[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Right; I just thought that I would embarrass myself, rather than have everyone else embarrassing themselves by not knowing what to say.
It is a great pleasure to be going through the various provisions of the Bill. Let me also take this opportunity to welcome the Government Front-Bench team to their roles. This is their first opportunity to take a Bill through the Commons. Normally today’s proceedings would have happened upstairs but, without making a point, I can say that theirs is still a demanding role, but one that I know they will enjoy. It is also quite nice to be on this side of the Committee, from where I can ask the questions and not have to think what the answers are. Having said that, I would much rather be in power and have that responsibility.
With that welcome, let me say that the Bill and our discussions on it are extremely important, and while it is—
I will in a moment. The hon. Gentleman should let me get started. If he gives me just two minutes, I will say something and then he might want to intervene—unless, of course, he wants to intervene to welcome my welcome.
It is good to be here to debate the issues, but let me say one thing. I know that there will be serious differences of opinion in this discussion, but I also know that we are all motivated by a desire to improve educational standards. There are real differences between us on how we achieve that and what the best way forward for our state school system is. However, I accept that we are all motivated by a desire to try to do the best for the young people of this country, and I know that that is true among all Members, right across the House.
No, I am not embarrassed at all; I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to put up with me for the time being.
This is an important debate, but it is also the quality of debate that is important. Over the next few days—today, tomorrow and Monday—the quality of the debate from across the Committee will lead to a Bill that we will oppose, but which, being a good Opposition, we will try to improve, notwithstanding the fact that we do not agree with it.
It is important to say at the beginning that, whether we are talking about the current amendment—amendment 28, which concerns special schools—or any other amendment, at the heart of this debate is the fact that we have a different view of academies and academy education from that which is presented in the Bill. This Bill inverts the way in which the previous Government pursued the academy programme. We established academies in areas of poor educational performance and areas of social disadvantage. The Bill turns that on its head, allowing outstanding schools to fast-track to academy status and allowing primary schools for the first time to become academies, a provision that is the subject of a subsequent amendment, and also allowing special schools to become academies—the subject of amendment 28. Those are all things that we think could damage the provision of education, particularly with respect to special education needs in an area.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the recommendation in the previous Parliament of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, as it then was, that the freedoms available to academies under his Government should have been available to all schools? Does he have any objection to all schools having such freedoms?
Of course we want freedoms extended to different schools where appropriate. However, if the hon. Gentleman reads the Children, Schools and Families Committee report, he will see that it talked about allowing the expansion of those freedoms within a managed context, not what is being proposed now, which is that these freedoms be extended to schools without any check on them or on how they use those freedoms. The proposals on the local authority role have caused huge disquiet across the country, and will have caused huge disquiet among the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative and Liberal colleagues. That is why I am pointing out the difference.
The Chair of the Select Committee is no longer in his place, but it would be interesting to know whether his Committee would have reached the same conclusion about the extension of freedoms to all schools if it had known that it would happen in a context in which the Secretary of State—either through a funding agreement or a direct grant—determined whether a school was operating effectively and conducting itself in an appropriate way. This applies to special schools, as provided for in the amendment, and to any other schools. I believe that the different context is crucial for understanding the conclusions that the Select Committee came to about how the academies programme was developing under the last Government in comparison with this Government’s programme. In the light of that difference, the Select Committee might well have reached different conclusions.
Of course outstanding schools can be trusted, but such schools have demonstrated that they already have all the freedom they need to be outstanding. Schools in areas of social deprivation or those suffering from educational underperformance should be allowed to operate in a way that, we hope, will raise standards. Evidence on whether or not the hoped-for and expected higher standards have been achieved is not as clear cut as one would like to imagine. I shall come on to deal with impact assessments in more detail later, but for any type of school, the impact assessments are quite wary about the evidence is terms of how much progress has been made in academies. All I am saying to the right hon. Gentleman—to be fair, he operates by trying to make policy on the basis of evidence—is that the evidence is mixed, so to plunge headlong into a massive expansion of academy freedoms without due regard to the evidence is not the right course of action for special schools or others.
No, that is a totally different scenario. I was not saying that at all. I was saying that to target academy freedoms in the first instance to schools in areas of educational underperformance and social disadvantage was exactly the right thing to do. My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State agreed a large number of academies and it is clear that we would have gone on to establish more of them. What we are saying is that this model of academies is the right one. As for amendment 28—I want to stay in order, Mr Hoyle—extending the same model to special schools and primary schools without the evidence to back it up is a risk. A managed expansion would be fine, but this is a free-for-all. That is the difference. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman wants to improve educational achievement in an area, but our view is that this proposal creates an unnecessary risk. Allowing outstanding schools to expand through the academy system as the Bill sets out risks creating the two-tier education system that none of us wants.
The hon. Gentleman talks about a massive expansion, but surely the key point about this legislation is that it is permissive. Special schools and primary schools will become academies only if those schools themselves judge that they want to be academies. Does he not trust the judgment of those schools, their head teachers and their governing bodies?
It is simply not the case that the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team wants this to be a gentle expansion and not a big bang. The Secretary of State sees this as a flagship Bill. The idea is to try as hard as possible—notwithstanding the impact assessments—to expand the number of academies as quickly as possible. If we had been successful in the election and were still in government, we would have expanded the number of academies. Indeed, I had signed up to a number of them coming forward in September—some in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) would have expanded the academies programme, as I said.
The issue is the model for the expansion. That is the difference between us. We will argue our way all around the different clauses, but this goes to the very heart of the debate. Our view is that we should concentrate on schools in areas of social disadvantage and educational underperformance; this Government’s view is to allow outstanding schools to fast-track to academy status with all the risks that that brings.
The hon. Gentleman will know that in London constituencies like mine, people in very disadvantaged circumstances often live right next door to fairly affluent areas. Why does he think that only poorly performing schools should try to improve? Why should satisfactory schools, good schools and outstanding schools not also try to raise their standards?
That is a fair point. We want all schools to improve their standards. That is not my point. My point is that allowing only outstanding schools to let rip in this way is likely to cause problems. The hon. Gentleman needs to ask why the Bill does not specifically provide that outstanding schools should or must co-operate and reach an agreement with an underperforming school. As it stands, it is a permissive part of the Bill: it is a good thing to do; it would be nice if those outstanding schools did that. They should do so, but there is no “must” about it. I am not sure how this would work in respect of the programme motion, but the hon. Gentleman might like to consider tabling an amendment formally to require outstanding schools to partner other schools—special schools or whatever—that may be next door to them, but are not satisfactory and are not delivering the standard of education that they want. If he did that, I would look forward to considering whether we could support it.
I am slightly concerned that words such as “freedom” are being used in this context. It is one of those concepts like “apple pie” and “mother’s milk”, which nobody can disagree with. Given that we have a personalised curriculum and given that much work has been done with head teachers to see what can be developed and offered at key stages 3 and 4, my concern is that we are effectively granting the freedom to disapply the curriculum from many vulnerable children and to restrict what is offered on the curricular diet to certain groups of children. I fear that head teachers will say, “There’s no point in that child learning French; he can barely speak English. Sorry.”
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There is a clear tension. We need to ensure that, where appropriate, schools are given the freedom to innovate and to pursue the important objectives they want, but that we do so in a way that does not disadvantage some children.
As I was saying, this goes to heart of the Bill and explains why we tabled amendment 28 to take special schools out of the Bill so that they cannot become academies. If we give those special schools that freedom, there is a potential for it to impact adversely on the entitlements of other children in an area.
Let me finish the point, and then I will, of course. We are in Committee, so things are a bit calmer.
It is no good giving one person or school freedom without considering how it will impact on the freedom of others. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) made that same point, particularly with respect to disadvantaged children, children with special needs and so forth. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) tabled amendments with a similar point in mind for the Liberal Democrats, so these concerns are not restricted to Labour Members.
Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House who 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 freedoms”?
Was it not his former leader, one Anthony Blair? If the hon. Gentleman no longer agrees with those views, when did he depart from them?
I have seen that briefing. I have explained how we have moved on from that point. We are now debating the particular model that the Government are introducing. The context in which those remarks were made was therefore totally different. We are considering how to move from where we are to where we want to be in giving schools more freedom. Our view is different from the hon. Gentleman’s and that of his Front Benchers. We believe that, if there is a free-for-all and the local authority’s role is taken away, the process is open to danger. That is the point of difference. The hon. Gentleman may think that it is better that whether a school becomes an academy is determined not by the local authority and local people but by the Secretary of State. That is nonsensical. However, he will doubtless defend that position.
There has been pressure on special schools in particular. Under the previous Government, 186 special schools closed. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some special schools may welcome the greater security that a bit more independence would give them if they were allowed to become academies?
One of the points behind the hon. Gentleman’s question is to ensure that as many young people for whom it is appropriate are included in mainstream education. I would have thought that that was a point of agreement between us. Of course special schools need to be retained, and there is clearly a need for them to have high standards and deliver the quality of education that we all want for children with severe learning difficulties. I am not sure that their becoming academies in the way that the Bill envisages would make much difference. I pay tribute to special schools, which do a fantastic job.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, for parents, choice is at the heart of the matter when deciding whether a mainstream or a special school is most appropriate. Does he agree that such choice should be available to schools, so that a head teacher and a board of governors can decide whether academy status is best for them? They may decide one way or the other, but surely they should have the same choices and opportunities as other schools.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to table an amendment to provide that schools choosing such a route must consult parents and the local community, and that any application for such status should depend on not only the head teacher and the governing body, but the broader community, particularly parents. I take his point that parents are always important in education, but that applies particularly to parents of pupils in special schools. They are especially dependent on not only the support that the schools give the young person, whom they have the responsibility of educating, but the emotional advice and support that they often give parents, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is important, why does not he amend the Bill to make it a requirement that schools taking the route that he suggests consult parents? It should not be a case of a whimsical, “It’s good practice if you do that, it’ll be in the funding agreement.” Let us have a bit of clarity about what is expected from such a radical reform.
The hon. Gentleman is even-handed, for which I thank him. I direct him to clause 5, which deals with consultation on conversion. Subsection (1) states:
“Before a maintained school in England is converted into an Academy, the school’s governing body must consult”.
It includes the word “must”. Has he looked at the version of the Bill that came from the other place?
I have, and the subsection goes on,
“must consult such persons as they think appropriate.”
Why does not it specify parents? It simply says, consult “as they think appropriate.” I have read the Bill and I can read the words “as they think appropriate.” Subsection (3) states:
“The consultation may take place before”—
which is fine—
“or after an Academy order”.
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) made a good point. If a school, particularly a special school, wants to follow the route that he proposed, one should not have a broad “consult people where appropriate” provision, but a list of people, including parents, who are exceptionally important, to consult. Why does subsection (3) say “before or after”? I am not a cynic, but the vast majority of our constituents will think that, if we provide for a school to consult after an academy order is made, such consultation is just a way of smoothing the process, rather than proper, legitimate consultation about whether it is the right thing to do. The constituents of the hon. Member for North Cornwall may be different from mine, but that is what my constituents would think.
The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. The Avenue school in Reading is an outstanding special school, led by a brilliant head teacher, Sue Bourne. Why do the Opposition want to take away the right to become an academy from her and her school, when that is clearly what they want to do?
If it is an outstanding school, it has become one under the existing arrangements. We are worried that one school’s freedom could be detrimental to the wider school system. That goes to the heart of the matter. The hon. Gentleman disagrees, and it is a point of debate and discussion. He will have to argue with other special schools and other head teachers, whom I, and no doubt others, could cite, who greatly fear that fragmenting the system, with some schools following the academy route while others do not, means that the overall collective provision in an area for particularly vulnerable children is put at risk. That is even before we have reached the question, which the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) will have to answer, about funding, admissions, the area that a school serves and its relationship with other schools. We are obliged to take all those matters on trust.
I was very interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s concern about a lack of co-ordination for provision. Does he accept that some good work has been done in clause 2(6), which deals with low-incidence special educational needs? It provides for retaining the money for that provision under the control of the local education authority. The problem about which he is rightly worried will be largely avoided, and we can still have special resources and units for people with low-incidence special needs.
The hon. Gentleman is right. That provision is the result of an amendment in the House of Lords, and it makes a significant improvement to the Bill. It would be stupid and churlish to deny that. The Government deserve credit for amending the measure and including that provision. They have made other amendments, which have improved the Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot about special needs, knows that the provision deals with low-incidence special needs whereas the amendment deals with special schools. When people talk about special needs, low-incidence special needs are often neglected. Like other hon. Members, I know from professionals that they often feel that provision can be made for someone with serious learning difficulties. Some people, however, have an unrecognised or low-incidence special need, and the fact that that is covered in the Bill is a big step forward. Of course, the devil will be in the detail when it comes to how the funding will work, and how it will be judged whether a school is meeting the requirements of young people with low-incidence special needs.
Special schools are a different matter, as I have been trying to explain to various Members. They contain young people with particularly profound learning difficulties, rather than young people with low-incidence special needs. I think that rushing into allowing those schools to become academies puts at risk the cohesion, planning and co-ordination of provision for the young people involved.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving way. He was a very effective schools Minister, and, along with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he presided over 200 academies. Did he find that those 200 academies were not involved in their communities, and did not participate in local plans to raise standards across the board? Were they the islands unto themselves that he now claims the new academies will be?
The point is that the whole of that system was based on local consensus. Local authorities and local communities were involved, and difficult and tough decisions were sometimes made in the face of significant opposition. The academies programme was developed on the basis of local agreement, which meant the local community telling schools that they must take part in all the partnerships.
Those were secondary schools, but, as the Minister knows, the amendment deals with the possible extension of academy status to special schools and primary schools, which would involve a massive expansion. A managed expansion is one thing, but, as both Ministers of State will probably point out, the Bill is permissive—permissive, that is, to the extent that it allows almost everything to be done by means of the funding agreement or the direct grant arrangements. Regardless of ideological differences, even Government Back Benchers draw attention to the lack of a statutory requirement for things to be done that people consider necessary, which I think is a serious weakness, particularly as a funding agreement, which is a contract, would ultimately have to be tested in the courts.
Let me say this to the Minister: in all honesty. I am not making a point about the Bill being rushed through; that was dealt with when we debated the programme motion. If I were in charge of the Bill, I would think that, notwithstanding some of the improvements made by the House of Lords—such as the provision for low-incidence special needs, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), and the application to academies of section 4 of the Education Act 1996—when it comes to exclusions, admissions and, in particular, special schools, it is no use talking about things that people “should” do. It is no use saying, “These are important matters on which parents should be consulted. These people should be consulted, and those people should be consulted.” The Bill should lay down an absolute requirement, especially in relation to those with the most profound learning difficulties.
Schools in Brent are in a difficult position, given the proposal to redistribute special educational needs among schools. It is proposed that autism, learning difficulties and challenging behaviour be apportioned between Cardinal Hinsley high school, Queens Park community school, Alperton community school and Copland community school. All those schools have fallen victim to the Building Schools for the Future cuts, at the same time as the amalgamation of the two special schools, Hay Lane and Grove Park. In the circumstances, it would be incredible if an order were allowed for academy arrangements to be pursued with consultation taking place only afterwards. It would be absolutely preposterous.
My hon. Friend underlines my point. I consider it ridiculous that the Bill allows consultation to take place after an order. There should be a requirement that, at the very least, it should take place beforehand, and those whom it is appropriate to consult should be listed. He is also right to draw attention to the problems caused by the Building Schools for the Future fiasco.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the pattern of special educational needs in this country is changing fast, particularly at the more severe and complex end of the spectrum? The pattern of attendance at special schools is completely different from that of seven years ago. If we allow special schools to become academies and to remain almost the same for seven years, we shall risk creating a special school system that will be unable to cope with the changing pattern of need.
I was going to make the same point, but it has been very well made by my hon. Friend, who brings her own expertise, knowledge and experience to the debate. Her valuable point is now on the record, and no doubt the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) will respond to it.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. He mentioned the insertion in the House of Lords of part 4 of the 1996 Act, which requires an academy to accept a child with special educational needs. His party could have introduced that measure, but did not do so. It is this Bill that is making the change in the law relating to children with special needs.
Changes in policy always improve as they go through Parliament, particularly when, as was the case in the House of Lords, amendment is possible. Now a hugely important Bill is being dealt with on the Floor of the House of Commons, but unless something remarkable happens, no amendments will be made. Members, not only Labour Members but Members on the Government Benches, may well propose equally important amendments to the Bill as it stands, but it will not be possible for them to be accepted.
We have our ideological differences and our views about what is right and what is wrong about the academies programme, but—I know I am repeating myself—although four or five important points have been made about academies and consultation, unless Members wish to make problems for themselves, it will not be possible for the Bill in its current form to be amended. The Minister mentioned one amendment that was made in the House of Lords, and other good amendments were made there but, notwithstanding what we may feel about special schools becoming academies, no amendments can be made in this place to improve the position.
The ability of special schools to become academies is not only highly problematic, but very dangerous to their status as a whole local authority resource. At present, local authority-maintained special schools play a critical role in the provision of support for pupils whose circumstances mean that attendance at a mainstream school is not appropriate. In that respect, special schools are a key feature of a genuinely inclusive education system that seeks to provide additional support on the basis of objective assessments of pupils’ needs, and of the settings in which those needs might best be met. We all accept that not all pupils can function effectively and access the most appropriate support in a mainstream setting. Maintained special schools are settings managed and administered directly by local authorities and they are in place for the benefit of all local pupils. In that respect, they demonstrate the value of a local authority-provided, commonly accessible educational resource upon which all settings can draw when necessary. The ability of local authorities to act in this way in respect of special schools means that additional support for pupils can be delivered on the basis of both a comprehensive and coherent assessment of local needs and best value for money. The Minister needs to address some of the concerns on this matter, and must explain to us how this coherence of provision will be maintained when special schools become academies.
As a former director of a local authority research organisation before I was elected to my hon. Friend’s neighbouring constituency, I spent a lot of time looking at the Conservatives’ plans for localism and decentralisation to local government. Does he agree that it is slightly contradictory that on the one hand the Conservatives claim to believe in such devolution and yet, on the other, fail to grasp that at the strategic level for certain key issues a local authority is the best placed point at which to make these key decisions? Does he also agree that there is a lack of attention to the important role that local democratic authorities can play here?
I agree absolutely, and that point goes to the heart of both this amendment and a number of further amendments to other clauses throughout the Bill. I cannot believe that a significant number of Members on the Government Benches are not having serious concerns expressed to them by their local authorities about decisions on school provision and places, particularly in respect of pupils with special educational needs, being taken out of their hands and being determined instead by the Secretary of State. That is a serious flaw in the Bill, and we will try to amend it.
Given the clear advantages of the current system of provision in respect of special schools, it is not possible to identify any benefits to pupils, teachers, head teachers or members of the wider school work force that would be generated by allowing special schools to acquire academy status. In addition to the issues associated with academy status for all schools, allowing special schools to operate beyond the control of local authorities would mean that the ability of local authorities to incorporate them into their wider strategies for SEN provision would be undermined. A special school with academy status would not be under an obligation to have regard to the wider strategy in terms of the nature and scope of its provision and would be able to act in ways inconsistent with the strategy’s key provisions. There are no provisions in the Bill that would prevent special schools from charging for placements at their school—I shall want to make a particular point about that with reference to a specific subsection. There is also no link with the other aspect of the coalition Government’s proposals: to take the assessment of special needs away from local authorities and give it to an independent body.
Some local authorities have a mixture of provision, in both special schools and mainstream schools with specialist units co-located in the school or on the school site. What are the Government saying would happen to them? How would that work? There is no information in the Bill about the right of a local authority to withdraw such provision from a school if it seeks to become an academy. If there is specialist provision for special needs within a mainstream school and that is onsite—it is co-located—what will happen? Will they be treated separately? If a school were to submit an application on its own, would that be taken as meaning that the onsite provision would also convert to academy status? What would happen if the pupils concerned were incorporated into, and were working in, mainstream classes? All these issues need to be addressed. I think all Members agree that our special schools do an incredibly important job in our society and make a huge contribution to education for parents and families in some of the most of difficult circumstances, but I also think that this move to allow special schools to take up academy status is part of a headlong rush.
I also ask the Minister: where is the evidence? As the explanatory notes to the Bill make clear, the benefits section of the impact assessment assumes that there will be 200 new academies each year but that they will all be secondaries. There is no evidence as to the potential impact on primary or special academies. We will come to primary academies when we deal with the next amendment, but how is it possible for Parliament to determine that allowing special schools to convert to academies is the right way forward when there is no evidence in the impact assessment? Even if it is flimsy evidence or evidence that we disagree with, would not the impact assessment usually address and deal with it? Why does the Government’s own impact assessment not address the issue of primaries or special schools, and why does the limited evidence in the Government’s own equalities impact assessment, which deals with SEN, state:
“It is not possible to say with certainty from table 6”—
I will not bore the Committee with table 6—
“which group of schools serve SEN pupils better because by definition we cannot know their individual circumstances and challenges. However, the outcomes for pupils with SEN are at least in line with what we might expect when compared to similar schools”?
It is hardly a ringing endorsement of the headlong rush to academy status for the assessment to say just
“at least in line with”,
rather than that academy status for pupils with SEN has resulted in a huge surge in attainment.
Why are we being asked to proceed in this manner? The Minister’s Government talk about evidence-based policy making; her Government say we are entering a new politics, which is about not ideologically driven policy making, but policy making that is based on evidence. Where is the evidence, apart from some head teachers of some special schools saying, for perfectly understandable and laudable reasons, that they think it would be better if they were special school academies? Where is the evidence that this is the right policy? Where can I and other hon. Members find that evidence?
Can the Minister also explain why pupil referral units—or short-stay schools as they are now called—are not included in the Bill? I suspect there must have been a debate about whether they should have been included; otherwise it would have been a mistake. From what I know about her ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, it will not have been a mistake, so there has obviously been a debate about this. Why are not pupil referral units—or short-stay schools—included in the Bill? I guess that the reason is because there is so much potential for a disjointed system of provision that a little more work needs to be done. If so, why is that true for short-stay schools but not for special schools? What criteria have been used to determine that pupil referral units were inappropriate for inclusion in the Bill, but special schools should be included?
I have been speaking for a long time, but I took a lot of interventions. There are huge questions. How is the funding going to work? Where is the funding coming from for those schools? What will the impact on special schools be if two or three special schools in a local authority opt out? What will the implications be for a local authority’s special needs provision? What area will this cover? What will the requirements be in terms of schools liaising with other schools in the district? Will it be possible for parents in an area to set up a free school that is a special school academy? I do not know what the technical term for that might be; perhaps it would be called a special-school, free-school academy. Is that a possibility, or would different criteria be applied to that? What criteria would there be if parents in an area decided that they wished to set up a special school as an academy? How does that relate to the free school provisions in this Bill?
Lastly, will the Minister assure us on the arrangements for charging? She will know that clause 1(9) seeks to ensure that no charge is made by academies in respect of “admission” or “attendance”. However, clause 1(9)(b) says that this also applies
“(subject to any exceptions specified in the terms)”—
“ education provided at the school.”
Can she reassure us about what will happen to the expertise, knowledge and information that many other schools access at the moment to support their own provision when a school becomes a special school academy? Will she categorically state that nothing in clause 1(9)(b) will allow a special school academy to start charging, in any sense, for any provision it makes for any other school within its area?
This is a hugely important point. To be fair, I do not think that the Minister would want to see such charging, but what will happen if a private company establishes a special school academy or if, two years down the road, a special school academy is providing teachers or support to a school? I am talking not about extras, but about what some special schools do. Their teachers go to work in other schools to help them, particularly in respect of some lower incidence special needs. These teachers use their expertise with children with profound difficulties to work with children with lower incidence special needs. Can she say whether it is absolutely the case that in no circumstances will any special school academy charge, in any way, for any service provided to another school that all of us would regard as mainstream provision?
I have begged the indulgence of the Committee because I have taken a lot of interventions. I hope that I have made it clear that I know that each and every one of us in this House supports special schools, and the fabulous work that teachers do in those schools and their fabulous co-operation and liaison with parents in those schools.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly praised the work of special schools. If he is such a fan of them, why did 9,000 special school places and 160 special schools close under the previous Government? He and I are not special school teachers. We are not experts in this field, but if we were, I would hope that the Government would give us the freedom to set up schools and teach in a way that we know we are able to teach as professionals. I hope that he agrees with that statement.
If I were going to make a party political point, I would go away now to find out how many special schools closed under the previous Conservative Government. May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that the policy objective, which I thought had cross-party support, was to include as many young people as possible in mainstream education? If that is a policy objective, clearly some special schools will close and some special school places will not be available because we will have decided that we can provide perfectly properly for those young people in a mainstream setting. As one of his colleagues said, the clear point is that this has to be a matter on which parents choose. However, the hon. Gentleman did not say that, did he? His question should have been whether I am certain that every parent has had the free choice that they should have had. It should not have been the party political point that he tried to make about the number of special school places that went.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that every parent should have a proper choice about what provision is best for their child—be it a special school or a mainstream school. Alongside that, it is a laudable and absolutely correct policy objective to ensure that as far as possible—if this provision can be made for them—young people, whatever their difficulty, should be provided for and educated in a mainstream school. There are examples of brilliant education provision in mainstream education for young people with some of the most difficult learning problems. Unfortunately, for some that provision cannot be made and provision is instead made for them in special schools. He has doubtless seen in his constituency, as I have seen in mine, the brilliance of the provision that is then made for them. I say to him again that the question is about parental choice; it is not about trying to make a party political point about the number of places.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we are dealing with one of the educational myths? Special schools may have closed under the previous Government, but in fact the number of special school places increased. Where special schools did close it was because they were simply not good enough, and they were replaced with excellent special schools or excellent provision in mainstream education.
I totally agree with that.
This has been an excellent debate. May I finish by saying that I think all Members from across the House would agree that when we debate special education, not just special educational needs, and the issue of special schools, we do not pay sufficient tribute to the work of the teachers in special schools? That is the case notwithstanding our difference about whether special schools should become academies. We profoundly disagree with that approach, for some of the reasons that I have set out. It is a leap in the dark and we have no idea where it will end up. However, at least we have had the opportunity to praise special schools, to examine their work and to try to understand this issue. No doubt, the Minister will try, in her response, to allay the Committee’s fears a little more about what this will mean for special schools.
Just to reinforce an earlier point, may I say that I closed 12 special schools as the relevant education portfolio holder and that many of those schools were an abomination? However, the process also included much more inclusion in mainstream schools and the creation of six brand-new schools, co-located, which was a great positive. That could not have been done without taking a strategic approach across the whole district and that would not have been possible if there had been independent schools within that sector.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which relates to the one that I have made. Where is the strategic direction coming from, given the bypassing of the local authority? He will know that the Liberal Democrats’ election manifesto showed that they understood very well that that was a real issue for them. That is why they tried to marry up the issue of the greater freedom for schools with ensuring that the strategic oversight of that was very much incorporated within the local authority framework and was not, in essence, delegated to the Secretary of State and centralised. That is a huge flaw in this model for academies.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the shadow Minister, for saying some nice words about me, although I do not know whether I deserve them. I just happened to fall into this subject by being interested in it because of my family concern and, as a result of that interest, I perhaps have slightly more knowledge about it than most. However, I am not an expert; I am like any other parent who is interested in this subject and I am very passionate, as many parents become about the education of their children.
I must confess, however, to having been somewhat puzzled in the first instance, and then somewhat disappointed by this amendment. I had expected something more nuanced, given the debate that took place in the other place. I was crestfallen to see that the approach taken by Baroness Royall, which was that, in effect, special schools should be left out of the equation altogether, is being followed in this House. Some points have already been covered by my hon. Friends in interventions on the shadow Minister, so I shall not reiterate them in full. I simply ask: why exclude special schools from the opportunity that this Bill provides, given that other schools are to be given that choice? This is not mandatory—nobody is being forced to do anything; it is a matter for the individual school to choose.
Perhaps we should pause to remind ourselves of the process that families undergo when going through the statementing process and finding the right school for their child. We know a lot about that very important process, which is difficult for the parents, but which guarantees statutory protection for that child. There has been a lot of argument about how we assess a particular young person or child for the purposes of statementing, and there are many concerns about the obvious difficulty of the local education authority acting as both the assessor and funder of places. I have been very encouraged by my party’s policy of divorcing and dividing the assessment and provision processes. It is vital that we follow through on that to ensure that there is full confidence in the assessment system.
What will happen then? It is not always the case that a child with a full statement will go to a local special school. Very often, a child with acute needs will have to go to a school—often a privately funded school and perhaps in another part of the country—that has extremely specialised provision for children with acute needs. We can all think of examples of schools such as Prior’s Court, which is just off junction 13 of the M4. That private school was set up 10 years ago to deal with children with acute needs on the autism spectrum, including autism and Asperger’s syndrome. However, some of the children and young people who go there, including a constituent of mine, do so thanks to LEA funding.
Many results arise from local authority funding and it is not always the case that children end up in a local special school. The issue is far more nuanced than that. I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that, given his experience as the Schools Minister. He understands that the amendment ignores all the subtleties and individual cases that result in a plethora of provision across the country for children and young people with SEN.
Had the clause reached the House unamended—I remind the House that the unamended clause concerned merely the varying needs of children—I would be happy to support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, but we have moved on considerably from that. The argument that was advanced in the other place by his colleague Baroness Royall was rightly rejected by that House, and a far more considered set of amendments were debated and either accepted by the Government or voted on by that House. I was delighted to see such amendments to clauses 6 to 9.
The funding issue that was properly raised by Members of the other place has been addressed and we now have the all-important guarantee—the incorporation of part IV of the Education Act 1996—that will put children with SEN on exactly the same footing whether they are in a maintained school or in an academy. That was an important concern for many people on both sides of the House and outside it, and it has been addressed, but we would lose that gain if the amendment were accepted; indeed, we would lose the whole shooting match.
The amendment not only ignores the nuances of the situation, but takes a blunderbuss approach. I appreciate that Labour opposes the Bill in principle and I understand why—the reasons have been well elucidated by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues both on Second Reading and today. Putting that to one side, however, surely the function of tabling amendments is to try to make legislation better. I am afraid that the amendment fails that test spectacularly: its crude and generalist approach ignores all the points that I know the hon. Gentleman understands about the infinitesimal differences involved and the variety that exists in the provision of special education. It would exclude special schools from going down the academy route if they so wished.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely thoughtful contribution and I am certainly impressed by it, but it is unfair to suggest that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) provided no argument for keeping special schools out of the equation. One such argument was that the elimination of special schools from the local authority network would have a more disruptive effect than the elimination of an ordinary primary or secondary school because special schools are well integrated into the overall local authority provision and mission regarding special education.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. We have dealt, in interventions, with low-incidence needs and I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman made about that. The key point is about funding and we all felt that the Bill’s original draft did not deal with that properly, but it is now clearly set out.
A second concern of mine, which I expressed on Second Reading, is not so much about the process by which statements appear but about their enforcement. I made some observations in that debate about the need for more detail as to how that will be dealt with. How would a parent who was concerned that a statement was not being carried out or enforced by a school take their complaint further? I understand that complaints to the Secretary of State about the lack of enforcement of a statement in a special school will be dealt with by the Young People’s Learning Agency. I welcome that, but I would want to be satisfied that the YPLA personnel who dealt with those complaints would have adequate training to understand the sometimes labyrinthine process involved in enforcing SEN statements. I would also want the processes to be very clear and to be spelt out to the parents of children with SEN at the outset. I am not going to stray off the point, Mr Chope, but I want briefly to mention amendment 72, which was proposed by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass)—
Order. It is not in order to refer to amendments that have not been selected. Will the hon. Gentleman confine his remarks to this amendment? The issue before us is whether special educational needs should be included within academies or not.
I am grateful for that guidance, but what I was seeking to explain is that there are some concerns about the process of enforcing SEN statements, which is relevant to the debate about linking special schools to the current network in terms of how academies will work. There are concerns about academies not being part of the LEA system and framework, but those matters could be dealt with by way of a clarification of those processes. I am sure that the Government are listening to what we are saying.
My hon. Friend makes a good point regarding the structure of schools. There is a feeling that the most articulate or perhaps pushy parents are best able to get their child statemented in the first place and that they are also in the best position, if that statement is not properly enforced by the school, to put pressure on the school and the local authority. There is legitimate concern that the further away lies the authority that might be able to put pressure on the school, other than direct pressure from the parent, the more likely it is that that inequality will be exacerbated. It is important that Ministers should reassure us that we will have an effective and equitable system that will ensure that children are treated equally and that their statements will be honoured.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the local authority, but the special needs schools in my constituency have catchment areas for virtually the whole of London, so they are engaged with more than one local authority. We simply cannot discard the opinions of parents outside the local authority area in which the relevant special needs school is based.
Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman bases his argument on there being no change to special educational needs, but my fear is that if the Bill takes off, mainstream schools will be able simply to exclude special educational needs pupils, and there will be a knock-on effect for those special educational needs schools that prioritise those children.
The hon. Lady makes a number of interesting points. First, I agree about the wider community. Her well-made point about consultation reinforces my point about the complexity of provision, whereby a child in borough A will only be able to go to a school in borough B, which has the acute service—for want of a better phrase.
Secondly, the hon. Lady made a more general point about the accountability of the exclusions process, and I imagine that she would want the appeals process—
Very well. I have been led astray by the hon. Lady’s film persona on many occasions, and in a very positive way, but I accept what you say, Mr Chope, and I shall return to the amendment.
I do not share the concern that, when it comes to children and young people in special education, the Bill will result in a “them and us” situation. In fact, to accept the amendment would be to create just such situation. If both Houses pass the Bill and we allow schools the opportunity to go down this exciting avenue, we must as a matter of principle allow all types of school to enjoy that potential opportunity, and it would be wholly wrong and discriminatory to exclude special schools from that process.
For a number of years, I was the chair of the board of governors in a special school that dealt with the educational needs of children who were then classified as having moderate learning difficulties. The classifications were of the time. As the chair, I had to go through a process whereby the local authority decided that it would be more appropriate to close the school, because the range of provision for the children was inappropriate for the time in which we were living. If each special school in an area becomes an academy and independent of local authority concern, is there not a danger that special school arrangements and special educational arrangements will be maintained in aspic for ever?
That is unfair. I acknowledge and bow to the hon. Gentleman’s experience, but he underestimates where we are with special education. I am sure that he will agree that head teachers and staff in special schools always look at ways of improving their provision, and reinvent and adapt it to the new children who enter their schools year on year. I find special schools in the modern era very receptive to change. They want to understand and learn from their experiences, and they want to learn about new diagnoses, which is an area of constant change. In autism, for example, the huge increase in the number of diagnoses means that there is an increased demand for special education, so I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s pessimism or his vision of special schools wanting to remain in a golden age and refusing to move with the times.
My hon. Friend makes a very compelling case for maintaining the option of academy status for special schools. Does he agree that one will struggle to find a school that is more engaged with the parents and community that it serves than a special school? Highview special school in my constituency is one such example, but those schools often feel under pressure because of the policies that previous Governments pursued. Such schools have to justify how they offer something that a mainstream school cannot, so they are very engaged with the community that they serve, and they would go down the academy route only if they honestly believed that it was best for their children.
My hon. Friend makes a proper point. In the borough of Swindon, which I partially represent, we are lucky to be served by a number of excellent special schools, such as the Chalet school, and Uplands school in Brimble Hill. I shall not give out the entire list, but the schools that I have not mentioned know that I am thinking of them as well. As their Member of Parliament, I would not presume to say to their head teachers and governors, “Look, you must go down this route offered by the Academies Act.” That would be utterly wrong and wholly out of kilter with the spirit of the legislation. It will be up to those schools, if they so choose, to take that route to academy status, and I make no apology for repeating the point that this legislation is all about giving schools that chance, rather than issuing some diktat from the centre, whereby schools have to follow a course, however unwillingly.
I am disappointed by the amendment, which I oppose. I do not mean this pejoratively against the hon. Member for Gedling, but it fails to respect the position of special schools, and it does not acknowledge their great potential or the great opportunities that the Bill presents to schools—in my constituency and, indeed, his—to flourish and thrive in the years ahead. I am sure that the Government will address the many concerns that Members from all parts of the House share about the rights of parents, and we will all continue to look very carefully at the detail on the rights of aggrieved parents.
The hon. Gentleman says, “I am sure that the Government will address the concerns expressed in this Committee.” The Government should ensure that they address some concerns that are outlined in the Chamber, but does he not think that others are so fundamental that they need to be included in a Bill and given legislative force?
There is a fundamental point, and I shall not shy away from it. I would submit—sorry, the lawyer is coming out in me—that, when it comes to a timetable for the resolution of any disputes, the new model agreement on admissions should be clarified even further. I am sure that there is scope for looking at the detail, but it does not necessarily mean that such detail has to be in the Bill. If we are going to go down this road, let us ensure that the contract—the agreements—are as watertight, as accessible and as understandable as possible for parents. I have concerns that many Members share, but it does not mean that we need to include them in the Bill. In fact, to take the hon. Gentleman’s logic to its conclusion, I note that his amendment seeks to make the Bill even less prescriptive. He might think it an artificial point, but on his logic I am entitled to make it, because, by seeking to sweep away particular clauses that have been included as a result of much deliberation, he is in effect negating his own argument. With that, I draw my remarks to a close.
I am pleased to follow the courteous exchange between the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and my hon. Friend the shadow Minister.
I have a fundamental philosophical problem with the amendment. Earlier, when giving advice to Members, Mr Chope, you pointed out that the amendment was about whether special schools should be included in the academies programme. I oppose this reform because, unlike the previous system, which tried to address disadvantage and underperformance by taking money from outside the system and ensuring that it was targeted at underperforming schools and children who were not doing so well, and putting innovation into the system to see if that would make improvements, the Bill looks to take money from within the system, mainly from children who are disadvantaged, and give it to children who are, on the whole, better advantaged.
The amendment relates to special schools, which are specifically for children with greater disadvantage, so it goes against the thrust of why Labour Members oppose the Bill as a whole. I believe that there is tension among Labour Members that needs to be resolved. That can be done in the way that my hon. Friend the shadow Minister outlined in relation to the arrangements between special schools and local authorities. It goes to the heart of funding and co-ordination.
I outlined in an earlier intervention the very detailed and complex mesh of arrangements that have pertained in my borough between mainstream schools—not special schools—that were part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, that were seeking, as part of that programme, to divide up, in a co-ordinated way between themselves, the different elements of special educational needs that needed to be addressed: autism at one school, learning difficulties at another, challenging behaviour at another. At the core of that was the amalgamation of Hay Lane and Grove Park schools, which were for children who simply could not be accommodated within the mainstream.
That is an incredibly complex set of arrangements between a number of schools, some of which might, under the provisions of this Bill, choose to become academies, and some of which, under the same provisions, would not be able to become academies because they are not, at present, outstanding schools. The local authority will be unable to co-ordinate the system as a special school goes off and becomes an academy, and the funding that is drawn off by the academies will reduce the capacity of the centre. I am reminded of the W. B. Yeats poem about the widening gyre—the centre will not be able to hold. We will lose the ability of central provision through the local authority to co-ordinate the needs of all children with special needs—those who need to be in mainstream schools and those who need to be in special schools. That is the fundamental problem. However, we should not look at our opposition to this clause about special educational needs in the same light as our opposition to the Bill as a whole because there is a fundamental philosophical difference between them.
It is a great pleasure to be taking part in the debate on this Bill from the Front Bench. As the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said, it is the first opportunity I have had to do so. I am grateful for his warm words at the outset. I recall the first Bill that I debated in opposition. I remember looking at the Minister struggling with her papers and thinking, my goodness, what an awful lot of things she needs to know. It does seem very different from this side of the Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman said that all parties in the House are united by a common desire to improve educational attainment. I welcome that. It is important to begin from that perspective and to recognise that our motives are common.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said in his opening speech, which covered many different areas and was almost a re-run of some of the issues that were covered on Second Reading. My understanding of the nub of his argument is that his tabling of the amendment relates to his general objection to the Bill rather than a specific objection to special schools. However, I will try to deal with the points that he raised on special schools in a moment.
It is not clear to me why this policy is any different from that followed by the hon. Gentleman’s Government. If we believe it is a good thing to have freedom for schools, particularly for those that are struggling, it is not obvious to me why we would then deny those freedoms to other schools that are already doing well, particularly as the Secretary of State has made it clear that he expects outstanding schools that become academies to partner a weaker school and to share their expertise. That can offer an opportunity to provide the kind of partnership that I think the hon. Gentleman probably agrees with.
As the hon. Gentleman said, amendment 28 would prevent special schools from converting to academies. That was the previous Government’s policy. We think it right that special schools should have access to the same opportunities and freedoms that we are giving to mainstream schools. Indeed, many special schools want that freedom: more than 50 have registered an interest in becoming an academy. [Interruption.] The shadow Minister can find that detail on the Department’s website.
This is an extremely important point; my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) got in just before I could. The Government are talking about expressions of interest from people clicking a button to obtain information. Frankly, if I were head of a school, I would have clicked the button as well to have a look at what this really means and what the Government are really saying. The Government are using the fact that schools have done that—whether it be special schools, primary schools, outstanding schools or any other schools—and saying that clicking a button is almost the same as expressing an interest in becoming an academy. In fact, people are actually looking to obtain information. There is a real difference. I am glad—
I am struck by the fact that certain hon. Members, on Second Reading—I think we will hear this again during our deliberations in Committee—said that this is a fundamental and huge shift and that the Government are seeking to push all schools down a particular route. The Minister is now saying that perhaps many of them are not interested in this and just want to find out a bit more about it. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways—either it is a massive shift or it will be a case of a few schools exploring it at this point.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. A lot of straw men have been built up in order to knock them down.
If we think that it is a good thing for special schools to have access to freedoms to run their school in the way that is best for the children in their care, I cannot see why we would say that they should not do that. A prime example is that academies will have flexibility around the school day and how they organise the school calendar. I have found that many parents of disabled children and people who work with disabled children say that the most difficult period of the year is the long summer holiday. If we can provide special schools with flexibility, they may or may not choose to rearrange their calendar so that they break up the terms and holidays in a different way and run the school day differently to lessen the pressures on parents. That seems a sensible thing to do.
This is a permissive power and not all schools will choose that route. In response to the concerns of many of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues—I recognise that he was very much in favour of the academies programme when he was a Minister—I say that we are not forcing schools down that route.
On a related point, I am unclear as to what the process will be for schools becoming academies under the new scheme. Say, for example, that 500 schools apply. The impact assessment seems to suggest that just 200 a year will be successful. On what basis will Ministers decide which schools become academies and which do not? Within that, will special schools have priority for the reasons that she has set out, or will they have a lower priority than secondary and primary schools?
I think one element of it was in order, and I shall respond to it because I am keen to respond as best I can despite this being my first Bill. The hon. Gentleman asked about the priority that will be given to special schools. I was about to say that we are treating special schools in a different way from others, which I hope will reassure some Members who have concerns. The process will be longer and slower, and we do not expect any special schools to convert to academies before 2011.
The hon. Member for Gedling asked a number of perfectly good questions, and I accept that more work needs to be done on the matter. That is precisely why the Secretary of State has set up an advisory group to work with head teachers from special schools and mainstream schools with special units, so that we can work through the details of the points that have been made.
The point about partnering is important. We would expect any school that gets academy status to partner with another school. That could provide an opportunity to spread knowledge, particularly on special education. There are already many good examples of special schools that are doing that, but it is not always happening. We will strongly encourage special schools to use the training that their staff have, which is often lacking in mainstream settings, to ensure that we drive up standards for children with special educational needs. We expect partnering to provide that opportunity.
The Minister talked about areas of detail that needed attention. One of the most critical of those to schools is, of course, the money involved. Can she give us any idea whether she expects special schools to see a bigger increase in their direct budget? Will local authorities spend a greater sum to support them than to support other schools? That takes us back to a point made by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner)—if the money at the centre is to be denuded, we would rather the most needy got their share first and the strongest and the best be the ones who have to struggle with the least money, not the other way around.
The point made by my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, and by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) is precisely why the advisory group has been set up. It will work through the details. That is why we do not expect any special school to convert into an academy until next year. I recognise that funding issues need to be considered, because we are talking about a place-based funding system, and that we need to work through the issue of how special schools interact with other schools. We want to work with those on the ground who have expertise but who want the programme to happen.
Whatever disagreements we have about the wording that has been used and whether special schools have just “expressed an interest” or really will become academies, we should recognise that there are special school head teachers who want their schools to become academies. They feel that that freedom will enable them to do some of the things that they have already been doing as outstanding schools, but also to work better with the community and have flexibility to change how their schools are run, so that they can better provide for children in their area.
Will the specialised and more detailed approach to special schools be consulted upon on a much wider horizon than merely head teachers and teachers? I say “merely” not because I dismiss them—we all acknowledge their remarkable work—but the Minister must be aware that although many parents of pupils in special schools find changes in those schools easy to accommodate and understand, many do not for a variety of reasons. It would be quite wrong to make changes to special schools without ensuring that every parent had been properly consulted in the most detailed way on those changes, which may affect their children. She must know that for some parents, such changes are very hard to understand.
It does. I should probably be a bit firmer about completing a paragraph before taking interventions. I was going to say that the working group will also include local authority representatives. I will get the detail of who is to be on it. There are also special educational consortiums representing the interests of parents whose children have special educational needs. The point that the hon. Lady made, however, was about the process of consultation on conversion. We will have a separate discussion on that under a different group of amendments, so I will not respond to that point because it would be out of order in this debate.
The hon. Member for Gedling spoke about charging. I think he would recognise that maintained schools can already charge for certain services in some circumstances, particularly for adult education after hours. However, clause 1(9) specifically prohibits charging for daytime educational services. Other details will remain exactly as they are now.
The Chair of the Education Committee asked about statementing provisions. The local authority will remain responsible for ensuring that the provision set out in a statement is delivered, whether a child attends a maintained school or an academy. We will revise our guide for parents on special educational needs to set out the complaint mechanisms clearly. I should add that the Bill was amended in the other place to ensure that if a statement names an academy, the child will need to be placed in that academy. That is an improvement on the existing system.
The hon. Member for Gedling and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) asked about low-incidence special educational needs. Again, the Bill was amended during its progress through the other place. I want to put on the record that the Government are committed to ensuring that children with sensory impairments receive the services that they require in both maintained and academy schools. We will monitor the impact that changes in the number of academies will have and ensure that adjustments are made to the funding of academies to ensure that that provision is dealt with. The advisory group will take that up.
We were asked why short-stay schools are not included in the Bill. We are looking at the possibility of academies offering alternative provision equivalent to that provided by short-stay schools, but the current legislation gives local authorities statutory responsibility for those.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon asked wider questions on the statementing process. I remind him that we intend to introduce a Green Paper later in the year to deal with those, and I hope that he will be involved.
With those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Gedling is willing to withdraw the amendment. We do not expect special schools to become academies on the same time frame as other schools, and there is a process to deal with the concerns that he rightly raises, and we will work through it. I hope that that gives him the reassurance he needs.
I will be brief in responding to the Minister, who did not address one essential issue. Hon. Members will know the importance of the impact assessment and the equalities impact assessment, yet the Government have provided no evidence that special school academy status will make any difference. Essentially, therefore, we are being asked to take a leap in the dark.
The Minister then tried to reassure the Committee by saying, “You’re quite right that a lot of things are still to be worked out, there are some real problems, and the Government aren’t really sure how we do this. Don’t worry that we’re not sure; we’re going to set up an advisory committee, which will look at funding, admissions, co-ordination, working with other schools and so on. Don’t worry. It’s not a problem.”
The hon. Gentleman’s Government recognised that providing freedom to schools will drive up standards. If he still believes that, I cannot see why he is saying that that freedom should not be applied to special schools. Why would they be treated as totally different from any other school? I do not accept that premise.
There are two things to say in response to that. First, the previous Government had a managed programme for allowing schools academy freedoms. Secondly, the difference between that and what the Government propose is that if they are not careful, there will be a free-for-all. Freedoms will be extended to schools when the Government have not worked out what that means in respect of co-ordination, funding and a whole range of things, as I said, yet we are supposed to say that that does not matter.
The Minister was kind enough to say that I asked perfectly reasonable questions, but we are now invited to pass legislation when she does not have an answer to them other than to say, “We have set up a body to look at how we answer those questions.” If she were in opposition, as she was until a few weeks ago, and if I had said what she just said, she would have reacted as I am reacting now. Frankly, she should be able to answer those questions.
The Chair of the Education Committee was right to ask what it means if special schools get academy freedoms, how much funding they will get and what the consequences are for the local authority and other schools in the area, but the Minister has no answer, because she does not know. If she knew she would provide an answer, but she does not know so she cannot. That is a very serious weakness.
On the 50 schools that registered an interest in academy status, the Minister said that the Government had never used the words “applied for academy status.” I shall look very carefully at what the Education Secretary said on that and at how expressions of interest relate to applications. The Government are in a bit of a mess on that and on what they are using that to justify their measures.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many schools will ask for further information because they feel that they have an obligation to present their boards of governors with the fullest information possible before taking a decision? It would be an abrogation of that duty were a head teacher not to push that button.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The other weakness in the Minister’s response is that it is very unclear what role, if any, the local authority will have in all this, and what the consequences will be for the overall co-ordination in an area. With respect to the Minister and to the Committee, I should like to test the opinion of the Committee on this amendment. I shall therefore not withdraw amendment 28.
Before we move to the next group of amendments, I must announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day on the question relating to Use of the Chamber (United Kingdom Youth Parliament). The Ayes were 499, and the Noes were 21, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 48, in clause 3, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
‘(3A) The governing body of a primary school is not eligible to apply under subsection (1).
(3B) Two years after Royal Assent, the following is substituted for subsection (3A)—
“( ) The governing body of a primary school which has fewer than five hundred registered pupils is not eligible to apply under subsection (1).
( ) The Secretary of State may by order amend this section to allow the governing body of a federation to apply, or the governing bodies of a number of schools to apply jointly, for an Academy order provided the total of primary-aged registered pupils in the federation, or group of schools, is five hundred or more.”.’.
It is good to come to the second group of amendments. May I formally welcome the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), to his post, as I welcomed his fellow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather)? This is the first Bill that he is taking through the House as Minister with responsibility for schools, a post that I held. He and I have held each other’s posts. In all seriousness and sincerity, I wish him well in his role. I think he has found in the past 24 hours, and will continue to find out in the next 24 hours, as his fellow Minister has done, that tabling amendments is one thing, but having all the answers is quite another. It is good to welcome others too.
We had a good and interesting debate on special schools and we come now to primary schools. I want to start by making a few general points and then move on to some specifics, which is the reverse of my approach in the previous debate. The amendment seeks to raise some of the key concerns felt by many, not just Opposition Members—I note amendment 48 in the name of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)—about the rapid and precipitate conversion of hundreds of primary schools to academy status.
Will the Minister tell us, as the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Brent Central, did with regard to special schools, the up-to-date number of primary schools that have expressed an interest in academy status and how many they expect to apply? Special schools are expected to convert to academy status by September 2011, and perhaps the Minister will say how many primary schools are expected to convert. It is not clear from the impact assessment exactly what that figure is. There is a figure of 200, but it is not clear how that breaks down into secondary schools and primary schools, or indeed others, with respect to 2010.
I will try to demonstrate that people’s concerns are born, as we have already discussed, not necessarily out of any ideological objection to granting primary schools the kinds of freedoms that existing academies have, but out of practical consideration for the implications of academy status. Some of those concerns are present when considering all-through academies, but not usually present when considering those cases. As the Minister will know, because I signed off with the Secretary of State a number of all-through academies, the model of primary schools linking with secondary schools to form all-through academies was an innovative way forward. But all-through academies are a different case from stand-alone primary schools, or indeed even stand-alone infant and nursery schools. That is because many of the concerns stem from the relative size and community location of primary schools. It is for that reason that the amendment seeks to prevent primary schools from becoming academies.
Primary schools, by and large, serve their immediate local community. If a local school becomes an academy, parents could risk finding that there is a shift in its admissions policy or in the way in which it serves the local community. The primary school is much more of a local school than many secondary schools can claim to be, because they are, typically, the only school in a small rural village or in a particular area. They are much more of a neighbourhood school, however much secondary schools aim to be that.
In the previous debate, we expressed concern about the role that local authorities will not have under the Bill. Most local authorities will say that the schools most dependent on their advice and support are primary schools. The vast majority of primary schools are community schools, and they have not even had the experience that foundation schools will have had in managing the enormous range of responsibilities that come with academy status. How much will that cost? Where will that expertise come from? How will primary schools deal with that? How will a small primary school, with perhaps only a few pupils, be able to cope with some of the demands being made on them? Capacity is a very real issue. Most secondary schools already employ a range of staff who will be able to deal with the increased administrative requirements, but many primary schools have only a school secretary, who will doubtless be expected to deal with many of the issues and problems that come with academy status.
These are exactly the same arguments that were advanced by Labour during the discussion of grant-maintained schools, which were often supported by the local community and perfectly able to exercise the powers and responsibilities involved. Indeed, many of them did so very successfully. Unfortunately, Labour is still in an ideological time warp and hostile to the idea that parents, governors and other professionals can have effective local control over their own schools.
Who will have local control over whether a primary school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency becomes an academy? It will be the head teacher and the governing body, and it will then go to the Secretary of State for approval. There is nothing in the Bill to say that parents, the community, local people or even the local authority must be consulted. If the hon. Gentleman’s point is that before a school changes its status or applies to become an academy it should have the support of all those people, I would agree with him in many respects. Certainly the academy model that we pursued—although it obviously related to secondary schools rather than to primary schools—was about trying to ensure that there was proper local support for the conversion.
One of the problems with the Bill is that it does not require the support of everyone in the local community for a school to convert to academy status. Indeed, an amendment tabled by one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues tries to address that problem. When we talked about special schools, some hon. Members mentioned the need to ensure, and demonstrate, that local parents, the local authority and local people supported them, but that is not what the Bill would do.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I am not ideologically opposed to academies—I approved a significant number of them, including all-through academies. In the last debate, we talked about the difference between the academy model presented in the Bill and the academy model that the previous Government pursued. As I said, I do not believe that people are motivated by anything other than a genuine desire to improve educational standards for children, but there is a difference of view about how to achieve that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but how can local support be proved when all the Bill requires is the support of the head teacher and governing body, and others as appropriate?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but it would be perverse for any head teacher with the support of the governing body not to take into account the settled view of the local community, whether that was as a result of consultation directly with the governing body or others, or of the local authority, local charities or others. The idea that this is some kind of top-down approach to be forced on schools is untrue.
In the spirit in which debate has been conducted in Committee today, I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising that I was trying to be constructive in my response. He will have read the Bill and he will know that clause 5(1) does not specify who should be consulted by a school wishing to convert. It just says that it
“must consult such persons as they think appropriate.”
Similarly, clause 5(3) states:
“The consultation may take place before or after an Academy order, or an application for an Academy order”.
If the hon. Gentleman follows his point through to a logical conclusion, one might expect the Bill to list the parents, the local community and so on as parties which should be consulted and shown to be supportive of the academy bid, because that would strengthen the application and increase its potential for success. Similarly, one would have thought the Bill would require consultation to take place before the academy order was applied for. I agree that such consultation is necessary, and the hon. Gentleman’s point was not unimportant, but the Bill does not do what he would wish it to do.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, first, the Bill requires that there must be consultation and, secondly, that that consultation must be with “appropriate” people, so it is inconceivable that some of the stakeholders he mentioned—local people and parents and the local community—would not be deemed to be appropriate? Indeed, “appropriate” people, which is a general term, might be a far better description than a specific one which might not cover one particular group.
Unusually, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, because a much tighter form of words in the Bill would ensure that we deliver exactly what he proposes. I believe that the Bill is so drafted because the Government think that the opposition from local authorities and local groups that always emerges to school reorganisation could hold up the progress of the Bill and the attempt to fast-track some schools to academy status. The lawyers will have said, “Put in ‘they think appropriate’, because if you start listing people and groups such as parents and community organisations, you will open yourself up, when trying to convert, to the possibility of legal challenges from parents and organisations saying they were not consulted when they should have been.” To fast-track academies is a policy objective, and I think that Ministers, their officials and their lawyers will have said, “For goodness’ sake, don’t make a list, because it will be a hostage to fortune.” Furthermore, I cannot understand why clause 5(3) includes the phrase
“or after an Academy order”.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case, but I would like him to clarify something. In the debate on the previous amendment, he said he did not want special educational needs schools included, and now he is saying he does not want primary schools included. In government, he wanted to limit the number of secondary schools that could become academies. It seems that he actually wants an old-style command-and-control system in schooling, rather than to allow local communities and parents to decide what they want. Can he clarify that for me?
As I said at the beginning of the debate on the previous amendment, for which the hon. Gentleman was present, I want to see more academies. I have not said that there should not be any more academies. Indeed, many of the academies that will open in September—[Interruption.] A Tory Member is nodding because there is one in his constituency. Many of those that will open in September will be ones that I agreed with the previous Secretary of State. Sometimes, they were agreed in the face of quite difficult local circumstances. I do not have a problem with the expansion of academies; what I am saying—this is the thrust of the debate—is that the academy model in the Bill is completely different from the one pursued by the last Government. That is the choice that people have made: the Government are in power and they have come forward with what they believe is an appropriate model, which is to allow outstanding schools to fast-track to academy status, as well as including special schools and primary schools. What I am saying is that that means rushing headlong into something for which, as I will mention again in a minute, the Government have presented no evidence and which, in a way, will potentially mean riding roughshod over the wishes of local people and local authorities, when they should be playing a significant role in the organisation and provision of schooling in an area.
I rise in the light of the remarks made by the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), both of whom were proselytising on the basis that it would be unthinkable for anybody engaged with a primary school not to consult automatically, at least with the parents. I realise that this is merely anecdotal, but there is a situation in my constituency where the board of governors of a grant-maintained school—or, the aspect of the school which is grant-maintained—wishes to pull the school down and build a brand-new one. No one has consulted the parents, who certainly do not want that to happen. I acknowledge that that example is merely anecdotal, but it underlines my underlying fear about the Bill: that if it does not say that parents must be consulted on such issues, we are essentially going to destroy state education.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the need for parents to be consulted, which relates to what the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) said about the phrase
“persons as they think appropriate”
not being sufficient. Instead, the Bill should list groups such as parents and the local authority. If the Government had done that, it would have strengthened the Bill and meant that many of the difficulties that some of us have with it would have been to some extent ameliorated.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s explanation of why he objects to the catch-all phrase “appropriate persons”, but is he really suggesting that if a school moved towards academy status, yet parents or another group of significant stakeholders had not been included in the consultation, which must take place according to the Bill, and people wished to challenge that decision in court, the court would say that the letter of the law had been applied, even though that group had been excluded from the consultation?
I am not a lawyer, but one of the phrases that people often use is “for the avoidance of doubt”. Given the magnitude of the decisions that could be entered into, I would have thought that, for the avoidance of doubt, it should not be beyond the wit of us all to list some of the groups that we think it should be essential to consult—local authorities, parents and so on—and then to have a phrase at the end such as “and others as the school governing body thinks appropriate”.
We have serious doubts about the capacity of primary schools, and about what the costs will be, who will be leading the process, how it will be managed and so on. There are also financial implications. I have been told of a primary school in the west midlands—I think that it was mentioned in the other place—that recently developed serious structural faults. The local authority found the money to put the problem right, with a final cost of around £1 million.
Another example of where the local authority often steps in is on the matter of fires on school premises. How would that work under academy status? The Department for Education advice states that it would expect schools that had become academies facing such problems to take out loans. How could a small school possibly afford to do that? What does the Minister imagine would happen in those circumstances? How would the repayments be made? Who would get the loan in the first place? How would that operate? Most primary schools rely on the local authority to pick up the costs of redundancies and employment tribunals, as well as the legal costs associated with challenges on accidents. The school would not necessarily be able to find the cost of the insurance to cover those things.
Again, the Department for Education’s own website states that, for most schools, the cost of insurance will be between £60,000 and £100,000. The cost of purchasing legal and personal advice commercially needs to be taken into account. How would that work? What will happen with all that? Are we going to have another advisory committee to look at all those details, as we did with special schools, before we get a proper answer? The problem for primary schools is that all these are unanswered questions. Many primary schools are on holiday now, yet some of them are supposed to be opening in September as academies. How is that going to happen? What is going on?
A great deal of work has been done over the past few years, by others as well as the Government, on managing the process of transition from an early years setting into the first year of primary school. The review of the early years foundation stage announced by the Government over the last week or two will not, I trust, represent the reversal of much of that good work. The reality is that there are overlapping responsibilities between early years settings, the children’s trusts—the abolition of which would cause great concern for Labour Members, but I know that Ministers are either considering or proceeding with it—and a number of child care and early years settings sited with primary schools. How is that supposed to work? What happens with all of that—child care, nursery provision, early years provisions—in relation to primary schools? Will there be separate applications to convert separately? Do they stand alone? Will it work differently for a primary school, a nursery and an infant school? Again, I have seen no explanation of that. In many ways, I am concerned not so much about the ideology as the practicality. In the rush to get the Bill through, many practical issues have not been thought through and, frankly, Ministers do not have the answer to them.
Thousands of primary schools—some small, some big, some in rural areas—are involved, but where is the evidence for this change coming from? As I stressed in the debate on the last group of amendments, the crucial evidence that Governments often publish on their Bills is the equality impact assessments and the impact assessments. All members of this Committee will have seen and read those assessments, but there is not a word about primary schools in them—not a word. How, then, are we supposed to judge? This is supposed to be the evidence base for the Bill. Where is the evidence base for this Academies Bill, when there is nothing in it about primary schools? How can any hon. Member look at the evidence base and decide whether the Government’s proposals are acceptable?
Conservative Members seem to think that the idea of primary schools becoming academies is great, but their new Government effectively said, “We do not believe that policy should be made without evidence,” so where is the evidence?
Let me finish the point, and then I will, of course, give way.
It is the same with the equality impact assessments. They relate to existing academies, which are all secondary schools, so there is nothing in them about primary schools. Yet this is supposed to be the evidence base for the Bill. Frankly—although I am going to say this gently to the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, as we get along—this is not good enough. For all of us to look at the evidence for or against this Bill and to analyse, discuss, debate or disagree with it, and to say what has been missed out of it or what should have been included in it, we require an evidence base—but there is no evidence in it. We are told that if conversion to academies goes ahead, the GCSE results will be 1.5% what might have been expected if the schools had not converted. What on earth has that got to do with primary schools? This is a very serious point and at some stage the Minister will have to answer it.
The evidence came from the local people, the local authority and local schools discussing with each other the best way forward for educational provision in their area. That was our academy model, not the model that the hon. Gentleman supports, whereby local authorities are completely missed out of the equation, and there is not even a statutory right to ensure that parents are consulted. It was sometimes difficult, but we ensured that local people and local authorities were involved in those decisions.
That is an opinion, not evidence. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about opinion, but the evidence is clearly set out in the impact assessment, headed “evidence base”. It describes the huge success of the city technology colleges and their increasingly good academic results over the years since they were established. Cannot the shadow Minister extrapolate evidence from that to special schools and primary schools? That is what policy making is all about—taking the existing evidence and applying it to other forms of schooling.
It is not for me to extrapolate, but for the Government to demonstrate through evidence. I am no longer in government: the Minister is. He, in his new role, should present the evidence. The Secretary of State signed off the impact assessment. If he wanted to do what the Minister claims, why did he not amend it? I am sure that he read it carefully, word for word. Why did he not notice that primary schools were not mentioned, go back to his officials and say, “We haven’t mentioned primary schools in this. Do you know what? The shadow Minister will get up and say that, because it’s in the Library notes—the House of Commons Library has noticed, too.” I repeat that it is not for me to extrapolate.
The evidence base is the same one that the shadow Minister used when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) said, he signed off all-through academies. Consulting local opinion is not evidence for the early years sections of all-through academies. The evidence that the hon. Gentleman looked at will have been the success of the academies movement as a whole. We have based our policy on that.
The Minister has not set the evidence out. The impact assessments mention CTCs, but not primary schools. The Minister makes a good debating point when he says that CTCs have primary sections, and they are therefore covered. I think that if the Government could rewind the clock three, four or five weeks—whenever the assessments were prepared—the Minister would ensure that primary schools and special schools were included, particularly in the equality impact assessment.
The hon. Gentleman talks about evidence, and we have that of GCSE performance. I am sure that he welcomes the performance of secondary schools that have become academies. For example, when Mossbourne academy was Hackney Downs school, 10% of pupils got five good GCSEs, but now more than 80% get five good GCSEs as a result of the school gaining academy freedoms. Primary schools have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy those freedoms, but we know that 40% of primary school pupils currently do not get the three R’s at level 4, key stage 2 and that fewer than 50% of pupils in around 500 primary schools achieve the required standard in English and maths. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is acceptable, or that those schools should have the same chance as Mossbourne to change?
The dramatic rise in standards—the improvements in reading, writing and maths—in primary schools is significant. The hon. Gentleman asks whether we want higher standards and even faster progress. Of course we all do. However, the Government want to achieve that by allowing outstanding primary schools initially—we will find out how many shortly—to fast-track to academy status in September. If that is the Government’s policy direction, where is the evidence to demonstrate that the results will be as he predicts? The whole point of a Bill’s impact assessment, as the Chair of the Select Committee knows from his days as a member of that Committee, is to present evidence.
The fact that nearly 300,000 pupils are not achieving level 4 in the three R’s at key stage 2 is clearly not acceptable. Yes, we admit that standards have risen since 1997, but at level 4 they have stalled and begun to go backwards. Will the hon. Gentleman not admit that? During the next stage of the march, we need to think about freedoms. We need to think about giving teachers freedom to seek academy status if they wish, so that they can push forward as secondary school teachers have at Mossbourne school.
This is a Committee stage, but the hon. Gentleman has retreated into a Second Reading political statement. I was asking what evidence the Government had presented to Parliament—[Interruption.] It is not for me to present evidence. I am not the Government. I am asking the hon. Gentleman what evidence the Government have presented to persuade Parliament to accept the Bill. How have they demonstrated that primary academies would deliver what he wants? That is the issue. I do not agree with the proposal, so it is not for me to say what evidence there is in favour of it. The hon. Gentleman is a Back-Bench Member of the Government. He may progress further—I do not know—but his responsibility now is to defend the Government and to explain how Government policy will improve standards.
The Minister makes a reasonable point about the quality of the evidence that the Govt should provide when presenting proposals, but I am struck by the way in which the Opposition have retreated. They are no longer telling the truth about the fact that, in 2005, the then Prime Minister said that all schools wanted these freedoms. The Government proposed a managed move, but the aim was to provide these freedoms everywhere.
It is as if the whole new Labour era is ending. The thaw is over, and we feel the cold ice of a monolithic centralised state system forming over us once more. Is that really the vision seen by the shadow Minister, of whom I have always had a high opinion? Is he really reverting to his Socialist Educational Association roots?
It is never as simple as yes or no.
The hon. Gentleman and I have worked together a great deal over the last few years, and no doubt we will work together more over the next two or three years, or however many there may be. As I have made clear on a number of occasions, I have not said that I am opposed to academies. That would be hypocrisy of the highest order, given that I agreed to the establishment of a number of academies, and given that many of the academies that will open in September are academies to whose establishment I agreed.
I think it right to seek to increase the number of academies when that is appropriate, whether they are primary or secondary schools, although I prefer all-through academies. However, I do not think it right to fast-track outstanding schools to academy status, and to allow academy status to primary and special schools when there is no real evidence in favour of such action.
It is not a case of retreating in the direction of the Socialist Educational Association, many of whose members would oppose any academy. I do not oppose every or any academy. What I propose is a third way, which has been proposed by neither the Government nor the Socialist Educational Association but which, according to some famous politician, makes it possible to find a balance between two alternatives in order to move forward.
I want to ask the Minister a few more questions. What arrangements will there be for primary schools that are members of federations to apply for academy status, and what are the implications for each school? Can schools apply as a group, or must they apply individually? As I said, there are important questions to be asked about how academy status will work for nurseries, and about the arrangements for collaboration and funding. How will things be arranged between a local authority and a primary school if the authority has given large amounts of money to the school? How does the Minister expect small rural schools to become primary academies? What criteria will apply to them, as opposed to primary schools in the middle of cities?
Those are serious questions, and I know that the Minister will reflect on them seriously. However, as in the case of special schools, I find it slightly regrettable that we do not already know many of the answers. As I have said, the evidence base is fairly poor, given the magnitude of the decisions that we must make.
May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Evans, at this stage in the proceedings? Earlier, Mr Chope reminded us that it is out of order to refer to the decision about which amendments have been selected and which have not, so I will not reflect further on that and thereby risk being called out of order, except merely to say that I am delighted that amendment 48 in my name was selected.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has set out the dangers he foresees in primary schools being allowed to follow the academy route, but he adds that he is none the less an advocate of the academy system and that he thinks it is a success. I come at this from a different angle: I think the jury is still out because the evidence is balanced as to whether the academy structure has made a substantial difference to results. We Liberal Democrats have not been entirely convinced, although some party members have advocated academies throughout the process. Other arguments can be put as to why schools that have been established as academies have been successful and we talked about some of them on Second Reading, so I will not rehearse them at length. If I were to do so, I am sure you would rule me out of order, Mr Evans, but there are arguments to do with leadership and the resources put into academies, for instance.
This is a permissive Bill. We will either allow schools to examine, and consider following, this route or we will not. From visiting schools in my constituency, it seems fairly clear that not many of them are interested in doing so. They do not see it as right for them. They are largely happy with their relationship with Cornwall council, their local authority. I welcome that, and I am sure it is also the case in many other parts of the country. I believe that local authorities have a role to play and they have often played a good role in the past. However, that has not always been the case, because there are undoubtedly places where the relationship has broken down and there have been failings. The fact that not many schools in my area wish to follow the academy route does not, however, strike me as necessarily an argument for saying that it should not be open to them.
I tabled amendment 48 in order to have a debate about primary schools. I am therefore pleased that we are having that debate, and I would like to add a number of questions to those already asked by the hon. Gentleman. He raised the important issue of federation. It is being explored in many rural areas—and, I imagine, increasingly in urban areas too. Federation is often controversial because people sometimes feel they are giving up some measure of control over their local school, but my experience of those federations that have been formed—there are three or four in my part of the world now—is that the governing bodies and communities can come together. They still have their own school in their community and it performs a vital function not only in terms of education but in many other ways as well, especially for rural village communities. Therefore, if these schools become part of something a bit bigger, it means they are able to support a full-time head—and to recruit one as well, which is increasingly an issue. Federation can be a crucial step, therefore.
There are questions, however, about what approach the Government should take to applications for federation and how they would be explored. There are also, perhaps, issues to do with capacity. I hope, therefore, that no primary school approaches this option lightly. If they are considering it, they should reflect on their own situation and what resources they will have to take advantage of any freedoms that arise. That is an important consideration.
There are questions to do with the monitoring of schools as well. I have discussed that briefly with the Minister outside the Chamber. There is a role for the Young People’s Learning Agency in monitoring academies to ensure that they meet the criteria set out in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that if primary schools, in particular, are going to go down the academy route, they will have the capacity to be able to do that and to manage a relationship with a much larger number of schools. If primary schools are to take up that option, the number of schools involved will be much greater than has been the case up to now.
The idea of all-though schools, to which the hon. Member for Gedling referred, presents an exciting opportunity. One of these schools is coming to my constituency and, again, the trust and confidence of the local people has to be won; they have to feel that the change will protect what they may see as younger, vulnerable pupils in that bigger set-up. That argument has been won in one community and this may be a route that some take towards academy status.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks on the clause, I am not convinced that this is necessarily the best route for everybody. My hon. Friends, some of whom spoke on Second Reading, have made it clear that they have concerns about the model too.
The hon. Gentleman will doubtless concede that this is permissive legislation and, therefore, schools will not be the subject of draconian diktat. He will also know that the experience of grant-maintained schools was that the legislation allowed them to work closely with their local education authority on things such as procurement and purchasing, and that consortiums were often very successful in that respect. This Bill specifically does not preclude the involvement on a practical, day-to-day basis of the local education authority. In that respect, I am sure that he will be reassured.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We have served together on a number of Public Bill Committees, not always agreeing when we have debated issues. However, we can perhaps agree that the permissive nature of this Bill allows both of us to explore what is available to schools and communities in our constituencies. As I say, I remain to be convinced that this is necessarily the best route and that it offers as many benefits as some hon. Members, including him, are convinced it does. However, I believe that if the route is to be available to some schools in particular circumstances, we ought to explore the option, as this Bill does, of making it available to others. So I accept his point about this being a permissive Bill.
The hon. Gentleman also makes the point about schools continuing to work with the local authority. The Minister may wish to talk about the fact that schools that take up the option that the Bill extends to them could continue to explore buying back some services from the local authority, even though they may well have not wanted to have such a rigid relationship with it. Clearly, they could still have an engagement with it and may indeed wish to buy back some services from it. This debate has begun and we may be at risk of going back over issues that we covered when discussing the previous group.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the sceptical wing of the coalition and respect his position. Yesterday morning, at Ealing hospital, I welcomed my newest constituent, Noah White, weighing 6 lb 9 oz, to the constituency. When that child is ready to go to primary school, there will be no primary school place for him in the London borough of Ealing, given the present capacity. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be looking to expand the educational estate, rather than overloading head teachers and governors with yet more crushing work and just changing the signs outside the schools?
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is such an assiduous constituency MP that he is there to greet every new arrival to it. It is a wonder that we have the benefit of his company in this place as often as we do, given that he is so hard-working and pays such attention to detail. However, it is slightly problematic for a Labour Member to talk about the overburdening of head teachers. I have spent time talking to them about the reams of paper that were generated and imposed upon them by this Department—under its various names—under the previous Government, so I can say that he is on fairly sticky ground. However, he is absolutely right to raise the point about providing places, and we need the flexibility to do that.
I shall draw my remarks to a close. Clearly, I have been addressing my remarks to the lead amendment, but I tabled the second amendment with the purpose of discussing the particular circumstances that pertain to primary schools. I hope that the Minister will respond both to the issues that I and the hon. Member for Gedling have raised.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for being so generous in his speeches on this amendment and the previous amendment in allowing people to intervene and ask him questions. I appreciate that.
The amendment is further evidence of the dichotomy of the Labour party’s approach to education policy for primary and secondary schools. With capital, as has been discussed, the previous Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme was concentrated purely on the secondary sector, whereas their policy on academies was to have them in deprived areas at secondary level but not at primary level, even though many issues of educational under-attainment stem from performance at primary level. The list on the Department for Education website of schools in my constituency that have expressed an interest in the academy process includes Wolsey infant school in New Addington, which is an outstanding school, and St Mary’s junior school, which is not. Both of them serve highly deprived parts of my constituency. If Labour Members have the passion that they say they have about driving up educational standards in deprived areas, that ought to apply equally at primary and secondary level.
I do not wish to detain hon. Members for long, but I want to address the four main objections that have been raised regarding primary schools. The first objection was about size and whether primary schools would be able to cope with the responsibilities that come with academy status. Having looked at the schools in my constituency that have expressed an interest, I would expect a far lower proportion of primary schools than secondary schools to be interested in going down this route because of their size. However, there are large discrepancies regarding primary schools. In my local authority area there are a number of single-form entry schools, some two-form entry schools and a significant number of three-form entry schools. The picture is very different for a three-form entry school, such as the state school that my children go to, than for a single-form entry school.
It would be helpful if the Minister clarified the position on federations. The Secretary of State’s response to the shadow Secretary of State on Second Reading implied that applications from federations would be accepted. Clearly, that would be one way of addressing issues of size and scope. One concern that the Labour party has raised about academies is the fear that schools will stop working together, so it seems particularly perverse for the amendment to rule out the prospect of federations of schools applying for academy status and preserving those relationships that Members on both sides want to persist.
My main point about the issue of school size is that the legislation is, as several hon. Members have pointed out, permissive. Surely, we should trust head teachers, leadership teams and governors to judge whether their schools have the capacity to cope with academy status.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. It is better to have looser language in the Bill because, as the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) knows, any issues of consultation in relation to the schools that seek to proceed along this path will be the subject of regulation and secondary legislation. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is better to have looser language in the Bill than to be too prescriptive, because that might, as the shadow Minister has said, lay individual schools, local education authorities and other bodies open to legal action further down the line?
My hon. Friend makes the point far more eloquently than I can. At some point in the future, the shadow Education Minister might have the honour of being the Minister again, or even the Secretary of State, who will sign off the applications for academy status. However, the amendment would tell primary schools or federations of primary schools that they were not even allowed to make the case for academy status, and that is completely the wrong approach.
The hon. Gentleman refers to schools working in partnership on school improvement programmes, and clause 15 refers to city technology colleges becoming part of the family of academies that the legislation will look after, but I am afraid that the city technology college in my constituency has always been fiercely independent and has never wanted to work in partnership with any other school or with the local education authority. I do not see how the circle will be squared, because that is the evidence from our experience.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but my experience in my part of the world is very different. In Croydon we had one of the original city technology colleges, which has converted to an academy, as most CTCs have, and the academy partners have continued to work closely with the local authority and community.
My next point is about the evidence base. In an intervention on the hon. Member for Gedling, I referred to the evidence in relation to the Oasis Academy Shirley Park, an all-through academy that he and the former Secretary of State approved in my constituency. The evidence from the first year is that at primary and secondary levels the academy has made a profound difference not just to pupil attainment, parental satisfaction and the local community’s confidence in the school, but most importantly to the pupils’ perception of the school that they attend, which surely ought to be the key judge of any school.
The Opposition also argued that the policy is a leap in the dark, and that, whereas the previous policy was managed and a number of schools became academies each year, we are opening the floodgates and do not know how many schools might become such institutions. Having listened to the debate, however, it is clear that the Secretary of State will retain control of approving academy applications, and the explanatory notes to the Bill give a rough forecast of the numbers that we might expect.
My final point is about the admissions policy. The hon. Gentleman suggested that, given how primary schools are rooted in their community and some secondary schools are not, there was a danger that the admissions criteria might change and the local link could break down. As I understand the arrangements, however, such schools will continue to be covered by the admissions code. Indeed, in my area we have written into academy funding agreements the importance of a clear local link in relation to selection. In all parts of the country, we want good schools serving their local communities so that local parents have what they want, which in my experience is a good local school.
None of the concerns about size, evidence base, opening the floodgates or admissions bears any scrutiny, and there is a very important point of principle. Primary schools or federations of primary schools should have the chance to make to the Secretary of State the case for being given academy status, so that we see at primary level the same improvement, particularly in deprived parts of the country, of which there are a number in my constituency, that we have seen at secondary level.
The Government argue that the Bill is permissive, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has made it abundantly clear that there is no evidence why primary schools should apply for academy status, so I am intrigued about the permission that the Government believe primary schools are denied and, therefore, want to grant them.
Government Members have also argued that the Bill is born of a desire to raise standards, but the issue with primary schools in my constituency, all of which are over-subscribed, have very high educational standards and provide a much more rounded education to the children who attend them, is that there will be a serious shortfall in places. Before the general election we were informed that a new primary school would be built in my constituency, and I shall not go into the debacle of Building Schools for the Future, but it has a knock-on effect on the provision of school places—certainly in an inner-London borough such as mine. That proposal now seems either to have disappeared or to have been thrown into the deep freeze.
The overriding issue that parents raise with me as regards primary schools is that they cannot get their child into their first-choice primary school, which almost invariably is that within walking distance of where their child lives. They want that not only because their child is already part of the community where they then make friends who live in the same area but because, as we are increasingly aware, many parents have to juggle not only work but a variety of school ages among their children. Only the other day, I had a constituency case involving a mother whose third child is about to start primary school. She has to transport the other two children to different parts of the borough, and it is clearly out of the question for her to be asked to take a place in another primary school that is even further away.
I am somewhat bemused as to why the Government think that their approach of academising all our schools will tackle the real issues that are facing my constituents and their children in relation to the provision of school places. There is another, more nuanced issue in my constituency. Many of the primary schools are faith-based, and there is constant conflict between parents who want their children to go to a faith-based school and parents who do not want their children to go to such a school.
That brings me back to my central point about academising all our schools—the Government’s continuing total exclusion of the opinions of parents. If it were stated in the Bill that parents have to be consulted, I could begin to understand this. I would not understand it completely, but I could see that it might offer the means genuinely to examine the issues that face many of my constituents as regards primary schools. My hon. Friend mentioned another concern to do with nursery places linked to a primary school, but he did not touch on after-school clubs, which are also linked to primary schools, certainly in my constituency. There has also been a move towards primary schools acting as feeders for secondary schools, as well as community linkage across my entire constituency, which encompasses two London boroughs.
As I say, I am bemused by the idea of academising our educational system, but the central and essential issue for me is the Government’s total failure to acknowledge the importance of consulting parents on these issues. I see that the Chair of the Education Committee has returned to his place. In an earlier intervention, he castigated my hon. Friend for his criticism of the Bill and said that Labour was reverting to some deep-frozen I do not know what—he said something about the waters closing over new Labour. I found that somewhat surprising, because before the election he was, almost individually, the creator of the all-party group on home education. If I remember rightly, the central and essential argument that he consistently proselytised, and I agreed with him, was that the Government of the day—my Government—had markedly failed to consult parents. That was the basis of his argument, and I am somewhat shocked that it seems to have disappeared from his mind.
I think that it was rather more to do with the fact that the Government of the day wanted to monitor, regulate, intervene, instruct, license and control parents than with the fact that they were not listening to them. The main aim was to ensure that the state did not trample all over their freedom, and that is an essential safety valve that home education gives to a system that too often fails parents and children—the most vulnerable children the most often.
I have not been quite so hyperbolic in my choice of verbs as the hon. Gentleman, but it seems to me that in this Bill his Government are attempting to replicate precisely what he is accusing my Government of attempting to do with regard to home-educated children.
Put in the simplest terms, the Government are ignoring parents’ opinions. That is why the arguments that they have advanced on primary schools, and will advance with regard to secondary schools, should be fiercely opposed, and I am delighted to see that Labour Members are continuing to do that.
May I add my welcome to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to the Opposition Front-Bench role? In some ways, it is as tough as being a Minister. He has no support and has to draft all the amendments himself, so I am sympathetic to his position. I am grateful to him for the kind words that he passed on at the beginning of the debate.
The amendments focus on nursery and primary schools. Amendment 32 would prevent stand-alone nurseries or primary schools, or joint primary and nursery schools, from becoming academies. Amendment 48 would prevent any primary school from applying for an academy order within the first two years of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, after which only primary schools or federations of primary schools with more than 500 pupils would be able to apply.
First, I reassure hon. Members that no stand-alone nursery is permitted to become an academy. Academies are schools, as defined in section 463 of the Education Act 1996, which provides that any independent school must provide full-time education for five or more pupils of compulsory school age. Hence, stand-alone nursery schools will not be able to apply for academy status.
Primary schools will be free to choose whether academy status is the right option for them. There will be no requirement for them to convert into academies. I appreciate that many small primary schools may depend on the local authority more than other schools, which is why the Bill is permissive rather than prescriptive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) so ably pointed out. It is about trusting professionals. We want schools to determine whether academy status is right for them, and we understand that it may not be right for some very small primaries. That should not mean that primary schools that want to become academies and believe that it is a viable option for them should be prevented from doing so.
In another place, Lord Knight—a wonderfully mediaeval title for a former Education Minister—did not appear to be against primary schools becoming academies in principle. He said:
“I am not completely against the notion that there might be circumstances where groups of primaries could become academies”.
His concern seemed to be one of practicalities. As my noble Friend Baroness Perry pointed out,
“many of these primary schools, particularly in rural communities, are at the heart of the community and can attract very senior and experienced businesspeople and professionals from the community to their governing bodies and the chairmanship of those bodies. Therefore, they do not lack that kind of hard-edged business experience in running their affairs.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2010; Vol. 720, c. 122, 120.]
The fact that they are at the heart of their communities is their strength, not their weakness.
On the Minister’s defence of the Bill as being of a permissive nature, does he believe we should also have permissive legislation without a full impact assessment to allow everybody to walk around naked, on the basis that they would not have to do it if they did not want to?
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) made an important point about the need to ensure that communities, parents and schools feel that they are in control and making decisions, which is why the power is properly permissive.
What consideration did the Minister give to whether a school that becomes an academy could reverse that process? I bring that up, I hope in order, because smaller primary schools might find that the academy freedoms do not work for them. It is important that the system makes communities and schools feel in control, not forced down a particular channel. We will get much further with the policy if people feel that way.
No primary school is being forced down any channel, that is the whole essence of the proposals. We will not let academies fail, and if they are struggling intervention measures and monitoring will take place to ensure that different sponsors can take them over.
We want all schools that want academy status to be able to apply for it, and we do not intend to deny certain schools that option. Nor do we believe that a delay of two years before primary schools can apply to convert is necessary or appropriate. However, we will see whether any lessons can be learned from the primaries that convert this September. Furthermore, we encourage federations or partnership arrangements that wish to convert, as well as proposals for all-through academies.
I should also point out that when there are challenges with primaries—for example, with shared or co-located services such as children’s centres—we intend to work through them with all the relevant partners to ensure that services are maintained without interruption. That may mean that the process of conversion takes a little longer, but it is important to do things correctly.
The hon. Member for Gedling seemed to express no principle objection. He cited all-through academies, but said that things were different for stand-alone primaries owing to their size and the fact that their location communities could be at risk, but why? In another place, the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Hill of Oareford, said:
“The local primary school is very much part of the village where I live and I know that that is true throughout the country…If an outstanding local primary were to become an academy, it is not clear why it should automatically become less of a part of the local community, village or town life. It will have the same head, staff, parents and children with some additional freedoms. I am not clear why the change of status should suddenly make those people in their villages, towns and communities suddenly start to behave differently.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2010; Vol. 720, c. 125.]
That is a very well expressed answer to the questions asked throughout the debate on the Bill on whether academies will continue to be part of the community. Of course they will. There is no evidence from the 203 academies, other than the one cited by the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), that they are any more or less involved in their communities than maintained schools. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gedling did not preside over the 203 academies with a view to them being islands unto themselves and isolated from the community.
I am not entirely opposed to academies—we have an extremely good one in Ealing North—but there is a problem with governance and involvement with local communities. When an academy sets up, it does not need local education governors or even parent governors—it can select governors. The link with the community is crucial, so what would the Minister say to those who remain to be convinced when it comes to the establishment of an academy within their local community but who would also like that governance link?
An academy can, of course, have the local authority represented on its governing body, but it is up to the academy trust to decide its structure. The hon. Gentleman praised his local academy in Ealing, but there are different models for schools. The academy model gives schools more independence from the local authority and indeed from the Government, and it has worked in his constituency and up and down the country. There is ample evidence in the impact assessment that the model is very effective here and in other countries. We need not have a one-size-fits-all approach to the governance of schools. The community school is one model, and the academy is another. We believe that the latter needs to be boosted and given a chance to extend into other forms of school.
I do not want to trespass on the Minister’s good nature or generosity. I quite rightly praised West London academy because it maintains the link with the local community. What is his personal preference? Is it for a school governing body to be drawn from the local community or for it to be completely separate?
The Minister rightly says that he does not believe that there will be a one-size-fits-all approach. However, he said earlier that no academy would be allowed to fail. How can he guarantee that? Will there be a wide range of failure prevention measures?
Any Government face such challenges, but the Government whom the hon. Lady supported for 13 years were not that effective in dealing with them. Under the previous Government, a considerable number of schools were in special measures for a long period, and the results in some schools were very poor. This is going to be a challenge for this Government, as it was for the previous Government. It will also be a challenge for the organisation that monitors the quangos—the Young People’s Learning Agency.
The way in which the legislation has been framed seems to have built in a mechanism under which that scrutiny will not need to be carried out in the first instance, because only outstanding schools will be allowed to go forward. The whole point of the previous Government’s academies programme was to lift standards in schools that were performing below the level that we all want for our children. This Government’s programme is for outstanding schools only—[Hon. Members: “No, it’s not.”] Well, that is certainly the way the legislation seems to be framed.
My hon. Friends have just made the point from a sedentary position that that is not the case. It is not only outstanding schools that are being invited to acquire academy status; it is all schools. We are also continuing to address the problems at the other end of the scale, to ensure that schools that are in special measures and that are struggling can acquire academy status and have a sponsor that can raise standards in those schools. Those projects, and that approach to policy, will continue.
I am surprised at the opposition to these proposals, given that they build on the legislation of the previous Government. They do not represent a major departure from the previous approach. The Bill has only 20 clauses, and the reason for that is that it builds on the legislation introduced by the previous Government.
I want to test my understanding of what the Minister is saying. In response to the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), he said that he would be perfectly happy for a governing body to spend a fair amount of money on behalf of local children, even though there might not be anyone on that governing body who had any connection to local children. Surely there is an issue of accountability there—
Order. This is not a wide-ranging debate on academies in general. We are debating the amendment, so perhaps the Minister could now direct his comments to that.
Thank you very much, Mr Evans. I will seek to do so.
There will be parent governors on the governing bodies of the schools, so they will not be divorced from them. We are trying to be permissive and to allow academies to draw up their own arrangements, and to select their own directors for the academy trusts and governors for the school. That is the approach that we want to take; we do not want to take a top-down approach to the governance of schools.
The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned the figure of 200 in the impact assessment. That is an illustrative figure to show the costs and the benefits that would arise if that number of schools were to convert annually. Given that this is permissive legislation, we cannot say that we will require x number of schools to convert annually and that the cost will therefore be y. He also asked for the number of primary schools that had expressed an interest. I can give him a figure, but with all the caveats that my fellow Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) expressed earlier. Of the 1,900 expressions of interest, 862 have been from primary schools, and 529 of the 862 have been judged by Ofsted to be outstanding.
It is very hard to say at the moment. I cannot anticipate what the number will be. For every application that has been submitted, there is a named official working with the school. That process is happening right now, and I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until we are able to announce the figure. I think that he will be very pleased with the figure.
The discussions will carry on through August; not everyone is rushing away. Those schools that are determined to open as academies in September will be working throughout August to achieve that.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the costs of insurance and VAT. Those will be covered by the general annual grant paid to academies. He asked about federations, a question also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson).
I appreciate that the Minister may not know the answer to this, but what is his estimate of the VAT cost? Is it an additional cost, as I think it might be, for the academies? Is it factored in at 17.5%, and is the increase to 20% in January taken into account?
I will happily respond to the hon. Gentleman’s questions. As he knows, having been a Minister, there is a VAT cost because academies, as independent schools, cannot reclaim it, whereas when they were maintained schools the local authority had a reclaim procedure that enabled them to reclaim it. The VAT that academies cannot reclaim at the moment will form part of their funding and does not present a cost to Government; it is simply an internal accounting issue.
There are hard federations and soft federations. A hard federation has one governing body that is shared by the number of schools within it; that governing body can of course apply to become an academy. Soft federations, which have a number of governing bodies, can also apply, regardless of whether one or two of the schools are outstanding. If there are no outstanding schools in the federation, things will take a little longer than if there were.
Primaries with a nursery school will be able to convert to an academy, notwithstanding the fact that the nursery school is within the school. In those circumstances, therefore, the nursery school will become an academy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the early years foundation stage, which does of course apply to independent schools. Academies are independent schools and the early years foundation stage is statutory, so it will also apply to academies.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) talked about her constituents being unable to get their children into their first choice of primary school. This is absolutely the issue we are debating. We want to raise standards across all schools and to invite new providers into the system, particularly in areas such as those she described, in which there is parental dissatisfaction with existing provision. That is where the focus of our efforts will be.
The issue is not standards but capacity. There are insufficient places, and for the majority of primary schools in my constituency there is no possibility of extending their existing sites. As I said before the general election, we were promised a new primary school. Where has that gone? Why are the hon. Gentleman’s Government not meeting that promise?
That is a different issue, and capital will be available to deal with the increasing population of young children. The birth rate is increasing, which means that new capacity will be required in some areas, and those capital costs will be met. I thought that the hon. Lady was making a slightly different point—that some very popular schools are over-subscribed because parents from a wider area try to get their children in, crowding out local children in some circumstances. We want to ensure that parents are happy with the quality, as well as the quantity, of provision.
The Minister will be aware that there are specific issues in inner London, particularly given the massive increase in population mobility and local authorities’ policy of encouraging families in. There are therefore some issues specific to central London that the Minister needs to be aware of as he puts this policy in place.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue on behalf of his constituents, which he has raised before in Westminster Hall debates. I am aware of it, we are concerned about it and I can assure him it will be dealt with.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall raised a number of issues. In particular, he talked about monitoring schools and asked about the Young People’s Learning Agency. I reassure him that it will have the capacity to monitor academies’ performance as the number of academies increases over the years. He also asked about buying back services from local authorities. That is very much part of the model. Just because a school opts to become an academy, it does not mean that it will sever its links with the local authority, or will not continue to use local authority services. Local authorities that provide high-quality services are more likely to be able to sell them to academies.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s comments, and will continue to reflect on his arguments, but I make three points, which are best summed up by the Minister in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Hill:
“First…we believe that the number of primaries that will convert in the very first wave is likely to be very modest. Secondly, the Secretary of State has made it clear that he will keep the situation under review and learn any lessons from the first primary converters.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2010; Vol. 720, c. 127.]
His third point was that there will be an annual report to Parliament on the progress of academies policy. Noble Lords from my hon. Friend’s party managed to persuade the Minister in the other place to put that requirement on the statute book. That report is precisely the vehicle through which to consider the impact of academies policy on primary schools.
Having made those few remarks, I very much hope that I have persuaded the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend not to press their amendments.
I thank the Minister for his response and the information that he gave us in answer to some of our questions. The issue of VAT is interesting; I am not quite sure of the mechanism involved, but if the Department for Education reimburses schools, hopefully the Treasury will reimburse the Department. I am not quite sure which way round that goes, but I leave the issue with the Minister and will see whether he is more successful with that argument about money than the Department was in its argument about Building Schools for the Future money.
Some of the answers to questions posed by Members from across the Chamber demonstrate that the Bill has been rushed, and demonstrate problems with what the policy will mean in practice. It is interesting that in many respects—this is not so much the case for primaries as for special schools—the Minister is saying, “Trust us. This is permissive legislation; we will sort out some of the detail after we’ve legislated, hopefully in the next education and schools Bill, in the autumn.” That is not particularly appropriate. I understand why the Government want to rush through this legislation—they see it as flagship—but the Minister himself said, in answer to various questions, that issues are being worked on.
Let me give the Minister one example. If I were trying to be nasty to him, I would ask him to explain to the Committee how the ready reckoner on the DFE website works. I am sure that he understands, but nobody else knows how it works. The point is not whether he understands it, but whether anybody out there does. It is telling that large numbers of primary—and, indeed, secondary—schools trying to work out what becoming an academy would mean for them find it difficult to make the ready reckoner work. Some local authorities have been astonished to find that when they put their figures in, it seems that they would pay out more money than they receive. There is some work to be done on that, and no doubt that issue is one that will be looked at when the detail is sorted.
The ready reckoner was the subject of debate in the other place, and I have had sight of a letter to my noble Friend Baroness Walmsley from Lord Hill, the Under-Secretary, on that issue. I understand that he has placed copies of that letter in the Library for hon. Members to look at. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to see it.
I was not aware of that letter. It would have been even more helpful if the hon. Gentleman had told us what it said, but I will have a look at it. Certainly, the ready reckoner and the whole question of funding for primary schools is still an issue.
I take the point about primary schools being an important part of the community, whether they are small, rural or urban. The more important point that many hon. Members made concerned the capacity of those schools operating on their own to deal with academy status, particularly in regard to some of the support that they receive from local authorities on insurance, legal costs and sometimes when emergencies occur. If we are not careful, the Government will undermine the local authority’s capacity to deal with such matters, while not giving individual primary schools, even if they become academies, the capacity to deal with them either. That is a real issue for us all.
To be fair, the Minister tried to address most of the points made, except that relating to the inadequacy of the equalities impact assessment and the impact assessment on the Bill, which makes no reference to any evidence for what the Government are doing. My hon. Friends and I have raised serious concerns about the rush to academy status for primary schools, but in the interests of dealing with some of the important issues that remain to be debated in the limited time available, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 19, page 1, line 22, at end insert—
(za) the school has regard to the regulations relating to schools admissions made under section 84 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998;
(zb) the school has regard to the regulations relating to the exclusion of pupils made under section 52 of the Education Act 2002;’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 23, page 2, line 8, at end insert—
(e) the school must comply with the provisions of the Code for School Admissions issued from time to time by the Secretary of State.’.
Amendment 24, page 2, line 8, at end insert—
(e) the school must comply with fair access protocols issued from time to time by the Secretary of State.’.
Amendment 27, page 2, line 8, at end insert—
(e) the school complies with provisions on pupil exclusions and behaviour partnerships as set out in EA 2002, EIA 2006 and ASCLA 2009.’.
Amendment 42, page 2, line 8, at end insert—
(e) the admissions arrangements of the school make no provision for selection on the basis of religion or belief.’.
Amendment 11, page 2, line 21, at end insert—
‘(9A) Academy arrangements must also include terms imposed for the purpose of securing that the school complies with any code for school admissions issued under section 84 of SSFA.’.
Amendment 43, page 2, line 23, at end insert—
‘(11) Subsection (12) applies if the school is a voluntary controlled school which is designated by order under section 69(3) of SSFA 1998 as a school having a particular religious character.
(12) The Academy agreement must include terms imposed for the purpose of securing that no greater percentage of pupils are selected on the basis of religion or belief after, as compared with before, the conversion date.’.
Amendment 14, in clause 6, page 4, line 21, leave out subsections (3) and (4).
Amendment 49, in clause 6, page 4, line 24, at end insert—
‘(3A) If the school is a selective school, sections 105 to 109 of SSFA 1998 shall continue to apply in respect of the retention of selective admission arrangements at the school.’.
Amendment 44, in clause 6, page 4, line 37, at end insert—
‘( ) Subsections (7) and (8) apply only if the governing body has made a request to maintain such religious character.
( ) Subsections (7) and (8) do not apply if the school is not designated by order under section 69(3) of SSFA 1998 as a school having a particular religious character and, on conversion to an Academy, such a school may not then be designated or treated as designated by order under section 69(3) of SSFA 1998 as a school having a particular religious character.’.
Amendment 12, in clause 6, page 5, line 4, at end add—
‘(10) After the conversion date the school must comply with any code for school admissions issued under section 84 of SSFA which applied to the school on the conversion date.’.
Amendment 13, in schedule 2, page 18, line 26, at end insert—
‘9A In section 84(1) of SSFA (code for school admissions) after paragraph (b) insert—
I do not intend to detain the Committee for long as we are only three amendments into a 30-odd amendment marathon.
I am not a fan of the legislation as it takes a set of proposals that were meant for one set of schools and transfers those, lock, stock and barrel, to schools in a wholly different category. It takes resources that were meant to improve the educational outcome for children in schools that are underperforming and transfers them in a targeted way to schools that are, in the first instance, already regarded as outstanding. It will also take resources that the local authority currently receives to be targeted at school improvement and gives those resources to schools that are already outstanding, in a “devil take the hindmost” fashion.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case were it not for the fact that the Government have made it clear that they want all schools to have the opportunity to become academies and have that freedom. Also, the pupil premium, which is an important part of the policy platform, will ensure that the poorest in our society have an extra resource, which, for the first time, will follow them, rather than some political fix. Surely he should recognise that in his remarks.
I thank the Select Committee Chair for his comments, but I did emphasise the words “in the first instance” with regard to the outstanding schools in these proposals. The pupil premium will be part of legislation in the autumn, and it remains to be seen how those proposals will pan out.
I thank my hon. Friend for that information. It helps us to pad out the argument about how we feel about the Bill.
Government Members have regularly alluded to and broadly welcomed what they see as a return to grant-maintained schools by another name, now known as son of grant-maintained schools or academies. If the policy were to go down that road, its fairness, equity and accountability would have to be severely questioned. Unlike local authorities, the governing body of an academy will not undergo the rigours of the local democratic system. That is, it will not have to stand for election and stand or fall on its record and/or its programme.
I know that the Secretary of State has been keen to placate local government representatives on these issues. Indeed, in a speech at the Local Government Association annual conference in Bournemouth, he confirmed that he sees councils continuing to play a strong, strategic role in the school system. However, local government is very disappointed that there has been no opportunity for formal consultation on these proposals, which has left little chance to discuss in detail some of the potential issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) referred to the ready reckoner implications earlier. In my local authority, some of the ready reckoner calculations done by finance officers have resulted in horrendous—
The ready reckoner is used to give an indication to prospective academies of what their funding might be. It is not to be used by local authorities to calculate the claw-back, because they are different figures. Academies are funded through two different routes, so the figures would not match.
Nevertheless, local authorities are uncertain about the financial implications and their capacity to improve schools in the future. Indeed, education cannot be delivered in isolation from the wider range of local public services used by children and young people—or by the local community. Within education, if the role of local authorities as commissioners was recognised and strengthened, the children’s services budget could be more efficiently used by delivering a wider range of services through schools.
It is important to ensure that all children have fair access to a place in a local school, and that academies operate a fair admissions procedure. Similarly, it is imperative that all schools operate a fair exclusions policy. I was pleased that the Secretary of State gave a reassurance on Second Reading when he said that academies
“have to abide by the admissions code and subscribe to fair access protocols, so that those hard-to-place children are placed appropriately.”—[Official Report, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 31.]
However, I would like to see an inclusion in the Bill that all academies must comply with admissions law and codes and fair access protocols, as well as regulations relating to pupil exclusions. That would ensure that they were on the same footing as other schools, requiring a change to primary legislation to amend and making them truly equal partners. I therefore ask the Committee to accept amendment No. 19 in my name because it would achieve exactly that.
I tabled amendments 42, 43 and 44, which deal with one aspect of admissions to academies of a religious nature. I understand the benefits that can flow from such schools. Indeed, I used to be a governor of a Church of England school in the ward I represented and it was a very interesting experience. However, I am concerned that the Bill may inadvertently lead to an increase in the proportion of religious places. It risks permanently entrenching religious segregation in our education system through irreversible changes that could permit wide discrimination in admissions and employment.
By “freeing” religious academies from the national curriculum without sufficient safeguards, the Bill also risks exposing children to extreme religious views, including creationism. Members will know that I have spent some time arguing for the scientific line on such issues. My concern is widely shared. A new ICM poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association found that 72% of the public are concerned that the Academies Bill could lead to taxpayers’ money being used to promote religion. A third of the public said that they were “very concerned” about that. The poll also found that two thirds of people think that religious academies should be required to teach pupils about other beliefs, including non-religious ones.
I seek assurances from the Minister on these issues and I have tabled three amendments to flush out their thinking in this area. Amendment 42 would prevent any form of religious discrimination in admissions policies. Many state-funded “faith schools” use privileges to have highly selective admissions criteria, giving preference to the children of parents with particular beliefs. The Government have so far made it clear that they intend to allow these schools to retain their admissions policies, and I have great concerns in that area. It can cause segregation along religious and socio-economic lines. Professor Ted Cantle, author of a report into community cohesion in Blackburn, describes religious schools as
“automatically a source of division”
in the town, which is not something we would wish to see. In other areas, faith schools, which are their own admissions authorities—as these academies will be—are 10 times more likely to be highly unrepresentative of their surrounding area than faith schools where the local authority is the admission authority. Separating children by religion, class and ethnicity is totally antithetical to the aims of social cohesion, and amendment 42 would ensure that no academy pupil is discriminated against on religious grounds.
That is an ideal to which I hope we all aspire. However, if amendment 42 cannot be accepted by the Government, I hope that amendment 43 can at least provide greater assurance. It would ensure that, at the very least, existing faith schools cannot discriminate more when they achieve academy status. During discussions in the other place, the Government confirmed that maintained faith schools will be able to discriminate in admissions. I hope they will change their mind on that. They said that a 50% quota would be imposed to ensure that 50% of admissions would not be religiously selective, and that was repeated on Second Reading. However, that provision is not in the Bill, the model funding agreement or any other official guidance or information. We need to know what would happen there. If amendment 42 cannot be accepted, I hope that amendment 43 will be, to ensure that things can get no worse than they currently are.
Finally, I turn to amendment 44, which deals with two issues, one of which I take to be a drafting error on which I seek reassurance, and the other is the desire to provide choice for current religious schools. I shall take the second part of the amendment first. The amendment would ensure symmetry. Currently a state-funded religious school becomes a religious academy, but there is nothing to confirm that a non-faith school becomes a non-faith academy. I therefore seek the guarantee, which I think the Secretary of State intended, that that is what would happen—that their nature simply would not change.
The first part of the amendment deals with schools that are religious schools now. Currently, a state-maintained school with a religious character is forced to become an academy with that religious character, but surely religious schools should at least have the option not to do that if they do not wish to. That would be popular with the local community: a recent poll found that 64% of people agreed that the Government should not be funding faith schools of any kind—but that is a debate for another time. However, some faith schools are only nominally of a religious character—that character being a residue of former connections. When taking on academy status with the possibility of growth, these schools may wish to free themselves of the restrictive status of being of a religious character which has ceased to be relevant to them. The amendment would allow them the choice, rather than compel them.
I hope my amendments will be considered carefully by the Government, and I hope that Ministers will comment on them. I intend them as probing amendments and will not press them to a vote, but I hope that the Government will take them seriously and accept a number of them.