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9 Dec 2004 : Column 1332


[Relevant documents:      Fourth Report from the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2003–04, HC 58-I, on Secondary Education: School Admissions; and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6349; and uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Education and Skills Committee on 1st December 2004, from the Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, HC 86-i, on Secondary Education; and the Department for Education and Skills Departmental Report 2004, Cm 6202.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

3.57 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is always a privilege to have a debate on the estimates. If one is the Chairmen or a member of a Select Committee, it provides an opportunity to bring some of the deliberations that we conduct across the road—in our case, in Portcullis House—into the very heart of the Chamber. It also a privilege to be the Chairman of a great Select Committee, such as the Education and Skills Committee—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear"]—with such fine members.

I usually open any speech, as one does regularly, on the role of a Select Committee Chairman by saying that one of the great advantages is travelling all around the country to places where people know a great deal about their sector of education—a lot more than I do—but my Committee and I have expertise and knowledge right across the piece. From early years, lifelong learning and secondary education to higher education, we cover it all. Indeed, there has been a massive increase in our work, given the Children Act 2004, which takes us into totally uncharted territory. That is very exciting; it also gives me the ability to have a broad range. I sometimes say that we have as broad a range as the Secretary of State himself, except that we tend to be in the job longer than he or any Minister does. The average career of a Minister is two years, two months. It was a first when we had an Education Secretary who stayed for the full four years in the last Parliament. It did us a power of good to have that continuity. The Department has a corridor that displays the length of time that former Education Ministers spent in the Department. One wonders how long it took them to get a grasp of the job before they made a reasonable and positive input.

Over the past year, the Committee has considered secondary education across the piece. That has been our main inquiry. We break our big inquiries into smaller ones to keep everyone on their toes and to keep interest going. One of my colleagues, whom I shall not name, chairs another Committee and thinks that the attention span of Members of Parliament on Select Committees is not that good, so we have to give them a healthy and diverse diet. I would not say such a thing. Indeed, I think
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that if an election takes place when predicted, we will be like Virgin airlines, with nine aircraft in the air, all of which we have to bring into land safely by the spring.

The Committee has concentrated on what has been going on in schools for 11 to 16-year-olds. The winter supplementary estimates provided an additional £36 million for the academies programme for the current financial year. That is a substantial amount of taxpayers' money. Following the comprehensive spending review, the Minister announced on 30 November capital allocations for academies of £207 million for 2005–06, £365 million for 2006–07 and £467 million in 2007–08. That is an awful lot of money. The Committee has to ask whether that represents a worthwhile investment by the Department for Education and Skills on behalf of the taxpayer.

As I said, the background is that we have been looking in some depth at the four strands of secondary education—diversity of provision, pupil achievement, teacher retention or recruitment and school admissions. On diversity of provision, we considered in particular the Government's current programme for rolling out a large number of specialist schools. The programme started off with a small number of specialist schools, but the ambition rapidly increased for every secondary school to be a specialist school. Although the Committee is not critical of that ambition, it is our job to evaluate the programme on the basis of the message that we regularly get from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, which is that the Government's watchword is: policies based on evidence. So policies are not implemented if there is no evidence-base.

We challenged the Government by examining specialist schools. Rather than seeing a systematic evaluation of programmes rolled out into a policy for specialist schools, we found an interesting accretion of policy, going back seven Secretaries of State to Kenneth Baker, now Lord Baker, who instituted the city technology colleges, and Sir Cyril Taylor, who has a greater ability to survive than the vicar of Bray. The schools may have a different name, but he is still influential in their development.

We wanted to distinguish between following a policy based on evidence and a policy inherited from elsewhere. It has been the Government's aim to put in place a structure of secondary education to improve attainment for all pupils. There is nothing wrong with that. We applaud it. Of course, that has been dominated by other watchwords, many of them emanating from No. 10, including autonomy, diversity and—one of the most popular words with all parties—choice. My colleagues and I especially want to consider the implications of the work that we have done on secondary education for the most recent manifestation of specialism—the city academies.

I turn now to the main lever for making almost all secondary schools independent specialist schools with the option to become foundation schools—a Bill to that effect was included in the Queen's Speech. Every school will be able to have a meeting of governors and decide to become a foundation school. Once that resolution is made, it will own the school buildings and will, to all intents and purposes, be autonomous. For some of us, that is a worry because it cuts out the local authority
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which has traditionally mediated between Government and the delivery of education through schools. That is a big change. Some people have said that the proposed Bill is not very big or important, but everyone in the sector knows that it is very important. I believe that it has already started its progress in the other place.

We have had a foundation hospital initiative in the health sector and now we are to have foundation schools. In some areas, the Government consider educational attainment to be so poor that more is needed than just specialist or foundation schools, and so we have the academy programme. I put it on record today that I am not against academies and my Committee has made no recommendation on them. However, they will be very important and take up a lot of taxpayers' money. If they are set in the context of the overall destination and progress of Government policy on secondary education, they challenge all of us interested in the quality of schools to face up to some of the changes and what they might mean.

Academies were launched in March 2000 by the then Secretary of State, now the Home Secretary, as part of the fresh start initiative, under which failing schools were closed and replaced with new schools. The academies were to be publicly funded independent schools with power to set their own governance arrangements and to disregard certain parts of the national curriculum, so as to innovate both in what was taught and how it was taught. The academies were really the best and finest example of the Government's thinking.

The aim is to have 200 academies, 60 of them in London. All will have independent sponsors, who will contribute £200 million in capital and will be able to decide on the vision and the ethos of the school. The representative of one sponsor came to see me in my office a couple of days ago and I asked him why his organisation wanted to sponsor an academy. He said that he represented one of the largest financial institutions in the country, if not the world, and it knew a good bargain when it saw one. It is a good investment to get that involved and raise one's profile for £2 million. To be fair, that group employs 8,000 people and sees the investment as a way of participating energetically in the school and making a real difference in the quality of the school.

If one studies the problem of underachievement in some of our major cities and towns one can see that, whatever the policy pursued under Administrations of different political persuasions, it is difficult to raise achievement in certain schools or a cluster of schools. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are both obsessed, as I always say, with education and how to raise standards in such an environment, so I understand why the notion of an academy is attractive to them. It may well be the best way to achieve a high profile and raise standards dramatically.

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