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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1195

In Hull, another area of educational weakness where more than half the schools fail to reach the acceptable level of 30 per cent. good GCSE grades, another academy sponsor was prevented from establishing a new school by Labour local bureaucracy. These local authorities are emboldened by the Secretary of State’s words to resist new entrants and competition. They could make it easier for new suppliers to give brilliant schooling to the disadvantaged, but the Secretary of State’s words, and his party, have made that harder.

Mr. Chaytor: I am looking carefully at the Opposition’s motion, and I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman thinks that only academies should have the freedom to innovate in the national curriculum. Why should not local authority schools, and all other schools, have that freedom?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making a constructive intervention. We want more freedom for schools. This week, we have been talking about greater freedoms. The key point is that, by applying competitive pressure outside local authority control, academies in Hackney have succeeded in driving up standards. That is what we want to see elsewhere, but there has been no evidence that the Secretary of State has grasped that agenda or that he has made the case for it in the way that his predecessors or the previous Prime Minister did.

Mr. Laws: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: Not at this stage.

To follow on from the intervention by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), the people who designed the academy programme knew that the whole point was that they should operate at a distance from local authorities in order to provide a competitive spur. Dan Corry, the former special adviser at the then Department for Education and Skills, has told us—

Mr. Chaytor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: Not at this stage. I think that this evidence will interest the hon. Gentleman. Dan Corry, who used to advise his near neighbour, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), said:

Lord Adonis might subsequently have been—

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: Not yet. I was talking about Lord Adonis, and I know why the Secretary of State wants to intervene at this point.

Lord Adonis might subsequently have been taken to the Admiral Lord West memorial cell in the Downing street Lubyanka and forced to recant under pressure. He might even now be wandering the corridors of the upper House saying, “I love big Gordon”, but he cannot run away from the record, even though the Secretary of State is now distancing himself from reform. Would the Secretary of State care to make his intervention now?

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Ed Balls: If possible, let me inject rather more substance into the debate. Yesterday morning, the hon. Gentleman told the “Today” programme that academies would be exempt from the national curriculum: he then went on Channel 4 news at lunchtime and said:

Can he explain the contradiction between those two statements?

Michael Gove: Yes, as there is absolutely no contradiction. As the Secretary of State should know, there is a difference between the national curriculum that binds states schools and the curriculum requirements that independent schools have to follow. Under our proposals, academies would have the freedom that independent schools have.

Ed Balls rose—

Michael Gove: I think that I have answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question— [Interruption.] Oh, very well, I am delighted to give way again.

Ed Balls: Can he tell us the curriculum requirements for science that apply to independent state schools?

Michael Gove: The curriculum requirements of independent state schools and academies have been made more restrictive by the Secretary of State, as he knows.

Ed Balls rose—

Tony Baldry rose—

Michael Gove: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

Tony Baldry: Is it not all about competence? How can our constituents have any confidence in the Government’s ability to deliver the educational change that the country needs when they cannot even deliver a letter?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point: he is absolutely right. One of the core aspects of competence is unity in government, but there is a clear division between the Secretary of State’s position and that of Lord Adonis, as recorded by the Secretary of State’s special adviser and academy sponsors. Let us listen to what those who are actually delivering change say. Jennifer Moses of ARK, an academy sponsor, says:

She agrees with the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and with me, but not with the Secretary of State. And who has been most delighted at the retreat? It is those in the union movement, who never wanted academies to have freedom in the first place. Steve Sinnott of the National Union of Teachers says:

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So there we have the Secretary of State—praised by the producer interests; disappointing the providers of academies; siding with the existing establishment; making life more difficult for those who want to help the most disadvantaged; U-turning from the position once held by his Government and still held by his junior Minister; and retreating from reform.

Ed Balls: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for diverting him from his text, but on the particular issue of the curriculum of independent schools, I have before me the regulations that apply to independent schools. They say that schools should draw up

which would give pupils experience in

All they have to do is draw up a curriculum, but the hon. Gentleman suggested on “Channel 4 News” that the curriculum would stop the teaching of creationism in schools, so he must have been talking about the national curriculum. It is the national curriculum that will stop the teaching of creationism, not the independent curriculum rules. If he is saying that the rules will apply to all schools, why will they not apply to academies?

Michael Gove: I was looking forward to the Secretary of State’s intervention and hoped that it might be illuminating, but he is going down a curious alley—and a blind one at that. The Secretary of State and I both agree that the teaching of creationism should not be part of science teaching, and we also agree that there is a distinction between the national curriculum as it applies to state schools and the curriculum that applies to independent schools. We want to give academies the same freedom that independent schools have—one of those clear dividing lines of which the Secretary of State is fond. If the Secretary of State wanted to argue for restricting academy freedom, we would be interested; if he wanted to argue for extending academy freedom, we would be delighted; if he wanted to argue in favour of creationism, I would be fascinated; and if he wanted to join us in saying that religious fundamentalism should play no part in the school curriculum, I would be overjoyed. However, the Secretary of State is attempting to make a distinction without a difference.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight) rose—

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Michael Gove: I am keen to make progress by listing another aspect of Government retreat.

I want to refer to another bureaucratic change, apparently small in scale, which provides telling evidence of what is happening at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The Department’s decision to place the academies programme within the ambit of the building schools for the future programme has meant that all new academies are now managed by the partnership for schools quango. Thanks to this Government’s change, the construction of all new academies and the building of extensions to existing academies are managed by a centralised bureaucracy.

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Far from academies introducing welcome diversity, every new academy has its design, building, layout and even its project management dictated from the centre. Academy sponsors are not allowed to specify any aspect of design or choose the project managers for construction. They are not even allowed to meet the project managers and are permitted only the most limited role during construction. They put up the cash, bear the risk and want to help, but are treated like conscripts.

That policy is already having malign and perverse effects. Among the many virtues of Mossbourne academy in Hackney, which I visited yesterday with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, is the fact that it is a Richard Rogers partnership building— an exceptionally handsome architectural landmark. Mossbourne wants to expand: it has been so successful that it needs to establish a sixth form and build an extension. However, it cannot ask the Richard Rogers partnership to build the extension because it is not on the building schools for the future programme approved list, so it is denied the chance to get the same visionary architect to construct a visionary addition to a visionary building because of the Department’s blinkered bureaucracy.

Can you imagine, Mr. Speaker, if, when they were building St. Paul’s, Christopher Wren had been told by the “building cathedrals for the future” bureaucrat that he could not do that dome after all, because he was not on the Department’s list of state-approved builders? Of course, Sir Christopher Wren placed his own inscription there: “if you require my monument, look around you”. If people look at academies in the future and see that something visionary has been obscured and messed up by something wholly inappropriate and bureaucratically foolish stuck on later, perhaps they will say that if we want a monument to Ed Balls, there it is!

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Surely the hon. Gentleman understands perfectly well that in the future people will look around them and see hundreds and hundreds of brand-new schools built by a Labour Government, which had previously been left to rot for generations by the Tories— [Interruption.] Fourteen Etonians!

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that vigorous intervention—and also for drawing attention to the lack of Etonians on the Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman is an old friend of mine and a man of prodigious talent. It is a great pity that someone of his formidable intellect is putting it at the service of class war. He will, I know, receive his reward from the Government in due course, but he does not need to assert his prolier-than-thou credentials in order to win his place on the Front Bench.

Mr. Chaytor: Let us return to the question of academies. Will the hon. Gentleman remind us how many of them are currently in operation? How many years have they been in operation and what miraculous assumption leads him to believe that we have the evidence to justify the massive expansion of academies that he suggests?

Michael Gove: The success of academies, which are overwhelmingly popular with parents in their communities, in driving up standards and in transforming the educational environment in areas such as Hackney, seems to me—and
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perhaps to the Secretary of State, given some of his comments—to provide arguments for their continuation. I am interested in hearing more from the Secretary of State about what he thinks of academies. We all know that I support them. What we are worried about is whether the Secretary of State supports them in name only and whether he has the intellectual courage to make the case for choice and contestability.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): My hon. Friend has a prodigious memory, and he might like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to the fact that academies developed from an earlier prototype of city technology colleges, which were pioneered by the previous Conservative Government.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. It was indeed city technology colleges that acted as a template for the academy programme. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bury, North, who, like me, believes in social justice, would be interested to know that city technology colleges, which have a comprehensive intake, actually have better GCSE results than independent schools—a point that we are proud of and that I hope the Secretary of State will embrace in his speech.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I hope that the Secretary of State takes this opportunity to repent. It would not quite be a deathbed conversion—he is not quite there yet—but it might help him recover from the difficult position that he is in. He has grave difficulties convincing anyone that he is a real reformer. As I have mentioned, only this week we heard on the BBC how the Secretary of State has been an enemy of reform, for years inciting rebellion against former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s education reforms. Last week, I referred to the right hon. Gentleman as the Kim Philby of this Government, outwardly a member of the establishment while all the time secretly working for the Stalinists. I am afraid, however, that my Soviet history was awry. I now realise that he was actually more like one of those grey men from the Kremlin who led the plot against Gorbachev. He launched an abortive coup against a halfway sincere reformist only to end up making himself and his cronies look foolish, and leaving the country desperate for real change at the top.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way, but may I get him off the personal attacks and on to the substance of the debate? For competition and choice to work, there must be surplus places, otherwise that is rationing. How many surplus places would a Conservative Government be prepared to pay for?

Michael Gove: Lord Adonis yesterday attempted on the radio to argue that the surplus places rule did not exist under this Government, but that runs directly contrary to the evidence. The Government have said in their guidance circular that— [Interruption.] He asked about surplus places, and I am responding. The Government guidance states that surplus places returns help them

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the numbers. The question that the Government must answer is whether a surplus places rule applies? Lord Adonis yesterday on Radio 4 said no, but the Government’s guidance, policed by the Audit Commission, says that 10 per cent. of surplus places is the absolute limit.

Our view is that we should allow the development of between 20,000 and 30,000 new school places every year in order to ensure that we can provide an expansion in a new academies programme. The arguments are laid out in our green paper on education, “Raising the Bar, closing the gap”. It is do with providing opportunity for all, and I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman and look forward to hearing more discussion of it.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Would my hon. Friend’s policy therefore be to stop the county councils that are planning to close excellent secondary schools, such as one in my constituency on Canvey Island, from doing so? Would he have them put such plans on ice until we see what the effect will be of, for example, extending compulsory education to 18?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend characteristically makes two good points. We are clear that we should get rid of the surplus places rule and that new entrants to the state education system will provide a goad and a spur to existing local authority schools to improve. Whether in Essex or, as we have seen, in Hackney, new schools entering the system force the existing local authority schools to raise their game and improve their act. That is a virtuous competitive circle, which we would like to be extended, in line with the best Conservative principles, across the country.

Jim Knight: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way: it shows uncharacteristic politeness. Let me explain the situation: schools can be started up in areas with surplus places, but there is a built-in motivation for the local authority to close underperforming schools in exchange, so that there is a net relationship between the two that conforms to the surplus places rule. What is important is that we motivate local authorities to close underperforming schools, unlike the Conservative party’s proposals.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his elucidation of the existence of a surplus places rule, in contrast with what we were told yesterday on Radio 4 by Lord Adonis—I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has overruled his junior colleague in the House of Lords. Our point is that we want those new entrants that the Government have not allowed to come into the state sector to drive up standards all round. We do not want to see schools close; we want to see schools improve. We do not want the zero-sum game of statist control that we have had in the past 10 years; we want diversity of provision. We want reform, choice and competition to drive up standards.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

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