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Mr. Chaytor: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the issue is not the distinction between successful and failing schools but the definition of success? He is making assumptions about how the Secretary of State will define successful schools.
Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because that is my point. Nothing in the Bill says what a successful school is. The Secretary of State made it clear on several occasions today that her definition of successful schoolsand it is the one that the Prime Minister has used, time after timeis those which achieve 50 per cent. of pupils getting five A to C grades at GCSE. What is more, she says that if a school gets less than 25 per cent. A to C grades over a period of three years, it is deemed to be failing and therefore due to be closed. How else does the House accept the main criteria?
Mr. Chaytor: When the Secretary of State was challenged on that point before the Education and Skills Committee a few weeks ago, she said precisely the opposite. She said that five GCSEs would not be the only criterion for determining a successful school and that other matters would be taken into account, such as the value added progress and Ofsted reports.
Mr. Willis: I am glad that the Secretary of State has made another statement to another audience. If she was that clear about what a successful school was and how it will be judged to be successful or failingthere is nothing in betweenit should be in the Bill. I am sure that the Minister for School Standards, who is listening intently to this exchange, will respond to that point in his reply.
We have just completed a survey of 244 so-called failing schools that did not meet the criteria set by the Secretary of State for successthat is, with 25 per cent. A to C grades over three years. Each school had had a good Ofsted report; it had been deemed by Ofsted to be successful within that framework. None was in special measures. However, they were all trying to cope with huge problems.
Each school has three times more pupils eligible for free school meals than the national average. They have almost twice the number of children with statements of special educational needsan average of 38 per cent. They have more than three times the national average for unauthorised absence and three times the national levels for exclusion. That is the framework in which those schools are working, and it is high time that the Secretary of State, and the House, recognised that teachers, head teachers, governors and LEAs are doing a remarkable job with some of those communities. We should recognise their achievements rather than constantly accuse them of failing. Yet these are the very schools that will be denied the freedoms that the Secretary of State will give to successful schools when instead they need to innovate and offer radical changes in the curriculum, the way that they
Mr. Andrew Turner: As reinforcement of that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, under the Secretary of State's criteria, King's Manor school, Guildford, would never have been allowed to initiate the innovative recovery programme that has been adopted thanks to Surrey county council?
Mr. Willis: With reluctance, I have to agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I have a caveat: according to the criteria, the former King's Manor school would have been allowed to ask the Secretary of State for her specific permission to do something else. However, it is certainly true that Surrey county council would not have been allowed to take that decision, even though it was the responsible local authority. Although I may disagree with some of the things that the council has done, I strongly defend its right as a local, democratic authority to take those decisions. The hon. Gentleman's point is well made.
Another aspect of the divisions that will be created by the Bill was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras: the policy on specialist and faith schools. Although such schools are not specifically referred to, parts 1 and 5 will provide over-arching legislation that affects them.
What expert at the Department for Education and Skills thought up the idea of specialisation at the age of 11? What happens to the sporty child in a rural comprehensive who decides to specialise in languages? What happens to the urban Jewish child who has a flair for dance, but who finds that the only specialist arts school is the local Roman Catholic high school? The policy is barmy.
We do not oppose schools having a special ethos. We want all schools to be able to promote their special characteristics, but it is for the schools to choose that ethos, not for the Secretary of State to provide a menu and tell them, "If you don't choose from that, you don't get the money."
Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Schools in my constituency that are seeking special status are doing so partly because they want to reinvent themselves; they want to establish a new reputation in the community. They have a choice as to the specialism that they provide. Do not specialist schools act as a beacon to other schools in the area, and are not their facilities shared by the community rather than used by only one school?
Mr. Willis: I admire the hon. Lady's idealism. Every specialist school that I know has done it for the money. Fundamentally, they want the extra £500,000. If hon. Members on either side of the House think that there is some glorious journey towards the arts, languages or science[Interruption.] If hon. Members say that that is so, I have to believe them: it would be wrong not to.
The hon. Lady has, however, put her finger on the pulse. Many of the schools in which I workedat the sharp end of the Government's definition of failureare the very ones that would find it difficult to raise the £50,000 entry fee to achieve specialist status. How can
The hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) may well say that the one or two schools in her constituency that achieve specialist status will be able to do exciting things. I completely agree, but what about the three or four that do not receive that £500,000? What pecking order will that create? I thought that new Labour was about equity and fairness of accessthat those were its principlesbut there it goes.
Faith schools are part of that issue. In a nation where 92 per cent. of the population do not attend church, can we really believe that, deep down, there is a secret desire to do so and to educate children in single-faith schools? There is no logic in the Government's acceptance of Lord Ouseley's damning conclusion, after the Bradford riots, that segregation in Bradford schools was a contributory factor in the breakdown of race relations, while saying that they want to create more single-faith schools. If there is a logic, perhaps the Minister for School Standards will explain it.
On many occasions, the Secretary of State has argued that we should bring Muslim girls schools back into the maintained sector. That is a poor reason for the introduction of a deliberate policy of setting up more single-faith schools.
In response to the hon. Member for Ashford, who made the same point at the Tory party conference and during his speech today, the Liberal Democrat party is certainly not opposed to Church schools. The existing concordat between non-conformists, Roman Catholics and Anglicans has worked well since R.A. Butler set it up in 1944. I should probably agree with him that if we were starting again we should not start from where we are now, but the reality is that we have to start there. It is where we move to that concerns me most.
I also understand that the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, now the Home Secretary, had little option but to include in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 the right of other faiths to receive state funding for single-faith schools. If he had not agreed to that provision, he would have been challenged in the European courts. At the time, he had little choice. To be fair to him, he said that he was opening a Pandora's box and did not know where the provision would lead. However, to promote such expansion without considering the consequences as the Government are doing shows the lack of realism in current education policy thinking.
Parents want good schools for their children. The fact that so many people are prepared to put themselves through a faith test, and then to abandon that faith, to get their children into good schools demonstrates that point.