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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1213

The Conservative proposal is a direct resurrection of the pupil passport proposed in the 2005 election manifesto. It would deliberately encourage the building of additional new schools with no regard to weak or underperforming schools. It is a sop to the right that will take school reform backwards and not forwards.

Opposition is about more than just speeches and rhetoric: it is about policy, consistency and judgment. The latter is an attribute in which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is rather weaker than he would like to believe. In the past three weeks, he has had three big calls to make. He has had to decide whether to back new diplomas and whether to support education to 18, and he has had to determine Conservative policy on academies and failing schools. In my judgment, he has put himself on the wrong side of the debate on each of those. He finds himself out of step with head teachers, parents, businesses, employers, universities and the interests of his own Back Benchers’ constituents.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath does not back reform; instead, he opposes it. He does not support excellence for all, but excellence for the few. I know that he does not like me saying so, but that is the Tory policy. I shall give him some advice: his job is about more than just writing something witty and hoping that it will be read, smiled at and forgotten the next day. He needs to raise his game when it comes to substance. His best ideas are just that—ideas. When he tries to put a new idea into practice, he has to perform a U-turn. It is his record on reform that is under threat, his credentials as a moderniser that are increasingly in doubt, and his judgment that is looking more suspect every day.

Only one party in this country will deliver school reform and drive up standards for all. Only one party will invest in new schools for all, and deliver excellence for all, not just for some. It is time for the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to go back to the drawing board.

1.43 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): This is an extremely timely debate, as Government policy on school reform, on public sector reform more generally and on the academies programme—especially given the investigation by the delivery unit—seems to be in flux.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Laws: I will when I have had a chance to say more than one sentence.

The debate is also extremely important because of the politics involved and because of what it tells us about the future direction of the Government’s education policy. Moreover, it deals with one of the most important elements of the domestic agenda: that is, how we help children in the country’s most deprived areas. For many years—since long before 1997—they have been failed successively by their local schools. Even with the improvements in GCSE results over recent years, 50 per cent. of youngsters in something like a third of all secondary schools do not achieve five A* to C GCSEs even across the whole range of subjects, leaving aside maths and English.

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Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman says that Government policy is in flux, but I am sure that many Liberal councillors will be surprised by his amendment, which would see every school become an academy—

Mr. Laws: What?

Hilary Armstrong: Will the hon. Gentleman have words with his friends in Durham city, where the county council has opened up an opportunity for everyone within the law to bid for an academy? Even before the council has even seen who is interested in doing so, it is leading a no campaign. The council does not want an academy in the city, even though most people are convinced that that would improve the opportunities for hundreds of children in the area.

Mr. Laws: That was long intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope that there are some arrangements that will allow me more than an extra minute to make up for it. Our amendment contains no proposal to replace every school in the country with an academy, but many Liberal Democrat authorities—Southwark, for example—embrace the academy programme. Academies have been set up in those areas, and it is probable that every secondary school in Southwark will become an academy.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Laws: In a moment. The challenge that has to be met has to do with that minority of schools that have high levels of deprivation and have underperformed for years. Earlier today, I visited one such school in west London that will be familiar to Front Benchers on both sides of the House. Only a decade or so ago, 95 per cent. of pupils at the Phoenix school were leaving without having achieved five good GCSE qualifications. Disorder was rife, and the school had many poor-quality supply teachers. They were teaching so badly that a great many were eventually sent home, with the result that multiple classes were taught in the school hall. Even so, that represented an improvement in the quality of teaching.

To return to the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), I should point out that the Phoenix school is not an academy. It is a specialist school in the maintained sector, with a fantastic head teacher in William Atkinson. He has done a brilliant job in converting the school: if we had a few thousand like him to look after our failing schools, we would not need the academy programme and we would not be having this debate.

Angela Watkinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Laws: I want to make a bit more progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman).

However, we do not have thousands of William Atkinsons. Therefore, 10 years ago the Government rightly sought to bring additional individuals and entities into the education system to try to improve the quality of school governance and leadership, which we know to be vital. The Government also committed themselves to
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improving the quality of school buildings, and in that they have succeeded brilliantly. Finally, they set out to allow schools to innovate, and it is the future of that programme that we are discussing today.

I give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Mr. Sheerman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that he is falling into the trap of thinking that one club will sort out all our problems with education.

Mr. Laws: I am not.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman said that we would not need academies if we could clone head teachers, but many other factors apart from leadership contribute to a school’s success. Leadership is important, but relying on that alone is a dangerous trap.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman has a great deal of experience in these matters, and he is right that other factors apart from school leadership are involved. However, getting the leadership right is the way to start getting all the other elements right, especially in failing schools. The academy programme has been useful in that it has brought into education better governance and more innovation. I am staggered that a Government who have supported that innovation should tell me in a parliamentary answer last month that, in respect of the freedoms enjoyed by academies” they had

I find that baffling, and will come back to the matter later.

I want to return to the earlier questions from the hon. Member for Surrey, Heath (Michael Gove), who asked whether we were right to debate this matter today, and whether there really was any uncertainty about Government policy in this area. The Secretary of State invited us to believe that the hon. Gentleman was starting an entirely bogus debate, and that there are no grounds for believing that policy has shifted since he took over his post in the new Government.

There is, however, quite a trail of evidence that the Secretary of State is approaching the issue differently. First, in his very important first statement to the House, he turned on its head what the previous Prime Minister had been saying about standards and structures. He went right back to saying that standards, rather than structures, were the focus, and when he said that, he knew very well that the Prime Minister’s predecessor had said that he believed that structural reform was vital to getting standards right. So that was a deliberate signal, and some of the newspapers and some union leaders were briefed that there would be a change.

The Government then—I have raised this issue before with the Secretary of State—turned on its head a commitment in the last Labour party manifesto, which said that they wanted every school in the maintained sector to become independent. That is no longer the Government’s position; that has been confirmed in a parliamentary written answer, despite what the Secretary of State has said. There we have a cast-iron and clear change in Government policy.

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Ed Balls: I have made it absolutely clear that we have changed our policy on academies. We abolished the £2 million entry fee, to bring in more universities. We have required new academies to teach maths, science, English and IT under the national curriculum. I am bringing them into the mainstream, and I am also accelerating the academies programme. There is a clear difference between me and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove): I think that having local authority support for academies is a good thing, which will help us to tackle underperformance across the country. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with what I am doing?

Mr. Laws: I certainly think, as I implied earlier, that there is a strategic role for local authorities, but that is not what the Secretary of State is promoting. The academies programme is still run from the desk of Lord Adonis in Westminster—bizarre, as his work load is getting larger and larger—and it will be impossible to manage 400 or 500 schools from there. Yes, there is a strategic role for local authorities, but the fear is that the Secretary of State is trying to have academies in name but not in substance. That is the issue about the role of local authorities.

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

Mr. Laws: I will give way in a second.

I shall invite the Secretary of State in a second to respond to some specific points on that issue, but I ask him to understand that, when he deliberately overturns the previous Prime Minister’s policy on structural reform, he cannot be surprised that people believe that something is going on; nor can he be surprised about that when he asks the delivery unit in No. 10 Downing street to consider the programme without being able to say why it is doing so. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am getting rather tired of Front-Bench interventions from a sedentary position; they do not help the debate, and I find them rather distracting.

Mr. Laws: I am sure that you are quite right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and one of the things that I learnt at the Phoenix school in west London this morning was the importance of leadership in maintaining good order, without which we learn nothing, and I should have thought that the Secretary of State recognised that observation.

Let me raise with the Secretary of State some specific points about the Government’s position on academies, given that it is obvious that he has been nudging away from structural reform and that he has been continuing the policy, which he and the then Chancellor had before the latter took over as the new Prime Minister, of being far more resistant and sceptical about public sector reform than the previous Prime Minister.

The Secretary of State has not yet answered a number of important questions about the delivery unit report. In particular, can he let us know whether Lord Adonis was involved in the seminar on 1 November to establish the review? Can he tell us which academies will be reviewed by the delivery unit? I believe that five academies will be reviewed in particular. [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State from a sedentary position says, “All of them.”
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Is he really suggesting that the delivery unit will go around in a few weeks and look at 83 academies? Why does The Times Educational Supplement say this week that the unit will look at five specific academies, including Knight’s academy in London? If there is a shortlist of those that will be looked at, can we know about it?

On the crucial issue of local authorities, I have been clear about my concern that the Government are getting the involvement of local authorities completely wrong in the academies programme. Ultimately, it seems nonsense that hundreds of schools in the maintained sector could have accountability that will bypass local authorities altogether and that there will be no strategic control. However, the Secretary of State appears to be trying to make it easier for some bodies to involve themselves in the academies programme. To the extent that that is bringing new structural reform and new people into the education system who are aspirational, particularly about schools that have large numbers of deprived pupils, that is very welcome, but we want to be sure that that does not actually involve a reverse takeover of the academies programme, so that the Secretary of State can say that he has got 400, 500 or 600 academies, when their power to innovate and to do things that they cannot do in the maintained sector is compromised.

Ed Balls: Could the hon. Gentleman give me one example of what he is talking about?

Mr. Laws: I can give the Secretary of State a couple of examples—first, the changes that he has made already to some of the flexibilities that academies have—but can he answer some questions?

Ed Balls rose—

Mr. Laws: The Secretary of State should hear the questions first. He has got some new local authority co-sponsors of academies. He mentioned seven of them in Manchester. Can he confirm in those cases where co-sponsorship occurs who exactly will choose the school leader? How many governors will they have? Who will determine whether there will be variations in the length of the school day, in aspects of the curriculum and in hiring teachers? Will that end up, by default, going back to local authority control? In that case, the involvement of local authorities would be precisely the opposite of what would make sense.

Ed Balls: I ask again: could the hon. Gentleman give me one example, where he has any evidence, of where the local authority’s role with an academy is taking things backwards in terms of standards or the governors’ ability to drive leadership and change?

Mr. Laws: The Secretary of State has failed to answer the five or six questions that I have put to him. Those answers might give me the reassurance that I am looking for, and perhaps before the debate concludes, if he needs time to check some of the answers to those questions, he will be able to tell us whether some of my concerns are real—for example, in Manchester, where I understand that the local authority co-sponsors seven academies.

I shall also suggest some other changes that should be made both to the academies programme and to
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some aspects of the Conservative policy that was laid out yesterday. I have sympathy with quite a lot of the Conservative motion, but I also have quite a large number of reservations, which caused us to table our amendment and prevent me from supporting the motion.

I have already raised the first issue: who has strategic control? If either the Government or the Conservative party is remotely serious about all their warm words about localisation and devolving power, I hope that they will recognise and agree with the fact that it would be nonsense to maintain the academies programme when it includes 200, 300, 400 or 500 academies, run by one Minister from an office in Whitehall. Surely, when local authorities accept, as many of them now have, that they will be much more purchasers, rather than solely providers, of maintained school education, they should have a strategic role in ratcheting up standards and in managing some of the capital and admissions issues. Surely, that is completely different from what the Secretary of State is ending up with by default: a system run by a Minister, with local authority involvement coming at a lower level.

Andrew Gwynne: What the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is happening in local authorities now. There is best practice in Tameside in my constituency, where the local authority has set up the Tameside campus, where all the schools—whether academies, comprehensive schools under the local education authority or foundation schools—are in free association with one another, with the local authority as a key partner, to develop a range of education facilities across the borough. Is that not precisely what he is suggesting? And it is happening now in Labour-controlled Tameside.

Mr. Laws: No, I am not sure that it is; I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is agreeing with me and saying that he hopes that the Government will go in that direction or whether he is disagreeing with me. I think that it is nonsense to imagine that a programme of this scale in the future, with hundreds of schools and academies, could be accountable to a Minister in Westminster and Whitehall.

The Government ought to be thinking about how local authorities can play a core, strategic role, without trying in any way to water down or compromise what is really important about the programme: getting new innovation, new governance and better leadership into those schools in the maintained sector that do not have it, while appreciating that, where they do, that is great. If there is a great school leader—such as the gentleman who is running the Phoenix school, which I visited this morning—there is no need for an academy. He is doing many of the things that academies want to do. I would be happy to take him to any of the Government’s academies, because they could all learn an awful lot from him. However, that is not necessarily the thrust of where we are going on Government policy.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House how he sees local authorities having a core strategic role without their ultimately getting involved in the lower-level issues in schools—if a school were failing, for instance? How would he stop a leaching of local authority influence into the everyday life of the school?

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