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12 Dec 2006 : Column 247WH—continued

People looked at the refurbishment plans and thought, “What we will do here, with just about the same money, is build a brand new school without the private finance initiative.” That was amazing in those days, because everything was PFI. They went ahead, and we went back to see the relevant Minister, who got back to me saying, “We have looked at your plan. We think that it is a great idea to have a new school in Blyth. We will let you build a brand new high school.” That school is the brand new Blyth community college, which was built at the cost of £14 million. We closed, and subsequently demolished, both the other schools, which was all right. There was a bit of a mix-up, and
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the school did not get off to a good start because the amalgamation meant that pupils were coming together from other schools. After five years, that situation is now settling down.

Blyth community college is now working on wheels, and its results have been fantastic. Its headmistress is excellent. I do not want to praise her too much, because if I did so, she might be head-hunted by some academy. She has got the results up near the top. They are as good as the rest in the area. I know that the college had a poor start, but it is motoring now.

The question we must now ask is why we got rid of the schools in the first place. The argument was that we did not have enough students to fill both of them. All of a sudden, five years hence, another argument has come up. The academy that people want to build is to be built on the Ridley high site, where a school has just been pulled down. It is 2 miles away from Blyth community college.

People raise the issue of the catchment areas. I was always told that academies had to be built in poorer areas. The academy’s catchment area is to be what we consider the wealthiest part of Blyth. Blyth community college has the poorest of the catchment area in Blyth; its area is so poor that the two wards that it covers were in the 10 most deprived in the country a few years ago. I do not know where they come now, because I have not looked, but we were getting extra money for them because they were so deprived.

We can see what is happening. Tynedale and the area served by the Blyth community college—the Cowpen area, which is the poorer area of town—will get the pupils that I referred to, and will split away from the affluent area of Blyth. I am talking about Blyth south and the old town of Blyth, not about Cramlington or Seaton Delaval. That area will get all the good pupils. Well done, Mr. Vardy; he knew exactly what he was doing.

The situation starts to worry me. If there were not enough students five years ago, why are there more students now? How can people get away with two schools? Cramlington is the same size as Blyth. It has a high school that is no different from the one in Blyth. Why are they not building the new school in Cramlington or in Seaton Delaval? Why are they building it in Blyth, 2 miles away from the other school? That is a question for the Minister, not for me—I cannot get that answer.

I spoke to the leader of the county council, who said, “You know Ronnie, it is a £25 million investment in Blyth.” It is nice to have a £25 million investment in Blyth, but to whose detriment? Is it to the detriment of the kids’ education? Will it result in the splitting up of education and a two-tier system? That is what it looks like from here. That is why I want to put things fairly and squarely on the record.

I am not worried about creationism. I know that Mr. Vardy and the Emmanuel Schools Foundation use the creation idea—God made the world—although he denies it, saying, “We don’t teach that.” I do not know exactly what they teach, but I have been told that they teach a bit of creationism in the other schools. I have never been to one of those schools.

I met the Prime Minister before the summer recess, and I had a few words with him. I told him what was
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happening. He asked me whether I had ever been to an academy. I told him that I had not, and that I did not need academies so I would not be going to one. That is it as far as I am concerned. I do not need an academy in Blyth, so I do not want one and I am not going to see one.

People who have visited academies have said that they are not bad. Therefore, I am not knocking academies or even their creationism. If anyone wants to believe fairy stories such as God made the world in six days, that is up to them. Kids always get told fairy stories at school, so that is just another fairy story.

A plan was put forward, and there was an argument about the sixth form. Let me take the Minister back. I think he knows that the education authority in Northumberland has had a bumpy ride because it is changing from a three-tier system to a two-tier—one of the few left in the country. I do not have a problem with that. I do not know where it is getting the money from to do it, but it is their problem.

I think that the money is behind this academy. The authority wants the academy because it does not have the money to do other things. The academy could take in children as young as four and take them right through to the sixth form. There might be a seventh and an eighth form if the school leaving age is increased—children might spend even longer there. I think that this is something to do with the money, and that is why the authority is trying to get the academy name. We must be careful not to create a two-tier system. I will keep banging the drum and telling the Minister that that is what I think is happening in Blyth.

Then there is the Whiteman plan. County Councillor John Whiteman came up with a plan. The Minister may have received a briefing from the Northumberland county council education department, but I bet that he has not been told of the Whiteman plan, although it is well known and documented. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy with me or I could have given it to him, but I can certainly send him one.

Tynedale middle school, which is on the site of Blyth community college, is going to be bulldozed, although it is a fairly new school. Under the Whiteman plan, the school would be kept and revamped. It would cost £5 million to revamp the school and to make it a sixth form attached to the college. That would be ideal because the middle school and the college would be on the same site. It was a great plan, but where would the £5 million come from? The answer is simple. Ridley high has just been pulled down, so the site could be sold for housing for at least £5 million or £6 million. That was the plan, and it could have worked. We could have sold the site for housing—but not the playing fields, which is fair enough—and the money could have been spent on revamping Tynedale, making a sixth form for the college and getting the other kids to the college. That would have been ideal for Blyth.

However, that is the easy way out, and the county council does not want to do it. It has a secret plan. I cannot fathom out what it is, but I have an idea. I think it is all to do with money and getting an academy built so that more schools do not have to be built. Academies take kids from the age of four and it is unnecessary to build more schools. Academies get £25 million, do they not? Vardy provides £2 million and
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gets £25 million back. I reckon that that is a good deal. I wish I could go to the betting shop and get that deal.

I want the Minister to take the Whiteman plan on board, because he knows nothing about it. Obviously, the county council briefed him when I obtained this debate, but it is dishonest and is not telling the truth. I am telling the truth today. There is a feeling among people in Blyth that they do not want an academy. They feel the same as me. They are wondering what is happening and why they are getting two high schools, or two academies, which is a better word. Why is that happening in Blyth and not in Cramlington or somewhere else? I do not know why Northumberland education authority thinks that Blyth needs two community high schools or two academies.

I know the Prime Minister’s argument. He says that he wants academies all over the place. He wants more than 200 of them, and to take the people who run schools away from the schools and put them on a board—like a board of directors—to run the schools. The truth is that that is a sure way of privatising schools. In a few years, God forbid, the Tories may be elected and, heavens alive, academies will be ripe for privatisation. The next thing we will know is that there will be a voucher system and those with money and a voucher will be able to buy a place in an academy, but a poor kid round the corner whose father may not have the best of jobs will not have the money to put with a voucher. We know the system. Schools are half-privatised now. The academies are run by Vardy and the rest of them. That is the beginning of privatisation, and a big, big worry.

I implore the Minister to look at the Whiteman plan. If he does not have a copy, I will get one for him and send it to him. I do not know whether he can stop the proposal or whether it is in the hands of the county council. The worst aspect is that the Labour group on the council decided by two or three votes to have an academy. The Labour group made its decision by only a few votes and then put it out for consultation. Why did it make a decision before consultation? That is appalling.

I remind the Minister that when the system changed from three to two tiers, Northumberland county council was hauled in front of the courts because of how it ran the consultation. The judge gave it a right walloping and it had to back off. I am afraid that the same may happen again, because in a democracy decisions are not made before consultation. If a decision has been made, why go to consultation? In all fairness, the proposal did not go to the full council. I know that the Liberal Democrats are not happy with it. The Tories will be happy because of the privatisation. They will be delighted to have an academy in Blyth. The big worry is why the council has made a decision before going out to consultation. The Minister should look at that.

I have been asked by several people for a ballot to end the argument once and for all. If we could have a ballot in Blyth on whether we need two high schools, the parents could decide. Is there no mechanism, apart from the Labour group making a decision and saying that Blyth will have an academy? I do not know whether there is a mechanism for a ballot. There will be local council elections for the districts in May and I do not know whether a ballot or referendum could be held
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then to ask people whether they want two community high schools in Blyth. That would be fair. I do not have a clue what the result would be, but there have been several public meetings and they have all been packed out. The recent ones were full to the door, so people are concerned. I understand that Vardy held a meeting a few weeks ago and that it was full. I heard that he explained and made a good presentation.

As I said at the outset, I would not have a problem if an academy was all that was on offer. I would accept that. But why would Blyth want an academy when it already has a state-of-the-art community college? Sometimes I wonder what is going on. Will Blyth, with its poor end and its affluent end, be split into two? Will it have a two-tier education system? I do not want to say what I really think, because I do not want to harm the other school, but I foresee bad things ahead for one school, and I am worried. That school has taken off now with a great headmistress and is working well. I am here today to put on the record the fact that I am totally opposed to an academy on those grounds. I do not believe we need it.

1.19 pm

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) on securing this debate. He is a strong advocate for his constituents’ interests and clearly wants to find a solution that will work for his community in Blyth. I welcome the opportunity to debate the issues with him so that I can give some facts about academies. I will then talk about the situation in his constituency and scotch some of the myths about Vardy academies specifically.

I want to ensure that when parents and stakeholders are thinking about whether an academy would benefit their community they have all the facts to hand. First, I shall set out the ideals of the academy programme and how it is already making a difference to some of our most deprived communities.

Despite the overall rise in standards over recent years in our schools, many pupils have not shared in that success. They are the pupils who would most benefit from an excellent education. They are pupils who live in areas blighted by disadvantage and poverty, and who attend schools with poor facilities and demoralised teachers. In such a situation, often only radical solutions work, and academies represent a fundamentally different education model. They are not private schools and they do not represent privatisation; they are state schools and they are independent of the council.

Mr. Campbell: The Minister is way off again, because he is talking about deprived areas for academies. The catchment area of the academy under discussion is not deprived. I have explained that.

Jim Knight: I shall return to that point, but Blyth overall meets the academies’ deprivation criteria. I understand what my hon. Friend says about the catchment area, but the sponsors and the local authority, the latter being the democratically
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accountable body—[Interruption.] Well, together they decide on the catchment area; the decision is not in my gift.

Academies are set up to address entrenched problems. We expect them all not to be an overnight success, but to make steady and sustained improvements in achievements. Some are already having a dramatic impact. Overall, the proportion of pupils gaining five or more A* to C grades in academies rose by six percentage points, compared with a national average rise of fewer than two percentage points. Those successes are repeated at key stage 3. In science, academies are improving their results at a rate of six times the national average. The impact of those improvements should not be underestimated in communities with a long-standing legacy of underachievement. The real test of that success has been the way parents have responded, flocking in droves to take up places in academies. That is why the Prime Minister last week announced a doubling of the number of academies—so that even more communities will share in the benefits.

I shall now focus on the situation in Blyth Valley. First, the proposals for an academy are dependenton the outcome of a separate consultation onschool reorganisation. As my hon. Friend said, Northumberland county council is consulting parents on a move to a two-tier system from a three-tier system. That consultation will close this week, and Northumberland will consider its model alongside other proposals before embarking on further consultation. The way forward will become much clearer in the new year, but if the decision was made to retain the three-tier model, the academy would not comply with that and it would not proceed.

The consultation on reorganisation is rightly a matter for Northumberland county council; I do not want to and cannot pre-empt the results. But I think it is important that opposition to reorganisation should not be confused with opposition to the academy. The academy has been proposed because if reorganisation takes place, there will be a basic need for more secondary school places in Blyth. The community college, as has been said, is doing a good job, and I understand the concerns that have been raised locally that the academy will take—

Mr. Campbell: If Blyth needs more secondary schools, as the Minister rightly says, and that is why we are going to have an academy, why is it not happening in Cramlington? The town is the same size, and it has the same type of pupils, so why are they not getting two high schools?

Jim Knight: That is something for the local authority to consider. It is responsible for school organisation matters; we respond to its interest in an academy, and in Blyth’s case, to its need for more sixth-form places.

The proposed academy would offer 1,150 new places, including a sixth form, and it would specialise in engineering and enterprise. Although funding for school buildings will be available to Northumberland county council through the Building Schools for the Future programme, that is for the long term. It has been put to us that the need in Blyth is more immediate, which is why an academy has been
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suggested. It would accelerate the capital investment, and given the results in other academies, the local authority is positive about the potential of an academy to deliver real change. I am aware of the concerns about the possible effect on the community college, but it is clear that more places are needed and that another school must be created. I should hope that, rather than presenting a threat to the community college, the academy would claw back pupils who have traditionally moved outside the area, including the 30 per cent. who transfer on to the sixth form. I should also hope that it would be part of the answer to the question of how to increase staying-on rates in the area, which we all agree need to improve. We should expect to see the new academy working together with the existing school for the benefit of the whole community. I hope to explore that idea generally through the academies programme.

Turning to the specifics of the proposal, I want to offer my hon. Friend some reassurances about the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, run by Sir Peter Vardy. The foundation has a successful track record of delivering academies on time and to budget, and of bringing about real improvements in standards once they are established. For example, the recent Ofsted report on the King’s academy found that it was

One of the foundation’s schools is the strongest school in the north-east. Although the proposal for Blyth would create a school with a distinctly Christian ethos, it would not select on the basis of adherence to the faith—it is not allowed to—nor would it select on any other criteria. Far from the tabloid perceptions, a Christian ethos does not mean Christian indoctrination.

The curriculum followed in the foundation’s academies is completely consistent with the national curriculum, and to meet those requirements, all teachers have to teach scientific theories in science. Neither intelligent design nor creationism, as I have made clear in recent days, is a recognised scientific theory, and they should not be taught in the science curriculum. Rather, we require that the theory of evolution is studied as part of the pupils’ scientific education, and Ofsted has confirmed that it has no
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concerns with how science is taught either at Emmanuel college or at the King’s academy.

Although the Biblical version of creation is taught in religious education, it is taught alongside other views of how the world came to be. Students are taught to consider opposing theories and to draw their own conclusions in a spirit of rational inquiry. [Interruption.]And they do not walk around with Bibles; Bibles are available to inform religious education. I hope that clears up some of the more outlandish claims about the Emmanuel Schools Foundation.

My hon. Friend asked me about the Whiteman plan, and he is right: I am not aware of it. I might want to discuss other points with him, and when I visited Northumberland recently, I promised that I would return to look at some of the schools in the county. I would be delighted if, as part of that visit to his region, we could have further discussions and my hon. Friend would join me in visiting an academy. He has said that he is not interested in visiting academies because he does not need them, but I would be interested to visit one of the Vardy academies with him as part of an overall discussion about the future for Blyth.

To conclude, if the result of the consultation were a move to a two-tier model, an academy in Blyth would offer a practical and immediate solution to the problems faced by the community. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to support local parents to ensure that they have a strong voice in the debate, and I hope that he will work with the project team and the local authority to come up with a solution that meets their needs.

Mr. Campbell: Will parents be balloted?

Jim Knight: The only ballot mechanism of which I am aware in such circumstances is the parish poll, if the local parish authority wants to organise one. A ballot is not part of the process of setting up an academy. Some enterprising Members of Parliament poll their constituents and use the results for whatever purposes they see fit. Naturally, that is open to my hon. Friend, too. I hope that we can work together and reach a consensus, because the results of the 15 parent consultation meetings so far have shown huge support for the academy proposal.

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