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6 Jun 2006 : Column 44WH—continued

Again, are we falling into the trap of political dogma?

To conclude, there is little concrete evidence that self-governing independent status for state schools drives up standards, and driving up standards is the one thing to which we are all absolutely committed. The Minister could mention other examples, but in the case of academies, there is extra funding and various other things. As we know, academies have a mixed record, so independence in itself does not deliver— [Interruption.] The Minister is welcome to intervene.

Jim Knight: I will speak in time.

Greg Mulholland: The facts speak for themselves.

On a consensual note, we all agree that what drives up standards and improves schools is good local leadership, good management and, of course, good teaching. There has been too much focus on structures instead of standards, and on political dogma. One thing that I learned from my interesting chats with the Independent Schools Bursars Association is that we can learn from real, independent schools in the state sector. That is what we should concentrate on, rather than status and structures. We can learn about flexible learning, having a broader curriculum to suit individual pupils and—my big bugbear—smaller class sizes, which my wife, who is a primary school teacher, tells me would make the biggest difference to children’s education overall.

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This has been an interesting and valuable debate, and I am pleased to have contributed to it. Now that the dust has settled and we have debated the Education and Inspections Bill, whatever the type or name of school, let us focus most on standards, particularly those in schools in which children are being failed, who most need the intervention of the education system. I am certain we can agree that we should concentrate on that.

12.11 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), and I agree that we must not concentrate too much on structures. There is a range of issues that we need to address to raise standards, which we should now focus on in our debates.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) on securing the debate. He made an interesting and thoughtful speech, but we have come to expect that during his first year as a Member of the House.

The desire to increase independence for state schools is shared in all parts of the House, or at least on the Government and official Opposition Benches. That commitment was demonstrated by the overwhelming support that the Education and Inspections Bill received on Second and Third Readings. We supported the Bill because it makes it easier for schools to adopt foundation status and become trust schools. That reflects the increasing body of evidence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) mentioned, from Sweden and the United States, and indeed from this country’s grant-maintained schools programme, that increasing diversity, independence and choice has powerful effects in raising school standards.

The Prime Minister is committed to independence. He recently said:

A key part of the Prime Minister’s solution to this problem lies in granting schools additional freedoms. In October, he said:

That commitment to giving greater autonomy was a dominant feature of the recent education White Paper, in which the Prime Minister said:


Independence and innovation can play a vital role in raising the quality of education. That is why, in 2004-05, only 38 per cent. of pupils at community schools achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, but in city technology colleges, which have independence, 66 per cent. of pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths. A quarter of pupils at community schools leave with no GCSEs at all, but in the CTC sector that figure is only 3.6 per cent.

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Thomas Telford school, which I mentioned on many occasions during our debates on the Education and Inspections Bill, has a national ability range or intake, and 11 per cent. of pupils take free school meals, but 100 per cent. of pupils achieved not five or more, but 12 or more, good GCSEs or equivalent.

Of course, the results for academies seem slightly less promising, although, in an excellent speech, the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out that her academy is achieving results of about 51 per cent. of pupils getting five or more GCSEs, which is a 19 per cent. increase on last year. Those are promising results. It would be interesting to visit that school at some point.

Many academies still achieve quite poor results, but if we compare them to those of their predecessor schools, there are still clear signs of improvement. Results show that by 2005 the proportion of students gaining five or more good GCSEs had risen from 21 per cent. in the predecessor schools to 36.4 per cent. in the academies. There is an interesting comment in the PricewaterhouseCoopers report:

Some academies have failed principally because they appointed the wrong head teachers to run them. At Unity City academy in Middlesbrough, only 12 of the 200 pupils taking GCSEs achieved grade C in maths and English compared with 17 pupils at the two predecessor schools. An article in The Sunday Times in March said:

That reflects many of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made about some of the vogue methods of teaching that take place in some schools. The article continued:

Since then, the Unity academy has been identified as a failing school by Ofsted, with debts of £1.5 million. Of course, the head teacher was got rid of, and the school is showing signs of improvement. In that case and in other examples, the governing bodies and proprietors of schools took decisive and swift action, replacing the heads and ensuring that standards were safeguarded.

I want to raise two quick points with the Minister, the first of which concerns the importance of provisions on freedoms, which are already on the statute book. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West made the point that a lot of the freedoms for the new trust schools are illusory and that the real freedoms are in previous legislation, such as, to quote the Secretary of State, the

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available under chapter 1 of part 1 of the Education Act 2002. Only a tiny number of schools have taken advantage of that freedom because of the tortuous route to acquiring it. In fact, only 178 out of 26,000 have made use of it.

It is also disappointing that the Government have not yet implemented chapter 2 of part 1 of the 2002 Act on earned autonomy. That was a major element of the previous education White Paper, which said:

It went on:

Those reforms were central to the 2002 Act.

The then Secretary of State, now Lady Morris, said:

Despite her words, those provisions have not yet been implemented. The Department for Education and Skills website said that a consultation document on earned autonomy was due to be published on 30 September 2002, but that that did not take place due to “operational pressures”. The issue has become a saga that has run for over four years.

I recently asked the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), what was happening with the new provisions and when they were going to be brought into force, to which she replied:

As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, giving schools more autonomy and freedom over their day-to-day running is not the whole story when it comes to raising standards. Issues such as the curriculum, discipline in schools and ending mixed ability teaching in comprehensives are all hugely important. However, when the right head teacher is appointed, autonomy has a major effect in raising standards.

Conservative Members hope that many schools will use the provisions in the latest education Bill to become trust schools in the years ahead. If the Government are committed to autonomy, it would be helpful if they implemented the earned autonomy provisions in the 2002 Act and made it easier for schools to use the other elements of freedom that are contained in it.

12.20 pm

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I thank the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) for securing the debate and congratulate him on doing so. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) described it as a think-piece debate, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. At times, it felt like listening to a Conservative party policy forum, but the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) provided excellent balance to that. There were also significant and interesting contributions from Liberal Democrats Members.

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Both the hon. Member for Harwich and I recognise that increasing independence for state schools is essential if we are to deliver the best education possible for all our children and young people. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East, I caution that he advocates a much more extreme version from his avowed position of the centre right. I do not feel able to support it, certainly not in its entirety.

As my hon. Friend said, the recent Education and Inspections Bill has enshrined the principle of greater independence for state schools—Parliament willing—in law. That has not just come out of the blue. It is the natural next step in the journey that this Government have taken to raise standards since 1997. It is worth reflecting for a moment on that journey to see how far we have come.

We have invested record sums in education because it is such a key priority. By 2008, spending per pupil will be twice what it was in 1997. Capital spending has risen sevenfold, so that by 2020 all secondary schools, and half of all primary schools, will be refurbished or rebuilt and will be fantastic places to teach and learn.

We are backing up that investment with reform. We have freed up teachers to teach, and delivered on our promise to achieve the smaller class sizes that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) mentioned.

We are continuing to address behavioural and disciplinary problems, which have caused disruption and mayhem in our most difficult classrooms. The “Every Child Matters” programme is tackling problems outside the classroom that impact on children’s ability to flourish and progress, helping to ensure that they are ready and able to learn once they are at school.

Far from there being a quango state, which the hon. Member for Harwich alleged, since we introduced the fair funding framework in 1999 the percentage of funding delegated to schools has increased from 79 to 87 per cent. We are making good movement in the right direction on delegating funding directly to schools, and that approach is paying off.

Last year, there were record results across the board at 11, 14, 16 and 18. In 1997, just 65 per cent. of 11-year-olds reached the basic standards in English, whereas today the figure is 79 per cent. That means 84,000 more children every year going on to secondary school ready and able to learn. Speeches that, admittedly, tried not to be too partisan still started from the premise that everything in our schools is a disaster and is failing. I do not accept that.

The improvements that I mentioned are dramatic, but, importantly, we are well aware that we have not delivered for everyone: only 30 per cent. of children receiving free school meals get five good GCSEs and, as we have heard, one in 10 of those children do not achieve any qualifications at all.

I must tell the hon. Member for Gainsborough that we believe that it is unacceptable for 1 million children to be in failing or coasting schools, although I would advise caution over the use of that statistic, given that about 60,000 pupils in secondary schools and 30,000 in primary schools are in failing schools. Hearing that statistic, it would be easy to think that 1 million are in
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failing schools whereas the real figure is fewer than 100,000, which is roughly what it was in 1997.

Every child really does matter, and we believe that every child should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential through the best education possible. That is why I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East and why I share her concern for her constituents, some of whom are being failed by the education they are receiving. That is also why the Education and Inspections Bill sets out a number of ways in which we will achieve that goal of fulfilling potential. Greater independence for schools is an important part of that package, because greater independence for state schools is not only the next logical step. We already know that it works.

Independent schools have a number of distinctive features that help to deliver an education that meets the needs of their pupils. The best independent schools are highly accountable to parents and responsive to their wishes, and they develop innovative teaching practices and a positive ethos. They are supported by active and effective governors, and we know that in many cases they deliver excellent results. Equally, we reject the worst of independent schools—fee paying. We abolished the assisted places scheme in 1997 and are proud that we did so. Obviously, we also reject selection, which is a feature of many private independent schools.

Schools that have greater independence within the maintained sector are achieving great results. We heard about the excellent progress being made at the city academy in Bristol, and I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats there are actively supporting the creation of new academies. I hope they are also keen to pilot some of the first trust schools.

On average, academies have improved their collective GCSE results by five percentage points per year since the first schools opened, and that success can be directly attributed to their greater independence. That freedom and independence allow academies to develop the innovative approaches to the curriculum, teaching and performance management that deliver the results. Academies are challenging the culture of underachievement in our most deprived areas and they are succeeding.

Specialist schools also have increased freedoms and are demonstrating that greater freedom works. They are doing so on a much grander scale. Some 80 per cent. of all schools have achieved specialist status. In specialist schools, almost 60 per cent. of children achieve the diploma standard that we discussed in the 14 to 19 White Paper—five good GSCE passes—compared with less than 50 per cent. in non-specialist schools.

High-performing specialist schools are taking on a vital role in driving improvement across the system. Some are taking on a second specialism, some are focusing on underperforming pupils and some are taking on training school status, but all are working in partnership with other schools to raise achievement among local young people in their communities.

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