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Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who chairs the Select Committee. I hope that he receives the expected Christmas present from the Secretary of State after his policy defence.
Liberal Democrat Members are unhappy about granting another £36 million to a programme that constitutes little more than an act of faith by the Minister for School Standards and the Secretary of State. It lacks any sort of evaluation and is untested and untried. It appears to hang together only by an act of faith. Santa Claus might be a mythological figure but, for academy sponsors, he is not only real but bears an uncanny resemblance to the Secretary of State.
As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, where else, for an outlay of £2 million, can one receive £24 million of capital and have all one's running costs covered in perpetuity? It is the most remarkable offer. The ability to decide the broad curriculum provision for groups of young people over whom one has no other control and with whom one has no other involvement is also thrown in, simply on the basis of being a wealthy individual or corporation. We should examine and challenge that, not simply accept it as an act of faith.
Before reverting to the academy programme, let me briefly consider the Select Committee report on admissions that was published in the summer. It directly relates to academies and admissions. I want to take the unusual step of congratulating the hon. Member for Huddersfield on an exceptionally good and balanced report. Some of the evidence from key practitioners and some recommendations were telling. The fact that they mirrored Liberal Democrat policy in their entirety is purely coincidental. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) on having such influence on the Committee and making it see sense. It was interesting to note that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who is not with us today, was the only dissenting voice in the Committee proceedings.
It was especially telling that although there were high levels of satisfaction for parental preference, that applied especially outside London, which was the big problem. In a future examination of academies, perhaps the hon. Member for Huddersfield will consider whether
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the programme deals with a London-centric issue rather than a problem that applies throughout the country. There is a danger of taking the genuine problems in LondonI would not understate themand believing that they are translated elsewhere. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider that.
We were especially pleased that the Government took from the Select Committee report the proposals on co-ordinated and one-stop admissions policies. That was useful, especially in London but also throughout the country. When the Minister for School Standards sums up, will he assure the House that he will evaluate the first round of admissions to ascertain its effectiveness? Genuine concerns exist, especially in the voluntary-aided sector, that the measure may not be the panacea that many of us believe that it will prove. That is a genuine suggestion, which I hope that the Minister will take up.
We are particularly pleased that the Secretary of State has followed up the Committee's recommendation to give a greater degree of regulation, particularly from the Catholic schools' point of view, and to include the Catholic Education Service and put it on the same footing as the Church of England Education Service. It will be good that that sort of guidance will be available throughout the country, and that both those organisations, which are crucial to the delivery of our education service, will be involved in the admissions process.
The key element in the report relates directly to the academy programme. It is that the Secretary of State refused to accept the Select Committee's core recommendation, which was that statutory powers be given to admissions forums. That is hugely regrettable, because virtually everyone who gave evidence to the Committee, including the chief schools adjudicator, Dr. Philip Hunter, said that that was important. I want to make it clear to the Minister that the Liberal Democrats do not want admission arrangements that stifle diversity or innovation in our schools. We want a principle that, wherever the state funds a school, that school should have to conform to an agreed set of principles through a statutory code of practice. That is a reasonable request.
As the hon. Member for Huddersfield has clearly outlined, under the academy programme, the new Education Bill that is going into the House of Lords either this week or next and under the move to extend foundation status, the aim is to ensure that half of Britain's schools will be state-funded independent schools by the end of the next Parliament. If they were all outside a statutory code of admissions practice, we should have a real problem.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that academies and schools that choose to have foundation status are bound by the code of practice.
I accept entirely what the Minister says; of course he would not say anything that was untruthful. However, with all due respect to him, he knows that the Select Committee made it absolutely clear, as did the chief adjudicator, that the code of practice is often
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honoured more in the breach than in anything else. There are huge swaths of schools that ignore the code, certainly in practice, and I do not think that that should be allowed.
Mr. Miliband: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, if the code is being breachedhe says that this is happening across swaths of the countrythere is a system to enable the adjudicator to clamp down on it?
Mr. Willis: According to the evidence taken by the Select Committee, it is quite clear that that is not happening. In fact, whenever the Chairman or other members of the Committee challenged anyone on that issue, there was a feeling that people did not want to upset the apple cart, that the admission arrangements were working and that it would be unhelpful to challenge them. A statutory code of practice would deal with that issue because, by law, it would have to be observed.
The reason that the Secretary of State and the Minister are not keen on a statutory code of practice for admissions is that such a code would allow local authorities, in particular, to plan a universal service. It would enable them to deal with the expansion of school places, the closure of schools and the building of new schools and facilities. The Secretary of State and the Minister deliberately do not want local authorities to be involved in those matters. The reality of the new Education Bill is not only that it introduces the idea of more foundation schools that will be independent state-funded schools; it also virtually removes from local authorities any ability to plan or offer provision within their areas. Members ought seriously to challenge that, and I know that the hon. Member for Huddersfield and his Select Committee are going to look into the matter.
I want to be generous to the Minister and the Secretary of State in regard to the academy programme. I believe that they are absolutely sincere in wanting to provide educational opportunities to children living in some of our poorest communities. The first 17 academies were launched in some of the most deprived areas anywhere in the country, often replacing schools that, at best, had a disappointing record of educational achievement. That is important to say, and it is why I have been supportive of the party stance in areas such as Lambeth, Islington and Southwark, which have Lib Dem councils, and where we have been involved in supporting academies as part of an overall improvement in provision.
The Minister is right that the state of affairs that existed in many of our poorest areas, not only in London but throughout the country, could not continue. As the Home Secretary famously said, we cannot simply allow social deprivation to be an excuse for educational failure. For too long, that has been the case. What we have not recognised is that, sometimes, the hill that needs to be climbed is much higher in those areas, and therefore they need a great deal more support.
I do not attack academies simply for the sake of saying, "This is something new, and therefore we must not have it." But where is the evidence that spending a
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disproportionate amount of a precious resource on academies£1 billion on capital in the next three yearswill solve the problem without destabilising the remaining education provision in particular areas? The Minister must address that when he sums up.
We would argue that the right approach is to give all schools that are not in special measures, or not showing signs of weakness, the freedoms that academies and foundation schools will have. When the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, he and I proposed an amendment, on the Report stage of the Bill that became the Education Act 2002, which would have done exactly that. It would have given every school and local authority autonomy and freedoms to innovate without having to ask the Secretary of State. Now, unless the Secretary of State chooses such schools, they cannot have such powers. We have an army of brilliant head teachers and teachers, committed governors and committed communities who would like to do far more to improve their school but are physically prevented from doing so by a Secretary of State who says, "I will decide which schools are allowed to have those powers." That is incredibly sad.
I make this offer to the Minister: if he gives me £25 million, the ability to build a new school, select my students, expel those who are difficult, and impose my chosen ethos and curriculum regime, I will deliver results. I have delivered results in schools and in areas that, as he knows only too well, are incredibly deprived and depressed. Head teachers all over the country who watch this debate will be saying, "That is what I am doing. Why do I not get my share of those resources and the freedoms to be able to do things differently?"
Where is the evidence on which the Minister and the Secretary of State based the move to the academy programme? Did it come from the charter schools in the United States, as I suspect? If so, will he produce any evidence that demonstrates that that has improved educational attainment standards in public schools across the United States? There is no evidence of that. There is evidence that there are some brilliant charter schools. There is also evidence that there are some appalling examples of charter schools, which the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and I visited some five or six years ago, and in which I would have been ashamed to educate my children. If the Government's evidence for such a model did not come from charter schools, where is the model that suggests that the programme will be successful?
Will the Minister publish the PricewaterhouseCoopers 2003 report, and let us see it? Will he produce the 2004 report, which is now in his office? If he will not, will he tell us why we cannot see those reports? If what is happening in the academy movement is so exciting, let us see what PricewaterhouseCoopers is saying about it, and form some opinions.
How are sponsors chosen and vetted? I have seen no criteria in the plans that have been published so far to determine who is a good sponsor and who is not. Do we just ask "Are you a rich bloke with £2 million? If so, we will slot you into one of the academies", or is it more subtle than that? Will Chris Woodhead and his new organisation, Cognita, with its vast resources, now be
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regarded as a suitable sponsor for a group of academies? After all, the last Secretary of State reappointed him as chief inspector of schools.
Are Sunny Varkey and the Gems foundation being actively considered for a group of academies, as I understand that they are? If so, I think Members need to know that we are going down a very different route. It may well be possible to translate the Edison project or the Advantage project in the United States to England, but we should be think carefully first.
Creationists now seem to be perfectly reasonable people to run our schools, which I find staggering. I also find it staggering that the Minister should think that because the people of Doncaster rejected creationism as a theme for their school, we should think them outrageous. Who would not be considered acceptable as a sponsor? David Beckham? Ozzy Osbourne? Ozzy Osbourne would make an interesting sponsor of an academy somewhere, but it would be very tough on the Animal Liberation Front.
My main point, however, concerns the destabilising effect. The Government plan to have 50 academies by 2007, and 200 by 2010. Where have those figures come from? Why that number? How is it being decided where the academies will be? The original premise of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was that if schools achieved less than 25 per cent. A to C grades over three consecutive years, they would be considered for special treatment. I have no problem with that. I have no problem with identifying real challenges and what should be done about them. But if that is the criterion, it takes no account whatever of all the surrounding schools that may well have been working their backsides off to improve performance and move up. Will the planting of an academy destabilise that?
Then there is the important question of small sixth forms. The Government's new premise is that any 11-to-16 school that wants a sixth form will get one, irrespective of whether that is destabilising. Earlier this week we met a group who wanted to sponsor a host of academies, but said that there must be sixth forms. They want five-to-19 academies, much like the one that is to be set up in Islington.
The point about collaboration is crucial. Under the Government's five-year plan, which covers academies and foundation schools, schools will select students aged 11 and there will be a new wave of highly successful specialist foundation schools. What will happen to the Tomlinson proposals? How do the academies fit in with these proposals? What about the need for collaboration between institutions for 14 to 19-year olds? How do local authorities fit in with these proposals? Without a statutory code of practice for admissions, how can we ensure that such schools actually collaborate? Who will force the academies to join in and support those programmes?
At the end of his speech, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) raised the interesting issue of local authorities being blackmailed into agreeing to include an academy as part of the "Building Schools for the Future" programme. I asked the Secretary of State the simple parliamentary question whether one needs to have an academy as part of one's "Building Schools for the Future" programme. The
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Minister's written response was that he would write to me in due course. The "Building Schools for the Future" website states:
"DFES will expect local authorities to use the LEP model unless they can demonstrate a better value for money and more effective method of delivering the investment made possible by Building Schools for the Future".
Local authorities cannot satisfy that requirement without having an academy, because they cannot build schools themselves. The Minister has specifically told authorities in Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Islington and Southwark that unless they have an academy, they cannot have the money. That is neither right nor fair.
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