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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I do not know whether the Select Committee looked at this, but does my hon. Friend accept that there is a stark difference between education in urban and rural areas? We cannot
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pretend that every good school is to be found in rural Britain, and sucking resources into cities may be counter-productive.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I shall deal with later. However, I want to rattle on, as there is a great deal of interest in the topic, but we have only two hours for debate.

The concept of a publicly funded independent school having sponsors and setting up its own governance is an interesting one. Academies have had a slow start. According to the latest figures from the Secretary of State yesterday, there are 17 in existence, but another 35 are planned. The eventual plan is to have 200, 60 of which will be in London. However, 200 academies are the equivalent of 5 per cent. of secondary schools, which is a high percentage, given that the proportion of schoolchildren in independent education is 7 per cent. The number of academies is therefore small but significant. Academies have been subject to a number of criticisms, and I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and the Secretary of State for the comprehensive, myth-busting letter that they sent us after the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee last Wednesday. We always appreciate fast, informative responses.

It has been suggested that academies will be outside local education authority control. I would be interested to hear the response from my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards to the argument that they have a more favourable capital funding arrangement than other schools in the locality, which are therefore disadvantaged. While people think it is wonderful to have a beautifully designed new academy, with all its resources and new buildings, they are worried that a school a mile and a half down the road that has been doing well may suddenly be dragged down by the competition with a super-duper, all-singing, all-dancing—literally, in some cases—school.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that while the Government have the laudable aim of raising achievement in deprived areas, it is feared that the independence of academies might conflict with the Government's other laudable aim of making schools work together for the benefit of their area? Does he agree that that problem must be tackled as the academy programme is rolled out?

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend, with whom I have worked closely on the Select Committee, is right.

It is argued that sponsors spend relatively little and have too much control over schools, thus skewing the way in which certain subjects are taught. There is concern that creationism is taught in one or two Anglican schools. The Select Committee visited one Anglican school, and although the ethos is different, we did not find evidence that creationism was being taught as a science subject in the curriculum. We understand that creationism was discussed in liberal studies as something that can be evaluated along with other theories. I do not go along with the tabloid scare stories.

On 1 December, we took evidence from the Secretary of State on secondary education and discussed academies in depth. Following that meeting, the
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Secretary of State wrote to the Committee seeking to dispel 10 myths about funding, the way in which academies admit pupils and the role of sponsors. His letter addressed our concerns, some of which have been put to rest.

I want to examine how academies fit into the rest of the school system. If their aim is to improve attainment across all schools, planning and co-ordination will be needed to provide appropriate provision across an area. In that context, the Committee has consistently pointed out a great danger. Some time ago, we went to New Zealand, where about 10 years ago a previous Labour Government gave all schools independence, which means that local councils no longer have any remit for education. We have found plenty of evidence that that policy has caused great difficulties, because it means that no intermediary exists between central Government and schools.

When the Committee examines schooling in a particular area, we often find systemic failure—not one or two failing schools, but a cluster of failing schools in an LEA area. LEAs are often responsible for addressing such situations, but I understand that the Government are impatient with their patchy performance. Some LEAs are good, some are excellent, some are pretty awful and some are average, which is true of most human institutions. It irritates Ministers when an LEA does not get its act together over a long period of time.

Although LEAs are examined by an inspectorate, Ofsted, the range of other powers builds quasi-government bureaucracies. For example, the Learning and Skills Council, which has a budget of £9 billion, is the biggest bureaucracy of all. It has an active interest and role in post-16 education. A previous Government made all post-16 schools independent. Such schools own their own buildings and premises, and they operate independently from LEAs. Some people argue that today's problems in the further education sector exist because a systemic answer is not available.

When it comes to addressing our skills needs, how can we lift performance? I spoke to the small business community this morning. How can one get technical colleges to respond with the right kinds of courses, in the right kind of time frame and with the right sorts of modules, if one cannot intervene on the local level?

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman mentioned clusters of failing schools. Surely the question is why LEAs have allowed such clusters to develop for so many years. LEAs are not the answer.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman has a point. Members of the Committee and I would not suggest that LEAs are the only answer. We should be wary about following the same route as New Zealand and should not throw away something that can be fixed. I hope that the Minister will address that point.

The Government are in two minds. On the one hand, they want independent schools. The new Bill will allow for foundation schools. We will have autonomous schools all over the country, and academies in city centres and town centres that will be even more independent because they have even more control over
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their own curriculum. On the other hand, weakened LEAs will have little power over those clusters. Some Government thinking—Professor Tim Brighouse has been very much involved with it—says that schools should increasingly co-operate as collegiates, working together as networks and clusters of schools, including schools with different specialisms. We applauded that when we spent a week with Tim Brighouse and his team in Birmingham. Of course, he is now an adviser on London education.

Our Committee is worried that those two policies do not marry together—at least, they do not appear to; perhaps the Minister will put our minds at rest. Is it possible to address systemic failure and to encourage collegiate systems and co-operation through clusters of schools, at the same time as giving more independence to schools than ever before? Who will draw these institutions together? I hope that the Minister will answer that when he winds up.

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned colleges of further education. He will know as well as I do that they were given their freedom some years ago. Is he suggesting that that was the right way forward and that they have blossomed as a result? Will not the academies go down the same route?

Mr. Sheerman: If one looked at comments on the FE sector by some of the ministerial team and by David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, one would not be too complacent about post-16 education. The situation is patchy. There are some excellent sixth form colleges, such as Greenhead college and New college in my constituency, but there are real problems in the sector, as David Bell said last week.

I want to conclude by mentioning three questions that are being asked about academies. First, there is the question of sponsors. Some people ask why sponsors are necessary, but the Government want academies to work and sponsors provide the money. I believe that there is a healthy level at which sponsors can operate. However, I am reminded of what a member of our Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), said when we discussed specialist schools. In a part of the country that does not have any big business, or indeed has very few private sector businesses at all, raising £50,000 for a specialist school is pretty difficult, and £2 million looks more or less insuperable. It will be less easy to find £2 million in some areas than in an area where one can see the towers of Canary wharf, with all its massive financial institutions, just down the road. Some parts of the country may not be able to find an active sponsor, as opposed to one who gives the money and then walks away.

Secondly—I shall not rehearse this argument—there is the problem of being outside local authority control.

Finally, there is the question of academies being able to have a sixth form. That might sound desirable, but planting one of those in the centre of a town or city without careful consideration of the impact on other sixth form provision in the area could do a great deal of damage, particularly in relation to shortage subjects
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such as maths, IT or foreign languages. It is difficult to find staff for existing sixth form provision, and spreading the gruel rather thinner may make life extremely difficult. Specialist schools with their specialists are all very good but they need qualified teachers in particular subjects. Having examined teacher recruitment and retention, we found that there was not the crisis that the popular press had claimed. However, we found that there were problems with three or four shortage subjects. Some of those problems are being addressed but there is still a difficulty.

We have reached the stage where, more or less, we know that small sixth forms are a problem. They do not have breadth, diversity and depth. If introducing academies means many small sixth forms again, just when we know that we want to be on course to more substantial sixth forms, there will be a problem.

It has been alleged that capital allocation for schools might not be the best use of the money. We are talking about £1 billion over the next three years as the Government move towards 200 by 2010, set against £6.5 billion in the "Building Schools for the Future" programme over the same period. When we consider the amount of money that the Government are spending on education and on the "Building Schools for the Future" programme—this applies to any Member who has been in the House for as long as I have—we think, "Wow! We have been waiting all these years to have a Government who put this sort of investment into education. It is wonderful." Do not ever think that the Select Committee has always to be critical of the Government. It is a wonderful investment in the education of our children in future. It is fantastic. I will not continue on that theme, although I am sure that the Minister would like me to do so.

We are asking whether it is a good idea to take so much of the overall budget in the "Building Schools for the Future" programme. We hear that the Department is saying, "If there is not an academy in your plans, you will not get the money. You have got to have an academy." That has been described as sending the heavy mob out of the Department and leaning on people. I have not met anyone in the Department who would meet that description. However, we get the idea of the sort of pressure that perhaps the Minister will say something about. Perhaps he thinks it is legitimate pressure to say, "Unless you have an academy you will not get 'Building Schools for the Future' money." I was concerned about that level of coercion.

I refer again to the written statement of 30 November, which states:

I can understand what the Minister is getting at, but there is a balance between having something that the Minister wants to achieve and involving local people who know something about their local education
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provision, and who think that what they want to do may not include academies. I want to draw out the Minister a little on that.

In his evaluation letter yesterday, the Secretary of State said:

In the statement my right hon. Friend argued that the Government could not wait five years before taking decisions. We understand that. It is a reasonable position, but what encourages the belief that academies are an answer in areas with a long history of poor attainment? In his response, perhaps the Minister will say what he thinks—rather than a bit of hope and a bit of passion—is behind the view that academies will succeed in areas where other programmes have not succeeded.

4.29 pm

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