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Education: Academies and Free Schools

Volume 743: debated on Monday 4 February 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the contribution of academies and free schools to educational provision in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to address the contribution of academies and free schools to our national education provision. I look forward to the summing up of this short debate by my noble friend the Minister, as this is the first opportunity for him to make a substantial speech in this House. I begin by declaring an interest as the unpaid chair of a commission on academies and free schools for the London Borough of Wandsworth. The commission has met with many potential academy sponsors and free school providers, and I for one have been often inspired by the enthusiasm, expertise and deep commitment of those who seek to change the life chances of young people.

We are witnessing a revolution—the most important revolution in education for many decades. Beginning with the vision in the previous Administration of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I am pleased to see in his place, already more than half the secondary schools in the country have become academies. Most are converter academies by the choice of their governing bodies, and some are sponsored academies where schools failing to raise the performance of their pupils have, with the guidance and help of a sponsor, been made into academies where pupil success has followed. Such schools are often located in the most deprived and difficult areas, with generations of failure behind them. There are now 2,673 academies in England and 80 free schools are already open with more than 100 in the pipeline for this year.

Now primary schools are becoming academies and primary free schools are being established. There is an urgent need for action at this level. The DfE reports that 1,400 primary schools are below the minimum floor standard—800 of these for at least three years. This means that several thousand pupils are leaving the primary phase having failed to achieve even a minimum standard in basic English and maths. The weakest 200 of these schools have already become academies in this academic year and many more will follow. We rejoice to find that, since becoming academies, more than 40 of these primary schools have completely eliminated the gap in attainment between the children of the poorest and richest families.

Free schools, including the excellent university technical colleges, have allowed communities of parents, teachers, local people and a range of approved sponsors to bring their commitment and determination to set up new schools, to raise standards of teaching and to lift aspirations in places where all too often only acceptance of defeat and a lack of ambition had been before. Many bring innovative and exciting new ideas into educational provision, offering different and challenging forms of education which meet the special interests and needs of local children in ways no local authority would be able or likely to offer.

The providers of free schools are diverse. So far, 59 have been groups of teachers, existing schools or other educational organisations. This is indeed a policy endorsement by the professionals in education. Some 45 have come from parent groups; community, religious and local groups; and charities. Again, this is endorsement of the policy by the people who are most concerned and most likely to be the best judges of its success.

Not all academies have been or will be a total success, of course, although the overwhelming majority have achieved more than even their supporters would have dreamed. The British cup-half-empty media have seized on the occasional academy where standards have not been spectacular, although even these have often achieved more than their predecessor, but no one who truly cares about children and young people can fail to celebrate the life-changing opportunities which academies and free schools have already given to tens of thousands of young people who are lucky enough to attend them.

Some basic statistics demonstrate what great gifts have been given to young people by this programme. Overall, pupils in sponsored academies have increased their achievements by five times the national average for maintained schools. Years of failure in some local authority areas have been turned into success. My noble friend Lord Harris, in the wonderful work he has done in creating successful academies, can be proud of his Bermondsey academy, for example, where, with more than two-thirds of pupils receiving free school meals, 62%,—almost twice the national average—have achieved five A* to C grades in their GCSEs. However, statistics can only invite us to reflect on what this means in terms of young people whose lives have been turned around and whose aspirations have been raised beyond anything their predecessors had experienced.

Why do academies and free schools achieve where local authorities had failed? The answer is freedom. Academies are free from local authority control, which has not always been benign. They are free to deliver the curriculum which fits the needs of their pupils, not some centrally determined formula. However, their offering must be “broad and balanced”, and must include English, maths, science and religious education. They are free to set pay and conditions for their staff, enabling them to reward hard work and success, and to attract the best and brightest teachers. They are also free to determine the length of time pupils spend in school daily and termly: their curriculum is not subject to the time restraints which too often prevent local authority schools expanding their offerings to follow the needs and interests of their pupils.

Most importantly, these schools offer professional freedom to the head and teachers. Professional judgment always trumps bureaucratic prescription. Teachers really do know best. For the past 20 years or so we have cramped professionals—not only in education—with regulation, prescription, inspection, targets and league tables. None of this has worked to raise real standards. Indeed, we have been in danger of de-professionalising the best-ever generation of teachers. The system has forced them to teach to the requirements imposed from outside instead of to their own professional judgment. Removing these external constraints has resulted largely in the great success of academies and free schools: the proof is in the results.

Although the evidence is that the longer schools have enjoyed their academy and free school status, the greater their improvement, some have rightly expressed concern about how we can ensure that these standards are maintained in the longer term, especially when many of these schools will be exempt from regular inspection. It is my profound belief that the best form of accountability begins with the accountability of the individual to their own professional standards. I am however greatly reassured by the initiatives which have arisen voluntarily and spontaneously within the academies and free schools themselves. Many have formed “chains”, which are looser perhaps than a strict federation, although enjoying many of the financial and quality benefits of shared central services and shared governance, which others have adopted.

Whether they are a federation or a chain, these associations are proving to be a far better guardian of quality than many of the external official bodies which control community schools. The strong and successful schools in the chain offer support and help to their newer developing partners. This model is now widely adopted and provides excellent advantages for quality control. Again, it is a product of leaving the professionals to determine their own quality assurance. It will be important to ensure, however, that the chains do not become substitute local authorities with power again drifting away from the individual school—that “living cell of the body educational”, as it has been called.

In the Harris group, we see an outstanding model of this way of working. The Harris Federation has set up a complete system of raising teaching quality: first, in initial training, as a group of designated training schools, and then in offering a careful programme of teacher development, which takes the average teacher, through several steps, to excellence. The successful heads in the group are also involved in a leadership development programme for those with leadership potential, to ensure a supply of outstanding heads for the future. I cannot but feel that this is a more trustworthy and sustainable pattern for ensuring quality than an occasional visit from an Ofsted inspector with limited scope for development initiatives.

In 2010, my right honourable friend Michael Gove said:

“Teachers, not politicians, know best how to run schools”.

It has taken courage to put that belief into practice but the thousands of teachers, parents and young people who have benefited from that courage all say “thank you”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this debate. I also welcome my noble friend Lord Nash to the Front Bench. Although he has skirmished at Question Time, this is the first debate on which he has had to answer. This is an engagement and not a skirmish. I should like to make one major point. Michael Gove has imposed on the English education system an enormous revolution, which is irreversible, by expanding the academy programme very substantially and by introducing free schools. As far as I can see, it will not be reversed by any Government and will not be taken back under state control in the future.

That, of course, started with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who realised that some of the most successful schools, when he was responsible for this matter, were the original city technology colleges, which I established in the 1980s—16 of them. He used them as a model for the academies and persuaded Tony Blair to announce a target of 200. Now there are 600, so they are rolling on at a rapid pace. In fact, when Tony Blair becomes very eloquent about this, he not only speaks warmly of academies but rather implies that he was their creator. I am happy to share the parentage because it shows all-party support.

Why are these colleges so successful? They enflame and engage people at a local level—parents, teachers, local communities and businesses—to improve the basic schools in their community. That is an enormous release of energy, enthusiasm and commitment, which is quite striking across all the country in all communities and in all parties. That is to be immensely welcomed, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is to be congratulated on initiating that.

The university technology colleges, which I have been promoting, are free schools or academies—a rose by any other name—and are proving to be very successful. We have five university technical colleges open at the moment; 12 will open this year; and 14 will open in 2014. We are looking at another 20 or so to be announced by Easter. We need another application round to be announced by December of this year to start some in 2015 after the next election.

These colleges are popular because they deal with children aged from 14 to 18. This is another revolution in English education. The rest of the world is moving slowly to a transfer age of 14, which I have just recorded in a book that was published last week. I draw it to your Lordships’ attention, and it should be available in the Library. In this book, I argue that the right age of transfer is 14, not 11, that the national curriculum, of which I was one of the authors, should stop at 14 and that at that point there should be four types of colleges: university technical colleges; liberal arts colleges, a vastly expanded grammar school sector for the academic, which would probably be non-selective; then something my noble friend Lord Moynihan would welcome, a series of at least 30 or 40 creative arts, performing arts and sports colleges throughout the United Kingdom; and then there should be career colleges, which come out of the FE movement, covering the other subjects. All this is releasing energy at the right point. This revolution would really be very significant for the English education system.

The other revolution that is going on at the moment is the extension of the school leaving age to 17 this year and to 18 in 2015. This will have a profound effect on the English education system. Education will be a continuum from five to 18. It is irreversible. It is going to happen, and whenever it has happened in the past, when the school leaving age was moved from 10 in 1880, to 12 in 1890, and to 14 in 1921, there was a huge increase in the number of new schools and reorganisation of schools. There is a unique opportunity in this large continuum to look at the shape of education. The instruments to do that are essentially academies and free schools.

As I said before, I am very glad that the Labour Party now supports this movement. It is very effective. One of the university technical colleges completed two years last summer, so we had 16 and 18 year-old students leaving. A totally comprehensive selection went in, with 20% special educational needs. In that school, there were no NEETs last summer: every student either got a job or an apprenticeship or went on to college or university. There are not many schools with that particular mix that can say that in our country. We know, therefore, that we have a successful formula, and I hope that that formula can be extended on a much wider scale. I applaud this great change that is now sweeping through the English education system, and I will now finish.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for securing this important debate.

“Our vision is for a highly educated society in which opportunity is more equal for children and young people no matter what their background or family circumstances”.

So proclaims the vision statement in the foyer of the Department for Education, and who could disagree with that? The sad fact is, however, that over the years, social mobility has hardly shifted.

To address the issue of low performance and poor pupil aspiration, particularly in the most deprived communities, the previous Government set up academies. These schools were given extra resources, extra responsibilities and extra freedoms. The coalition Government have accelerated that programme and, in so doing, dramatically increased the number of academies and changed the educational landscape. As a result, we now see a radical change in the English education system: more than half of secondary schools and a growing number of primary schools have become academies, free schools, university technical colleges, studio schools and, of course, local authority schools. In May 2010, there were 203 academies, and by November 2012, there were 2,456 academies. The scale and speed of change has been rapid and raises a number of questions and issues.

First, you can have all the different types of schools in the world, with all the best resources, but in the end, it is the quality of the school leadership and the quality of the teachers and their teaching that make the difference. A child cannot repeat a year if they have had a poor teacher; the pupil or student is the one who suffers. They cannot repeat that year or the study of that subject. That is why I was so pleased to read that the Academies Commission report, published in January this year, highlighted this point. It said, in referring to academies, that there needs to be,

“a forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils’ learning so that the gap between the vision for academies and practice in the classrooms is reduced and the words ‘academisation’ and ‘improvement’ become inextricably and demonstrably linked”.

The English education system has undergone continual change in the post-war period, with each incoming Government and Secretary of State wanting to leave their mark. If we have learnt anything about that 30-year change, it is that improvement is likely to be accelerated and sustained if there is broad ownership at local and classroom level. We need to consider carefully the management of schools: with freedom comes responsibility. The Secretary of State cannot and should not micromanage academies from the centre. In a successful academy system, we will see schools supporting and learning from each other. They will operate as a community of schools, each independent, but working best if connected to the rest of the system.

What of local authorities and their involvement in local schooling? As we have seen academies extend and more powers given to local schools, we have seen local authorities reduced considerably in their capacity and involvement. In the Education Bill, they were given a duty of care but, working with them, we need to consider carefully their role in a very different landscape.

I have drawn extensively on the work of the commission. I was delighted to see it raise the need for the establishment of an independent royal college of teachers. The college, pump-primed by the Department for Education, but completely independent of it, could help make the link between research and the classroom more explicit.

Academies are not the panacea for raising performance and pupils’ life chances. The Academies Commission report said that the evidence considered did not suggest that improvement across all academies has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families. There have been some stunning successes among individual sponsored academies and academy chains that have raised expectations of what can be achieved in the most deprived communities. However, it has to be about more: it has to be about the highest quality of teaching, with teachers who are well trained, highly motivated and—dare I say it—well rewarded. It has to be about inspections carried out in a fair and rigorous manner by qualified inspectors with classroom experience. It has to be about self-improvement: schools working together to develop their understanding and expertise and supporting each other. It has to be about all schools having equality of resources and equality of freedoms.

My Lords, I welcome the debate introduced so well by my noble friend Lady Perry. I also welcome the Minister to his first short debate; we are quite civilised people here, and we look forward to hearing what he has to say. I understand that the Minister has form in this area of academies, having been involved in the very successful sponsorship of Pimlico Academy, which is one of the early ones helping to set the benchmark.

I will restrict my remarks largely to academies, rather than free schools. I want to emphasise now that I agree with what has been said already in the debate about the ways in which academies and other new forces in education are enriching the educational provision in this country, which is well needed and very important. Two consequences of academy status have been especially welcome. One is the very important freedom, referred to by my noble friend Lady Perry, to exercise professional judgment. It is marvellous that this is happening, and I hope that head teachers will not be too dirigiste, operating from the top of their own little pyramid, but will make sure that the freedom passes down to classroom level.

The second consequence is a promise by the Secretary of State that the reduction in bureaucracy which would follow would be to the benefit of academies. I agree with this: they have been a positive source, even if I now have a couple of questions to raise. One element of the way in which bureaucracy is being removed is the reduction in the requirement for outstanding academies to have an inspection every five years. I can see the point and the value of this, but they are exempt from that. Although it is sometimes an irksome discipline, I have to say that excellence and outstanding qualities in 2013 might not still be there in 2018. It is important that we have one way in which to moderate that, at least. I understand that Ofsted anticipated that that would be an issue and has now put in place for exempt schools the possibility of an exercise in which it will inspect, in paper form, at least what is happening in the school—a risk assessment, as it is called, will be carried out. It will be paper-based, it will achieve a lot and will help reassure parents and governors. That is good, but I suggest that one or two features of an outstanding school may not be able to be covered in a risk-based assessment of this kind. The first, for example, is the overall judgment about the effectiveness of a school; I am not sure how that can be done on the basis of a paper exercise. Yet it is highlighted in the Ofsted statement of intent as one of the most important judgments to be made. It is rather important that this can be done one way or another.

Secondly, I am not sure how a risk-based assessment that is effectively paper-based will deal with the spiritual, moral, social and cultural activities of a school. These are immensely important to a school’s character, and it is difficult to see that they could be accounted for in this type of assessment.

Thirdly—and this point follows on from the previous point and was of considerable interest to a number of noble Lords here this evening in previous debates on previous legislation—to be blunt, it will be difficult to reassure the wider community on the basis of a paper exercise that in one or other of the faith-based schools there has not been a straying from the boundaries of education into indoctrination. A few years ago, this would not, apparently, have been a real problem, but it is now. Some of our young people are suffering significant indoctrination—obviously in one faith, but in others too. One check on this in a faith-based academy, which may well do excellent work on the curriculum, pupil behaviour and all the other things, is whether there is a move towards indoctrination. It could take place, and it is essential that we are reassured that it would be picked up. There are other elements of the way in which Ofsted operates that might do this, but any reassurances that can be given would be very welcome.

I, too, thank my mentor, the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for this debate. I offer my remarks particularly, but not exclusively, in relation to church schools. There are 140 primary and 97 secondary Church of England academies. Although that makes the Church of England the largest provider of academies, it still represents only 3% of our primary and 53% of our secondary schools. Within my own diocese, some 70% of secondary schools as a whole have moved to academy status, and that is quite remarkable. In respect of academies, two of our schools—one Church of England, one ecumenical—were indeed ground breakers. In the early days of academies, lack of understanding by the Department for Education of church school ownership and trusteeship led to too much problem solving on the hoof once the legislation had been passed.

Our concern is that, with so much attention and energy being devoted to this ideology about school structures, the risk is that we divert our attention from the needs of the vast majority of children in our schools, especially in the primary phase. We need to frame our debate as being about the effectiveness of schools and the ways in which to achieve greater levels of collaboration and effective partnerships that result in more good and outstanding schools, irrespective of their status as academies or maintained schools. For example, in Southwark diocese, 88% and, in Liverpool diocese, 85% of Church of England schools are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted, with only a handful of those schools being academies. So the need to ensure that we learn the lessons of what makes for effective provision without limiting the debate to academies and free schools continues to matter a great deal.

In April, the work of the multi-academy trusts comes on stream. We welcome the Department for Education’s listening mode and are grateful for the sponsor capacity grant. However, it is regrettable that the grant is not really sufficient to fund adequately sponsored conversion. I hope that the Government take a look at that. Also, for many schools, anxiety has been increased as documentation is frequently changed at short notice, adding significantly and unnecessarily to work loads. As the local authorities gradually disappear and the academies and free schools have an increasing influence, if they are to succeed and if we are to achieve and ensure the quality that we are looking for, as the Government and all of us wish, it remains important that the department talks at a national and diocesan level with church schools and that both plan ahead and resource more effectively.

The Church of England approach in dioceses across the country is to recognise the need for real structural collaborations to bring about transformation in standards, resulting in effectiveness of schools. For many, this now includes setting up multi-academy trusts, but in doing so we must continue to find a way for schools of all categories to join the same MAT so that the expertise and capacities in our good and outstanding schools can be used for the benefit of weaker schools. I hope that Ministers continue to work with Church of England officials to enable that to happen.

Free schools often offer a good way in which to introduce new providers into the system and bring fresh ideas to the needs of the community, but there is a need to ensure that limited resources are focused on the need to provide much-needed pupil places in areas of population growth where there is a real lack of capacity rather than diverting resources to establish new schools in areas where there is no pressure for extra places.

I draw to the Minister’s attention the fact that there remains a continuing lack of engagement with BME communities in the free schools programme, particularly those that have been acutely disadvantaged in education, such as the African, Caribbean and Pakistani communities. Some such communities are attempting to seize the pre-school programmes as an opportunity to improve educational outcomes for BME and other pupils, but they face barriers to success. Other such communities remain largely unaware of the programme, and it is important that the Department for Education gives attention to the engagement of such underrepresented communities. Many free schools being established with the aim of improving education in deprived urban areas are enrolling people from disadvantaged backgrounds at much lower rates than other local schools. Barriers linked to financial expertise, financial resources and social capital all have implications in relation to this.

My Lords, we have had a superb 25 years in British education, and the party opposite should get its full share of the credit for that. There has been a certain amount of “two steps forward, one step back”. They had their diplomas; we have our English baccalaureate certificate. I hope we get a step back on that, anyway. But generally the picture has been one of progress, and I remain immensely optimistic about the next 25 years. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Baker and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who have been the foundations for that—and that my right honourable friend Michael Gove has chosen to continue it.

I am sure that we all remember what it was like before that and how difficult it was to get schools to change. Some local authorities—Hackney springs to mind—actively opposed school improvement, and many others were ineffective. We all remember how difficult it was to get individual schools to pay attention to what parents wanted; there simply was no mechanism. I had the pleasure of speaking at something organised by the British Council in Berlin earlier this year, and it was astonishing to be taken back to an era when schools did not indulge in self-improvement. Teachers were not observed, and there was no mechanism for individual teachers to improve. So much is better now than it was.

I look at the creation of academies as the key to the next 25 years. Michael Wilshaw was a great head of Ofsted, and is at last being recognised by schools as their friend and as someone who has shared their experiences and understands what they are going through. When he finds a school that has failed, he is now not lost for what to do; he has a whole host of places he can turn to. He has a whole collection of groups and associations, of academies and their sponsors, who stand ready and experienced to help schools improve. He has individual academies that will take on failing neighbours and make them better, and that is a proven way of improving schools. One of the great discoveries of the past 25 years is that we can make schools better; we do not have to tolerate underperformance. Through the academy movement, Ofsted has been provided with the means of continuing that process of spreading good practice—of picking up the schools that are not doing well enough.

There are a number of things to which we need to pay attention, to make sure that we get as far and as fast as we should. We need to deal with failing academies. Inevitably, not all academies will do well; sadly, the one closest to me has been a complete disaster. I would have loved to have sent my daughter there but I cannot face it. It is still in the hands of the sponsor who started it, and they are still doing badly by it. That is not tolerable. I know that there are problems with the original agreements with academies, but we simply must put that right. They must be as subject to Ofsted—probably rather more subject to Ofsted, and its ability to bring in new sponsors—as schools that are not already academies.

Secondly, there is the matter of telling parents what is going on in schools. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland: we need to look at how Ofsted can become better at that. My answer to that is to get someone who has been a good headmaster to look in on the school once a year and to write to parents. Good headmasters know within half a day what is going on in a school at the sort of level the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, was talking about. That can be a friendly and understanding process, which will give parents so much more than they will ever get from a line in a league table.

We need to make sure that all this innovation that is happening because of freedom is properly evaluated so that we can share the benefits of it. We need, I hope, to get some really good curriculum changes, but I simply have my fingers crossed for them.

My Lords, in speaking this evening I declare an interest as a patron of the Haberdashers’ Educational Foundation, and as a member of the Court of Assistants of the Haberdashers’ Company. The company has a deep and abiding relationship with education. To its academies it has brought educational experience, a strong and relevant brand, a long-term passion for education, a commitment to excellence and an apolitical approach, as evidenced by my fellow patron of the foundation, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.

Its work is particularly important to me since it transformed Malory School, in my former constituency of Lewisham East, into an academy. Malory, now Knights Academy, went from being one of the worst failing schools in the country to the popular and successful academy it is today. It is, therefore, welcome that the aim of the academies programme was to challenge underachievement in the country’s poorest-performing schools. It was a development which had its roots in the earlier CTC programme, which was announced as long ago as 1986. While I was MP for the area, Hatcham College became a CTC after a long battle with Lewisham Council in 1991. Most of the original 15 CTCs have now converted to academy status.

The original purpose of the academies programme was to help struggling urban schools, as I have just mentioned. As noble Lords will recall, philanthropic sponsors promised £2 million and academies were given wide, necessary and welcome discretion over various aspects of the curriculum, admissions, teachers’ pay and conditions, independence from their local authority and, if necessary, multimillion-pound new buildings or refurbishments.

The Haberdashers’ Company first became involved in 2002. Hatcham College had for some time been seeking a partnership role with a local school, and at the same time Lewisham was looking for a sponsor to take over Malory School, whose GCSE results in 2004 were, as I have noted, the worst in the country. Conversion to an academy secured Malory government funding for a complete rebuild of the school.

Since 2007 both Hatcham, with its music specialism, and Knights, a specialist sports academy, have flourished. As my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking has alluded, sport is so important as a catalyst, capable of transforming many disenfranchised children into focused and successful young people. Hatcham College, due to its success as a CTC, was always oversubscribed, and remains one of the most successful academies in the country, with outstanding exam results at both GCSE and A-level, and with many students obtaining places at Russell group universities. In contrast, Malory School in the old days had a falling roll but, within one year of Knights Academy opening, the school was oversubscribed and in 2010 achieved an overall pass rate for all students, including in maths and English, of 40% at GCSE. I am delighted to say that many students now achieve places at university, as well as some significant sporting successes, both locally and nationally.

The Haberdashers’ Federation was innovative in being the first academies federation. The model, which has since been adopted elsewhere, was of an overarching single governing body made up of Haberdashers and Haberdasher nominees, parents, teachers and the local authority.

The success of Hatcham, Knights and the federation model pioneered by the governing body and SMT meant that the company was encouraged by the Department for Education to sponsor more academies. The company’s strategic vision, formulated by its education committee and endorsed by the court of assistants, was to provide “excellence in governance”. That meant that if the company was to be persuaded to open other academies, it would do so only if there were a Haberdashers’ school in the same area so that the skills of both the governing body and the SMT of the Haberdashers’ school could be brought to bear. If I could leave one key message with your Lordships this evening, it would be that excellence in governance is very important to the success of the academy and the pre-school programme.

The key differential between council-run schools and academies and free schools is that the latter can concentrate solely on the education of their pupils and operate responsively and quickly to ensure that the best education possible is made available to them. Therefore, important as independence in direction, the benefits of academy design, direct funding, reporting to central government, curriculum design and admissions are, independence in terms of governance and the freedom that comes with that is also critical.

My Lords, today is serendipitous. I am proud to be a liveryman of the Drapers’ Company, and today I was privileged to visit the Drapers’ Academy, in Harold Hill in the London Borough of Havering. The academy is sponsored by the Drapers’ Company and Queen Mary, University of London, itself an institution founded by the Drapers. The academy was formally opened by Her Majesty the Queen, who herself is a Draper, in October last year. I thank and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for initiating this important debate, and on her excellent speech.

I met today with the principal and staff and addressed some of the senior students. I was asked to inspire the students, but I came away inspired, and not only by the amazing transformation of what was a failing comprehensive school—a school that was the last choice of people in the local community, in an area where, at the bus stop outside the school, you saw children with other school uniforms going far afield. Now, thanks to a brand new building, new leadership and, most importantly, a new attitude, this school has been transformed. There are now many more applicants than there are places each year.

This has been achieved over two years, even before the amazing new building with state-of-the-art facilities was opened. It has been achieved because the academies system has unleashed the potential that is tied up in our state school system. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, spoke about governance. The board of governors at the Drapers’ Academy is chaired by the former Master of the Drapers, a retired general from the Army, and includes a housemaster from Eton. This is the state sector, the third sector and the private sector coming together to transform the lives of children who were previously written off.

Children in the old school were regularly excluded; today there are no exclusions. Today, even the most difficult children are given their own area within the school and their own specialised tuition and care. No child is given up on. In 2012, even before the new building, 62% of its students achieved GCSE grades A* to C, including in English and maths. Just two years since opening, it is one of the fastest-improving schools in England and it places an emphasis on science and maths.

I met such impressive young teachers, including teachers from Teach First, who genuinely enjoyed being at the academy. I witnessed a school with a bright environment and a buzz—healthy food, and healthy, happy children. They have a principal with an open mind—we spoke about leadership—who wants to take things forward with a plan for a primary school and a boarding house, and a plan to bring in a house system to engender healthy competition. I was told that in the old school, the failing comprehensive, none of the children wanted to go to university. When I asked the children I was giving my talk to how many of them wanted to go to university, virtually every hand went up.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government will press ahead, with urgency, in converting all our comprehensive schools into academies or free schools? The academies are a Labour Government initiative. I give full credit to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, this Government and my old debating sparring partner, Michael Gove, in building on this initiative. This is not joined-up government, it is joined-up Governments. If only we could convert every school in Britain into an academy or free school, with leadership of the right ethos, inculcating discipline, where children are not excluded but included, where the environment inspires children to aspire and where failure is transformed into an overnight success.

To conclude, my visit to the Drapers’ Academy has given me more faith than ever before in our children being able to aspire to a “British dream” and keeping this country at the top table of the world for decades to come.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for facilitating this debate this evening and very much welcome the noble Lord, Lord Nash, to his new role. As he will know, his predecessor developed a reputation for listening and engaging and I very much hope that the noble Lord intends to build on that style. I look forward to debating with him in many months to come.

As has been well demonstrated by this debate, we share a common passion to drive up education standards. As we have heard, the previous Government played their part in this. They were restless in pursuit of innovation to ensure that every child received a stretching and enriching education. We took radical steps to tackle failing schools and narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils. Our policies were firmly rooted in evidence-based initiatives rather than ideology; or, as it was said at the time, what matters is what works.

Sponsored academies were part of our reform agenda. They were set up to address persistently underperforming schools in areas of high deprivation, requiring a sponsor to assist with school improvement. They were, and are, a success story. I add my congratulations and acknowledgement to my noble friend Lord Adonis, who is sitting next to me and who has received much praise in this debate. He was very much an architect of that model, as we have heard.

Regrettably, this Government have taken the concept and redefined it to focus too much on school autonomy as a prize in itself. In doing so, it has lost some of the unique transformative power that characterised the early experience. The latest government research has shown that sponsored academies, building on the original concept of introducing new school leadership, continue to outperform other models. However, they are a small percentage of the whole and are now massively outnumbered by the so-called converter academies: that is, schools already judged outstanding or good by Ofsted which have chosen to become academies since 2010. This rush to convert all schools to academies highlights some of the essential differences between us and this Government. For example, we do not believe that there is just one model of success.

When I first took over as shadow Minister, I visited a number of schools involved in the London Challenge initiative introduced by the previous Government. Some were academies, some were maintained schools. All are now highly performing schools with strong and innovative school leaders. Indeed, Pimlico Academy, with which the Minister has been long connected, was a beneficiary of the scheme. The key success factor was the intervention and collaboration between schools, put in place to improve the quality of teaching. As a result of this initiative, London’s schools went from being among the worst to being among the best performing in the country. The success of such an approach is confirmed by a growing weight of national and international research which identifies that collaboration is the key to reform. However, meanwhile, the recent report from the Academies Commission showed that many of the converter academies which had been required to support a struggling school nearby in order to gain academy status have now broken that promise with no comeback. The same report identifies a growing trend towards complex admissions procedures which dissuade the less determined parents. As a result, it too often remains the case that poor children are served by a poor education. The research shows that children from a socially deprived background remain disproportionately more likely to attend a school that is classed as underperforming by Ofsted.

Therefore, we have concerns about the focus of the Government’s current academy programme. We are worried about the lack of emphasis on the power of partnership and collaboration. We fear that the early focus on underperforming schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation is being lost. We see a teaching profession demoralised and criticised when teachers are the key to improving teaching quality and we see parents struggling to navigate complex admissions policies. Therefore, I hope that the Minister is able to reassure the House that a more measured approach, addressing these issues and genuinely informed by existing evidence, will be adopted in the academy strategy of the future.

My Lords, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to this important debate. In particular, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Perry for raising this issue. Few know more about driving educational standards than my noble friend, a former teacher and Chief Inspector of Schools.

This is my maiden speech. I understand that it is customary for new Members of your Lordships’ House to make their maiden speech before conducting any business here. I have in fact already answered three Questions from the Dispatch Box. Indeed, at the beginning of the first Question, I was so nervous that I managed to thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for welcoming me to the House before he had actually had a chance to do so. I hope that I am not going to earn a reputation in this House for doing things in the wrong order. I would like to thank all noble Lords and the staff here for being so welcoming and kind over the past couple of weeks.

Until about eight years ago, my life was focused on business—specifically the venture capital industry—but then I started to get interested in the care of children and young people, and in education. My wife, Caroline, and I set up a charity to support young people. We support a number of after-school clubs, supplementary schools and organisations like that, but it seemed all to come back to schooling. We decided to look at the academy programme and I was introduced to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, a truly great man. He appointed us to sponsor Pimlico Academy and, at that point, our lives changed completely.

The school was, by any definition, failing. It had been in special measures, had very poor behaviour—there was one famous fight outside the school involving 400 pupils—poor results, very low morale among the staff and students, low aspirations, very little for the pupils to do after hours, a building that was falling down, leaked and was infested with mice, and eight days of strikes in the year before we took over, over things any two Members of this House would have sorted out over a cup of tea. Thanks to our excellent team, led by our inspirational principal Jerry Collins, the school has completely turned around, students are happy, well behaved, engaged in school life, their heads are up and their aspirations are high. Teaching is much improved, the results are much improved, and we have only permanently excluded two pupils since we started over four years ago.

Although the academy achieved an “outstanding” Ofsted rating two years after it opened, we still have a long way to go if the school is to become the truly great school that we intend it to be. To help achieve this, my wife, Caroline, has led a project to develop a new key stage 3 curriculum which is now being taught in Year 7 and a new primary curriculum to go into our primary schools. This is a more content-rich and coherent curriculum which we believe will give our students the knowledge, skills, understanding and cultural literacy they need to be successful.

Our fundamental belief, which I believe is also the fundamental belief of this Government, is that our children and young people are capable of far more than we have hitherto asked of them. If you had seen, as I have, 11 year-olds in a charter school in the Bronx in New York, on an estate every bit as challenging as any here in London, seriously engaged in a lesson on the great philosophers, you could not doubt that. Nothing I have been involved in, in my business life, comes close to the experience of sponsoring an academy and I will be eternally grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and to another wonderful man, the late Sir Simon Milton, for giving us the opportunity.

I was delighted when I was asked to be a non-executive director of the Department for Education. When we arrived as non-executives in 2010 there was no doubt that the senior civil servants thought we were people to be managed rather than engaged with, but over time we have worked increasingly well together and are now all working closely as a team. So when, rather surprisingly, my right honourable friend asked me to do this job, it was something that I just had to do because it seemed like a natural progression.

A society where 40% of our young people do not even get the basic qualifications, where we have 1 million NEETS, where it takes two years and seven months from entering care for a child to be adopted and a year longer for a black child, where many of our children who leave care rebound quickly into the criminal justice system, where children with SEN are sometimes misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all and where their parents have to fight every step of the way to get the provision they need, where children go missing from care and end up the victims of dreadful sexual exploitation and where gangs of our young people are committing vicious murders on each other in our streets as happened only a week ago to one of our former pupils in Pimlico, such a society struggles to call itself civilised. It is a great honour to be a Member of your Lordships’ House, which I know cares deeply about these issues.

Turning to the subject of the debate tonight, it has been delightful to hear such a consensus in favour of academies and free schools. All my best points have, of course, already been made. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her welcome and assure her that I intend to take a listening approach; I, too, look forward to debating with her on many future occasions. I would also like to thank the previous Government for taking the CTCs initiated by my noble friend Lord Baker and developing them under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, into the academy product, a product that this Government have unashamedly developed in terms of numbers and also across primary academies, free schools, UTCs, special academies and studio schools.

At the risk of repetition, I will give a few statistics. There are now 2,673 academies open in England, of which 618 are sponsored and 2,055 are converters. Over 50% of all secondary schools are academies and there are 505 sponsors. Some 25% of sponsored academies in chains have an “outstanding” Ofsted rating. Sponsored academies are improving their GCSE results five times faster than other schools. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells will be pleased to hear that 89 converter academies are now sponsoring other schools. There are 80 free schools open, with a total capacity of 34,000 pupils, and over 100 more are due to open later this year and beyond. Half of the free schools open are in the 30% most deprived communities and over half are in areas of severe basic need. Free schools are in great demand: 75 per cent of the schools which opened in September 2011 were oversubscribed for entry last year. However, I note the comments made by the right reverend Prelate about the need for more free schools in BAME communities.

My noble friend Lord Baker spoke somewhat passionately about UTCs. Five of these are now open and 26 more are planned. There are 17 studio schools open with 16 more planned, and 63 special academies open with 50 more planned. We have opened the first alternative-provision free school, and the first specialist maths school is due to open in 2014. I would like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that we intend to continue with the pace of reform. The Government understand, as several noble Lords have acknowledged, that parents know what is best for their children. They must have choices and if there are not the schools that they want in the area they must be free to create more.

I am delighted to hear what my noble friend Lady Perry said about professional judgment always trumping bureaucratic prescription, and what my noble friend Lord Storey and the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, said about the importance of freedom for teachers. This Government believe that teachers, head teachers and governors, not politicians and bureaucrats, should decide how schools are run and should have the freedom to make a difference to the lives of their pupils. The best ideas in schools come from schools themselves. I have noticed that the best schools often have the same characteristics: a broad and balanced curriculum, high aspiration, a longer school day, plenty of extracurricular and sporting activities, and good engagement with the local business community. We are keen for all schools to emulate what the best schools do. The evidence from abroad shows that strong autonomy for teachers, combined with accountability, delivers results. On accountability, I note the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, about the Ofsted inspection regime, and his other concerns, which, I can assure him, the Government take seriously. Regarding what my noble friend Lord Lucas said, I can assure him that we will take a tough approach to academy failure.

Academies are having a dramatic effect on results, particularly where new sponsors have taken on formerly underperforming schools. These sponsors challenge traditional thinking and have no truck with a culture of low expectations. There are plenty of examples of schools that have improved their performance over the past year alone by over 20%. However, there is still much more to do. We have already turned 200 of the worst-performing primary schools into academies supported by a strong sponsor. However, too many children are still suffering from a mediocre education. We therefore want to go further, as my noble friend Lady Perry said, and tackle more underperforming primary schools and pair them up with a high-quality sponsor. My noble friend Lord Moynihan made the vital point about the importance of governors. I can assure him that this is something that we will focus on intensely.

After attempting to answer three Questions not on my specialist subject, it has been a delight to respond to this debate on the contribution of academies and free schools in this country. It has been a most excellent debate and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.

Sitting suspended.