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Free Schools and Academies in England

Volume 650: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of free schools and academies in England.

I am delighted to have secured the debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) for his perseverance, when he was Education Secretary, in bringing forward the Academies Act 2010, which revolutionised the way schools operate. I also pay tribute to the Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb)—a veritable rock of stability in Government—who has been making things happen almost throughout the process. Naysayers said that it would not work; they called it an experiment and accused us of creating a divide in the state school system. Eight years on, we see that they were wrong. The first free schools and new academies opened in 2011 and our schools are performing better than ever. Whereas only 68% of state-funded schools were good or outstanding in 2010, that jumped to 89% at the end of August 2017.

Nowhere is more exemplary of the benefits that free schools and academies bring to the system than the two boroughs in my constituency—the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham. Indeed, K and C and H and F—under the Conservatives until 2014—have been the vibrant nucleus of schools reform since 2010. In those two boroughs, which are the smallest in London, an astonishing five new secondary schools have opened since 2010, and every one of them is a free school or academy. Kensington Aldridge Academy, Chelsea Academy, Hammersmith Academy, Fulham Boys School and West London Free School are providing places for more than 3,700 students. I attended three of the openings—two of them with the Secretary of State at the time.

This year’s GCSE results show that the schools are doing fantastically well: 85% of exams at West London Free School were awarded grades 9 to 4, which in old money is A* to C. Chelsea Academy’s results were in the top 10% nationally, with 30% of its English and maths awards at grades equivalent to the old A* and A grades. At Kensington Aldridge Academy, at the foot of Grenfell Tower and deeply affected by the tragedy last year, students perform a third of a grade better at A-level than those with the same GCSE results in other schools. That is the highest progress score in the whole borough. Four of Britain’s top 12 primary schools are in Kensington and Chelsea. It is a remarkable record.

Kensington and Chelsea has the best schools in the country, and that is even more remarkable given the fact that the most affluent 50% of the borough chooses to opt out of the state system in its entirety. Despite that, the borough has four of the 12 best performing primary schools in the country, and some excellent secondary schools. Throughout both boroughs, including conversions to academy status, we have no fewer than 30 free schools and academies. I am delighted to say that every one of them—100%—has received a rating of good or outstanding. That is a testament to the success of those schools.

One of the great things about the free schools and academies programme is the autonomy they have in setting pay levels, conditions and hours, which allows them to keep the best talent in the classrooms. When teachers play an indispensable role in nurturing the young minds of children, they should feel a part of the decision-making process, because recognising teachers as experts in their fields and empowering them in that way is a vital part of retention. Fulham Boys School is an excellent example of that. I should declare that I am a co-patron of the school. Remarkably for an inner-London school, in the past four years only five teachers have left—every one of them to be promoted, or because for life reasons they were moving out of London. It is possible to find other state-funded schools that have had a turnover of 100% in the same period. Teachers see themselves spending their entire career at Fulham Boys School and they become long-term mentors to students—familiar, stable figures throughout a child’s education.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Schools also have autonomy over exclusion policy. The Select Committee onEducation looked at the escalating number of exclusions from academies in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees, but it has no power to influence what the schools do. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers need to look more closely at exclusions and why they are happening, and at why some children are denied a full education?

I think that it is sensible to keep those policies under review at all times. I am not familiar with the situation in Stockton-on-Tees, but I think that the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I am sure that the Minister has noted it.

I want to quote a helpful contribution from the headmaster of the Fulham Boys School, a remarkable man called Alun Ebenezer—he is from your part of the world, Mr Davies, although he was in Cardiff, not Swansea. He wrote that he was happy in his position:

“And yet, eight months later, I decided to apply for a headship at a school that had no site, no pupils, no staff, no exam results, nothing in the trophy cabinet and was 150 miles from my homeland. Why?

Because the opportunity to build a school from scratch, the vision set out for that school and the ideology of the free school movement was so alluring. It was an opportunity to make a difference, challenge society, transform young people’s lives; to shake up the established order. I came to London to show what a free school could do when it properly embraces its freedom…I believe the first four years of FBS have done just that.”

That is the kind of can-do attitude that is seen in so many schools in my constituency.

Another example of schools doing as well as that is the group of Ark schools, of which there are five between the two boroughs. They have led the way in teacher training innovations. Their Now Teach venture, set up in 2016, was designed to encourage high-flyers to retrain as teachers. They get on board the lawyers, doctors and bankers of the world to inspire children and become role models in the classroom. Such innovation is possible only when schools are freed from red tape and the bureaucratic decision-making processes of councils.

Will my right hon. Friend add parents to the list of people that schools should involve? It is crucial that they are involved in a big way in the running of schools. That solves many of the problems that teachers have with things such as discipline.

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. The role of parents is vital. Many free schools are parent-led initiatives. I first met people involved with Fulham Boys School in late 2010 or early 2011, along with the then Secretary of State for Education, to discuss how to proceed. Groups of parents in my constituency come to me all the time with all kinds of innovative ideas. I shall talk about some of the problems they face, particularly with finding sites, but my hon. Friend has made a powerful point.

Schools of the kind I am talking about are also doing extremely well nationally, with nearly double the proportion of primary schools rated outstanding, compared with all state-funded primary schools. Secondary free schools and academies are also ahead of state-run maintained schools in the proportion rated outstanding; 30% of free schools have been judged outstanding, compared with 21% of other schools. I see more and more demand. I have come across groups looking for particular specialisms, such as the group of Spanish-speaking Fulham residents who have come to talk to me about setting up a bilingual free school, and another from Fulham’s French community. Other people are looking at subject specialisms. The idea has really driven innovation in my constituency.

However, some issues with the system still need ironing out. Despite all this excellent news, we must not be complacent. There should be no presumption of preferred suppliers of academy chains.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention. We can all celebrate the success of schools in local authorities as well as academies, and it is great that the Government built on the legacy left by the Blair Government, which invested tremendously in education over many years. Does he share my concern about support for failing academies? The regional schools commissioner in the north-east is struggling to find a partner for one of our schools in the Stockton borough. It was even suggested at one stage that a failing academy chain should take it over. Months later, it still does not have a partner, because when people look at the books they realise that the falling roll means there are insufficient resources to do what they need to achieve. Ministers need to intervene there quite heavily.

Again, I am not familiar with the particular local circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s area. I would say that of course there will be examples of schools in difficulties, across all categories of school, but the statistics for this are absolutely clear: free schools and academies are significantly more likely to be succeeding than other schools. That is what the evidence clearly shows. But I agree that any school facing difficulties will need careful attention from relevant local or national authorities.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a passionate defence of the schools in his constituency, which is the first thing a constituency MP does, but there is no evidence anywhere to show that academisation means that schools are performing better.

I disagree. I have already read out quite a bit of evidence from the statistics behind the academies outperforming the rest of the sector: 65% of those inspected saw their grades improve from inadequate to either good or outstanding, having been transformed into academies. Multi-academy trusts enable our best performing schools to help struggling schools improve all the time. The evidence speaks for itself in the statistics I read out earlier and in the Government’s overall improvement in school standards.

Returning to my point about where we need to improve, one size does not fit all for education. Schools cannot simply be transposed from one part of the country to another or rolled out in a cookie-cutter approach simply because they have worked in one format. There has to be room for local organic growth. I will put on the record my frustration with the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which must do better at working with schools to anticipate and resolve problems in site delivery. The Fulham Boys School, which has been waiting to move to its new site for some time now, has been particularly affected. The ESFA should, in this regard, harness local knowledge and relationships rather than necessarily relying on centralised procurement processes.

Schools need certainty to plan for their futures. I thank the current Secretary of State for meeting me and the school last summer—I know we have another school coming up—and trying to drive through the move to the new site in Heckfield Place in my constituency. I will quote again from the school’s headmaster, whose blog post title overdoes it the other way. It is entitled, “Why the free school movement will fail”, which I think is far too pessimistic. The title does not really match the content. He writes:

“My view, shaped over the last 4 years, is that bureaucrats’ delivery of Free school policy is directly frustrating government’s aspirations for it… Secondly, Free schools like FBS are constantly being frustrated and hampered by slow moving bureaucracy, red tape and ‘process’.”

I will add into the mix here that one of the most extraordinary meetings I ever had in Government, when I was a Minister, was taking the Fulham Boys School in to meet some of the ESFA officials. One official—admittedly, he was an outside contractor—said to the Fulham Boys School, which is also a Church of England school, “You are a faith school, so you must have belief that your school will open.” He could not offer specific reassurances on the site or when the contractors doing the site would be ready. He simply said to them that, as a faith school, they needed to believe. I do not know how religious you are, Mr Davies, but I would say that even the most evangelical of people would want to see something slightly more concrete than that on the table.

Unfortunately, progress has come to a grinding halt under Labour in Hammersmith and Fulham. The borough has failed to provide additional school places that are needed, particularly for the bulge in secondary school numbers that is coming up. Ironically, despite all these new schools, the borough now has the lowest figure for first-choice secondary school placements in England—it is absolutely rock bottom of that league table. Hammersmith and Fulham simply does not have enough places at quality schools that parents want their children to go to.

The council itself predicts that by 2027 there will be a deficit of 327 places for students between years 7 and 11, not including sixth form. That is 327 students without a place by the year 2027. Kensington and Chelsea also has a problem, as the figure there is projected to stand at 195 students by 2023-24. There is also something there that needs fixing. Creating additional secondary school places is a challenge in a constituency such as mine, especially finding sites in the two boroughs I represent, where land is incredibly expensive. We need to recognise some of the difficulty in doing that. It is easier said than done.

Nevertheless, the popularity of these schools at secondary level is evidenced by how over-subscribed they are. West London Free School receives nearly 10 applications for every year 7 place. At Lady Margaret School, which is a conversion to an academy, it is nearly seven applicants per place. These schools continually top parents’ lists of first preferences, and all of them outperform others in their area. It is, of course, great news that the Department for Education expects around another 1,000 maintained schools to become academies over the next two years, and that 110 new schools opening by 2020 will be free schools. There was also news in September that 53 new free schools and one university technical college will be creating up to 40,000 new school places.

That is the picture locally: excellence, popularity of these schools, and continuing drive from parents to create more of them. We have a deficit of school places and parents are demanding these kinds of innovative schools, but they are concerned—I will put my cards on the table—at what they are hearing from the Labour party about its plans. I was amazed at the speech by the shadow Secretary of State for Education at the Labour party conference. I doubt that you personally had the misfortune to be there, Mr Davies, because I know you are a sensible man, but she said—

Order. Mr Hands, it is probably not a good idea to make assumptions about the Chair to which I cannot respond, but do continue.

I apologise, Mr Davies. You are quite right, of course. The shadow Secretary of State for Education said:

“We’ll start by immediately ending the Tories’ academy and free schools programmes. They neither improve standards nor empower staff or parents.”

I put it to the Opposition spokesman today that I have outlined in 17 minutes a lot of the progress that has been made in my constituency and the popularity and success of these schools. Parents with children at the schools are alarmed at the Labour party’s position and what it might mean, particularly if they have a Labour council that also believes in his policy. I invite him to put on record that these parents and all the groups coming to see me now who want to set up new free schools have no reason to be afraid. There is an incredible diversity of parents and others looking to take advantage of this innovation, and it would be fantastic if we could hear from him that their fears are unfounded. I will sit down and give others an opportunity to contribute to the debate, but I look forward to hearing the responses from the Front Benchers in due course.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) for securing the debate and for giving us an insight into how schools are improving in his constituency. I think he will find that our experience in Ellesmere Port and Neston is a little bit more mixed. Of course, every area is slightly different, but one thing he said that I was very interested to hear was about staff turnover in a particular school. That is a real challenge in trying to drive up standards, and I would certainly like to hear more, perhaps after the debate, about what was done in that school to keep staff numbers so stable, because there is no doubt that the best schools are those that can recruit and retain the most impressive staff.

I must declare an interest: my wife is the cabinet member for children and young people at Cheshire West and Chester Council, and two of my children attend a local school in my constituency.

Cheshire West and Chester Council has an impressive record in education, with more than 90% of its schools rated good or outstanding and a plan for every school in the borough to reach that standard. If that council were a multi-academy trust, Ministers would be singing its praises and finding ways to bring struggling schools from across the area under its leadership. Instead, because it is a local authority, the push has been in the opposite direction, with pressure put on governing bodies to convert schools to academies. That is a perfect example of why Government policy is not always about rewarding what works best or bringing people together to improve. This policy is about an ideological drive towards academies and free schools, and I think that, contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman said, it is an experiment that is failing.

The flaws in the Government’s drive towards academisation at all costs are clear to see in my constituency, following the serious decline of one academy over a number of years, to the extent that an entire cohort of young people have in effect been failed by the system. That is not to say that there was not some excellent teaching at the school or that we are not incredibly proud of the skills and talents of our young people, but when inspection after inspection raised serious concerns, something needed to be done. If it had been a local authority school, there is no doubt that that would have been enough for the Government to declare that the leadership of the school had failed and the school would need to be converted into an academy. Instead, after years of indecision, the remedy prescribed is more of the same.

A decision has been made to re-broker the schools within the trust to new sponsors, and although we are all hoping for the best from the new sponsors, parents are understandably anxious to ensure that the same situation does not arise. I know that the new sponsors are making real efforts to engage with parents. However, the process took far too long, and all the time the council was willing and able to step in and help, had it been asked. I would therefore like the Minister to explain, if he can, what the rationale is for preventing high-achieving local authorities such as Cheshire West and Chester from bringing academies back under their control. Is there a sound evidence base for the policy, and does it have the support of headteachers and teachers, or is it in reality an ideological decision?

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) referred to this, but when I consider that there are more than 100 failing academies, looking for new sponsors, that are responsible for 70,000 children, I have to conclude that ideology is hampering those children’s opportunity to get a good education, because there does not appear to be a plan B. We have heard a lot about there being no plan Bs in other areas recently, and it appears that there is no plan B for failing academies either.

Even if my local school were an isolated case, that would be reason enough to revisit the Government’s approach, but a Schools Week investigation found that at least 91 multi-academy trusts had closed or were in the process of being wound up since 2014. The Government hand out grants of between £70,000 and £150,000 for new academy sponsors to set up a trust, and cover running costs until the first school opens. If each of the 91 closed trusts received just the lowest possible grant, which of course may not have been the case—it may have been more—the Government will have paid at least £6.1 million to set them up. Then there are the debts that the Department has to write off when a trust collapses—£3 million in the case of University of Chester Academies Trust, a deficit in the region of £8 million at the Schools Company Trust, £500,000 in the case of Lilac Sky Schools Academy Trust and £300,000 owed by the Collective Spirit Community Trust.

In a time of real-terms cuts to local schools budgets, how can the Government justify spending at least £10 million, possibly a lot more, on failing multi-academy trusts? Then there is money coming out at the other end, with reports of an academy head receiving an £850,000 pay-off. That simply would not be allowed anywhere else in the public sector, so why is it allowed in this case?

It is simply not a level playing field at the moment. A local school tells me that it is desperate to expand, but does not have the opportunity to bid for capital funding to achieve that aim. How can it build on its success when it is unable to build? I am sure that if it reopened as a free school, there would be no problem in getting the cash, but why does it need to reinvent the wheel? Why are existing schools that have put the effort in, have made great improvements and are already an established part of the community discriminated against because they are not part of the latest fad from Government? How about a capital funding policy that rewards improvement and looks at where existing provision can be augmented?

Has all the money spent on academies been well spent? Let us take the words of David Laws:

“What we know is the most successful part of the academisation programme was the early part of it…Those early academies had absolutely everything thrown at them. They were academised school by school, with huge ministerial intervention. The new governors were almost hand-picked. They often brought in the best headteachers to replace failing management teams. They had new buildings. Sponsors had to put in extra cash.”

In an echo of the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) on the Front Bench, David Laws went on to say:

“Our research shows that much of the programme since then has had little impact on standards.”

Another issue that arises from the programme of mass academisation that we have seen in recent years is that the local authority has become the admissions authority in name only. Of course, the net result of that is that some schools end up being over-subscribed, which exacerbates the chaos that we are already getting because an academy-led system means that we get an increasingly lopsided and unstrategic approach, with more and more children being taught out of area because of the way in which schools can set their own admissions policies now.

That has also, I think, led to a rise in the number of children being home-schooled. That figure has risen by more than 40% in the past three years, according to figures obtained by the BBC. That is not about a broken admissions system; it is about schools perhaps suggesting that a particular child could be home-schooled to avoid an exclusion or that the school environment might not be the best place for the child if they have special educational needs. Yes, some parents are just exercising parental choice in home-schooling their children, but surely the rise in the number of academies and the rise in the number of home-schooled children at least needs to be examined to see whether that is something more than a coincidence.

Who is monitoring and evaluating the explosion in home-schooling? Has there been a 40% increase in resources to facilitate such monitoring? Are we confident that the legislation and guidance in this area are as up to date as they need to be? Are we comfortable that so many children are now being educated in that way? Is it a great example of parental choice, or have parents been forced down that route because the school that their children were in, or the system, led them to that place? What efforts are being made to enable children being home-schooled to return to school? What scrutiny is taking place of schools or areas that have higher than average levels of home-schooling? Is any analysis done of variations?

Those are not easy questions to answer, but they should be asked. I fear that because we have a fragmented system, once a child starts to be home-educated, they become someone else’s responsibility. That is the wrong approach. We owe it to all children to ensure that they get the very best education, no matter where they are.

I would like the current landscape in education to be altered so that there is accountability, transparency and a level playing field. At the moment, I suggest, we have none of those things.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) for introducing this subject, because it is one that I have spent quite a considerable amount of my time specialising in within my constituency. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has been incredibly courteous to me over the years, meeting with me and with schools of all sizes so that we can discuss problems. I place on record my sincere thanks to him.

One thing that I have been able to do in specialising in this area is to visit every school in my constituency. I think, from memory, that that is more than 100 schools, which is quite a lot. I have not done that all in one year; I have done it over a number of years, given that we have only Fridays and that the schools are on holiday for quite a lot of the year. But I have done it; I have visited all of them.

I would like to mention one school in particular that fits in with the subject of this debate, the Europa School in Culham in my constituency. Before I describe it, I re-emphasis the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham made about how free schools offer considerable flexibility to reflect a particular way in which parents want their children to be taught. In this case, being a free school offers a particular mindset for how to approach the area, which we should all bear in mind.

The Europa School is the successor to the European School. I am not going to get into a Brexit debate—in fact, I was at a naval dinner last night where, if anyone mentioned the term “Brexit”, they had to drink a large measure of neat rum.

While I would love that to be the case here, I suspect it will not occur.

The European School had a distinguished record. It was set up when lots of European parents were over to work at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy at Oxford University and at the Harwell science centre. For several reasons, the European School’s funding dried up, so the Europa School was started as its successor, and has gradually taken over its workings.

The Europa School was set up as a free school, because that is what the parents wanted. They wanted the particular type of education that the European School offered to continue through the free school. That type of education was a way of approaching subjects in original languages. Children did not go and learn in French, Spanish, German or English. They were taught in all those languages, so they could end up having history in German or geography in Spanish, and so on throughout the complete list of subjects. That is a valuable way of teaching. The parents wanted that system to continue in the school, and it is being continued.

To encapsulate that teaching at the end of the process, the parents also wanted the children to take the European baccalaureate, which offers a comprehensive system for evaluating children at roughly the equivalent A-level period that they would have to face. We need to hold fast to that in what I say next.

We must not forget that the school was principally set up to deal with parents of European origin in the area. The approach to teaching languages has proved immensely successful—so successful that we are now in a situation where non-European parents are desperate for their children to enter the school and be taught in that way. Because it is a free school, it can offer that way of teaching and it can say to the parents, “We can take your child in.” To be honest, I think it is a superb way of being taught languages.

The problem comes about because of the European baccalaureate. As I said, the school is desperate to continue teaching it, but there is some difficulty about the ownership of the copyright for it, and a distinction is being made as to whether that is in the gift of the European Commission or the Department. The school has had some interaction with the Department about the issue, which needs to be resolved. It is important because that way of teaching is very special, and people have become not only wedded to it, but so attracted to it that it attracts parents from a wide area. Earlier this year, I presented a petition from something like 2,500 or 3,000 parents and friends of the school in the House of Commons to try to encourage the Government to make sure that the European baccalaureate can continue to be taught there.

There is something special about free schools, particularly in what they can teach and the way in which they can teach it. The Europa School illustrates that above all, which is why I have spent the last few minutes telling hon. Members about it. It is a good example of how free schools work, how they can take the attitudes of parents and make them a reality, and how they can, in this case, through the European baccalaureate, continue to offer something of enormous benefit to children. I think the Minister agrees that there is no issue of quality about the European baccalaureate; it provides just the same quality that children would get if they were taking traditional A-levels. For that reason, I fully support the school.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, on securing this important debate. His past role means that he must understand the numbers.

As I have said, we should celebrate the success of all our schools, regardless of where they come from. Even in those that are not doing so well, perhaps we have something to celebrate as they strive to deliver for our children. One school in my constituency that has not gone down the academy route is the Northfield School in Billingham. I was delighted to join it when it achieved the Artsmark a few weeks ago. The school band and choir were waiting for me as I arrived and it was a tremendous pleasure to be at that extremely successful school.

I also talked about the Labour Government’s legacy. I appreciate that the coalition Government and the two Conservative Governments since have built on the Blair legacy, which saw schools funding brought up to realistic levels by more than doubling it in Budgets during that time. That was when we saw the increase in the number of teaching assistants in schools and in resources, and a capital programme that I do not think has quite been equalled yet by the Government. That considerable programme has made a huge difference to the education of young people in our communities.

There is success, but there are places where success does not yet exist. We have to put a great emphasis on everybody who is succeeding, but we need to put an even greater emphasis on those who are not. The first two academies in the Stockton-on-Tees borough were the North Shore Academy and the Thornaby Academy. Both schools have tended to bump along the bottom. That said, the North Shore Academy is now showing real progress, which I celebrate. It has relatively low numbers, however, so budgets are a major issue, particularly since the Government introduced their fair funding programme that saw funding move from schools in the north with considerable special needs to those elsewhere in the country.

I referred to the Thornaby Academy when I talked about support for failing academies and the bizarre proposal from the regional schools commissioner at one point that a failing academies chain should come in and work alongside it. It is still waiting for a partner to help improve it, but because of its falling numbers, its budgets are extremely limited, so it struggles considerably—so much, in fact, that the local authority is contemplating subsidising it and putting resources into it to ensure that it can survive a little longer. So what we need to know from the Minister is how we will get schools such as these achieving to the levels that we have been celebrating earlier today.

In an intervention, I talked a little about exclusions. There was even a television programme on exclusions last night. I only have second-hand information about it because, of course, I was one of the many people who were here very late last night. That programme looked at what happens in some schools where children are put into a room called the “ready to learn room”, so they are excluded and taken out of the classroom. I understand why children need to be removed from classrooms at times; it is because they are disruptive to others. However, those children also need support—real support—and putting them in a room and isolating them is not necessarily the right idea.

At least one school in the Stockton borough puts children into pods, so that they are sitting in a little box and facing a blank wall, when they are supposed to be getting on with work. Yet those children are the ones who are possibly—indeed probably—the most likely to be excluded. And when they are excluded permanently, they end up back in the arms of the local authority, even though local authorities have been stripped of resources and do not really have the ability to support young people in the way they would like to.

Within the Stockton borough—it is probably the same across the country—one of the greatest pressures on funding is the pressure on high-needs funding. Stockton experienced a £2.5 million overspend in that funding in the past financial year and it is projecting that it will have a similar overspend in 2018-19. That is because it has to support the youngsters who are excluded from academies, while also doing other work; I appreciate that. Nevertheless, it has to support those children.

The council’s view is that there is just insufficient high-needs funding in the system. It continues to lobby for an increased funding deal and I am sure the Minister realises that that is what I am doing to him now: I am actually lobbying him directly for more high-needs funding for children, not only in the Stockton borough but across the country.

Of course, in the absence of additional funding from central Government, the local authority is taking action to reduce costs in all sorts of areas, to live within the funding envelope that is available to it, but that is simply proving more and more difficult every single year.

The local schools forum agreed at its meeting on 27 November to submit a request to the Secretary of State to transfer £1.4 million of the schools block to the high-needs budget. I hope the Minister will consider that very carefully, in order to give these schools the leg-up that they need. It was not an easy decision for the forum to take, because schools are really concerned about the lack of funding in the whole system. Some areas, such as ours, have actually suffered because of some of the fair funding decisions and, of course, because of the number of pupils going into particular schools. I would very much welcome the Minister’s view on that issue, but what is he going to do specifically about high-needs funding in the longer term?

Yes, let us celebrate success. I love celebrating success; I just love going into our schools. The atmosphere is tremendous and there is no doubt that generally children are very happy in school, and happy children learn much more quickly than those who are unhappy.

So we really need to think about where the support services are. We know about special educational needs and we know that certain children need particular support, and yet special needs budgets are being squeezed in these years and we really need to do more to support those budgets, so that those children can get the support they need, become happy children and learn.

I will continue to celebrate successes, but I just hope that the Minister will recognise that although we generally have a very successful schools system in this country, there are many, many children—hundreds of thousands of children—who are still being failed because we do not have the recipe right. We need to get that recipe right as soon as possible.

As ever, Mr Davies, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) on securing this important debate. It is a debate without many Members; the House sat very late last night with the Brexit deliberations. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman went to Dr Challoner’s Grammar School. Its motto is “Ad Astra Per Aspera”, which means, “We look to the stars through difficulties”. That might be good advice for the current Government, as they navigate or steer the ship through the Brexit waters. However, other Labour Members will agree that, as things currently stand, the Government are steering using celestial navigation on a cloudy night. Anyway, there are not too many Members here in Westminster Hall today, because so many were in the House last night.

The reality of the current school system is that it is broken, and that it has been fragmented beyond repair. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who threw the system up, broke it and then saw how it would coalesce together. The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to see us go up in the PISA standings—the programme for international student assessment standings—in terms of standards. We know that has not happened; because of the reforms, that just has not worked at all. Also, the system is in parts unfair and unaccountable, as has been said, and in most places it is not being led by the needs of local communities.

I did a simple Google search on academies and schools today, just to see what would come up. Day in and day out, we see some of the problems that the system is faced with today. Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of Ofsted, has said that it is a “halfway-house” and “inadequate”, and that it does not have enough capacity. There are not enough teachers and leadership in the system, and schools are being left in limbo for far too long, which is a point I will come on to in just a moment. In fact, one school has been left in limbo—without a sponsor—for seven years. That was the result of the first part of my Google search.

May I take it from what the shadow Minister is saying that he endorses his boss’s proposal, which is immediately to end the Tories’ academy and free school programme? Can he confirm that today?

I will come on to say what our programme is. We will see new schools and new academies, but we will bring them in where they are accountable to local people, where proper spatial planning is done, and where numbers are consistent with the school places being brought forward. At the moment there is no accountability; I will explain that later in my speech.

In the hon. Gentleman’s policy, the future of those free schools and academies will be accountable to local people. How will that differ from existing county schools?

Currently, we have a system that is unaccountable. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) had to raise issues of pedagogical knowledge and how a school teaches, directly with the Minister. We cannot run 22,000 schools in England and Wales from Whitehall; nobody expects that. So the system will be local and accountable when Labour comes to power. That is what parents want. We have seen parents being cut out of academies and coming off governing bodies across our land; we want parents driving the policies of our local schools with local elected authorities.

Secondly, if someone does a simple Google search, they will find that the Department for Education itself has recently named and shamed 88 academies and trusts for failing to publish their financial returns.

The third thing that came out of my Google search today is that currently the academies—I emphasise that this has just been reported today—have a £6.1 billion deficit within the system. What is going on with the accountability and financing of this programme?

Finally, I will say one more thing on this issue. The Conservatives have hugely lauded individual schools and some headteachers who have followed the programme in this instance. Now, however, one of the Tories’ lauded headteachers in Birmingham—I will not name them here today—has been banned from teaching indefinitely because of poor standards in the school they run.

So, the system is broken and fragmented. When there are 124 failing schools left stranded outside the system, waiting to be transferred to another chain or sponsor, something is wrong; my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about this issue very articulately. Indeed, there are authorities that are willing to participate but they have been cut out of the system, including authorities with some great expertise—not just Labour authorities, but Conservative-controlled authorities, too. That does not chime with what lots of Conservative councillors say should be the policy up and down the country.

The right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham talked about faith. What would happen if it was not for the Church of England, which is a broker to so many thousands of schools, especially in rural areas? It is a different situation for those of us who represent cities. We have no trouble in cities in finding academy sponsors, but in rural and suburban areas schools have trouble in that respect.

As I have said, we have struggled to find a partner for one school in the borough. I extend to my hon. Friend my invitation to the Minister to come to Stockton, because that is an authority where academies and the local authority work very closely together, which can only be to pupils’ benefit.

If my hon. Friend is inviting me to Stockton, I would be delighted to come to the north-east. The reality is that most academies worth their salt co-operate with their local or sub-regional authorities, because they want to co-operate. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, parents chose not to send their children to some schools in London because of some of the horrendous things that were going on. It was not market competition that changed that; it was co-operation through the London Challenge. The Labour Government put money into failing schools, bringing the best pedagogy and the best teachers together through a co-operative system, and raising standards so that 50% of all children in London who are on the pupil premium now get at least five good GCSEs. That is what we did in London. If a line is drawn through the north of England from the Humber estuary to the Mersey estuary, through my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), it shows that number drops to about 34%. We know what works: it was being rolled out across the country in 2010, and then austerity put an end to it.

I was making a point about the Church of England. The right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham talked about whether we have faith—the substance of things hoped for over the evidence of things seen. That is certainly Government education policy as it currently stands. I am not of the view that academies are bad, that free schools are bad or that we need to sweep a broom through the entire system: Labour’s reform proposals will not mean a single school closing, and will not mean any schools that are currently in the pipeline being cancelled. However, for far too long, parents and local communities have been shut out of decisions affecting the schools in their area. The Minister needs to give power back to communities, so that our schools are run by the people who know them best—parents, teachers and those local communities.

The hon. Gentleman has given himself an opportunity to clarify his policy proposals. It sounds like the schools will carry on, but they will no longer be free schools; they will be wholly under local authority control. Can he confirm that—yes or no?

No, they will not be wholly under local authority control. Local and sub-regional authorities will have a say in our schools. They already have a say on spatial planning—that is, where places are needed. Local authorities work best where they co-operate with schools, and that will happen again. Local authorities, though, should be given the power to take on schools when no other sponsor can be found. What is the ideological obsession with not allowing that to happen? As I have said, there are currently 124 unbrokered schools, containing 700,000 children. Giving that power to local authorities would ensure that no school is left without the support of a sponsor to deliver school improvement services and provide it with a network of schools. How many schools are currently awaiting a sponsor, and of those, what is the longest time a school has had to wait to get a new sponsor in place?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, as did I when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham, the Education Policy Institute—whose executive chairman was formerly a Minister in the coalition Government—has confirmed yet again that there is

“little difference in the performance of schools in academy chains and local authorities.”

There is no evidence of that difference. The evidence that the right hon. Gentleman cited was that there are more pupils in our school system. That is what the Government have been getting away with when trying to explain that standards have gone up—standards in schools that have not been inspected by Ofsted for over a decade. We also know that Ofsted’s only data measures affluence and deprivation, rather than the quality of teaching and learning. What matters is that schools are able to connect with a group of schools that have high performance, which is what the London Challenge did. As there is no evidence that converting a school to an academy will improve outcomes for pupils, will the Minister commit to ending the policy of automatic conversions for schools that receive Ofsted ratings of “inadequate”? It does not happen the other way around.

It is not just sponsorship that is a challenge for our academies and schools. When 91% of schools are facing real-terms cuts to their budgets, we cannot allow to go unchallenged a system that permits the education of children to become a vehicle for private profit, and that allows the rewarding of huge executive salaries—an £850,000 payoff in one case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said—and has resulted in mounting scandals and evidence of financial mismanagement. As I stated at the beginning of my speech, one Google search produced that evidence. There has been scandal on top of scandal, and yet the response from those on the Government Benches has been to do nothing. If the Minister is serious about financial transparency about spending in academies and free schools, will he agree to ban any related party transaction where a profit is being made, regardless of the kind of school involved in that agreement? Furthermore, when will the Minister take much-needed and called-for action and open an independent investigation into the regulation of academies?

Alongside concerns about academy chains siphoning off funding for the school system, there are also concerns about the actual number of academy schools that are in financial deficit. Currently, the Department for Education data looks at the financial status of overall academy trusts, rather than individual schools within those trusts. That means that if an individual school is in deficit but the trust to which it belongs is in surplus, the individual school is also deemed to be in surplus, in effect masking the real number of schools in deficit. Will the Minister provide clarity on the actual number of academy schools that are in financial deficit? If the Minister does not have that figure, will he outline what steps he is taking to ensure that the Department has a true understanding of the financial stability of all schools? Will he also outline what the implication of that lack of financial clarity in academy schools is for the implementation of the national funding formula?

We have academies without sponsors, academies siphoning off funding, and academies in financial deficit. Surely, there cannot be any further problems with our academy and free school system. Unfortunately, there are: we are in the unbelievable situation that in some areas of the country, this Government are allowing the over-supply of school places while in others there is an under-supply. The 1 million school places much lauded by the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham are, I am afraid, more smoke and mirrors from this Government. Recent Local Government Association analysis of Government figures shows that by 2023-24, 71 English councils—52%—may not be able to meet the need for 134,000 secondary school places.

Surely, by that token, the hon. Gentleman will condemn Hammersmith and Fulham Council because it is absolutely bottom of that table when it comes to the projected deficit of secondary school places.

Councils should have good spatial planning about their school places. I do not have the evidence about that. The right hon. Gentleman comes from—which local authority?

We in the Opposition will have no lectures about how Kensington and Chelsea Council has comported itself over the past year or two. Two major incidents happened in this country last year: one was the Grenfell Tower fire, and the other was the Manchester Arena bomb at the Ariana Grande concert. Look at how those two authorities responded to those two major tragic incidents: one was condemned, one was praised.

Councils are facing an emergency in secondary school places, with the number of pupils growing at a faster rate than places are becoming available, yet those best placed to solve this crisis—the councils themselves—have been shut out of the system, with no powers to open schools, even though they are having to deal with the fall-out. That has resulted in the perverse situation of academies and free schools opening in areas with little or no demand for places. I remember the school that opened in Bermondsey, costing £2 million, even though the council begged it not to build a school there. It attracted 60 pupils over two years before it shut. We could have sent those children to Eton for half the price.

The reality is that our current school system is broken. It has been fragmented beyond repair. In parts, it is unfair and unaccountable and not being led by the needs of local people. In the debate, we have exposed a system that allows schools to be left in limbo without support, that lacks financial transparency and accountability, and that does not respond to or reflect the needs of local communities in most places. While those on the Government Benches appear to have no plan in place to address the challenges, Labour has a clear vision with a national education service at its heart. It would create a future system where all schools have a vested interest in the local community and not private corporations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. My career has come to a point where I am now serving under people who I entered Parliament with in 1997, such is the level of seniority that they have reached.

Indeed. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) on securing the debate and on his passion and commitment to ensuring that pupils in his constituency fulfil their potential through high-quality schools and education. Thirteen academies and free schools have opened in Chelsea and Fulham since 2010, and I congratulate the teachers, headteachers and all the staff who have dedicated their time to ensuring their success. That includes those who have been involved in establishing Fulham Boys School, of which my right hon. Friend is a patron.

My right hon. Friend talked about a number of free schools. He mentioned Kensington Aldridge Academy, where the excellent headteacher, David Benson, has pushed up academic standards and stewarded it and its pupils through the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. That included a year in temporary accommodation for some pupils and a successful return. My right hon. Friend also mentioned West London Free School, where the headteacher, Clare Wagner, is doing an excellent job with very high academic standards. Watching this debate is Mark Lehain, who established Bedford Free School and was one of the first pioneering headteachers. It has been a hugely successful programme and my right hon. Friend is right to point out its successes.

The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) needs to be a bit more rigorous in his research than simply clicking through Google. For example, school academies’ accumulated surpluses amount to something like £4 billion. Excluding fixed assets and pension liabilities, the sector’s net assets have increased by £0.2 billion, from £2.6 billion in 2016 to £2.8 billion in 2017. He also referred to accountability. The whole essence of the free schools and academies programme is based on evidence from the OECD that shows that high- performing education systems around the world have two things in common: professional autonomy, combined with very strong accountability. The accountability system for our academies is stronger than it has ever been.

The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East also raised specific issues about related party transactions, and I want to address that. We have changed those arrangements so that from April next year those transactions will be transparent and receive more oversight. Academy trusts will be required to declare all related party transactions to the Education and Skills Funding Agency in advance and seek its approval for those that exceed £20,000 either individually or cumulatively. He has said in other debates in the Commons that there have been more than 100 closures of free schools. Again, I am afraid that his facts are wrong. As of 1 November this year, 13 free schools have closed since the beginning of the programme. In addition, seven new university technical colleges and 21 studio schools have closed. In total, that amounts to 41 free schools, UTCs and studio schools closing since the programme began, not the number he cites.

Does the Minister not include the collapse of, say, the Wakefield City Academies Trust, which had 23 schools? That is another trust that collapsed.

Those schools have not closed; they have been re-brokered very successfully to others. The essence of the free schools and academies programme is that we do not allow schools to languish in special measures year after year, which in essence is what was happening when those schools were under local authority control. We take very swift action where schools underperform, and we will not change the law that requires schools to become academies once they go into special measures, because that is how we get improvement. I will come on to some of the examples of how that works in due course.

Every child in this country, regardless of where they live or their background, should have the opportunity to benefit from the very best education. Free schools and academies have shown that professional autonomy in the hands of able headteachers and teachers can deliver a world-class education. For example, Dixons Trinity Academy, a free school in Bradford, achieved extraordinary results in 2017. Its first set of GCSEs placed it among the top schools in England for the progress achieved by its pupils. Strikingly, the progress score for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds was higher than that for the whole school, including more affluent peers. That school and many others show that socioeconomic background should not and need not be a barrier to academic success.

Leading multi-academy trusts, often led by inspirational headteachers, demonstrate that excellence need not be restricted to isolated schools. Thanks to a forensic approach to curriculum design and the implementation of evidence-based approaches to managing behaviour, the Inspiration Trust in Norfolk and the Harris Federation in London—two of the best performing multi-academy trusts—have conclusively demonstrated that all pupils can achieve whether they live in coastal Norfolk or inner-city London.

It is good to hear the Minister continue to celebrate the success of our schools, but I still wonder about those that are not quite so successful and the support services they require. In the past week Ofsted has delivered a damning indictment of the education of those with special educational needs, describing the service as “disjointed and inconsistent”. The Guardian reported that the annual report of Amanda Spielman

“drew attention to the plight of pupils with SEND, warning that diagnoses were taking too long, were often inaccurate, and mental health needs were not supported sufficiently.”

Surely those are things that Ministers should be attending to, rather than just celebrating the successes.

We are attending to all those issues. As a Government, we take mental health issues extremely seriously. That is why earlier this year we published the Green Paper on young people’s mental health, which will transform the quality of mental health support at every level in our school system across the country. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of high needs funding, which we take very seriously. High needs funding has increased from £5 billion in 2013 to £6 billion this year, but we are aware of increasing cost pressures on the high needs budget, and we are aware of the causes. We have listened carefully to his lobbying today, and to that of other colleagues and schools that have raised those issues. We take those concerns extremely seriously.

The whole essence of the free schools and academies programme is to empower teachers and headteachers and to promote the importance of innovation and evidence. Power is wrestled away from the old authorities. Ideas are weighed and, if they are found wanting, can be discarded. There has been a resurgence—a renaissance —of intellectual thought and debate about pedagogy and the curriculum that used to be vested only within the secret garden of the universities. Now it is debated rigorously by thousands of teachers across the country.

Free schools have challenged the status quo and initiated wider improvement, injecting fresh approaches and drawing in talent and expertise from different groups. There are now 442 open free schools, which will provide more than 250,000 school places when at full capacity. We are working with groups to establish a further 265 free schools. In answer to Alun Ebenezer, the headteacher who runs an excellent school in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, the free school programme is thriving.

Thanks to powers granted by the Government and the expansion of the academies and free schools programmes, teachers and headteachers now enjoy far greater control over the destiny of their school. Decision making has been truly localised and professionalised. These extraordinary schools are changing what is thought to be possible and raising expectations across the country. They are an example to any school seeking to improve. Whether we look at Reach Academy in Feltham, Dixons Academy in Bradford or Harris Academy Battersea—all with high pupil progress scores—we see that there are some obvious similarities.

All of the schools that I have mentioned teach a stretching, knowledge-rich curriculum. Each has a strong approach to behaviour management so that teachers can teach uninterrupted, and they all serve disadvantaged communities, demonstrating that high academic and behavioural standards are not and must not be the preserve of wealthy pupils in independent schools. Indeed, Harris Westminster, a free school that opened in 2014, which has close ties to Westminster School and draws pupils from across London, has reported that, with 40% of its pupils from a disadvantaged background, 18 pupils went to Oxbridge last year.

All around the country the Government have built the foundations of an education system through which teachers and headteachers control the levers over school improvement and parents exercise choice, shifting decision making from local education authorities and handing it to local communities and the teaching profession. With an intelligent accountability system to maintain high standards, innovative schools collaborate and compete with one another to improve teaching, the quality of their curricula and retention of staff.

Two thirds of academies are converter academies, and many have become system leaders within multi-academy trusts by helping other schools to improve. More than 550,000 pupils now study in sponsored academies that are rated good or outstanding. Those academies often replaced previously underperforming schools, so when the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East says that he wishes to disband or end the autonomy that comes with the academies and free schools programme, he is saying that he would not have enabled the 550,000 pupils who were languishing in underperforming schools to be given the opportunity to be taught in much higher performing schools, thus taking away opportunities as an enemy of promise and social mobility.

As at August 2018, 89% of converter academies were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Results in primary sponsored academies continue to improve. The percentage of pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths in current sponsored academies was 42% in 2016, and in 2018 it was 57%. Academies and free schools are driving up standards all over the country. Queen’s Park Junior School in Bournemouth was placed in special measures in May 2011. In the same year only 50% of pupils achieved level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths, compared with the national average of 67%. In September 2011 Ambitions Academies Trust started working with the school, and in October 2012 Queen’s Park Academy became part of Ambitions Academies Trust as a sponsored academy. Queen’s Park Academy was judged outstanding in all areas by Ofsted in June 2014 and is now providing support for other schools in the trust. In 2017 the school’s writing and maths progress scores were both above average, at +2.3 and +1.4, and 78% of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths.

WISE Academies in the north-east of England has taken on nine sponsored academies since 2012. The trust is making the most of its autonomy—the autonomy that the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East wants to remove—and has reduced teacher workload through efficient lesson planning and by sharing resources. It is innovative in how it teaches, embedding maths mastery techniques from Singapore into its maths curriculum. As a result, every school that has been inspected since joining the trust has been judged to be either good or outstanding.

Free schools are among the highest performing state-funded schools in the country, with pupils at the end of key stage 4 having made more progress on average than pupils in other types of state-funded schools. In 2018 four of the top provisional Progress 8 scores for state-funded schools in England were achieved by free schools.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent exposition of the success and brilliance of so many of our free schools. I do not expect him to make a policy pronouncement today, but will he take on board some of the comments I made in relation to ESFA and the complaints I have heard from various parent groups trying to set up free schools—some successful and some unsuccessful—particularly in an area such as mine where the crucial question is always about the ability to secure the site and, in their view, the bureaucratic approach taken to site selection and delivering financing?

Yes. My right hon. Friend anticipates the point I was coming to. As he knows, the Fulham Boys School is currently in temporary accommodation and the Department is working hard to ensure that a permanent site will be ready as soon as possible. All parties are working to deliver the site as early as can be achieved, but it remains, as he knows, a complex project. I am aware of people’s concerns about the site. It is a difficult challenge to find a site, particularly in London, but we have more than 400 free schools being established. With any large projects we will find delays and problems, but they are achieved, which is why we have more than 400 successfully opened free schools.

As I was saying, in 2018 our top 10 provisional Progress 8 scores for state-funded schools in England were achieved by free schools, by people who persevered through all the problems of finding a site and getting a school opened. For example, William Perkin Church of England High School in Ealing, Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, Eden Girls’ School in Coventry and Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School in Blackburn are in that top 10. The latter two were opened by Star Academies, which has grown through the free schools programme, from running a single school in the north-west to running 24 schools across the country, made up of nine academies and 15 free schools, and it has approval to open two additional free schools. Of the 10 that have had Ofsted inspections since opening or joining the trust, all have been rated outstanding. That is the kind of programme that the Labour party wants to stop happening in future, denying young people the opportunity of having an excellent education, but the approach works. The free schools and academies programme demonstrates, as I have cited, the benefits of strong trusts and strong collaboration.

Converting to an academy is a positive choice made by hundreds of schools every year, to give highly able teachers the power to make their own decisions; the breathing room to be creative and innovative; and the freedom to drive improvements, based on what they know works for their pupils. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) cited the example of the Europa School that converted from the independent European School into a free school. We were very pleased to authorise that new free school to teach the European baccalaureate rather than A-levels and GCSEs. Wary of the risk of being made to drink a shot of rum, I will say that the future of that qualification will depend on discussions with the European Schools system post-Brexit.

We want to go further to make sure that no one is left behind. We want to extend the free schools programme to areas of the country that have not previously benefited from it.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point about extending the programme to other areas. My impression is that the vast majority of free schools tend to be opened in the more leafy areas where there is less deprivation. What evidence does he have—perhaps he could write to me—about the number of free schools opened in areas of high deprivation and how they are achieving great things?

Some 50% of free schools have been opened in areas of deprivation. There has been a determination to ensure that free schools are opened in areas of disadvantage that have been poorly served by the schools system in the past. I will be happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier invitation to visit schools in his constituency to see at first hand how they use the programme’s autonomy and freedoms to raise standards.

Earlier this year we launched the 13th wave of free schools, targeting the areas of the country with the lowest standards and the lowest capacity to improve. Those are the places where opening a free school can have the greatest impact on improving outcomes. The application window for wave 13 closed on 5 November. We received 124 applications from both new providers and experienced multi-academy trusts. We are assessing the proposals and will announce successful applications in the spring. We will launch the 14th wave of free schools shortly, demonstrating again to Mr Ebenezer and others that the free school programme continues to thrive, albeit with one threat on the horizon: the Labour party is committed to ending the programme.

This summer we launched a special and alternative provision free schools wave. By the deadline in October we had received 65 bids from local authorities, setting out their case for why a new special or AP free school would benefit their area. In the new year we will launch a competition to select trusts in the areas with the strongest case for a new school. We are also continuing to accept proposals for maths schools from some of our best universities, having already seen excellent results reported by both existing maths schools, Exeter Mathematics School and King’s College London Mathematics School. Those schools have exemplary A-level results in maths, physics and further maths.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham for the support that he has given to the free schools programme. Some important points have been raised, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss a central part of our education policy and to share some examples of the excellent work in academies and free schools throughout the country. Since 2010 our education reform programme has brought new levels of autonomy and freedom for schools, with clearer and stronger accountability. There are many examples of academies, and the multi-academy trust model, bringing about rapid and effective improvement in previously underperforming schools.

Since 2010 we have been unflinching in our determination to drive up academic standards in all our schools, and to drive out underperformance in our school system. Our ambition is for every local school to be a good school, to close the attainment gap between pupils from different backgrounds, and to ensure that every pupil, regardless of their background or where they live, can fulfil their potential.

That is helpful advice—it has been a little while since I have done one of these debates. However, as the time is available, I might say a few things.

This has been an excellent debate. I am delighted that the academies and free schools programmes are thriving and making such a difference to school standards across the country. As the Opposition spokesman pointed out, I had the pleasure and privilege of going to one of the best state schools in the country: Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham. That stood me in good stead for everything that came after. I have always been a strong believer in high-quality state education, which is what the Government have delivered over the past eight and a half years, and will continue to deliver.

As I said, the very centre of this movement is my constituency, and the two boroughs that my constituency forms part of: Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea. In those boroughs, 13 new free schools and academies have opened. It is an incredible achievement to open five new secondary schools, and eight additional primary schools, in the two smallest boroughs in London.

Often such things are very difficult. I remember when West London Free School opened in 2011 or 2012—it must have been almost the first free school. I remember speaking to the then leader of the council, the excellent Stephen Greenhalgh, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and the founder of the school. We talked about how we were going to make it possible, and it was quite hard, because people wishing to set up such a school face a number of obstacles. The sites can be very difficult. Most of those people are incredibly dedicated to seeing the schools delivered. I take a strong interest in how the Education and Skills Funding Agency works, and how such things might be improved. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to look at a continuing review of how that is done.

We have a crisis in our schools coming up locally, despite all the achievements. I mentioned the shortage of places in Hammersmith and Fulham. The current Labour council has sat on its hands for the past four and a half years and done nothing about it. After all the achievement in the preceding four years of the Conservative Government, combined with the Conservative council, in delivering all those new schools, nothing has been delivered in the past four years. The area will be short by 327 places. Reform has come to a shuddering halt.

My constituents will also be alarmed by what has been said by the Labour party. The Opposition spokesman today failed to repudiate what the shadow Secretary of State for Education said at the Labour party conference. She said:

“We’ll start by immediately ending the Tories’ academy and free schools programmes.”

I think the Opposition spokesman said, if I understood him correctly, that that would not mean the closure of the schools. However, they would be taken immediately back into—or put under for the first time—local authority control. That would be the abolition of free schools and academies in the way in which they currently operate, ending their autonomy. That will ring alarm bells in my constituency among so many parents whose children are currently at those schools, and among all the parent groups that come to see me to talk about establishing new schools.

There is an incredible diversity in education in my constituency. We have had amazing bilingual Anglo-French schools set up—feeders into the incredible Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle. Some new parent groups want to set up bilingual Spanish schools. I expect that at some point all these groups will come to me and say, “We are alarmed, Mr Hands, by what we hear is the policy of the Labour party—threatening the future of these schools before they have even been established.” I invite the Labour party to review and reconsider its policy, because it will be incredibly unpopular, and is incredibly unpopular in my part of London.

Some of the schools have an incredible record, and an incredibly diverse intake. Fulham Boys School, for example, is very proud of the fact that 40% of its children qualify for the pupil premium, while 15% come to it from a private school background. In a community such as mine, where there is not much in the middle, that school takes the full spectrum of pupils. At Ark Burlington Danes Academy in Shepherd’s Bush, nearly half the pupils are eligible for free school meals. Often such intakes are from the more deprived parts of the two boroughs, in the north, and most of those schools do a fantastic and brilliant job.

It would be a great shame to see that future threatened by a future Government. However, of course, as we all know, there is not going to be a future Labour Government coming up. I can tell parents that they can at least rest assured on that front. Nevertheless, it is a cause of concern in my constituency, and I hope that the Labour shadow team will reconsider their ideological approach to ending the programme, and reconsider what is in the best interests of parents and pupils at those schools, and future schools to come.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of free schools and academies in England.