HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1557-8
7. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

How many schools achieved specialist status in business and commerce in the latest group he has announced. [154516]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)

Twenty-five schools were awarded business and enterprise status as a result of the October 2003 specialist school round. In addition, two schools achieved specialist status in a combined specialism—business and enterprise with sport, and business and enterprise with visual arts.

Mr. Gray

I thank the Minister for that answer and I congratulate him on his commitment to business and commerce specialism in schools. Will he spare a thought for Abbeyfield comprehensive, a brand new school in Chippenham in my constituency, which was built under a private finance initiative scheme introduced by the Conservatives? The school spent much money and time on preparing a bid for business and enterprise specialism. It was told by the Department that the length of existence of the school did not matter and that the lack of exam statistics would not count against it, but was then very surprised to be turned down, apparently on the ground of its lack of exam statistics. Can the Minister comment on that and can he tell me whether Abbeyfield should reapply next year? If it does, will he give that application his personal and careful attention?

Mr. Miliband

The Department does owe an apology to Abbeyfield school, in that it was given mistaken information. However, its application for specialist status did not fail because of that error; rather, there were some significant weaknesses in its bid. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we would welcome a further application for the March round, and I should point out to him and to all Members that the Department is there to work with schools to help their bids reach the right level, so that as many as possible go through as fast as possible. That applies as much to Abbeyfield as to any other school.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my hon. Friend accept that this important venture overcomes the dreadful divide between academic and vocational studies that has bedevilled this country? Does he agree that specialist schools are an important way in which we can develop consumer education and debt advice, for example, in line with the financial education that has become more widely taught in all aspects of our secondary education?

Mr. Miliband

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The development of business and enterprise specialisms does hold out the prospect that, along with curriculum reform, which the Tomlinson committee will discuss next week, we can overcome the academic and vocational divide and encourage youngsters to combine such subjects, or general and specialist subjects, according to their aptitudes and interests. I very much welcome my hon. Friend's support for the programme.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con)

I know that the Minister will want to congratulate three schools in my constituency—Congleton high, Eaton Bank and Alsager—which have recently secured specialist status. I understand that to date, although specialist schools can select 10 per cent. of pupils by aptitude, very few do so. Bearing in mind the difficulties that might arise in a large rural constituency because of transport issues, and so on, will the Minister encourage flexibility in admissions to ensure that in a town such as Congleton, children go to the school to which their aptitude is best fitted, rather than to the one nearest their home?

Mr. Miliband

There is some flexibility in the specialist schools programme to allow up to 10 per cent. of pupils to be selected on the basis of aptitude in particular specialisms, such as music and sport. We certainly would not want flexibility of a type that suggested a return to anything approaching the 11-plus. [Interruption.] Perhaps I have not understood exactly what the hon. Lady is getting at. Schools need to adhere to the code of practice on admissions, which gives some room for the flexibility that she describes. However, if she would like to explain the matter to me further afterwards, I shall get back to her.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend congratulate Aylesford school on becoming a specialist sports school, hard on the heels of its receiving a share of a £60 million private finance initiative, which will provide bright new buildings? However, Ofsted has expressed the concern that specialist schools do not always fulfil the community links that they talk about in their applications. Is his Department keeping this issue under review, and what lessons has it learned in offering guidance to schools, particularly when they are reapplying for specialist status?

Mr. Miliband

Needless to say, Aylesford school is rarely far from my thoughts, and I am delighted to offer my sincere congratulations to all concerned. My hon. Friend raises an important point. Specialist schooling is about developing centres of excellence in every school in the country that are not just for the benefit of those schools' pupils, but which are available to the wider community, other pupils and the extended community of adults. Some difficulties have arisen, and we are working with the Specialist Schools Trust on precisely that point, to ensure that all new specialist schools deliver on the community aspects of their plan and on providing a resource for the whole community, as well as on improvement of their own institutions.