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That took Colchester garrison by surprise. The Deputy Commander said that nobody had discussed it with him. Will the Minister comment on whether his Department has had discussions with the Ministry of Defence about the MOD’s sponsoring an academy in Colchester?

On 26 June, the Gazette reported

Has the Minister seen the plans that the Gazette says were leaked to it? Is he satisfied that he has been given the full pack of cards? There appears to have been some dodgy dealing on the part of the Essex education authority

Colchester is a growing town. Huge new developments are taking place, with several thousand more homes to come in the north, in the central areas, in the former port area in the east, and in the west of the town. Of major significance are at least 2,500 planned new dwellings on land whose nearest local secondary schools are Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley. The education authority’s projection, which shows a reduction of 500 secondary school places in south Colchester, is ridiculous.

Whatever “here today, gone tomorrow” Chelmsford-based officials and Tory county councillors are saying, the reality is that the closure of Alderman Blaxill school would be short-termism at its worst. I therefore urge the Minister to get to grips with the county hall wreckers and give Alderman Blaxill school the support and continued future that it deserves, and which the local community looks to the Government to deliver.

10.12 am

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this timely and important short debate. I understand that I may speak for only a few moments in order to give the Minister enough time in which to reply.

The hon. Member for Colchester should not be surprised that the Tory authority in Essex is keen to implement a Tory policy—that of closing down proper community schools and introducing privately run, privately sponsored, privately managed academies. Unfortunately, however, that is not being done only by Tory authorities: the hon. Gentleman’s own colleagues in the north of England
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have been pushed into the position of accepting an academy as part of its Building Schools for the Future programme, and as a condition of being able to look after its other secondary schools. The same has happened in Labour authorities, including mine. If I may say so—and this is totally separate from anything that happened in Essex—the Labour-controlled Wolverhampton authority and its education policies are beyond criticism, but none the less—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but an Adjournment debate, by its very nature, is narrow, and we are discussing Alderman Blaxill secondary school. I am not so good on the geography of England, but I think that Wolverhampton is some distance from Colchester.

Mr. Purchase: As ever, I am grateful for your superb guidance, Mr. Speaker, and I will stick to that very narrow point by making precise comparisons.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned church schools, which are bedevilling—forgive the pun, which was not intended—education in his constituency. The reason given for establishing academies there is that they will provide more parental choice. My constituency has three private schools, a girls grammar school, four Church schools, two foundation schools, a city technology college, Walsall academy, St. Thomas More Catholic school and a raft of specialist schools. In fact, the situation has become impossible for a liberal-minded parent who wants a school for their child that is non-selective, non-sectarian and non-fee-paying. This is how, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, like mine, the choice agenda has resulted not in a wide liberal choice for progressives, but in a narrowing of opportunities, which are restricted basically to those of a regressive understanding of education.

I shall pick up on a point that concerns our constituencies that has been made by the Public Accounts Committee. It has found that the academy movement is overspending both in capital and start-up, that it does not provide best value, that the sponsors are taking contracts from their schools and that there is a high exclusion rate. I think that you are perhaps getting ready to get to your feet again because my comments are not narrow enough, Mr. Speaker, but I am trying my best to reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point. A Tory policy is being implemented by bully-boy tactics, and it is not, in most cases, in the best educational interests of the young students of this country. I am happy to support the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debate.

10.16 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this debate. He has raised the situation with me a number of times through parliamentary questions, and I welcome the opportunity to debate the issues, even though we may not see completely eye to eye. I am sure that Essex county council will take note of his many comments about it, through reading either Hansard or the faithful reporting of this debate in the Colchester Gazette.

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The background to this debate is the importance of standards in schools, and the circumstances in which robust intervention, particularly secondary special measures, can become necessary. I want briefly to give some national figures to put the Colchester case into perspective. The hon. Gentleman asked whether Essex county council itself should be put in special measures. He will be disappointed to hear that I am advised that, generally, Essex is assessed as being strong on children’s services. Its main weakness is in secondary provision and I shall make some comments about that, but children’s services as a whole are in reasonable shape, according to the inspectors of Essex county council—not that it is my job to be its advocate.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of acknowledging the particular problems faced by schools that serve a large number of children from service families. That is one of the reasons why I took measures to ensure that the pupil count—the school census—takes account of and records the children of service families. I made that promise to the Select Committee on Defence when it examined that subject.

On 1 September, 42 secondary schools were in special measures in this country, six of which were in Essex and, as the hon. Gentleman said, no fewer than three were in Colchester: Sir Charles Lucas, Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools. Thomas Lord Audley school has now come out of special measures, but it is still under a notice to improve. That means it is still providing an inadequate education for its pupils but Ofsted considers that its leadership has demonstrated the capacity to improve further. I wish it every success.

Nevertheless, a serious situation undoubtedly remains in these Colchester schools. In 2005, only 38 per cent. of pupils at Alderman Blaxill were achieving five or more grades A* to C GCSEs, which is well below the national and county average of 56 per cent. That should have sent a warning signal both to the local authority and to the school’s governors, but rather than improvement, there has been a fall in attainment since. Figures for 2006 show only 34 per cent. achieving their five GCSE passes. Provisional figures for this year are even worse at 24 per cent. If we look at the same figures including English and maths—the basics that are essential if children are to prosper in the future—they fell from 16 per cent. to 14 per cent. between 2005 and 2006. At the same time, Thomas Lord Audley’s figures were 26 per cent. in 2005 and 38 per cent. in 2006, and 20 per cent. and 28 per cent. including English and maths, showing an improvement.

Sad to say, the provisional 2007 results, this time including English and maths, show Alderman Blaxill school with 17 per cent., Thomas Lord Audley school 27 per cent. and Sir Charles Lucas school 26 per cent. In those three Colchester schools, only around one quarter of young people, sometimes less, are leaving with the qualifications they need. So none of us should be satisfied with that. It is clear that pupils in schools like Alderman Blaxill and other local schools have not shared in the school improvements and rising standards of recent years.

Alderman Blaxill is in a very serious position. The Ofsted report from May this year highlighted the rapid staff turnover, unsatisfactory teaching and learning,
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inadequate leadership and management, insufficient challenge from the governors, falling rolls and increasing deficit. I should like to quote what the Ofsted inspectors said about some of those points:

On achievement and standards, for which the school received the lowest category, the report said:

I could go on at length. On leadership and management, which also received a grade 4, the report said:

Let me now address the concerns of the hon. Member for Colchester about the replacement of the governing body at Alderman Blaxhill. The report also identified serious weaknesses in the way in which the governing body was operating:

Similarly, when analysing leadership and management in the school, inspectors found that:

There was also a deterioration in the relationship between the local authority and the governors—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that—which resulted in a delay to the submission of the statement of action following the special measures designation. For those reasons, together with the poor performance I noted earlier, the local authority has taken the step of seeking the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to replace the governing body with an interim executive board, as the hon. Gentleman said. This is an important step towards immediate improvement, though clearly much work needs to be done locally to drive longer term change.

Local authorities are becoming increasingly aware of the benefit of interim executive boards as they invariably drive forward the necessary changes for schools to recover from special measures. An IEB is usually a small focused group with typically between three and six members, appointed for the full period that it is expected to take to turn the school around. It takes on all the responsibilities of a governing body, including the management of the budget, the curriculum, staffing, pay and performance management, and the appointment of the head teacher and deputy head teacher. The IEB’s main functions are to secure a sound basis for future
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improvement in the school and promote high standards of educational achievement. Members will often have experience of turning round other schools in difficulties or be members of a local authority school improvement service. The members of this IEB have more experience than the former governing body. The chair is Martin North, a consultant head from Havering, and he will be joined by a national strategies expert— [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) says it is a mockery—

Mr. Purchase rose—

Jim Knight: I shall not give way to my hon. Friend. He did not have the courtesy to inform me that he intended to speak in the debate, which is the custom of the House, so I shall not offer him the courtesy of allowing him to speak further.

My Department is working with the local authority urgently to consider plans for improvement at all those schools as well as for the overall future strategy, which is an obligation for us, the local authority and everyone involved in the Colchester community, because the children of that community deserve better. Despite the comments of the hon. Member for Colchester, I believe replacement of the governing body was fully justified. Moreover, to preserve some continuity, the chair of the governors has been invited to sit on the board, although not as chair.

The position is difficult, but academies are one model that can help to turn the situation around. They represent a fundamentally different education model, with greater independence and greater involvement of local partners, helping to involve the whole community in a transformation of the school. Academies are set up to address entrenched problems in areas such as Colchester. We do not expect all of them to be an overnight success, but to make steady and sustained improvements in achievement.

I am not in a position to talk about the sponsor; those discussions are at an early stage. However, the local authority will have a place on the governing body, which would have to abide by the admissions code—that would be written into the funding agreement—so the questions the hon. Gentleman raises about admissions do not follow.

Some academies are already having a dramatic impact; for example, last year the number of children in academies with five GCSEs at grades A* to C improved by 6 per cent. compared to 2 per cent. nationally. The impact of those improvements should not be underestimated in communities with long-standing legacies of underachievement. The real test of that success has been the way in which parents have responded, flocking to take up places in academies.

Academies are proving to be an effective and popular solution in communities such as Colchester, which is why the option is being explored by the local authority. What is clear is that there can be no tolerance of the status quo in this place; as I said, the pupils and their families deserve better. The popularity of academies contrasts with the current situation at Alderman Blaxill. I realise that the hon. Member for Colchester said that the school is massively popular with the community and much loved, and he referred
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to the signatures on the petition. However, there are only 70 pupils in year 7 and only 16 first preferences for admission next year, with one week to go.

Bob Russell: I am surprised there are even 16.

Jim Knight: What does that suggest about parents voting with their feet.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, school organisation is a matter for Essex county council. Decisions about closure and merger are ultimately for the council to make and he needs to continue his robust exchanges with the county council, campaigning, as he does so assiduously, for his constituents and their interests as he sees them.

Bob Russell: I recognise the problems the Minister describes, which I would lay at the door of the local education authority that has allowed the situation to occur. What would happen if the consultation showed that the people of Monkwick and Shrub End wanted the £27 million to be invested in their two community schools rather than in a new academy? Will the Government allow them to have that capital for their schools?

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Jim Knight: The capital investment to which the hon. Gentleman refers will come about only on the basis of something that is proven in turning around results. Investing in academies is not about investing in buildings; it is about investing in improved leadership, focus and an ethos that turns around standards. That is the consistent record of the 83 existing academies.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 2,500 new homes. That, too, is an issue that Essex county council has to address, but we will work with the council on serious interventions to improve things.

In conclusion, I invite the hon. Gentleman to rethink. He is well known as a champion for Colchester and he is impatient about the lack of standards, so I hope that he will want to work with us to ensure that the academy proposed by Essex to address the poor standards at Alderman Blaxill is a success. I am sure that is what his constituents want him to do. In the end, we can all agree that the standards in those Colchester schools are not good enough for his constituents. We should all work together to resolve the problems.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o’clock.

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