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House of Commons Hansard

“Educational Excellence Everywhere”: Academies

09 May 2016
Volume 609

  • With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on all schools becoming academies.

    In our White Paper “Educational Excellence Everywhere”, published in March, I set out the Government’s vision of continuing the rise in educational standards in England during the rest of the current Parliament. We are committed to building on the reforms of the past six years, which have led to 1.4 million more children being taught in good and outstanding schools. However, we are not content to stop there: 1.4 million children is a start, but it is not enough. We must ensure that we deliver a great education to every single child, because we owe it to the next generation to give them the tools that will enable them to realise every ounce of their potential.

    The White Paper was called “Educational Excellence Everywhere” for a reason. As I have said before, for me the “everywhere” is non-negotiable. In the White Paper, for example, we set out our plans for “Achieving Excellence Areas”, where we will focus specific resources on tackling entrenched educational underperformance. The White Paper also sets out how we want to see the teaching profession take responsibility for teacher accreditation, tackle unfair funding, build leadership capacity and set high expectations for every child, with a world-leading knowledge-based curriculum in a truly school-led self-improving system learning from the best from across the world and preparing the next generation to compete on the global stage.

    It is the vision of a fully academised system that has attracted the most attention. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have spoken to many hon. Members on both sides of the House, as well as to school leaders, governors, local government representatives and parents. It is clear from those conversations that the strength and importance of academies is widely accepted. There is a clear recognition of the case for putting greater responsibility for the school system in the hands of school leaders. Let me be clear: we firmly believe that schools becoming more autonomous and more directly accountable for their results raises standards. Academies are the vehicle to allow schools and leaders to innovate with the curriculum, have the flexibility to set the pay and conditions for their staff and bring about great collaboration with other schools.

    We still want every school to become an academy by 2022. We always intended this to be a six-year process in which good schools should be able to take their own decisions about their future as academies. However, we understand the concerns that have been raised about a hard deadline and legislating for blanket powers to issue academy orders. That is why I announced on Friday that we have decided it is not necessary to take blanket powers to convert good schools in strong local authorities to academies at this time.

    In March, a record high of 227 schools chose to apply for academy status, showing clearly where the momentum lies as school leaders, parents, governors and teachers across the country embrace the benefits that being an academy brings. Since then, we have also issued more than 104 academy orders to underperforming schools, meaning that the young people in those schools will soon benefit from the strong leadership provided by expert academy sponsors. That is why those who took to the airwaves this weekend to crow about a victory in their battle against raising standards will find themselves sorely disappointed. There will be no retreat from our mission to give every child the best start in life and to build an education system led by school leaders and teachers on the frontline, running their own schools as academies.

    The Education and Adoption Act 2016 already enables us to rapidly convert failing schools and schools that are coasting, where they can benefit from the support of a strong sponsor. As a result, it is now easier to respond swiftly and effectively when schools underperform. Schools will not be allowed to languish unchallenged for years. As we set out in the White Paper, and as I have subsequently argued, the most pressing need for further powers is to boost standards for those schools languishing in the worst performing local authorities and to provide for schools in local authorities likely to become unviable. So instead of taking a blanket power to convert all schools, we will seek powers in two specific circumstances where it is clear that the case for conversion to academy status is pressing. In our worst performing local authorities, we need to take more decisive action so that a new system led by outstanding schools can take their place. Similarly, because of the pace of academisation in some areas, it will become increasingly difficult for local authorities to offer schools the necessary support, and there will be a need to ensure that those schools are not dependent on an unviable local authority.

    We will therefore seek provisions to convert schools in the lowest performing and unviable local authorities to academy status. In some circumstances, that might involve the conversion of good and outstanding schools when they have not chosen to do so themselves.  However, the need for action in those limited circumstances is clear, because of the considerable risk to the standard of education that young people in those schools receive, as the local authority is either unable to guarantee their continued success or support further improvement. We will consult on these arrangements, including the thresholds for performance and unviability, and I am making a clear commitment that the definition and thresholds of underperformance and viability will be the subject of an affirmative resolution in this House.

    I would also like to reassure hon. Members in regard to concerns about how we protect small schools, particularly those in rural areas. I have already made it clear that no small rural school will close as a result of the move to have more schools becoming academies. There is already a statutory presumption against the closure of rural schools, but we will now go further. Where small rural schools are converting to academy status, we will introduce a dual lock to ensure their protection: both local and national Government will have to agree to a school closing before a decision can be made. There will also be dedicated support to help rural primary schools during the process of conversion, and a £10 million fund to secure expert support and advice for them.

    While we want every school to become an academy, we will not compel successful schools to join multi-academy trusts. In order to share expertise and resources, we expect that most schools will form local clusters of multi-academy trusts, but if the leadership of a successful school does not wish to enter a formal relationship with other schools, we trust it to make that decision and will not force it to do so. Small schools will be able to convert to stand-alone academies as long as they are financially sustainable.

    I began this statement by saying that our goal has not changed. This Government will continue to prioritise the interests of young people and getting them the best start in life by having an excellent education over the vested interests who seek to oppose the lifting of standards and the rooting out of educational underperformance. Those very same vested interests allowed schools to languish for years unchallenged and unchanged until the launch of the sponsored academies programme by the last Labour Government.

    Our work to improve our education system will continue apace. We will continue to empower school leaders and raise standards. We will continue to hold high expectations for every child. We will establish a fair national funding formula for schools, so that young people everywhere get the funding they deserve. We will continue to work towards a system in which all schools are run and led by the people who know them best, in a way that works for their pupils, as academies. The reforms will transform the education system in our country and ensure that we give every child an excellent education, so that they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. I commend this statement to the House.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of her statement. It is good to see that, despite her best efforts, this U-turn is getting the airing it deserves today. What she announced on Friday was a significant and welcome climbdown. However she wants to dress it up, dropping her desire to force all schools to become academies by her arbitrary deadline of 2022 is a key concession. School leaders should take it as a clear signal that the foot is off their throat and that they should not feel they need to jump before being pushed. In achieving this welcome move, I thank the broad alliance who joined us in making the arguments: the head teachers, who made their collective voice clear last weekend, parents, governors, teachers, local government leaders, and hon. Members from across the House, who made thoughtful and important interventions over recent weeks. Given the scale and breadth of the opposition to her plans and the huge sense of panic and upheaval that they caused school leaders, the Secretary of State might have shown a little more humility in her statement today. If I were her, I would at least apologise.

    After the Secretary of State’s statement today, we are all left even more confused about what her policy actually is. She says that her aim remains the same, but without the means. Although she has conceded on the politically daft idea of forcing good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes, she still holds the ambition that all schools will become academies, but she failed to make a single decent argument as to why that ambition is desirable in the first place. Perhaps this is because, despite her claiming to be in listening mode, the Secretary of State has her fingers in her ears and is out of touch with heads, parents and teachers.

    The Secretary of State has failed to address the serious concerns that have been raised. Where is her evidence that academisation is the panacea for school improvement? Where is the choice, autonomy or innovation in a one-size-fits-all approach? Is there sufficient capacity and accountability in the academies system to ensure that best practice, not poor practice, is being spread? Those questions remain as she seeks further powers to speed up the pace of academisation.

    On school improvement, the Secretary of State must now take stock of the evidence. The Education Committee recommended that she do just that. Sir Michael Wilshaw found serious concerns in many chains. Research by the Sutton Trust found a mixed picture of performance in academy chains. There is no evidence at all that academisation in and of itself leads to school improvement. Indeed, analysis published today by PwC shows that—[Interruption.] Government Members might want to listen to this. The analysis shows that only three of the biggest academy chains got a positive value-added rating and—this is quite startling—just one of the 26 biggest primary sponsors achieved results above the national average. While there is much excellence, the Secretary of State must not continue making dubious arguments about cause and effect without the evidence.

    The concerns about a “one-size-fits-all” policy, as expressed by Councillor Paul Carter, chair of the County Councils Network, still apply, as do those about “distant, unaccountable bureaucracies” expressed by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady). As Lord Kenneth Baker said, there are real issues on the capacity within multi-academy trusts to take on a new wave of academies. Today, the Secretary of State also failed to answer the key question of parents and their right to remain on governing bodies of academies.|

    Perhaps the biggest concern we all have is about the Secretary of State’s direction and her fixation with structures not standards. While chaos reigns all around her, and while heads are dealing with what they describe as “very challenging times”, she wants to put all the energies of her Department into more structural change, for which there is little evidence, insufficient capacity and inadequate accountability. Would she not be better advised sorting out the utter chaos besetting primary assessment and standard assessments tests, ensuring the massively behind-schedule new GCSEs are delivered well and on time, dealing with the chronic teacher shortages she has caused or getting a proper strategy for local place planning? Alternatively, instead of simply doing the Chancellor’s bidding, perhaps she could fight for some school budgets, which are facing real-terms cuts for the first time in 20 years. We all want to see educational excellence everywhere, but the Secretary of State is presiding over a chaotic mess, dragging schools backwards, and her ambitions for further structural change are at best a distraction—at worst they will damage standards.

  • The shadow Education Secretary was as constructive and positive as always, but let me deal with some of the issues she raised. She asked about the support for academies. She will know about this, if she has read the evidence I gave to the recent hearing of the Select Committee on Education, where we went through this in great detail. I am sure she has also seen the very long letter I sent to the National Union of Teachers about the international evidence, but let me just give two statistics: primary sponsored academies are making substantial gains, with the percentage of pupils achieving the expected level in reading and writing and maths at the end of key stage 2 having risen by four percentage points last year; and those academies open for just one academic year having seen their results improve by five percentage points. She asked about the views of the chief inspector—[Interruption.] I am sure that if she has—[Interruption.]

  • Order. I say to Members on both sides of the House that there is far too much noise. Both sides and every Member must be heard. It is very simple.

  • Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is extraordinary how some people do not want to hear any arguments against them, for example, from Sir Michael Wilshaw. The hon. Lady will have seen the letter from Ofsted in which he said:

    “As you know, I fully support the government’s ambition to create a more diverse and autonomous school system. As I said in my latest Annual Report, academisation can lead to rapid improvements and I firmly believe that it is right to give more autonomy to the front line.”

    The hon. Lady mentions the Education Committee report from 2014, published last year, which said:

    “Academy sponsorship has encouraged and facilitated the contribution of individuals not previously involved in education provision and laid down a challenge to maintained schools to improve or face replacement by the insurgent academy model.”

    It is extraordinary that it took until the hon. Lady’s final sentence for her to talk about standards. As usual, there was no mention of pupils, of standards or of aspiration. She has had nine months to set out a vision of what a strong, consistent education system looks like. I have set out ours very clearly in this White Paper and she now needs to do the same if she is to have any hope of office.

    We know what today’s Labour party is all about—it is about taking sides. That is what Labour told us in the local elections and it is what its leader is all about. Today, Labour has picked its side: the side of vested interests in the status quo; the side of no change; the side of those who want to push back the tide of progress and return to Labour’s bad old days. I say no. We pick the other side: the side of parents, teachers and, above all, pupils; the side of higher standards and aspirations; and the side of progress and reform—the side of educational excellence for all.

  • The chief inspector of schools has already been cited this afternoon. I draw the attention of the House to his report of 2013 in which he referred to the “long tail of underachievement”. He cited the big problem of having too many primary schools coasting and not delivering adequate teaching in maths and English and in other subjects, and many of those schools are in local authority areas that could improve generally. It is absolutely right therefore to focus on those local authorities and make sure that we do deliver for our young children, most of whom do not go to academies at primary school, because there are not enough primary schools in that category. I welcome this statement to focus on the schools that really matter and, above all, on the local authorities.

  • I thank the Chair of the Education Committee. It was a pleasure to visit a school in his constituency of Stroud recently. I know that he is absolutely committed to the lifting of educational standards for all young people. Is it not telling that, rather than working with the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) just tries to shout him down?

  • I thank the Secretary of State for today’s statement. Many school communities will also welcome today’s announcement. Although I, like many teachers across these isles, would love to think that the Government do listen to teachers, the reality seems to be that this embarrassing U-turn on a centrepiece Budget announcement has been brought about by a handful of the Government’s own Back Benchers. Those who have the greatest impact on the success of a school are teachers, and a first-rate headteacher can turn a school around regardless of whether it is an academy, but there is no doubt that this grand plan has caused great anxiety, and teachers who are already struggling with severe workload issues have had an additional burden placed on them by the academisation plan. The Secretary of State says that academies allow schools the freedom to innovate with the curriculum—[Interruption.]

  • Order. Mr Austin, you are as noisy now as you were in the debating chamber of the University of Essex student union where you noisily, belligerently and discourteously heckled me 30 years ago. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Lady—and all Members—must be heard with courtesy. May I gently say to her that her chance of getting a courteous hearing will be increased if, rather than making a statement, she asks a question?

  • The ability of schools to set their own pay scales will raise questions around teachers’ pay and recruitment, and there is concern that the long-term impact of academies will mean higher salaries and better terms and conditions in some better-funded academies. What consideration—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I am glad that I amuse the House. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to teacher recruitment in poorer areas in terms of being able to attract the teachers they need to raise attainment? We in the Scottish National party are firmly committed to national bargaining in the public sector. How will she ensure that, by abandoning nationally agreed pay scales, this will not affect recruitment and retention in more challenging schools?

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her long question. I agree that the most important thing we can do in our classrooms is to ensure that the quality of teaching is at its absolute highest, which is why we have more teachers in our schools than we have ever had before.

    On recruitment, let me say that, if the hon. Lady has the chance to read the White Paper, she will find a lot of answers to her questions. There is the introduction of “Achieving Excellence Areas”, the introduction of the National Teaching Service, the setting up of career progression for teachers, and the support for a college for teaching. Let me also say to her that, in Scotland, there are now fewer teachers than there were when the SNP came to power and a bigger gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. With the election of Ruth Davidson as an MSP and the fact that our party came second in the polls, her party will now be held to account.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. Members who came into the Chamber after the statement started—there were quite a number of them—should not expect to be called. In pursuit of a question, with a question mark at the end of it, I turn to the éminence grise of the Government Back Benches, Sir Alan Duncan.

  • Very grise, Mr Speaker. It is a matter of regret that on such an important issue, the shadow Secretary of State rather let herself down this afternoon. Those of us involved with this issue have expressed concerns—about compulsion, of course, but also about planning for school places, transport across changing catchment areas, and what happens when a failing school has no suitable academy to take it over. The House is grateful to the Secretary of State for having listened, and we urge her to look at what might be described as the final pieces in the academisation jigsaw. We very much appreciate the tone and the constructive nature of her statement.

  • I thank my neighbour and right hon. Friend for his question. He raises important issues that we have addressed in the White Paper, in the sense that we highlighted that there are difficult issues around place planning and transport, and that we need to work with local authorities, the Local Government Association and others to make sure that we get this right. Ultimately, if schools are autonomous, we have to trust the frontline to deal with those difficult issues.

  • How much scope is there for local government or community involvement in new multi-academy trusts?

  • I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The answer is: a lot. In the White Paper, we set out the plans by local authorities—two, certainly—for multi-academy trusts. Many of them are already exploring spinning out their services, as well as setting up multi-academy trusts. There are limits on the ownership that they are able to take. A lot of local authorities are exploring the option of setting up a trust in which the heads of the schools own part of the trust. That is a strong model, and it builds on the great collaboration that we already see in our education system.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for the very constructive approach she has taken throughout this debate. I particularly welcome her recognition that stand-alone academies, or small multi-academy trusts, can have the benefits of autonomy, while keeping schools in touch with the communities they serve.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for the conversations that we have had. I know that he is absolutely committed to high educational standards. He is extremely fortunate to represent a very high-performing local authority. He and I both want all children in the country to have the same opportunities as children in his constituency.

  • The Secretary of State might know that in the early days of the idea of academies, I was of some help to the then Government in refining their method, and it was a good method: where schools were failing, we used academies to make sure that we ended that quickly. The method that the Secretary of State is extolling is a perversion of the academy model that we introduced. I say in sorrow rather than anger that the model of education that she is giving this country is doomed to fail.

  • This model of education is giving 1.4 million more children the opportunity to be in a good or outstanding school. We want to go further.

  • I call Chloe Smith.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I am delighted to be picked from among the serried ranks of excellent Back Benchers. Evidence such as the social mobility index sadly shows that my constituency has some of the poorest opportunities for the poorest children. May I urge the Secretary of State to stick to her guns, and to ensure that her focus is on standards for those who need it most?

  • I thank my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right to say that this is about higher standards for all, but particularly for those for whom education is the great life transformer that will set them up for life. If we do not get this right, we are losing out as a country, and children are losing out. She and I have discussed the opportunity for her area to take part in the “Achieving Excellence Areas” pilots, and I look forward to discussing that further.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. Some colleagues have a quaint idea about time-keeping. One hon. Member who was six minutes late has still not taken my hint. I do not wish to embarrass the poor fella, but he should not be standing. It is pretty straightforward.

  • I am pleased that the Secretary of State is not sticking to her guns, and I welcome her change of heart and the U-turn that she has announced. Will she reconsider another ill-advised proposal in the White Paper—the abolition of the requirement for schools to have parent governors?

  • The right hon. Gentleman and I discussed this when I gave evidence to the Education Committee. We have been very clear that there is a role for parent governors. We expect trust boards to have parent governors, but we also think that that is not the only way for parents to be involved and that much better, more meaningful engagement can be achieved.

  • Following on from that, I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to the arguments for not compelling academisation, but because parent governors are so vital to the excellence of schools—I have worked with some brilliant parent governors—how will my right hon. Friend ensure that parental input continues? That is part of excellence.

  • We are making it an expectation that parents will be heavily involved, not just through being governors, but through, for example, parent councils, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) set out recently, and the parent portal. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) is right to say that parent governors make a huge contribution to schools. I happen to know that because I am married to one of them.

  • I feel rather embarrassed for the Minister as the Government tried to sneak through this U-turn during one of the most racist campaigns that we have ever seen in the capital. Toby Young admitted that he had been arrogant and regretted criticising teachers, state schools and local education authorities. Will the Minister acknowledge that the teachers, the Labour party, the students and the parents were right, and she was wrong?

  • I think the hon. Lady rather let herself down by that patronising question, if I may say so. I have been very clear all the way along, since the first day of my appointment, that the most important people in our education system are the teachers. The quality of teachers is the single most important thing that attracts and helps young people meet standards. If any Minister puts forward any proposals, we are likely to hear comments, but that does not mean that we should not put proposals forward. That is not the kind of person I am. I said last week that I was not going to leave the job half-done; I am not going to leave the job half-done.

  • I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on the support for small rural schools, and her commitment to a funding review. Does she agree that a funding review delivers the opportunity to address the deep unfairness in the funding system that has left schools in places such as Cornwall underfunded for far too long?

  • We remain committed to a national funding formula review. It cannot be right to have 152 different local formulae operating across the country. As I have talked about having a strong, consistent education system across the country, that must mean that we have a strong, consistent funding system too.

  • Can the Minister specify why she objects to the line put across in The Times today by PricewaterhouseCoopers—presumably, a vested interest—who argue that academisation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for school improvement, or is evidence utterly irrelevant?

  • Plenty of evidence can be cited in favour. I point the hon. Gentleman to the PISA and the OECD evidence, which I have already talked about, which sets out clearly the benefits of autonomy in our school system.

  • I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for listening to Back Benchers on this issue. She knows that I have been a vocal critic, but I found her willingness to engage with us on the issue most refreshing and I am grateful to her for that. Can she confirm that she will continue to engage with parents and teachers as she pursues our vision to improve education for every child, regardless of background?

  • My hon. Friend raises an important point. It has been a pleasure to talk to him and all colleagues on both sides of the House. I look forward to continuing that conversation.

  • I am proud to represent a town that has some of the best schools in the country. My concern about the Secretary of State’s announcement is that it does not answer the questions that schools of all kinds—academies and local authority schools—and parents ask me. What parents say is, “How can we guarantee that there is a school place for my child nearby?”, and what schools say to me is, “How can I guarantee that there is a good quality teacher in front of every class?” We have not heard a solution to either of those problems. What does she offer?

  • I think the right hon. Lady needs to read the White Paper. Let me also point out that we have the highest number of teachers ever in the profession, and we have created 600,000 more school places since 2010. When the Labour party was in power, it took 200,000 places out of the system at the time of a baby boom.

  • May I join colleagues—

  • I think you have had your question. May I join colleagues in congratulating the Secretary of State on her statement and on the way in which she has engaged with colleagues on both sides of the House? The Education Committee described the healthy tension between local authority schools and academy schools, which has contributed to 1.4 million fewer children being at weak schools. Does the Secretary of State agree that if local authorities that do manage to deliver outstanding schools and excellent overview and intervention, they can continue?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for the conversations we have had. Yes, of course—this is all about lifting standards and making sure no child is in a school that is failing or underperforming. Of course, if a child is in a good school being supported by a strong local authority, I want the authority to get on with doing that.

  • The chief inspector said he looked forward to a more diverse system, but how will changing all schools to the same system, as in the Secretary of State’s vision, make things more diverse? How will killing off the alternatives—our local education authorities, which are being denied the funds to provide the services that have improved schools in boroughs such as mine—facilitate improvement in the future? Lastly, what will happen to schools that are languishing in poor, failing academy trusts?

  • I think there were three questions in that one question, but I will give the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Education Committee, the benefit of the doubt. First, let me answer his last question. We take swift action in any academies that are failing. Regional schools commissioners have already brokered over 100 schools and issued 94 warning notices. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question shows a worrying lack of understanding of what we are doing. There has been a one-size-fits-all system—and that was local education authority control. We are now saying that there will be freedom for schools to decide the right future for them; that could be continuing in a strong, supportive local authority, but it could also be converting into a stand-alone academy or joining a small local cluster, a bigger multi-academy trust or a diocesan trust. Schools are free to make the decision that is right for them and their pupils.

  • May I also welcome the Secretary of State’s readiness to listen to colleagues? An Ofsted report earlier this year on the standard of provision by the local authority in Portsmouth is damning, with generations of children having been let down. The Conservative-led city council has made some important changes, and a new director of children’s services is beginning to make a difference, but does my right hon. Friend agree that she must have the powers to intervene where local authorities are failing?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we cannot stand back where local authorities are not providing sufficiently strong and effective school improvement. She is right to talk about the generations of young people who have been failed. It would be utterly irresponsible for the Government to let that continue on our watch.

  • Opposition Members are absolutely committed to high standards in schools, and the Secretary of State does not aid the debate by turning it into an unnecessarily partisan attack on the Opposition. The title of her White Paper is “Educational Excellence Everywhere”. Does she really believe that a one-size-fits-all approach is best for education everywhere? Is it not time to follow the example of other parts of the Government and to look at devolution, so that more decisions are made at city region or county level, and fewer in her Department?

  • The second half of the hon. Gentleman’s question was a lot more constructive than the first. I go back to what I said to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns): we are not having a one-size-fits-all system—we had one, and it was called local education authorities. We now have a system where schools can decide their future, either on their own, or working in clusters or with the diocese. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is on our side on raising standards, and I hope he can speak to other Opposition Members about that.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for listening to colleagues on academies. After all, the purpose of a White Paper is to listen and to debate. Does she share my disquiet about the approach and language adopted by some of the teaching unions and Labour Members in railing against all academies, despite the clear evidence that, in the main, they work?

  • I thank my hon. Friend. I well remember visiting an excellent academy in his constituency that was full of innovation, vigour and creativity, and absolutely on the side of the pupils there. Yes, I am concerned that some people so want to talk about structures that they have completely missed everything the rest of the White Paper says about teaching, leadership, standards, curriculums, and funding.

  • Just two weeks ago at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister confidently declared that forced academisation would be in the Queen’s Speech, and yet today we have this U-turn. Why has it taken the Government so long to listen to education professionals, teachers, parents, the Labour party, and even their own Back Benchers?

  • At Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minister talked about academies for all and education for all, and that is exactly what we are going to see.

  • The shadow Secretary of State said that there is no evidence that academisation, in and of itself, improves performance, but does the Secretary of State think that the increased autonomy that is inherent in the structure of academies does improve performance, as set out not only in the PISA report that she mentioned but in the McKinsey report of 2010?

  • I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend. We have been very clear that just calling a school an academy does not automatically raise standards, but academies are the vehicle by which those working in them have the creativity to innovate with the curriculum, to set flexibility for pay and conditions, and to collaborate more freely with other schools. That is exactly what academy schools are doing, and that is why standards are going up.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Ah—I call my University of Essex contemporary, Mr Ian Austin.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. The PISA figures actually show that we are going down the international league tables as standards among our competitors rise much more quickly than here in the UK, so it is an absolute tragedy that the Secretary of State spends so much of her time on partisan bickering and a dogmatic obsession with structures. The best way—the quickest way—to improve standards in our schools is to focus on leadership, and that is what she should be giving all her attention to. Will she take the £1 billion that she was going to spend on forcing every school to become an academy and use it to recruit and train a new generation of brilliant headteachers?

  • May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read, or re-read if he has already done so, chapter 3 of the White Paper, entitled “Great leaders running our schools and at the heart of our system”? We do not need to divert money because we have already set aside money for training headteachers and supporting their great leadership. If he wants to talk about our rankings in the international league tables, he might like to consider that between 2000 and 2009 England’s 15-year-olds fell from seventh to 25th in reading, eighth to 27th in maths, and fourth to 16th in science. If he thinks that performance when his party was in power was good enough, he should have another think.

  • I commend the Secretary of State for her statement. There is nothing ignoble about a Secretary of State coming to the House to make changes based on legitimate concerns raised by colleagues, including my local LEA, Conservative-controlled Peterborough City Council. In the new dispensation, will she bear in mind two particular issues: first, the statutory role of the LEA in respect of school place planning and special educational needs; and, secondly, the fact that there still remain capacity issues for academy chains in dealing with the very serious problems of failing schools, some of which are in my constituency?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for making those points. I congratulate him and his local councillors on taking control of Peterborough City Council, which was a fantastic result. He raises two very important issues. Of course we will continue to work with Members and local authorities on place planning, but also on building capacity. In the White Paper, we talk about the money that we have already set aside and the ability to grow strong, multi-academy trust sponsors, including existing good and outstanding schools, which can often be the most effective sponsors.

  • If the Secretary of State is serious about the concept of excellence everywhere, she needs to deal with the real challenge caused by the pressure put on schools to take students who are most likely to help with league tables, at the expense of students who are perceived to be less likely to do so. In doing that, she should listen to the principal of Passmores Academy, Vic Goddard, who has made the point that if something is not done about that pressure, a two-tier education system will be created to the detriment of many thousands of children who will, throughout their lives, never recover from the damage that is done to them.

  • I have met Vic Goddard, and I have had the pleasure of visiting his school and seeing just how committed and dedicated a headteacher he is. My first point, in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, is that the admissions code makes it extremely clear that schools cannot screen out or not take on certain pupils. If there is evidence of that, it needs to be reported. My second point is that, as I am sure he knows as a former member of the Select Committee on Education, we are moving towards the progress 8 measure, under which we will move away from looking at children on the C-D borderline and look instead at the progress that all students make over the course of their schooling. Schools such as Vic Goddard’s will be particularly good at making sure that that is done well.

  • As a former teacher, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to reconsider compulsory academisation. Does she recognise that it is vital to engage with the teaching profession as she seeks to implement the other important measures contained in the White Paper? I encourage her to press ahead with those, despite the low-level disruption that she faces from those in front of her.

  • I thank my hon. Friend very much for what he has said. He is, I am sure, an expert at dealing with low-level disruption. On a more serious point, engaging with teachers is something that I take very seriously and enjoy doing. One of the best things that I do is to get out of Westminster to visit schools and take part in the “teacher direct” sessions that I arrange.

  • The Secretary of State has talked about the many conversations that she has had in recent weeks, which have apparently convinced her that blanket powers for forced academisation are no longer necessary. In order to avoid a period of uncertainty and worry for school communities, would it not have been better to have had those conversations before announcing such a flawed policy?

  • I have lots of conversations all the time, but one thing I was being asked for before the publication of the White Paper was a very clear statement about where we were going and whether we wanted schools to become academies. That is exactly what the White Paper offers.

  • I, too, thank the Minister for her statement and for listening not only to Back Benchers and Members on both sides of the Chamber, but to teachers. I sense that they have concerns, but that they are willing to work with us. Will she assure me that, throughout the process, she will continue to focus on raising standards and raising aspirations, which are really at the heart of this?

  • I thank my hon. Friend very much for her comments. She is absolutely right to say that high aspirations and raising standards must be at the heart of our education policy. Education is the greatest investment that we can make in the future of our country, and it has to be about making sure that all our young people fulfil their potential and are set up for the world of work. We will absolutely keep that as the focus of all our reforms.

  • Although it was welcomed, many parents and teachers in my constituency fear that the Secretary of State’s announcement was merely a tactical retreat, and that the Government are still committed to exactly the same ends by other means. With those concerns in mind, will she provide me with some more details about the point at which a local authority will be judged to be unviable, and how the minimum performance threshold will be defined?

  • If the hon. Gentleman was listening to my statement, he will know that I said that we would be consulting on that, and that those measures would be subject to an affirmative resolution in the House. At all stages since the publication of the White Paper, our goal has been to raise standards for all children. That has not changed.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for engaging so constructively on this issue. The statement that she has made today will be most welcome in Somerset. I have recently visited a number of good and outstanding local authority-controlled schools in my constituency, which see the attraction of academisation but are nervous about the transition. Will the Secretary of State set out how her Department will work with schools and local authorities to facilitate that transition at a time of a school’s choosing?

  • I absolutely understand the worry about the unknown—about what becoming an academy means and how much time it will take—which is why we have set out that small schools will have a specific fund to support them and that each school wanting to convert will get its own adviser. I strongly urge my hon. Friend to speak to his regional schools commissioner, who has an important position in the local community in working with schools that want to convert and can raise any problems directly with me or the Minister for Schools.

  • The Secretary of State is sending out mixed messages. If I heard her correctly, she has just declared that we will still see “academies for all”. Does she accept that this whole episode has caused tremendous stress and anxiety to headteachers and staff up and down the country? Headteachers are now considering converting to academy status not to raise their standards, but simply to avoid being pushed. Will she give them some reassurance that they should focus not on their structures, but on their standards?

  • We have been very clear—I do not think that I could have been clearer in my answers or in my original statement—that we want all schools to be focused on raising standards. However, I and we are very clear about the benefits of schools becoming academies, and about trusting those on the frontline to run their schools and to be accountable for the results they achieve. That is why we are very clear that we want all schools to become academies, but to do so at a time and in a way of their choosing, unless they are underperforming schools, the local authority is underperforming or it is no longer viable for the local authority to run them because of the numbers of schools that have converted.

  • I recently met school leaders and Hampshire County Council leaders who were keen to hear about the Secretary of State’s direction of travel. I welcome the listening exercise for me and my colleagues, which has begun the process of truly understanding the commitment and promise in our manifesto to lift the standards in our schools. Today’s statement shows that the focus is on our children and on helping all of them to achieve. In relation to the White Paper listening exercise, will the Secretary of State fill in the gaps on parents’ voices and links to the community?

  • I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work she has done locally in bringing schools together and in talking to parents and others in her constituency. It is incumbent on all of us to continue to do that as constituency Members of Parliament, but also to encourage people to visit schools that have converted, because that is often the best way to understand how the process works and what are the best decisions to take. That applies to parents, governors and teachers, and to headteachers as well.

  • The situation is very confused at the moment: the Government seem happy to give Greater Manchester councils full health devolution, with £8 billion a year, but do not trust them to be given the same control of their schools. Will the Secretary of State explain that difference?

  • Becoming an academy is all about the ultimate devolution—devolution to the frontline of the heads, the teachers and the governors.

  • I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s flexibility on this matter. Secondary schools in Gloucestershire were among the first warmly to embrace becoming academies, but that seems to have left a communication gap in relation to small rural schools. How can her Department, and indeed all of us, communicate with the parents, governors and teachers of such small secondary schools about the benefits of academies?

  • In my statement, I set out some of the specific policies, and we will put together a package of information about them that hon. Members can circulate to relevant schools. I encourage my hon. Friend to do what others have done, which is to call together heads or chairs of governors for meetings, and to involve the regional schools commissioners, who will hold events to talk about becoming an academy and the sponsorship opportunities available if that is what such small schools want to pursue.

  • I am sure that the many good and outstanding schools in my constituency that are not academies will welcome this statement, but I am concerned that the Secretary of State’s dogmatic ambitions remain the same and that she still intends to force every school to academise by hook or by crook. A few weeks ago, she said that

    “we are going to finish this job.”—[Official Report, 25 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1119.]

    Does she still stand by that statement, or will she finally recognise the right of good and outstanding local schools to determine their own destiny and accept that if they decide not to become an academy, that right will be respected?

  • That just shows that if hon. Members sit here and listen to a statement, they still do not necessarily listen to what I have actually been saying. I have talked about finishing the job—the job of lifting standards for all young people in this country.

  • I commend my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for her measured and thoughtful statement, which I believe will address the legitimate concerns of many excellent but small rural schools in my constituency. Does she agree that in education, and indeed across all government, we must never let the outstanding become the enemy of the good?

  • My hon. Friend and neighbour and I both know that we are very fortunate in Leicestershire to have many great schools, but we also know from our experience that not all young people have the opportunity to attend a good or outstanding school, whether in the midlands or elsewhere. That is why we cannot let up on the pursuit of reforms that lift educational standards.

  • In one of the most affluent constituencies in the country I could find only six schools that were ranked as outstanding. That is the result of successive cosy relationships with the LEA under different administrations. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to make sure that that situation is improved?

  • My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. A number of people have told me that they are in good local authorities with good schools, but we should compare those with other local authorities—whether similar local authorities or those in the most disadvantaged areas—where sometimes we see schools doing fantastic things for their pupils. That is why we introduced the Education and Adoption Act 2016, which tackles coasting schools—those schools that are okay, but that could be a lot better. That is what we intend to help them to achieve.

  • I welcome the Secretary of State’s strength in her statement. In my constituency, and in Medway as a whole, most secondary schools and a large proportion of primaries are already academies. Some of those were compelled to become academies. It is true that home-grown academies have played a massive role in driving up standards within our authority, which has historically been an underperforming one. In my time as portfolio holder for education improvement, I saw adults’ positions being put before outcomes for young people in the schools those adults were charged with looking after. Will the Secretary of State confirm that she is committed to tackling underperformance, wherever it is?

  • By the sheer strength and passion of my hon. Friend’s question, she has shown just how committed she is to this agenda. I well remember discussing it with her on the campaign trail when she was seeking election to this House. I absolutely assure her that we will have no let up and no reverse gear on lifting standards for all young people in this country.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for her unswerving determination to drive up standards in our schools and her willingness to listen to suggestions on how the White Paper might be strengthened. Does she agree that Rowanfield Junior School in my constituency, which she visited recently, provides a powerful example of the great benefits for pupils and teachers that can come from multi-academy trusts but that good and outstanding schools in Cheltenham should be trusted to judge for themselves whether that structure suits them?

  • Like my hon. Friend, I really enjoyed my visit to Rowanfield Junior School, with its two fantastic co-headteachers—frankly, I wish I could clone them and we could have more like them across the country. They were utterly inspirational. He is absolutely right that we want good and outstanding schools to be able to choose the right format for them. But we have to be realistic. If they are in a local authority that is underperforming or is not viable, that is not going to help them to get even better.

  • I thank the Secretary of State and her ministerial team for taking the time to listen to concerns raised, for strengthening this already fantastic White Paper and for providing a source of debate in my constituency as to whether the LEA model is in fact not the right one. To that end, will she consider the obstacles for local clusters forming multi-academy trusts because of the many Church schools in my constituency?

  • My hon. Friend has raised the really important question of small schools, usually primary schools, deciding whether to join the diocesan academy trust, if one has been set up, or thinking about other options. On 18 April we published on the Department’s website two new memorandums of understanding, with the Church of England and with the Catholic Church, which provide more flexibility. I hope that they will be of use to him in his discussions.

  • I, too, thank the Secretary of State for listening so constructively to Conservative Back Benchers about this issue. As I told her face to face, I have good local authority schools, good academies, and a really good co-operative trust in my home village of Honley. Will she continue to put parents and governing bodies at the forefront of determining the future of our wonderful local schools?

  • My hon. Friend and I had a good conversation. As a constituency Member he is passionate about championing high educational standards in his constituency, and he is right to say that the voices of parents, governors, teachers, headteachers and, in many cases, pupils must be listened to. That is why it is incumbent on us to ensure that all options are out there, so that good and outstanding schools can make the right decisions.

  • As the Secretary of State will be aware, the majority of schools in Torbay have already converted to academy status, and schools such as Barton Hill Academy are making real progress with the flexibilities that such status provides. That does, however, raise the issue of the viability of the Torbay LEA, and I was interested to hear the Secretary of State’s comments. Will she confirm whether the thresholds for Government intervention will be based on the percentage of pupil numbers or the percentage of schools, or will that be subject to later consultation?

  • That is a good question and something that we want to continue discussing when taking measures through the House, including with local authorities. The important thing is a local authority’s ability to have the resources, experience and personnel to offer really good school improvement, and in my experience, most local authorities will be able to judge when they are struggling with that. We know that at least one local authority has already asked us to issue academy orders for its remaining schools.

  • I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and willingness to engage on what was, let us remember, a White Paper for discussion. Last Friday afternoon I was in a meeting with the leader and schools leader of Hampshire County Council, and it is fair to say that the first half of the meeting did not go as well as the second half once they had heard her announcement, and I pass on their thanks. My hope is that this compromise will allow us to get on in successful areas—94% of schools in my constituency are already good or outstanding—and allow her to focus ruthlessly on those areas where children do not enjoy the life chances that they do in my constituency. Do I have that right?

  • The announcement on Friday was not timed exactly for my hon. Friend’s meeting with Hampshire local authority, but he had made clear to me when he was having that meeting. He is right to say that in the White Paper and subsequent discussions it has become clear that children in some parts of the country are getting a great education, but that is not the case everywhere. I cannot say strongly enough how much I feel that we must ensure that such educational excellence is shared by all children in all parts of this country.

  • I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I had my concerns about compulsory academisation, but she has clearly taken the time to listen to all her colleagues and I welcome that approach. I also welcome the £10 million fund for small rural schools that need support in conversion, but when will that be made available? If a number of schools are looking to form a multi-academy trust, will the money go to the lead school or to them all?

  • We still need to work out the details, but the idea is for the fund to be available sooner rather than later, and some small schools are already thinking about their future. The fund would be for things such as legal costs. I will not set out all the details, but it is important that the fund supports all schools, because they will all need that support, not just the lead school.

  • I do not share the rose-tinted view of some about local education authorities, and mine in Nottinghamshire has failed consistently to provide good-quality education in Newark. At times, political parties and local education authorities in my town have been extremely complacent and ineffective. To me, the most important thing is the willingness to intervene when schools are demonstrably failing, and that has been neglected for too long. In her advice and guidance for regional schools commissioners, will the Secretary of State redouble the commitment to intervene, so that no child’s education gets written off as has happened to generations in my town of Newark?

  • I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s commitment, as a local Member of Parliament, to driving up educational standards in his constituency. He is absolutely right to say that. We know there are local authorities across the country—he mentions his own—that have never issued a warning notice or appointed an interim executive board to run a school. We could not be clearer with the regional schools commissioners. They are an excellent team who know they need to intervene swiftly when there is educational failure. We have seen that with the re-brokering of sponsorships and with the sending out of financial and educational warning notices. That absolutely will continue.

  • As the governor of an excellent academy, Hillview school in Tonbridge, which has done so much to maintain the ethos of arts education, I am very proud of the Government’s work to support academies. I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s comments and ask her whether she timed them for me to be able to write to Ightham Parish Council and thank it for its very useful intervention only last week, or whether it was timed for Four Elms Parish Council, whose intervention was on Friday.

  • I am delighted to have assisted my hon. Friend and those parish councils, if that is the case. It was important that we made the announcement. I congratulate him on being a governor of the school. On the arts, I visited the fantastic Lings primary school in Northampton—I think I have mentioned it in the House before—which has embedded Shakespeare in the curriculum from reception to year 6. That shows what inspirational headteachers, with the support of an academy trust, can do to transform education in their schools.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for listening on both academies and fair funding. Will she or one of her ministerial colleagues meet me and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) to discuss the situation in South Staffordshire, where schools are working really hard but suffering tremendously in comparison with neighbouring authorities on the question of funding per head?

  • Yes, of course. The Schools Minister or I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. We have made a very clear commitment, which was not taken up under 13 years of the previous Labour Government, to transform how fair funding works across the country. It has to be right that the same pupils with the same characteristics attract the same funding. That is what we are determined to see.