HC Deb 12 December 1978 vol 960 cc215-8
7. Mr. Peter Bottomley

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will make a statement on parental choice of schools.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

I have nothing to add to what I said in the debate on Second Reading of the Education Bill on 5th December.

Mr. Bottomley

Would the right hon. Lady object if the ILEA decided to admit the outstanding 12 children to Eltham Green school?

Mrs. Williams

That is a matter for the Inner London Education Authority, but it is my understanding that parents of 99 children asked for that school as their first choice. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it would be impossible to meet the first choice of all those parents.

Mr. Thorne

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the parents of children attending the Liverpool Paddington comprehensive school are protected against the plans of local Tories and Liberals to demolish that school?

Mrs. Williams

I think that my hon. Friend will know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has already seen a deputation on that matter and that I am shortly to do so.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. Lady agree that local authorities already have sufficient powers under the present law to limit the ability of parents to choose schools? Should not any legislative change be to tip the balance in favour of parents?

Mrs. Williams

I am convinced that the proposals in the Education Bill set a new balance. They give additional rights to parents of a sort that parents have never had before, especially the right to information and the right for every parent to be asked his or her preference. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that in a situation in which the school population has fallen by 25 per cent. it is not surprising that local authorities have said that they must have power gradually to phase certain schools out of the system. However, I feel sure that they will always consider the views of the local people.

Mr. Forman

Will the right hon. Lady take advantage of the unduly long Christmas Recess to study carefully the excellent remarks of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) when speaking from the Opposition Front Bench on the Second Reading of the Education Bill? Will she try to satisfy herself that the truth is that the Bill in the name of extending parental choice is in danger of restricting it? In Committee in the new year will she bring forward proposals to strengthen real parental choice?

Mrs. Williams

No. I have studied most carefully the remarks made by the hon. Gentleman's colleagues from the Opposition Front Bench on Second Reading of the Education Bill. The hon. Gentleman must take on board the reasons that have motivated local authorities, including those dominated by his party, to suggest time and again that, if we are to have a reasonable control of the education system, and if we are to meet as far as possible parents' wishes and protect the accountability of the system to the taxpayer and the ratepayer, there is no alternative to the proposals that we have put forward.

Mr. Grocott

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the complete contempt for parental choice in any respect that is being shown by the Conservative-controlled Staffordshire county council, especially for parents who would prefer their children not to be educated at primary schools by means of the initial teaching alphabet? Does she agree that where there is room in other schools the parents of those children should, as far as possible, be given the option of going to schools where that method is not used?

Mrs. Williams

I know that my hon. Friend has written to me on that matter. I thank him for his letter. My view is clearly and strongly that where parental wishes can be met they must be met for all parents and not merely for the minority, which I believe to be the main concern of Opposition Members.

Dr. Boyson

Is the right hon. Lady aware that we agree with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the new Education Bill is likely to limit parental choice and not increase it, especially on two grounds? First, does she agree that it wipes out the right embodied in the London Government Act 1963 for children to cross boundaries without any difficulty so that parents may choose whatever school they want for their children, often of a denominational nature? Secondly, if power is given to local authorities to change the intakes of all their schools each September, will not some authorities try to keep open unpopular schools by that method? Will they not direct children to those schools who do not want to go to them while there are real vacancies in other schools that are popular in the neighbourhood?

Mrs. Williams

I think that the hon. Gentleman is pushing at an open door. He knows that on Second Reading of the Education Bill I made it clear that if there were any limitations of the sort that he has suggested as a result of the clause dealing with the London Government Act they would be amended, as would clause 11(5). I say to the hon. Gentleman loudly and clearly that in my view the Opposition have continually pressed for such things as parental preferences and parental information only since they became the Opposition. I wonder why they never did anything about those issues during the period that they were in office.