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Volume 567: debated on Monday 9 September 2013

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. Academies have had freedom over the curriculum that they teach for some time. When is he going to extend that to all schools—and if he is not going to, why not?

It is perfectly possible for any school to apply for academy status, but we need to make sure that the leadership team are capable of taking advantage of all the freedoms. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for endorsing academies; I wish that more of his colleagues, such as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who is no longer in his place, would do so.

I hope that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) will recognise, as I and academy sponsors do, that it is not only freedom over the curriculum that matters, but freedom over staffing and freedom to pay good teachers more. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in condemning the strike by the NUT and the NASUWT, which his Front-Bench colleagues have so conspicuously failed to do.

Academy sponsorship is transforming education in Hastings. The Hastings and St Leonards academies have just been rated good by Ofsted, which represents the long journey they have been on. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming ARK, which has taken over the sponsorship of two of our other secondary schools in Hastings?

I am absolutely delighted that the number of sponsored academies is increasing in areas where educational performance has been too low for too long. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for being such a doughty champion of the children of Hastings, who were let down under the last Government and are being rescued under this one.

Further to the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) earlier, I put it to him that the reason for the spiralling costs of school uniforms is that new free schools and academies are requiring branded items available only from special shops. That is the problem.

At one Manchester academy, the back-to-school costs were £302. I should say to the Secretary of State that, following last week’s question to the Prime Minister, I received feedback from all across the country that the issue was a problem. It could become a barrier to parents’ choice of schools. What action is the Secretary of State going to take?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for directing me towards the Family Action report, which I found interesting and sometimes sobering reading. The report identified 13 schools; they are not a representative sample. Those with the most significant additional costs for uniform tended to be voluntary aided schools rather than academies or free schools. There is no evidence that academies or free schools impose any additional uniform costs over maintained schools and there is no evidence that the overall increase in uniform costs has run out of kilter with other costs that families face. However, the Department is renewing its guidance to make sure that schools make the right choice for parents.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is particularly exciting for the academy programme when primary and secondary schools are brought together in the same academy structure, such as the Montsaye academy in Rothwell and the Kettering Buccleuch and Kettering Science academies in Kettering itself?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Northamptonshire has been one of the counties most transformed by academies involving a range of sponsors. I thank my hon. Friend for the energetic work that he has done on behalf of the children of Kettering, making sure that standards and expectations are increased.