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Schools: Academies

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

On what grounds they based their decision to double the target for the number of schools to become academies.

My Lords, despite improvements in recent years, too many secondary schools are still failing to achieve high standards for the majority of their students. Academies have established a successful track record, as measured by fast-rising key stage 3 and GCSE results, positive Ofsted reports, strong parental demand and independent evaluation. We therefore believe it right that academy status should be available more widely, lifting the cap of 200 that was imposed two years ago.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I think that the Prime Minister might have waited until after the National Audit Office report in January. Given that the Government’s often-quoted reason for establishing academies is to rescue failing schools, is the Prime Minister expecting 400 schools to fail by 2010, which is about 10 times the current number? Why have the Government removed the requirement for sponsors to put £2 million up front for each academy? Is it because the vast majority of them have contributed none—or in some cases not the full amount—of the money that they promised? Is this not really about the Prime Minister’s legacy?

My Lords, we never said that academies would only be replacements for failing schools; we said that they might be established in areas where standards are insufficiently high or where communities could benefit from schools with a stronger vision, ethos and leadership than exists at present. That would encompass the 400. On the changed sponsorship arrangements, we have linked those specifically to the integration of the academies programme and the Building Schools for the Future programme, which means that all the capital requirements for schools that become academies are now dealt with on exactly the same basis as for local authority schools in the area. It seemed reasonable to us that the contribution of the sponsor should take the form of an endowment for the schools rather than a contribution to the capital costs, as was the case before academies were integrated into the main local authority capital programmes.

My Lords, the Prime Minister was reported as saying that he wants a large rise in the number of academies to secure his legacy. Given that we on these Benches support academies, from whom is the Prime Minister protecting his legacy?

My Lords, academies have nothing to do with the Prime Minister’s legacy; they are there for the good of the country. We on this side of the House want steadily rising standards of educational performance and opportunity to be available to communities that have been deprived of them for too long. That is why we are establishing academies, and it is right that we should be—as we always are on this side of the House—ambitious in the targets that we set, so that equality of opportunity can become a reality in all communities, including more deprived ones.

My Lords, my question comes from a different experience. My community in Mitcham spent many years trying to turn around two failing schools with some of the worst results in the country. We did so without any success until we approached the Minister for help to turn the two schools into academies. In a few short months, the change in the standard of behaviour inside and outside the schools is absolutely amazing.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that 1,000 parents attended a recent open day to find out how their children could attend these schools? Why is his ambition so low when these schools succeed and there is a demand in these communities for them?

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great knowledge of the situation in Merton. I visited those two academies; they are making outstanding progress in replacing schools that were not sufficiently popular or high performing in their community. I pay tribute to the two sponsors: the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Peckham, who does outstanding work for education across south London, and the Church of England, which is acting as the sponsor for the second academy and sees this as part of its mission, according to the Dearing plan, to expand the number of secondary schools that have a church sponsor in accordance with local parental demand. No one welcomes this development more than the parents who live in Merton; they now have the opportunity of sending their children to two rapidly improving schools where previously they were denied that opportunity and their children often had to travel many miles out of their locality to get good-quality secondary education.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for his announcement of the extension of this opportunity. Does he think that there are lessons to be learnt from the sort of experience that we have just heard of that might be applied across the whole education system?

My Lords, that question would require a very long reply. However, I believe that the engagement of external sponsors, including the Church of England, has made an enormous contribution to the education system through academies and, potentially, through trust schools. In the diocese of Liverpool, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have come together to sponsor an academy jointly. I could not possibly speculate whether that has lessons for the relationship between those two churches in the future.

My Lords, is it correct that academies are not under the same obligation as other schools to admit children in public care and, if so, why not?

My Lords, the funding agreements that regulate the establishment of academies, which are binding legal agreements between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the sponsors, require academies to give priority to children in public care. The obligation does not arise under statute in the same way as it does for maintained schools, but it is enforced. I can assure the noble Earl that, in practice, academies take their duties in this regard very seriously.