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Schools: Academies

Volume 743: debated on Thursday 14 February 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made with the academy school programme.

My Lords, 2,673 academies are now open in England. Nearly 60% of state-funded secondary schools are now either open or in the process of becoming academies, and more than 1,000 primary schools are now open as academies. Three alternative provision academies are open, with 20 more planned, and 63 special academies are open, with 50 more planned. The department is working to ensure that as many good and outstanding state schools as possible have the opportunity to sponsor other schools.

My Lords, that is very exciting news. I understand that academies are producing increasingly high levels of attainment. Will the Minister say what plans the Government have to tackle underperformance in all our schools, including academies?

My noble friend is absolutely right that these schools are increasing attainment. The Government are ruthlessly focused on tackling school underperformance, and it is one of my main responsibilities. The Government believe that every child, irrespective of background, deserves a high-quality education. We have built on the previous Government’s programme to establish a further 415 sponsored academies, including 200 of the worst-performing primary schools, and we are focusing on many more underperforming schools. Where we see underperformance and failure in any school, we will not hesitate to use all our powers.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the coalition Government are currently planning to convert academies and to move them from the public sector to the private sector? If that is the case, will the Minister confirm—it is certainly our opinion—that that would be entirely the wrong policy?

Will the Minister say how many academy schools are fulfilling their duty to support other schools to improve? Is he satisfied with that number? I have an indication that not all academy schools are doing that.

All good and outstanding schools that have chosen to convert to academies are expected to support other schools. More and more academies are taking this further and sponsoring other academies. Eighty-nine converter academies are now sponsoring other schools and providing support by sharing innovative ways of thinking and clear examples of what works, and we are working hard to encourage more to do so.

Will the Minister comment on reports that heads are being offered around £65,000 as an inducement to convert their schools into academies? If that is true, what is the estimated cost to public funds if the number of academies turns out to be as he anticipates: that is, the number of schools multiplied by £65,000? At a time when we are constantly being told that austerity is the order of the day, can he confirm that it is his opinion, as it is mine, that this is a complete waste of money?

We are offering grants—all this is available on our website—to help sponsors to turn round failing and underperforming schools. In its November 2012 report, the National Audit Office rightly acknowledged the extraordinary success of the academy programme. We make no apology for spending money on a programme that is proven to drive up standards and make long-term improvements. We want as many schools as possible to take advantage of the significant benefits of academy status.

Can my noble friend tell the House how successful the Government have been in working with independent schools in expanding their marvellous academies programme?

We have a number of proven successes. I was delighted to see that Eton College is going to sponsor an academy. There are many other independent schools, and we are keen to involve as many as possible.

Can the Minister tell the House whether any research is going on to monitor the progress of children with special educational needs in academies and free schools?

Like all schools, academies have a clear duty to use their best endeavours to meet the needs of children with SEN, and they can go further with their freedoms. Special academies are at the heart of our programme.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge the problem, which was recently identified in the Academies Commission report, that many academies are in effect setting their own rules for admissions, which are incredibly complex for parents to navigate and are in effect excluding many children from disadvantaged backgrounds from the academies programme?

I do not acknowledge that. All admission authorities, be they local councils or self-governing schools, including academies, must comply with the new, fair admissions code. Anyone who has concerns, including the noble Baroness, about how state-funded schools are admitting pupils can formally object to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. The law requires that academies and free schools make the majority of their places available to children from the area.