With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on school expansion.
On Thursday, I wrote to the head teacher at Weald of Kent grammar school to confirm that I had approved the school’s proposal to expand to a new site in Sevenoaks in Kent.
The Government are committed to ensuring that every child and young person has access to a high-quality school place, regardless of their background or where they live. As part of our ambition to deliver educational excellence everywhere, it is our policy that all good and outstanding schools should be able to expand to meet the demands of parents in the local area. That was made clear in the Conservative party manifesto that we were elected to implement, which specifically included good grammar schools.
We have a relentless focus on academic standards, with 120,000 more six-year-olds on track to become confident readers thanks to our focus on phonics, a tough new national curriculum and an end to qualification and grade inflation. We have also given head teachers and classroom teachers the freedom to run their schools to achieve the best for their pupils, with 1,000 failing schools having been transformed under the leadership of strong sponsors and more than 300 free schools having been set up so far across the country. That has helped more than 1 million more pupils attend good or outstanding schools today compared with 2010. In this Parliament, I am committed to focusing on the next 1 million.
I am particularly pleased to have seen those improvements in areas of the country that serve some of our most disadvantaged young people. We are committed to closing the gap in attainment, and the investment of £2.5 billion in the pupil premium has helped schools to raise the achievement levels of disadvantaged pupils, including the most academically able.
I took my decision on the proposal from Weald of Kent in line with the legislative framework, which includes a prohibition on the creation of new selective schools that is set out in section 99 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, section 39 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and sections 1A and 6 of the Academies Act 2010. I assessed the proposal in line with our guidelines on making significant changes to an existing academy, which were published in January 2014. I concluded that the proposal represents a genuine expansion.
Weald of Kent grammar school is an outstanding school that is currently based in Tonbridge, Kent. It is a girls-only school with 1,200 students on roll from the ages of 11 to 18. The school serves a wide catchment area that includes pupils from Tonbridge and the Sevenoaks district. It is consistently one of the top performing schools in the country. In 2014, 99% of its students achieved five A* to C grades in GCSE exams. In the same year, 98% of its sixth-form students achieved at least three A-levels at grades A* to E.
Weald of Kent submitted a proposal for expansion in 2013 that was considered by the then Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). That proposal could not be approved as an expansion because, among other reasons, the new building in Sevenoaks would have been a fully co-educational annexe, whereas the existing school is for girls only.
The school submitted a revised proposal in September 2015. The expanded school will be girls only on both sites from 2017, with a co-ed sixth form also on both sites from September 2018. It therefore fully reflects the existing school. It will share leadership, governance, administration arrangements and admissions policies across the school. The school intends to bring all year sevens together for at least half a day a week, and that will extend to all five-year groups as the extended site fills up.
There will be a range of cross-site curricular activities, including in personal, social, health and economic education, languages and music, reflecting the integrated split-site school. In addition, the school will continue to operate a house system that will apply to students regardless of their site location, and this will further secure regular, cross-site learning. New staff contracts will make it clear that staff are expected to work on both sites.
All policies and procedures, including uniform, behaviour and safeguarding, will apply across the newly expanded school. Furthermore, the expansion will meet the needs of the community within the school’s existing catchment area, with 41.6% of current pupils travelling from the Sevenoaks area, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) has tirelessly reminded me.
Given the need for more good and outstanding school places, it would have been perverse to reject that application for expansion purely on the basis that the school in question is a grammar school. The decision to approve the proposed expansion of this school was taken on the facts in this case, and it is my firm belief that we should not stand in the way of good schools being able to expand.
I realise that there has been significant interest in the outcome of this case, including from Members of the House, and I confirm that the Government have no plans to change their policy on grammar schools. We fully support the existing 163 grammar schools, and are committed to protecting them. Indeed, we want to support grammar schools that seek to extend their reach and capacity by forming multi-academy trusts and sponsoring other schools, thereby disseminating the best, most effective educational practice found in our top performing schools. Any further applications for selective schools to expand would be considered on their individual circumstances and merits, and as with the Weald of Kent, the school would need to demonstrate genuine expansion.
I hope that the shadow Education Secretary and the whole House will join me in wishing the Weald of Kent the best of luck with this expansion project that will create more places, offering more children a world-class education. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of her statement, and I would never be so unkind as some of her colleagues and suggest that she get back in her fish tank.
I want an excellent education for all our children, and over the past 20 years we have seen many advances towards that. However, there are currently real challenges in our schools: a chronic shortage of teachers, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths; huge pressure on places; and a widening attainment gap between the disadvantaged and their peers. Since the election we have heard little from the Secretary of State on those important issues. Instead, it is now clear that she has spent a disproportionate amount of time focused on this thorny and vexed issue. It is a shame that she did not come to the House last week to make a statement, rather than being forced to do so today.
Before I go into detail on this decision and its implications, it is worth putting on record why successive Secretaries of State for Education have not only resisted calls for new grammar schools but—as in the case of the late Margaret Thatcher—overseen their demise. Far from being the bastions of social mobility that some romanticise about, selective grammar schools have entrenched social advantage. As the Sutton Trust recently found, fewer than 3% of those attending grammar schools qualify for free school meals, compared with 18% in the communities that those schools serve. The Weald of Kent intake includes just 1.3% of pupils on free school meals, and further research shows that poorer children do far worse in selective areas. Today’s grammar schools cannot deny that their selection criteria favour the privately tutored and those with the means to acquire that tuition.
The decision to allow a so-called annexe 10 miles from an existing school in a different town is what everybody knows it to be: a new school. As such it will be the first new grammar school to open in more than 50 years. It is also the first test of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, and as such it warrants proper parliamentary scrutiny. That legislation is clear: no new state-funded grammar school can be opened. The Secretary of State has tried her very best—rather unconvincingly—to say that the decision is about the expansion of a good school, but it is already possible for existing grammar schools to expand. Changes to the school admissions code in 2012 made it easier for schools, including grammar schools, to expand. Indeed, the number of places at grammar schools has risen by 34,000 since the 1998 legislation—expanding not only in real terms but as a proportion of all school places. This is, therefore, not about expansion. It is why the Secretary of State’s predecessor withstood pressure and why the Department has been locked in a legal wrangle for the past 18 months.
I wrote to the Secretary of State on Thursday, calling for her to publish the advice she has been given. I reiterate my call for her to do so today. It is vital that we understand the terms under which she feels this is permissible, given that it was previously rejected and that it sets a precedent that could allow for many, many more similar proposals. Those proposing the expansion of an existing school on an additional site
“need to ensure that the new provision is genuinely a change to an existing school and not a new school”.
Her Department has provided a list of factors to be taken into account. Will the Secretary of State set out how this proposal meets the list of factors in each and every case? She has outlined how she feels full integration is achieved, but does she really accept that half a day a week is full integration? What is more, will she clarify that full integration includes all admissions?
The Secretary of State’s decision last week will open the floodgates, and there are reports that 10 selective areas are already preparing so-called expansion plans on different sites.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that further applications are pending? Will she tell the House today what the maximum distance is for a so-called satellite site? Will she outline the advice she was given about the legal precedent and the implications this would have? What steps is she taking to ensure that all grammars are open to many more disadvantaged kids?
During the Conservative party conference, we heard the Prime Minister talk laudably about increasing social mobility, but yet again we see actions and policies going in the opposite direction. I really hope the Secretary of State will rethink this decision.
I thank the hon. Lady for her response, because I think it is customary to do so, but talk about being greeted by the usual Labour party doom and gloom about our education system, the achievements of our pupils and the hard work of professional teachers up and down the country! It was the usual paucity of ideas from the hon. Lady and her colleagues.
The hon. Lady talks about the priority given to this matter since the application was made by the school. My job involves dealing with a lot of different issues all at the same time. [Interruption.] She should stop scaremongering about teacher recruitment. We are ahead on a number of key areas in relation to teacher recruitment, including primary education, but today’s statement is not about that. I am sure we will deal with that, but she should not be talking down a profession that she says she aspires to represent.
The hon. Lady is absolutely wrong to say the advantage gap has increased. It has narrowed since 2010. She talks about social mobility and grammar schools. The greatest tool for social mobility we can give to any young person is a great education, and this is exactly what this expansion is all about. The admissions code, which was changed by this Government, specifically allows grammar schools to give priority to children who are eligible for the pupil premium in their admission arrangements. Half of the grammar school sector has introduced, or intends to consult on adopting, that admissions priority, and I would like more of them to go further.
This is about expanding a new school. There have been no legal wrangles. The hon. Lady will know that we do not publish legal advice given to Ministers. She ought to ask her predecessors in her own party about the publication of legal advice, if she feels so strongly about it.
We are clear about the benefits of integration. I looked in detail at the application made by the Weald of Kent to ensure that the legal criteria have been absolutely satisfied. I am satisfied that they have been.
The hon. Lady talked about floodgates. I think the Minister for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), got it right. I can assure the hon. Lady that there are no applications sitting on my desk at the moment, but if she thinks that 10 is a flood she needs to go away and re-examine this issue.
Finally, “deciding on each case” means exactly that. I am not going to set down criteria; it will mean looking at individual cases that cross my desk.
Recent weeks have taught us that the Opposition are finding it difficult to outline firm policy stances on anything. The Leader of the Opposition has said:
“I would want all grammars to become comprehensives and to end the 11-plus where it still exists.”
May I give the shadow Education Secretary the chance to confirm whether there will be another flip-flop, or is this in fact Labour party policy? Should grammar schools be added to academies and free schools on the list of schools at risk from the Labour party?
At the end of the day, this matter is simple. The Conservative party trusts front-line professionals to run schools and lead our education system and wants parents to have real choice over their children’s school, but the Opposition do not; they do not want to see more good school places and do not believe in parental choice or high academic standards for all. We will leave them to fight the old battles, while we get on with the task of making sure that every pupil in this country has the excellent education they deserve.
Order. I look forward to lively and illuminating exchanges on this important matter. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and silence are at best nodding acquaintances in leap years only. However, there has already been far too much chuntering from a sedentary position on both sides, beginning with Mr Nicholas Edward Coleridge Boles, and then followed by Opposition Front-Bench Members. I very gently and in a good spirit say to the Secretary of State that it is always a pleasure to welcome her to the House and to hear from her.
The right hon. Lady does not need chirruping from a sedentary position from the Secretary of State for Justice, but if he feels he just cannot resist, well, we will bear it stoically and with fortitude.
What the Education Secretary should not do, however, is talk about Opposition policy. I remind the House and those listening that this statement is taking place in the Chamber only because I granted an urgent question. The Prime Minister, very properly and understandably, wanting to go first, asked for permission to convert it into a statement so that she would follow him. However, it is happening only because I granted an urgent question, and I granted it to hear about Government policy, not general wittering about Opposition policy from anybody.
My right hon. Friend knows that many of us would like her to go much further and make selective education more widely available in parts of the country where it is not already available. I am a little sad that she is not announcing that change of policy, but will she accept that many people in parts of the country that have selective education will welcome this small but positive step to extend choice and opportunity to more children?
I thank my hon. Friend. I always hesitate to disappoint the chairman of the 1922 committee —it is not a good place for a Secretary of State to be—but I hear what he says about the importance and popularity of selective education. I have been surprised by how many emails and messages I have received in the past few days from those who have been through the grammar school system or would like their children to do so. However, today’s announcement is an important step. The basic principle is that we want every good school in this country to be able to expand, and that must include grammar schools.
I do not want to get into the tribal politics we always get into as soon as grammar schools are mentioned. [Interruption.] No, I am not going to get into it. I have a new declaration of interest to make, because I am now chair of the advisory committee of the Sutton Trust, and I will take that responsibility very seriously. I must say, however, that our education policy is a rag, tag and bobtail mess, because different Governments under different parties have made it a fragmented mess. Is it not time we got back to the spirit of the Education Act 1944 and asked, cross-party, “What are the great challenges in our country?” The great challenge is not the brightest kids but the poorest kids, who, especially in Kent, do not have a fair crack at using their talents to the full and getting good qualifications and a good job.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to the Sutton Trust, which is a very important organisation doing great work, but I disagree with his remarks. The education system in this country is actually doing very well for pupils of all abilities. My task over the next few years is to extend the excellent education that many of our pupils are getting. We have seen 1 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools since 2010, but I now need to focus on the next 1 million across the country and to root out those parts of the country—I will not say which local authorities—where the education is not yet good enough, and make it so.
The parents of Tonbridge and Sevenoaks are very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her statement, and I know that I speak not only for myself but for my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) when I say “thank you” for expanding the number of places in an excellent school. Maureen Johnson is a fantastic headteacher who will make this work on two sites; I have great confidence in her ability and that of her team. I urge the Secretary of State to remember not only the grammar school, which does such great work, but schools such as Hillview, an academy trust in my Kent constituency in which I declare an interest as a governor, which does fantastic stuff in the arts and for kids of all abilities. The wonderful thing about Tonbridge—and, indeed, Sevenoaks, as I know my right hon. Friend will agree—is the range of education available to parents and kids. That is exactly what the Secretary of State has allowed to happen today, for which I thank her.
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed. He is absolutely right to say that one of the great things in our education system now is the range of schools available, which leads to real parental choice. Parents are able to choose the right school for their children. It is right that my hon. Friend mentions Hillview, as we have some fantastic academies in Kent and elsewhere, but there is also the free school, situated alongside the expansion and satellite site.
The Secretary of State said that her policy is that all “good and outstanding schools” should be able to expand to meet “the needs of parents” in their local areas. Byron Court primary school in my constituency is being forced to expand against the needs and wishes of parents in the local area. I shall not go into the details now, but will the Secretary of State meet me, parents and local residents who are desperately concerned about the state of this school’s expansion programme?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments today. Although I am not a grammar school girl, I have some fantastic grammar schools in my constituency that are delivering for young people. Will she join me in welcoming the contribution that grammar schools have made to the improvement of underperforming schools in my constituency and across Medway?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I remember the school visits we did together when she was first attempting to become a Member of this House—and I am delighted that she has now done so. She is absolutely right to talk about the good schools in her own constituency and the impact that high-achieving schools such as a grammar school can have on neighbouring schools. In my statement, I mentioned the role of grammar schools in multi-academy trusts, and we see examples up and down the country of how such collaboration can really drive up standards to benefit all students in a local area.
I was a teacher at a primary school deemed outstanding and inspirational by Ofsted for 10 years. I taught in a selective borough and I spent an inordinate time consoling and counselling parents whose children did not get through to the grammar school. What provision is the Secretary of State putting in place for the majority of parents whose children will not make it to the local grammar school that she is expanding today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Although I am delighted that he is a Member of this House, I suspect that the school that he left in order to come here is missing him greatly. The point is that there must be excellent schools—grammar schools, academies, free schools, maintained schools, all types of school— everywhere in a local area, so that parents have a choice about which school to send their children. I do not want to fight the old battles; my task for the next four years is to make sure that every child has access to an excellent education everywhere across the country.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I welcome the statement, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the real challenge is ensuring that all children can go to a decent school, and that the real way of doing that is ensuring that good schools co-operate with less good schools to make all schools great?
It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I completely agree with him. As I have said, one of the things that we are seeing in our education system now is collaboration between schools that are working to support each other, perhaps as part of formal arrangements such as multi-academy trusts or federations. Individual leaders in education—headteachers and leaders in governance—are supporting other schools and helping the whole system to get better. The last Ofsted report showed that 82% of schools in this country are good or outstanding.
It is always dangerous to admit to being a product of a grammar school in case it surprises colleagues in the Chamber. I have listened carefully to the Secretary of State, and I understand that she does not wish to see a change of policy on grammar schools. May I encourage her not to be embarrassed by a grammar school education or by the pursuit of excellence? I believe that such a change would be much more attractive than this wheeze of expansion by distance.
It does not surprise me at all that the hon. Gentleman is a product of a grammar school education, and it is a delight to have him here. I hear what he says, but I repeat that I want to focus particularly on making sure that all our schools are excellent, offering what he described as the pursuit of excellence to all pupils and all schools in the country, rather than always focusing on some of the older battles.
I assure my right hon. Friend that her decision will be welcomed not just in Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, but throughout Kent, where thousands of children and parents benefit from our excellent grammar schools. May I ask her once again to refute the false point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who seemed to cast a slur on the many excellent high schools in Kent? If she wants some evidence for that purpose, I should welcome her, and indeed him, visiting some of the excellent and improving academy high schools in my constituency, where children can receive an excellent education.
My right hon. Friend is right. Alongside Sevenoaks is Knole Academy, which also offers an excellent education. It is a novel idea that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and I might make a joint visit to Kent, but I am always up for novel ideas, so perhaps I will pursue it further.
Will the Secretary of State explain to me exactly what special educational needs provision there will be at the new annexe, and exactly how it will cater for children living in the area who have such needs? Will she perhaps take a piece of advice from my son, who has Asperger’s and who is currently experiencing the transition to secondary school? We live right next to a grammar school—the one that I went to, incidentally. [Interruption.] It is not my fault, is it? My parents made many mistakes, and I was definitely one of them. [Laughter.]
I should like the Secretary of State to listen to the words of my son. When I asked him which school he wanted to go to, I also asked him if he wished to take the 11-plus. Because he has Asperger’s and takes things very literally, he said to me, “Mummy, a child should pick a school, rather than a school picking a child.”
This is turning into a rather confessional hour, which I had not quite expected.
Our SEN reforms are very much about working with families, the social care system, the health system and schools to ensure that pupils go to the schools that are right for them. I understand from the answers to my questions that the school will operate the same SEN provision on both sites, but I am happy to look into that further. [Interruption.] I do not think that the shadow Education Secretary should cast aspersions and slurs, and suggest that because this is a grammar school, it will not care about less advantaged pupils. That would be wrong of her, and would cut across the very good question put by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips).
As an unashamed product of a grammar school education, I think I can say that Dartford will also welcome this announcement. It has four heavily oversubscribed grammar schools next to Sevenoaks, which we hope will receive some relief from the pressures that are placed on admissions. Does the Secretary of State agree that at the heart of her proposal is the fact that it is absolutely right for good schools to be able to expand? Grammar schools make a fantastic contribution to our education system, and it is right that they, and other good schools, are able to flourish.
I thank my hon. Friend and he is absolutely right: at the heart of our reforms is the creation of more good school places. That runs right the way through all our reforms, including the creation of free schools. Conservative Members do not believe that parents and families should just accept what they are offered regardless of whether they are happy with it. We believe they should have the ability to say no, they want to set up a new free school, perhaps, or to have a school expand, offering more good places. I am delighted to hear that the creation of these places will help ease the pressures in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), the Secretary of State said she wanted to see a good choice of good and excellent schools in every area and that that list included grammar schools. She then said she did not want to fight the battles of the past. May I politely put it to her that she cannot have it both ways? If she believes grammar schools should be part of that choice for parents, does she foresee a day when she will change the rules to allow for new grammar schools?
I think the hon. Gentleman has heard from Members on both sides of the House that there is a desire for new grammar schools, but let me be clear: this does not change policy. We do not anticipate changing the law. This is a particular case decided on in particular circumstances.
Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the outstanding Rainham Mark grammar school, which took seven forms of entry, for the third year running, to ensure local parents get the choice they need? It gives priority to the pupil premium and it is sponsoring a school in special measures, which clearly shows that it is doing its bit for social mobility. By way of a declaration, I should say I went to that grammar school, having previously been to a failing high school.
I thank my hon. Friend. I certainly do offer my congratulations to Rainham Mark grammar school, and I particularly thank all those working in the school. I was pleased to attend the grammar school heads reception here in the Palace of Westminster last week, and say thank you to everybody working in the schools. I particularly note that that school is sponsoring a school in special measures, and I pay tribute to the work it is doing there.
There is a fundamental contradiction in the Secretary of State’s statement. We can either have parental choice or we can have school selection: we cannot have both. Either the school chooses or the parents choose; we cannot have both. Does this new position suggest the Secretary of State is backing away from parental choice?
I really do not know where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. The whole point of this is that it is about parental choice. [Interruption.] Families can absolutely choose; there is no compulsion to attend a grammar school. As I have already said, Trinity free school and the Knole academy will be nearby. There will be other schools as well. There is no contradiction. We are very clear: we believe in parental choice and we believe in excellent education for all.
This is an important statement because a legal precedent has been set; it will be very difficult to stop any good school setting up an annexe if it can prove it can carry on the same ethos, and I would welcome that. I want to ask the Secretary of State about the funding point, however, which is much more important than one extra annexe. Because of the equalisation of funding of successful schools with large sixth forms—not just grammar schools—the funding of grammar schools has declined precipitously in relation to other schools. The best performing grammar school in Lincolnshire gets only £3,000 per head per year whereas the worst performing comprehensive, which nobody wants to go to, gets £7,000 per head per year. This is simply not fair. I have asked the Secretary of State in Adjournment debates and in meetings to address this: will she do so?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed. He will know our party gave a clear commitment in our manifesto to fairer funding, and he will also know that we are working on it. I cannot comment on anything ahead of the spending review, but we are all aware of the need to look at this and make the funding fairer, which is why we invested £390 million in this financial year and the last financial year to try to get towards a fairer funding system, but there is further work to do.
I do not share the Secretary of State’s complacency about the quality of education being provided for most children in Britain today. What we are seeing is actually a picture of decades of entrenched mediocrity. The result of that is that we are falling down the international league table; we are now behind not only South Korea and Shanghai but Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The top jobs in too many professions are now the preserve of the tiny number of people who have been to the best private schools and Oxbridge. We are the only country in the world in which educational outcome is determined largely by parental occupation, and the people entering the workforce are now less well qualified than those who are retiring from it. The Secretary of State should be much more ambitious for Britain’s pupils and for our country. If she really wants to tackle the social mobility crisis in this country, she should look at the excellent work of the Sutton Trust and consider introducing the open access scheme to enable children from poor backgrounds in constituencies such as mine to get into 120 private schools in this country.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to explore some of those themes in the Select Committee. I would just point out to him that his party was in power for 13 years, during which time there was rampant grade inflation and the assisted places scheme was abolished. In addition, his party failed to introduce the pupil premium. I am delighted to hear that, from the sound of it, he is supporting our education reforms, which will raise standards. We have had five years in government so far, and we are—
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement, but will she explain the logic of the Government’s position of defending grammar schools in leafy Tory areas and allowing them to expand while denying children in the Bradford district a similar opportunity to benefit from grammar schools?
My position is very clear. The existing grammar schools are popular with parents, and when an application such as this is made I will consider it just as I would consider an application for any other school expansion. I am meeting one of the Bradford Members of Parliament later this week to discuss this. My task, rather than fighting other battles, is to ensure that all schools in a local area are excellent. There are some excellent schools in Bradford, but there is more to come.
I commend my right hon. Friend for ignoring ideology and making a straightforward judgment on how she can improve the number of good school places. Does she recognise, however, that the test for this Government will be whether we provide more good schools, and good school places, in areas that have had educational underachievement and economic deprivation for a long time? Does she also recognise that, in carrying out that task, her responsibility will be to be the champion and nurturer of people who want to set up free schools? Will she rise to that challenge as strongly in the next five years as we have done over the past five years?
I absolutely will be that champion. The latest application round for free schools has just closed, and the appetite to set up new ones remains undimmed. I have already made it clear that we now have 1 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. My task is to focus on the next million, and on those who follow them, to ensure that every child in the country has access to an excellent place. Free schools are very much a part of the answer.
Given the confessional mood in the Chamber this afternoon, let me confess that I, too, went to a grammar school. Is not this expansion about fulfilling unmet need, and will it not therefore appeal to those parents and children who really want to get on?
I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend was also a grammar school boy. He is absolutely right to suggest that the request for this expansion reflects the need for more good school places in that particular area. It is also about parental choice. Those are two important criteria. I mentioned in my statement that just under 42% of the school’s current intake comes from the Sevenoaks area, which is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) has also welcomed this decision.
I very much welcome the expansion in Kent. In Rugby, we have an outstanding and heavily subscribed bilateral school, Ashlawn school, which has selective and non-selective places. It has been seeking to provide additional grammar places for some time, and I wonder whether the parents in my constituency who are seeking the best opportunities for their children might be able to take some comfort from the Secretary of State’s decision.
They can take comfort from the fact that we want to create more good school places across the country. We firmly believe in having a variety of schools and real parental choice. If my hon. Friend wants to contact me or the Schools Minister with further details, we will of course always be delighted to look at them.
In welcoming my right hon. Friend’s excellent statement, may I ask her to encourage good academy chains, such as the Mercia Primary Academy Trust, to expand their remit into secondary education so that we can better vertically integrate our primary and secondary schools?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that. I welcome the work the Mercia Primary Academy Trust does. One of the most exciting things we are seeing now is the growth of good multi-academy trusts across the country. Like him, I believe in the power of all-through schools. I visit schools where the primary and secondary are working together, and it is inspirational to watch the older pupils supporting the younger ones and for the younger ones to have the aspirational role models that the older pupils provide.
Does the Secretary of State agree that creating an environment in which our children can achieve their full potential is a core responsibility of government, and that therefore the expansion of an outstanding school must surely be welcomed by anybody sensible and signals good government?
I thank my hon. Friend for that—he put it so beautifully. This expansion should be welcomed by anyone sensible, which presumably is why the Labour party is having difficulty with it. He is absolutely right to say that our core duty is about ensuring that every child can fulfil their potential. I am extremely conscious of that, and that is what we are all striving to ensure in the Department for Education.
This expansion will also be welcomed by anyone who is not concerned with dogma. I particularly welcome the Secretary of State’s response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). Is it not true that if one were really concerned about raising educational standards rather than about dogma, one would see that more than half the free schools have been in areas of real disadvantage, improving the educational opportunities for children there?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He rightly says that more than half of the free schools set up have been in the 30% most deprived areas of our country and that I am pragmatic, not dogmatic. We should all be focused on outcomes; this is all about making sure that every child fulfils their potential and gets the great education they need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) said.
The reason is historical, in the sense that, as we know, there was a change and a number of grammar schools either closed or converted. I have made it very clear that this is not about setting up new grammar schools. I visited an excellent school in my hon. Friend’s constituency with him—I cannot recall its name off the top of my head, but he will remember it—and I want all pupils to have that same access to an excellent school that they have in the one he showed me.
I represent a small market town that 800 young people leave every day to go to school, many across the border in Lincolnshire, so I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement. I understand and appreciate the consequences for other schools of so many talented young people leaving the area, but who are we to challenge the views of parents when the demand is so clear, as it is in my town of Newark? May I reiterate the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) that one of the barriers to “more orthodox” expansion of grammar schools is the relatively poor funding they receive? As he said, schools in Gainsborough receive as little as £4,000 per pupil whereas schools elsewhere in the country may receive £7,000, £8,000 or £9,000 per pupil. That is a major barrier to the expansion of successful grammar schools.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and let me agree with him on the two points he is making. First, parental choice is essential; we want all parents to have a real choice about the education that is right for their children and to have confidence in the good places that are available. Secondly, I hear what he is saying about fairer funding and I know that many other colleagues from all parts of the House make similar points.
I strongly endorse my right hon. Friend’s view that all good and outstanding schools should be able to expand. I was particularly delighted that in her party conference speech she praised teachers at Whitefield infant and nursery school, which is one of the four schools in Pendle to benefit from a brand new building in the past three years. Does she agree that this is about the provision of more excellent school places, not about a change in Government policy?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that. He is absolutely right to say that this is about the provision of more good school places, such as those on offer at Whitefield infant and nursery school. I still remember that as being one of the most enjoyable visits I have made since taking up this job, and I thank him very much for the invitation.