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Academies Bill [HL]

Volume 719: debated on Monday 21 June 2010

Committee (1st Day)

Clause 1 [Academy arrangements]:

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “Academy” and insert “Direct Maintained School”

We begin today the first scrutiny in Committee of the first Bill from the new coalition Government. The Government have tried to present the Academies Bill now before us as non-controversial, as an extension of Labour policy on academies, and so as something that should be easy for reasonable people on this side of the House to support. It is to be a decentralising measure, devolving more power to local people to run their schools and making a contribution to improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools, with all the benefits to children’s life chances and to our wider society that that implies. This Bill is also being presented as a contribution to the big society—the idea which the Conservatives promoted a little in the general election. I suspect that we will hear less about that as we go forward, but nevertheless it is a very interesting idea.

I believe that the Bill is nothing of the sort. We on this side recognise it for what it may well turn out to be—highly centralising, potentially damaging to children’s education, damaging to communities, and a device more to establish free schools by the back door. The Bill does not seek to improve our education system. Instead, it may well be shown that it seeks to make fundamental and damaging changes to it. The Government would not increase the number of Labour-designed academies, designed when we were in government; rather they seek to create a new class of school with a motive which is entirely different from the laudable aims behind the Labour academies. The schools that they would create are not necessarily appropriate to bear the name “academy”. That is why we seek to deny that name to these schools. They should be called what they will be: direct maintained schools.

Ministers have spent so many years attacking local government that they have forgotten something about which their own Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has reminded them:

“Councils don’t run schools and haven’t done for many years”.

That is a quotation from an LGA Bill briefing. Schools run themselves, which is how it should be, but councils do have a range of statutory duties to protect the welfare of children in their area, including a duty to promote,

“the fulfilment by every child concerned of his educational potential”.

Councils make sure that there are enough school places for all the children who need them, and their top priority is to make sure that the same high standards of education are offered to all students, whether they are taught in a community school or an academy. Councils make sure that the admissions process operates fairly so that every child gets a chance to go to a good local school. They oversee the distribution of funding in conjunction with local schools in a cost-effective way. They provide support for children with special educational needs, something I know that the Committee is concerned about, and they are the champions of children in care.

Far from being non-contentious, there are many issues in the Bill which deserve full scrutiny by the Committee. As the Bill progresses through your Lordships’ House, I hope we will be able to demonstrate how potentially retrograde it could be. For now, this group of amendments concentrates on only one issue. It is not a superficial or symbolic point but a very substantive one—that the schools established under the Bill will not be academies but something else entirely, and what they are called should reflect that fact.

The academy scheme put forward by this side of the Committee when we were in government was intended as a means by which schools which were failing too many pupils could be supported quickly, directly and effectively. Some Members of this Committee believe that the schools created under the provisions of the Bill will be comparable to Labour’s academies. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need a discussion on terminology in order to highlight what is proposed in the Bill. Is it so new? In reality, it could represent a return to something remarkably similar to the grant-maintained schools of the mid-1990s. So we must first establish what we mean by an academy.

Academies are all-ability, state-funded schools which have sponsors from a wide range of backgrounds, including universities, colleges, educational trusts, charities, the business sector and faith communities. I pay tribute to the contribution that the sponsors have made; it has been absolutely key. Sponsors establish a charity trust which appoints the majority of governors to the academy governing body. The academy’s programme targets areas of inadequate educational attainment and opportunity. Most academies replace existing weak or underperforming schools, and others are brand new schools in areas which need extra school places. They were a key element of the national challenge and took us to a position—from a very low start—where only one in 12 schools fell below the 30 per cent grade A to C benchmark, which half of all schools failed to do under the previous Conservative Government.

Academies are required by law to cater for children of all abilities. The school admissions code which came into force in 2007 applies to all maintained schools and academies when setting their admissions arrangements. Academies must also have regard to the SEN code of practice and statutory guidance on inclusion. An academy is established in collaboration, not confrontation, with the local authority as a means by which extra resources can be freed up to support the most disadvantaged and the weakest. Academies are given new leadership, and some of the best heads in the country have been attracted to run them.

Outside expertise brought in new ideas, new ways of working and a new focus on the best ways to change the culture of learning. Importantly, a role for innovation was acknowledged and, for this reason, academies were obliged to follow the national curriculum only in core subjects such as English, maths, science and information technology. With academy status came a new ethos, perhaps with a renewed focus on discipline, a new uniform and new ways of organising the school day. New buildings frequently provided the focus for this change of ethos and helped to deliver excellent discipline and the best facilities. However, just as important, academies helped to deliver to children a sense of pride in their education; that they should be proud of themselves and proud of their school in return.

The 63 academies which have been open long enough to produce results in both 2008 and 2009 have seen, at the end of key stage 4, an increase of 5 percentage points—up to 34.9 per cent—in pupils gaining five or more A* to C grades at GCSE and equivalent, including English and maths. On the five-plus A* to C measure, the 63 academies improved by 11.7 percentage points, compared with an improvement of 5.4 percentage points nationally. The Minister has recognised the importance of that achievement. A comparison of the 101 academies that had results in 2009 and predecessor results in 2001 shows a 16.4 percentage point improvement in the number of pupils achieving five-plus A* to C, including English and maths, from 17.8 per cent in 2001 to 34.2 per cent in 2009. This compares with an average 11.9 percentage point improvement nationally, from 38.8 per cent in 2001 to 50.7 per cent in 2009. The 101 academies and their predecessor schools have also more than doubled the percentage of pupils achieving five-plus A* to C, from 26.3 per cent in 2001 to 65.2 per cent in 2009. Nationally, the increase is 22 percentage points, from 47.8 per cent in 2001 to 69.8 per cent in 2009. It is important to put these figures on the record. We on this side of the Committee are proud of what was achieved through our academies programme, but to compare this with the free-for-all that is on the table is disingenuous and potentially misleading.

The most significant difference between the approach of the current Government and that of the previous Government relates to which kinds of school are given the greatest support to become academies. As a group, compared with the average for all state schools, academies have nearly two and a half times the proportion of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals. Academies have had a higher incidence of pupils with English as an additional language than other state-funded schools. By contrast, the present Government propose to implement a reform aimed not at improvements for these schools but at improvements for the 20 per cent of schools already rated as outstanding by Ofsted.

There are other key differences between these plans and Labour’s radical reforms aimed at turning schools around. The Bill offers no extra resources for schools bar a small contribution to the extra paperwork that the school will be required to carry out as a result of this process. It also makes it clear that schools that convert will have to make no changes whatever; they will have no requirement to bring in outside expertise in order to open themselves up to new ideas. They will simply be absolved of any responsibilities to co-operate with the schools around them through, for example, children’s trusts or behaviour partnerships, or any of the many other ways in which schools are entitled and encouraged to work together.

There will be no requirement of the schools to contribute their fair share of education budgets towards the education of children with special needs or behavioural difficulties in their community. Indeed, the funding allocated to educate those children will be cut back to give the academies additional funds to do with as they please. Under the approach adopted by this side of the Committee when in government, an academy was open to all, accessible to all, and intended to challenge and educate those who were most in need of support. Selection was anathema to that system, but some schools, as selective, old-style grammar schools, will now be allowed to convert to academies. By definition, their pupils will be the least likely to need the shared services of the local authority, but will still be in receipt of their share of the funding allocated to their local authority to fund these services. That does not add up. I look forward to being convinced that I have misunderstood all of this.

We on this side are proud of the achievements of academies. The class of school brought into being by the Bill would be free from “local authority control”—since, as I said, LEAs do not control schools now—but free also from the obligations to their local communities that all schools should have. That is why we do not wish the Bill to use “academies” in its title; it is not as clear as it should be.

If the Secretary of State would like to create and provide for thousands of schools that are independent of spirit and isolated in operation, he should find his own label for them. He should not use the name “academy”. In our amendments, we have suggested that he should use the term “direct maintained school”, because that is what he proposes to do—to maintain the schools directly. That is what is being proposed, and that—not academies—is an accurate description of these schools. These are not the type of school that we on these Benches made such a success. A significant and different approach has been used. That difference is significant and should be recognised in the name. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly reminds the House of the accomplishments of the academies that were set up in the past decade. We pay generous tribute to the success of those academies. Because we have been able to observe how strongly they have raised the standards of so many young people, this Government have decided to build on that success and create even more academies and much more quickly.

I find it very sad that the noble Baroness, who played such a major part in the growth of the academies when her party was in power, should now seek to denigrate the attempt that is being made to spread that much more widely. I will not attempt for a moment to answer all of the very many questions that she asked and the very many criticisms that she directed at the policy, but at one point she asked whether she had misunderstood. I would like to pick on one particular area where she has misunderstood. It is perfectly true that the intention is to allow those schools that are rated outstanding by Ofsted to come through on a fast track, but the main thrust of the policy is exactly as it has been before: to establish academies in those places with the least successful schools—the most failing schools in the most deprived areas—so that the standards for those children who have been educationally so poorly served can be greatly improved. That is a misunderstanding.

I realise that it is a common misunderstanding because I have had it said to me by many people and many friends in the education service over the past few weeks. I am sure that my noble friend will underline the fact that it is important to recognise that just because there is a fast track for outstanding schools, it does not mean at all that schools that are educationally failing so many of their young people are not still the main focus of our policy in the Bill.

My Lords, I do not intend to make a Second Reading speech, but I understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, did so. She makes a good case for keeping on academies. Even though one or two of them have not done quite so well, most of them have. However, she did not make any case for not allowing other schools to have the freedoms that her Government felt were so important to give to schools that needed to improve. That is what this Bill does. My breath was taken away to hear her comments about centralisation given the track record of the new Labour Government.

At first glance, the amendments look as though they are about labels. I have always been of the view that a label should say what is in the tin. Indeed, in the Liberal Democrat policy paper about our version of academies, we decided to call them exactly what was in the tin, which was “sponsor-managed schools”. Our version of academies was slightly different from the one that we are considering today, but now we are in coalition.

Indeed, the amendments would return us to the new Labour version of academies. In particular, Amendments 39 and 40 would remove the ability of outstanding schools to apply for academy status. When the Labour Government first introduced academies, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches asked why other schools should not have the same freedom to innovate as was being offered to these schools. We believe strongly in the importance of the professionalism of teachers, and schools have a duty to provide a curriculum that is appropriate to their particular cohort of students. Most schools actually do not use the range of freedoms to innovate that they were given in legislation passed under the previous Government. We are very much in favour of allowing professionals to innovate and provide appropriate education for their children. Those sort of freedoms should be given to all schools, but I can understand why my noble friend wants to approach first those schools that have already proved the professionalism of their leadership and their staff by becoming outstanding, to allow them to run with those freedoms and use them well in providing a good education for children. There is a lot of logic in adding to the cohort of what were failing schools, which will now get special attention under the academies scheme, those schools that have already demonstrated that they can provide an outstanding education, and in giving them the freedoms that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, introduced in the first place.

I do not support any of these amendments. They are not just about labels, of course. They are about removing a very important group of schools from the Bill.

My Lords, the Church of England has the largest family of academies under the existing provisions, as noble Lords will be aware, and is currently educating 34,000 children from relatively poor areas, so we are interested very much in the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, is making. As it stands, the Bill encourages her in the line that she has taken. However, as I look through the amendments tabled for us to debate in Committee, I see real potential—if the Minister is minded to accept some of them—for the Bill to enable us to recognise clearly the family resemblance between the new wave of academies and the ones that are now in existence. I await with interest the way that this debate develops. At the moment, I would find it quite easy to support the amendments, but I hope that I will find it very difficult by the end of this process.

I begin by paying tribute to the Church of England for the outstanding work that it does in promoting academies. As the right reverend Prelate said, the Church of England is the largest single sponsor of academies. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and I worked closely on the development of academies in Liverpool and the area around, and they are making marvellous progress, extending opportunity in an area that has not had it in the past.

This is my first opportunity in the House to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hill, on his appointment, which I do very warmly indeed. I should also say how glad I am that my noble friends Lady Royall and Lady Morgan are leading on this Bill for the Opposition. They bring a wealth of talent and experience to the task.

My noble friend Lady Morgan raised a number of policy issues about the extension of academies, which I shall leave the Minister to respond to. However, on the specific issue about the legal name that should be given to a certain category of school, I find myself in surprising agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. She and I are survivors from the interminable debates on the Education Act 2005, on which our views did not coincide all the time, particularly on the issue of academies. But she is right that, in terms of legal category, the schools to which the Bill proposes to accord that status have all the essential characteristics of existing academies.

I know that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet but, for two reasons, I do not support this amendment on the name that it gives to a legal category of schools. First, the schools which we are talking about in this Bill are academies in all their essential legal characteristics. They are managed independently of the local authority, on a contract with the Secretary of State that regulates a whole host of their policies and funding and which will be similar to that of existing academies. My noble friend says that academies are schools largely in deprived or challenging circumstances, and she is correct, although I need to point out to the House that that is not the exclusive preserve of academies. A number of entirely new schools have been set up as academies in very mixed social areas and a number of successful schools, including successful independent schools, have come into the state system by using the legal category of academies.

The legal status is clearly set out in Section 65 of the Education Act 2002, which is cast in similar terms to Clause 1. I emphasise the fact that the 2002 Act, which was passed by the last Government, does not specify that academies, in legal terms, can only be schools that pass a threshold either of deprivation or of low achievement. On the contrary, I invite Members of the Committee to look at Section 65, which says:

“The Secretary of State may enter into an agreement with any person under which … that person undertakes to establish and maintain, and to carry on or provide for the carrying on of, an independent school in England with the characteristics mentioned in subsection (2)”.

Those characteristics are that the school,

“has a curriculum satisfying the requirements of section 78 of the Education Act 2002”,

and that it,

“provides education for pupils of different abilities who are wholly or mainly drawn from the area in which the school is situated”.

Those provisions are almost identical to those in the Bill.

If there is no legal distinction between the schools that we are talking about in this Bill and those referred to under the Education Act 2002, is there another public policy reason for us to give a different label to certain schools within a similar legal category? I urge your Lordships not to do so. We already have an alphabet soup of different names for schools within the state system: community schools, foundation schools with a foundation, foundation schools without a foundation, voluntary aided schools, voluntary controlled schools, trust schools, city technology colleges, grammar schools, maintained special schools and non-maintained special schools. If the schools that we are talking about are academies, as they are in their essential legal characteristics, the right thing to do is to call them academies and not to add to the alphabet soup.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, paid tribute to the right reverend Prelates, so I shall pay tribute to him. He was a most excellent Schools Minister and was largely responsible for the success of the academies programme. As the Minister said, the party opposite has every right to be proud of what it achieved. I also praise the noble Lord for starting off his life as a Back-Bencher exactly as I hope he will continue, feeling free to disagree with his Front Bench. As my noble friend Lord Hill will discover, feeling free to criticise one’s own side when one feels that it is getting it wrong is the mark of respect that every Back-Bencher seeks to attain.

I feel that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, although she was in turn an excellent Minister, is getting it wrong. It was always inevitable that the academies programme, once it had proved itself and gained momentum, would be open to existing schools. The idea that schools have to fail in order to become academies is not tenable. The substance of the amendment is political phooey and should be disregarded.

The noble Baroness raised a number of points that I suspect I will agree with later—or at least I will share her concerns. This is a new phase for the academy movement and it raises questions which were left in abeyance when the academies were few and had strong sponsors but which need examining now. However, a change of name, with further confusion for parents and everybody else, is not required.

My Lords, at Second Reading many noble Lords pointed out that most parents want a good local school, whatever it is called, and that good schools depend on good leadership, good teachers and good classroom practice, none of which I see mentioned in the Bill. My noble friend made some interesting points about academies, as did the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—I quite agree with him about the alphabet soup of schools. However, this is not just discussion about a name.

I have never particularly liked the name “academy” for a school, despite my respect and affection for my noble friend Lord Adonis. To me, the term has always meant a Scottish secondary school, the garden where Plato taught or, as in the Brixton Academy, a nightclub. As I understand it, we are talking about names that have legal and constitutional significance. No doubt we will tease out some of these legal and constitutional issues, such as buildings, charitable status, admissions, inspection, employment, VAT regulations, freedom of information and data protection, throughout the passage of the Bill. My noble friend is right. If these apply to what are called direct maintained schools—in other words, if they have to obey the rules I have just mentioned—the name should be looked at again. Could the noble Lord please spell out—I am sure he will—the differences between the name “academies”, as referred to in the Bill, and other kinds of school which now exist, and tell us why the name should not be changed?

I totally support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about the name. The name “academies” followed from the creation of the city technology colleges. Although the city technology colleges were a wonderful idea in the Education Reform Act 1988, the name was a bit of a mouthful and did not describe well what those fine institutions sought to achieve. When the Learning and Skills Act 2000 first made provision for city academies, it was a clarification. In Greek learning, an academy is a place of high education and research. That is exactly the type of name and message that one wants in our education environment. However, the term “city academies” was then changed. The “city” part was dropped, which in many ways makes the point that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was presenting. At that point, in the 2002 Act, when city academies were replaced by the concept of academies, there was a distinct intention that the academy movement should be broadened. I think that is right. Therefore, what is being proposed by the Government is also right.

I make another point in support of my noble friend Lady Perry, who spoke about the Bill’s role in tackling failing schools. Clause 4 covers academy orders, which are directly targeted at the failure which exists within many local authority areas. The noble Baroness may have mentioned from the Front Bench that it is almost a divine right that every child in a local authority area will have access to good quality education. However, we know for a fact that that is not happening. That is why the Bill is necessary.

I register an interest as a former director of four academies. The other point is that the existing academies were invariably quickly oversubscribed. The notion that they were open to all was, again, not true. That is why we need a big expansion of the programme. We also need new schools. The other point was about ability. As I recall, there was certainly a provision, which still exists, to say that the academies could select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on the basis of aptitude in the school’s specialism. Again, that element is there. I see that the Bill has merely continued that.

The amendment probably falls into the category of “brave try”. As a former Shadow Front Bench spokesman, I know that brave tries are our lot in life. However, the term “academy” is a sound one, which should continue and be extended.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that the diocese of Liverpool is a co-sponsor with the Catholic arch-diocese of three academies, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, mentioned. We have already seen remarkable progress being made in our first academy situated in an area of great deprivation. Within four years, the Academy of St Francis of Assisi has gone from 27 per cent to 66 per cent of its pupils gaining five GCSEs at Grades A to C. The one thing that I have learnt from the academy experiment—it is now more than an experiment as it is well established—is that children’s performance is improved through investing in the training and performance of teachers. There is a direct correlation between the performance of teachers and that of pupils. This surprised me, even though I began my professional career as a teacher. Investment in the head, the senior management team and the teachers in academies has made a remarkable contribution to improving people’s life chances, especially in deprived communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is right that under the previous Administration there was a shift from the original intention, which was to break the mould of education in deprived communities, but the policy has broadened out and schools have benefited. In the context of Liverpool, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, made a powerful point. The Government may resist her amendment and stick with academies, but I hope that they will share the aspiration of the previous Administration to change the nature of education in our deprived communities—whatever name we choose, that is what is at stake—as the academy programme has shown that we can do that. If the Government persist with the title “academy”, I hope that they will also persist with the ambition to improve the life chances of young people in our most deprived areas.

My Lords, this is an interesting debate that has raised important issues. Legal status and legal titles are exactly that, but at the end of the day they are not the mark of success or failure in our education system. We may disagree on whether legal status is the measure that raises standards or whether it is something other than that. I very much agree with the previous speaker that standards are raised through the quality of teaching and of leadership rather than through legal status or title. However, whatever the relevant legal status was under the previous Government, the fact was that most of the effort and resources were put into the areas of greatest deprivation. I believe that is what academies should do. Once you spread the size of the club, you make it less special and you are not able to devote the same expertise to the schools that need it most. That is the decision that the Government have to make. In that respect, I wish to ask a very specific question about the impact assessment. On page two, it is estimated that over four years the net benefit will be £1.72 billion. I am surprised at that. The relevant figure is £282 million a year. The impact assessment states:

“Benefits are in terms of the increase in estimated lifetime earnings of the additional number of pupils attending academies and obtaining improved GCSE results … Evidence for impact of academies on pupil attainment is based on evidence from academies that opened before 2006”.

I find that very strange and would welcome an explanation of it. The schools that became academies before 2006 were situated in challenging areas. They were often failing schools that were letting down very bright students. The minute they got the chance, their grades improved, and over 12 to 24 months some schools went from fewer than 20 per cent of their pupils getting five A to C grades to as high a figure as 40, 50 or 60 per cent. The Government have decided to concentrate their effort, time and resources on outstanding schools, which may already have 90 per cent of their pupils getting five A to C grades, including English. Given that evidence, I am surprised at the impact assessment and the amount of money that is quoted. The maximum improvement that schools could make would be to increase from 90, 91 or 92 per cent to 100 per cent of all pupils. I like to think that I am an optimist in life, but I am surprised at how that could create a net benefit to the Exchequer and the nation of £1.72 billion over four years.

I have a further question on that. The figures relate to lifetime earnings. What measures or mechanisms are Ministers using, and in which years of these young peoples’ lives might that money accrue to the Treasury?

My Lords, I should like to make some points which are, I am afraid, against the group of amendments. I accept that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, has a certain logic on her side, but I do not like the logic. I rather take the point made by the right reverend Prelate—at least I think it was his point—that, whereas academies hitherto have been for underachieving and underprivileged communities, henceforth they will, as far as I can see, be at the other end of the educational spectrum. I actively dislike the prospect that they would be called something different, as if to emphasise that they are of a different “class”—a ghastly word. I like the idea of these posh new future academies being linked to the existing ones.

I endorse entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said. So often in this Chamber we underestimate or forget how our legislation will impact in the real world. We underestimate the effect of the mishmash of new names caused by our astonishing excess of legislation and constant wish to change and refine. For goodness’ sake, let us not create another category of schools.

My Lords, much as I admire—and I really do admire—the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and the considerable strides made on education by the previous Government, we all should admit that whichever Government have been in power—the previous Government and the Government immediately previous to them—we have not achieved the best education for all our children. That is the aim we should go for. I am delighted that we have had this debate. I did not consider that it would begin our debates on the Bill, but it has totally confirmed my view that, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said, we need to get away from this mishmash—this alphabet soup, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, called it—and stick to one name. Then we can get on with the business of looking at the many detailed amendments which will ensure that the Bill will achieve its purpose. We should vote here and now for the use of the name “academies”—and no other name for the way forward.

My Lords, from the diocese of Bath and Wells, I should point out that in Taunton we have just inaugurated an academy that will begin in September. It comprises two schools with a history of difficulty; we have spent a lot of time in preparation for them to become an academy, and we are very much looking forward to that.

Once the Bill was announced, one of our successful—indeed, our most successful—church secondary schools made a bid to become an academy. Listening to the reason given by the head of the school that it serves to produce an additional half-a-million pounds for his school budget made me a little cautious about motive. I have been a supporter of the academies since they began. I have no difficulty whatever with continuing with a single title, provided that we can ensure that none of this will make the more vulnerable in our schools less able to enjoy the benefit of full academy status.

My Lords, I have listened to the debate with great interest and am prompted to speak by what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, said about the independent, and possibly isolated, schools. I want to ask the Minister one quick question, which may well fall within the ambit of later amendments. I recently met a social worker, whose job is to work with and support a number of schools in the local area. I also spoke fairly recently to a head teacher, who said how helpful it was to have a social worker support her in what she does. Therefore, I would appreciate an assurance from the Minister that in this legislative process we are not going to make it any more difficult for that sort of set-up to carry on working.

My Lords, I shall start by speaking to Amendments 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 65, 77, 86, 87, 93, 94, 194 and 195, which all seek to change the title and name of all existing and future academies to direct-maintained schools. Before I do so—perhaps with the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln ringing in my ears at the beginning—I should say that I know that the whole point of Committee stage is for us to tease out misunderstandings and to try to get clarity on various issues as we go forward. I am committed to doing that during this process and shall do my best to do so in the days ahead. I have already had lots of help and advice from all sides of the House over the past couple of weeks and I know that that will continue.

I am a little perplexed as to why the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, would want to turn her back on a policy and a name which, greatly to its credit, her party pioneered in government. I was even more perplexed when over the weekend I read the 2005 White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, which clearly argued for the extension of academy freedoms. As I think we mentioned at Second Reading, the day before the launch of the White Paper, the then Prime Minister was even more explicit. He said:

“We need to make it easier for every school to acquire the drive and essential freedoms of Academies ... We want every school to be able quickly and easily to become a self-governing independent state school ... All schools will be able to have Academy style freedom”.

That, in general terms, is what the Academies Bill makes possible.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, argued that using the name “academy” for all schools converting to the programme might in some way dilute the original intentions, and she specifically mentioned grant-maintained schools. These were quite different, not least because they got additional funding and operated effectively outside the system, which is not what is proposed with academies. She spoke about the policy now being for outstanding schools, rather than the original focus of the policy, which was, she said, on the most challenging schools. That point has already been picked up by my noble friend Lady Perry. I know that there has been a lot of comment about this and I am sorry if I did not do a better job in explaining it at Second Reading. The fact is that the focus on failing schools remains and, if anything, is strengthened because the Secretary of State will be able to act more decisively without local authority consent, should that be necessary.

Secondly, in line with what we believe was the previous Government’s intention, all schools will be able to apply for academy status, should they want to. In other words, the outstanding schools are simply a sub-set of all schools. I hope that that provides some reassurance on the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. In what we propose, there is no intention that the generality of schools should be excluded from the chance to take part in this programme. Because those schools are outstanding, we believe that conversion for them should be relatively straightforward, and therefore we are saying that, if they want to convert, they should be able to go first. They would not have to have sponsors, but all other converting schools would.

My main argument in resisting the amendment has already been made for me by my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I am particularly sympathetic to what was described as alphabet soup—what I think of as Alphabetti Spaghetti—in that, as a new Minister trying to get my head round the descriptions of all the different kinds of schools, the thought of having one more to learn would be almost intolerable.

The reason we believe the new wave of academies should be called academies is, precisely as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, because they are set up on the same legal basis as an existing academy with the same freedoms, duties and responsibilities. Perhaps it would help if I set those out briefly. Academies are publicly funded independent schools which do not charge the pupils to attend the school. They are not maintained by the local education authority but receive funding directly from the Secretary of State. Their curriculum must be balanced and broadly based with an emphasis on their secondary curriculum on a particular subject area. They must provide education for pupils of different abilities drawn wholly or mainly from the local area of the school. They must not charge pupils to attend the school and they can be for any age range since the Education Act 2002.

I understand the intention behind Amendment 39: to ensure that only schools classed as failing could convert to academy status from September 2010. In fact, the way in which the amendment is drafted, listing it as a characteristic of an academy, would have the unintended consequence of making it an obligation on the academy proprietor to ensure that the academy met that characteristic, which I cannot believe was the noble Baroness’s intention. However, I shall address the substance behind the amendment. While our focus will remain on failing schools and narrowing the attainment gap, we want the best schools to have the freedom and flexibility to deliver an excellent education in the way that they see fit, within a broad framework where they are clearly accountable for the results that they deliver. These schools, as we have discussed before, will be expected to work with a weaker school to share expertise and best practice. Many school leaders have already shown a keen interest in their schools becoming academies. It is clear that they understand the benefits that that will bring and they want the liberation that comes from genuine independence.

While I understand the thinking behind the amendment, in order that the academy programme simply maintains its focus on failing schools, I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured that our expansion of the academies programme will not dilute in any way our focus on failing schools. On the contrary, by saying that all outstanding schools will be expected to partner with a weaker school we hope to bring about further improvements for all concerned.

Amendment 40 would require all schools converting to academy status from 2010 to have a sponsor in place with whom to work. It is our intention that all maintained primary, secondary and special schools will be able to apply to become an academy, with schools rated outstanding being fast-tracked for approval. These outstanding schools will have a proven track record of success so will not be required to have a sponsor in place and will, in effect, be self-sponsoring. They will be able to work with a sponsor should they choose but there is no requirement to do so. Other primary, secondary and special schools which will be able to convert at a later stage will still be required to have a sponsor, with the final decision on which schools become academies resting with the Secretary of State.

Our focus remains on failing schools and narrowing the gap, but in our view it is also right that our best schools should have the freedom and flexibility to deliver an excellent education in the way they see fit within a broad framework where they are clearly accountable for the outcomes they deliver. I think that there has been general acceptance on all sides of this House that the definition of an academy and its legal status is broadly accepted. Academies set up by the noble Baroness’s party have done a great job. This is a logical next step in our view and an expansion of what has gone before. It was clearly the original intention in 2005 to move in the direction that this Government, five years late perhaps, are starting to do. I hope that that detail has clarified why the amendments are not necessary and I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, as I wrote myself a note to do so. The general point is related to the notion that all schools can apply for academy status, not just the outstanding ones. I can see the logic of the noble Baroness’s argument: that if a school is already highly performing, the ability to make the kinds of improvement that the original wave of academies have made may be slightly more reduced. Given the intention that in time all schools, not just those in the outstanding category, will be able to apply explains more broadly why there is the opportunity for that uplift. I will need to write to the noble Baroness on her specific question about the maths and how officials came up with that figure.

I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. I am happy to withdraw my amendment at the appropriate moment. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for his comment, “Brave try”. As a Minister, being called brave was something I always used to worry about, but as an Opposition Front-Bencher, perhaps I will not mind that so much.

This debate has been helpful and interesting. I am interested in the point about academies as defined in the Bill being exactly the same as academies defined in previous legislation. Thinking about why we need the Bill focuses on the questions: what is the difference and what is the real motivation behind the Bill? Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, I want to be convinced, and hope that I will be as we go through Committee. I know that an awful lot of thought has gone into a wide range of amendments.

I have one question, which I hope I will learn more about in our debates today. If academy status will be exactly the same legally, I need to understand what Clause 1(2)(b) is all about. When we come to the Statement on free schools, I might understand that a bit more. Like all noble Lords, I do not see the benefit of increasing the number of letters in our alphabet soup. I am very interested in the comments that noble Lords have made. I have just learnt that outstanding schools will not be expected to have a sponsor, but those that come after will. That is a very interesting point.

I was also very interested in the point made by my noble friend Lady Morris about the focus of government policy. That highlights the challenge that we have when scrutinising legislation. We are looking at the Bill, but surrounding the Bill is government policy and how the Government promote their priorities. I am concerned that the Government continue to focus on poorly performing schools and coasting schools. I am very much comforted by the Minister's reassurances on that, but we will come back to the question of what the additional arrangements for academy financial assistance actually mean and whether that is a significant change in the legal instruments surrounding the legal definition of academies. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

House resumed.