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Our ambition is to make every school a good school so that every child, in every area, receives the highest possible standard of education, regardless of their background or circumstances. We are working hard to reshape the educational landscape to achieve that vision. The Building Schools for the Future programme, which the hon. Member for Colchester mentioned, has seen the biggest investment in school buildings in 50 years.
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Our national challenge programme is tackling underperformance in schools facing challenging circumstances, and new school governance models, such as academies and trusts, are providing real solutions and an opportunity for schools to benefit from leadership and strategic direction from those best placed in the community to provide it.

We now have a good track record of intervening when schools are performing below the required standard, and of turning that performance around, because we have the tools to do that. Although we can set a strategic direction for our schools, and learn lessons from progress, no two areas are exactly the same, and that is the merit of listening to debates such as this and the expertise of local representatives in Parliament. Every area and every school face a different combination of challenges, and need a different combination of solutions. As our communities and the priorities of learners and their families continue to change in the fast-paced 21st-century environment, we must be able to adapt, to challenge the solutions that we have in place, and to come up with alternatives.

School organisation is a local issue, and that is to some extent a constraint on my commenting too much, particularly as we are in the middle of Essex county council’s consultation. It is right that school organisation is a local issue. Local government is best placed to determine local need and to find solutions to local problems. It would not be right for us to impose solutions on communities from the centre.

Bob Russell rose—

Jim Knight: I can guess what the hon. Gentleman wants to say.

Bob Russell: What is the definition of “local government”? The truly local government is united on an option. Essex county council is breaching a promise that it gave to the Secretary of State just last May.

Jim Knight: I am aware of that, because during recent oral questions to my Department the hon. Gentleman said that Colchester borough council is opposed to Essex’s plans, but I shall not be drawn further into that.

Local education authorities have a duty to ensure that there are sufficient places for pupils, and that high-quality education is provided cost-effectively throughout the area. Those who make the decisions must have regard to statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State when considering proposals. The guidance details a range of factors, including the impact on standards, diversity of provision and parental choice, demand for places, location and transport, and cost-effectiveness. Our society and communities are changing all the time, so local provision must be reviewed. We must be honest and objective about existing services, and challenge ourselves on whether they are continuing to do the best for the children and families who use them. For example, a surplus of places is clearly not a good use of resources, so we expect local authorities to come up with solutions to tackle that challenge, and to direct resources to raising standards. All factors must be considered in the round, and decisions should be based on what will bring the most benefit to the highest number of pupils.

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In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the 2007 figures show a surplus of 530 places for the three schools combined, which are the subject of option 1 in the consultation. The current proposal, following consultation, is that two successful schools in the Colchester area—Philip Morant and Stanway schools—should be expanded, and that there should be a new academy. The council believes that that would be sufficient to cater for demand, to help to drive up standards throughout the area, and to make better use of local resources. The decision is a local one. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 clearly sets out that school organisation decisions are local and that Ministers should not intervene. The consultation is ongoing, and people are still responding. It has canvassed the views of all secondary schools in Colchester, as well as parents and other residents who would be affected by the proposed changes.

I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. It will be for the local authority—Essex county council—to consider the responses when that process is complete, and to decide how best to proceed, bearing in mind the representations from the hon. Gentleman for option 4, and those from the hon. Member for North Essex for option 5. I urge the hon. Member for Colchester to keep in mind the importance of raising standards for all pupils in Colchester. Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools and Sir Charles Lucas arts college are three of the lowest-performing schools in the country, and 15 months ago all three were in special measures. A particularly significant challenge for Colchester was that, when only 50 schools fell into that category nationally, Colchester had a relatively high concentration. Many people have worked hard to turn that situation around, not least the staff and pupils at those schools.

Although we will not have validated exam results until the new year, self-reported GCSE results from the summer show improvement in all three schools. I pay tribute to the staff and pupils for that achievement, but those schools are still not where we want them to be in terms of what they are achieving for their pupils. Although two schools have now improved and have been lifted out of special measures, Alderman Blaxill school remains in that category. All three continue to need extra support, and receive that support from my Department through the national challenge. Essex county council decided that they should remain within the national challenge programme, because they are in continued danger of not reaching or of dropping below the 2011 floor target of gaining 30 per cent. five A* to C at GCSE, including English and maths. Under the national challenge, for this academic year, £66,500 of support has been allocated to Thomas Lord Audley school, £75,500 to Alderman Blaxill school, and £91,000 to Sir Charles Lucas arts college. That funding will focus primarily on improving standards in English and maths, and raising the quality of teaching. It will also focus on improving attitudes to learning, exclusion rates, and the quality of leadership at middle management level.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that plans for school reorganisation in Colchester are still under consultation. In addition to the closures being considered, the council is considering turning Sir Charles Lucas arts college into an academy, and again that is a matter for local decision. I am encouraged that the council is considering a range of solutions to the problems facing Colchester, and academies are a viable option. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take a pragmatic view of that.

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Bob Russell: I have.

Jim Knight: He says that he has, and we are grateful for that.

The recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that academies are making excellent progress, and going a long way towards tackling the difficult problems facing some of our communities and schools. The report said that sponsors contribute significantly to school improvement, and that leadership and governance in academies is good. According to the National Audit Office, GCSE performance is improving faster in academies than in other schools, and they are on course to deliver real value for money. Of the 24 academies so far inspected by Ofsted, 96 per cent. have been graded with good or outstanding leadership.

Academies are making a real difference, and the national challenge programme is providing a floor target, substantial funding, and a real opportunity to raise standards in some of our most challenging areas. Given that track record, and the opportunities presented by the national challenge, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will view academies with an open mind, and support them if they are right for pupils, parents and the community.

Bob Russell: The only problem with the Minister’s last observation is that the option of an academy in south Colchester was rejected in the spring because the public did not want it. It is difficult now to advocate an academy when the education authority dismissed it and gave the Secretary of State a categorical assurance that it would proceed with the three-sites, one-school option. That promise was given to the Secretary of State, and he gave it in good faith to the House, but it has been broken.

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Expansion of Stanway school would be difficult because the surplus playing field was sold off to pay for the new school, so there is no room for expansion there. It would also be difficult to expand Philip Morant school because the only way would be to build on land that is preserved as public open space. Those two schools cannot physically accommodate pupils if the other two schools shut.

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to comment on school organisation while it is subject to consultation, but I shall resist that. I am simply suggesting that an open mind is helpful when considering academies. The proposal for the arts college is for an academy, and regardless of how matters are resolved in respect of Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools, if Sir Charles Lucas arts college becomes an academy, I hope that he will not oppose that if he thought that it was right for pupils in his community.

Our ambition is to build a world-class education system so that every child can make the most of their potential and go as far as their talents will take them. If we are serious about building better schools that serve the needs of 21st-century learners and communities, we must be prepared to make some tough decisions when they are called for.

I wish both hon. Gentlemen and you, Mr. Martlew, as well as pupils, families and teachers in Colchester, every success for the future and a very happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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