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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1201

Michael Gove: I will be delighted to give way: I shall do so first to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow).

John Bercow: Given that local authorities are virtually omnipotent as the bodies that assess and decide on, and pay for and provide, services to children with special educational needs, does my hon. Friend agree with me and, rather more importantly, with the Education and Skills Committee that the time has come for the link between assessment and the funding of provision to be broken?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend in fact, and a very good friend, too—makes a characteristically good and well judged point. [Interruption.] No, I am not surprised; I am delighted about that. His point is in line with the recommendations of Sir Robert Balchin’s special educational needs commission, and it would be interesting to know whether the Secretary of State agrees with it. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I look forward to agreeing also with another wise eminence on the Conservative Back Benches, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).

Mr. Redwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that the people involved in a school are much more important even than its buildings, and that some of the best schools have old or tatty buildings? Is not the failure of this Government’s strategy that they have no way of changing the leadership in underperforming schools and they have allowed too many such schools to exist for too long?

Michael Gove: My right hon. Friend makes an important point: among the most important qualities in schools are leadership, motivation and personnel. One of the great virtues of academies is that their leaders—such as Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne—have the freedom to pay more than the national minimum and to reward good staff with bonuses. They also have the opportunity to recruit and retain the best, and, if necessary, to deal with any weaker teachers. I am sorry to have to say that some of the teaching unions oppose that degree of freedom, but we believe that it is concomitant with the greater freedom in the academy system and that it is necessary to drive up standards, which is our aim.

Unfortunately, there has been a pattern under this Government: instead of change and dynamism, there has been timidity, retreat, paralysis and bureaucracy. We would remove barriers to the creation of new schools.

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

Michael Gove: Not yet. We would ensure that money followed the pupil and, crucially, that pupils from the most disadvantaged homes got more money for their schooling—a progressive policy that I think the Liberal Democrats share, but the Government reject. We would demand high standards, ensuring that every child who can do so is reading after their first two years in primary school, because having learnt to read, they can read to learn. We would restore discipline to our schools, shifting the balance of power in the classroom back in favour of the teacher.

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Several hon. Members rose

Michael Gove: No, I will not give way.

We would then liberate innovative professionals to deliver inspirational teaching. On the Labour Benches, there is an agenda of stasis, centralism and state control. On the Opposition Benches, there is an agenda of change, optimism and hope, which is making the defeat of ignorance its central mission.

I invite the Secretary of State to break free from the tight Treasury embrace that has constricted his free thinking over the past 10 years, and to embrace reform and prove himself to be a moderniser.

1.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I beg to move, To leave out from ‘House’ to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to debate once again with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). In respect of any failure to pursue school reforms, I hope that we can achieve some clarity about what the Government are actually saying and, perhaps even more hopefully and after all the contradictions in the hon. Gentleman’s policy over the past few days, that we can get some clarity about the Opposition education policy. I have to say that we got very little clarity on that from his performance. We once again had the usual bluster and flourish. It was a nice speech; it was well written, and the hon. Gentleman read it rather well, too—and I can honestly say that we have been impressed by how much he is impressed by himself. Unfortunately, although the speech was strong on style, it was hopelessly weak on content and policy.

The debate is billed as being about the failure of the Government to pursue school reform but, as has been said, the Opposition motion focuses on just 83 of the 22,500 schools in England today. I am happy to have our approach to academies scrutinised. I fear that by the end of the debate it will be the hon. Gentleman’s so-called new academies policy that will need to be scrutinised, because the real revelation of this debate will be that he cannot answer key questions on his own policy. I will show that at best he is simply copying what we are doing and that at worst he is not only confused but putting forward risky proposals. Conservative Members would do well to study the details of the proposals that he has announced this
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week. I will show that when they do so, they will see what the proposals mean for their constituencies. I fear that as this debate goes on, it may come as a bit of a surprise.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I would like to talk about the details in my constituency. Last week, the Secretary of State said categorically—this is in Hansard—that Leicestershire was the 34th best-funded education authority in the country. In fact, it ranks 149th this year, and will do so next year, in 2009 and in 2010. Will he apologise to the people of my constituency and Leicestershire for misleading them last week?

Ed Balls: Of course I will not, because I did not mislead the House last week. I have looked at Hansard, and I said clearly that although I accept that Leicestershire has a lower spending level per pupil than other areas, it will have the 34th largest increase in spending in the next three years. It was in our statement to the House, and it is clearly shown in Hansard. The thing that surprises me about today’s motion is that it does not mention any of the reforms that we have been putting in place over the past 10 years. It does not mention numeracy and literacy; more teachers; more than 1,000 new schools; new disciplinary powers for head teachers; or the fact that more than 85 per cent. of schools are now called specialist schools. It does not point out that over the past 10 years we have delivered rising standards year on year or that we have reduced the number of schools not getting a quarter of their pupils to the standard of five good GCSEs from 616 at the end of the Conservative Government in 1997 to just 26 today.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con) rose—

Ed Balls: I will give way in a second.

We know that there is more to do to reach a world-class level, but, again, the motion does not refer to any of the processes that we have set in place in recent months to take forward our next stage of reform. It does not refer to the Every Child a Reader programme and our plans to spread phonics across the country. It does not refer to our one-to-one learning in primary and secondary schools, to our new independent standards regulator, to our 30 new trust schools, to our building schools for the future programme, to our new powers and obligations on local authorities to intervene to tackle failing schools, or to our children’s plan proposals to strengthen links between schools, parents and children’s services—again, that got no mention in the speech by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.

Mr. Laws: The Secretary of State is yet to give a convincing explanation for his asking the delivery unit in 10 Downing street to look into the academies programme. Will he tell us which academies the delivery unit is examining, and whether Lord Adonis was present at the seminar on 1 November?

Ed Balls: I will come to academies in a moment. Like the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I will answer all the detailed points that are raised in the debate.

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The truth is that while the Opposition criticise our reforms, they are either stealing our clothes or putting forward risky proposals. The Opposition say that we need to implement synthetic phonics, but we are implementing the Rose review and the systematic teaching of phonics is now compulsory across the country—it is already being inspected by Ofsted. The same is true on the confiscation of mobile phones, because on Monday the hon. Gentleman announces that that is his policy, but it turns out that such powers exist for head teachers in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. To give him some latitude, he did make a new proposal to abolish appeals panels for excluded pupils. That would mean the abolition of appeals panels first introduced by the Conservatives in 1987 and, contrary to what he said on the Marr programme, the policy has been rejected by head teachers. The same is true of his plan to ask pupils to re-sit their final year at primary school and of the Conservatives’ proposals to have compulsory externally marked tests at six. All those ideas are rejected by head teachers and parents.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The Secretary of State talks about synthetic phonics. Why is the Every Child a Reader programme, which uses reading recovery as its reading programme, not a synthetic phonics programme, in line with the Rose recommendations?

Ed Balls: As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is for every school to decide, child by child, how they teach reading. We are implementing phonics and synthetic phonics across every school in the country by the Ofsted review. The Every Child a Reader programme is particularly tailored to the needs of every individual child. Of course phonics are being used in that programme and in every primary school across the country.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly listed a raft of things to which the Opposition motion does not refer. Is he surprised, like I am, by the fact that it does not refer to the collaboration and co-operation needed across local education authorities on the academies programme? The Government have implemented that by a process of incorporation in the national curriculum; the Conservatives propose to take it out.

Ed Balls: Of course that is the case. The majority of the first 30 trusts that have been put forward since September are collaborating between schools precisely to ensure that we focus on raising standards for all children and spread the excellent leadership in some schools to all schools. I do not apologise for saying that collaboration is an important part of our programme.

Rob Marris: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the motion demonstrates the lack of knowledge and the bankruptcy of Conservative policy on schools? The motion on the Order Paper is headed “Government policy on schools reform”. Despite that, it does not contain a single word on the primary schools sector, which the majority of pupils in the state sector attend. That shows that the Conservatives know nothing about where our kids go to school.

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Ed Balls: Of course my hon. Friend is right. We are implementing the policies that work. The new policies put forward by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath are increasingly rejected by head teachers, schools and parents alike.

Several hon. Members rose

Ed Balls: I shall give way in a moment.

I find it impossible to understand the position of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and the Leader of the Opposition on grammar schools and grammar streams. We were being told a few months ago that grammar streams would be introduced in every school in the country. It is unclear whether that has been dropped in favour of setting in every subject or in favour of our policy of encouraging setting in individual subjects.

What about grammar schools? Does the hon. Member for Surrey Heath agree with the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts)? He said that

Does he agree with the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who said that he wanted a return to “good old-fashioned academic selection”? Or does he agree with the Tory Buckinghamshire cabinet lead on education, Marion Clayton? When asked whether plans for a new grammar school in Aylesbury—it would be the first new grammar school for 50 years—would contradict Conservative policy, she told the local paper:

It is certainly against this Government’s policy and against the law, but is it against current Conservative policy?

On Sunday, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath told the Marr programme that plans for new grammar schools, such as those proposed by Conservative Buckinghamshire, are

On the “Today” programme on Tuesday, when asked whether he would say no to any application for a grammar school, he replied, “Absolutely”. What is his policy? Is it his Sunday or his Tuesday policy? Would he like to clarify it now? Would the Conservatives change the law to allow Buckinghamshire to set up a new grammar school? Is the answer yes or no? I would be happy to give way to him on that question —[Interruption.] Again, no clarity there then. We just saw the barely concealed reality, behind all the obfuscation, that large swathes of his party want him to reintroduce selection. At some point, he and his party leader will have to come off the fence on that issue.

Mr. Redwood: If the Secretary of State wishes to show substance, he should talk about the Government’s policy rather than spend the whole time talking about Opposition policy—I know that he has no style. Will he tell the House why the Government do not trust parents to make choices in enough cases and why they do not trust schools to decide how to teach?

Ed Balls: Let me turn to academies and the exact issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises. At last, we are dealing with a school reform that is mentioned in the motion.

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Academies are central to our reforms to promote excellence for all and not just the few. The ability to replace a weak or seriously underperforming school with a new school that has new leadership and a new ethos is a crucial part of local strategies to tackle failing schools. So far, the evidence from our first 83 academies—evidence we are testing further with the Prime Minister’s delivery unit across the whole programme—is that academies are delivering faster than average improvements in results in areas and, crucially, with intakes that are disproportionately disadvantaged.

In the motion and in his speech, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath says that we are retreating on academies. I know that he wishes we were, but in fact we are accelerating our programme and removing barriers so that, for example, more universities will find it easier to sponsor academies. Our target was 200 academies by 2010, on the road to 400, but last week my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners announced that we are now planning for 230 academies by 2010.

So far, 12 universities have expressed interest in the programme and I can make two announcements today. Three further universities—King’s college, London, Bolton and Gloucestershire—are announcing today that they will engage with the academies programme. Secondly, I have today given the go-ahead for three new academies: the Nottingham university Samworth academy and academies in Croydon and Cheltenham. They will all replace underperforming schools. The hon. Gentleman’s charge that we are backsliding on academies is wrong.

Mr. Laws: Given the Secretary of State’s warm words about academies, why has he still not explained his reason for asking the No. 10 delivery unit to look into the policy, which suggests he has some concerns about it? Furthermore, he has still not answered the question about whether Lord Adonis was present at the seminar on 1 November.

Ed Balls: The answer is exactly the same as the one I gave last week when the hon. Gentleman asked me exactly the same question. When there are large spending programmes it is perfectly normal for the Treasury, the PMD unit and Departments to look at the detail of individual elements to make sure that they work as well as we want in delivering value for money. We are doing that with the academies programme, just as we would with any other programme, and I make no apology whatever for that. Of course, I have had discussions with Lord Adonis and the delivery unit to make sure that the programme continues to deliver what we want—it is doing so. The idea that I should apologise for ensuring that there is proper scrutiny and we get value for money is completely absurd.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s reply to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), but is not the truth that the decision to hold a review is political? It is more about compromising the future of academies, including the largest one in England, Thomas Deacon academy in my constituency, while capitulating to the bovine instincts of Labour Back Benchers and the teaching unions.

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