most inspiring individual. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman visited the school—although next time he might want to give me notice that he is going there.
Civility is prized and taught at Phoenix, and I am sure that, having been there, the hon. Gentleman will follow that example.
The neighbourhood renewal fund gave several million pounds to support the families of pupils at Phoenix, and William would say that that is one of the main reasons why that school, which has an intake from one of the most deprived areas in the country, has come on by leaps and bounds.
Thirdly, I praise the Government on results. I could go through every school attended by children from my constituency, but I will mention just three. William Morris sixth form, of which I have been a governor since it was set up in 1994, has had an outstanding Ofsted report. I was told that if one types “outstanding sixth form” into Google, William Morris comes up on the first page. Phoenix is the most improved school in England over the past three years. Hurlingham and Chelsea school, having been in special measures three years ago, came out of special measures in record time, and its A to C GCSE results increased two and a half times over that period under the utterly inspiring leadership of Phil Cross, who is the new William Atkinson of the borough.
I mention those three schools because they were all, at different times, targeted for closure by the Conservatives: William Morris was targeted in the last three years of the Conservative Government; Phoenix, which was for many years rubbished by Conservative councillors, who said that if they came to power they would close it; and Hurlingham and Chelsea, which, now that the Conservatives are in power locally, they are seeking to close. It may seem parochial to talk about one of my own LEAs, but there are lessons to be learned from looking at the Conservatives in local government, and how they deal with education, that give the lie to what they say when they talk in this House about education policy nationally.
The history of education policy over the brief 18 months since the LEA and the council changed hands in Hammersmith and Fulham is an extraordinary and disgraceful one, which may interest my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, if nobody else. The first move was an attempt to close Hurlingham and Chelsea school, which, as I said, came out of special measures in record time and is fast improving. At the end of a seven-month campaign by the school to avoid closure, the closure proposal was withdrawn, but only because it was clear to the LEA that the school adjudicator was not going to find in its favour.
I always appreciate new administrations learning by their mistakes, but in this case it was quite the contrary. Since then, over the past six months, a commission has been set up under the chairmanship of Baroness Perry. I have nothing but respect for her professional record, but it is unfortunate that she was at the same time chairing the Conservative party’s policy review. Her report was highly critical of the LEA and its poor relations with schools, and called for a full review of 14-to-19 education; both those facts have been ignored. It also put forward two quite extraordinary proposals, which are leading to the misuse of building schools for the future money in the LEA, and to an attempt to use the academy process to introduce selection by the back door—a topic that the hon. Member for Yeovil alluded to in his speech. Such misuse of the academy programme is a danger. It will not be misused if Lord Adonis has his way, but it will be if my local Tory LEA has its way.
What were the two proposals? The first is known locally as the French connection. It is the proposal to sell off two propitious school sites to the French Government. That came out through Freedom of Information Act inquiries and investigations by the head teachers of the schools concerned. A proposal to sell off two of the best sites in Fulham to the French Government for conversion to private lycée schools was being made without the knowledge of the schools. I have a letter here from the chairman of governors of one of the schools, who says that in June he found some French people wandering uninvited around his school, asking people at random questions about the curriculum. I have asked for a meeting with the French ambassador to discuss these matters, but the fact remains that neither that school nor Hurlingham and Chelsea school, which is being asked to share its site with a private lycée, was consulted in any way. Hurlingham and Chelsea now faces its second battle in a year to remain open, despite its outstanding achievements.
The second proposal being pursued by my Tory LEA is to close the only secular girls school in the borough, which is the first school of choice for many Muslim families in my constituency. It is a very good and well-respected school, but it is to close, and then share a very small site with a boys school in Fulham. Lest it be thought that I am simply making party political points—
Well, they are party political points, but that is because I have a terrible Tory council. There is nothing I can do about that. My electorate can do something in a few years’ time, but there is nothing I can do at the moment.
The principal’s report at our local sixth form college talks about the 14-to-19 strategy in the borough:
“Little, if any, progress was made on this in the borough during 2006-7 because of the council’s ill-thought out attempt to close Hurlingham and Chelsea School and the ensuring planning blight whilst the school fought a seven month campaign to stay open. This resulted in a serious lack of trust between the council members and officers and secondary headteachers…With vital deadlines for the borough’s BSF submission now imminent, there is a greater sense of purpose this year…However, there is further uncertainty resulting from the commission’s recommendations, particularly the one to set up a new school on the Henry Compton site to include Fulham Cross Girls’ School. Staff, governors and parents of FCGS are deeply unhappy at what they regard as a threat to girls’ education, and may well mount a campaign to save the school.”
That is an understatement. The report continues:
“In my view, we do not currently have the necessary collaboration or expertise in Hammersmith and Fulham to benefit fully from the opportunity BSF brings to create exciting and innovative schools for the future. Headteachers have urged the Director to use some of the funding to enable us to gain some additional external expertise.”
Another head in the borough put it rather more succinctly:
“we all have concerns about the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham at both Council and Officer level...I hope that something can be done to rescue education for young people in this Borough.”
An unprecedented five head teachers and principals, all affected by these lunatic changes, have asked for an appointment to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners. I hope that he will agree to that—I am sure that he will—because the situation is at crisis point.
The hon. Gentleman is painting a picture of vexatious school closures by his local education authority. Most school closures are prompted by Government policy—when there is 10 per cent. spare capacity throughout the borough—and LEAs are in the very difficult position of having to reduce that spare capacity. No such proposals will be accepted or welcomed by teachers or pupils. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that those proposals have nothing at all to do with there being more than 10 per cent. spare capacity in the LEA in Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush?
I can answer that very straightforwardly. At the same time as the LEA is proposing those closures, it is proposing to open a new academy in my constituency. I know about that only through hearsay, because neither local residents nor the heads have been consulted. For example, the head of the other academy that is less than a mile away, whom I was talking to yesterday, has not been consulted. I have not been consulted. A feasibility study has gone on; it is another fait accompli. I welcome the proposal to open a new school in the borough, but it sits ill in the mouths of people who are trying to close existing good schools. In the moment or two that I have left, I shall talk about why that is happening.
No, I will not give way again.
Why is that happening? The answer is straightforward. Building schools for the future money is being used to move two schools to a single site, so as to free up a site to be disposed of as a private lycée. It is being misused in order to pillory and limit the chances and opportunities for young people in community schools in my borough.
I will not give way.
At the same time, if the LEA gets its way—I shall be talking about this matter in more detail to Lord Adonis—the academy programme will be used to introduce selection in the borough. The scheme is for a selective school in the south, partly sharing its site with a private school, and an academy that takes the best children from the Phoenix and from the existing academy in my constituency, in the north of the borough. It is trying to set up what I might call a poor man’s grammar school service.
When we come down to it, that is why the hon. Member for Surrey Heath cannot answer the questions about grammar schools and selection. They know that they cannot say it publicly, but almost every Member on the Opposition Benches wants a return to full selection and grammar streaming. That is what, by fair means or foul, is happening. I will not allow it to happen in the LEAs in my constituency. With the help of my hon. Friend the Minister and Lord Adonis, I hope that none of these things will come to pass for the new academy, which I welcome, or for the existing schools, which are performing under the most extreme duress, and the draconian policies of the LEA. I hope that they continue to thrive, although that will be despite the LEA, rather than with the benefit of its support.
The Opposition motion expresses the clear commitment in my party to continuing reform of our schools system, to the encouragement of devolved responsibility in schools and to the provision of greater support to the disadvantaged through greater choice and openness. It is, moreover, a clear commitment that we have in the past honoured in the Lobby by supporting the Government when we believed that they were introducing necessary reforms. Our crucial support for the Education and Inspections Act 2006 proves that we, at least, have the courage of our convictions when it comes to schools reform. But while we were busy reaching for consensus in the Lobby, many in the Labour party were reaching for consensus on paper, and were still not finding it.
It is perhaps unfortunate that next to the Government amendment, some rather more ominous names appear alongside the name of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. First, there is the Prime Minister, who does not seem to know whether he is coming or going on reform. Secondly, we have the Chancellor, who in all probability, will soon be going. Thirdly, there is the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who, before his second coming, was busy with an alternative, but sadly not very innovative education White Paper, while on the Back Benches. Last but not least, we have the Secretary of State for Health, who is presumably listed for showing his dedication through taking a hospital pass from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families when he got himself into a spot of bother in last Tuesday’s debate. When we analyse the Government’s policy on schools reform, it appears that only one principle is at work—random movement, otherwise dubbed as Brownian motion.
I want to focus on one narrow aspect of our motion: the necessity of helping the most disadvantaged with all the resources available to us. It can sometimes be too easy to view disadvantage in a narrow, socio-economic sense. That is the root of a great deal of, but by no means all, disadvantage. Pupils with special educational needs are still some of the most disadvantaged in our schools, as hon. Members from different parties have pointed out.
The Secretary of State was rightly lauded by hon. Members of all parties for his commitment while on the Back Benches to greater support for special needs education and disabled young people. He managed to maintain that commitment when he was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, although he sometimes had to give his support at arm’s length. However, something about the new regime appears to spoil those good intentions.
I was disappointed that the Secretary of State could not use his customary leverage with the Prime Minister to get a commitment on SEN into the Queen’s Speech. It was also unfortunate that, during last Tuesday’s debate, he preferred the attractions of baiting on Surrey Heath to setting out the Government’s agenda on education. I have a strong and personal interest in children with SEN getting a better start in life and I do my best to keep abreast of the Government’s stance on those issues. However, that stance is beginning to look shaky. The comprehensive spending review in October announced the availability of an extra £340 million over the CSR period to support disabled children and young people, but the way in which the additional funding will interact with existing provision for SEN remains unclear.
I am sceptical of the utility of additional funding without a root-and-branch review that places children’s needs first and foremost. Such a review is now getting started under my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Once again, the Conservative party is setting the reform agenda. However, if reform is to be effective, an SEN system must be founded on genuine parental choice. Just as choice should be the decisive factor in driving up standards in the wider school system, so it should be decisive in approving the outcomes for children with special needs.
Meanwhile, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families was forced to publish yet another report on SEN last month. The reason for the repetition is simply the Government’s intransigence. I am not a member of the Committee, but I hope that I shall never miss an opportunity to pay tribute to its work. Sir Robert Balchin, the chair of the Conservative party’s commission on special needs education, has also produced a fine report, which I recommend to the Secretary of State. Those are only two in a growing chorus of voices that call for a fundamental reform of SEN provision.
Last year’s Select Committee report recommended—to my mind, unequivocally—breaking the link between assessment and funding of SEN provision. The Government have misinterpreted that, though I do not claim that they did so wilfully. However, the response to the report was generally viewed as leaving a lot to be desired. I hope that, when the Minister for Schools and Learners responds, he will commit to giving the Committee’s latest report on the matter the attention that it deserves. I hope that he will also commit to providing a national strategy for SEN, which allows schools the freedom to tailor their provision to the needs of the communities that they serve.
Although our motion calls for greater freedom for schools and an innovative approach to helping the most disadvantaged young people, the Government continue to equate choice with elitism. The Secretary of State parroted that equation last Tuesday, and he did so again today, when he wrongly stated that we support the few and not the many. Nevertheless, SEN provision remains, all too often, both stretched and inflexible for parents and children.
The Government’s amendment ends by reiterating the planned extension of education and training to 18. I foresee a problem in that the Government propose to compel a new cohort of 16 to 18-year-olds to remain in a system that already struggles to cope. The Government should act now to prepare the system of SEN provision to handle a great deal more strain if their proposals to raise the school leaving age are to go ahead.
In a parliamentary answer, the Government estimated additional costs of £90 million to support those with SEN through extending compulsory schooling to 18. How was that figure calculated? How robust does the Secretary of State believe it to be? Not only extra money but extra staff and resources are needed. Better still, fundamental reform of provision is needed. A significant gap remains between the perception of SEN provision in Whitehall and the experience of parents on the ground. I do not want that gap to widen further because the Government have announced a policy on compulsory education to grab the headlines without doing their homework on special needs.
We need to raise the bar and close the gap. The days of one-size-fits-all education should have ended long ago. Unfortunately, they have not. In so many other aspects of education policy, we are setting the pace of change. It must begin with legitimate choice for parents.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the ROSE—realistic opportunities for supported employment—project at Havering college of further and higher education? It is specifically designed to ease students with special needs into employment. They have a job tutor who sees them through the first few weeks—sometimes months, depending on the student’s ability—until they are able to attend a workplace independently. That example of good practice could be followed throughout the country.
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that project. Other colleges, such as Edith Borthwick in my constituency, do exactly the same, and I congratulate them on their hard work in supporting their students to move on and get ready to play a productive role in society and the workplace.
Just as SEN provision must be at the heart of our schools and academies, choice must be at the heart of SEN provision, not an inconvenient accessory to it.
In my constituency, I have a school that is similar to Eton, at least in the spelling of its name. Last night, I was privileged to visit Elton high school and join the pupils, staff and governors for their annual awards evening. The school is thriving and is now in the upper 25 per cent. of the most improving schools in the country. It had record GCSE results this year and has a broad and balanced curriculum. It has innovated and is now a specialist art school, where the pupils are committed to their studies and happy and motivated to be there.
I mention Elton school because it undermines the basic assumption that underlies the Conservatives’ attack on the Government’s record. The school is firmly within the local authority system, and is nevertheless one of the most highly regarded schools in not only my local authority but neighbouring local authorities. I pay tribute to the work of the head teacher, Mr. Neil Scruton, his chair of governors, Mr. Jeff Coles, and the staff and pupils of the school.
What I am struggling to understand about the Conservative document launched yesterday—I have not read it in detail; I have heard bits about it—is how the new education policy of Cameron’s Conservatives, who are trying to be touchy-feely, liberal, progressive modernisers, is in any way different from the policy of Thatcher’s Conservatives. The Conservatives still have a fundamental commitment to wholesale privatisation and fragmentation of the system and to seeing the individual school as the basic unit, not understanding the need for schools to operate within a co-operative framework.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many Conservatives still covertly believe in the policy encapsulated in the phrase “A grammar school in every town”? That is their real, secret agenda, is it not?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is the hidden agenda, and we could see that from the expression on the shadow Secretary of State’s face. Throughout his speech, he found it extremely difficult to keep a straight face, in his new-born commitment to liberal, progressive modernity. Indeed, I would go further back. The shadow Secretary of State spoke about the miraculous assumptions of some aspects of Government policy, but he was the personification of miraculous assumptions, in what he was saying about the way forward. He combined that with a kind of immaculate conception. It was almost as if Keith Joseph had come back to speak to us. Indeed, there was nothing that he said with which Keith Joseph would have disagreed.
It seems to me—I am looking to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) to clarify this, because he is a thoughtful Member of Parliament—that the Conservatives’ approach is riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, they keep telling us that they want to give more freedom to schools and head teachers, pass down more power to parents, lift the dead hand of bureaucracy, move away from the command economy and take centralisation out of the system. On the other, they want to tell every pupil in the country that they must keep their shirts firmly tucked in their trousers and every teacher that every time anyone walks through their classroom door, every child in that classroom must—day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out—stand to attention. That is a level of prescription that Joseph Stalin could not have dreamed of, and it blows out of the water any commitment to trusting the professional judgment of teachers and head teachers that the Conservatives want us to believe they support.
What the hon. Gentleman is talking about is courtesy and respect. Those habits that are learned in school will serve pupils well all their lives. He denigrates grammar schools, but what we need is grammar school standards in every school, whether it be an academy, a comprehensive school or whatever else. Good standards of behaviour and discipline, aspiration and achievement—who would deny any child that in whatever school they attend?
The hon. Lady has given the game away. Neither she nor her party can distinguish between the form and the substance. The substance of courtesy and respect is of course absolutely necessary; the precise form that it takes is a matter for the judgment of each school.
The Conservative party is not the only opposition party to have a contradictory approach. I wanted to ask the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) earlier how he reconciles his commitment to the importance of local authorities having a strategic role with the clear call on the Government in the Liberal Democrats’ amendment to
“ensure parental choice rather than schools choice by ending selection to Academies by aptitude and other means”.
I support that policy, but if the local authority has a strategic role, how can the hon. Gentleman defend only academies having to end selection by aptitude and other means, while sustaining that approach with local authority schools? Would he go further and say that he believes that local authority schools should also end selection by aptitude and other means?
Yes. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should end that selective power in specialist and other schools. Does he not understand that we are not only saying that there should be a strategic local authority role, but that the local authority should not have to run every maintained school?
I understand that perfectly, because that has been the case since the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988. The only people who seem to think that local authorities run every school are the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Certainly nobody on the Government Benches thinks that that is how the system in this country could reasonably be described.
I should like to say a word or two about choice and selection. The ground of this debate, which has been going on for 40 years or more, fundamentally shifted when the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) made his speech earlier this year. Only last week, in the debate on the Loyal Address, I was able to read the key extract of his speech, in which he finally admitted that a selective admissions policy—selection by academic ability—entrenches disadvantage rather than eroding it. From that moment on, regardless of the divisions in the Conservative party, the ground of the debate shifted. I welcome the fact that the Opposition have included in their motion a clear commitment to
“all-ability schools in the state sector”,
albeit in their call for new providers to open them. I also welcome the clear commitment in the Liberal Democrats’ amendment to eliminating selection by various means.
However, we have to be clear about the issue of choice. It is a simple matter: either we want schools to choose pupils through various forms of selection, such as academic selection, which exists in some areas, selection by aptitude or a variety of fairly dubious proxies, or we want parents to be able to choose schools. I am firmly on the latter side of the argument. However, we must accept that the historical legacy of the location of our schools and the distribution of population mean that it is logistically impossible for every parent in the country to secure their first choice school, unless the Government are committed to a massive expansion in their budgets, to keep thousands and thousands of spare places open.
We heard from the official Opposition yesterday that they are doing precisely the opposite, because they intend to take a huge slice—I think that the figure was £4.5 billion—out of the building schools for the future programme. They have to understand that choice can operate only in a fair, balanced and regulated framework, where the objective is to ensure that parents secure their first choice school, but where that is balanced by other factors. Otherwise, the exercise of choice by some individuals can, if not operating in a fair framework, simply mean the denial of choice to others. It is the central role of the Government and of local authorities to ensure that we have that fair and balanced framework, which maximises choice to the benefit of the greatest number of parents.
I should like to make a point about good schools and good GCSEs. A comment that I have made to a number of Ministers for education is that although the Government have been extremely successful in driving up standards over a 10-year period and in enabling thousands of young people to obtain qualifications that they would not have obtained before—it really is as simple as that—the focus on good GCSEs nevertheless has a downside. The target of five A to C grades has a general level of support, but every time we describe such grades as good GCSEs, we are saying to the young people who do not achieve them that their GCSEs are somehow no good, and that they have failed miserably to achieve what we expect of them. We are sending that message not only to those young people, but to their parents. I have discussed this point with my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, and with his predecessors, but I would like to appeal again for a different way to describe levels of achievement. I am not talking about manipulating targets—targets are important and I want to see results improving year on year, and to see children achieving more year on year—but we have to find a different kind of language.
We have to find a different kind of language to describe schools as well. It is too easy just to talk about a good school. In my experience—I think most Ofsted inspectors would agree with this—there are good schools, but most schools are good at something. To assume that there is a category of schools defined as good and another that is defined as failing is utterly simplistic and does not accurately describe what is taking place. Furthermore, we all too often fall into the trap of defining a school as good because it happens to have a favourable intake. Again, I ask the Government to revisit the kind of language that we use. We need to find a better, richer language to describe the range of schools that we have, their many qualities and the many ways in which they advance the education and achievement of their pupils.
In respect of language, I should also like to make a point about the 14-to-19 diplomas. In the Queen’s Speech debate last week, I made an appeal for us to look again at Sir Mike Tomlinson’s original report on the relationship between A-levels, GCSEs and the new diplomas. I now want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to think again about the use of the words “vocational” and “academic”. In theory, there is cross-party consensus that we need to bridge the academic-vocational divide. In my view, however, that will not be achieved as long as we continue to use the terms “vocational” and “academic”. Again, we need a richer, more careful language to describe the range of subjects in the curriculum, and the range of knowledge and skills that young people require to pursue different careers.
For example, we can ask the simple question: is maths an academic subject or a vocational subject? For someone going to university to do a degree in maths, physics or information technology, maths is an academic subject. However, for someone training to be an electrician, a plumber or a joiner, it is vocational. This is an issue for all Members of the House, head teachers, teachers and parents, and we really need to revisit it, to determine the best way of describing the range of subjects, knowledge and skills in the curriculum. I have noticed the word “applied” creeping into recent speeches. Perhaps the terms “theoretical” and “applied” would provide better ways of achieving this.
I want to touch briefly on the subject of special educational needs. Reference has been made by other hon. Members to the Select Committee’s report on SEN, which I believe moved the debate forward a little. I still think that we have a major problem with statementing, however. The noble Baroness Warnock’s speech two years ago calling for a rethink on statementing and on the categorisation of SEN was really important. I am not sure that the Select Committee—of which I was then a member—or the Government’s response have fully taken that report on board.
The basic principle should be that, in reality, the vast majority of children have special educational needs of one kind or another. For many children, those needs will be fairly minor, but they need to be recognised none the less. By focusing on SEN as a distinct category of people with highly visible disabilities, and on the statementing process, we have overlooked the less dramatic, less obvious needs of large numbers of children who nevertheless need a little more attention than the present system can provide.
Finally, I should like to put three questions to my hon. Friend the Minister. First, is it the case that, as the schools commissioner goes round the country looking at local authorities’ plans for building schools for the future, he is requiring the authorities to adopt acade