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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1219

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. By talking about failing schools, he highlights precisely the type of strategic role that local authorities should have. It would be totally unacceptable to rely in the future merely on an Ofsted report every three or four years, and a Secretary of State sitting in Whitehall and Westminster, to determine how such schools are doing. Sometimes the governing bodies of dysfunctional schools do not work either, so local authorities should have a role in setting standards and pouncing on schools that are failing, whether they are academies or local authority controlled schools. All those schools, in some way, run the risk; there is no guarantee that any school will have no problems at all in the future. The issue is about bringing in additional leadership.

May I raise two other issues of concern, about Government policy and—perhaps to a greater extent—about Conservative policy? I tried to tempt the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to resolve the issue of his party’s approach to grammar schools, but I fear we are not much the wiser. I know that he is desperate to avoid getting entangled in this net, but if he aspires to be Secretary of State, he cannot avoid it for ever. If he were Secretary of State, he would have Conservative authorities, including Buckinghamshire, asking his permission—it is not just a matter for them—to establish new grammar schools. Unless he is going to change the law and opt out completely, he cannot duck this issue for ever.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, and the Secretary of State, will accept that there is one way of moderating many of the concerns that people have had about the academies system in the past—and perhaps about the Conservative party in the past and in the future. People have been worried that academies will end up as a type of selective education and will improve their results not by doing better for their needy and deprived catchments, but by sucking in youngsters through different forms of selection. If the Secretary of State is having a serious review in the delivery unit, and if the Conservative party want to lance the boil of their selection policy, I invite them both to get rid of some of the totally unnecessary powers that academies still have to select by aptitude and potentially by banding. Those powers run the risk of allowing some academies to choose to improve their results by selecting pupils, rather than by improving standards. It would give great comfort to many on the progressive side of politics to know that academies will have to be judged on the real results they achieve for the catchments that they are there to serve.

If academies and other maintained schools work well, it is possible that their intakes will be more balanced. When a school starts to do better, that is bound to pull back youngsters and parents who would previously have fled and would have done anything to avoid going there—as was surely the case with the Phoenix school before William Atkinson took over and turned the school round. Incidentally, he turned it round from a situation 10 years ago in which 5 per cent. of pupils got five passes at A* to C, to a situation over the past couple of years in which 70 per cent. achieved that. That is a staggering turnaround, which demonstrates to many of us the extent to which our communities can be failed by some schools. I hope that both Front-Bench teams will think about the issue of selection.

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Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman has strayed on to the subject of selection. May I ask him his view on a question that I would have liked to put to the Secretary of State? The Secretary of State’s new adviser reportedly proposed that faith schools should no longer be allowed to admit pupils on the grounds of faith, because he considered that to be a form of academic selection—something that I absolutely deny. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view?

Mr. Laws: Many faith schools do a fantastic job and I certainly would not want to get rid of them. However, the hon. Lady will know that a lot of the research shows that some of the better results achieved by faith schools reflect the fact they have better and more aspirational intakes. I hope that, in the future, faith schools will take a more inclusive approach—

Angela Watkinson: They do.

Mr. Laws: Some do, as the hon. Lady says, but, frankly, some do not. Faiths that want to reach out to a wider community—as the faiths that I respect and admire want to—will want youngsters coming into their schools who do not necessarily have the faith, or parents with the faith, that the school relates to.

My last point—I know that a number of Members want to speak in the debate—is about funding. The Government have done a fantastic amount on school funding over the past decade and deserve a lot of credit for the buildings programme that we have talked about. That is important, as people at the school that I visited this morning said. Having the right setting, aspirations and quality for youngsters who are not used to those things in their home environment sends out every right signal. However, the head teacher I met was the first to say that—as most of us would agree—the leadership in schools and the quality of staff are always more important than the buildings themselves. Those things should go together.

Over the next few years, we are going to have a much more restrained school budget. The minimum funding guarantee for many schools will barely keep place with the rate of inflation and, in some cases, will be below it. So far, I am really disappointed in the Secretary of State when it comes to deprivation funding. He has not seized the opportunity to do something much more radical. I am talking about a system of the type that my party has suggested for a number of years and that the Conservative party is flirting with now—although I note that it has not allocated any extra funding to it, and it will not become a meaningful commitment until the Conservative party does that. I am talking about having a better system for funding deprived youngsters—a system that does not target parts of the country, but tags people themselves, follows them through school, gives more money, predictably, to schools with the greatest deprivation, and also gives schools in the leafy catchment areas more of an incentive to take on some of those challenging youngsters.

Andrew Gwynne: The hon. Gentleman knows that we have had this discussion in previous education debates. My constituency covers part of Stockport. As a prosperous borough, it does not necessarily get the same funding as Tameside, even though the part of Stockport that I represent is more deprived than the part of Tameside I represent. Does he agree that the £1.3 million extra that
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Stockport got for deprivation out of the recent settlement was welcome and will he urge his Liberal Democrat colleagues on Stockport council to make sure that that money reaches the deprived parts of the borough such as Reddish in my constituency and Brinnington and Offerton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey).

Mr. Laws: I am sure that my colleagues there will do an excellent job, but I cannot welcome the additional money with as much enthusiasm as the hon. Gentleman. The figure is £40 million, which is peanuts. The amount that my party has been talking about—between £1.5 billion and £2.5 billion—would take the 10 or 15 per cent. that constitutes the most deprived youngsters, on free school meals, up to the private school level of funding now. That would be a far more sensible way of funding schools than the Prime Minister’s rather daft and meaningless commitment to raise the level of maintained school funding in the future to the private school level—but the private school level in 2005. That target is not likely to be met until after 2020. I would have hoped that the Secretary of State—who has been so concerned about issues of child poverty and the lack of social mobility, during his involvement in politics and before he came to the House—would take the opportunity of a growing cross-party consensus to do something much bolder on this issue.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could join a growing cross-party consensus that, when pupils, particularly from deprived areas such as Bransholme in Hull, cross over into a neighbouring education authority such as East Riding, they should bring with them the additional funding that has rightly be allocated to them. They should not go to one school, a mere half a mile away, and have £500 a year less spent on them, when they need that support.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman is quite right and we would want to see the funding follow the pupil. However, I urge him to lobby his Front-Bench team, rather than me, on the issue. The Conservative party’s proposals on the pupil premium or advantage premium are pretty woolly and vague, and they are not funded. Until they become both clear and funded, they will not mean very much.

This has been an interesting debate so far and I hope that it will continue to be so. I hope that, over the next couple of weeks, the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to clarify, seriously, the Government’s policy on this particular programme. I believe he is to make a speech next week on academies and specialist schools. I hope that he will not leave it until the report of the delivery unit to be really clear about the Government’s philosophy in this area. He needs to get over and to swallow any of the traditional concerns he has about the reform programme. If he fails to do that, it will have serious impacts on the credibility of the Government’s public service reform programme, and on the domestic agenda. Far more importantly, it will mean that in future there will be many more schools that fail their many deprived pupils—we are all aware of that type of school—not for one year or two, but for generations.

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2.10 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): In my few remarks, I will try to strike a balance. The last time we discussed education in the House was on the Queen’s Speech. I was rather disappointed by the tone of the Opposition’s amendment, because it fell into the trap that we associate with the rather right-wing think-tanks, such as Politeia. The attitude was that state education was awful and every school was failing. That message does not square with my experience. I am one of those Members of Parliament who visit many schools, most of which are good. They are full of energy and have good leadership, excellent staff and a learning environment. The students seem to be happy. Interestingly, a recent report from the Keele centre of excellence in schools showed that to be the case in many schools.

Not all schools and teachers are perfect, but to go to the other extreme and to make the reductionist argument that almost everything in British education is bad demoralises teachers, heads and parents.

Michael Gove rose—

Mr. Sheerman: No, I will not give way to the Opposition Front Bencher; he is almost universally rude when people give way to him. I will give way to Back Benchers. Front Benchers have had enough time to speak.

Mr. Graham Stuart: In that case, will the hon. Gentleman give way to me?

Mr. Sheerman: I will indeed.

Mr. Stuart: As a new member of the hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I am extremely grateful. I just re-read the motion, because I did not recognise his description of it. There is nothing negative in the motion. It merely expresses a desire that the Government do not resile from the academies programme, but take it forward for the betterment of pupils.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend is a welcome new member of our Committee, but if he looks back at my remarks he will see that I was talking about the last education debate. For me, today’s debate is much better—it is about academies. That was just a warning shot. I do not like it when we say that everything is bad and is going to hell in a handcart. It is not.

We on the Select Committee have always tried, even when the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) was a member, to judge the Government by certain standards, one of which is evidence-based policy. Opposition parties should be judged on evidence-based policy, too. When it comes to the evidence-based policy for the recent foray into early years education, I am critical of those on my Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench, who are both getting it wrong because of their passionate love affair with synthetic phonics. The Select Committee inquiry found that any systematic way of teaching children to read worked.

The problem was a lack of any system in too many schools. Indeed, when we went further, we found that the real trouble was that teachers were not taught to teach children to read. We made two strong
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recommendations. First, we said that we should ensure that teachers are trained to teach whatever system they choose, or whatever is in fashion—and it is very much a question of fashion. Secondly, we said that we should be very careful when extrapolating from the evidence of one piece of research in one part of the United Kingdom—Clackmannanshire. In a sense, I am disappointed with both the Government and the Opposition.

Mr. Gibb rose—

Mr. Sheerman: No, I will not give way to Front Benchers. I said that I would not.

Jim Knight: The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) is quite polite.

Mr. Sheerman: He is very polite, but I will not give way to him. As Chairman of the Select Committee, I criticise both Government and Opposition Front Benchers.

Angela Watkinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: In a minute; let me develop my argument.

Opposition Front Benchers say that a dramatic change is occurring in the Government’s attitude to academies. So far, I have not seen that, and I spend a lot of time talking to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, many of the major sponsors and academies themselves. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening in academies. I do not see, and they do not seem to perceive, a radical change in the academy programme, or restrictions being put on them. The suggestion is that heavy emphasis is being put back on the dead-weight hand of local authorities. After years as Chair of the Select Committee on Children—[Hon. Members: “Schools and Families.”]—Schools and Families; sorry, someone was passing me something. With my experience as Chair of the Committee, I do not see academies being put at risk by local government.

However, there is a problem. Time and again, in every inquiry we undertook, parents, head teachers and people in the education sector and in schools said, “Give us a good, supportive, well-informed, local authority in partnership with us; that is our best option.” That is what they crave, and even those places that do not have that relationship would like it. In a sense, getting that balance right is one of the responsibilities of any Government.

We cannot deny local democracy, although it is sometimes awkward. Councillors make decisions that others do not like. When the Liberal Democrats were in charge of Kirklees, they set their face against academies. I was quietly talking about the possibility of an academy or two in Kirklees and Huddersfield, but I could not get anywhere when the Liberal Democrats were in charge. Two councillors changed in the local elections, and we now have a Conservative-led administration that is in favour of academies, and I support that. Local democracy is like that, and we have to live with it. Sometimes, local
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authorities are so bad on education and delivery that pretty dramatic action has to be taken. I can name cases in Yorkshire and across the country where such dramatic action was necessary, and education in those areas is much better for it.

There is an unfair, biased balloting system for grammar schools, so why not have a fair balloting system when a local authority says that it does not want an academy, but local people might do so? We have told the Government that it would be good if we had a fair balloting system for selective schools instead of the present rules, under which any proposal for change is defeated. A balloting system might not be bad; I just put that idea in the ears of the Minister for Schools and Learners. It could apply to schools that want to become academies and schools that want not to be grammar schools. It would be a more even-handed approach, but I am not sure how quickly he will grasp it.

I want to say something supportive about academies. Evidence given to our Committee suggests that academies have shown steady improvement, but there will be some challenges. I was interested to hear the caution of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), on banding. In our inquiries on admissions, head teacher after head teacher said, “If we had a school intake that represented our community, we could do wonderful things,” but what happens if everyone who can do so moves to a better catchment area, or puts their children into independent education?

I visited a secondary modern school in Kent where 100 per cent. of the pupils received free school meals, 65 per cent. had special educational needs and there were many looked-after children. With such an imbalance, it is extremely difficult to do a good job for all the children, no matter how charismatic the head. Of course, if children go to a selective school in Kent, they will do well and get a good education, but the majority of pupils who do not get into the grammar schools get a poor education, so on average all children in Kent get a sub-standard education. That is an interesting effect of selection.

The hon. Member for Yeovil responded to an intervention about faith schools. The Committee found that one problem with faith schools was that they did not tend to reflect their community. Ironically, according to their charters, many of our greatest public schools—set up many years ago by kings, queens and notable politicians, if one is prepared to dig back that far—were established for the education of poor children. They are hardly in that business now.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Does the Chairman of the Select Committee welcome the trend of independent schools joining the state family of schools by becoming academies, as Colston school in my constituency and Bristol Cathedral school are doing?

Mr. Sheerman: Indeed, I welcome that, and I welcome choice.

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