Proposals to establish academies are subject to non-statutory local consultation, which would normally include all interested parties, including the parents of children at feeder schools and existing secondary schools. When a maintained school is to be closed and replaced with an academy, statutory consultations are required on the proposed closure, which must engage all interested parties. In neither case, however, would there be formal votes or ballots.
On 1 May in Colchester, the Conservatives lost five seats and control of the borough council. The closure of two secondary schools and the imposition of an academy were major issues. If the Government are listening and they really do want to engage local communities, will the Secretary of State give a pledge that he will honour what happened at the ballot box and save Thomas Lord Audley school at Monkwick and Alderman Blaxill school at Shrub End from closure?
I understand that there were five Conservative losses on 1 May. I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their four gains, and note the Labour gain as well.
I will give no long-term guarantee for those individual schools because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Alderman Blaxill school has not had a good run of results. It is substantially below the target of 30 per cent. GCSEs at grades A to C, including English and maths. During the past three years it has achieved 16 per cent., 14 per cent and 17 per cent. of that target, so we need improvement. Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision, but only as long as there is genuine improvement in all three schools in the coming year, particularly in Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill. We will keep the matter under control, and if those schools do not deliver, we will consider other ways to intervene to ensure that all kids in the hon. Gentleman’s area get the improvement in standards that they need.
Building Schools for the Future money is welcome in Wolverhampton, and there is a proposal to have two academies there. It has been suggested that that money will not be made available in Wolverhampton unless it has those two academies. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that there is no link between the two and that Wolverhampton could have the money without two academies, if it so chose?
There is no requirement for academies in Wolverhampton as a condition of Building Schools for the Future money—we made that clear to the council and local Members of Parliament. There will be academies in Wolverhampton because the council is proposing them. It sees from results throughout the country that academies are a powerful way to raise standards, especially in areas that have had lower standards and where there is a need for new investment. We support academies in Wolverhampton but we will not impose them on Wolverhampton. The local council is proposing them and we will back its plans.
The Secretary of State will recall Tony Blair’s vision for the academies programme. He said:
“Our aim is the creation of a system of independent non-fee paying state schools.”
We were told that academies were to be freed from the national curriculum and independent of local authority control, but since the Secretary of State took office he has required all new academies to follow the national curriculum and now a third of new academies have local authorities as their sponsor. Why have the Government abandoned those freedoms? Is it not the case that, as last week’s legislative programme makes clear, the Government have run out of ideas on school reform, have no clear sense of direction and, as the chief inspector of schools said today, school standards have “stalled”?
The hon. Gentleman’s facts are incorrect. I have not imposed the national curriculum on academies. New academies will teach the national curriculum in maths, English, science and IT, but retain the wider flexibilities to innovate and tackle lower performing pupils’ needs.
When I became Secretary of State, all new academies proceeded with local authorities’ agreement and I have not changed that. The only change that I have made is to accelerate the number of academies to bring universities, further education colleges and wider sponsors into the academies movement by abolishing the £2 million entry fee. We are using academies as an important way to drive up standards and meet the national challenge of getting all schools above the 30 per cent. target. The Government are using academies effectively to drive up standards, but the Conservative party has a black hole in its plans, which it cannot explain, when it comes to academies.