HC Deb 27 June 2000 vol 352 cc734-56

'In section 483 of the Education Act 1996 (city colleges: financial provisions) after subsection (3) there shall be inserted—

"(3A) If the school is a city academy, subsection (3) shall apply with such modifications (if any) as may be specified by the Secretary of State by order."'.—[Mr. Blunkett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.18 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 84, in clause 124, page 59, line 13, leave out subsection (2) and insert— '(2) In subsection (2), omit subsections 2(b) and (c) and insert "and either

  1. (b) provides education for pupils of different abilities who have attained the age of 11 and who are wholly or mainly drawn from the area in which the school is situated, and has a broad curriculum with an emphasis either on science and technology or on technology in its application to the performing and creative arts, or
  2. (c) provides education for pupils of high ability selected by examination, and has a broad curriculum with an emphasis on such specialisms as the governing body may decide.".'.
Amendment No. 85, in page 59, line 22, at end insert— '() Mathematics; () English language and literature;'. Amendment No. 86, in page 59, line 23, at end insert— '(2B) The city academy or college may select up to 10 per cent. of its admissions by reference to aptitude for each of the subject areas listed in section (2A).'. Amendment No. 71, in page 59, line 32, at end insert— '() After subsection (3A) insert— (3B) Before entering into an agreement under this section in relation to a school to be known as a city academy, the Secretary of State must consult the local education authorities referred to in subsection (3C) about the establishment of the school. (3C) The authorities are—
  1. (a) the local education authority in whose area the school is to be situated, and
  2. (b) if the Secretary of State thinks a significant proportion of the pupils at the school is likely to be resident within the area of another local education authority, that authority.".'.
Amendment No. 75, in page 59, line 36, at end insert— '(6A) Sections 84, 86, 88, 89, 90, 92 and 99 to 103 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 shall apply to city academies as if they were maintained schools insofar as they relate to the powers and functions of the Adjudicator.'. Amendment No. 79, in page 59, line 36, at end insert— '(6A) The Secretary of State may by order prescribe the proportion of pupils entering city academies each year who may be selected on the basis of their aptitude; and (notwithstanding section 139(2) of this Act) an order made under this subsection shall be subject to approval by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'. Amendment No. 80, in clause 125, page 59, line 40, at end add— (3) The Secretary of State shall make a report to Parliament each year on the operation of the provisions contained in Schedule 8'. Amendment No. 81, in clause 126, page 60, line 4, leave out— 'if the condition in subsection (3) is satisfied'. Amendment No. 82, in page 60, leave out lines 12 to 16.

Government amendment No. 107.

Amendment No. 72, in schedule 8, page 94, line 31, at end insert— '(d) before making the scheme the Secretary of State consulted the authority.'. Government amendments Nos. 108 to 123 and 106.

Mr. Blunkett

I shall try to set an example by being brief, because hon. Members want to raise substantive points relating to the new clause and we have a long day ahead of us.

The Government amendments relate to land transfer and are technical amendments arising from debate in Standing Committee. They provide a fallback position. Land may be transferred out of an education function, thereby triggering a land value that would have to be paid on purchase, rather than being an education transfer which would allow the land to continue to be used for education purposes if it was transferred back to the local authority. The amendments also require the requisite sum to be raised and provided to the authority should the city academy no longer continue to provide the function for which it was intended.

Amendment No. 106 is consequential. It relates to the relationship of authorities with the new Connexions service and will ensure that we have the necessary authority and powers.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I shall endeavour to follow the Secretary of State's example and be brief. There are important provisions to come and I know that some hon. Members will want to speak about city academies.

The Secretary of State will be aware from proceedings in Standing Committee that the provisions relating to city academies were introduced at the last minute, long after the Bill had passed through the House of Lords—indeed, when the Standing Committee was on the last lap of parliamentary consideration. It was agreed in all parts of the Committee that the way in which the new policy was introduced was, to say the least, far from ideal. We have already commented on that.

Nevertheless, we share the objective of tackling the problem of underachieving schools, and we are not opposed in principle to city academies. Indeed, it would be difficult to oppose the provision in principle, because its legislative basis is a Conservative Act of Parliament—the Education Act 1996—as the Secretary of State is no doubt aware. There is little difference between city academies and city technology colleges, and they share some of the characteristics of grant-maintained schools as well.

Anyone who is inclined to try to see a difference between city academies and city technology colleges should consult clause 124, which makes it clear that the legislative basis of city academies is a bolt-on to the city technology college provisions of a Conservative Education Act. We are, therefore, waiting for Ministers to say a big thank you to the Conservative Secretary of State who pioneered city technology colleges—[Interruption.] However, given the reaction from the Secretary of State, we are not holding our breath for that. We are tempted to observe, though, that after three years of efforts by the Government to tackle underachieving schools, they have gone back to a policy first unveiled by Kenneth Baker in 1986.

Where does all that leave the Government's fresh start policy? We were told in Committee by the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), that city academies were not a replacement for fresh start, but he went on to say: The academies are to be seen as one of the fresh start options.—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 6 June 2000; c. 747.] That sounds very much as though city academies will supersede fresh start.

There are three Opposition amendments in the group, reflecting our belief that a number of questions relating to city academies remain to be resolved. Amendment No. 79 deals with selection, which we apprehend will be of interest to the Secretary of State. City academies, let it be said, are selective schools. They may select 10 per cent. of each new intake on the basis of aptitude, and they may use banding by ability to admit the remaining 90 per cent.

We have no problem with that extension of selection. Where it leaves the Secretary of State is another matter, but that is a matter for him. Amendment No. 79 would allow the Secretary of State to prescribe the proportion of pupils selected on the basis of aptitude, and ensure that there was an opportunity for that decision to be scrutinised under the affirmative resolution procedure.

One issue that has not been considered at length—not surprisingly, given the rushed way in which the provision was introduced—is what happens to the pupils of an existing school when it is replaced by a city academy? The city academy prospectus is relevant, as is the revised prospectus, I think, although we received it only today, very shortly before the debate was due to begin, which is in keeping with the way in which everything about the Bill has been produced so far—in a last-minute and disorderly way.

The city academy prospectus tells us: Where an Academy replaces an existing school, suitable arrangements will have been made to provide for the education of all pupils from the school being replaced. That is rather vague. It hardly tells us anything at all. Of course, the education of pupils at the existing school must continue. There is a duty for them to continue to be educated. The issue is where are they to be educated?

We should be most grateful if the Secretary of State could now tell us whether the pupils of the existing school that is to be replaced by the city academy—it is in the nature of the city academies that they will replace existing schools—have the right to continue their education at that school. That is far from clear from the prospectus. If the answer is that not all the pupils of the existing school will have the right to continue their education at the city academy, which is what their old school has become, on what basis will pupils of the existing school be admitted to the new city academy?

I turn briefly to amendment No. 80, relating to schedule 8, which contains the power for the Secretary of State to transfer existing schools to the promoters of city academies. I pause—and do no more than that—to consider what the then Opposition would have said if the previous Government had brought forward such a measure. It was evident from hon. Members on both sides in Committee that there were a number of questions about how such schemes would operate. The amendment would simply require the Secretary of State to make an annual report on the matter.

Amendments Nos. 81 and 82 concern the question of children with special educational needs attending city academies, a matter that we were keen to raise in Committee. We note that the revised prospectus for city academies now states that city academies will be expected to admit pupils with special educational needs and with disabilities. There remains the question whether city academies will be regarded as maintained or independent schools for these purposes. This may be of some significance. In Committee, the Minister told us that this would be subject to consultation. Perhaps the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to tell us the timetable for that consultation.

Finally, I return to the revised prospectus, where the deadline of 7 July for written expressions of interest by promoters of the pathfinder projects for city academies no longer appears. It was in the previous prospectus, and has now been dropped. What is the significance of the Government's dropping their deadline of 7 July? We note in the revised prospectus that the Government still hope to agree the first pathfinder projects by the end of this summer, and presumably they still intend to start them in September 2001. The Government are now working on a tight schedule. They got off to what I have already said, with some justification, was a far from ideal start as regards this policy, and it now appears that the deadline for expressions of interest in the pathfinder projects has been shunted back. Will the Secretary of State explain why?

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I am very pleased to be able to speak on this first group of amendments, relating to city academies, because the topic takes us back to a number of debates in which I have participated over the past three years or so when I have tried to understand the real, fundamental meaning of the education policies that the Government have been trying to implement. The more I look, the more I have become involved in the debates, and the longer the Secretary of State and his colleagues proceed, the more opaque the Government's destination seems to become.

One of the first things the Government did in this Parliament was to abolish the assisted places scheme, thereby removing from many children, particularly in inner-city areas, access to some of the better schools, often selective schools, which provided great opportunities that were frequently lacking elsewhere. I think of schools in Manchester in particular, which provided opportunities for Manchester's high proportion of inner-city children with very low-income backgrounds.

One of the big priorities in the next year of the Government's term of office was, through what became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, to look at a number of proposals that dealt—although they said "standards", not "structures"—entirely with structures; that was particularly relevant to their views on grammar schools. We shall hear more of that later.

4.30 pm

Now that the Government are in their fourth year of office, it is odd that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, they are adopting some of the ideas that were central to the previous Government's drive to raise standards in education. That is especially true of the policy on city academies. However, it is regrettable that Ministers do not appear to have the courage to pursue some of their sensible, correct and logical ideas to their logical end.

If the Government believe that the scheme constitutes a formula for raising education standards in the inner cities, and that the new arrangement of establishing private, independent schools, which are funded by the state, and are able to select pupils on ability or aptitude, is a means of raising standards in some schools, why do they limit that agenda to schools that have failed and are being closed down? I have frequently asked Ministers that question, but I have yet to receive a convincing or plausible response.

If raising standards can be achieved by giving greater freedom to inner-city schools, allowing them to select at least a proportion of their pupils and to interview all applicants to the school, which means that they exercise a sort of selection over the whole intake, why will not that method raise standards in all schools in the inner cities and perhaps more widely? Why do Ministers believe that the scheme is relevant only to urban areas? Would not it be appropriate to explore its wider application?

Amendments Nos. 84, 85 and 86 attempt to widen the application of the scheme. I have tabled the amendments in a spirit of hope that Ministers will start to elucidate some of their thinking, and perhaps let hon. Members and the outside world into the secret of their aim. Apparently, they dare not speak its name. They are prepared to establish—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State is chuntering quietly. I hesitate to step into the schoolmaster's role, but if he has something to say, perhaps he will share it with the whole class. I suggest that he does not know what the end result of his policies will be. If he does, he must realise that it has far-reaching implications. He is beginning to lead us down a road that has some attraction. I compliment him on his first steps on the road.

If the Secretary of State believes that it is appropriate to remove failing schools from the control of local education authorities and that that is a recipe for raising their standards, why does not he accept that the lesson has a far wider application? If he goes further—he seems determined to do that—and provides that not only control of the school, but even its ownership should be transferred from the local education authority, why should the policy apply only to a few failing schools in urban areas? If he believes that it is possible to raise standards in some of our failing schools in inner cities by, like the previous Government, allowing selection on the basis of specific aptitudes or abilities—for example, technological, scientific, artistic or sporting expertise—why will not he tackle the point that I made in amendment No. 85?

Why does the Secretary of State not believe that it is also possible to raise standards by allowing schools to select 10 per cent. according to their aptitude or ability in mathematics, or English language or literature? There is no logic about why it is possible to raise standards for education in the cities by allowing selection according to some areas of skill and aptitude, but not others. We await the Secretary of State's response.

Mr. Blunkett

Oh, I will respond.

Mr. Brady

The Secretary of State promises a response, and it would be nice to imagine that it will be coherent and sensible. He oscillates between saying something that he apparently means and then dismissing it as a joke, so we have not really received any intelligent comments from him on the issue. Apparently, he does not think that these are legitimate matters for debate and he is not prepared to be straightforward and clear with the House or the public about his objectives.

The Secretary of State's city academies are leading in a clear direction which, as I said, may be positive. However, he must answer my questions if he is to convince anyone at all that he understands the implications of his own policies. To say that it is possible to select 10 per cent. of a school's intake according to aptitude for technology, but not to accept that it is possible to select 10 per cent. for aptitude for technology, 10 per cent. for science and 10 per cent. for sports is illogical. That might not be appropriate for all schools. Indeed, I am sure that it would not be. However, it would be sensible—[Interruption.] I am pausing in the hope that the Hansard Reporters can pick up the Secretary of State's response, as I would certainly be intrigued to hear it.

Amendment No. 86 puts forward the following option. Why is it possible to improve standards in schools only by allowing selection according to one small defined element of aptitude? Why not two? Might it not be worth pursuing that? How about sport and mathematics, or sport and languages? Those are perfectly sensible combinations which do not necessarily add up to 100 per cent. selection according to general ability. I have yet to hear a cogent explanation of the Government's position.

I have tabled three amendments which, taken together, would advance the Secretary of State's policy a few years and accelerate it in the direction in which he is already moving. Amendment No. 84 would make it possible to allow 10 per cent. selection in a school predominantly for local children which teaches a broad curriculum. It would also permit an option—not a requirement—which would add a further string to the Secretary of State's bow and allow some city academies to select pupils on the fair, not arbitrary, basis of ability.

The Secretary of State believes that it is possible to assess children's ability on the basis of an interview and to see how suitable they are for a sporting, scientific or technical college. However, apparently he has some difficulty with the idea that one might undertake that selection by means of examination. Again, I fail to see what sets his mind so firmly against the idea of examination. Arguably, given that the Government and Secretary of State speak so much about social exclusion, they might possibly—indeed, logically—take the view that an interview is a more difficult hurdle for someone from a working-class background in an inner-city area to cross than an examination. Indeed, the Secretary of State's right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer apparently thinks that that is the case. Of course that is why he thought that entry to some of our best universities was unfair, and he attacked them partly because of their practice of allowing entry by interview. The Secretary of State was one of the few members of the Government to back up his right hon. Friend on that ill-considered foray into the media.

If the Secretary of State strongly believes that it is wrong to allow universities to select by interview because that is an agenda for social exclusion, why does he not feel the same about selection to the schools that he wants to set up under the Bill? Why does not he believe that allowing pupils to be interviewed for places at city academies will also involve a form of social exclusion?

I do not want to be prescriptive or to push schools in one direction or another. I want to allow people to follow another avenue and use another option under amendment No. 84. There may be a need or an opportunity for schools, especially those in some of our bigger cities, which choose to select pupils of high ability by examination—arguably the least arbitrary way in which to assess the ability of applicants—to pursue a less broad, perhaps more academic curriculum. That is only a short step away from the Secretary of State's proposals, and it could be possible under a small amendment that would simply allow another option—additional specialisation in some city academies. I should be interested to know why the Secretary of State thinks that that cannot work.

I want to hear a sensible response from the Secretary of State on why it is possible to select pupils according to ability in some spheres, but why he thinks it unfair, immoral or elitist—I do not know which—to select them according to their ability in other spheres. Why it is good to select according to scientific or technical ability, but never according to mathematical ability? That is the odd position in which he has lodged himself.

Why does the Secretary of State believe that it is right to select on some occasions, but not on others? Why does he apparently believe—he was reported as having said this—that the selective system at Trafford in my local authority, where we achieve the best results in the north-west, is reducing opportunities and standards of attainment in local schools? I am sure that even he, in his serious moments, would accept that that is a fairly odd assertion. However, a little way down the road in the centre of Manchester, he would be happy to set up an education system in his new city academies that would replicate some of the elements that work so well in my own area.

The House has covered some of that territory in considering legislation on grammar schools, which are dealt with in another group of amendments, but the Secretary of State cannot avoid or brush aside many of those matters given that he wants to introduce city academies. There is no real distinction of principle or logic between what he wants the city academies to do and what he apparently objects so vehemently to in other schools. He and his colleagues have given no reasonable, cogent justification for the Government's different stances on those different, but related policies.

I tabled amendments Nos. 84 to 86 in the hope that the Secretary of State would take the opportunity to explain—

Mr. Blunkett

I will if the hon. Gentleman gives me a chance.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. May I appeal to the House? It is not helpful if we have sedentary comments from the Secretary of State and then hesitation or, indeed, repetition from the hon. Gentleman.

4.45 pm
Mr. Brady

It is not I who seeks to be repetitive in these matters, but the Secretary of State, who insists on revisiting these areas of policy. One day he says that there will be no further selection by interview or examination; the next he is happy to propose new amendments to the Bill which would introduce further selection. It is not I, but the Secretary of State who is inconsistent in these matters.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Amendment No. 84 refers to children who have attained the age of 11. Does he agree that if children aged 13 or 14 were given the opportunity to select which subjects they wanted to pursue, selection might be even more effective?

Mr. Brady

I have considerable sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. Of course, coming from Northern Ireland, which has excellent educational results and a very fine selective system of education, he has good reason to understand what he is talking about.

I do not seek a closed and narrow interpretation of how schools may select according to aptitude or ability, which may be one and the same thing; I seek an open and inclusive approach which would allow all schools some flexibility in respect of selecting from applicants, the means of selection and the age of selection.

The Secretary of State seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough. He seems to be overcoming the obstacle of the out-of-date ideological obsession that Labour Members have had with the idea of selection. He has now reached the point of understanding that selection can work and that in some circumstances, it can raise standards. He has set out some of those circumstances in the Bill. I am urging him on in that breakthrough to go a little further and to understand the opportunities that he is beginning to offer our educational system. If he is open minded and accepts some of the principles in the amendment, we will make progress a little faster towards the end which he and I apparently share.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

I assure the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that Labour Members do not have an ideological obsession with selection; we have a practical objection, but that is a matter for the next group of amendments and I shall not be tempted to dwell on it now.

It is fair to say that we had a lively exchange in Standing Committee about city academies, and that all hon. Members share my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's interest in inner-city education. Like him, I represent an inner-city area where raising standards is absolutely central to the opportunities and chances of the young people whom I represent.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns that have been raised, in particular on the part of schools that think that they might be considered for city academy status, but whose results are affected by the fact that they take in large numbers of refugee children. That applies particularly to one school in the area that I represent. I am grateful for the consideration that Ministers are giving to that very difficult and important question.

I want to address two of the amendments in the group. The first relates to the need for proper consultation with local education authorities on the establishment of city academies. There is no question whatever about the fact that the proposal will work only if it is a partnership. It would be the worst course of action where local education authorities and local communities were bitterly opposed to innovation in the interest of raising standards. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept the amendment that relates to the need to ensure that there is proper and effective consultation with local education authorities.

The second issue that I want to address is the subject of amendment No. 75. In Standing Committee there was considerable discussion about the way in which city academies will operate. Ministers said repeatedly that city academies would be expected to abide by various requirements that also apply to maintained schools of whatever character. In particular, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), said: It is important to stress that the academies will have admission policies consistent with the codes of practice on admissions.—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 6 June 2000; c. 747.] The prospectus is even clearer on that point; it says:

admissions criteria must be clear, objective and fair … admissions arrangements should be circulated for comment to other admission authorities … City academies should participate in the local admissions forum and establish independent appeals panels.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the admissions code includes dealing with exclusions, and that under the code the local education authority has a duty to find places for young people who have been excluded from other schools? However, the city academies may not be required to play a part in accepting students who have been excluded elsewhere.

Mr. Benn

I hope that that is not the case, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will address that issue when he responds to the debate. If the city academies are to abide by the full spirit of the code of practice on admissions, all the requirements and obligations that come with it should apply.

One of those obligations, which was not dealt with at length in Committee, is the role of the adjudicator. The purpose of amendment No. 75 is to extend that principle to the functions and duties of the adjudicator as they relate to admissions to city academies. It is not my purpose to discuss at length the role that the adjudicator plays, because—according to Hansard—that was debated at considerable length into the early hours of the morning when the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 was considered. The arguments in favour of the adjudicator system are just as strong today.

Parents, local authorities and other schools are entitled to be reassured that if a city academy is established in their area—Ministers have confirmed that it will operate according to the law on admissions and the code of practice—they will have the same rights to refer issues to the adjudicator, whose word will be final in the matters over which Parliament has given him control. In other words, city academies will be no different from other schools when it comes to admissions.

The adjudicator has a particular responsibility to deal with objections referred to him that relate to admission arrangements, including those relating to partial selection, or cases in which selection by aptitude—to which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West referred—is in fact selection by ability. On that issue, right hon. and hon. Members will have been interested to note that of the 500 or so specialist schools that can select up to 10 per cent. of pupils by aptitude, only about 7 per cent. actually use that power. I have some sympathy with that, because I can see difficulties in interpreting aptitude. Assessing the interest of pupils in the subject might be a better method. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend, in replying, could assure the House that no aspect of the establishment of city academies will require governing bodies to use the ability to select up to 10 per cent. by aptitude if they choose not to do so. They might choose to follow the pattern of specialist schools elsewhere.

The adjudicator post exists to provide reassurance that admissions arrangements are fair and within the law. The functions were introduced for good reason, and currently apply to maintained schools. I can see no reason why they should not apply to city academies, too.

Mr. Willis

It is sad that we spent 20 minutes on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) which deal with the narrow issue of selection. This is a major Bill, and city academies are one of the most important initiatives of the Government's three years in office. The impact of the Bill on the state education system could be profound. I say that not as a criticism, but as a statement of fact.

There is an argument—as the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West and for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said—that if this form of educational organisation is good enough for children in inner-city schools, why is it not good enough for children elsewhere? The Secretary of State must answer that important question. We must not have another tier of organisation that applies to children in so-called failing schools.

The amendments on city academies were tabled at a late stage in Committee. There were full apologies from the Government for that, and we do not wish to reopen that issue. However, in Committee I asked for the Government's definition of a failing school, as that is important. We need to know whether it means a lack of students getting five grades A to C for three years—the Secretary of State's original definition—or truancy rates, or other criteria that often affect inner-city schools in particular. In order to have a policy that will apply to groups of failing schools, we must have a definition of a failing school. Perhaps the Secretary of State will give us that definition when he responds to the debate.

I refute the idea that is often peddled by the Tory party—and, sadly, by large numbers within the Labour party—that we have a failing state education system. I do not believe that that is the case. Yesterday, in Islington, Tim Brighouse made it clear that all politicians—particularly Members of this House—should be careful about damning our schools, teachers and children simply because they do not meet the norms in some criteria set by the Department for Education and Employment or anyone else. I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards would support some, if not all, of those comments.

I hope that the Secretary of State will reject amendments Nos. 79, 84, 85 and 86, which are an attempt by the Opposition to bring in selection by the back door. Amendment No. 85 would allow schools to select on the basis of maths and English testing. That is what the 11-plus was about. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West is passionate about selection and I admire his tenacity. However, he ought to be honest enough to say that it is Tory party policy to seek to reintroduce the 11-plus at the age of 11—as that is what the amendments say—not for a few children but for all children, and that the Tories want to base their education policy on that.

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

With respect, I will not, because the hon. Gentleman spent twenty minutes speaking to the amendments. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have constantly sought reassurance from the Secretary of State and the Government about selection. We were ready to believe that it would be a thing of the past. However, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West is right to say that creeping selection has been coming in, first through the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, and now through the Bill.

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

I do not want to be discourteous.

Mr. Brady

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has returned to his characteristic good manners. Although I am a strong defender of a school system that works well in my area, the purpose of my amendments has nothing to do with the honesty or dishonesty of my party. I am seeking honesty and openness from the Government.

Mr. Willis

The Secretary of State is quite capable of answering for the Government's policy, but the amendments are a clear attempt by the Tory Opposition to introduce selection by the back door. I rest my case.

5 pm

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) spoke to amendment No. 75, and I was delighted when the Secretary of State nodded at my intervention concerning excluded pupils. It was a real anxiety in Standing Committee that a group of schools would be set up that would have the privilege of excluding students while not having to accept excluded students.

Anybody who has worked in the more challenging areas of education knows that dealing with challenging behaviour and difficult students lies at the heart of the solution to underachievement. Until we deal effectively with that problem, we will not reverse the underachievement of many of our young people. I hope that the Secretary of State, in his response to amendment No. 75, will clarify the Government's position.

I have two other matters to raise with the Government. The first has to do with finance. In Standing Committee, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), was not clear about how much state money was to be put into this initiative. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the percentage split in terms of capital will be in the ratio 20:80, and that the private sector partners will have to find the 20 per cent? Will he also confirm that that will be roughly equivalent to £2 million? Does that not mean that each of the new city academies will get £123 per person, as well as the equivalent of £10 million in capital investment?

If that is the case, may I tell the Secretary of State that many schools in all constituencies—urban, inner-city or otherwise—could do with that money? Would it not be an insult to give so much money to a few schools that have been hand-picked by the Secretary of State, when there are huge areas of deprivation in rural areas?

Finally, new clause 20 deals with the question of assets. In Standing Committee, I asked a series of questions about what would happen when a school's freehold was transferred to the private sector company running that school. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), made it clear that if the school folded for any reason, those freehold assets would simply transfer back to the local education authority.

I accept that, but a private company that takes over a school may decide to move site. It could then use the value of the real estate, and other resources, to invest in the new site. What would happen to that site in the event of failure? Would it revert in its totality to the local authority, or would the private sector company be able to take out the real value of its investment there? I hope that the Secretary of State will also respond to that important question.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I rise to speak briefly to amendment No. 71, which would include local authorities in the consultation about city academies. I believe that that is crucial if city academies are to be of long-term value.

Hon. Members who represent city areas know that the challenge to provide all young people with the excellent secondary school education that they deserve has not yet been met. That is not because of any lack of dedication among teachers, or lack of commitment among local education authorities, but because of the huge demographic changes that have taken place. Another contributory factor is the lack of long-term investment in school buildings and their surrounding environments, which in some cases has isolated schools from the wider community.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) acknowledged that the first response of the previous Tory Government was to subsidise the private sector to provide places for able children. However, I contend that only a few such places were ever provided. Their second response was the gesture of city technology colleges. The latter solution, in particular, never benefited the wider community of schools. In many cases the colleges were imposed, with largesse of public, rather than private, funding in areas where there were already surplus places. In some cases they were positively detrimental.

By comparison, this Government have promoted the excellence in cities initiative. In the pilot areas, the project is beginning to meet the aspirations of children and their parents. The collaboration and co-operation that is taking place, which includes local education authorities, schools and the wider community, is bringing new hope to areas where there have been great difficulties, if not a feeling of hopelessness.

Into that scenario of excellence in cities comes the new idea of city academies. In that context of collaboration, the academies must be seen as an extra, complementary facility; cities can integrate them if they wish, but that will not be done without their full collaboration and support.

Mr. Brady

Has the hon. Lady received some assurance from Ministers, which I do not think that the Committee received, that no city academy will be established in an area with surplus places in other schools?

Valerie Davey

I appreciate that intervention. I am sure that that will be a consideration when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State looks to future city academies.

In Committee, we reflected on the value of the American charter schools. Indeed, we received evidence that in certain cases they have helped to raise standards. When the Education and Employment Committee visited America, we also learned about pilot schools, which were completely within the local education authority system. although they provided initiatives and were getting sponsorship.

We are opening up exciting potential for LEAs, and for the community of schools in each city that is trying to make more excellent provision for its students. However, our approach must be for the whole city community, and it must be considered in the long term. Through its strategic planning, the LEA has a key role in ensuring that that is done, so we need the further consultation.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Education is about the nearest that I get to any religion or belief system—the Labour party is the second nearest. I am most concerned about this add-on to the Bill—a Bill that I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on introducing. It is overdue. For many years, we have endured training schemes and skills development that have been inadequate to meet the needs of Britain in a changing world and certainly to meet the challenge of the global economy.

The city academy add-on trivialises to some extent the great importance of the Bill, to which we need to give 100 per cent. attention. I hope that this evening's proceedings may improve even further the efficacy that the Bill will bring to the learning and skills base within our regions. That is an important part of the development of regional policy. Through the Bill, we have established the need to ensure that the learning and skills councils link properly, comprehensively and coherently with the regional development agencies and with local authorities.

Although the provisions could be strengthened to some extent, by introducing this important Bill real progress has been made. I am afraid that I regard city academies—like city technology colleges—as an education gimmick. If someone were to suggest introducing them to the private sector, no one would take the suggestion seriously. The only selection that has ever applied in the private sector has been by the question, "Do you have the money?" Labour Members should be ensuring that the currency of educational opportunity is rooted in social justice.

In a moment or two, I hope to make a defence of what I regard as the tremendously hard work that many teachers and parents have put into ensuring that our comprehensive system of education is successful. However, I will just say regarding selection that the choice of the figure of 10 per cent. admission by aptitude shows that this is just an add-on—a gimmick. Why 10 per cent? Why concede that there is an argument for setting a benchmark, such as 10 per cent., and saying, "This far and no further"—or, in my case, "Why this far at all?"?

There is no real intellectual clout behind an arbitrary decision of that type, yet the Labour party's view of education has been rooted historically in intellectualism. It has for years and years produced major thinkers on education who wrestled with the problem of the relationship between a professional teacher and the state and the local authority. It has tried to understand and exemplify and improve that relationship for the benefit of children, who are ultimately in the care of teachers.

There are many systems of education and I do not deny that the idea of specialisms, such as they are and such as they may be, has found root and progressed to achievement in other countries. One thinks immediately of America, the home of almost every gimmick thought of in the 20th century, such as bubblegum and wurlitzer organs, but also the origin of the "Fame" series. Was it not attractive? Did it not make our heart beat faster? I am sure that that works very well in America, which has a massively diverse population—200 million people living in cities, many of which are systems in their own right, city states in the true sense of the word, cut off by 1,000 miles from the next tranche of civilisation.

It is not surprising that such a country, diverse as it is, should produce so many diverse ideas, understandings and views about education, but some of them do not travel well. I do not believe that we need a performing arts school, or a technology college, for pupils from the age of 11.

Almost the whole of Labour party policy has been based on the view of various child psychologists and psychiatrists, not least Piaget, who understood and showed the rest of the world the meaning of differing maturation rates. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked whether it would be better if selection took place at 13 and 14. In truth, it would. If there is to be selection, the later the better; it certainly should not take place at 11.

I previously spoke of the child who at 11 believes that they will be the greatest hockey star, football star or singer that the world has known, but who is fed up with it by the age of 12 and a half. That is the nature of the differing rates at which children mature. Boys and girls mature at different rates. As they grow older, they change, and gain new insights—very often, believe it or not, from teachers in our comprehensive schools—about the value that they should be placing on the education that they receive.

Years ago, in the 1930s, we were worried in this country because our gross domestic product was not growing as fast as that of other nations. We were concerned that we did not seem to be keeping up, and a famous report produced by Professor Hadow suggested that what we really needed in this country was a three-legged approach. We should have grammar schools for our real high fliers and technical high schools for those who show an aptitude for science and technology. In Britain, we have always considered scientists and technologists second grade compared with academics in English, history and so on—and does that not show in our industrial output? Does it not show in the difference between the salaries paid to technical people and to those who—broadly speaking—come through the arts route? Does it not show in the respect that is not shown to science and technology in this country, compared with other countries?

5.15 pm
Mr. Brady


Mr. Purchase

With respect, the hon. Gentleman had long enough to make his case. I would rather not give way.

The Germans took a technical approach and it worked; it fitted the culture and was helpful, but in Britain it failed. If we measure that approach simply by productive output, we see that it worked in Germany, but not in Britain. We have broadly abandoned the technical approach to education, realising that we also need a broader education.

Mr. Brady


Mr. Purchase

The hon. Gentleman is persistent.

Mr. Brady

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was about to call his attention to the German example. Was not the reason for the failure of the German model in this country the fact that we under-resourced the technical schools, rather than that the grammar schools did not deliver?

Mr. Purchase

My detailed knowledge of the allocation of resources during the period in question is not sufficient to give the hon. Gentleman a proper answer. I think it was much more to do with the fact that we failed to break the culture of elitism. We have not recognised the arts route for what it is—usually, to produce well-rounded people with excellent understanding. We put those who take that route on a platform; indeed, if hon. Members will forgive me for saying so, we put them in the Treasury and the Foreign Office rather than in the Department of Trade and Industry or the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

In Britain, we have always had that elitism and it has held us back. I do not agree with elitism in education—it is wrong. I cannot say that often enough or loud enough. It has not assisted us to make our way in the world as we should have done. That is my honest view, based on much evidence about the economic performance of various countries.

For more than 50 years, much has been written on the difficulties of selection at the age of 11.

Mr. Clappison

In the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments, what does he make of the Government's proposals, under the excellence in cities programme, for taking between 5 and 10 per cent. of children out of schools and giving them a different form of education?

Mr. Purchase

In case I have not already made it plain, I repeat that such matters are trivia added to an important Bill, although such proposals would be improved if the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) were accepted. I hope that the Secretary of State will accept them—especially the proposals on consultation with local authorities.

However, my view is that this is not the way to proceed. In Committee, we argued about the late tabling of amendments and we agreed to close the book on that matter. However, we are considering an extremely important and coherent Bill that fits comprehensively with Labour's policies on economic development and learning and skills in education, and this is the wrong place to introduce such proposals.

Although there is some evidence that specialism in schools from the age of 11 can be effective, there is not a significant body of evidence. If there were, we should have a serious discussion of the matter, because the situation has gone on for 50 years.

For 40 years of my life, I have done my best to promote comprehensive schools. I believe that entrance at 11 or 13 to an all-ability school, based on a sensible and geographically coherent catchment area, is the best way to attract resources to that school. All children would attend the school and all parents would be involved.

Parents are the most significant element in educational outcomes. When the late Sir Keith Joseph was Secretary of State for Education and Science, he employed Rodney Lord as a researcher and he carried out an excellent piece of multiple regression analysis work. He identified the individual elements that contribute to good outcomes in schools. Unsurprisingly—most academic exercises fail to surprise—the interest, concern and enthusiasm of parents bore the strongest correlation to pupils' results in school. Although the number of teachers was a factor, the second most important element in achieving successful outcomes in education was experienced teachers. Thirdly, and a long way down the list, came the quality of the buildings and the equipment used. It was clear then and it is clear to a blind man on a galloping horse—[Interruption.] That phrase may be appropriate, but I apologise if it has caused offence. I can sometimes be offensive without wanting to be so deliberately.

It is clear from the evidence that parents are the most important factor in achieving successful outcomes, and a huge body of evidence supports that view. Introducing specialisms at the age of 11 will barely touch the margins of the serious business of educating our young people.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Given the hon. Gentleman's real reservations about the Bill, will he be clear on one matter? Does he intend to oppose the Bill on Third Reading?

Mr. Purchase

The hon. Gentleman should know better than to ask. I told him in Committee that I would not give Conservatives a cheap thrill by voting against a Labour Government. He must be mad; there is absolutely no possibility of my doing that.

I have described this issue as trivia, because it is at the margins. I want my hon. Friends to realise that the proposal is not helpful and that it is time consuming. It will not add sufficiently to the value of state education and the comprehensive system to justify the time that we have taken away from discussing the other provisions in this vital Bill. I want to spell it out that I believe that the wide view in the Labour party is that the Victorian and early 20th century approach, of selection at the age of 11, is not a sensible policy for us to dabble with. It is contrary to all the evidence. This time, I use the word "dabble" deliberately, and this time I intend to be offensive.

The proposal prompts an important question about education generally. In the 1970s, Bernstein wrote that education could not compensate for society; it can only play a part. Our teachers have our children for a few hours a day for 40 weeks a year and the part that we play as parents and grandparents, as I am now, is vital to ensuring that young people understand the importance of education in its broadest sense.

I have referred to the French approach to education and to the baccalaureat. That is too prescriptive for my liking, because we can give teachers more responsibility and freedom to teach than did the previous Government. I hope that this Government will ease up on the curriculum imperatives, because I trust teachers. I believe that they have been trained properly and that many of them have a strong vocation to teach. They should be respected and rewarded. However, I should perhaps declare an interest: one of my daughters is a teacher.

The issue goes much wider than specialist schools. Specialism is sometimes good on television, and "Fame" was great. I know that some young people will benefit from that sort of education, but as a nation we must opt for a broad education. I accept, however, that there are occasions when it is appropriate to develop the specialisms that many young people show, some at 11 and some at seven. Other people even do so at six or five—we read of children taking O-levels at six years of age. However, these are the exceptions to the mainstream for which we should first be catering. We should cater for those with lower abilities and for those with higher abilities, within a comprehensive system of state education that is administered honestly and with children's welfare and education in mind.

I respect and admire the many teachers who, if they hear about the debate, will say, "I wonder whether my school will eventually be replaced. I wonder whether we will not quite come up to spec." I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and all who have responsibilities in these matters to stop damning schools. Would the managing director of a huge group of companies who condemned one line of his business—such as the managing director of Ratner—imagine that anyone would want to work for it? Of course not. We need to give more encouragement to education, not less.

There should be a long period of proper development of education policy. Gimmicks will not do. I welcome the Bill and believe that it is absolutely to be supported. I think that it would be wrong to divide on Third Reading, but no doubt Conservative Members will do so. Overall, the Bill sets out an excellent approach to skills and training. It will give a boost to regional policy and I welcome it in every respect—except for the issue of city academies.

Mr. Blunkett

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) that I never use the whip when I am on my galloping horse. I assure him also that much of the policy that he enunciated is held in common by Labour Members. However, we would distinguish between this debate and the issue of excellence in cities, to which I shall turn, in relation to which the "gifted and talented" programme is about children within a school and not outside it. I am sure that, as in so many other areas, Wolverhampton will want to take full advantage of excellence in cities. I hope to be able to expand that approach once the outcome of the spending review is known.

I shall first respond briefly to the general points that have been raised. I, too, have read parts of Piaget's work, parts of Haddow and a little of Bernstein. I have read also Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences. There is a real intellectual debate to be had about how we develop the specialist talents of children, and how, by using the confidence and self-esteem that comes from the development of a particular specialism or talent, we can cascade that into general achievement levels, so that horizons can be broadened and self-belief increased.

I believe that that is also true of schools. Building on the strength within a school—and the development within it of a particular strength—can be the making or breaking of a school whose reputation and general esteem in the community, along with its status and standing, have fallen to the point at which parents, who have a preference, can vote with their feet. In more than 60 per cent. of schools which have been in special measures or which have fallen into weakness since 1996, rolls have fallen dramatically. In schools that we define as having challenges, we find that numbers fall. Places are available, and as a result children move into these schools, in-year from other areas or because they have been excluded from other schools. Such schools' challenges become more difficult by the moment. The point is reached at which children do not move in from more affluent areas—parents do not exercise their preference in favour of those schools from outside the area. There is neither struggle to gain entry nor over-demand for places—only a decline in the number enrolled, and real problems regarding the school's survival. That is the issue that city academies can address.

5.30 pm

City academies are not like the old city technology colleges—15 of them parachuted in like cuckoos in the nest, for good or ill. They were not welcomed as a solution to a problem, nor did they complement or replace struggling schools. They took children away from schools that were struggling to survive. Let me make it clear that our proposals are the reverse of city technology colleges. Like fresh start generally, city academies are about taking a school or schools in which the state of enrolment, the problems of education and the failure of parental preference have led to there being only two choices—to do something drastic, or to close the school or schools.

If schools close, children in the area and the community in general lose a facility and, gradually—as we have seen in cities across the country—the preference for secondary schools in the local neighbourhood is no longer available to those living in the inner city, because secondary school places have been pushed out toward the outer ring: indeed, in some cities, such as Bristol, they have been pushed beyond the city boundary altogether. As it has done in North America, preference moves outward to the point at which the community school no longer exists.

Hon. Members should look at reality—at the schools that are not in any meaningful sense comprehensive because their intake is not balanced. Many of the schools in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) struggle not to cope with children referred from other areas of the city but to retain the confidence of parents and children in their own area. In affluent areas, there is over-demand for places, and parents struggle to get their child in. I want to reverse that. If 10 per cent. admission by aptitude will help to get children from the south-west of Sheffield into schools in the north-east of Sheffield, I will go for it, because in Sheffield, a city of half a million people whose south-west area is the size of a London borough, there is currently not a single child from the south-west going to school in the north-east—not one.

Let us get real. We are talking about a solution for schools that need a transformation. They need changes to their image, status and attractiveness. If aptitude for a particular specialism will help, I shall go for it—although I emphasise that it is entirely voluntary. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) rightly said, most specialist schools that already have the option of 10 per cent. admission by aptitude have not chosen to take it, because they have decided that they can attract and retain children who have an aptitude without going through any sort of interview or making any assumptions about the child.

Mr. Willis

I hear what the Secretary of State is saying about city technology colleges. I ran a school in Leeds—John Smeaton community high school—which took children from some of the most deprived areas in the city: there was an intake of 301 every year and there was a waiting list. What is the right hon. Gentleman saying to that school's staff, parents and children, who, despite all their hard work, will get absolutely nothing out of his initiative? Communities throughout the country will be in exactly the same position—discarded because of their success.

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. I am genuinely angry. We are not disavowing or disadvantaging other schools. I have made it clear that the admissions code will hold, and that schools cannot be parachuted in. They will be welcomed as replacements for one or more existing schools. They will not be parachuted in, and will not be established where there are surplus places and where they would damage other schools' intake.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the leadership, quality and drive of the school will not be affected. On the contrary, a number of local authorities, sponsors and local communities—including that of his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—are clamouring for a city academy in their area, not to knock out success and aspiration but to replace failure and under-achievement.

That is the purpose of the measure. It may be a flea on an elephant's behind, to paraphrase my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East slightly. [Interruption.] Elephants carry fleas and a great deal more. Sometimes the elephant can afford to carry the flea. We have 7 million children and 24,000 schools, but in some schools and in some communities, children are not living up to the aspirations and standards that we seek.

With common admissions, with coherent co-operation, and with a desire to ensure that we put aside the garbage that we have heard this afternoon about selection on the basis of maths and English, we can do something for schools that would otherwise fail and thereby fail their children. We can do it for communities that welcome this initiative.

I shall deal with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), and in particular the prolonged oration of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady).

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

An excellent oration.

Mr. Blunkett

It was an excellent oration was it? So specialisms should be on the basis of maths and English, should they? Only someone who accepts that a minority of children can excel at maths and English could even begin to suggest that maths and English were specialisms. That is why there were grammar schools: 25 per cent. got in and were tested in maths and English, and 75 per cent. were presumed not to be able to make the standard in maths and English.

We are reversing that. We have set a target of more than 75 per cent. being able to make level 4 in maths and English, and we will attain it. If we had a specialism in maths and English, we would be well away, would we not? We would be able to say which 25 per cent. of children would not be able to get into the schools specialising in maths and English.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West did not suggest that as a serious proposition, but as what the shadow spokesman for health might describe as a Trojan horse. In other words, Opposition Members would like to be able to say that they want to bring back the 11-plus, but the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who purports to be the shadow Secretary of State has not yet worked up the courage to say it. Perhaps she is waiting for the Leader of the Opposition to say it, so that she can back in on him. I am waiting for his speech next month, to see whether that is the new—or rather, old—Tory policy.

Mr. Brady

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett

I am not giving way. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was only joking, was he? I was paraphrasing George Bush. I do not know who he was paraphrasing, other than himself.

Let us deal with the idea that all specialisms could be the basis for 10 per cent. of admissions. If we had 15 specialisms, we would presumably get to 150 per cent. admissions. The proposition is so obviously mathematically silly as to be nonsense.

I want to touch on the issue of aptitude, as opposed to selection. The Education Act 1944 recognised aptitude. The previous Government were so keen to ensure that there was a distinction between aptitude and selection that they commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research to define it, and accepted the definition.

I do not know where Opposition Members get the notion that we have been converted to selection; that having converted to selection, we are on their path; and that having taken their path, we are now using aptitude as selection, whereas they themselves commissioned work to show the difference between aptitude and selection. I do not mind them poking fun. I do not mind them having an afternoon out. What I do mind is whether children receive a decent education. If special schools, with opportunity in relation to aptitude, and the city academies can lift their standing and transform the education, I am all for that.

Mr. Brady

The Secretary of State knows perfectly well that my amendments sought to draw out some sensible arguments from him. One of the most important, on which I should like to know his thinking, is why 10 per cent. is the correct figure. Why not 5 per cent? Why not 15 per cent? My amendments are very unlikely to become law when the Bill becomes an Act, but the right hon. Gentleman must answer some of those questions.

Mr. Blunkett

I do not have to answer any of them—not least because the answers were given by the previous Secretary of State. These debates were held when the previous Government sought to extend from 10 per cent to 50 per cent. the selection on top of aptitude. That selection is now being dealt with by the adjudicator system, which neatly brings me to the issue of the adjudicator and admissions.

I have made it absolutely clear that schools will adhere to the admissions code. The issue, then, is how to ensure that there is a right of appeal. I would put the following points to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central with regard to his amendment No. 75. It is clear—and I shall make it explicit in the funding agreement—that city academies will co-operate with the admissions forum and seek to work in partnership with other schools in the neighbourhood. This is a collaborative, not a competitive, approach.

In order to ensure that we can meet the intention of amendment No. 75, I will not only stipulate in the agreement that that is the case: I will ensure that, as with aided schools, there can be a direct appeal to the Secretary of State in lieu of the adjudicator. We have that at the request of the religious foundations—the Churches—for aided schools. The same approach is right for city academies. I hope that, with that assurance, my hon. Friend will be prepared to withdraw his amendment, since that approach meets both his and the Government's objectives.

Mr. Willis

What about exclusions?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman rightly reminds me of that issue. The answer to the question that he raised in his speech is that city academies will be dealt with on the same basis. The hon. Member for Hertsmere asked about children attending a school that becomes a city academy. If a city academy replaces an existing school, they are obviously part of its core entry. That must be so, because the whole objective, unlike that of CTCs, is to transform the life chances and educational opportunities of the very children who have been losing out. That is why the city academy approach is being tried, to ensure that we get it right.

To those who ask "Why not simply extend it to everybody?" I reply "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Mr. Bercow


Mr. Blunkett

I don't know about "Ah". I recall the argument that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) raised a few moments ago, which made me angry. If a school is doing well, reinforce it, support it, encourage it, celebrate the work of the head and the teachers. If it needs a fresh start, let it have one, rather than allowing it to close.

5.45 pm
Mr. Clappison

On the point about what happens to existing pupils, does the Secretary of State agree that the prospectus is hardly crystal clear? It states: Where an Academy replaces an existing school, suitable arrangements will have been made to provide for the education of all pupils from the school being replaced. Does the Secretary of State guarantee today that all pupils from the existing school will be able to attend the city academy?

Mr. Blunkett

We are considering parental preference. When a school is failing, some parents may well wish to send their children to other schools, and I would not preclude them from doing that.

Let me consider briefly the other topics that have been mentioned. First, I am not sure why the Opposition tabled amendments on special educational needs. Either they, like us, want special needs children to be admitted or they do not. It is an outrage if they do not; if they do, I am not sure why they have tabled the amendments. If they decide to press them, we shall know the answer. I have stated our position on ensuring the admittance of special needs children, and I hope that the Opposition will not press their amendments.

Mr. Clappison

If the Secretary of State has got the idea that the Opposition do not want children with special educational needs to attend city academies, there is no basis for it. We pressed the point with the Minister in Committee. As I hope I made it clear in my opening speech, we tabled the amendment to press the Government on their plans for consultation.

Mr. Blunkett

Good. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has been able to press the Government.

Site value has been mentioned. I want to put it on the record that if the land initially acquired for the city academy was sold as part of a programme of renewal and replacement, the original site value, adjusted for inflation, would be returned to the donor, whether a local authority or a sponsor.

I want to deal with the points that my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and for Leeds, Central made. I am pleased to accept amendments Nos. 71 and 72. The purpose of our endeavour is to gain co-operation in raising standards. If, through consultation and inclusion, we can ensure that people are engaged with and support the process, that must be the right way forward. In conjunction with that, we must ensure that people are part of and positively engaged with excellence in cities, when an academy exists in an excellence in cities area now or in future. I shall make that explicit in the funding agreement.

We can therefore put to rest once and for all the idea that we are dealing with a Trojan horse. We are dealing with an endeavour to co-operate with a policy that will transform the standing of a school, the standard of education for the pupils, and the commitment of sponsors and partners to making it work. It will, through a specialism, bring lifeblood into a school that would otherwise be in danger of closing as parents opted to take their children elsewhere.

We are pleased to take the line that we reinforce aspects that are working well. Intervention must be in inverse proportion to success. However, when schools are failing, we have an obligation to the children to substitute the reality of action for past dogma, to ensure that those children get the education that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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