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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1207

Ed Balls: Of course it is not. That is a completely absurd intervention. It is in the normal pattern of Government to scrutinise spending effectively, which is what I am doing. Furthermore, I am announcing new academies and accelerating the programme. Saying things over and over again does not make them true, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath should wake up to that fact—we are accelerating the programme, not slowing it down.

Michael Gove: It is always lovely to hear from the Secretary of State that saying things over and over again does not make them true. It is a lesson I hope he will take to heart. However, the key point is that there is one thing he has not said at all—never mind over and over again—which is that academies, as new providers, give choice, competition and contestability. That is what drives up standards, so will he take the opportunity we have given him today to affirm that that is the case and that he agrees with what the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and others have argued?

Ed Balls: I fear that the hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to my speech. I said that where schools are underperforming or failing we are bringing in new leadership, new choice and a new ethos, thereby allowing parents a new choice about the school their children attend. That is exactly what we are about. I pointed out that more than 85 per cent. of schools are specialist, thus providing parents with choice.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: No.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said that we were wrong to require academies to follow the national curriculum in the core subjects of English, maths, science and IT. Yet again however, as we heard earlier in relation to grammar schools, the hon. Gentleman cannot answer the difficult questions. He cannot explain the contradictions in what he says not just from one day to the next, but from one interview to the next on the same day.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: No.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath told the “Today” programme that academies should be exempt from the national curriculum. That was in the morning. Later, on Channel 4 news, he was asked about creationism. He said:

There is nothing at all in the independent schools guidance that binds schools on the teaching of science or creationism. The only way—

Michael Gove: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Ed Balls: No.

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Michael Gove: Why not?

Ed Balls: Because I want to explain my point.

In respect of science, the only way that state schools are bound is through the national curriculum, so on Channel 4 news at lunchtime when the hon. Gentleman said “any school”, was he including academies? My answer would be yes, but what is his answer? Does he include academies in the requirement to teach the national curriculum on science? Yes or no?

Michael Gove: Will the Secretary of State tell us how many independent schools teach creationism?

Ed Balls: In these debates, we should try to get to the substance and have some discussion of policy— [ Interruption. ] The point is that I have made it a requirement that academies follow maths, science and IT, because I believe it is the right thing for them to do. To deal in part with the creationism point, I am making it clear that academies will follow the science curriculum. That is what the hon. Gentleman said on Channel 4 news yesterday, yet when I ask him whether he agrees with what he said yesterday, he cannot answer. If he was not referring to the national curriculum, what does he mean? He says that the national curriculum would bind all schools— [ Interruption. ] I will read the quotation again. The hon. Gentleman said:

What does he mean by that if he is not referring to the national curriculum? He cannot be referring to the independent schools guidance, because it includes nothing at all on the content of science. He must have been referring to the national curriculum, but that contradicts what he said in the morning. I keep asking the question, but as with almost everything else, he cannot give me an answer.

Yesterday, we found out what the hon. Gentleman’s real plan is. He proposes to create 220,000 additional secondary school places in what he calls “new” academies. He tries to claim that those new academies are different because they can be set up by parents, but where parents want to set up schools we have already supported them in doing so. The first parent-promoted school was opened in Lambeth in September, with our support. What is different about the hon. Gentleman’s proposal—as was made clear in his speech—is that the commissioning role of local government will be abolished. So yes, there is a difference of view between us and him on that issue.

The Government believe there is a vital role for local government in driving change in local areas and turning round or replacing weak or underperforming schools. That is the commissioning role we set out in the 2006 legislation for which the Conservatives voted. That legislation gives local government a duty to raise standards in all schools and act as commissioner for education in their area, to be held to account for the performance of schools in their area and to use all the levers at their disposal, including trusts and academies, to tackle poor performance.

The hon. Gentleman disagrees with local authorities having that role. He says that he will liberate academies from local authorities, and that I am neutering the programme by working with local government to
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tackle weak and underperforming schools. So far, 79 local authorities are working with us on academies, and more are coming forward week by week—but in his view, those are 79 local authorities that are holding back the programme. Nine local authorities are going further still: they are not just working with us but have agreed to co-sponsor academies—or in the hon. Gentleman’s view, they are really strangling the programme.

I shall read the hon. Gentleman the list of culprits: Manchester city council, Labour; Sunderland city council, Labour; the Corporation of London, Independent; Cheshire county council, Conservative; Coventry city council, Conservative; Kensington and Chelsea, Conservative; Kent, Conservative; Telford and Wrekin, Conservative; and West Sussex, Conservative. Has he told those Conservative councils that they are strangling the academies programme? Has he told them their support will no longer be required if the Tories are in power? Has he told them that rather than taking the lead in tackling weak or failing schools, they will have to wait for parents and livery companies in their area to come along and do the work for them? That is where we disagree.

I want parents to set up schools if they want to do so. I want parents to be able to choose, and I want diversity in the schools system. However, I also want a role for local government, and for it to be accountable for delivering change and tackling underperformance. I want it to do so quickly, rather than waiting while a school’s rolls fall year by year, damaging the education of children. That is the dividing line between us: I think that local government should deliver and should be held to account on that delivery, while the hon. Member for Surrey Heath wants to walk away from that. He would allow the market to decide and have vouchers, rather than allowing local government to intervene.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his patience in agreeing to give way again. Does he agree that there is a danger that he might get the role of local authorities completely wrong—and that their role should be strategic oversight, and not necessarily to sponsor or co-sponsor each academy? That could cut against the entire purpose of the academies programme.

Ed Balls: I am sorry that there was not a Liberal Democrat council in the list of councils that sponsor an academy. [Interruption.] Maybe one will come along. The fact is that we have moved away from requiring local government to run all the schools. Local government now commissions schools and is responsible for key services. Local authorities are also responsible for the education of all children in their area, and accountable for intervening to tackle weak or underperforming schools. That is our policy—and the policy of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath would completely undermine it. He is proposing a policy that promotes excellence for a few and not excellence for all. In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), I believe that for a local authority to sponsor an academy in a particularly difficult or failing school is exactly the right thing to do, and I wish that he would support me on that.

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Tom Levitt: In an intervention I made earlier on the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I suggested that to bring an element of anarchy into the school building programme was reckless and irresponsible. Did the Secretary of State notice that the hon. Gentleman did not choose to deny that?

Ed Balls: Let me turn to the school building programme, because that is where I think—

Several hon. Members rose

Ed Balls: I have already taken many interventions. Let me turn to the point at which things will get particularly interesting for Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has come forward with a proposal to create 220,000 new school places. To be fair to him, he has told us how he will pay for it. Yesterday he said in black and white in his policy document that the Conservatives would pay for it with a £4.5 billion cut from our building schools for the future programme, which will rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over the next 10 years. However, the Conservatives said that they would honour existing commitments under BSF. The impact on the new academies would therefore apply to those waves where commitments have not yet been made, which would be concentrated on the 76 local authority areas in BSF wave 7 onwards that are not yet engaged in BSF.

Mr. Gibb: rose—

Ed Balls: Let me give hon. Members the details, and then I shall take interventions. The policy would involve taking £4.5 billion out of BSF from 2008-09 onwards. That is a 15 per cent. cut in all future rebuilding projects. [Interruption.] If I set out the facts for hon. Members, they can then reflect on them.

More than one in seven secondary schools that hope to undertake rebuilding projects would find that those projects will not go ahead under the Conservative proposals. Two thirds of all secondary schools currently in those 76 authorities are hoping to have schools rebuilt. At the moment, all those new schools are under threat. The 76 local affected authorities would lose an average of £60 million each. The largest local authorities will lose more. That is the equivalent in each local authority area of an average of three complete secondary school rebuilds, which would not go ahead under the Conservative proposals.

There would be cuts in every area of England, including Oxfordshire and Surrey.

Mr. Gibb rose—

Ed Balls: I shall take interventions after I have listed the authorities that would be affected: Barnet, Bath and North East Somerset, Bexley, Bolton, Bracknell Forest, Brent, Brighton and Hove, Bromley, Buckinghamshire and Bury. Those 10 local authorities have 293 schools under threat—and that is only the Bs.

Have Conservative Front Benchers and the Leader of the Opposition checked their policy out with all the Conservative local authorities that will lose out because of those cuts? Were Opposition MPs informed? The
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new policy would mean that hundreds of schools—not only in Labour areas, but in Conservative shire counties across Britain—would lose new schools. I can make a full list of authorities available for Conservative Members to check. It will not make for comfortable reading. We can even let them have a draft press release, if that will help.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): May I tell my right hon. Friend how pleased I was when he announced the consultation on the prioritisation of the future use of BSF money? At the moment, Stockport is in the last wave. May I tell him how appalled I am to learn that under the Conservative proposals, no money would be given to the local authority to rebuild the schools? We would return to the same situation as in 1996, when we received £1.3 million from the Conservative Government for all the capital spend for all the schools in Stockport.

Ed Balls: I can give my hon. Friend little assurance of what would happen if the Conservative proposals were implemented. Unfortunately, Stockport is among those 76 authorities. There are 13 schools in Stockport, and so two schools would not be rebuilt. Stockport has 16,000 pupils, and none would know where the axe would fall if the proposals were implemented.

Mr. Gibb: The Secretary of State is making some sharp political points that are unworthy of him. We are using the building schools for the future programme to build schools throughout the country, including in the boroughs that the Secretary of State and Labour Members have mentioned. How is using BSF to build schools a cut in the programme?

Ed Balls: It is easy to explain. The Conservative proposals would take money away from schools that need it to build surplus places in areas that do not need it. By stripping local authorities of their roles in commissioning, the proposals will also reduce the incentives for Conservative and Labour councils to tackle weak and failing schools. All those councils see academies as vital to improving education in their areas. That is why I am right.

Helen Jones: Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what effect the proposals would have in constituencies such as mine? In Warrington only two schools are so far carrying out projects under BSF. William Beamont high school, which is in a deprived area of my constituency, was not put into the first wave by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. What will happen to such schools in the future?

Ed Balls: I know what my hon. Friend is talking about, because my area is in one of those waves. I know how much work has been done by schools in our areas to get ready for the BSF spending when it comes. We have reassured people that it will come. It has now been put under a substantial threat.

In my hon. Friend’s area, there are 12 schools and the proposals would mean that two would not be rebuilt. I can give her no assurances about which two schools those will be. Until the Conservative Front Benchers tell us, we will not know where the axe will fall. The threat will apply in 76 areas, represented by Labour, Conservative and Liberal MPs. It will mean an average £60 million cut in spending. I would like to reassure my hon.
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Friend—but other than recommending the election of a Labour Government, there is no reassurance that I can give her.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): Was my right hon. Friend as surprised as I was to hear the hon. Member for Surrey Heath say earlier that the best schools have old and tatty buildings? [Hon. Members: “He didn’t say that.”] I wrote it down. I was responsible for education in Trafford, which is now Conservative Trafford again. That area had old and tatty buildings. Under the aspirations of the Conservative party, all the area can look forward to is to keeping its tatty old buildings.

Ed Balls: In too many of the areas involved, one in seven schools will still have old and tatty buildings if the Conservatives get their way. They will be postponing the investments that we are trying to put in place to refurbish or rebuild all secondary schools. As I have said, I would like to give my hon. Friend and other hon. Members more reassurance, but I am afraid that I cannot.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I represent a cross-border constituency, and the new schools being built in Tameside under building schools for the future are one of the developments of which I am most proud. In the case of the Stockport part of my constituency, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), am outraged by the Conservative proposals. They would mean that Reddish Vale technology college in my constituency, which is crying out for a rebuild, will not see that work done. We do not need extra new schools. We need to rebuild the school that we have.

Ed Balls: I completely appreciate my hon. Friend’s point.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: Conservative Members are being rather quiet, but I am happy to take this intervention. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are currently 22 schools in Shropshire and therefore that six of them—and their 18,000 pupils—would not get the rebuilding or refurbishment that they are expecting. I advise him that new grammar schools in his constituency will not save him in that respect.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but I must inform him that I represent part of Herefordshire, not Shropshire. When he has checked his notes, will he explain what is going on with the academy that has been proposed for my county? Why does Herefordshire get the third lowest funding per capita, and why do urban schools get almost twice as much as rural schools? Why is it so much cheaper to educate pupils in the countryside? We do not see why it should be.

Ed Balls: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for misleading the House about the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I was badly advised about it. In fact, Herefordshire has only 14 secondary schools, which means that only four schools rather than six will not be rebuilt. Also, only 10,500 pupils in the county would find that they would not get the new school that they had been expecting.

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