Bills Presented — Armed Forces: New Clause 1 — Schools where pupils do not fulfil potential

Mike Wood: Does the Minister share my concern that schools that wish to convert to academy status, such as Bromley Pensnett school in my constituency, are finding a series of obstacles being put in their way by the local authority? Will he ensure that the Bill stops local authorities blocking the improvements that are urgently needed to turn around the schools that need the most support?


Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Where a school is failing, all those blockages will be removed by the provisions in the Bill. Where a school is good and wants to convert to academy status—the governing body wants the freedom to help the school not only to flourish itself, but to start helping other schools—I am afraid that the Bill still requires consultation with the community, because we think that is the right approach.

The Bill recognises that in limited cases there is a need to consult on the future sponsor for schools that are eligible for intervention. In the case of foundation or voluntary aided schools judged inadequate by Ofsted, clause 9 ensures that the Secretary of State must consult the trustees, the foundation and, for religious schools, the appropriate religious body about the identity of the sponsor proposed by the Secretary of State. In the case of a church school, a diocesan or church school-led multi-academy trust will be the solution in the vast majority of cases.

The Government are firmly committed to enabling diocese and church schools to protect and sustain their ethos. For example, where a Church of England diocese lacks the capacity to sponsor a school at the time it needs support, we may, with the involvement of the diocesan board of education, look to a non-church sponsor. In such situations we will ensure that the arrangements that the sponsor enters into will safeguard the religious character and ethos of the school. We will continue to work closely with the Churches on appropriate arrangements. I am grateful to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend Mrs Spelman, for our discussions on that issue.

Many of the Opposition’s amendments attempt to introduce what I believe to be unnecessary consultations, appeals and processes. Our manifesto was clear that we would be unwavering and swift in tackling failing schools and ensuring an excellent education for all children. By contrast, the amendments would serve only to aid the delaying tactics and obstruction that some ideological opponents of academies attempt to pursue—I assume that is now the whole Labour party, or at least the members who paid £3 to join and now control it.

I turn now to amendment 11, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Brady and other right hon. and hon. Friends. It would give the Secretary of State two new powers to extend academic selection. First, when a failing school became an academy under clause 7, the Secretary of State would have an additional power to allow the school, and therefore also the new academy, to select its pupils on the basis of ability, if requested to do so by a local authority or admission forum. Secondly, the amendment proposes to give the Secretary of State the power to make an order allowing selective arrangements in any maintained school, when requested to do so by the relevant local authority or admission forum. It does so by amending section 104 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which currently prohibits selective grammar schools unless they were already selective before 1997.

Grammar schools have made a remarkable and sustained contribution to education in this country. They provide an exceptional education to their pupils. In 2014, 96.8% of pupils in the 163 grammar schools achieved an average of at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and mathematics, and 87% of pupils at grammar schools were entered for a foreign language GCSE. This strong academic ethos—a rigorous curriculum and the highest expectations for every child—has been at the heart of the Government’s reforms. Harold Wilson hoped that a comprehensive education system would create a “grammar school for all”, but as Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, has pointed out, the reality was quite different. Several of the grammar schools converted into comprehensives suffered a precipitous decline in standards and, in many cases, a rejection of the value of a strong academic education.

The whole thrust of our education reforms is a determination to ensure that every school delivers the type and standard of education found in the 163 grammar schools. That is why we introduced a new national curriculum, which is more knowledge based and academically rigorous. The new primary curriculum is designed to ensure that every pupil is ready for a more demanding secondary education. For example, pupils are now expected to master times tables to 12 x 12 by the end of year 4, instead of to 10 x 10 by the end of year 6. Punctuation, grammar and spelling are now explicitly taught and tested, and dictation—the art of writing practice—is now part of the statutory national curriculum.

We are reforming GCSEs and A-levels. The new GCSEs are more demanding, and are no longer modular—all exams are taken at the end of a two-year course. Several of these new qualifications are being taught for the first time in schools this academic year. The new maths GCSE places greater emphasis on mathematical fluency and deep understanding, and includes new content to improve progression to A-level—on, for example, rates of change and quadratic functions. For GCSE English literature, pupils will now be required to study a broader range of texts, including at least one Shakespeare play in full and a 19th-century novel. The new history A-level will require students to study topics from a period of at least 200 years. The new science A-level includes strengthened mathematical and quantitative content—for example, understanding standard deviation in biology and the concepts underlying calculus in physics.

In the previous Parliament, we introduced the English baccalaureate performance measure, showing the proportion of pupils in a school entering and achieving a good GCSE in English, maths, science, history or geography, and a foreign language. The result has been a substantial increase in the proportion of young people taking these core academic subjects, from 23% in 2012 to 39% last year. We are going further, with this September’s new year 7 the first to be required to study the full combination of EBacc subjects to GCSE.