Education Bill

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Mr. Timms: We want academies to be inclusive schools in every sense. That desire lies at the heart of our policy on academies. Normally they will be replacements for existing, poorly performing schools, so they are intended to tackle deep-seated problems of underachievement. They will provide new opportunities for children and young people in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country, and will play an active part in each local family of schools, working with other schools and as a resource for the wider community.

The amendments appear to enshrine a very different vision, although that was not set out by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. He presented them as probing amendments rather than statements of policy. I want to make it clear that our vision for academies is firmly an inclusive one. Academies will serve children of all abilities in their local area. The reason why there is such a lot of enthusiasm for them across a wide range of interests and across the partnerships to which I have referred—from sponsors to schools and local education authorities—is that academies are designed to cater for all abilities, not just for a few children. They offer all parents the chance to secure a place for their child and they will be expected to provide a high standard of education for all of their pupils according to their individual needs. They will reflect the communities that they are built to serve.

Mr. Turner: The Minister has mentioned all abilities, but the Bill mentions different abilities. Are they the same thing?

Mr. Timms: I think that they are. If there is any doubt, I shall be happy to make it clear that we want academies to serve the needs of children of all abilities.

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Chris Grayling: On a point of clarification, might I use the example of the LEA in which I was involved when I served as a councillor in the London borough of Merton, which has had some successful and some less successful secondary schools. If one of its schools were to become an academy with a specialism in technology, would all pupils who fell within the school's catchment area be able to attend the academy, or would the Merton academy be able to serve pupils across a range of schools who have an aptitude in its specialist subject? What do the Government intend?

Mr. Timms: I am not familiar with the admission arrangements of schools in the London borough of Merton, but I would be surprised if a rigid geographical area applied to every secondary school. People move around the boroughs in London. In south London, as the hon. Gentleman knows, people often move across borough boundaries. I doubt whether the problem that he identified will arise. The establishment of a city academy might lead to changes in other schools' admission arrangements, but I would not envisage the rigid arrangement that he mentioned.

Mr. Brady: Is the Minister saying that it is inappropriate for academies to have the same ability as special schools to select up to 10 per cent. on the basis of specialism?

Mr. Timms: No, I am not saying that that is inappropriate. I shall deal more fully with the point in a moment. The Bill makes it clear that all academies must have a specialism, though they are free to adopt a wider range than is available to maintained schools. The hon. Gentleman asked why the provisions are different from earlier legislation. We are seeking greater flexibility and want to remove the need to produce an order for new specialisms to be allowed. We want to promote some new ideas.

The choice of specialism would be part of the consultation process surrounding the establishment of an academy. The approach allows for a combination of specialisms—business and performing arts, for example, which has been taken up by one of the academies—and has proved attractive in several respects. That explains the difference between the Bill and earlier legislation. Subject to the agreement of the Secretary of State, an academy may specialise in any subject area or any combination, so the Bill will not prevent academies from specialising in any of the subjects mentioned in the amendment. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that when he moved it.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister for going so far down the route that I invited him to follow. He says that the Bill will not prevent any of the specialisms in the amendment from being adopted, but would Ministers also be prepared to give full and open consideration to an application for any of them?

11.45 am

Mr. Timms: Yes. I have made it clear that under the proposals academies can choose those specialisms—or, indeed, others. Following consultation with other schools, the LEA and so forth, the decision would be written into the funding agreement with the Secretary of State. I am not aware of any difficulties so far, but if

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there were any, they would be resolved by the Secretary of State.

To respond to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, the fact that a school specialises in a particular branch of the curriculum does not necessarily mean that it may admit pupils on the basis of their aptitude for it. The legal position is that it is open to schools with a particular specialism to admit up to 10 per cent. of their pupils on the basis of their aptitude for the specialism, where that specialism is prescribed in the regulations. Academies are not covered by the regulations, but we have made it clear that we want consistency with the law as it applies to maintained schools, and with the code of practice on admissions. Accordingly, academies may admit pupils on the basis of aptitude in subjects where it is open for maintained schools to do the same.

We have consistently made it clear that academies should be inclusive schools catering for pupils of all abilities. That lies at the heart of our vision for academies. I therefore vigorously resist amendment No. 465 and the suggestion that academies should restrict their admissions to only part of the ability range. That is radically opposed to our vision for academies, which is about tackling underachievement in some of our most disadvantaged communities and achieving high standards for the young people living in them. I urge the Committee to reject the amendment. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West did not press it hard. If he had, it would have shown his intention to undermine our central vision for academies to operate as inclusive schools.

Mr. Brady: We have had an instructive debate. The Minister stressed at the outset that academies should be inclusive in every sense. He then observed that where the Bill states that schools cater for different abilities, it means the same as catering for all abilities. Perhaps rather inconsistently, he went on to allow some selection in admissions. He allowed that the same regulations and admissions law that apply to maintained schools would apply to academies, although the mechanism is less direct or clear.

On the matter of providing for 10 per cent. of selection by aptitude, I shall not go into lengthy debates about how the definition of aptitude supposedly differs from the definition of ability. From the standpoint of the ''Oxford English Dictionary'', the two words are effectively interchangeable. Looking up the one invites the reader to consult the definition of the other, but I shall not dally on that semantic point.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, the Minister said that no rigid catchment area would apply to an academy in the London borough of Merton. He sought to construct a rather flimsy defence on the grounds that such an academy might be expected to cater for the local community in the same way as any other school, but that there was no such thing as the local community for such a school.

Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend has pointed to an interesting gap in the Minister's defence of the position. One change in the Bill is the deletion of the

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word ''city'' from academies. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister did not make it clear what will happen in areas where there are, by means of geography or politics, much clearer catchment areas?

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and the Minister may want to intervene and provide some clarity. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Bill will delete the original requirement for the schools to serve urban areas. The Minister says that there is no such thing as a catchment, even in urban areas, so he watered down his inclusive community school rhetoric. In rural areas, or perhaps an island community, other circumstances may apply, and it might be possible to define a more rigid catchment area.

On amendment No. 464, the Minister went on to confirm that the Government are looking for greater flexibility and wanted to remove the need for an order to be used to introduce new specialisms. He said that the Bill would have the benefit of allowing a combination of specialisms, and he highlighted the instance of an academy specialising in both business and the performing arts. Helpfully, he went on to say that Ministers would give full consideration to an academy's application to specialise in any of the subjects that are mentioned in amendment No. 464—English, maths or any other core curriculum subject.

If I said that we have now a clearer idea of the Government's intentions, I would be going a little too far, but we have clearer idea of the scope and freedom that Ministers intend to enjoy under the legislation, which will extend to the academies' intake, allow limited selection on aptitude and allow English and maths to be included as specialisms for which the academy may require evidence of aptitude. We may therefore see academies wanting to specialise in what would have been traditionally regarded as the academic end of the curriculum. That is positive. Ministers have made it clear that they are trying to be open and flexible on how the new academies operate. Through discussion of the amendments, we have established to an extent the way in which those flexibilities will apply. They will allow any potential specialism and limited selection on aptitude in that specialism. This has been a valuable exercise, and we have drawn out a little of the Minister's thinking.

I do not see any sign that the Minister intends to rise again to give further clarification on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about how catchment areas will apply outside urban areas. I hope that he will see an opportunity later in our discussions to put more flesh on the bones.

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