HC Deb 14 February 1978 vol 944 cc217-9
2. Mr. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she is in a position to announce when she intends to introduce legislation to resolve the difficulties which arise at present over parental choice of schools.

8. Mr. Budgen

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will introduce legislation to increase parental choice of schools.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

I intend to introduce legislation on school admissions arrangements when the parliamentary timetable permits.

Mr. Knox

Why has there been so much delay in introducing this legislation? Will the Minister give an assurance that the legislation that she eventually introduces will extend to parents the maximum possible freedom of choice?

Mrs. Williams

There has not been delay. In the debate on the Loyal Address on 4th November 1977, I made it clear that if there was time this Session a Bill would be introduced but I also indicated that, in view of the legislation that was to be taken this Session, it might not be possible to do so. That remains the position.

Mr. Budgen

Surely there is now time to introduce a short Bill amending Section 76 of the Education Act 1944 and setting out a parent's right to choose his child's school.

Mrs. Williams

The matter is more complicated than that. Amendments would be required to Sections 37 and 68 of the Education Act 1944 as well as to Section 76. In addition, it is clear that we shall have to bring in legislation concerning the planned operating capacity of schools, and at a time when rolls are falling rapidly.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if it were left to the Conservatives, 80 per cent. of parents would have no choice whatsoever as to where their children went to school, as used to be the case? Even under present legislation there is more choice in the matter than there has ever been in history. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what the Conservative Party wants is elitism, to go back to what happened previously and give it special favours?

Mrs. Williams

I would certainly agree with my hon. Friend in that only one school in five even had a sixth form under the selective system, and the great majority of children had no opportunity to continue their studies beyond compulsory age. In my view, however, what we want is to permit parents to express their preferences about schools within the comprehensive system. I do not accept that the proper way is by selection, as the Conservative Party has indicated.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does the right hon. Lady agree that not only do we need legislation governing how parents express their choice when their child reaches the age of 11 but that it is important that local education authorities should find out parents' wishes while their children are still in the early years at primary schools, so that the variety of comprehensive or secondary schools can be adjusted to match more accurately what parents want, rather than forcing them to make a choice three or four months before their child transfers?

Mrs. Williams

I follow what the hon. Gentleman is driving at. The Government have said that parents should be fully informed at all stages about schools, what they offer and the courses available in them. Last November the Government issued a circular asking schools to provide information. I believe that that was the first time it had been done under any Administration.

Mr. Noble

Does my right hon. Friend agree that for many parents and their children freedom of choice is restricted by economic circumstances? Before she moves in the direction requested by the Opposition, will she deal with those Tory authorities which refuse to introduce effective and cheap school transport?

Mrs. Williams

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his subtlety in asking a supplementary question about school transport on this Question. He will be aware that the Government have put forward proposals for flat-rate school transport fares which would be fair across the board to local authorities. We are still waiting for their response. May I make it quite clear that, in my view, the expression of parental wishes must be taken alongside the comprehensive principle, the need to operate schools efficiently and the need to make sure that we have a planned operating capacity for schools.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Whilst I sympathise with the right hon. Lady on the defeat she is reported to have sustained in this matter at the hands of the Secretary of State for Energy and his relations, may I ask her to make it quite plain that if she ever manages to get a Bill past Cerberus she will have no intention, under the pretext of rationalising the law, of doing away with the limited amount of parental choice that parents have under present legislation?

Mrs. Williams

I am sure, in view of the hon. Gentleman's high moral qualities, that he would not wish to associate himself with some of the wilder suggestions which appear in the Press. Therefore, I refer him to my speech on 4th November 1977, in the debate on the Loyal Address, when I said: We believe that parents should be given a proper opportunity to express a preference for a school and to have that preference taken fully into account, along with all the other relevant factors such as the need for local authorities, as school rolls fall, to be able to deploy their resources effectively, to run an efficient education service, and, in the case of secondary schools, to operate a satisfactory comprehensive system".—[Official Report, 4th November 1977; Vol. 938, c.170.] I stand by every word I said in the House on 4th November. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should withdraw his insinuations.