HC Deb 30 June 1976 vol 914 cc509-18

'Local education authorities shall publish each year the school attendance figures for each school maintained by that authority, together with the results achieved in each school in the GCE "O" and "A" level and CSE examinations, and such figures and results shall be available from the local education authority to any member of the public requeting them, and may be included if so desired in the annual publication detailing the maintained secondary schools in the area of the education authority'.—[Dr Boyson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Boyson

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

With this we are to take New Clause 23—(Prospectus); New Clause 24—(Availability of prospectus); New Clause 25—(School annual reports); New Clause 34—(Information about schools).

Dr. Boyson

I commend these new clauses to the House, or whichever variety or mixture of them the Government may feel in a considerate mood to accept. In a choice society, they have a variety from which to choose.

All the new clauses are concerned with a phrase that is easily spoken but hard to bring out—open government. All that they do is to ask for the results, or the profile, of any secondary or primary school to be available to the parents in the area so that they know that they are not playing a kind of blind man's buff or a kind of bingo with the State education system but know exactly what they are choosing and why. Obviously anybody with confidence in the State educational system would have confidence in the schools saying what was going on inside them. I hope that on the Government Benches there are not Members who so lack confidence in the State system that they fear information about what is going on in schools being available to parents in that area.

There is a suggestion that this can be done by a kind of annual report issued at the beginning of the autumn term, or the issue of a prospectus that will be available to parents and those who live in the area. Alternatively, it is said, that it should be published, not necessarily in the local Press, but as a whole series of pieces of information available to the general public to show what is happening in individual schools. I think it is as well to say at the outset that there is nothing here that will identify individual pupils in the schools. That is not something for which we are asking, nor would it do any good. What we are asking for is a pattern, a picture of the kaleidoscope events and activities in the schools.

If all the schools were the same and had the same ends and the same type of discipline, presumably a prospectus from each individual school would be unnecessary, but as the claim has been made that schools vary so much—and we all know from our constituency experience that they vary a great deal—it is important that parents know how and why.

With the lessening of the control of an understood curriculum, and the lessening of the power of HMIs, schools have varied, and they vary tremendously particularly in city areas, and sometimes in county areas. It is because of the variations between schools, and because the curriculum in one school is so different from that in another, as are the values sought and the sports played, that we bring forward this proposal this evening.

I know that things are easier for those who allocate children to schools if there is a maximum of ignorance among parents about what goes on, because then nobody can complain. Those concerned can sort out the pieces on the chess board and put them around. The more information that goes to parents, the more they will ask that they be allowed to send their children to schools with those values and approaches with which they agree.

This proposal will be opposed by anybody with a bureaucratic turn of mind. I have great hopes that some hon. Members on the Government Benches will have a non-bureaucratic turn of mind and will believe that open government in this way is not just a phrase or a frothing at the mouth but means a choice of school and an opportunity for parents to have the maximum information in making a decision about their children's schooling.

This will not mean a choice between a selective and non-selective school. That is an argument that we have had on other issues, but we could take this on the variety of comprehensive schools themselves. I could go to one area of inner London perhaps four and a half miles from here—I could give the compass direction if required—where one comprehensive school will have 30 to 40 places in higher education out of 240 who go in each September, while the next school will be lucky if it has one in a year. The difference of opportunity between those two schools is as much as being selected to a highly selective grammar school rather than a sink secondary modern school. This has gone on not for one year but for 10 to 15 years.

I come to the question of school attendance. I have always believed that schools are more effective if pupils go to them and preferably if they can get the pupils into one classroom sitting down facing the right way, when there is a possibility of the communication of mind.

I will compare two schools. According to the Evening Standard at the time, in one year one school had an average atendance of 95 per cent. and the other had an attendance of 67 per cent. That attendance of 67 per cent. was praised by the governing body at the time because it was such an improvement over the previous year, when the average attendance had been 49 per cent.

On 21st June, the Secretary of State mentioned the setting up of an investigation into truancy and indiscipline in schools. I welcome that. But the difference between going to a school with an average attendance of 95 per cent. and one where the attendance is 67 per cent., is all the difference in the world. It is not just a question of O- and A-levels. It is a question of basic academic literary standards for all children. I believe that all children without brain damage can be taught to read at the age of seven. It is interesting that reports of dyslexia have increased as teaching standards have declined in certain areas. Sometimes this is a collective term which covers a multitude of errors.

The parents should know whether a school—a primary school in this case—is likely to turn out children with a reading age equivalent to their chronological age or whether it will turn out children with a reading age of nothing like that. All this could be included in a general profile. It is difficult for parents to find out.

In some schools in the Islington area every child has a reading age of 11, equivalent to his chronological age, while in others the record is between 30 per cent. and 40 per cent. worse. It is only by rumour that the parents knew of this. No profile could be checked to see what was happening and it was only through the secondary schools coming together and realising that there were difficulties that many parents knew about it. In that area a parent who did not know how to go about getting stray strands of information often did not know the sort of school to which his child was going.

Many booklets are published by schools in the Inner London Education Authority area—I am not attacking ILEA, which has tried to show what the schools achieve—but they are so vague. The one feature which is lacking is facts. The schools said they were offering O- and A-level courses but no reference was made to the fact that in some O-level courses no one passed. The purpose of sitting examinations is at least the hope that someone will get through. The problem is the lack of hard facts.

I sometimes think the information which is given to parents about schools would fall foul of the Trade Descriptions Act if it were given by a business or other organisation. Often such information is even more dangerous and less informative than that produced by political parties. Manifestos for elections are a kind of prospectus about what has been achieved and what will be achieved. Often they are more accurate than what comes out from schools.

This matter is not a question of pupil-teacher ratios at all. It is something about which hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned. In many cases staff turnover would tell more. Staff flee very rapidly from schools which are not achieving anything and where there are no signs of esprit de corps among parents and children. The best figure to ask for is the percentage turnover of the members of staff; that would give an idea of the achievements of a school.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

Would not my hon. Friend agree that one of the best assessments is to count the number of staff cars in the school car park 15 minutes after the end of school?

Dr. Boyson

That could possibly be a footnote. I would not say that it should be a master paragraph.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Kinnock

There is another rule of thumb, and that is the total overtime bill paid to school teachers. Perhaps that would show how often they remain after school hours.

Dr. Boyson rose

Mr. Flannery rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is not allowed to give way again at this stage. He must answer one hon. Member before giving way to the next.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My hon. Friend should not be so popular.

Dr. Boyson

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) knows of the long dispute among teachers whether they should be paid a salary to cover everything—paid to those who work 16 hours a day and to those who work six hours—or whether they should be paid for the hours spent at school, irrespective of achievement. This is an interesting byway which we cannot explore at the moment. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would put down a new clause on the subject. We should welcome the opportunity to debate it.

Mr. Flannery

What would the hon. Member think would be the reaction of members of the public who counted the number of cars parked in the car park here at certain times of day—especially those belonging to Conservative Members, who have so many directorships?

Dr. Boyson

I think that we had better return to the subject of the prospectus. It is fascinating how the mere mention of the car, whether it be the subject of seat belts or anything else, immediately arouses great interest.

We are talking about whether parents should be given the information, or whether some people dare not give them the information, on which to base a choice of school. I should like to suggest the sort of material which should be published. No doubt fertile minds in this place can suggest alternatives.

The first important factor is external examination results. Whether one likes them or not, they are decisive factors in the future life chances of children. Ordinary parents recognise that they are passports to careers. One should know especially the subjects in which CSE, O- level or A-level results are achieved. Schools can claim success rates in subjects of great obscurity with no relevance to the jobs that the children will probably get.

Some schools in London offer O- and A-levels in the original languages of local immigrants. Many such schools get 20 per cent. of their pass rate through children doing Greek or Hindi. There is no harm in those subjects, but that is not why other parents are sending their children to those schools. It is important that information be available about the subjects in which passes are gained.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

What about English?

Dr. Boyson

The English O-level is very important. For the first time I agree with the hon. Member, and I am grateful to him for mentioning the subject.

Secondary schools should also have information about which jobs children later gain. We have careers teachers in schools now and it should be easy for them to discover what jobs children take, how many go into higher education and so on. Most of us would require such information before sending our children to school.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Would my hon. Friend not agree that there are not careers teachers in every school? That is one of the priorities that the Government have neglected. Until we do have them in every school, the Government should not be putting through farcical legislation like this.

Dr. Boyson

The number of careers teachers is increasing, but I take the point.

If such a profile as I have described were required, that would stimulate the careers teachers to get children into jobs and to keep a record of what jobs they took.

Another important factor is the illiteracy rate. Following the Bullock Report, and assessment of performance unit is a cloud no bigger than a man's hand on the horizon. That will be a check on what is happening in this area, and not before time. Parents should know whether children leave school illiterate. I do not think that any Labour Member would want to send a child, of whatever intelligence, to a school known to have a 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. illiteracy rate at the school leaving age.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Is the object of the exercise to enable parents to judge that a school is not suitable and not to send their children there, or is it to enable the local authority to spend more money to make it a better school?

Dr. Boyson

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman at the end what we are after.

Mr. James Johnson

I am concerned about the attitude of mind. I do not mind a good debate, and I do not mind listening to someone who is attempting to argue a worth while issue, but the whole tenor of the debate is a sarcastic attitude towards children in schools. I flatter myself that I am fair-minded, and I have a completely different attitude from that of the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Boyson

I have always found that people who doubt other people's motives have no argument. I spent 23 years schoolmastering, and I saw how much parents were concerned to see that their children went to schools in which they could achieve something. Others, such as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), are well acquainted with other matters of which I have no experience. I know that 95 per cent. of parents want the best for their children. The present system does not give them the opportunity or the information to enable them to get it. I cannot give an X-ray picture of my motives. There are many other reasons for bringing the clause forward apart from my non-political experience. There is the desire that parents should have sufficient information to enable them to choose the school to which they wish their child to go.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

Is it not true that without valid information about schools, parents cannot compare one school with another and decide which school they wish their child to attend? The new clause is designed to enable parents to have that valid information available.

Dr. Boyson

When we have dealt with the availability of the information we can go on to deal with the use to which that information is put.

In certain parts of the country rugby football is played and in other parts soccer. There are athletics areas and cricket areas. It is important for the parent to know which schools take part in which sporting activities so that their children can take part in the sport in which they are interested and continue to do so after they have left school.

Many parents would like their children to go to a school which places emphasis on musical education. Parents who are interested in art, pottery or ceramics may wish to send their children to schools which teach those subjects. The decision about which school to send a child may also be made upon the type of discipline that is practised. I do not want drab conformity in all schools, nor do my hon. Friends. In some schools discipline is rigid, and there are parents who like rigid discipline. In some schools in London and other areas the discipline is free and there are parents who prefer free discipline. It is important that before sending a child to school parents should know whether the values of home and school are the same.

That applies particularly to religious education. If a family feels strongly about religious factors it will want to know how it is dealt with in a particular school. It will want to know whether religion is rushed through with a minimum one lesson a week or the occasional assembly.

In these days of participation a family would want to know whether there was a schools council where children have a say in running the school or whether it was run by a benevolent despot. As members of a free society parents have a right to know such things. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) would run a school in the same way as I ran mine.

Mr. Noble

If the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) had a school prospectus would he have said in it that he was a benevolent despot?

Dr. Boyson

I had a prospectus in which I told parents the type of discipline which their children could expect. The idea of having daily meetings to decide what should be done was foreign to me. In my school, rules were there to be kept. The worst thing is for a parent to send a child to a school and not to discover until later what happens there. I told parents that corporal punishment and terrible things happened in the school and that if they did not like it I could recommend three other schools in the area that did not have it. That is fair enough. If one gives the information it is up to the parents to choose what they want to do.

The new clause would have several effects. It would entitle parents to know what schools were doing. They would know whether they were choosing a school to which they wanted their children to go. A school which has to write a prospectus must know what it is doing. If its aims are put on paper they will be made clearer because the staff will have to decide what they will say. Unanimity of purpose makes a school better than it is when a debate takes place every day. Schools should have to decide what they intend to do. They should have to put on paper what was achieved last year and what they hope to achieve the next year. They would then have something to live up to. It would raise the morale of staff. Once they have committed themselves to achieving a certain standard the odds are that they will achieve a higher standard in the future.

Another effect will be on local authorities. We must have checks and balances. We work in a quinquennial system with elections in between. Local authorities should have to take action on schools which they find to be heavily over-subscribed or heavily under-subscribed. There are schools in certain areas of London which have been under-subscribed for 10 to 15 years and yet the staff have gone on the same way and no investigation has taken place. The life chances of children in such schools are being ruined.

Mr. James Johnson

As the hon. Gentleman believes in a laissez-faire society, I understand what he wants. But is it not like two shops, one packed to the door with customers—

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill, as amended, stood adjourned.