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In the children’s plan we have made a commitment that, by 2020, at least 90 per cent. of young people will achieve five higher-level GCSEs or more by the time that they reach the age of 19. In order to do that, we have created a floor target under every school, which states that, as an important step towards that 90 per cent. figure, at least 30 per cent. of pupils in every
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secondary school in the country should achieve five higher-level GCSEs including English and maths, which are the priority subjects, by 2011.

Over the last 10 years, we have made major inroads, which is largely down to the efforts of teachers, pupils and school leaders. In 1997, more than 1,600 secondary schools—more than half of secondary schools—were falling short of that 30 per cent. figure. Today, that figure is down to 638, which is about 22 per cent. of secondary schools. However, even one school that falls below that basic floor target is unacceptable. We are aiming for, and will achieve, a target of zero schools failing to reach the target figure by 2011. That is why the Prime Minister is committed to ensuring that every school is above the floor target by 2011. Those that are not will be subject to a formal intervention.

That is why last week we announced the national challenge, which is the next stage of our improvement strategy to help those remaining schools and their local authorities to address the issues, to meet the floor target and, crucially, to provide their students with the good education that is so essential to success in later life. As part of the national challenge, they are being offered a range of support and intervention.

Many schools are progressing well. They are successful but need just a little more support, not radical intervention. Others need considerably more support in respect of leadership, governance, teaching and pupils, and still others need more radical solutions. Even then, different circumstances require different solutions, depending on the particular challenges a school or area faces. That is why we are asking local authorities to prepare plans for their schools. They may involve a merger with another school, closure, or replacement with a national challenge trust school or, of course, an academy—the subject of this debate.

The national challenge programme is backed by an additional £200 million reprioritised from existing resources, on top of £200 million already made available in the Budget. That is £400 million of extra funding to support those schools over the next three years. The funding will support the range of interventions and preventions that schools and local authorities need. We will have local authorities’ plans by the end of the summer term, and they will include academies. My Department will work with the 26 academies currently below the floor target on exactly the same basis as we would with other schools.

Academies have a proven track record as a successful solution. They allow staff and pupils to make a clean break from the past and, often, from a legacy of generations of underperformance. They offer new leadership, stronger governance and curriculum freedoms. They have all the ingredients to be able to offer much more flexibility to deal with the problems and circumstances that resulted in their predecessor schools letting down generations of young people by providing an inadequate education. From that flexibility comes real innovation and a stronger ethos. Academies are supremely popular with parents.

As a group, academies continue to have the fastest improving academic performance in the country. Their overall absence rate is down by twice the national rate of improvement. Academies with underperforming predecessor schools saw the proportion of their pupils
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gaining five or more higher-level GCSEs double between 2001 and 2007. If we include English and maths, the improvement was still considerable—more than 11 percentage points, which is significantly higher than the national average.

Academies are in some of the most challenging areas, and they succeed some of the most challenging schools in the country, often with high proportions of children with special educational needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East raised some questions about that. The average number of pupils with special educational needs in academies is 29.5 per cent., compared with the national average of 19.2 per cent., so academies are doing more than their fair share in respect of SEN. The national average for the number of children with free school meal entitlements in secondary schools is 13.1 per cent. In academies, it is 33.8 per cent., so they are doing more than their fair share in terms of educating the more disadvantaged pupils in our country.

They are finally giving our most disadvantaged communities good education and a route to self-improvement. My hon. Friends do not have to take just my word for it—the fourth PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which was published last year, stated:

PricewaterhouseCoopers is currently undertaking its fifth and final review, which is due to be completed in the autumn.

Mr. Purchase: The PricewaterhouseCoopers report shows clearly that exam results for academies are not significantly different from other schools with much less funding. More than that, great evidence is already available that academies and city technology colleges are putting people into exams that are easier to pass and are therefore boosting their apparent results. The Minister’s own report shows that.

Jim Knight: If my hon. Friend does not like PricewaterhouseCoopers, why does he not look at the National Audit Office, which last year found that academies are


and are improving educational attainment at a much faster rate than the national average?

Mr. Purchase: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jim Knight: I must make some progress, because there is a limited amount of time. I know that my hon. Friend will be friendly in that regard.

Of the academies that have so far been inspected by Ofsted, 96 per cent. were judged to have good or outstanding leadership, compared with 62 per cent. of secondary schools in general.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax has raised concerns in the past that the academies programme represents the privatisation of state education. She repeated that today. Let me firmly reassure her on that point, which is simply not true. Academies are state-funded
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schools. They are funded directly by my Department—by the Secretary of State—and they provide free education, often to our most deprived communities and without selection by ability. Whether from the private, voluntary or education sector, academy sponsors bring to their schools a track record of achieving when faced with difficult challenges. They bring dynamism, a commitment to excellence and the backing that the principal and the staff need to succeed in a tough educational environment. Academy sponsors do not and cannot make a profit from their involvement in academies.

The most recent changes have been to allow universities and others with a strong educational track record to waive the £2 million entry fee for sponsorship. Also, in July 2006, we set up an endowment model, so that the £2 million could be paid over five years, with £500,000 in the first year as part of the endowment. The sponsors of the new academy in north Halifax will be a local university, a local college and a local council, and they will be led by the diocese of Wakefield—that is hardly privatisation.

Mr. Purchase: The Minister refers to various reports. A seminal report that he has not mentioned but should have, as it is the only independent one, was done by the Public Accounts Committee, which found that the academy programme should be halted until a better way is found to get value for money. Never mind PricewaterhouseCoopers, which does too much work for the Government.

Jim Knight: The NAO and the Public Accounts Committee work together. I do not think that there is anything biased about the NAO, which gave the academies programme a clean bill of health.

All the sponsors of the academy in north Halifax have considerable expertise in education in the local area and a vested interest in making the school a success.

Academies may not be popular with my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax and for Wolverhampton, North-East, but they clearly benefit staff, parents and pupils and can reverse the fortunes of struggling schools in a short space of time. I am confident that, in time, my noble Friend Lord Adonis will be viewed as a hero of the Labour movement, thanks to the transformation of
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education in London under his stewardship. London schools now outperform the national average, and in large part academies have been an essential ingredient of that success.

That remedy is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax can look forward to in her constituency. Currently, there are not enough good-quality school places for all the children who need them. As she said, about one third of children are obliged to travel to schools outside their local area. The Holy Trinity Church of England senior school is oversubscribed, with a significant loss of pupils at 16. The Ridings school has twice been in special measures and has been unable to shake the bad reputation it gained in 1996. That is why the decision was taken last year by Calderdale council to close the school in August 2009.

The broader scene in Halifax is much brighter. Holy Trinity school is doing well, with an unauthorised absence rate well below the national average, and 56 per cent. of its pupils achieve at least five higher-level GCSEs including English and maths. Sadly, only a narrow proportion of local children are able to benefit from its provision, due to the admissions arrangements of the school. The situation will be transformed by an academy with enlarged numbers, which will impact positively across the community. Admissions will be based on proximity, with more choice being opened up to more pupils to be educated locally. An academy will bring a stronger community focus to the local area, drawing together a more diverse population and therefore creating provision that better reflects the area that it serves. Crucially, it will drive out some of the failure that the system has seen in recent years and will raise standards for the pupils of Halifax.

Academies are not an easy solution. There never is one. For some schools, a bit of extra support will be enough. For others, more profound changes are needed. The programme is about improving schools in a way that best serves the needs of their communities. We believe, along with the local authority and the diocese, that an academy in north Halifax is the right solution. Academies are a proven route to success, to raising standards and to fairer access to a good education for all. The children of Halifax deserve nothing less.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Gypsy Encampments (Wiltshire)

2.30 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): May I say how pleased I am to have this opportunity to raise a matter that is of huge importance in my constituency of North Wiltshire and across the county of Wiltshire? Other hon. Members from elsewhere in England will be watching the progress of this debate, because many of my arguments would apply in most other counties across the nation of England. So this is a debate with a broader aspect, despite its title. In that context, I am glad to be joined by two colleagues from Wiltshire: my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who has flown in on the red eye from Washington especially to be here, for which we are grateful, and my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison). My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) sends his apologies: he has an urgent engagement in Salisbury and has been detained there. He would have been here otherwise and I understand that he supports what we will be saying during the debate.

This is a grave and great matter, particularly in my constituency. In the past month or so North Wiltshire district council has been consulting on whether and where it should allow a new Gypsy encampment, currently for 24 pitches but, potentially, for 48: there may be two sites of 24. The excellent firm, Humberts, which carried out a survey into the matter came up with a list of six possible sites for this encampment in my constituency.

It will be no surprise to hon. Members to hear that the people who live next door to each of those encampments have been expressing their opinion on the subject forcfully. There was a meeting in the town of Calne, in my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituency last night, attended by 750 people. That is a bigger public meeting than I have seen in my 11 or 12 years as a Member of Parliament. Similarly, a public meeting in Wootton Bassett last week was so large that it had to be divided into three separate groupings. There was a huge demonstration through the town of Chippenham a couple of weeks back, even though we folk in Chippenham do not have many public demonstrations. Public meetings have been held elsewhere. It is a matter of great and grave concern.

I thought that it would be useful to have this debate and to attempt to focus public attention particularly on where it ought to be and away from where it ought not to be. I entirely deprecate and distance myself from those people who argue on this matter by saying that, in their view, Gypsies and Travellers—I will return to the precise use of the words in a moment—are people whom we would not necessarily want to live near. I have to say that that is not my experience in Wiltshire. I know a good number of Gypsies and many of them, particularly the traditional Wiltshire Romany Gypsies are perfectly charming. The police tell me that there is no evidence whatsoever that they are less law-abiding than the rest of us or that they leave more fly-tipping waste. I had a briefing this morning from the Country Land and Business Association, which said that there is no evidence that they are more guilty of fly-tipping than anyone else. I know of no evidence that they are necessarily less good neighbours than the rest of us.

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I deprecate and distance myself from those who have used extreme and difficult language during the debates that we have had in Wiltshire, indicating that as a group or a race these are people whom we do not want near us, because that is not so. It would be wrong if we had this debate along those lines. This debate must be about planning, which some people might think is a boring, dreary matter in some contexts. Nevertheless, it is about planning and the way that we handle the need for sites for these people, in the same way as we deal with building houses for those of us of a settled nature.

Just a word on the way that we describe Gypsies. I use the word “Gypsies” as a shorthand term. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) picked me up on this matter earlier and suggested that we must be careful about our use of language. She is right. The difficulty with the Government’s policy in this area is that they do not differentiate, racially, as it were, between Romany Gypsies and other groups. We have a good Romany population in Wiltshire and they are a particular racial group that tends to use the name Smith—Maggie Smith-Bendall is one of their great spokesmen—and has particular genes and chromosomes; they are a discernible racial group. Then there are the Roma, many of whom are coming into this country from Romania, as the name indicates, the Irish Travellers—we have quite a large number of them—and the assorted new age travellers, hippies and general drop-outs of one sort or another. The trouble with the Government’s consultation on this subject is that they neither differentiate between those groups of people nor where they come from. Some of them have nothing whatever to do with the county of Wiltshire: many of them come from elsewhere.

At the moment, the southern Irish Government are busy tightening up their rules and regulations about Gypsy encampments and I understand that a substantial number of people in southern Ireland are currently eyeing up England and considering whether to move here. Of course, the standard of life in Romania is extremely poor and large numbers of people there are, equally, considering whether it might be useful to move their caravans to England and, presumably, to Wiltshire, among other places. It is important that we differentiate between the different groups and I will do so. For the sake of shorthand, I will use the term “Gypsy” to encompass all of them. However, it is important that we are clear in our discussions about precisely whom we are talking about and that we do not lump them all together.

An unfortunate episode occurred in a recent planning discussion with regard to the Gypsies who are illegally camped at the village of Minety in my constituency and who have been there for some five years. I will return to that in a moment. During the inspector’s consideration of the matter in Monkton Park in Chippenham, the Wiltshire Romanies said that they did not want to live at Thingley junction, a Gypsy encampment near Chippenham with plenty of vacancies available for them, because the people at Thingley were Irish and they were Wiltshire Romanies and they did not like the Irish and did not want to live with them. Equally, the family of Smiths who left Thingley junction some years ago, where they were illegally camped—they are now camped legally in Pudding Brook in Chippenham—also fell out with the Irish at Thingley.

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That is all very well, but if somebody comes into my constituency surgery next week and says, “I am a Scotsman. I want a council house, but I am not going to stay in the one I’m in at the moment, because the person next door is Welsh and the person on the other side is French and I don’t want to live near them,” I will say, “I am extremely sorry. My duty is to help you find proper accommodation, but if you don’t like living next door to Welsh people, that’s your problem, not mine.” I do not accept that the racism within the Gypsy and Traveller community is any more acceptable than racism outside it. I shall return to that matter.

Before I move on to general policy with regard to Traveller provision in Wiltshire, I shall mention a peculiarity in respect of the site at Minety near Malmesbury in my constituency. Travelling people bought the land that the site is on some five years ago and moved on to it in large numbers over a bank holiday weekend, which is the normal way such things are done. They came on to the site and nobody knew anything about it, concreted it over and built toilet blocks. It was a substantial operation. From memory, there are now 30 or 40 caravans on that site. It is entirely illegal: they have no planning permission—it is the middle of the countryside—and they should not be there. The district council concluded that the site breached planning law and that the people should be removed from it. As always happens on such occasions, they have gone through the entire process of the law and explored every corner of the planning law. The final consideration of their illegal encampment is due to be heard in Chippenham from 8 July.

The conundrum is that the inspector has already said that, unless North Wiltshire district council is able to demonstrate that it has provided a site elsewhere for the people at Minety, he will be inclined to allow them to remain in their illegal encampment. Hon. Members might say, “Fair enough. If they can’t go somewhere else, fine. Let them stay where they are.” But just think of the precedent that that is setting: it would be saying to Gypsies anywhere, “You may plonk yourself down in any field anywhere and if the district council cannot come up with a decent permanent site for you, we will allow you to stay there forever.” In other words, we are saying to the Gypsy population throughout the world, “Please do break planning law, because that’ll force the district council to do what you want it to do to provide more sites.”

Let us imagine that a group of homeless or inadequately housed people come to me and say, “I know what we’re going to do Mr. Gray. We’re going to build a village in the countryside. We’re going to put up rickety tents, old houses, tin shacks—you name it. We’re going to live there until the district council builds more houses. We want a house; we can’t get a house, so we’re going to build an illegal encampment in a field.” Those people would be thrown out in the twinkling of an eye. The ordinary settled population would not be allowed to do such things. It is only because these people call themselves Gypsies—in the case of the Minety lot they are Gypsies or proper old-fashioned Romanies—that they are allowed to breach planning law in such a way.

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