Skip to main content

Forced Conversion of Schools to Academies

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2013

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

I do not know whether those present have ever had the privilege of reading Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall,” but it starts with the main character, Paul Pennyfeather, being debagged by something he refers to as the “Bollinger club” and having to leave Oxford in shameful circumstances after being caught running across the quad without his trousers. He subsequently takes up a career as a school teacher after going to an agency—a thinly disguised version of what used to be called Gabbitas-Thring—that tries to interest him in going to a school somewhere in Wales that is recommended to him as follows:

“We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First Rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly”—

says the man at the agency—

“School is pretty bad.”

We may be reaching a point where to confess to being a school, rather than an academy, might be seen as a sign of failure.

I am relaxed about school types. On a personal note, I was educated in grammar schools. I taught for a short period in a secondary modern school, and for much longer periods I taught in an inner-city comprehensive school and a top-flight independent school, so I think I know a fair amount about school diversity.

The result of my experience is that I am not particularly impressed by the labels that schools bear, and I am fairly agnostic about their structures. However, I differ in that respect from most Ministers, of whatever political persuasion, who seem preoccupied by structures, which interest me far less. The reason for that may be because structures are, as far as the passing occupants of the Department for Education are concerned, quite easy things to change. Frankly, on a wet Thursday afternoon in an inner-city school, or in a rural school for that matter, with a class of difficult adolescents, the name on the board outside the school, or the school’s governance structure, makes precious little difference to the reality inside the classroom.

What does appear to make a difference is good school leadership, committed staff, a relevant and inspiring curriculum, a sound ethos and above all—this has been proved to be the principal determiner of educational success—parental involvement and interest. Those ingredients are independent of governance structure. They are not necessarily present in an academy, although I am prepared to acknowledge that some academies exemplify those ingredients, and they are not necessarily absent in other sorts of schools that happen not to be academies. My conclusion is that the best thing we can do with a school that has all those characteristics is to support it and, so far as possible, not to tinker with it.

There are some, quite a few of whom are around at the moment, who recommend academisation as a solution to all educational ills—it is rather like the old medics prescribing leeches for everything—arguing that it is a sure-fire way of improving educational results. In fact, the evidence is mixed and clearly debatable, particularly when taking into account things such as changes in admission policies, pupil profiles and so on. We can believe the likes of Professor Gorard at the university of Birmingham, who sees no benefit from the academy programme; or we can believe the DFE, which has quite a different view; or we can believe neither. However we cut it, the mooted effects of academisation appear not to be exactly game changing.

Will my hon. Friend tell me how academies that were good schools are coping with the opportunity for more freedom and independence? At the same time, there are frankly awful academies that were forced into becoming academies after being run by the local authority.

There is a lot to be said for letting schools elect the structures they genuinely prefer and with which they can work. My hon. Friend may be illustrating in advance some of the possible dangers of forcing schools to make a choice they simply do not want to make.

My point is simpler. Academisation itself is not obviously fundamental to solving our biggest education problem in this country, which is the tale of boys from poorer backgrounds losing interest before their education concludes—the not in education, employment or training phenomenon. I do not intend to pursue the debate on academy outcomes, real or alleged, or, for that matter, the difference between converter and sponsored academies, which have chosen to be academies, and those academies that simply found themselves becoming academies, possibly against their will.

Instead, I simply want to point out the self-evident truth that I do not think anyone sane would dispute. Academies are not the only way to improve results, and they are not necessarily the most efficient way to improve results in this cash-constrained world. That also applies to the Labour programme, which later in this debate might be distinguished from the current Government’s programme.

I clearly do not need to say much about the slush funds the Government have found in surprisingly tough times to support the academy programme—I see that £1 billion has been found from somewhere or other—but I would like to draw attention to the National Audit Office report on the Labour academy programme, which produced bright, shiny, new and very impressive buildings and institutions. The NAO compared the Labour academy programme with its predecessor, which was called excellence in cities, and it found that, although there were improvements under the Labour programme, the improvements were not significantly better than those achieved by excellence in cities at a much lesser cost.

We must accept that none of us comes to this debate without in-built convictions and biases, so I will get some of mine out of the way by fessing up to them. I must acknowledge that I have a principled and ideological instinct against assets funded over many years by local taxpayers being alienated or removed from the direct control of local taxpayers. I have also never been sure how the lack of any local strategic oversight can be part of a proper, efficient funding model for education in any area, which bothers me. And I have never been able to understand why the remedy for constant interference by central Government, about which schools commonly complain, should be independence from local government, given that local government’s powers in respect of schools have declined dramatically over my lifetime. I do not grasp why Government should impose less on those schools for which it has sole charge than on those schools left under the umbrella of the local education authority. I feel that the rationale eludes all but the most brilliant among us.

There is a strongly held view, which I accept—I accept it of the Government; I do not accept it as the best view—that being an academy is a good thing. But even if we accept that view, there is still one more unexplained puzzle: if the Government are confident of their case, and they are clearly unafraid of big-scale change, as we have seen, why do they not just make all schools academies and make the case for abolishing LEAs, thereby ending the division, disruption and death by a thousand cuts?

I have pondered that, and the only answer I can give is the answer the Government normally give, which is that they want schools to choose whether to be autonomous. I understand that is the rhetoric surrounding the programme, but as the programme has rolled out that particular answer has come to seem odder and odder. First, choosing has been confined to a limited group of people. Parents and staff were excluded by the Academies Act 2010, and during its passage I moved an amendment on the Floor of the House that sought to allow parents some sort of voice, but the amendment was not supported. So we moved from a position where parents decided to one where only a limited number of people decide.

Secondly, the choice is constrained by the fact that opting for autonomous independence is linked to another choice about funding, because the funding packages are not the same and depend on whether the school chooses to stay a local education authority school or become an academy. Thirdly, the choice to be an academy is being linked with a choice to be inspected less and have less bureaucracy and prescription from Whitehall. What is actually involved in the choice argument is a skewed choice, vested in those who have the most to gain from making that choice in terms either of power, in the case of the governors, or of remuneration, in the case of the head teacher. Unsurprisingly, the choice to become an academy has gathered some momentum. That is the current state of play as we can best understand it.

However, the Secretary of State has gone one step further and, with gifts bordering on the prophetic, has told us that by a certain date, a fixed number of academies will be in place, with primary schools firmly within that range. Primary schools are normally not big enough to provide all the administration and back-up that independence entails, so it is a puzzle to me how the Secretary of State could possibly know how many schools will choose of their own free will to become academies.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about the size of primary schools. I draw his attention to a school in Cheshire that had 12 pupils at the time when it became a grant-maintained school. When grant-maintained schools were abolished, it had about 36 pupils. Size did not prevent schools from becoming grant-maintained schools; why should it prevent them from becoming academies?

I do not think it will prevent them from becoming academies; I am just making the simple point that primary schools have less instinct to become academies, simply because the administrative overheads of providing all the services customarily provided by the local authority bear more heavily on their budgets, which in these modern times are already significantly constrained.

I was trying to determine the basis for the psychic gifts that enabled the Secretary of State to anticipate how many schools will become academies by a certain date. I concluded that he probably does not have psychic gifts; he has a gift for irony, as the matter will probably not be left to choice anyway. Throughout the land, brokers are appearing in schools when the opportunity arises to hasten things on and ensure that the targets are met. They show up when a school suffers even a temporary decline in standards. A recent article in The Guardian by George Monbiot—not a man I ordinarily agree or see eye to eye with—compared them to mediaeval tax collectors. I happen to think that mediaeval tax collectors performed an important social function; I do not necessarily feel the same way about brokers.

Brokers appear to come to governing bodies with threats and an academy contract in hand. The threats are, “Sign the contract, or you, the governors, and possibly the head teacher, will be replaced”, or “Choose a sponsor, or if you don’t we’ll choose one for you, which we may do anyway.”

To add to the hon. Gentleman’s examples, a Department for Education adviser said to a school in my constituency, “You lost your autonomy when you went into an Ofsted category. Either you sign the papers to become an academy, or we will put in another interim executive board to do it for you.” I wonder whether he has had similar experiences.

I have had very similar experiences, but they are not just my experiences. Reports are coming in from up and down the land, and there is a kind of similarity that makes them wholly plausible.

There is a hurry to get on with things. Schools are basically told, “Get on with academisation now, or we will do it for you anyway.” They are also told—this surprises me—“Don’t tell the parents or the staff until it actually happens. Consult with them afterwards.” To sweeten the pill, cash is sometimes promised, in the form of a changeover fund to accommodate change. Relief from inspection or the school’s current status is also promised: whatever pressure Ofsted or the LEA apply will disappear when academy status is established. More worryingly, I have evidence that sponsors have been recommended, particularly school chains, with whom individual brokers have prior connections.

Can I take the hon. Gentleman back to what he said before? I have had a number of schools that have received not only that suggestion, but the message, “Don’t talk to the parents before everything is signed, sealed and delivered.” Is it not also strange that ministerial policy is that Members of Parliament should be told about academisation only after the funding agreement has been signed, thereby removing any chance for democratically elected Members of Parliament to advise, consult with the school or have any say in what is about to happen?

Yes, that is distressing. The hon. Gentleman is a witness to the fact that we have moved from a situation in which parents were allowed a vote to one in which parents do not have a voice.

I would like to draw attention to the well documented fact that some of the brokers’ behaviour is markedly aggressive. One governor of fairly robust temperament described a broker as “seriously scary”. I find the process appalling. Regardless of what one feels about the academy programme, I find it distressing that people who have the interests of children and their schools at heart feel that they have been put in that situation. It strikes me that it is bullying. The intention is to close the contract and sign it there and then, which is the worst kind of sharp salesmanship, if I can put it like that. It is obviously wide open to corruption; it is about making offers that people cannot refuse, straight out of the Vito Corleone textbook. I see absolutely no reason why we who wish to stop bullying in schools allow the bullying of schools.

Fortunately, we have the Minister with responsibility for bullying here, so she can deal with any accusations of bullying.

Surely the hon. Gentleman is being completely unfair to the Government. Did he read the article by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian yesterday? It quoted Tim Crumpton, a councillor in Dudley, who said that after he made accusations of bullying, he received a letter from the Department saying:

“We carried out a thorough investigation and found no basis in the claims.”

Does that satisfy the hon. Gentleman?

I am sure that the Department took the broker’s word for it. What I am describing has been told to me by people I have known for some time, who have no axe to grind and whom I trust.

I feel particularly aggrieved about my area. Under previous regimes, not a single school in Sefton ever opted out. We had two ballots, both of which were lost. There were good reasons. Sefton was one of the first LEAs to give schools true financial independence to pioneer; in fact, I was on the local authority at the time. It has kept its central costs low. It has always prioritised education and schools. It stands favourable comparison with other LEAs. Its schools are good and, better still, there are good relations between the LEA and the schools, which themselves cluster together harmoniously and supportively. There is a genuine communitarian spirit, accompanied by good results. To make things more acutely painful, Sefton has a good record, praised by the Schools Minister, for improving its schools; it is in the top five of LEAs.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made the point about how good Sefton is, because we both represent constituencies in the borough. I, too, have experience of how good the schools are. Does he agree that when people have such a good education authority, it should be allowed to support its own schools to improve, rather than having this forced academisation?

That is clearly an option, because we in Sefton are not overly impressed by academies. The first school to be awarded academy status—coincidentally, one that tried to opt out before but failed to secure parental support—was subsequently inspected by Ofsted; our first academy was put into special measures and the head teacher and chairman of governors have now gone. The brokers are now in Sefton and, having failed to tempt the more prestigious schools, are pouncing like vultures not necessarily on the weakest but on those temporarily weakened.

I understand that there is a rationale for that, and I do not want to be unkind to Government policy. Schools must be in certain categories, failing or failing to improve, and in such circumstances arguably someone must intervene. The categories, however, have in practice been extended beyond the permanent sink schools or those that are sinking. In one case in Sefton, an otherwise good school had four heads in six years, which caused temporary instability over a short period, but the school and the authority could deal with that. In another case, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded earlier, in the school I attended as a child, there was a temporary and wholly uncharacteristic blip and a firm expectation that the school would improve with or without academy status. None of the bullied schools, for that is what they feel they are, has a poor record over time. Even if they had, what is the case for cutting the umbilical cord with a local authority that has a clear record of improving its schools? What is the case for encouraging the schools, as was done, to seek sponsors some appreciable distance away? A school in the northern part of Sefton was asked to look at a sponsor in Chester or in Bolton, or to consider a chain.

I run out of any coherent educational rationale when encountering arguments to suggest that a change in leadership will help a school whose main problem is that it has had too many changes in leadership; that is when my brain starts to hurt. What appears to have happened is that academies have become ends in themselves, not a means to an end. Instead of academies being a means to school improvement, success is measured by the number of academies, not their products. Can the Minister confirm whether new secondary schools converting will not only be paid for attracting pupils—for success—but be given an under-occupancy payment of £18,000 for three years for failing to attract pupils? In the old days, I am not sure what the Audit Commission which taxed us about surplus places would have had to say about that; fortunately, we have taken the precaution of abolishing it.

The Government can go further; if they want, they can lower the threshold for intervention, they can extend and widen the categories, or they can put pressure—heaven forbid—on Ofsted to toughen up the regime, or make it more partial or timed to suit the academy bounty hunters. There is a real worry that the neutrality of Ofsted might be under pressure and, equally, there is a worry about Ofsted’s reliability. If it delivered a rogue inspection, as it occasionally will, given the nature of things, that could have significant consequences for any school that is the victim of such an inspection. The broker who came to Sefton was asked by a head teacher what would happen if an academy chosen to sponsor a school was failed by Ofsted. The broker said that that will not happen. I do not know how the broker could know that it would not happen but clearly, if so, that seems to indicate that Ofsted is more shackled than we believe or hope it is.

I cannot explain this whole situation educationally any more, although I have sincerely tried. I have run out of any educational rationale that makes sense to me. I can explain it only sociologically. I hazard a guess—it might be right—that Ministers neither like nor understand and do not empathise with councils; they simply think that the sort of people you get on councils should not manage or interfere with the nation’s schools. That is a possible view, if slightly prejudiced, but it is not wholly incomprehensible if you look at some of the more eccentric London boroughs. It is understandable that if you have achieved a good education in an independent school, and contrast that with those with a less fortunate or privileged outcome, you might think—

Order. I have been quite tolerant with the hon. Gentleman, but he keeps accusing me of doing so many things, in particular in London boroughs, that I would appreciate it if he spoke through the Chair.

I am sorry; I was talking about any individual, not you in particular, Mrs Main. I will express myself in whatever way you find appropriate.

One—I think that is all right—might suppose that what is crucial to the success of education is the independence of the school. That is an understandable view. It is a simplistic and probably wrong view, but I can understand people taking it and it providing them with the motive for feeling that academies are an all-sufficient solution.

Another interpretation might be that there is an unstated plot to reorganise schools into private chains rather than in LEAs; if so, we could legitimately debate that at some point. It is likely that many primary schools, if they become academies, will form part of chains. There is nothing particularly wrong with chains, and there have been great ones in the past: Blue Coat schools, Merchant Taylors’ schools, the Woodard foundation, Haberdashers’ Aske’s schools and so on; and, in the state system, organisations such as the Christian Brothers, or the Salesian or Notre Dame schools. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with chains; they are often founded for the poor but usually end up serving the rich. The model is particularly in favour with the Minister responsible for academies, Lord Nash, who I understand supports a chain of some sorts himself.

In the past, however, huge gains to the educational system were not achieved by virtue of the state handing people 125-year leases; normally, it was done by philanthropists digging deep into their pockets. If there is a real agenda, and such motivations are genuinely behind the strange set of phenomena we are seeing at the moment, I am happy to debate that. Let us not, however, have this forced choice, with underhand persuasion and inducement.

In my years as a teacher, the worst sort of bullying was not the stuff that one saw and could stop but the stuff that was not seen and took place away from view. If nothing else, through this debate I hope to bring the bullying of schools, rather than in schools, to people’s attention.

Before I call other hon. Members to speak, I inform Members that I will be calling the wind-ups at 3.40 pm. I ask Members to keep interventions brief please. I call Guy Opperman.

Thank you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this debate. I have to confess that the problem in Northumberland is not that the county councils are being bullied by the Government but, rather, that the county councils are bullying the schools.

The reality of the situation is that Northumberland has few academies; my constituency does not have a single one. We must ask why. All of us, of course, want our children to receive the best possible education, whether at an academy or a maintained school. The great William Yeats described education as the lighting of a fire, and the question that follows is how best to achieve that.

In Northumberland, we have a three-tier system, of which I am an unadulterated supporter, particularly in a rural context, but at the heart of the issue for Northumberland is a middle school. The Minister is a small hero of Hexham middle school, which I visited two weeks ago to meet Mrs Parker and her three star pupils, Elizabeth Nixon, Amy Hawke and Anisha Bannister, all of whom wrote to the Minister requesting a change of mathematical calculation, from chunking to long division. They are deeply pleased that she listened to their pleas and are looking forward to meeting her when I bring them and their teacher to the House in the near future.

I welcome the chance to debate academies today. Surely it cannot be a bad thing that they can set pay and conditions, deviate if necessary from the national curriculum, change the length of terms and school days, reduce classroom sizes, introduce new disciplinary techniques, target resources to the most appropriate areas, and allow the school to be run by head teachers and governors rather than by a local authority, which, in my case, is some 50 or 60 miles away. That is my opinion, but I could give my hon. Friend the Member for Southport ample examples, including the Harris Federation, the schools in Newcastle, and ARK Schools, which runs more than 18 separate academies throughout the country. Since they took over those schools, grades have gone up by more than 200%, and the standard and quality of education have improved immeasurably. Local people are voting with their feet and deluging those schools with applications.

That is why I deem it unfortunate that, contrary to my hon. Friend’s assertions, Northumberland schools are not being forced to convert to academies. They are being prevented from converting. I will give three specific examples. Allendale middle school was a failing school, and the council chose to close it instead of converting it to a sponsored academy. It will close in the autumn, notwithstanding the assurance from the former Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lord Hill, who said that

“there is substantial evidence that sponsored Academy status is the best way to transform such underperforming schools and make sure that we achieve a lasting solution to underperformance”.

Similarly, Haltwhistle middle school has chosen to go down the path towards academy status, but it is being prevented from doing so by the county council’s approach on pensions. That is what I want to address in my last few minutes today. In Northumberland, the county council is requiring an extra pension contribution from an academy, of between 12% and 26%, whereas for a standard maintained school in the UK the average pension fund contribution for teachers earning less than £75,000 is approximately 8%. There is no financial justification for the measure, and no other county in the country is following that course of action. Either the council’s pension fund panel is driving that unfair proposal forward to prevent schools from becoming academies, or the council is fundamentally opposed to academy status. There can be no other reason, except that it would like to obtain greater sums from a would-be academy than from a maintained school.

The position is set out in a communication between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary for State for Education in December 2011, which stated that

“the overall costs for the Academy as a participant in the Scheme should not increase”

and they

“should not be treated in the LGPS less favourably than maintained schools.”

Given that advice from the two Secretaries of State, I tabled a parliamentary question to which the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) replied:

“my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and for Communities and Local Government made it clear that no academy should pay unjustifiably higher employer pension contributions than maintained schools in their area”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2012; Vol. 552, c. 15.]

With several head teachers and governors from Northumberland, I then met the Minister and a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government on 17 December. As yet, nothing has changed. Some schools that want to become academies or are budgeting for the year ahead are facing larger pension contributions than those of their competitors and than those which they themselves previously enjoyed. In those circumstances, either there is an impact on their financial calculations because they are paying larger contributions, or they are refusing to become academies when that is what head teachers, governors and local parents want, because they are worried about the larger contributions.

One Northumberland school governor said:

“We are being drained of funds by this issue, and it is draining away the optimism we had when we converted to an Academy”.

That is a crying shame. Academies are a fantastic opportunity to help to turn poorly performing schools around, but the failure to resolve the issue is holding back schools in Northumberland.

It is a pleasure, Mrs Main, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), my neighbouring MP, on securing this important and crucial debate.

The ideological crusade that the Secretary of State for Education seems to be on with his academies programme is deeply concerning, and offensive to the education profession. I do not believe that it has the best interests of our children’s education at its core. I am not idealistically opposed to academies. I believe that for some schools the academy option is in their best interests, but I do not believe that it is the only option for school provision in the country, and schools should not be intimidated and bullied into being academies.

Today, I want to speak up for schools in west Lancashire and throughout the county, which has become an enclave of resistance against the Secretary of State’s absolutism on academies. Throughout Lancashire, head teachers, governors, teacher unions, Members of Parliament and even the Conservative-controlled county council have been steadfast in their opposition to the deplorable antics of the Department for Education, and in their rejection of academies for academies’ sake, and I support them in that.

In recent weeks, there has been significant media comment about the conduct and behaviour of the Department for Education in its promotion of the academies programme, and it seems that the experience in Lancashire is being replicated throughout the country following a certain pattern. It starts with creating a myth about failing schools in an area, irrespective of the truth behind the headlines. Then come the threats that underperforming schools will have to become academies. When that fails, the bribes start.

It seems that the same approach is being taken in Lancashire as in one of the areas that is continuing to resist all attempts by Whitehall to foist academies on them. In the middle of last year, threats were dished out, and in July 2012, the county received a visit from Dr Liz Stillwell. Ahead of the visit, a press release was issued that stated boldly and aggressively that

“weaker schools across”


“should aspire to the success”

of the academy she was visiting that day, and that poor standards of primary education in Lancashire would no longer be tolerated. That press release listed the schools that the Department deemed were underperforming, and four primary schools in west Lancashire were on the hit list. I spoke to each of the head teachers, who were surprised—even astonished—to be on that list. They accepted there had been a blip, but both the LEA and the Department accepted that the performance of the schools was improving. Therefore, against the Department’s measures, the schools were not failing.

The schools commissioner travels around the county, peddling the Education Secretary’s ideological wares as if she was some kind of snake oil saleswoman. With her half-truths and misinformation, she leaves fear and instability in her wake among communities. Surely, she should be absolutely committed to supporting all types of school to improve their standards and performance. She should not be forcing schools down a path that may not be in the best interests of their children.

One problem is what we mean by a blip. How long were the blips? Were they one year, two years or five years? Five years is a lifetime for a child.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is nothing like five years. I would be happy to supply him with the detail. There are four schools involved, and each is different.

The situation in areas such as Lancashire has been manufactured under the pretext of improving underperforming schools. That raises the question why the National Audit Office report stated:

“most converters…have been outstanding and good schools”.

In a letter to me on 31 January, the chief executive of Conservative-controlled Lancashire county council wrote:

“we do not understand why some rapidly improving schools are being targeted for academy conversion.”

We are back to the myth-creating: everyone is told a school is failing, when the truth is that it had a blip and its performance is improving. We are then told to make it an academy, and, in a couple of years, it is claimed that the success is the result of academisation. We are encouraged to ignore the good work and the fact that the improvement would probably have happened anyway.

From the safety of Westminster, the Education Secretary has called Conservative-controlled Lancashire county council a “failing education authority”. That makes me wonder on what basis he claims that it is failure. I am sure he would say it is performance. However, he is probably referring to the academy conversion rate.

Let us look at performance. Some 69% of schools in Lancashire have improved, compared with the national average of 29%, and that is to be commended. However, according to the Secretary of State, the academy conversion rate in Lancashire is just 3%, compared with the national average of 9%. Is that the source of his frustration? Just four out of 484 Lancashire primary schools have chosen to become academies, while three others are in the process of being forced to become academies.

In November, the Education Secretary wrote to MPs to ask them to do his bidding by getting our schools to become academies. I doubt whether he will be welcomed with open arms by Conservative candidates campaigning in the forthcoming county council elections in Lancashire.

Let me be clear: failure and unacceptable performance in our schools cannot and should not be tolerated. By the same token, however, the sustained and cynical denigration of the hard work of our schools and schoolchildren should not be tolerated, simply because those schools are not academies. Perhaps the Department for Education, to refer to comments made earlier, should apply its anti-bullying policies to itself and its agents.

All the evidence points to a Department that is ideologically wedded to the promotion of academies for all, rather than the best education for all. In our education system, only 10% of all state schools are academies and free schools, and the figure for primary schools is only 5.3%. Yet one third of Department for Education staff are assigned to the academies and free schools programme, which accounts for 18% of the Department’s revenue and capital budget—a level completely disproportionate to the size of the programme. Then we come to the £1 billion overspend. No doubt that money is being taken from the budgets for non-academy schools, many of which most need that investment.

The whole situation is compounded by the Gove army of brokers. Given that they earn up to £700 a day, some might suggest they are more like mercenaries. I would suggest they are conflicted mercenaries, because many are alleged to have connections to academy chains. These conflicted mercenaries—these brokers—are running round the country offering inducements of £40,000, plus £25,000 for legal costs. That approach to academisation is deplorable, and it is all being done because of the ideological war being waged by the Education Secretary.

Our ambition and aspiration should always be to ensure that our children have access to the best possible standards of education from the start to the end of their school life. Simply forcing schools to become academies is not the solution. We know that one-size-fits-all policy making does not work. In our schools, we need good, strong leadership from the head teacher and governing bodies, with investment in schools buildings and school resources, irrespective of whether the school is LEA controlled or an academy. There should be a consensus among parents, teachers, governors and the community about the type of school they want; that decision should not be forced on the community.

I agree that we need to ensure that all schools reach the required standards. However, we should do so based on the needs of the individual school and its children, not on the imposition of a one-size-fits-all model driven by ideology. I am sure the Minister has come here today replete with the usual lines about school improvement, education for the 21st century and investment, but I remind her that we are talking about the forced conversion of schools into academies.

My message to the Minister is this: nobody believes you. As each day passes, fewer and fewer people believe you.

Order. I am sure the hon. Lady does not mean to imply that nobody believes me; I think she means that nobody believes the Minister, although she may wish to say that in the most parliamentary way possible.

My apologies. It is certainly catching today.

My message to the Minister is that nobody believes her. As each day passes, fewer and fewer people believe her. For most schools—certainly in Lancashire—the answer to her academies is still a resounding no. I implore you: please stop bullying, stop the bribery and get back to supporting all schools and all children.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) for initiating the debate.

It is not too much of a secret, certainly in some quarters, that I am not a great fan of academies. I opposed them under the previous Government, and I oppose the academy regime under this Government. Within a few months of coming into the House of Commons, I voted against the Academies Bill. That was for a couple of reasons. First, many supporters of academies, who want to push for academy status, are seeking to control admissions. For them, it is about who goes into the school, not what goes on in the school.

In a private meeting with the Secretary of State, I said, “You should be far more radical and make every school an academy in terms of some of the freedoms that are proposed.” However, for those who support academies, and who are pushing for them, that would not really work, because the secret of academies is that some schools are academies and some are not. Alongside freedoms in relation to conditions of service and so on, there would need to be some control over admissions, which would defeat the purpose of going to academy status for many sponsors, and the same applies to free schools.

I am opposed to the academies also because there is an overemphasis on the impact that the structure will have on raising achievement and attainment in schools. It is interesting that many of the new academies have not taken up some of the new freedoms: they have taken the money and stayed, rather than taking the money and running with the new freedoms. Another reason for my opposition is that I always want, as Stephen Covey said, to

“Begin with the end in mind.”

If something works, generally speaking it is okay. I do not feel that there are too many strong, politically different issues or matters of principle. Most of them are about what works in a situation, with some fundamental underpinning of values. I am not clear where the evidence is for academies. In a sitting of the Education Committee a few weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State whether he believed in evidence-based policy and he said that he very much does, but I do not see any evidence for that.

The success of the academies project seems—my hon. Friend the Member for Southport referred to this—to be judged by how many academies there are. That has almost become an end in itself. There has been much talk about needing to convert. A school is in a particular situation, and the idea of need is always introduced; but it does not mean the school will benefit from a conversion. The evidence base is not there. The idea is that the school needs to convert because it meets the criteria; but it is the Secretary of State who sets the criteria. It is like saying, “I will decide when it is raining, and I will decide what to wear in the rain.” He is doing the same, because he is saying, “I will decide the criteria and whether they have been met.” That is the same idea as, “There is a need to put on a coat when it is raining; it is raining so we need to put a coat on.” The false logic behind the whole academies programme is: “An intervention is needed and an academy is an intervention, so you need an academy.” It is all false logic. Using a coat when it rains is an intervention, but it is not the only form of intervention and there is no evidence that that intervention is the one that would work.

There are all sorts of interventions, which could include setting up an academy—but where is the evidence? Local authority support would be a possibility: many authorities are not, as has been suggested, dreadful, and are effective at providing support. The intervention may be a new head for the existing school. It may be an integrated post-inspection plan, or an interim executive board to turn the school around. There is evidence to show that all those interventions work in certain circumstances. They all have an evidence base, but there is no evidence that the academy structure works. It is false logic.

In my constituency in Bradford, there are two schools that are going through intervention academy conversions. My two sons went to one of those schools many years ago. If someone went to a local estate agency 10 or 15 years ago, the window would have adverts stating that properties were close to the school. The school was one of the largest and most successful in the Bradford district and it was why people moved into that area, but it has had a difficult time. It was not so long ago that the head teacher of that school, before retirement, was the executive head of another school that was failing and has now become successful. I was chair of governors at a school that was in special measures, and it became the first secondary school in Bradford to be rated as outstanding. All that was done without academy status and on the basis of interventions by an extremely good head teacher, who was able, through a new management team, to turn the school around.

In Bradford, a secondary partnership has been established. The whole principle behind it has been to offer support to other schools and negate the need for academy conversions. The partnership was formed about 18 months ago and all 28 secondary schools from the district are involved and pay an annual subscription to join. It involves developing a rigorous system of performance review. It will provide effective school-to-school support and deliver school-led professional development. Those schools do not need to be academies. There are other ways forward that do not require a change to a school’s structure.

Ideology has been mentioned a few times, but I do not think that is the issue. It is about ego. All schools can be improved, but it takes time and requires hard work. It is not glamorous and a slog is involved. It takes 18 months to two years to get the right people in place to turn a school around, but where is the glamour in that for a Secretary of State who needs to be seen to do dramatic things? Where is the glamour in that hard graft that happens day in, day out up and down the country in turning around schools that need to improve?

The problem is that that egocentric project comes with a cost. The House of Commons Library briefing shows the actual cost involved in investing in the schools and bribing them to take up academy status, as well as the opportunity cost of the money that is not available for other schools. It is frankly sickening to see schools in Bradford unable to afford basic repairs while a bottomless pit of money appears to be available to support the free schools and academies programme. That programme is a costly distraction—devoid of evidence—from the principal concern of an authority, which is to raise educational achievement and attainment through the well-established methods that already exist for turning schools around and providing the quality education that pupils need and deserve.

It is a pleasure, Mrs Main, to be under your chairmanship this afternoon. I think I agree with some of what everyone has said, but not all that anyone has said, which makes for an interesting debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing it. One point on which I agree with him is that there is a danger of the academies programme being seen as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. It is that point on intended and unintended consequences that I wanted to address.

I will explain where I am coming from on the issue by reference to my constituency. I had a quick tot up and I have nine secondary schools in my constituency, including one that is 100 yards outside. They range from leading independent schools, such as Latymer Upper school and St Paul’s girls’ school, to leading Catholic schools, such as Sacred Heart high school and London Oratory, which former Prime Ministers and current party leaders seem keen to send their children to. There is also the West London free school, which was set up Toby Young, and two academies that were part of the Labour Government’s academies programme: Burlington Danes academy, which is a new build, and Hammersmith academy. There are two outstanding—I should say that all those that are subject to Ofsted inspection are outstanding—community schools: William Morris school, which is a sixth-form school that I helped set up 20 years ago and am a governor of, and Phoenix high school, which is run by Sir William Atkinson, who is a famous head teacher, known across the country.

The reason I mentioned those is because there is a vast range of schools, and I do not discriminate between any of them. I go to them all, invite their pupils here and I am very proud to have every single one of them in my constituency. I am particularly proud of the two academies and indeed, I helped to set them up, under the previous Labour Government. It is a shame that the £50 million that went into those was not replicated by the Building Schools for the Future programme being continued, so that community schools could also have benefited.

What I find surprising is the attitude of—I have to call them this—the ideologues in the Department for Education and in some Conservative local councils, including my own. They take it to be their mission to ensure that there is academisation wherever possible, without regard to the reasons why they are doing it. I hope that from what I have said it is clear that I have no particular beef about whether a school is an academy or not. All those schools are doing well in their own way.

I can best illustrate that by reference to ARK Schools, which is a well known academy chain, and is the governing foundation for Burlington Danes academy, which, historically, has been a grammar school, a successful comprehensive school, and a Church of England school. It is now an ARK academy and I was part of ensuring that that happened. On the back of that, west London is now populated by a dozen-plus new ARK schools, and again, I have no particular objection to that. I was at one of the primary schools last week—ARK Conway primary academy—opening the new library.

What I have difficulty with, however, is the attitude of Conservative local authorities, who, whenever they see a possibility in relation to an existing community school, pressurise that school into becoming an ARK academy. We had an early example of that with Kenmont primary school in my constituency. The head left, which is a perfectly normal thing to happen. The local authority then said that it could not afford to employ a new head and that the school would therefore have to become an ARK academy. It was only because the parents and governors objected—in the end, a new head was recruited —that that did not happen, and it is now, once again, a very successful community primary school.

Other schools have been pressurised; indeed, one is being pressurised at the moment, and I use the phrase advisedly. There are primary schools in my constituency that have effectively been told that their only option is to become an academy. I feel that in some cases, those schools are set up to fail, and they are not given the requisite support. Perhaps a head teacher leaves, there is a temporary head for a year or two, and the school is allowed to drift into special measures. I am not going to name particular schools—I do not want to name schools that are having difficulties—but I see that pattern repeated, and it is not what a local authority should be doing. It should be supporting all its schools, including those for which it is not directly responsible.

We had a £33 million investment programme—at the moment, that is quite a big programme—over two years for primary schools, yet all that money was directed to voluntary-aided schools, free schools or academies, for new build, refurbishment, conversion or expansion as may be, despite the fact that very successful community schools also wish to expand and see investment put into them. I object to those double standards and to not having a level playing field. I have to ask who the ideologues are in this case, and I am afraid that they are particularly centred around the Secretary of State for Education.

None of that would matter if there were no adverse consequences, but let me explain some of the consequences. First, there will be a perception—it may be a reality, but it is certainly a perception—that we are creating a two-tier system in education, in which academies are the preferred type of schools. Parents will therefore gravitate, reasonably and understandably, towards those schools, because they believe that the schools will be preferred—with money, resources or simply the attention that they receive from local education authorities and the DFE. That then leads to a form of separate development. A number of academies are now for pupils aged three to 18, and they therefore monopolise children within an area. Equally, I have noticed a trend whereby secondary academies will select—particularly if they are in the same group—from their primary feeder schools, so it may be that there is no longer an interchange between primary schools in that way. I am beginning to get a lot of complaints from parents of children in community primary schools who might want to send their children to secondary academies, and they find that they are refused or are a long way down the waiting list.

I also fear that there is a possibility of politicisation of the academy system down the road. There is a strong association between the academy system and not only Conservative local authorities, but Conservative funders, peers and so on. Lord Nash has been mentioned. Lord Fink, who I think is still the Tory party treasurer, was the chairman of ARK, and he is the chairman of one of the schools in my constituency. Both of those gentlemen are very substantial funders of the Conservative party. One of them, Lord Nash—or rather, his wife, Lady Nash—was the principal funder of my opponent at the last election. It is a free country. Anyone can do as they wish, but the association of particular schools, chains of schools and individuals with a particular political party is not healthy in education. I see that as another branch of the politicisation and there is the real prospect of our moving—with every pronouncement that comes out of Government or those close to Government—to profit-making schools. If another Conservative Government were elected, we would see that trend continue, and I think that would be extremely regrettable.

This is not an easy issue to deal with; it is not black and white in any way. As I hope I made very clear at the beginning, I support every school in my constituency. I have a good relationship with ARK. I find it slightly troubling that soon it will be almost the size of a local education authority, spread across some west London boroughs, because it does not have the same democratic accountability as LEAs. However, I do not blame ARK. It may be a willing recipient of the Government’s largesse, but I place the blame squarely where it lies: in the tram-line attitude and the “Go for academies at all costs” policy that infects the DFE at the moment. With hindsight, in years to come, I think that that will be seen as a very retrograde, ideological and divisive step.

Whether individual schools are achieving for individual pupils is clearly important, but as Members of Parliament, we have to look after the interests and welfare of all the schools in our constituencies, and that certainly ought to be the role played by LEAs and the DFE as well. I do not see that happening—I do not see the even-handed approach that will embrace and encourage community schools, in the same way that I see that when those in the preferred or favoured categories are dealt with.

With the hon. Gentleman’s experience of ARK, does he not accept that in even his own constituency—I do not extend the point to all other ARK schools around the country—when ARK has gone in and schools have become academies, they have transformed the education? Without knowing his constituency, I suggest that all the schools ARK has gone into have had a successful outcome. Surely that is the point.

I make it clear that I am absolutely not criticising ARK as an educational institution. The answer is that it has had some remarkable successes and some partial successes. Some successes have not been quite so big, and in some cases, it is too early to say. That is true—it is exactly why I started with a slightly self-indulgent tour round my constituency—and I could say the same thing about many other schools and different types of schools there. That is not the point I am making. The point that I thought I was making—I will make it slightly more clearly—is that the concentration and fixation on a particular type of school and giving schools of that type a privileged status will undoubtedly have an unbalancing effect on education across the piece. That is the mistake that the Government are making.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate. He gave us a thoughtful and philosophical discourse, as ever, on forced academisation. Interestingly, he described what he saw as bullying going on within the system. I will come back to that. He also introduced us to the interesting concept of an under-occupancy subsidy for some types of school that the Government are currently promoting. I am sure that we will hear more about that in the future.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on his speech. He managed to turn it into a bit of a debate about pensions, which might be a separate issue from what we are discussing today, but he did show his erudition by quoting Yeats. I, too, will quote some Yeats:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.

In some of what is going on with the forced academisation debate, there is a problem with the falconer not knowing what the falcon is getting up to out and about in the field. I will also come back to that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) described what she called snake-oil salesmen in relation to forced academisation. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) said that this policy was not so much ideological as egotistical on the part of the Secretary of State for Education and that he needed to be seen to be doing something dramatic, which explained his actions. It reminds me a bit of the goalkeeper’s dilemma during a penalty shoot-out. Statistically it is proven that, very often, to stand still is the best thing to do during a penalty shoot-out, but if the goalkeeper does that and the opposition scores, they are roundly criticised. If, however, the goalkeeper dives in completely the wrong direction and the opposition scores, they are praised for at least having a go. Perhaps that explains the phenomenon that the hon. Gentleman described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) told us about his own experience, including helping to set up academies in his constituency, and about his fear of politicisation and of profit-making schools. I recently met colleagues from Sweden, who described to me the utter disaster of profit-making schools—free schools—in Sweden. The impact has been to lower standards because of the race to the bottom that profit-making schools entail. Also, Sweden has had to reinstate a requirement for teachers to be properly qualified in free schools, because of that race to the bottom for low-paid staff and maximising profit. That has happened in free schools in Sweden, so there is a lesson for us there as well.

This debate is about forced academisation. Let me say at the outset that I am a supporter of academies and have been throughout my 12 years in the House of Commons. Of course, the genesis for the academies programme under the previous, Labour Government was to launch a direct assault on the double disadvantage of social and economic deprivation. Our concern about the current Government’s academies programme is not about the freedoms that can be granted—that come along with academy status—but about the loss of focus on under-performing schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation and the fact that that might result in the positive impact of the academies programme being diluted. I worry that the principal foundations for the success of the early academies—collaboration and partnership—have been replaced by what other hon. Members have talked about here today, a fixation on the numbers game. That is what we are seeing at the moment. It explains why we are having this debate on forced academisation today. It is all about numbers, rather than standards.

I am not wedded to any particular model for the way in which schools should be run. As a former teacher myself, I agree with the hon. Member for Southport that the structure makes very little difference. We know what makes a good school; we know what factors are involved in that, and there is plenty of research to show it. I do not think that there are many people, either—there may be some here—who think that local authorities should directly run all state-funded schools these days. A lot of us agree that local authorities did not always do a particularly good job of running local schools in many cases in the past, but just because a job was not always done well does not mean that there is not a job that needs to be done. There is a job that needs to be done at local level in relation to our schools, and that focus is being lost by the current Government with this numbers game that they are fixated on.

I welcome the Minister who will reply to the debate. It is a shame that the Minister for Schools is not replying to it. I know that responsibility for this subject lies in the House of Lords, but it would be good to have the Schools Minister here to reply to the debate, because he could then explain why he supports the current policy when he said in his manifesto at the last election that he wanted to

“replace Academies with our own model of ‘Sponsor-Managed Schools’. These schools will be commissioned by and accountable to local authorities and not Whitehall”.

That was his policy previously, which perhaps explains why he never fronts up on this subject as Schools Minister and turns up to debate it. I would welcome his doing that in the future.

However, I am glad that we have the hon. Lady here to answer on behalf of the Government about the worrying reports that we are receiving from around the country. Despite my intervention earlier about yesterday’s article by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian, there seems to be a growing number of reports from around the country about bullying behaviour by the individuals who are being sent round by the Department for Education to bring about forced academisation of schools.

Last year I visited a group of schools that had formed an education improvement partnership. One of the primary school head teachers in it was desperate to tell me about her experience with what some people locally have described as gauleiters being sent out by the Department for Education. What she told me made my jaw drop. She told me that when the adviser from the Department turned up, she was told that she had to meet them and that no one else was to be present. When she objected to that, she was told that perhaps at a stretch she might be allowed to have the chair of governors present with her for part of the meeting. She wanted to have, and in the end she insisted on having, the head teacher of the local secondary school, which was part of the education improvement partnership, with her for the debate, but she told me several stories about how she was leaned on—that is the only way it can be described—and told that there was no alternative to her school becoming an academy, despite the fact that the governors did not want that, the parents did not want it and it was clearly an improving school. In the end, having taken legal advice, they were able to fend off the adviser who had come from the Government, using those bullying tactics, but I am told that as she left she said, “I’ll be back”, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style—no doubt after further efforts have been made to undermine the efforts being made by the school to operate as part of an education improvement partnership to raise standards in the school. That is happening around the country. I have also been told that in the same area, one head teacher has seen a gagging clause put into their contract, having been forced out of a school as part of this process.

It is all very well, under the cloak of standards, to go around to schools and offer them an opportunity to consider academisation—the sponsored academy approach. That can be entirely appropriate on many occasions, but the bullying behaviour—we are hearing, and I am receiving, more and more accounts of it—is very worrying. I therefore want the Minister to answer a few questions about that. How many schools does she know of that have successfully resisted forced academisation procedures? How are the academy advisers recruited? How are they rewarded? Is it true that they are on a payment-by-results regime? I hope that the Minister will answer this question particularly. Is there any code of conduct for those people as to how they should behave? As the Minister with responsibility for the issue of bullying, will she give us an absolute assurance that if there is one, she will publish it, and that if there is not one currently, she will ensure that one is available? I ask that because some of the behaviour that is being described—

I do not have time to give way I am afraid. I would otherwise, but I want the Minister to be able to answer.

Given the behaviour that is being described, if there is a code of conduct, it is obviously not being adhered to in any acceptable way. Is it acceptable to insist on meeting heads alone, not allowing them to have other people with them? Do the advisers have targets? To whom are they accountable? What evidence is there that forced academisation raises standards? We do not have much time and I want to give the Minister the chance to answer the questions. Why has the Department backed down in the face of a legal challenge from Coventry council about forced academisation? Will she undertake to ban gagging orders on heads who are forced out of their jobs and introduce transparency into the process?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate. We have had an interesting discussion this afternoon on the evidence behind the academies programme and some of the issues with underperforming schools. He outlined the elements of a good school. I agree with him, and think everyone in this House would agree, that good leadership, a good ethos and parental involvement are all things we recognise about good schools. He also suggested that those attributes were completely independent of academies, and that is where I cannot agree with him.

Strong evidence across the OECD links school autonomy with improved performance and, where there is a strong accountability system—also important—strong leadership in the school and improved results. It is notable that many of the countries that have successfully improved their educational performance—Germany over the past 10 years, for example—have done so by increasing the amount of autonomy that schools have, setting strong standards and a strong accountability regime. Germany has seen a marked improvement, relative to other countries. The OECD used evidence from PISA 2006 to show that science results for 15-year-olds had improved in countries that gave more autonomy to schools. That evidence is generally recognised, and was recognised by the previous Government when they established and promoted the academies programme. There is a link between autonomy and accountability and improved performance.

Is there a system in Germany whereby schools selectively opt for greater autonomy or are they all simply endowed with greater autonomy?

The German system is rather more complex because each Land has its own education system. I am happy to discuss it with my hon. Friend in more detail in due course, but there has been a general move across the country to have fewer decisions made by the Government and more decisions made by school leaders. That is my general point. The point about process he raised is a slightly different issue.

My hon. Friend mentioned that our other school policies and what happens in schools are important. He is right. The academies programme is part of what the Government are doing to address educational standards. We are also giving significant funding for disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium, which is £2.5 billion a year. We are also improving the quality of teaching in our schools, by increasing the number of high-quality applicants to the profession and developing existing teachers. We are reforming the national curriculum to make it more rigorous and more focused, so that teachers have the freedom to design lessons that inspire and motivate their pupils.

Some freedoms that have hitherto been held mainly by academies are being extended to all schools. All schools are being given more freedom in how they design their curriculums. We are encouraging schools to collaborate and share best practice, so that strong schools can help weaker schools to improve. We are increasing the rigour of the accountability framework, including introducing the English baccalaureate and our new floor standard measure for key stage 4. Ofsted’s inspection framework is raising the bar on inspections, so “satisfactory” is no longer good enough. The policies have to be looked at in the round. The academies programme is accompanied by other policies, in areas such as accountability, to ensure that school leaders are accountable for what they do.

I am afraid that I will not because I have a lot of questions to answer in a short time. Many interesting issues have been raised during the debate that I have not yet answered and want to move on to.

We are encouraging all schools to convert to academy status, so that good and outstanding schools can use the autonomy that the status provides to drive up standards. Where schools are underperforming and leadership and management need improvement, however, we cannot just stand by and allow that to continue. The cases that hon. Members have raised in the debate are about schools in which performance is not good enough. We are not talking about schools in which performance is already good. There are good schools under local authority auspices and there are good academies, but we are talking about underperforming schools. We look for two indicators of underperformance to determine which schools we should approach and work with to deliver sustained improvement: low achievement over time and whether the school is in Ofsted category 4.

Many schools agree to become sponsored academies, because they know that academies are achieving dramatic improvements in results, particularly where new sponsors have taken on formerly underperforming schools, as I have seen in my county of Norfolk. Sponsors bring outside influence and a wealth of experience. They challenge traditional thinking and have no truck with a culture of low expectations.

Hon. Members asked about the evidence. It shows that sponsored academies are improving at a faster rate than other state-funded schools. In fact, on average, the longer they are open, the better they do. Between 2011 and 2012 the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, in sponsored secondary academies increased by 3.1%, which compares with 0.6% across all state-funded schools, so there is a differential rate of performance.

There are some dramatic case studies. Students and staff at the Accrington academy in Lancashire, for example, celebrated a huge improvement in results. In 2012, 60% of students achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. That was up 13 percentage points from 47% in 2011 and up an incredible 42 percentage points from just 18% at the predecessor school in 2008. The school is supported by its sponsor, United Learning. Given the opportunities, I can understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is keen for more schools to be able to convert to academy status in his area. I am discussing that with the Minister for Schools, who is in turn discussing it with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We hope to come back to my hon. Friend very soon.

On a point of order, Mrs Main, the Minister is not giving way because she wishes to answer the questions, but she is not addressing the subject of the debate at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham also outlined academies’ freedoms over term times, the school day and pay and conditions. We have heard positive reports about ARK academies and the fact that they have a longer school day. E-ACT has supported the Blakely academy to set higher teacher pay to bring in top-quality teachers.

We should bear it in mind that intervention takes place where schools are underperforming—where there is a problem. At meetings with governing bodies, where schools are in Ofsted categories of concern, a broker discusses sponsorship options and aims to agree a schedule of actions. As is necessarily the case in an underperforming school, that can sometimes appear challenging—of course, it can. We are saying that what is happening at that school is not delivering for the children. It is important that they receive the best possible education.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

As I mentioned before the short break in proceedings, the schools that we seek to intervene in and that are suited to a sponsored academy solution are those that are underperforming. There have been some questions about the make-up of the departmental brokers that we employ to carry out that work. As the schools are underperforming, the conversations are often about challenging them to perform better. The departmental brokers have contracts with the Department that state their terms and conditions. They are not paid on results, and they are subject to the civil service code of conduct. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) asked about the code of conduct procedure. He also referred to it in a letter when there was a complaint, and that was addressed by the Department for Education.

The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, made it clear in his most recent report that more children than ever before are in good schools. That is fantastic news. He has been clear that there are areas of the country where almost all schools are excellent or good, which, again, is fantastic news. None the less, progress and performance are not uniform across the country. Sir Michael has been equally clear that there are areas of the country where only a minority of schools are good enough, which is unacceptable. According to Ofsted, 2 million children are in schools that are not good enough, and no one should be willing to accept that.

What we have to bear in mind is that when we broker sponsored academies in cases of underperforming schools, the children are not receiving the quality of education that they deserve.