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Volume 497: debated on Monday 12 October 2009

3. What recent assessment he has made of the progress of the academy programme; and if he will make a statement. (292194)

This summer’s excellent GSCE results include our open academies once again achieving a faster improvement in the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs than the average national improvement rate. I can tell the House that I have today approved four new academy projects in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth. I can also confirm that I approved a further 15 academy projects over the summer recess.

If the Secretary of State is such an enthusiast for the academies programme, why does he not extend it to primary schools, as my party is pledged to do? In fact, why is he going in the opposite direction, with his own Ministers saying that such an extension would send a shiver down the spine of parents?

There are a number of very successful all-through academies that are combining secondary and primary provision, but we have made it absolutely clear that the massive diversion of resources away from our primary and secondary schools in order to extend the cost of expanding academies to primary schools would not be value for money; it would be very disruptive and not the right thing to do if we are trying to raise standards in our primary schools.

Just before the summer recess, my right hon. Friend announced a review of secondary education in Gloucestershire to be conducted by Graham Badman. Should Graham Badman produce a report that encourages the building of an academy in my constituency, will my right hon. Friend give it full support and join me in encouraging the local authority to support a £13 million academy in my constituency as well?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the review of the national challenge programme in Gloucestershire. Graham Badman has done his review; it will come to me shortly and we will respond to it in due course. I hope that we will be able to accept his recommendations. I fully expect further proposals for academies in Gloucestershire and, if that proves to be the case, I will support them absolutely. My hon. Friend will then be able to join those in Hampshire, East Sussex and Plymouth who have welcomed new academies, which will allow us to continue to raise standards in our secondary schools.

Will the Secretary of State please give an assurance that where an academy is in process, but that process has not been completed—I am thinking of Sheen school in my constituency—funding will remain committed to it and will not be removed under any deficit-cutting programme?

I have made it clear that I am accelerating the academies programme and accelerating secondary school improvement. There is no question of having any cuts in our academies or school improvement funding this year or next. While the consultation is ongoing, there will be no cuts from this party. The question is whether the other parties can make the same commitment, and I am afraid that the answer is no.

As the number of academies increases, is it not particularly important that they all comply fully with the schools admissions code? Is the Secretary of State absolutely convinced that all parties in the House understand the importance of compliance with that code?

I toughened up the schools admissions code last year and changed the regulations. I am very clear that all schools—whether they be maintained or faith schools or academies—must comply fully with the code. When I did so, however, I was attacked by the Conservative Members for my actions, so I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance he mentioned. I will deliver fair admissions, but they will not.

The Secretary of State has already indicated that funding will be crucial to the development of the academies programme. In September, he gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which he said that he was planning to cut £2.2 billion from the schools budget and that those plans had been in train within his Department for several months. Will he therefore, first, tell us when he gave the directive to his Department to look into the cuts; and, secondly, will he now publish the list of the proposed cuts that he went through with The Sunday Times journalists?

It is very interesting to hear that question because on the Saturday before my interview, the hon. Gentleman’s party called for savage cuts and then when a discussion about efficiency took place, he backed off very fast indeed. The fact is that a year ago I asked an expert adviser to help me to find efficiency savings so that I could shift them to the front line. I am clear that I want the budget for education and schools rising year on year, and I would like to see that in real terms. The only way I can guarantee that teachers and teaching assistants are there at the front line, however, is to find savings in procurement and in how schools work together to free up those resources. I want the budget to rise next year, the year after and in future; it is the Conservative party that wants cuts—and cuts now. That is the difference.

I had intended to ask the Secretary of State to speed up decision making on academies in Plymouth, so I am delighted that he has made his announcement today. Will he confirm that as we are ready to go, we can in fact open the academies next September?

I went to visit Plymouth a year or so ago and the Minister for Schools and Learners has been there since. I am announcing today that both the Tamarside and John Kitto community colleges have been given the go-ahead to open in September 2010. In the case of Tamarside, it will be through the sponsorship of the university of Plymouth, and in the case of John Kitto it will be through the sponsorship of Exeter diocesan board of education. These will go ahead in 2010 because we are committed; we will deliver our national challenge and every school will be above the basic benchmark by 2011. That is my commitment—one that time and again I get attacked for making by the Conservative party.

I have now had an opportunity carefully to consider the Secretary of State’s answer. I still cannot understand how it can be that the last time we were here before the recess he told us he was going to resist all cuts to the education budget, but we then discover that a full year ago he had asked his officials to look into cuts. May I ask him about one of the specific proposals he discussed with The Sunday Times—that to axe 3,000 head and deputy head teachers? Does he now accept that that was a mistake?

No, of course I do not. The truth is that it was not I but the leader of the Liberal Democrats, at his party conference, who was confused about the issue of savage cuts. I made it very clear that I want the schools budget to keep rising year on year, and that I want the school education budget to rise year on year in real terms. We are achieving that in the current year, but we must be realistic: real-terms rises in future years will not be as high as they have been in the past, which means that the only way to deliver for the front line is to find savings. I think we can do that through school balances and procurement, and also by ensuring that schools work together and share their leadership teams. Every school should have a head teacher, but schools can share leadership teams in order both to raise standards and to become more efficient.

The hon. Gentleman should be supporting me in this regard, but once again he is not doing so. I—and, I think, he—would like to see education spending rise in real terms; it is only the Conservative party that is advocating cuts and more cuts.

The Secretary of State will be aware that among the very best performers in GCSEs this year were the schools run by ARK—Absolute Return for Kids—and by Lord Harris. They did up to four times as well as other comprehensives. The people running those schools say that their success depends on absolute freedom from local bureaucratic control. Does the Secretary of State agree?

The really interesting aspect of that is the fact that the list of local authorities now co-sponsoring academies includes one or two Liberal Democrat councils, one or two Labour councils and 11 Conservative councils. The hon. Gentleman says that they are wrong to be taking such action, and should get out of the way.

At his party conference, the hon. Gentleman praised Mossbourne. It is clear from the Mossbourne prospectus that the head teacher there teaches, and knows that his success depends on the teaching of vocational subjects such as dance, drama and arts, which the hon. Gentleman says should be downgraded to become second-class subjects. He needs to go back to the drawing board when it comes to his own policies.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for refusing to answer the question and exposing the threadbare nature of his own position. I am also grateful to him for reminding the House that the majority of local authorities are now under Conservative control. That is a welcome reminder of how poorly Labour authorities have done in improving education. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for highlighting—

Order. I am not interested in hearing about what the shadow Secretary of State is grateful for; I am interested in hearing a question—very soon, I hope.

I am also grateful for your skilled chairing of our debates, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State’s right hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) has said—like us—that academies should become the norm in the state sector. Does the Secretary of State agree with that?

I think that where we are raising standards in under-performing schools, academies are doing a tremendous job. They are doing so because of the partnership that we have with Labour and Conservative local government. That is opposed by the Conservative party, which believes that only deregulation is making the difference, and does not recognise the importance of rising investment to delivering the academies programme.

I read an article in The Times today which says that

“one of the aspects of hitting 40 for which no one prepares you is that your body, like a nuclear power station operating at the margins of safety, develops an override mechanism that simply shuts all systems down at critical moments. Usually after lunch.”

That was written by the hon. Gentleman, and I think that his critical systems have been shut down today.