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It is odd for me as a Christian—I am a poor Christian, although I was the parliamentary church warden of St. Margaret’s, Westminster for seven years—to see schools deliberately, or perhaps subliminally, exclude poor students from faith schools. Often, those are Anglican schools
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and Roman Catholic schools. One looks at the surrounding community and wonders why the poorer kids—those on free school meals—do not get a fair crack at getting into those schools. There is evidence of a kind of selection—not by entrance examination—because something is going on when the community is not reflected in a school’s membership.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman can scratch away as deeply as he likes, but the faith schools in my constituency all have a genuinely comprehensive intake. A Roman Catholic secondary girls school, of which I am a governor, has a genuinely comprehensive intake and its fair share of statemented children and children with disabilities. It has high standards of discipline and behaviour and high parental interest in the education of their children. It takes pupils from a neighbouring, notably more deprived parish, and the children from the more deprived area are often the highest achievers. It is the ethos of the school that is so successful.

Mr. Sheerman: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Going back to evidence-based policy, we looked closely at admissions. I am not saying anything about the school with which she is involved, but there was a general problem with faith schools. I hope very much that the new admissions code and the provision that enables it to be delivered more powerfully and positively will show results. The Select Committee’s recommendations on the mandatory code, the ability to enforce it through the schools adjudicator and the role for the schools commissioner might make a real difference.

Academies present a challenge. If a bright, new academy, with new staff and new leadership, is created where a school has not performed well, a broader group in the community will support it. That is what we all want. People who were commuting from the old school area will attend the academy. Some critics, especially those on the left of the Labour party, will look at the statistics and say that the academy has been taken over by the middle classes, but that is not necessarily true. What we are seeing is a healthy influence.

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

Mr. Sheerman: I have very little time left.

Academies are doing the job that they were set up to do, but they are criticised when their intake broadens. Where that does not happen, I have always been a strong defender of banding. If we get a fair proportion of the surrounding community into the academy, great things can be done in education.

Where there are challenges in a school—for example, large staff turnover because of its inner-city location and a high turnover of students—it is all too easy to dismiss the efforts of a team that is working hard to deal with them. Such a school is often in danger of falling into the “special” category, and have Ofsted breathing down its neck. If its intake changes even a little during the year, the head teacher can become unemployable simply because the Ofsted inspection took place that year, rather than the year before.

I have much sympathy for schools in the inner cities and inner towns. The Government have tried to help
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them with their challenges, but they can end up feeling that they have not had a fair shake of the dice.

There is and always will be a problem with our education system. This morning the Committee discussed absence in the early years. In many schools, that starts at 2 per cent. and can reach 11.5 per cent. among pupils of 14, 15 and 16. We need to conduct more research into those not in education, employment or training—NEETs—and tracking the early signs.

The debate is interesting and has been more constructive than the first two education debates in this Session. I hope that we will go back to the guiding principle of evidence-based policy.

2.28 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I found it extraordinary that the Secretary of State devoted such a large part of his speech to talking about us—the Conservative party and our policies. I should have thought that, particularly in view of the breadth of the Government amendment to the motion, the debate was an opportunity to set out the Government’s policy and to explain what they are doing for education. Most of the Secretary of State’s remarks seemed to be aimed rather more at us. Perhaps his obsession with my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), the shadow Secretary of State, indicates who the Secretary of State thinks is likely to be taking his job in the relatively near future.

In my constituency we have an excellent Conservative-controlled local education authority, but as in the case of one or two other Members who have spoken, it is a member of the F40 group of the most poorly funded LEAs in the country—a problem that Labour promised to fix when it came into government 10 years ago. The gap between my constituents in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and better funded LEAs has not narrowed significantly in the intervening period. That gives my local authority significant challenges in continuing to deliver excellent education.

I am pleased to speak in support of the motion because even in a county such as Gloucestershire, which delivers good results, it is still important to have parental choice and competition to keep everyone on their toes. In a constituency such as mine, which has more than 50 primary and secondary schools, that is important.

The exchanges between Labour and Conservative Front Benchers about the surplus places rule were interesting. In one way, I was heartened that the Minister for Schools and Learners confirmed that there is such a rule, as the Government often pretend that there is not. I want to take a moment to explain one of the impacts in a constituency such as mine. It has a number of very good primary schools, many of which are full. Some are not physically full, but full only in terms of the indicated admission number.

Even in an excellent Conservative-controlled authority, local authority bureaucrats like to take control and manage parental choices. I was involved in helping Pauntley school—an excellent school, in the north of my constituency, that is highly regarded by parents; many more parents want their children to go there. We have had an extraordinary battle in trying to secure extra funding, which I am pleased to say my county
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council colleagues have approved, to expand the school and replace some temporary classrooms with more fitting buildings so that it can continue to serve the local community.

Local authority bureaucrats have amazing systems of dividing up the world into polygons and deciding that people have to send their children to school according to exactly where they live. Such systems are completely oblivious to parental choice and considerations such as where the parents may need to travel to work, the nature of the child and whether the particular school fits the particular child’s requirements.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I listened with interest to what the Secretary of State said about funding and choice. In my constituency, many parents are concerned about special educational needs. As a result, they wanted to set up a new school that dealt specifically with autism. Such a school was set up in Stevenage and was visited by the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett). However, the parents struggle with getting the funding out of the system; that funding is not recognised in respect of choice because they have set up their own school for special educational needs.

As my hon. Friend says, it is important that there be choice in the system and that special educational needs are not overlooked. Children with such needs should not be shoehorned into going to mainstream schools, where they are not always comfortable; their parents are not always comfortable at their being there either.

Mr. Harper: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. She knows that I have taken considerable interest in special educational needs; indeed, they were the subject of my maiden speech in the House.

The issue of admissions and the improvement of the system’s capacity is one of the reasons why I so welcome our attempt to improve the number of good school places available across the country. One of the problems that parents often have, and on which they often seek my support, is when an excellent school’s indicated admission number does not reflect physical capacity, but has been set, perhaps, at a time when people did not appreciate its importance. Such parents’ children are turned away from their choice of school. Having spoken to the head teacher, visited the school and considered its ethos and teaching methods, those parents feel that it best reflects the needs of their child, and they are turned away. They are always advised to send their children to a school that is failing to attract parents, so that the books can be balanced and the surplus places rule dealt with. That simply puts the needs of children behind the bureaucrats’ need to tidy up the numbers and meet the surplus places rule.

Indeed, the language in this debate—even talking about the concept of surplus places—shows, frankly, that the allocation process is still very much a socialist top-down planning system. We do not talk about having surplus places in other services or businesses; we expect to have a range of choices and to be able to choose where we want to go. Businesses are able to deal with increased demand and provide the extra capacity.
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If we had more of that in the education system, that would drive up standards and give parents more choices.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Does my hon. Friend agree that the critical element of the improved system that he is discussing is the ability for new schools to start up? If they cannot, the better schools will be monopolised by the middle classes and those who are excluded will find themselves forced into schools that are not forced to change, because of the fact that pupils are forced to attend them.

Mr. Harper: That is a good point.

As I made my previous remarks, I saw the Minister gesturing in a motion that I presumed indicated that he was referring to funding. I am happy to deal with that issue. In my constituency, we have had a school that was not successful at attracting local parents. As a result, the number of its pupils fell below the level at which the school was financially viable. I was perfectly happy and comfortable about defending the decision to close that school. If a school is unable to demonstrate to local parents that it can deliver successful results, and is unable to attract them, it should close.

Jim Knight indicated dissent.

Mr. Harper: The Minister is pulling faces, but I had that conversation and it was not particularly controversial locally. I explained to the school that if it was unable to persuade local parents to choose it over others, it was a bit difficult to force the local authority to continue funding it.

I have a problem when local authorities are forced to close, or are pressed towards closing, good, well-subscribed schools because of funding pressures. That is difficult. As the Secretary of State said, in some ways it is better to allow parents to choose which schools their children go to, even if the schools then expand to take on the pupils. That would highlight failing schools that are not delivering the quality of education that all our children need; it would force something to happen. Preventing parents from getting their first choice, and forcing them to send their children to a school that they do not want, just props up schools that are not delivering and delays the steps that need to be taken to deliver proper education—not only for the area generally, but for the pupils in the school that is not doing as well as it should.

I am pleased with the remarks made about increasing capacity. I would be pleased if schools were able to expand up to their physical capacity and good schools were able to expand still further. That is certainly not what happens locally. The indicated admission number does not always correspond with the physical capacity of the school, and once that number is hit, the school cannot take in any more pupils, regardless of whether the school has the physical capacity. [Interruption.] If the Minister is saying something different, that is incredibly encouraging and I shall pass the news to my local education authority. However, I fear that that will not be the case.

I also want to address the issue of social mobility and raising aspirations. I know that the Minister has views on that, and a number of the speeches have referred to
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it. As the Minister knows, a while ago the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) said that social mobility had not improved and was going backwards. The right hon. Gentleman said that, because of our systems at the moment, someone from his background would be unlikely today to achieve the position that he reached in becoming a member of the Cabinet. The Minister will also know, although it is not now his Department’s responsibility, that not enough socially disadvantaged young people are able to go to university. In my view, that is largely not the fault of the admissions system—although there may be individual cases—but due to the fact that those children are not given a good enough primary and secondary education and that in many cases their aspirations are simply not high enough.

When making one of our regular visits to schools in our constituencies, particularly those in the more disadvantaged areas, all hon. Members try to broaden the children’s horizons as we talk to them, to raise aspirations and to support the heads and teachers when they try to do likewise. I encourage schools in my constituency to visit this House when possible— although it is a little difficult because of the distance—because that is a good opportunity for the children to experience some British history as they walk around the parliamentary estate and to watch a debate and, one hopes, a good parliamentary occasion. That may enable some children not necessarily to think of a political future but to broaden their horizons and think of opportunities that they may not have previously chosen.

In a ministerial statement just nine days ago, the Minister for Schools and Learners said:

The Government have been in power for 10 years, and it is a tragedy that that gap is still so wide and that progress has not moved further and faster.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the paper that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath launched yesterday. I particularly welcome the proposals on improving good school places in the state system to shift the balance of power away from the establishment and in favour of parents. That is the single biggest change that we could make, and over the long term it would make a decisive shift in the education system for the good of all pupils, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

2.41 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab): I am somewhat relieved that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee has left. I have now been a member of his Committee for one week. I feel that my comments may not match the standard of bipartisanship that he was urging on us, but I will do my best.

We must take Opposition day motions as we find them, but I was astonished when I read this one. It could have been a lot shorter; indeed, it could have been one sentence: “I wish we’d thought of that.” It was rather quaint to listen to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) begin by saying that the
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Government lacked vision, and then going on to make the most policy-light speech that I have had the misfortune to hear in my relatively short time here. The reason for that lies partly in the fact that the ideas are borrowed. I have it on good authority that when the Conservative policy review body sat down to try to think through those ideas, this was all that they could come up with at the end of a two-hour session with the great and the good. There was nothing that they could do to better the academy programme.

Mr. Gibb: I realise that the hon. Gentleman is new to the Select Committee, but he will of course be aware that the academy programme builds on and almost replicates the city technology college concept, which was introduced by the last Conservative Government.

Mr. Slaughter: Having run an LEA for 20 years, I am certainly not new to Conservative education policy. I take it as flattery that the Conservatives wish to borrow the policy and try to claim it as their own.

The Government’s amendment sets out their achievements in education. I welcome those achievements in three respects. First, I welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech, with the education and skills Bill, which will extend education and training further to 17 and 18-year-olds, and the Children and Young Persons Bill, which will take steps to address the disadvantaged position of children in care. I thought, perhaps naively, that those proposals would be relatively uncontroversial, and I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), was dismayed to hear how Opposition Members approached them in the debate on the Gracious Speech, in trying to find fault with wholly praiseworthy measures.

Secondly, I praise the investment that the Government have put in. Yesterday I visited Burlington Danes academy in my constituency, where in addition to the £2 million put in by sponsors, £16 million is being put in by the Government to build new parts of the school to an extremely high standard and to give that school, which has gone through some troubled times but is basically excellent, a bright future. Earlier this year I attended the opening of Acton high school, which has been completely rebuilt to an astonishingly high standard. As soon as one walks into such a school, one can see the value that is placed on young people and their education, which I never saw in the dirty, unkempt and distressed schools that I visited when the Conservative party was in government.

I also praise initiatives such as building schools for the future, which will give more than £100 million to schools in my constituency, Sure Start and neighbourhood renewal. I think that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) mentioned Phoenix high school, which is in my constituency, and William Atkinson six times. I am not surprised, because William, who is the head teacher of Phoenix, is a most inspiring individual. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman visited the school—although next time he might want to give me notice that he is going there.

Mr. Laws: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, who has reminded me that I should have written to him beforehand.

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