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18 Jun 2008 : Column 261WH—continued

Devolved administrations have pursued some policies that are not replicated in England, but that is what they are there for. By increasing spending in certain areas,
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such as by giving free prescriptions and personal care, they inevitably have to make reductions in other key public services. That is the part that we do not hear about in all the public discussion on the spending policies of the devolved administrations. This year, universities in Scotland, which are an important part of the infrastructure, will have a real-term reduction in funding, whereas the total grant to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which distributes public money to universities and colleges for teaching and research, will rise 2.5 per cent. a year between 2008 and 2011. Similarly, health spending in England will rise in real terms by 4 per cent. a year for the next three years, whereas in Scotland it will rise by only 1.5 per cent. We do not often hear about that sort of discrepancy, but it matters.

It is inevitable that devolved administrations will have different priorities and will make different choices, but that is not necessarily unfair—it is just different. The two are not synonymous. Another important issue is respite care for the parents and carers of disabled children. In England, it is funded by the Government through a £340 million programme, but in Scotland it is not guaranteed. That is another discrepancy, but it is not necessarily unfair to the people of England.

I was pleased to hear an hon. Member—not my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, but the hon. Member for Cambridge, I think—mention the importance of need when considering funding. The Barnett formula depends on assessment of need. My hon. Friend did some careful and nice per capita calculations, but with spending figures, the crucial consideration must always be need. That is what determines fairness—to pick up on the hon. Lady’s phrase again. Fairness is absolutely essential; the Government believe that above all else. If one considers fairness in spending, one has to consider need. There will be differences in how precisely one defines it, but it is fundamentally important and one must bear it in mind when one considers the figures. I hope that my hon. Friend will remember that.

Mr. Andrew Turner: What about London? The greatest amount of money seems to be spent there, but that could not be for reasons only of need.

Mr. Wills: I am not a London MP, and I hesitate to trespass on these extremely delicate issues. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, if any London MPs were present, they would strongly contest what he says. It is inevitable, with definitions of need, that individual areas will tend to put their priorities highest. Local authorities are always complaining about how unfairly they are treated, whichever part of the country they are in, because their definition of their needs and the priorities given to them are always different. That is true across local authorities and regions, and between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. It is inevitable that there will be such differences and arguments. There probably will never be a settled conclusion on precise definitions of need. That is democratic debate and we could discuss it for ever. Need should always be borne in mind, and I am very glad that it was brought into the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will remember that when he discusses these figures in future.

We have had an interesting debate, which has shown that devolution will continue to be a matter for discussion,
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but we believe that it has secured the future of the Union. It is easy to forget what the situation was like in the 1990s when feelings were running extremely high in Scotland. I remind the hon. Member for Epping Forest that the people of Scotland felt that it was being used unfairly as a laboratory for the divisive social and economic policies of the Conservative Government of the time. The people of Scotland still have not forgotten that they were used to test the implementation of the poll tax. Such issues raised tensions to an extremely high level.

Whatever one thinks of the current Administration in Scotland, most people would accept that we have a vibrant devolution settlement. The recent mayoral elections in London, although they did not turn out as I wished, were nevertheless a good advertisement for our vibrant devolved democracy, and will continue to be so. Our measures on devolution have enhanced the constitutional arrangements of this country and have preserved the Union. They deliver essential flexibility and allow the devolved administrations and legislatures the ability to deliver distinctive policies, and it is right and proper that they should do so. The fact that there is also a single Government taking a UK-wide view has enabled us to have the stable macro-economic policy that has delivered growth year on year for the past 10 years and has kept us in good shape to face the turbulent global economic challenges that lie ahead.

Our constitutional arrangements have delivered a common social security system that assists those who are most in need across the UK, building the common sense of identity that is so important. We have been able to adopt a common approach, which, I hope hon. Members agree, is important for dealing with the challenges of terrorism and formulating common policies on defence and foreign affairs. It is our profound belief that the Union benefits all the people of the United Kingdom. It reflects our shared history and heritage, and supports the successful participation of all the peoples of these islands in a global economy. It promotes our international standing, and I hope that none of us will do anything to damage it. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey; agrees with me on that, but I am afraid that his proposals would risk—inadvertently, I am sure—damaging the Union that is so precious to us all. I hope that he will reconsider his proposal, but I welcome his continued contribution to this debate.

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10.59 am

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have secured this debate, which allows me to put on record my concerns about the whole academy programme, both nationally and in my constituency.

I do not think that anybody will deny the investment that this Government have made in education since 1997, but the debate is about the academies programme. Despite considerable evidence that that system of educational reform simply does not work, the Government recently indicated that the scheme was to be expanded. Whatever Ministers and private sector investors might tell us, the academies programme is the privatisation of our education system in all but name. Why would private investors and multinational companies, one of which phoned me this week to try to influence the debate, be so keen to get their hands on our schools if not for the purpose of profit? The academies scheme is a flawed and futile way to reform education and will further only the marketisation of public services, not investment and achievement in education.

I do not doubt Ministers’ sincerity when they say that they want to improve standards in schools. No one wants a school to decline. However, our main argument should be about how best we can achieve our aims of improvement, attainment and fulfilment, rather than do the opposite. The pro-academy lobby talks about standards purely to justify a move towards a system to which most people are essentially opposed. For example, it looks at a failing or underperforming school and asks people whether they want it to improve. Of course, everyone in the local community rightly says yes. A take-it-or-leave-it offer of an academy school instead of the existing failing school is then put on the table. As one would expect, the investment is welcomed by all, but I am yet to hear a convincing argument that similar investment in a new comprehensive or a smaller through-school would fail to achieve the same aim.

It seems that Ministers are convinced by the argument that academies work where comprehensives do not, yet the pure facts do not back that up. In my constituency, the Ridings school, a former comprehensive that many hon. Members will have heard of, is merging with Holy Trinity Church of England school to form a new, supposedly state-of-the-art academy venture. It is expected that attainment standards will increase because of the merger, which is the argument that the pro-academy lobby has used to perpetrate the case for academies. However, it is not likely that children who are underachieving in their present schools will receive the care and attention that they require to improve in an academy of 1,000-plus children. Furthermore, it has not been proved that removing accountability from local education authorities is of any potential benefit to a community that is already struggling to keep up with neighbouring areas.

Although it is premature, the decision to have an academy in Halifax has been taken. However, I am appalled that not enough consideration has been given to whether that fleeting venture will really work and benefit people in that part of my constituency. It seems a short-term fix for a long-term problem.

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I have heard similar stories about academies from across the country. They are seen as an easy answer to the difficult task of providing adequate education in deprived areas with schools that have with low attainment levels and poor Ofsted reports. The idea is attractive to most, with its promises of increased investment, new buildings and a new beginning for underachieving areas—at least until we scratch beneath the surface. Consultations are rushed and local opinions are generally not surveyed. For example, consultation with parents in Halifax was held during the school holidays, even though the decision had actually been taken well before. So much for being in touch with the feelings of local communities.

Alas, it seems that a new academy will shortly open in my constituency. What worries me most is that it does not seem that enough attention has been given to how it will fit into the current education structure. Perhaps the Minister will tell me differently. With two grammar schools, faith schools and local comprehensives, Halifax does not have the most uniform of school systems. Parents who cannot get their children into the local grammar or Church schools are forced to play the system and send them to comprehensives away from their catchment area—for instance, in the neighbouring Calder valley. What is left in Halifax is a last resort for most parents: a modern secondary, the Ridings school. I admit that it has had disappointing exam results in recent years, but it is likely to have an even more unstable future as a new academy after the merger.

Of course something needed to be done about falling standards, but why an academy and why now? In my opinion, the whole ideology behind the academies system has an economic, not an educational purpose. The merger of a well performing faith school in Halifax with an underachieving comprehensive school in an effort to make one super-school has aggravated many people in the community. Will the Minister tell me what the point of the consultation was, given that my constituents’ views were not even taken into account? Are people’s views taken on board, and if so, why have they not been reflected in Halifax?

I believe that academies are wrong for four fundamental reasons. I hope that hon. Members will agree with me when they have heard the debate. Those four points have led me to believe that, rather than roll out the academies programme further, the Government should consider scrapping the whole thing in favour of a system that local communities actually want. In my case, that is smaller through-schools covering the ages of four to 16 or 18.

First, academies are anti-democratic. The sponsors nominate the majority of school governors and academies are not under the control or direction of the local authority. In effect, there is no accountability. Secondly, the sponsorship system is flawed. Sponsors are not required to declare who gives them money, so they are entirely unaccountable and out of the control of local councils. Newcastle city council recently wrote to the Department for Children, Schools and Families requesting that an academy sponsor with somewhat dubious habits be removed. Why does that need to be a central Government, rather than local government, decision?

Thirdly, academies practise covert selection. For example, the intake of children with special needs, who may carry poor academic records, can be restricted. Surely we are
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not encouraging a system of exclusion in this day and age. Furthermore, as academies receive considerably more capital funding than community or foundation schools, they have the potential to undermine local admissions policies.

Finally, academies have not been proven to rectify poor attainment levels as one would have hoped. On 11 June, a full list of failing schools was published. Barnsley academy rated sixth from lowest in the country, with only 20 per cent. of its students achieving five A* to C GCSE results.

Despite that, the Government seem determined to drive on, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. The move away from the comprehensive ideal is contrary to the values and visions at the heart of the Labour movement, and I profoundly regret it. I am not saying that change was not needed in Halifax, but I have not discounted the possibility of better ways to improve education than this back-door privatisation scheme.

With your permission, Mr. Chope, I shall hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who is the chairman of the anti-academies alliance.

11.8 am

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) for allowing me to make a few points about academies in her constituency and elsewhere. I congratulate her on securing this timely debate.

I preface my comments by saying that the Minister has made it plain on a number of occasions that his aim is to secure the best educational opportunities for young people aged 14 to 19. He makes no pretence that any particular plan must include an academy or must not include an academy. He is looking for the best and, in regard to that matter, we all applaud his integrity and his intention. Nevertheless, it must be said that, notwithstanding his value-free assessment of the place of academies in a wider solution to some of the problems that beset our secondary schools, other forces are not quite so benign.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax has referred to the raft of business people who have been called in as though they had some magic formula to turn round schools, when in fact the evidence shows that they have had no such success that can be backed up at in any real, meaningful and statistically sound manner. I will mention a few of these business people. There is Lord Harris of Peckham, the Carpetright plc chairman; I think that he is pretty good at selling carpets. There is Lord Laidlaw, who is a bit more problematic; he was disgraced for his antics in Monaco and exposed by the News of the World. There is David Samworth of Pukka Pies—a background that I think provides really good groundwork in education policy—and David Crossland, founder of Airtours. The organisations involved include Carphone Warehouse, the Society of Merchant Venturers, and Tarmac. Tarmac is a very good company in my constituency, but as for education? Well, Tarmac is pretty good at roads, but I am not too sure about secondary schools.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. However, is this not a case of new money going into education to
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raise the educational attainment of children who, for whatever reason, are not achieving well at the moment?

Mr. Purchase: The new money is almost entirely coming from the Government, because none of these sponsors can say, hand on heart, that they have put their hand in their back pocket and produced £2 million. No one can find evidence of that, simply because they have not done it. What they have done, in many cases, is to sell services to the school that they now own and then pretended that they sold those services at a discount rate, and somehow that counts against their £2 million contribution. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has been taken in.

The real boost to education spending has come from Government sources. I must say that the Minister for Schools and Learners, who is here today, has made some real progress, for example, in tightening up the admissions criteria. However, there is little doubt that the academies have found ways and means by which they can overcome the proper restrictions that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has put upon them.

Academies have found ways of expelling more than the average number of students who are expelled from schools. In Walsall, which is next door to my constituency, the new academy replaced a school that had 50 per cent. of its children receiving free school meals. The figure for children receiving free school meals is understood to be a very good single indicator of deprivation within a school population. Guess what, though? The academy in Walsall now has just 11 per cent. of children receiving free school meals. So I share all the fears that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax has expressed about her own constituency and the deprivation there, which I know she deals with daily.

Regarding the sponsors that we have for academies, I mentioned at Prime Minister’s Question Time some time ago a conversation that was alleged to have taken place between Lord Harris of Peckham and Lord Adonis, who is a former member of the Social Democratic party, I think. In this conversation that is alleged to have taken place between them, Lord Harris is reported to have said, “Well, he”—that is, Lord Adonis—“will ring me up and say, ‘Look, I’ve got this school, it ain’t doing this and doing that.’ Then, I say to him, ‘What’s it like with so-and-so?’ And if I like it, I say, ‘OK, I’ll have it.’” Now, in my opinion, that is not the way in which an Education Minister should be conducting affairs that affect the future of thousands of young people, if not many more.

Even more than that, what do we get? Francis Beckett, the journalist, interviewed Lord Harris on these matters and he said that he got his first taste of the entrepreneurial edge that such men can bring to our schools. He said:

He did so to find out who was in school that morning. That is the kind of nonsense that we are now into.

Education is supposed to be done by educationists. There is absolutely no evidence at all, not even in the Government’s PricewaterhouseCoopers report, that can substantiate in any real sense the claim that academies have brought to the party what they were supposed to
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bring. They were intended initially to replace really difficult, so-called failing schools in our inner cities. When that plan did not work, Lord Adonis announced that he wanted to expand his programme. Would anyone believe that we now have private schools looking to the Government to help them to become academies and to give them the kind of support that they have craved from the very beginning?

So now we have a position where, in an interview in The SpectatorMr. Chope, you will be aware that The Spectator is the Tory house magazine—Lord Harris stated his view that the only achievement of comprehensive education in this country had been to “destroy” good grammar schools. Lord Adonis is the person that our former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, who has now retired from that office, put in charge of the Labour party’s education policy. I find it absolutely extraordinary that a man who was so opposed to everything—everything—that the comprehensive ideal had tried to achieve should be put in charge of that policy.

I finish by reminding hon. Members of the history. When Butler produced his famous Education Act in 1944, it opened up the possibilities, for the first time, of education for all. In the 1960s, an heroic Labour Government produced the circular that allowed comprehensive education to become the norm. Lady Thatcher actually closed more grammar schools than any other Minister before or since. We have had a genuine advancement of opportunity.

However, what we are seeing now is a process of closing down opportunities again, so that we have faith schools, specialist schools and trust schools—you name it, you can have any school you like, except you cannot get into them. The problem that we now have is not one of diversity; what we have now is the break-up of a truly magnificent ideal of comprehensive education. I say now that, if this academy movement is allowed to succeed, the long, long road that we have all been fighting on to get comprehensive schools available to all will be further diminished and this country will be the poorer for it.

11.18 am

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) on securing this debate. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), she has raised some important points and it is helpful for me to have the opportunity to clarify the Government’s position.

I will start by providing some context. As, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, it is our ambition that every child benefits from a good education; from a good-quality place in a local school, where high standards set them on the path to achieving all that they are capable of. That is what every parent wants from their local school.

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