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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1243
3.33 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): We have had an excellent debate and it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart).

Our debate has been about the academies programme, but also about reform. Our party believes that giving schools more autonomy and freedom to manage themselves, and bringing in new providers, will help to raise standards. That can be seen in practice at Mossbourne academy in Hackney, where half the children qualify for free school meals, 40 per cent. speak English as a second language and a quarter are on the special needs register. Yet in this year’s key stage 3 SATs results, 92 per cent. achieved level 5 or above in English and 93 per cent. did so in maths. That puts the school on track for 80 per cent. to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths. We should compare that with the figure for most comprehensives in leafy suburbs, and with the national average of 46 per cent.

Mossbourne is an excellent school with exemplary behaviour and a strict school uniform policy that is strictly enforced. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) was so disparaging about that approach to education. Children do stand up at that school—

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

Mr. Gibb: Very briefly.

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman must accept that a policy directed from the centre of national Government that tells every school what every child in every classroom must do every time the door opens and an adult walks in is absolutely absurd. Has he calculated how many times children will be standing up and sitting down during a school year?

Mr. Gibb: Well, it seems to work, and what matters is policies that actually work rather than those that are based on assertion—or on ideology, as in the hon. Gentleman’s case. There is nothing contradictory in wanting more freedom for schools, especially from the hundreds of directives that come out of the Department every year, full of prescriptions about a whole range of issues. We just want two or three priorities to be achieved: better reading, better discipline and children taught according to their ability.

Mr. Laws: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve through some of his policies, but does he not agree that his party is sending a contradictory message? It talks about more freedom for schools, but it is being incredibly prescriptive on issues such as setting. Is it right for his party to be so prescriptive if it also wishes to give greater freedoms?

Mr. Gibb: We are discussing the freedom to manage schools without interference from political bodies such as local authorities and a whole range of other organisations. Ministers must have certain key priorities. It is well known that there is a massive amount of evidence on reading. We are not dictating; we are saying that there is best practice and that Ofsted will expect schools to adopt it unless they can demonstrate that they are achieving better results through other methods.

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Mr. Laws: That was almost a get-out clause, but let me quote from the Conservative party green paper. I recognise that setting works for many youngsters, but page 33 of the document states:

Is it really appropriate for the Government—the current one or a Conservative Administration—to dictate to that extent?

Mr. Gibb: If that is what the evidence shows works. The Liberal Democrat spokesman tabled amendments at the Committee stage of an education Bill that were full of prescriptive proposals. The hon. Member for Bury, North has a range of prescriptive measures that he would like to apply to schools; they just happen to be prescriptive measures with which he agrees. Those are the measures that we want to sweep away.

All Members want prescriptive measures for our schools. All Members want a de minimis level of academic standards in our schools. We want freedom for schools to manage themselves, but there must be minimum standards. Schools will be expected to adopt best practice and Ofsted will ensure that schools deliver, but there will be no centrally imposed diktat, and certainly much less than the centrally imposed diktats that emanate from the Secretary of State’s Department. Sixty-page documents with detailed prescriptions about children sitting and concentrating are what come out of his Department today and for as long as he presides over it.

The Opposition are happy to defend the academies programme—more so, perhaps than Labour Members. The Education and Skills Committee report published in 2005 expressed concern that

However, that was early in the academies programme, and we must not forget that academies replaced schools that were failing desperately in some of the most deprived parts of the country. In all but five cases the academies took on existing staff and pupils, and it takes time to see the effects of the new leadership and ethos that academies bring to education.

Earlier this year, the National Audit Office produced a report into academies that concluded:

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust points out that overall the percentage of free school meals eligibility in academies is 38 per cent., compared with the national average of 14 per cent. It points out, however, that by

The truth is that academies are simply city technology colleges, a concept introduced by the previous Conservative Government, with a new Labour wrapper—the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) appears to have conveniently forgotten that.

Jim Knight: How many were there?

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Mr. Gibb: About 20, but we must remember that CTCs were introduced in the last few years of the previous Government, whereas this Government have been in power for 10 years and there are still only 83 academies. We must be realistic: when we examine the results of the CTCs, we see what several years of freedom and effective leadership can achieve. Conor Ryan, a former Labour education special adviser, points out in his excellent blog, which I recommend to Labour Members, that CTCs beat many fee-paying independent schools in their GCSE results.

The top performing CTC is Thomas Telford school. It has a genuinely comprehensive intake, and 100 per cent. of its pupils achieve five or more GCSEs—95 per cent. do so when English and maths are included. More than that, 100 per cent. of pupils achieved 12 or more GCSEs, including vocational equivalents. Even when one strips out the vocational qualifications, the school remains the best performing comprehensive in the country. Last year, 88 per cent. of pupils at the Harris city academy in Crystal Palace achieved five or more GCSEs—75 per cent. did so when English and maths are included.

The key to this success was the freedom that academies and CTCs were given, but that is slowly being eroded by the Secretary of State. He said in a parliamentary statement:

That is Sir Humphrey speak for, “Academies will no longer be exempt from the requirements of the national curriculum.”

That confirms the fear expressed by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that the Secretary of State is creating a system of academies in name but not in substance. He is also right to say that the drive behind the academies programme is to bring into education the innovation and excellence that head teachers such as William Atkinson bring to their schools. He could also have mentioned Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne community academy, Sir Kevin Satchwell at Thomas Telford school or Mrs. Brenda Bigland, the head teacher at the excellent Lent Rise combined school in Burnham, near Slough.

During the debate, the Secretary of State made a strange and rather political point—surprise, surprise. He said that our decision to use a small portion of the building schools for the future budget to build new schools is somehow a cut in spending on building new schools. That does not make sense. He went on about the dangers of teaching creationism without mentioning any school where that happens. Under our proposals, new academies will be bound by section 157 of the Education Act 2002, which sets out the curriculum requirements for independent schools.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned synthetic phonics, saying that what mattered was a systematic approach. That is right, but it is also important that children should not be asked to guess words that they do not know on the basis of the story or
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the picture. That is the key principle behind synthetic phonics, and it drove out illiteracy from West Dunbartonshire.

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Mr. Gibb: I shall not give way, because of the time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) is right to point out that our principled approach to supporting the Government’s education Bill last year—it would have failed without Conservative votes—is key evidence of this party’s commitment to genuine reform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) is right that education is the key to social mobility, which is why we must focus on raising standards and on reform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) referred to the ROSE project at Havering college, which I went to see a couple of weeks ago. That fantastic programme trains young people who have moderate and severe learning difficulties to enter the world of work and hold down real jobs. I met a young woman who has severe learning difficulties. She was stocking cereals in Sainsbury’s with a ROSE project job adviser standing by. I hope that this inspiring programme will be replicated elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) is right to be alarmed by the local authority polygon approach to local small primary schools, which can have the perverse result of closing excellent schools. He is right to say that the surplus places rule is a drag on attempts to raise standards, which is why yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and I, with our right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, announced that we would create a new category of academy that will be significantly easier to establish. No longer will the existence of the surplus places rule be a barrier to setting up an academy.

The fact that an education authority has surplus places in a number of its schools must be a sign that parents are unhappy, and new academies should be targeted on those areas. We want to make it easier for educational charities, philanthropists, livery companies and groups of parents to set up schools and to have access to capital and revenue funding. We want to give additional incentives to establish schools in deprived areas, with a pupil premium diverting extra resources directly to schools that accept children from poorer areas. We want to remove the bureaucratic restrictions and planning laws that make setting up a new school so difficult.

Conservatives are genuinely committed to the academies programme and to significantly raising standards in all our schools. We are committed to setting children by ability so that the most able can be stretched and the least able given time and space to learn. We are committed to ending the disgrace that one in five children leave primary school unable to read properly. We are committed to improving behaviour in schools, so that they can be calm, safe places where children enjoy learning. Last week’s Ofsted report pointed out that four in 10 children wished that their classmates would be quieter and better behaved. Poor behaviour is a key factor in driving teachers out of the profession.

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Conservatives are committed to educational reform and to higher standards in all our schools. With fewer than half of 15-year-olds achieving five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths, and with 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds leaving primary school without having grasped the basics of reading, writing and maths, now is not the time to backtrack on reform. Now is the time to take reform further forward, but that is not on the agenda of the Secretary of State or the Government. For real improvements in standards in our schools we will have to wait for a Conservative Government, committed to reform and an educated society.

3.47 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): It is a pleasure, as ever, to respond to another debate on schools reform. A bit like Tory flip-flops on school policy, they come around fairly regularly these days.

The debate has been illuminating on an Opposition motion that is a bit like the schools policy they announced yesterday—as much about what it does not say as about what it says. There was nothing about early years learning at one end or how to tackle the problems of those not staying on at the other. There was nothing on ending the divide between vocational and academic learning that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) talked about. There was nothing on narrowing the attainment gaps between boys and girls, people of different ethnicity and people with different educational needs. There was no judgment from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), no vision—just froth. There were no answers to the challenges our country faces and no policies to build on the steady improvements in education over the past 10 years.

The motion is all about academies because the Conservatives want to talk about their brave new policy on new academies—a policy funded by a smash and grab raid on our programme to replace every secondary school in the country. They would take more than £4.5 billion from the building schools for the future programme and create uncertainty for two thirds of the schools in England about whether they would be the one in seven left out of that transformational programme. Which five of the 34 secondary schools in Dorset will miss out? Which of the 33 in Oxfordshire, or the 40 in West Sussex? Will the hon. Member for Surrey Heath tell his constituents which seven of the 53 secondary schools in Surrey will not be rebuilt? We heard earlier about Shropshire, Herefordshire and Stockport, where three, two and two schools respectively will not be rebuilt.

The Conservatives cannot take that much money out without cost. I have to tell the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) that they cannot create 220,000 new places without using them to replace underperforming schools and without incurring a cost. In my constituency, and in many others that are later in the BSF programme, we shall keep asking the Opposition the same question: who misses out? Which parents and children will lose out to pay for the excess places?

Academies have been a transformational reform. In the areas that need it most, for the children who need it most, they have replaced schools that have let communities down. Their results are improving faster than those of
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any other type of school, as we heard from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. That is why we announced new academies and new sponsors today. That is why we have opened 83 academies, with more than 300 more to come.

Academies are a means to an end. They stand alongside our other reforms, which include the new discipline powers created following the Steer report, the consistent roll-out of synthetic phonics introduced following the Rose review, one-to-one tuition in the basics, extended schools with catch-up and stretch classes, and a new flexible and engaging secondary curriculum that will start in September. New qualification choices will be introduced for 14 to 19-year-olds, such as the diplomas that will combine academic and vocational learning in a new style of teaching. That approach was opposed by the Conservative party.

Our reforms also include raising the age to which people must carry on in some form of education. That was also opposed by the Conservative party. New providers from the public, private and voluntary sectors are running and partnering schools. We have parent schools, academies, trusts, faith schools and, of course, community schools. We have the vision to match today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, while the Conservative party is limited to coming up with headlines for the papers.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath began with a quotation from St. Francis of Assisi—the same quotation that Mrs. Thatcher used on the steps of Downing street. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) tells me that when Mrs. Thatcher was uttering those immortal words the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was organising a strike at The Press and Journal. Perhaps that demonstrates the beginnings of some interesting judgment.

Michael Gove: I was only 12 at the time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but I am keen to hear the Minister. He is being drowned out by a lot of noise on both sides of the House. Perhaps it would be better to let him have a proper hearing.

Jim Knight: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was quite enjoying the audience response.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the Minister give way?

Jim Knight: I might come back to the hon. Gentleman, if I have time.

We had a debate about how we keep creationism out of science in independent schools. That is one reason why the national curriculum programmes of study for science, as well as for maths, English and IT, now apply to academies. Beyond those subjects, academies have curriculum freedom. The Conservative party has no answer to the question how it will regulate new academies to prevent intellectual perversions such as creationism from entering science lessons.

Mr. Gibb: There is no evidence that any independent school teaches creationism. However, is the Minister aware that the biology syllabus offered by one of the three exam boards contains a segment on discussing creationism?

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