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National Challenge Programme

Volume 491: debated on Monday 27 April 2009

2. How many academies and national challenge trust schools he expects to be opened under the national challenge programme. (270733)

Our national challenge programme provides resources to transform up to 70 additional schools into academies and up to 70 schools into national challenge trusts. This September, more than 300 academies will open, and we expect that academies will have replaced more than 200 national challenge schools. So far, we have agreed 16 national challenge trusts and we are expecting to agree a further 34 shortly, of which 30 will open this September and 20 will open in 2010.

In 2006, we opened two new city academies in Mitcham in my constituency, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative councillors. Those two schools have now doubled the number of pupils getting five GCSE passes. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the sponsors, Lord Harris and the Church of England, as well as all the staff and the pupils at those schools? Will he also warn people that although those on the Conservative Front Bench may have converted to supporting academies, Conservative local councillors on the ground do not want schools in deprived areas?

My hon. Friend makes two important points. The first point is that academies in disadvantaged communities are driving up results faster than the average, which shows that academies work. The second point, which she made about her constituency, but which is equally true of Dudley, is that for all the bluster from the Opposition, it is Conservative councils that are blocking academies round the country.

If the problems with the national challenge programme continue, and if Ministers end up having to hold an inquiry into the matter, will the Secretary of State assure us that the evidence that Ministers give to the inquiry will not be “false”, a “fiction” and “sexed up”, as Dr. Boston suggested of the evidence given to the SATs inquiry?

All the evidence that is given by this side is accurate, and when any mistakes are made, they are always corrected as soon as they come to our awareness. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting the national challenge programme, because it is transforming the life chances of children in schools around the country. He should not join the Conservatives in opposing that part of school improvement policy as well.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, earlier this year, his Department agreed a multi-million pound investment in the village of Maltby in my constituency, which included the rebuilding of three schools, one of which is the secondary school that is going to become an academy. Is he aware that the Conservative opposition on Rotherham borough council have voted against this, and that, on 15 April, at a meeting of the scrutiny committee that attempted to prevent the project from going ahead, the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tory party, Councillor Lynda Donaldson, voted against the rebuilding of those schools?

I understand the point that my right hon. Friend is making. I think that there is a theme here. Some people believe that the academies programme is right because it takes out the role of local authorities. Presumably that is because they are Conservative local authorities that oppose academies, as we have seen in London and Dudley. We are also now seeing it happening in Rotherham. Luckily, there is a Labour council in Rotherham and it is taking forward the academies policy. It is those Members on the Government Benches, not those on the other side, who believe in school improvement for disadvantaged children.

In the current economic climate, surely education reform is vital to strengthen our economy. Will the Secretary of State now accept that extending bureaucratic interference in education is not the way forward?

I am totally against the extension of bureaucratic interference, but I also believe that it is important that our schools should do a good job by all the children in our country. That is why Jim Rose is producing his primary curriculum review on Thursday to ensure that primary schools focus on the basics, including phonics. I do not support proposals to withdraw the national curriculum from some primary schools. That would set back reading, learning and phonics, and it would be the wrong thing to do. I will stand by parents on doing the right thing by education, and not by Opposition Members.

At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), in a widely acclaimed speech, announced a new Conservative policy that would extend the academies programme to include primary schools, freeing those schools from local and national bureaucratic interference. The former Labour education adviser to Tony Blair, Conor Ryan, welcomed the proposals in his excellent, well-written blog, but he expressed shock and disappointment at the response of Ministers to these proposals—particularly the “uncharacteristically sour” response from the Minister for Schools and Learners. He said that the Government’s response would send chills down the spines of “thoughtful Labour supporters”. Is the man who did so much to craft the education policies for the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and Tony Blair wrong, and, if so, why?

The hon. Gentleman is well known for his support for early reading, for literacy and for phonics. We have introduced a role for phonics and literacy in the national curriculum, and that will be strengthened on Thursday. The idea that he could support some successful primary schools opting out of the national curriculum beggars belief. This is not just about collaboration; it is also totally dishonest to come along with a policy to expand investment in academies while advocating cuts in the schools budget. That is what will send chills down the spines of parents.