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The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): I am delighted that we are holding the debate, because it provides an excellent opportunity to bring to a wider audience not only the progress that is being made in English schools but some of the challenges for the future. It also gives me the chance to thank the Select Committee and its Chairman for their hard work on a huge range of policies. My hon. Friend the Member for
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Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was the first man to turn me down for a job, but I have not held that against him for too long. The work of his Committee, notably on key stage 3, teacher recruitment, assessment for learning and recently on specialist schools, has been invaluable.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said that the 93 per cent. of children in state schools and the quality of the education that they receive constitute the important issue. He knows that secondary education in this country is undergoing great change. There are 210,000 teachers in secondary education—20,000 more than there were seven years ago. They are backed by 80,000 support staff—almost double the number in 1997. They are all working together under the terms of the radical agreement on remodelling the school work force.

Nearly 2,000 secondary schools have a specialism. Funding in secondary schools is, on average, £1,000 per pupil per year higher than it was. Several hon. Members have referred to the "Building Schools for the Future" programme, which will mean that the capital spend in 2007–08 reaches £6.5 billion.

Although it has not been mentioned in the debate, it is important to note that more than 250,000 youngsters in the 11 to 19-year-old sector are on the modern apprenticeships programme. It did not get coverage today but it is important. Further education colleges serve hundreds of thousands of young people and we shall doubtless discuss them on other occasions. It is worth pointing out for the record that 13,000 pupils are now in pupil referral units throughout the country, not 4,000, as the press reported recently.

I hope that hon. Members accept that Ofsted recognises the improvements in standards that the test results show. Ofsted stated that leadership and management, which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned, is good or better in 82 per cent. of secondary schools—up from 56 per cent. in 1996–97. Ofsted also said that the quality of teaching was good or better in 78 per cent. of secondary schools—up from 59 per cent. in 1996–97.

We believe that results are improving because of the hard work of teachers and pupils. Standards are rising in an exam system that an independent report characterised last week as the best in the world. I hope that, in the summer, all politicians will take a vow of support for the young people who sit their exams rather than damning them.

Mr. Gibb: I take it that the independent report to which the Minister refers is not the 2003 programme for international student assessment—PISA—survey?

Mr. Miliband: The independent review group that Mike Tomlinson recommended in his review of A-levels in 2003 was led by the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which also publishes PISA. Perhaps that is the ground for the hon. Gentleman's confusion.

In the last part of our debate, I hope that we can dwell not on the story of improvement, which is significant, but on the fact that there are still some areas of the country where attainment is not as we would want it. Needless to say, I am proud that schools in the most
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challenging circumstances have increased their GCSE performance at a greater rate than the national average. I am proud that, for the first time, achievement in GCSE exams in London is higher than the national average. If we had promised that seven years ago, we would have been laughed out of court. However, significant challenges remain and, even with rising standards, we need to tackle them.

We can do that by replacing or federating the worst schools; devolving extra money through programmes such as excellence in cities to change the structure and culture in low-performing urban areas; increasing the number of specialist schools, which use their specialist expertise to create a centre of excellence as a lever for improvement in a school and an area; and getting the best schools to lead the rest with our aspiration of 600 leading schools helping four or five partners each by 2008. We should view the academies programme in that context, because academies are destined to play their biggest role in our disadvantaged areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) made an important speech that reflected her constituency experience of the Bristol academy. She asked whether academies were the only answer for low-performing schools. The answer to that is no. There remain 450 schools in which fewer than 30 per cent. of pupils get five A to C grades. That figure contrasts with almost 900 in 1997. Although reducing that figure has been a magnificent achievement, there are 450 schools too many where fewer than 30 per cent. of pupils get five A to C grades. An academy is not the single transferable answer to the challenges of all the schools, but it will be the answer for approximately half—up to 200—of them.

Academies operate on a simple set of values. Children with least parental support and least family history of educational success need the most radical educational intervention if they are to get the start in life that they deserve. The Government are determined not to let those children fall further behind. We all know the history of intervention in those schools—a new block, a new head, a new parents' centre, a new link with business: all those initiatives are, in and of themselves, worth while, but on their own, they do not get to the root of educational underperformance. They can do that only if they are all put in place together.

Many hon. Members have asked for the evidence for the need for the academies programme. It exists in this country and others, where ad hoc initiatives have not got to the root of underperformance, but where a cohesive approach that addresses issues of leadership, capital, governance, innovation and teaching quality at the same time does address those significant challenges.

It is important that we put it on record that academies are independent schools in the state sector funded by the Government. They are all-ability schools for local children. They have the flexibility to develop a broad curriculum built on, not instead of, the core subjects of the national curriculum. As I will demonstrate, they work as part of the family of local schools. They have a special relationship with sponsors drawn from the private and charitable sectors, some with extensive educational experience, including in existing state and private schools. They are built to meet the demands of teaching and learning in the 21st century, as all
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secondary schools will be under the "Building Schools for the Future" programme.

There are currently 17 open academies, and 36 further partnerships working to establish academies. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said that we had made a slow start, but I would describe it as careful and deliberate, to ensure that the academy programme is built on secure foundations. No one should expect instant results from the academies programme; not every academy will achieve instant success. However, the early test and exam results from the open academies are very encouraging—more so than I would have expected a year or two ago. Of the 12 academies operating at the start of this year, seven achieved increases in the percentage of children getting five A* to C grades at GCSE since 2002. At the Bexley business academy, one of the most notable successes, that rate has increased from about 4 per cent. three years ago to 36 per cent. in 2004. At the Capital city academy, the figure has doubled in the same period. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said that these figures are still too low, and of course he is right. I can assure him, however, that if he visits any of these academies, he will meet teachers and pupils who are determined to raise them further.

Paul Holmes: Will the Minister tell us how the success rate of the academies in their first two years of operation compares with that of a similar group of schools—fresh start schools, perhaps—over the past few years?

Mr. Miliband: I should be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the details, but the answer is that it is better. That is because we have taken a whole-school approach to improvement.

The academies are bringing pride to pupils and hope to communities. That is why parents want to send their children to them, and many are oversubscribed. In regard to further evaluation, I have no objection to publishing the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, although it has not arrived yet. I look forward to it. Last year's report was simply an exercise involving setting out what the reports were going to do in future years. The first report of substance on the academies programme is now due, and I have no objection to publishing it. This is a five-year research programme, and PWC itself says that the definitive results will come in five years' time.

As well as describing what academies are, we should also explain what they are not. There are stories being peddled about academies that are, frankly, a series of myths. When I listened to the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), I thought that they must be living in the world of "Alice in Wonderland", rather than the real world. It transpired that what they feared above all was not that the academies would fail but that they would succeed. All they could talk about was the danger that would arise if we had successful academies. Let us go through the myths that they peddled. They said that academies received more funding than other schools, but actually that is not true. In recurrent terms, they are funded at a comparable rate—

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