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Free Schools

Volume 570: debated on Monday 11 November 2013

Well, that is a bit of a shock, because it is widely accepted that the democratic scrutiny and oversight of state schools is pretty intense but hardly exists at all for free schools. Does the Secretary of State not worry that that has led to the scandals of the past few months, which could well be the tip of the iceberg? We could see more scandals over the next few years because of that lack of democratic scrutiny.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was surprised by either the content or the brevity of my response, but let me spell things out in slightly greater detail. Academies and free schools have an accounting officer in the way that local authority schools do not; and academies and free schools have to file accounts every year in a way that local authority schools do not. The National Audit Office has pointed out that the scrutiny of schools by local authorities is not what we should expect. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are problems in individual academies and free schools, but there are also problems in individual local authority schools. We know what has gone wrong in academies and free schools because this Government have put in place an improved system of scrutiny for them.

20. Does the Secretary of State agree that the problems at the school in Bradford highlighted earlier are nothing to do with it being a free school? Will he comment on the One in a Million free school, which recently opened in Bradford? It was over-subscribed and is doing a fantastic job of providing the education that is much needed in that part of Bradford. (901002)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The highest-performing school in Bradford is, I believe, an academy. New free schools that have arrived in Bradford have, until recently, been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Increased choice for parents and an increased range of schools have helped to drive up standards across the UK. It is striking that schools in England have consistently improved over the past few years in a way that schools in Wales have not. That is because we have not only parental choice, free schools and academies, but a rigorous inspectorate and league tables, which enable us to identify good practice and spread it more energetically.

I am pleased to hear what the Secretary of State has said on the rigorous oversight for financial purposes of free schools. The Ofsted report on the Al-Madinah school in my constituency has been published, but when does he expect to publish the report of the external funding agency?

The report is by the Education Funding Agency rather than the external funding agency, but I take the right hon. Lady’s point. We have published more about the Al-Madinah free school than has been published about other local authority schools in Derby. It is striking that she raises the weakness of the Al-Madinah free school when, as Ofsted has pointed out with respect to Derby, it is in one of the weakest areas of school improvement of any local authority. In consultation with the EFA, we will ensure that every piece of information necessary about the fate of that school is published at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way. However, it must be stressed that the action we have taken to deal with the Al-Madinah free school was taken faster than any action taken by Labour-led Derby council to deal with any of the underperforming schools in that great city.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the case of Al-Madinah school in Derby shows that the Government will not tolerate failure in education establishments, whether they are free schools or local authority schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Schools, including Sinfin school and Grampian school, were allowed to fail in Derby. When they were taken over as academies under this Government, they all saw real improvement in performance. Derby was among the 20% of local authorities that were the weakest when it came to school improvement. The right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) said nothing about that then, but she turns a Nelsonian blind eye to failure by Labour local authorities. When this Government take steps to improve state education, she has nothing to say.

I do not know what the Secretary of State is having for breakfast, but it is obviously achieving the desired effect.

The Secretary of State sat on the damning report on the Kings science academy scandal for more than five months. When was he planning to tell us that the school had been fined an additional £4,000 for refusing to implement the direction of the independent review panel? Why is there so much secrecy around these schools? Is it because, as he said earlier, he seems to think that fraud is acceptable as long as those responsible are innovators?

There is less secrecy around these schools than there is around local authority schools. We have published the internal audit report on what happened at the Kings science academy. We informed the Home Office of our concerns about that school, and the reason the hon. Gentleman knows so much about the school is that this Government have been far more transparent about institutional failure than the Government of whom he was a member. [Interruption.] However much he may prate and cry from a sedentary position, he knows that this Government have been more transparent about failure and more determined to turn schools around and generate success than his ever was.