HC Deb 03 November 1978 vol 957 cc356-464

11.6 a.m.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science and Paymaster General (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

I think that everyone in the House will welcome the fact that we are having a debate on education today, because we have too few opportunities to discuss education here. I think that there is room for a good deal more debate, which many of us would like to see.

I am very glad to say that at least some objectivity has been filtering into the great debate about standards, which has gone on for so long in the world of education. On 26th September this year the national primary survey was published. It covered 542 primary schools and 1,127 primary classes. It is perhaps worth recalling some of the things that the survey said. I quote first what the inspectors said about the three Rs: High priority is given to teaching children to read, write and learn mathematics. They also said: The children behave responsibly and co-operate with their teachers and with other children … A quiet working atmosphere is established when necessary … The teaching of reading is regarded by teachers as extremely important, and the basic work in this skill is undertaken systematically. The results of surveys conducted since 1955 by the National Foundation for Educational Research are consistent with gradually improving reading standards of 11 year olds. Indeed, those tests show quite a marked improvement over the past 20 years, and particularly over the past four years.

Too often examination results are used as if they were the only yardstick by which standards can be judged. I do not accept that. As we all know, a school may he doing outstandingly well in difficult circumstances without coming high in any examination results league table. A good school in an inner city area may not achieve as many examination passes as a bad school in a rich suburb, and yet it is, for all that, a good school.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) recently attempted to suggest that the contrast between the Trafford and Manchester A-level examination results demonstrated the superiority of the old selective system over the comprehensive system. It does nothing of the sort. The social and economic differences between the two areas, measured by almost any index one likes to take—overcrowding at home, unemployment, dependence on supplemenetary benefit, unskilled or professional family occupations, single-parent families, car ownership or virtually any other index —show that Manchester is below all those indices, nationally taken, and Trafford substantially above.

Yet, as if even that were not enough—and I believe that this demonstrates an essential weakness in the hon. Gentleman's comparison—the hon. Gentleman also left out of account completely the A-level performance of Catholic pupils in Manchester, who constitute no less than 26 per cent. of the school population. Incidentally, there are no Catholic schools in Trafford, so the comparison could not apply.

Such real evidence as there is about whether comprehensive schools are having an effect on standards of achievement points in a different direction. In national terms, almost twice as many young people obtained one or more A-level passes as was the case 15 years ago under the almost total selective system. Over four-fifths of school leavers now leave with some qualification as compared with barely half 10 years ago. This positive national evidence is reinforced by information from local education authorities such as Sheffield, Leicestershire, and East Sussex, which shows marked signs of improvement.

A Hertfordshire survey, the most recent we have, shows that in Welwyn Garden City, the first area of the county to go fully comprehensive in 1968, O-level passes almost doubled between that year and 1975, while A-level passes rose by 63 per cent. Nationally, in the 10 years between 1966–67 when there were few comprehensive schools, and 1976–77, the proportion of school leavers gaining the higher grades 1 to 4 in O-level GCE—and I take the Opposition spokesman's measure of GCE and not CSE—rose from 17 per cent to 27 per cent. By any standards, that is a creditable achievement.

There are, of course, some areas of concern and we tackle each of these where they are identified. For instance, in mathematics there have been problems arising from the adoption of modern maths in many schools and the preference of employers for those to whom they offer jobs to have traditional maths. This is why the Government announced, in March of this year, their intention to set up an inquiry into the teaching of mathematics. On 25th September I was able to announce the composition of the inquiry and to say that the chairman would be Dr Wilfrid Cockcroft.

The Government have taken steps to engage in a curriculum survey. The replies from individual local education authorities, which were requested by 30th June 1978, have led so far to 90 responses from English authorities, out of a total of 97. We have had responses from all the Welsh authorities. We are promised returns from six more English authorities within the next few weeks. There is, so far, only one authority which has not submitted a return. Not too surprisingly, it is the Conservative-controlled authority of Kingston upon Thames, which will not respond to the curriculum survey.

All of this shows that the survey has been taken very seriously. We are now engaged in assessing the replies received. We hope to be able to summarise the information and make it available early next year. It will, for the first time, give us a clear picture of what gaps there may be in our system, what its strengths are, and of variations in provision between one area and another. It will be directly relevant to giving all of our children a fair deal in education. It is interesting to note that this is the first time that it has been attempted. As usual, we have not had much support from the Opposition Benches for the curriculum survey. I am bound to say that I believe there to be a certain element of hypocrisy in the endless reiteration of concern about standards by Tory Members.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Williams

No. I will not give way because I have not yet indicated why I believe there to be an element of hypocrisy. I think that I had better expain why I think this is so.

I mentioned Kingston upon Thames, which is just one example of an authority which is not co-operating in something which most people recognise to be crucial if we are to give our children adequate opportunities. There are a number of other instances to which I would like to draw the attention of the House. For example, the estimates made by CIPFA for the current year show that the average pupil-teacher ratio in all our schools is now 23 pupils per teacher in primary schools and 16.6 in secondary schools. Incidentally, these figures are the best we have ever had in our history.

As for the worst records, the worst 10 authorities in terms of pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools are all Conservative. The worst 10 authorities in terms of pupil-teacher ratio in secondary schools are all Conservative, although most people recognise that small classes are helpful in achieving good education.

Dr. Hampson

I was trying to intervene on the accusation the Secretary of State made that the Conservative Front Bench and other education spokesmen on the Tory Benches had not given her support over the curriculum review. We have. All the way through the procedures on the Education Act 1976 we kept asking for this sort of review. Indeed, two years before the right hon. Lady set up the maths inquiry, we were calling for one, and a year and a half before she set up the scheme for the training of teachers in maths we were calling for that.

Mrs. Williams

I can only say that the hon. Gentleman's Administration were in power for quite a long time, when all of these problems emerged, not least the problem of mathematics. They did absolutely nothing about them.

Dr. Hampson

Is the right hon. Lady withdrawing the accusation?

Mrs. Williams

I am not withdrawing the accusation, I am sustaining it.

Turning now to the under-fives, let me say at once that the 1977 figures for educational provision—and we all say that nursery school education is important —indicate that all the 18 worst authorities giving 20 per cent. or less provision were Conservative-controlled. Of the nine authorities which provided 60 per cent. provision for the under-fives, six were Labour-controlled. In the past two years, the Government have mounted a modest nursery education capital building programme. It is not as large as I would wish to see, yet the interesting thing is that only 40 per cent. of Tory-controlled authorities made any bid whatever for that programme as compared with nearly 90 per cent. of Labour-controlled authorities.

It is not too surprising, with regard to school milk, that all Labour-controlled LEAs and only a minority of Tory-controlled LEAs have taken advantage of the scheme. Hon. Gentlemen argue that the rate support grant distribution makes it difficult for some of their authorities to take up this Government provision. It is perfectly true that for some authorities, especially in the shire counties, the combination of a rising school population and the rate support grant distribution has made life difficult. I readily concede that. However, there are a great many Conservative-controlled authorities of which this is not true and which persistently try to keep down the rate and finance their education by doing so and which fail to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) sometimes trips into words or print on the basis of rather inadequate homework. I must be merciful to him, because not all of us have to bear the burden of the hon. Member for Brent, North, who, I am reliably informed, is known among his colleagues as the Colossus of Rhodes. I would like to investigate two of the more recent sallies of the hon. Member for Chelmsford. Last year, the hon. Member said: The Tories would reintroduce national standards of literacy and numeracy, which were unwisely done away with by the Labour Government in 1966. He was then asked what he meant, and replied: You will have to research that one for yourself. I don't know. I am bound to tell the hon. Gentleman that there were once minimum national standards of this kind for schools. They existed until the First World War. A child could not leave school without achieving those national minimum standards. We had minimum standards earlier when we had the payment by results system in 1866. But at no time since the First World War have there ever been national minimum standards laid down by any Government, for the straightforward reason that they tend to be a ceiling and not a floor.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford might wish to go back to 1866—we all know that he is extremely fond of the era of Gladstone and Disraeli—but he must recognise that when he accuses the Labour Government of having removed national minimum standards he is talking about a fable.

Let me give a more recent example. The hon. Member for Chelmsford recently made a speech in Coventry on the subject of the 16-plus common system of examinations. He began by denouncing me for irresponsibility, for dangerous and inadequate proposals, for doctrinaire attitudes—indeed, the thesaurus almost began to run out before the hon. Gentleman had exhausted his adjectives. It then emerged that the hon. Gentleman was backing every horse in the race—O-level, CSE, common examination and anything else we might care to name.

Not too surprisingly, The Times of 27th October 1978 said: Apart from a pledge to preserve the identity of the O-level examination, Mr. St. John-Stevas's proposals do not seem to differ widely from those put forward by the Government in its White Paper. The article also pointed out that the hon. Gentleman said that he was strongly in favour of a single system with a common seven-point grading system and of national provisions to make sure that the subjects were effectively monitored. But this Government said long before he did that there should be a seven-point grading system of common examinations, a national monitoring body to monitor standards, and a proper rationalisation of the 22 boards we have for examinations. The hon. Gentleman may look good in my clothes, but I suspect that he would look even better in his own.

With regard to the 16-plus examination there has also been a long and confusing discussion about what local authorities actually said, so I shall quote once again what they said and ask the House to make a judgment of whether it constitutes what the hon. Gentleman has seen fit to call opposition to the proposal for a common system of examinations.

The education committee of the Association of County Councils said that it fully accepts the desirability of a common system of examining at 16+; uncertainty should be ended and decisions quickly made". The education committee of the ACC also said that it believed that the common system of examinations would improve standards.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities, also now under Conservative control said: We resolve that the case for some reform is well made. There are far too many examination boards and many of them work far too separately. Public uncertainty needs to be resolved. It went on to say that it wanted to see O-level standards maintained. It said this against the background of accepting the case for reform.

The Confederation of British Industry, in a letter to me, said: The CBI is therefore prepared to accept the overall judgment of the Committee —that is, the Waddell committee— in favour of a common examining system from an educational standpoint. It stressed the importance of maintaining standards.

Since these responses to the Waddell committee and the White Paper, it is true that local authorities have in various ways qualified very much. My belief is that the hon. Member for Chelmsford is much too civilised to have leaned on them, but I am not quite so sure about some of his political colleagues. But what is clear is that all the local authorities after considering the points made to them, made the statements that I have read out to the House, and those statements, only as recently as a few days ago, the ACC in particular has reiterated in the form that I have read out.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I am sure that the right hon. Lady would not want to misrepresent the truth or represent only a portion of it. Surely the vital point at issue between her and me and the ACC and the AMA is that she wishes to abolish O-levels whereas we all wish to retain them. Both the AMA and the ACC are on record on that point, and that is the point of difference between the two sides of the House.

Mrs. Williams

No, I do not think that that will quite do. I recognise and accept that the hon. Gentleman has said that he wants to retain O-levels. He has also said that he is not opposed to a single examination system. The problem is—and the House must get this clear—that just as hon. Members opposite so often claim that it is possible to have both grammar and comprehensive schools, they now appear to claim that it is possible to have a common system of examinations and the O-level. We have to face the fact that choices need to be made. The ACC has said that it wants to see O-level standards maintained, and I believe that that can be adequately done.

I want to say something about the Bill that we shall bring forward under the terms of the Gracious Speech. One element will deal with the troubled question of school admissions. We need to strike a new balance between the legitimate desire of parents to be able to express their wishes about where their children should go to school—and it is worth recollecting to the House that under the old selective system 80 per cent. of parents exercised no choice at all, a fact constantly glossed over in the frequent comments about parental preferences—and the need on the other hand to plan the redeployment of education resources.

Over the next few years, local education authorities will have a very difficult job of planning for and managing the decline in school rolls. We have to create a framework in which they can arrive at a sensible solution for their own areas, and that must allow for some control over the capacity of schools. Without such control there is no way of phasing out of the system some of the very old and decrepit schools we still have in our cities and some other areas in such a way as to ensure that our children have better accommodation and better facilities than at present.

But in order to strike this balance we also aim to give all parents the right to express a preference for the school they wish their child to attend and adequate information on which to base that preference. This would include a sensible system of local as well as national appeals.

I hope that the House will recognise that the present system is beginning to break down before our eyes. There are no effective systems of local appeal in some authorities. The national appeal system involves parents in keeping children out of school, sometimes for months on end, at considerable suffering to the child and to his or her parents, in order, at the end of the day, sometimes to secure that the child attends the school they originally preferred but at a cost which in educational and psychological terms is unacceptably high.

The Bill will also include reference to the question of the governing of schools. I draw the House's attention to the fact that here again the Government will be taking steps to give parents as well as teachers a greater role in the governing bodies of schools. Here again we are acting where from other people only much lip service is paid to the importance of parents, but nothing has actually been done by previous administrations.

We intend therefore to lay down a statutory requirement to provide for a minimum number of parents and teachers on each governing body. As the House will appreciate, the size of a governing body varies as between a primary school and a secondary school and according to the size of the school. Therefore, I cannot give a figure but we will be laying down minimum proportions. At the primary level we intend that district councils and other minor authorities should continue to have a right of representation on primary school governing bodies.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

When the right hon. Lady says "other minor authorities ", does she have parish councils in mind? They lay great importance on their right to nominate to the local primary school.

Mrs. Williams

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind awaiting the terms of the Bill. The question of minor authorities turns a great deal on the representation in schools, but we are not accepting the Taylor committee's recommendation that the right of minor authorities to appoint governors should be phased out.

With regard to secondary schools, it is our view that representatives of the wider community, in particular employers and trade unions, appropriately ought to be represented on governing bodies because the transition from school to work is of such importance. We do not believe that they are appropriate on primary school governing bodies, where there is a stronger case for other groups to be represented.

I am particularly pleased to tell the House that the national bodies representing denominational schools have also been willing to discuss associated changes in the composition of governing bodies of voluntary schools. This has been a problem because of the way in which the Education Act 1944 enshrines a substantial majority for denominational bodies.

Within the next few weeks a consultation document will be published setting out the background to our proposals for primary legislation and for the regulations to be made under that legislation. This will allow me to hold a further round of negotiations on the regulations and also to take full account of what is said in the House during the passage of the Bill.

In response to fears which have been expressed about the prospect of radical change in the powers of governing bodies, I want to echo what I said in this corresponding debate 12 months ago. The changes in the composition of governing bodies are not intended to diminish the professional responsibility of teachers with regard to the curriculum and teaching methods. They remain, of course, the statutory responsibility of the local education authorities, and it is our view, that they should above all constitute a forum for discussion, explanation and influence on these matters. But there is no question that the governing bodies should take over from the professionals with regard to the direction of the curriculum itself.

I made it clear last March that in the Government's view the Oakes working group's proposals taken in their entirety, mark a real advance towards a solution of the problem of forward planning and financial control of higher education in the maintained sector ".—[Official Report, 20th March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 428.] I also indicated our broad agreement with the report's conclusions as the basis for possible future action to modify present arrangements, but I said that before taking steps in the matter we intended, as I had promised when the group was established, to consult all the various interests involved.

Comments received show a broad consensus in favour of the report's main proposal for the establishment of a national framework for the planning of higher education in the maintained sector. Certainly, there is no evidence from the comments received of an alternative solution to the problems of management likely to command more support from the various parties involved.

The position of the local authorities as maintaining authorities would be both underlined and redefined if the proposals of the report are implemented. The Government fully appreciate the concern expressed by the local authority associations that the interests of maintaining authorities should be protected in any new system, and the legislation that we are proposing will reflect this.

The House will also know of my concern for young people from poorer homes who leave education early because their parents are not able to afford to keep them there any longer. Some find jobs and perhaps are able, with luck and determination, to continue their education, probably part-time, in later life, but many are not so lucky. Some do not find a job.

The provision for them, through the programmes of special help to the young unemployed, is of the greatest value and is growing rapidly, but none of these measures can fully make good all that these young people might have achieved if they had been able to carry on full-time with their better-off contemporaries in school or college. We lose many of our most able young people at 16 from the school and further education system, because they cannot afford to stay on. There is growing evidence also that the participation rate of 18-year olds in higher education is levelling out in a way that suggests that we are not tapping as many of the groups in the population that would be capable of gaining from higher education as I believe all of us in the House would want to do.

I am determined that we shall mend this broken bridge, and the Government —as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) —committed themselves in May this year in principle to the provision of a mandatory system of awards to meet this clear need. At that time it was fully supported by the local authority associations, and I greatly regret that since then they have seen fit, at least in part, to change their opinion on the matter. It seems to be a rather frequent occurrence at present among the local authority associations, but I would not wish to make any suggestion as to the reason for it.

In the Government's view, it is not a question of whether to do this but when to do it. I will make no bones at all about the fact that the climate for public expenditure has become more difficult since May, owing to there having been no agreement yet on an incomes policy, but, as the House knows, the Government are looking very carefully at proposals for major increases in public expenditure and at the timing for the introduction of an educational maintenance allowance system. I shall keep the House informed on this matter.

I turn now to resources for education. I am not yet at liberty to tell the House what is the position with regard to public expenditure for the coming financial year, nor, as the House will know, has any announcement of the rate support grant settlement been made to the local authorities. The matter is still under discussion. But I can say that at present—I think it is worth reiterating this—education's share of the gross national product, which was 4 per cent. in 1960, 5.8 per cent. in 1970, and 6.1 per cent. when the Conservative Administration left office, was last year 6.3 per cent. There are reasons to believe that the figure will increase in the coming year.

There is already provision in 1979–80 for 7,600 additional teaching jobs, which will help to improve the staff/student ratios. The figure for employment of teachers this year is the highest ever, at 464,972. The figure of registered teachers unemployed was lower this September—only slightly lower but nevertheless lower —than it was last year, largely because of the provision for additional teaching jobs.

I hope to be able to tell the House shortly the position with regard to teaching jobs next year. We hope also to be able to inform the local authorities, within the next short period, about the position concerning school meals, because we recognise that they are put in very grave difficulties by announcements about school meal charges being made at a late date, as happened last year.

With regard to in-service expenditure and expenditure on books and equipment, the House will know that there was an underspending, on the basis of the RSG figures, of £13 million for in-service training and £8 million for books and equipment last year. I regret both of these, because both are crucial to the quality and standard of education. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will be talking to the local authorities about the ways in which in-service training can be more rapidly expanded in order to get back to the target for which the Government have provided resources, on the basis of achieving the equivalent of some 13,500 full-time teachers in the year 1981–82. But I have to say that local authorities have fallen behind our targets in the last two years. The same is true with regard to books and equipment, where we are making provision in the coming year for an improvement of 2 per cent. in real terms for non-teaching costs. I hope very much that authorities will take this up.

I think that the Government have a good record in terms of the provision they have made for education, and I only regret that not all of that provision has been taken up. I end by saying that my real fear is that, at a time when the education system is beginning to show a real and measured improvement in terms of the quality and standard of education, we are offered by the Conservatives the recipe for a demoralised education service, a scheme for skimming voucher schemes, aided places, and the reintroduction of selection in a curious back-door way, which in my view would disrupt our education all over again, just at the time when it is beginning to settle down and give all our children a better chance than ever before.

11.37 a.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

The right hon. Lady was not her usual irenic self this morning. She was nasty to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson). She was rude about the Conservative local education authorities. She was less than charming to me. She is clearly going through a bad patch, and it is showing.

First, I hear that she is in heavy trouble with the content of her much talked of and much delayed education Bill, and of the dozen or so disparate proposals which have been slated for inclusion in the Bill. Even after what she has said today, we have very little certainty about what will be left out and what will be left in. We knew that it would be a ragbag of a Bill. What we did not know was that she would have such difficulties in knowing which rags she would be able to put into the bag.

Secondly, of course, the right hon. Lady is in grave trouble with her proposals for a new examination system to replace O-levels and CSE, and with the probable result that A-levels will follow O-levels into oblivion.

I do not think that I can ever remember a Secretary of State receiving such a bad press for an education proposal as the right hon. Lady received for her proposals on the change in the examination system.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Thanks to the capitalist press.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

No. With respect to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), we would expect her proposals to be condemned by The Daily Telegraph. That caused me and, no doubt, the right hon. Lady no surprise. On the other hand, the very forthright condemnation by The Times, for example, in a leading article, was not so expected. Perhaps of even greater significance—

Mr. Heffer

Left-wing Labour.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman says "Left-wing Labour ". The proposals have also been condemned by those newspapers which are left of centre in education matters.

Mr. Heffer

Which one is that?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Sunday Times, for example. No doubt the reading of Government supporters is restricted. But if they read The Sunday Times education correspondent and The Sunday Times education leaders, they would know that a radical line is taken. The Sunday Times has come out 100 per cent. against these proposals in a leader headed " The wasted debate." The same is true of The Economist which consistently has supported changes in our education system. That, too, has come out flatly against these proposals. This is not to mention the popular press, which has also condemned the right hon. Lady's proposals. She has only one paper on her side, and that is The Guardian. Much as I admire The Guardian, if she is relying on that newspaper to create confidence in her new system, she will be relying in vain.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Does the hon. Gentleman regard it as being of no significance that, quite apart from what I have said already about the ACC, all the teachers' organisations, the head teachers' organisations and the further education organisations support this proposal and that, in addition it has been supported in a great deal of the education press?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am not saying that the right hon. Lady has not got some support for her proposals, especially from the teachers. I am saying that she has to establish confidence amongst parents and the professional users of the service and that this she has manifestly failed to do so far. That is the significance of the condemnation in the press—both the popular press and the press with a more restricted circulation. It indicates that she will not get that confidence.

Perhaps it is because of that lack of public support that she got so bad-tempered and misleading today about the local authority associations and what they have said.

I heard the right hon. Lady on television. We appeared like Box and Cox. On one of her appearances, she said very clearly that she had the support of both the local authority associations and also of the CBI. She must have known at that time that she did not have the support of the AMA, because in The Times Educational Supplement of 6th October there is a statement by the AMA giving its observations on the Waddell report. It says: the separate identities of the GEC and CSE must be preserved to achieve confidence in the exam system. That does not sound like a declaration of support from the AMA for abolition of the O-levels and the CSE and their merging in a common examination.

I agree that the right hon. Lady has more claim that the ACC supported her originally. Representatives of the ACC assured me privately that they were in favour of the retention of O-levels. Then they issued a press statement which seemed to support the right hon. Lady's point of view. However, since then they have clarified their statement and made it clear that they support the retention of O-levels or of O-level standard examinations. It seems to me that although there was some initial ambiguity in their position, they have now resolved it and they clearly support the Conservative stand on the issue.

Mr. Heffer

I intervene merely to make a request to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas). As he continues his speech—I trust that other hon. Members will also do this—will he please stop speaking in initials? I am fed up with references to the ACC, and so on. I am sure that the general public do not know what we are talking about. Cannot we say what these bodies are and who they represent?

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

The NEC.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

No. We are not discussing the NEC. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Walton about the use of abbreviations, to which we in the education world are perhaps addicted. However, if I spell them out in full, it will make my speech much longer, and that may be an unbeneficial side effect of responding to the hon. Member's request.

Mr. Heffer

The hon. Member will not be able to kid anyone then, will he?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

In deference to the hon. Member for Walton, I shall now say that these proposals have also been criticised severely by the Confederation of British Industry. I think that it is of very considerable importance that here we have the customers of the education service expressing grave doubt about the proposals. It is a question of confidence which is at the root of the issue.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The hon. Member has mentioned confidence on behalf of the customers. Does he agree that one of the problems in this area is that it may be that certain of the customers have misused the examination system in that they have required a minimum qualification of four or five O-levels, whereas there have been many other factors, including the ability to learn, confidence and general competence of a person, which count far more? Is not some of his concern about the possible disappearance of the O-level founded upon a misuse of the examination system by those whom he terms the customers?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not think that the conclusion flows from the premises, but I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that exams are not everything in assessing a person's capability for an occupation. However, it is important to have an objective assessment as well as subjective assessments by teachers. As with everything else in education, it is a matter of keeping the balance between the two, and these proposals move away from the balance between subjective and objective. In my view, if they are implemented as they are set out at present, the result will be a crisis of confidence in the system.

The right hon. Lady is in trouble over her Bill and over her examination proposals, and the third area in which she is in very grave trouble is over her proposals for educational maintenance allowances.

I admired the delicate and skilful way in which she figure-skated around the problem and the point at which she arrived—even blaming it all on the local education authorities and suggesting that they were in some way manipulated by me. I was very flattered by her suggestion. Would that it were true.

What are we to make now of her brave statements earlier this year that mandatory allowances for sixth formers would definitely be introduced and that we should see them in a Bill this year? What has happened meanwhile? Thanks to today's TES—The Times Educational Supplement—we now know, apparently that the Secretary of State took to heart the Opposition's argument that if she had £100 million to spend, it would perhaps be better spent on other educational priorities. According to The Times Educational Supplement this morning, she tried to filch the money for financing these grants from the budget of the Department of Employment. No doubt she thought that the Secretary of State for Employment was an easy victim. Certainly he is one of the few members of the Cabinet who make her predecessor, the present Secretary of State for Defence, look charismatic. But even a worm can turn, and the right hon. Lady found that she was dealing not with a worm but with a serpent, and that the serpent apparently carried the day and defended his budget.

No wonder the right hon. Lady has been put out this morning. No wonder she has been less than her usual charming self. It is as though Cinderella had gone in for a beauty contest and then found one of the uglys sister had carried off the prize.

Mr. Gerry Fowler (The Wrekin)

I should like to point out that this is the second time in the past two years that the hon. Gentleman has come back to his Cinderella analogy, the last time being on the Education Act 1976. On that occasion we agreed that he was Prince Charming but that the hon. Member now sitting to his right, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), was one of the ugly sisters.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I thought that we were in general agreement that the hon. Gentleman was in the role of a pumpkin, without a transformation scene.

The right hon. Lady has shown some brief flashes of insight. We once thought that she was coming round to the Opposition's point of view on educational standards, but our hopes have been disappointed. Like her predecessors, she has been afflicted with a profound deafness as to the views of parents and as to what the public in general feel about standards within our educational system. If there is one overriding need in education today, it is to preserve and restore, where it has gone, public confidence in the standards prevailing in our schools. If the Secretary of State disputes that there is a crisis of confidence in our schools, she cannot be talking to parents or to industrialists, who are on constant record that our schools are not in fact producing the training and the standards needed in a modern industrial society.

It is true that the Labour Party gives a higher priority to the promotion of equality, to egalitarianism in the educational system, than to the promotion of high standards. We shall get high standards only from those who believe that the purpose of schools is to promote educational rather than political or sociological values. We believe that true equality can be achieved only by a rigorous pursuit of excellence.

One sees a very good example of that in the motions which were put forward at this year's Labour Party conference. There were very few proposals to raise standards. Most of the debate centred on the obsession of wiping both the grammar schools and independent schools out of existence.

When the right hon. Lady first took office, we had hopes that she would take her party's education policy back to an older Labour tradition which sought to provide high standards and a ladder of opportunity for children from modest backgrounds. Alas, we have been disappointed about that. The only sphere in which she has shown vigour has been in her vendetta against grammar schools and now her rather petty campaign against the independent schools.

I cite an example of that—Dauntsey's school, in Wiltshire, which has a perfectly good working arrangement with a local comprehensive school, the Lavington school, which is of benefit to both. For doctrinaire reasons, the Secretary of State has declared that this arrangement must come to an end. If apartheid is wrong in race relations—which it certainly is—why is it right in education? Why should schools which share facilities in this way to their mutual advantage be prevented from doing so on the most doctrinaire and petty grounds?

Nothing illustrates more clearly the Secretary of State's indifference to standards than her examination proposals. Here again, the explanation of those proposals is the desire on the part of the Labour Party to promote equality in schools at every cost and to use schools as tools of social engineering. It is the Labour Party's desire to do away with any sense of failure that has given rise to proposals which simply fail to meet the need to safeguard standards and thus to command the confidence of those who use the education service.

The point on which the Opposition stand and the point of division between ourselves and the right hon. Lady is that we stand for the retention of O-levels and A-levels as the bench-marks of excellence in the educational system.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. St. John-Stevas

I know that the hon. Member does not agree. I am saying that it is the difference between our parties. We stand for these bench-marks and we believe that any reform that is worthy of the name should include their retention whatever other alterations it may make.

We must consider this problem of examinations not in isolation but in the context of the evidence arising from a formidable number of sources that our educational system is not stretching the bright child sufficiently. Successive HMI reports, for instance, have shown that in both primary and secondary schools clever children under-perform at all ages and at all stages. That is surely an appalling waste of talent in a country which needs every degree of talent that it can get. It is also a source of great unhappiness and frustration to the children concerned, who become bored and dispirited at the lack of intellectual challenge.

It is in that context that we must consider this examination proposal, and it is in that context that we must also consider mixed ability teaching. A system of examination which did not differentiate adequately between the needs and the aptitudes of the various ability groups would perpetuate this method of teach- ing. That is why, among other reasons, the right hon. Lady's proposals are unacceptable to us. We believe that mixed ability teaching should be used only in exceptional circumstances, because it does not deliver the educational results and it is highly unpopular with parents, as The Sunday Times survey of last month showed.

Of course, I agree with the right hon. Lady that there is scope for improvement in the examination system. We would welcome developments towards a single system of examinations. But we believe that that should proceed organically and gradually so that uncertainties and objections can be resolved by means of research and fieldwork. We believe that O-levels should be retained, just as A-levels must be retained as guarantors of excellence at 18-plus. In this connection, we really would welcome from the Secretary of State a clear declaration of her attitude to N and F levels, which originally she appeared to favour, although perhaps she is changing her mind on this. If that is so, it would certainly he welcomed on the Opposition Benches.

Of course we would like to see the present number or boards reduced and their work better co-ordinated so that syllabus overlap could be reduced. But, rather than the merging of boards envisaged by Waddell, a regional confederation would be preferable in order to retain the independence and the objectivity of the GCE boards.

We favour a common grading system and we favour teacher assessed and designed syllabuses being monitored in accordance with strict national criteria. Let us remember that the White Paper has made no mention of the 40 per cent. of school pupils for whom no special examination provision is made. Many of these leave school at the age of 16 with no formal record of their school career, though it is they who most need help in their struggle to find a job. It is very surprising that the Government have ignored them. We believe that all school leavers should be provided with a certificate profiling their career and achievements, however modest those achievements may be.

I turn now to another basic issue, which is that of parental rights and influence within the education system. Our approach is based on the principle that the education of the child belongs to the parents, not to the State. As a concrete expression of that principle, we have developed our parents' charter seting out parents' rights and responsibilities.

We now come to the nub of the issue. Will the proposed Bill extend parents' rights or will it curtail them? My fear is that the proposed " planned admissions limit ", of which we have heard a little from the Secretary of State, will increase the power of local bureaucrats at the expense of parents, whose children will be turned away from a school even when there are empty places.

I shall be interested to hear whether the right hon. Lady intends to introduce this restriction in the case of voluntary schools. She has mentioned the conversations which she had with the voluntary schools in relation to governing bodies, but what about this other aspect? Hitherto, they have had freedom to control their own admissions policy. Does she intend to remove that freedom from those schools? If she closes the so-called loophole under section 37 of the 1944 Act, she will block off parents' last resort, their last line of appeal. I do not dispute that that is an anomalous procedure, but it gives parents the only right they have. We do not go along with doing away with that right, unless a full system of appeal is substituted for those parents.

Mr. Heffer

Which parents?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

All parents throughout the country. We believe that it is just as important that the parent in the maintained system should have a choice in education, because that parent through rates and taxes, pays for the education of his or her children, as we believe a parent should have in the private sector. I am most concerned at the right hon. Lady's remark that parental preference will be just one of the factors considered when allocating children to schools. We already know that the general principle enunciated in section 76 of the Act has been totally ineffective in giving parents rights. It is no use tinkering with the subject of parents' choice. What is needed is a complete shift in the burden of proof. Section 76 should be amended to place a clear obligation on the Secretary of State and on local authorities to follow the wishes of the parents of the pupils unless the cost or education needs of that pupil or other pupils make it unreasonable so to do. I hope that we shall see the underlying principles of our parents' charter in the right hon. Lady's draft Bill. If not, we shall seek to amend that legislation accordingly.

When we turn to the issue of further and higher education, we see the same story of muddled intentions and mistaken priorities. I welcome the fact that there is to be a move away in certain professional courses from discretionary to mandatory grants, or at least I understand that to be the case. We welcome that move, but we again ask for a clear statement of principle and a clear working out of priorities in the proliferation of schemes and allowances for the 16 to 19-year-olds. The whole system is now riddled with anomalies. If we are not to see, as seems now almost certain, grants for the 16-year-old staying on in the sixth form, will the right hon. Lady take the opportunity to examine this matter to see whether she can produce a coherent policy?

I view the proposal to set up a national co-ordinating body for public sector higher education with a considerable amount of scepticism. Do the polytechnics and the other public sector institutions want two more tiers of government, with all the time-wasting, bureaucracy and inefficiency which they imply? Is it desirable to separate advanced from non-advanced further education at a time when we are trying to bring them closer together to cope more efficiently with the forthcoming bulge in the 18-plus age group? Is there not a danger of regionalising the whole of the higher education system with potentially disastrous results for the freedom of both institutions and students? To whom will the national body be responsible? Will it be answerable to local authorities, the Department of Education and Science, the institutions, or, as I suspect, to nobody at all? The present pooling system has its faults, particularly in its lack of accountability, but I fear that we shall be replacing a lesser evil by a greater one.

I regret that the right hon. Lady made no reference to the arts. However, I am delighted that the Government have turned back to public lending right. I have been arguing that it should be introduced quickly.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

It will be introduced very quickly.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's intervention. That intervention puts me in mind of Lady Macbeth: If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly. I understand that we will be given that public lending right Bill quickly. All the better if we do, because on the last occasion we did not get that legislation until it was too late in the Session for it to have a reasonable chance to get through, and the Government failed to give it authoritative support. That certainly was not my fault. It was a combination of Back Benchers. We are surely not being told that three or four Back Benchers can defeat a Government Bill if the Government are serious in wishing to get it through the House. I hope that on this occasion we shall see effective support for the Bill.

We support the principle of public lending right. This recognition is an act of simple justice for authors. It is not a concession in a country in which so much use is made of the public library service, with 600 million borrowings per year. I should like to see some provision made for those who write reference books and who were not covered by the previous scheme.

I also hope that the right hon. Lady will take an active interest in preserving our national heritage. We very much support the main recommendation of the Select Committee that the National Land Fund should be revitalised as a national heritage fund under independent trustees. Why is there nothing on that topic in the Queen's Speech? Will the right hon. Lady say where the Government stand on those recommendations by the Select Committee? It is essential for the wellbeing of the arts that scope should be given to private patronage again and that public funding should be balanced by private support. Artistic freedom is best guaranteed by a variety of financial sources.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does the hon. Gentleman's party support the Arts Council?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Of course we support the Arts Council. I am saying that its work should be supplemented by private contributions as well, so that there is more than one source of finance for the arts because that guarantees the freedom of the artist.

I return to the point where I started—namely, to the subject of high standards. We need high standards in the arts just as we need high standards in education. Walter Bagehot, commenting on the Reform Act 1867 which extended the franchise, looked back to the first Reform Act and said Then the cry was register, register, register, register. Now our cry should be educate, educate, educate. Today, our cry in education should be " Standards, standards, standards ".

At times, the right hon. Lady has seemed to take up the cry, but it is clear from her speech and from her attitude to examinations and the Bill which she is about to produce that she is not prepared to support the cry by measures that will effectively turn that cry into a reality. For that the country will have to wait for those who really believe in high standards in education—the return to office of a Conservative Government which, however long the Prime Minister may prevaricate, cannot much longer be delayed.

12.9 p.m.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

When the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) entertains the House we can always be sure that we get a good dose of sound Victorian ideas. He must be very unhappy that he was born about 100 years too late.

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to quote Labour Party policy on education or anything else, he should get his facts correct. We are not in favour of low standards or lower standards. We are in favour of equality of opportunity. Nobody—not even the hon. Gentleman—wants to put the clock back to the time of social engineering when 20 per cent. of the age group went to grammar schools and the rest to secondary moderns. Surely the hon. Gentleman does not want to go back to that situation and place the burden on teachers to recommend children for grammar school entrance. That was a terrible time, and school managers, parents, teachers and everyone else are glad that it has gone. The hon. Gentleman will have to find another line to pursue.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about public lending right. I was delighted to see that it was included in the Queen's Speech and even more delighted to hear that it will be brought forward quickly and that we shall be debating it in a few days' time. I hope that the back benchers on both sides will be under control.

I was also delighted to see that the Queen's Speech places the main burden of Government activity in this Session on the conquest of unemployment and inflation. This is the major concern of the Government, Ministers and the whole country and what we do in employment bears heavily on what we do in education through training and preparation for work.

I was disappointed that selective import controls, an element of Labour Party policy which is strongly supported by the party's national executive committee, have not been included in the Queen's Speech. These controls are necessary to help our own industries. In the past few years we have seen many important traditional industries almost disappear from the scene. Several others are struggling against a massive inflow of manufactured goods not only from the EEC but from countries in the Far East, where no one could claim that competition is fair and equal. This should surely be a matter of very great concern to us all. It is certainly a matter of great concern to the trade union movement and the TUC. I am sure that the hon. Member for Chelmsford knows what those initials stand for.

We have asked for selective import controls for a limited period, and the words to emphasise are "selective" and " limited ". Areas such as the West Midlands have seen industries decline and products disappear from the market. In some areas, it is difficult to find any British-made goods, yet we sit back while this continues in the footwear, knitwear, clothing, motor car and motor cycle industries. I understand that there is now also competition from Japan in heavy vehicles, which worries my trade union—the Transport and General Workers' Union—considerably. We find that across a whole range of household electrical products it is practically impossible to find anything that is made in this country.

All this adds to unemployment, and if there is growing unemployment and the sort of tough unemployment that we find it difficult to deal with it means that young people leaving school find it difficult to get apprenticeships and jobs and this places considerable burdens on the education system, particularly further education.

I am sorry that there appears to be a great deal of confusion about what I thought was to be a matter of policy introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this Session, namely the introduction of the recommendation of the thirteenth report of the Expenditure Committee on maintenance grants for the 16 to 18-year-olds. When my right hon. Friend appeared before the Committee, she gave the impression that she favoured this policy and later announced that the Government were ready to commit themselves to a mandatory scheme such as we recommended. However, she has now said that discussions are continuing and The Guardian reported yesterday that intense negotiations were continuing on this subject.

The present system is a miserable one. Discretionary grants may be made by local authorities, but they are given to only about 10 per cent. of the young people who stay on at school. The grants are very small, and average only about £2 per week, which is neither here nor there at a time when so many families are under pressure because of low wages or unemployment.

The Expenditure Committee proposed that grants should be mandatory because the mean local authorities will continue to be mean if grants are discretionary, and only small grants will be given. The main purpose behind our proposal is that we are surely all anxious to prevent a waste of skill and talent. It is terrible to deprive young people of additional education and training and to compel them to go into dead-end jobs when they leave school. The prevention of this waste of skill and talent should be a main consideration of the Government.

The Expenditure Committee believed that the maintenance grant should be comparable at least with the social security payments that 16-year-olds can claim if they are unable to get work after leaving school. This would enable many bright young people to stay on at school, especially those from less affluent homes, with whom we are particularly concerned, to take examinations, whether the common examination, O-levels, A-levels, or whatever. If we do not do this, or if the grant eventually offered by the Government is too low, young people will still leave school at 16 and snatch at any dead-end job simply because they want to earn money, or they will draw the £11.50 a week social security benefit while looking for work and may never achieve their real potential or have the opportunity or desire to go back to education later.

If the additional cost is £100 million, it is money that would be very well spent. If the money is not spent in that way, it will be spent in other ways. I remind my right hon. Friend that if young people leave school and join the youth opportunities programme under the aegis of the Manpower Services Commission, they can claim £19.50 a week, which the Government will meet. The Government are committed to providing opportunity courses for training for young people and to paying that amount of money. They would be well advised to think carefully about the options open to them and I hope that they will have second thoughts and that the mandatory maintenance grant will be introduced.

I was also disappointed to see no mention in the Queen's Speech of the proper organisation of nursery education. The Secretary of State made some telling points about the dereliction of duty of Tory-controlled education authorities. She described a perfectly disgraceful situation.

We all know that a large number of authorities have not claimed the money that has been made available by the Government and that some have handed it back after claiming it, saying that they could not afford to start the nursery schools that they said were essential when they first applied for the money from the DES.

The fall in the birth rate is welcome in education, not least in nursery education, because it means that we have teachers and premises available. For the informa- tion of the hon. Member for Chelmsford, I shall spell out the policy of the Labour Party. Is the hon. Gentleman listening? I want to tell him about an important aspect of the Labour Party's education policy and I do not want him to get it wrong.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am taking extensive notes.

Mrs. Short

I do not see that the hon. Gentleman is doing that, but no doubt that is one of his perpetual exaggerations. I hope to recruit the hon. Gentleman as an ardent and enthusiastic supporter in the campaign for nursery education to be part of the State system. That is the Labour Party's policy. It believes that for those parents who want it, nursery education should be part of the State system for 3 to 5-year-olds. That would be a welcome step forward in providing nursery education. It would mean a considerable increase in the number of children receiving nursery education. We know that an enormous number of families throughout the country are devotees of nursery education. They understand its value and want to see their children enjoying it.

When the Prime Minister spoke at the Labour women's conference earlier in the year, he launched his theme of support for the family. An important part of family support would be to make nursery education part of the State system. Further, it would provide the ground work and the basis for the rest of the education system that follows.

We can only hope that the Government will have second thoughts about two major issues, namely, the introduction of maintenance grants for young people who stay on at school after reaching the age of 16 years and the provision of nursery education as part of the State system for those parents who want it. I commend those ideas to my right hon. Friend. I hope that she will do battle for those ideas in the places where she is able to take them up.

12.22 p.m.

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

May I say how indebted I am to you, Mr. Speaker, for being slotted in in the debate. It will enable me to return to the part of the United Kingdom where the action now is—namely, the North of Scotland.

There were times during the two opening speeches when I felt that I had wandered on to the stage of some well tried and often played pantomime. I am sure that you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, if I do not become embroiled in the script of that pantomime.

I shall confine my remarks to the part of the Gracious Speech that states: New ways will be sought to help small businesses. The next sentence reads: Special encouragement will be given to the education and training of young people and others to, increase the supply of skilled manpower I have no way of knowing whether it was purely coincidental that the two sentences were strung together. However, I am certain that the two ideas contained in those statements, when taken together, offer a positive way forward.

At present, small businesses are totally frustrated by the apprenticeship system of training. An apprentice spends half of his time on day release or block release the other half being spent with the journeyman who is the apprentice's mentor and teacher in the practical side of his training. What incentive is there nowadays for firms to take on apprentices when they get so little use of them? It is small wonder that the uptake of apprenticeships is low. The Government, in the shape of the Department of Education and Science, must take a long, hard look at the present inadequacies of the system.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that she is concerned about the levelling off of young people taking further education. We must reconsider the whole system. It is no good the right hon. Lady or others on the Government Front Bench shutting their ears and saying "This is a matter for the Department of Employment ". It is not. It is a matter for the Department of Education and Science.

An apprentice is as much a student as any university undergraduate. Adult education and training will play an increasingly important role in the country's economy. Therefore, it must be the joint responsibility of the Department of Employment and the Department of Education and Science to ensure that our young people receive a sound grounding in basic skills. To that end, I advocate that the first two years of any apprenticeship should be regarded as a studentship. I make no excuse for labouring that point and for being totally specific.

As apprenticeships are now constituted, an employer has only two years' benefit from a four-year apprentice. During the summer I spent many hours in discussion with tradesmen, craftsmen and apprentices in my constituency. They were adamant that something must be done soon to change the system and to give them some incentive to take on apprentices on the one hand and to be apprentices on the other.

Unfortunately, far too few hon. Members have been employers or have been involved with apprentices. They do not realise that a starter apprentice who has not yet gathered the competence or knack of handling tools and machines may be a liability, and in some instances an expensive liability. If they did realise that, they would insist that the Government create incentives for employers to take on apprentices.

An idea offered to me by one employer during the summer was that small firms should be allowed to take on two apprentices per journeyman. If that were done, the journeyman would always have one apprentice with him while the other was on block release. That is an idea that should be taken up. It came from a man who has nearly 40 years' experience in small business and who cares what happens to his apprentices and to youth generally.

I turn to the plight of the school leaver who cannot get an apprenticeship or a job of any sort. What sort of society is it that throws boys and girls aged 16 on to the scrap heap and condemns them to a life of boredom, hopelessness and frustration? Equally, it condemns them if they use their surplus energy, which so many youngsters have at that age, in acts of vandalism.

It may be that those who occupy the Government Front Bench will claim that we live in a Socialist society. If that is so, it is high time that we saw something of the social face of Socialism. No doubt Ministers will smugly say " It is nothing to do with us. Responsibility lies with the Secretary of State for Employment, the Home Secretary or somebody else." I am afraid that responsibility lies with the Department of Education and Science. It is responsible for the guidance of children from the age of 5 to 16. It cannot wash its hands of that responsibility the moment children reach 16.

Responsibility must squarely lie with the Secretary of State for Education and Science to educate and train young people until they have the skills that some employer wants. A system must be evolved in which young school leavers may opt for a six-month training course in a wide variety of skills. For example, there is the need for basic training in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, hydraulic engineering and, if need be, one course after the other until a boy has sufficient skills for someone to want to employ him. Time does not permit me to give parallels for girls' courses. It is symptomatic of the House that no one will ask me at a later stage for my ideas on that subject.

If the words Special encouragement will be given to the education and training of young people that appear in the Gracious Speech are to have any real meaning, let us have some action soon.

The Prime Minister said a short time ago that Britain has its best chance for 100 years now that we have North Sea oil revenue at our fingertips. I have news for the right hon Gentleman. Scotland now has its best chance for 272 years. With Scotland's share of its own oil, we shall have the chance to do things differently in a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish economy. We shall have the chance to look after our own young school leavers. We shall have the chance to do something about our unemployed youngsters.

It may be that I was born impatient or that I grew up impatient, but the snail's pace of this place and of Westminster thinking nearly drives me crazy. I continually tell the people of Scotland that even if Westminster agrees with a Member it takes 15 months to get anything done. If Westminster does not agree with him, it takes three years to get the message across. For example, the SNP was persistent at the beginning of the Parliament in calling for a 50-mile limit for our fisher- men. After three years, the whole House agrees that we need such a limit.

Finally, I return to the problem of education of the school leaver. It has been evident to anyone who has in any way been engaged in industry or commerce for the past 20 years that the apprenticeship scheme as we have known it is no longer working. It is not supplying our new developing industries with the skilled manpower that they need if they are to keep in the forefront in a world of rapidly changing technologies. Small businesses need positive help to allow them to take on additional apprentices. This old English tradition of muddling through is no longer good enough, and the people of Scotland are beginning to realise that.

The children of Scotland must be given a fresh chance in life, fresh targets to aim for and fresh opportunities in education and training to reach those targets. We on the Scottish National Party Bench are disappointed that economic power has not been devolved to Scotland, but we are pleased that at least the control of education has been devolved. We intend to give education a new and wider meaning than a Westminster Government have ever given it. We should like, as we go, to commend our fresh ideas to England, but frankly we doubt whether the English will ever shake off their lethargy sufficiently to achieve any worthwhile change. This place can always find obstacles to put in the way of change. The Scottish people have now found a way round those obstacles, thanks to the Scottish National Party. That way is at present called the Scottish Assembly, but soon, by popular demand, it will be called the Scottish Parliament.

12.32 p.m.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has had to leave the Chamber, because I should have liked him to hear some of my comments.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

The hon. Gentleman's successor, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), is here.

Mr. Flannery

I am not so sure about that. I shall have to think that out.

The philosophies of the two sides in these debates—most of us here have taken part in many education debates—more than ever dictate our beliefs in education.

The Labour Party has made a long sustained attempt to democratise the whole of education so that more of our children have access to the higher forms of education. We have always tried to raise standards. Often the entire panoply of the Conservative Party, through its newspapers, has said that the very opposite to what we are actually doing has been happening. For example, it has rarely mentioned that in every debate, whether at its party conference or in this Chamber, the Conservative Party has tried to turn back the wheels of history in education in an endeavour, while talking about standards, to have standards for the few and the devil take the hindmost.

The Labour Party and Government are determined to combat that system. Indeed, we are achieving our aim to such an extent that the Conservative Party is in terrible disarray on education just as it is on many other policies. I never cease to be amazed at the sheer, blind effrontery of the Conservative Party when it talks about standards. I know that the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) will say that it is a case of déjà vu, but these realities must and will be repeated in many debates, because they are still present. The Conservative Party still wants the same things.

There is constant talk about standards. Sheffield, part of which I represent, had a grammar school known as the top school of all in the area. Nearly every big city had such a school. That grammar school used to take the top 5 per cent. of boys in the city after the so-called 11-plus examination or scholarship as it was called in my day. It catered basically for Oxbridge and Sandhurst—many grammar schools catered almost exclusively for those places—and anything else which flowed from the school was a by-product. But that school was not content with the top 5 per cent. It proceeded to stream those pupils. The imagination boggles at the approach to education of people who, if they had 1 per cent., would relegate a section of that percentage to the lower levels and go for what they called standards.

The rest of the children could not go to that grammar school or to any of the preparatory schools and private schools, to which Conservative Members went, because their parents had not the money to send them. That was and still is the philosophy of the Conservative Party and it emerges from practically every speech made by Conservative Members.

Standards are now higher than ever before, but the Conservative Party wants standards for an elite group. The Labour Party wants high standards for all children who can be exposed to advanced education. We are doing that with more and more children, so much so that the Conservative Party, which is struggling against comprehensive education, now has to approach the matter in a rather muted but almost naked way, because it wants, class privileges preserved.

Conservative Members, when talking about standards, will not concede that they are higher than before, that more and more of our young people are emerging with good examination results, that more and more have access to the higher forms of education and that standards within those young people are going up.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) and his Black Paper friends have repeatedly told us about a catastrophic drop in standards. Indeed, the hon. Member for Chelmsford said that this morning. Yet they know that it is absolutely untrue. For instance, what they said about primary schools was revealed to be false in the recent report of Her Majesty's inspector. Of course, there are weaknesses in that report. What education system, with the fallibility of mankind, does not have weaknesses and room for improvement? Nevertheless, what the Opposition said about reading has been proved to be wrong. Time after time in this Chamber I have said that our primary schools are the finest in the world. Of course, they are comprehensive schools, not preparatory or private schools. Nearly all our children now go to comprehensive schools.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that many Conservative Members recognise the achievements which have been made over the last generation or so in improving standards in maintained schools right across the board? However, we want higher standards, and that is the wish of parents throughout the land.

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Gentleman said that many Conservative Members recognised that fact, but that is not the reality. I agree there are one or two. Let us be clear in the interests of truth. The Conservative Party constantly denigrates the high standards which have been achieved and says that they are low standards. The mass of evidence is there to be seen. There is none so blind as he who will not see. In the interests of getting the best for themselves and pushing away and not bothering about others, Conservative Members always say that standards arc low.

Mr. Forman


Mr. Flannery

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to refute this when he makes his speech.

Turning to the question of parental choice, as the Opposition now term it, what parental choice did they give to 85 per cent. of the parents of children who were consigned to the secondary moderns and lower forms of education, despite the struggles of the teachers? For how long did the Opposition fight tooth and nail to retain the 11-plus? What parental choice was there for the vast majority of people when Conservative Party supporters were going to prep schools and private schools and creaming off the bright children to the grammar schools?

Of course grammar schools tried to achieve high standards. Many of my hon. Friends attended grammar schools because there were no comprehensive schools. But in the course of time all grammar schools will become comprehensives. For example, the school in Sheffield to which I referred is now a splendid comprehensive school and nobody is creaming off the top 5 per cent. and then streaming it. Now there is only one private school in Sheffield, at which a member of the Front Bench was a pupil. In time we shall democratise that school and allow all children access to it.

How dare the Opposition talk about parental choice after they have tried to exclude 80 per cent. of our children from any choice? The Conservatives are caught. Comprehensive schools are here. If they tried to unscramble them the chaos would be frightening. I do not believe that even they would attempt to do that, particularly in a short period.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford spoke about a parents' charter. Whom does he think he is fooling? What about all the parents whose children were excluded from the better schools under the Conservatives? Did they have a charter? Did the Conservatives ever call for a parents' charter for the majority? Labour Governments have achieved equality in education and now the Conservatives are fighting to the last ditch to preserve their privileges.

My right hon. Friend engaged in a massive indictment of Tory education authorities which are not spending sufficient money on education. Can the Conservatives explain by what strange method a Tory local education authority that does not hire sufficient teachers, does not claim its allocation of money for nursery schools, and attempts to use public money for private education, achieves parental choice? If the available money is not used, there will be fewer teachers and standards will diminish. About 60 per cent. of Tory authorities did not claim their allocation for nursery schools last year. Were standards increased by that? What standards are increased when throughout the country Tory authorities are refusing to hire available teachers, which could bring down the size of classes?

When my right hon. Friend said that money was difficult to obtain, Opposition Members laughed. If money is so easy to come by, why have not the Tory authorities claimed their allocations? Some authorities are asking for more money when they have not used the money that they have. They should be ashamed. They are pushing ordinary children into difficulties because they are not hiring sufficient teachers. At the same time the Conservatives have the effrontery to talk about higher standards, parental choice and a parents' charter.

There is a crisis of confidence in education. But it does not exist in education generally. It is a crisis of confidence in Tory authorities by people who know that money is not being used properly for the education of their children. In spite of the Conservatives' massive propaganda machine, ordinary folk are coming to realise the truth—that their children will not receive the education to which they are entitled if the money which is available is not spent.

I listened to the debate at the Tory Party conference. It was fascinating. I have never before heard such backwoods backwardness about education. I would not have known that people could talk such rot if I had not heard it. The hon. Member for Chelmsford referred to My loyal lieutenant, Dr. Boyson, to whose flair and energy I pay tribute this morning. Then the hon. Member patted his hon. Friend on the shoulder. It was touching. It was almost lyrical. It should have been set to music I nearly wept.

The hon, Member for Brent, North looked cold and craggy while the compliment was being paid to him. For once, he was mute. He did not speak. I do not think that his colleagues would allow him to because the conflict between him and the hon. Member for Chelmsford is so intense and public that we all know about it. It overflows in their speeches.

That is revealed in The Times Educational Supplement, which can hardly be described as a revolutionary journal. There were standing ovations at the conference. Speakers said diametrically opposed things and were in headlong collision with one another and yet all speakers received standing ovations. I do not know how they managed that. Some wonderful standing ovations took place. However, sometimes some people rose only half to their feet and then, when they saw that everyone was about to stand, rose themselves and then rapidly sat when they realised that it was not the standing ovation that they thought it would be. The hon. Member for Brent, North was noticeably quiet. There was a marked contrast between the debates at the Labour Party conference and the Tory Party conference.

Professor Max Beloff runs a type of education training post somewhere in Buckinghamshire. It is called a university but one has to pay to attend it. I am sure that many wealthy people attend it but it is not for ordinary students. It is for people who can pay. That is why I call it a trading post. The professor made one of the most reactionary speeches that I have ever heard. Every time a suggestion was made that would hold back education and every time he suggested that education should be handed over to private enterprise and therefore restrict education for the mass of our children he was wildly acclaimed. I should like everyone to read that speech because it reeks of Victorianism and backwardness and it would show how the Conservatives wish to take us back in time.

The Conservatives might as well plough the ocean. Comprehensive education is here, and people without money now have access to a good education. I hope that some of the more regenerate Opposition Members will accept the tremendous strides that we are making.

I should like everyone to read the debates on education at the Labour Party conference because they supported a move forward for education. The Times Educational Supplement of 20th October—of revered memory—commented on the speech by the hon. Member for Chelmsford. It was headed " Coruscating on thin ice ". I referred to my right hon. Friend and said that he was " figure-skating on thin ice ". The idea of the hon. Member for Chelmsford pirouetting on thin ice almost makes one feel abandoned. The article stated that By general consent, Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas did himself a power of good in Conservative Party circles by a scintillating performance at Brighton. In truth, some oratorical legerdemain was called for. The Conservatives are deeply divided on education policy. Mr. St. John-Stevas has cobbled together a garment to wear at the next election, but he knows how easily it could come unravelled. He had to support the comprehensive schools, but also promised to keep the grammar schools: yet even in the latter respect, he had to promise to let local education authorities decide what is best for their area, which will mean letting some grammar schools go. I would dearly love someone on the Tory Benches who knows something about education to explain how one could cream off the top group of children and then call what remains a comprehensive school. We all know in our heart of hearts that it is impossible to have comprehensive schools side by side with grammar schools. We cannot have it both ways. You pay your penny and you take your choice. Our choice is comprehensive education. Anyone who says that comprehensive education and grammar schools can work together is dreaming. Anyone who knows the truth should tell it, and I believe that the Tory Party knows that truth.

Why do the Tories not admit that our people can have either comprehensive education or grammar schools, but not both? They will therefore have to accept comprehensive education with private schools.

Mr. Michael Roberts (Cardiff, North-West)

Does the hon. Member agree that to have one grammar school in a large city such as Sheffield or Cardiff would not fundamentally alter the nature of the comprehensive schools there? If he believes that the quality of the comprehensive schools will be affected by a grammar school, what does he have to say about those comprehensive schools which draw from a limited social area?

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Member knows that there is no likelihood of there being just one grammar school. Two systems are in collision. One is democratic, and we call it comprehensive education. The other is based upon a small grouping of the top boys and girls. Now the Conservatives are narrowing their preference down to just one such school. Of course, the fewer grammar schools the less the impact, but we want to comprehensivise the education system. We are well on the way to achieving that, because 83 per cent. of our children are now in comprehensive schools.

It is shocking to hear the hon. Member for Brent, North state that if ever he becomes the Minister the first thing he will do is to repeal the 1976 Act. What a mess that would create. It is almost unbelievable that he could unscramble what that legislation has achieved. The Conservative Party, therefore, is in a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, some of its members, having been dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, want to say that they believe in comprehensive education. At the same time, however, they want to fight tooth and nail against it. If they believe in it, they should join us in trying to make it better and in trying to secure more funds for it. They face a dilemma that they can never resolve because certain Conservative Members half believe in the comprehen- sive system. I believe that the hon. Members for Ripon and Chelmsford believe in it. The hon. Member for Brent, North does not. Those two sides will never reconcile their differences which are highlighted in practically every education conversation they have between themselves.

Dr. Hampson

May we have it perfectly clear from the hon. Member? Is he just opposing selection at 11 into what he calls a grammar school, or is he also opposing selection at, say, 16, into a sixth-form or specialist college? Since he cited The Times Educational Supplement, would he be against some form of selection, as Mr. Stuart Maclure, the editor, once recommended, at 14, again for specialist schools in order to give parents a wider choice?

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Member is something of a specialist at asking "have you stopped beating your wife?" type questions and wanting monosyllabic answers to questions that do not admit of them. The reality is that we began with the abolition of the 11-plus against the wishes of the Conservative Party. The process of democratisation will steadily continue, but it will take time. Therefore, there will be examinations for a long time yet. Many methods of selection will run in parallel with the democratisation of the system and the abolition of the most rigid forms of selection. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that that is precisely the answer that I would give him, because he knows that answer himself. I should like the Conservatives to explain to our people whether their party truly believes that the two systems can run side by side.

Government education policy is going from strength to strength. In our manifesto we said that we would end the 11-plus and other forms of selection for secondary education and continue to give priority to nursery schools and day care provision, both full-and part-time. We have honourably sought to do that, and we have completed a great deal of it. We also said that we would stop the present system of direct grant schools and withdraw charitable status and tax relief from public schools. We shall do that in time. There will be no privileges for the wealthy at the expense of those who are not so wealthy.

I know that I am striking at the very core of what Conservative Party members believe in—their personal possessions, their families, their children, private hospitals, private schools, and so on. But in order to educate our people we must, in a democratic process, do something about that. Steadily, therefore, every aspect of education will be democratised, but that will not be done by the Conservative Party.

In addition, education will be stabilised and developed, and standards will be raised even higher. Current standards are higher than they have ever been. Many of our children are performing positive feats of education of which they little suspected they were capable. That is the reality that sticks in the craw of the elitists, but it is something they can never talk out of being because it is there on the record for more and more of the electorate to see.

The democratisation of education is a vote winner. The more the people see that their children have access to higher education, the more they will realise which party is giving it to them and which is opposed to it. Our primary schools are better and our nurseries have expanded. We are trying to expand them even more.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the process involving school managers and governors. We have all those arrangements in our city, with only a few minor points missing. We would like everyone, throughout the country, to have systems enabling more parents to sit on the boards of managers and governors, and we want people such as employers and trade unionists and other folk democratically to come in and help. We want people from an area to be interested in their schools. That already happens in many cases.

A vast number of children now enjoying comprehensive education must, I believe, have come from Labour and Tory households. I believe that the vast majority of Tory parents, like Labour parents, want comprehensive education. The fundamental dilemma of the Conservative Party is that it is being dragged towards a realisation of that fact while in its bones it cannot face the reality of education as it is now being consolidated.

Finally, I wish to deal with the problem of unemployed teachers. It is difficult in Labour areas to employ teachers at a time such as this, but the struggle must be made just the same. We must be told which areas are not employing teachers. The size of classes needs to be reduced in order properly to teach our children. Teachers are becoming more and more angry, and hon. Members will have noticed the strikes that have occurred and the instances that have arisen where children have been sent home because of the teachers' demands for smaller classes.

I have raised with my right hon. Friend the question of mandatory grants. It is terrible that we do not induce our young people to remain in education after the age of 16, whereas there is an inducement to leave education. Having left, children often find that they cannot get a job. I think that mandatory grants would keep them in full-time education.

The Labour Government's policy must be expanded so that more and more people can take advantage of it. Any attempt to reverse the current will undoubtedly recoil on the heads of those who attempt to go back to what they want—education for a small grouping at the expense of all the rest.

1.0 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

It will be at a later stage in the debate, next week, that we decide the real issue of the Gracious Speech—whether it should have been made at all and whether we should not now be having an election for a new Parliament. The Gracious Speech bears plenty of evidence of the fact that we should be electing a new Parliament and a new Government, because it is dressed out with a little of something for everyone but contains very little on the major and fundamental issues.

But let us leave those questions for a later stage in the debate, because there are specific references to education which we must consider, though they appear only in two sentences. One says: Special encouragement will be given to the education and training of young people and others. There we come to the question of the mandatory grants. They would seem to form just the special encouragement that we were expecting, but now we think that we shall not get them. I shall return to the subject later. Then there is the sentence saying: Legislation will be introduced to improve the law on education in England and Wales and to enable grants to be made in Wales towards the cost of bi-lingual education. I welcome that sentence, vague though it is.

I welcome the support for bilingual education in Wales. I am sorry that no Welsh Minister is present to hear a word of congratulation. The provision is something for which we Liberals have fought hard and are glad to see. As a Welsh speaker of no great fluency, I think that it is not always recognised that, with the tremendous cultural pressures of television, newspapers and what children see round about them, more positive support is required if the Welsh language is to be given the benefit from the education system to which it is entitled. We welcome this help and look forward to supporting its introduction.

We also welcome the inclusion of legislation which we wanted to see in the last Session. We pressed for its inclusion in the Gracious Speech 12 months ago, particularly in respect of its main component, or what we expect to be its main component—the reform of the system of government of schools. There will be other components of the legislation—the issue of parental choice and the question of the financing of the polytechnic sector of higher education, although we know rather less about what will happen on those fronts.

Let us look first at the reform of governing bodies, which is long overdue. It may not receive a very warm welcome in county halls such as those of Kent and County Durham, where the present system, which allows political patronage to play such a large part in the composition of school governing bodies, is used with ease and enthusiasm. But I think that one of the best safeguards for standards in schools is for parents to be involved as much as possible in the running of the schools and to be able to meet teachers on their own ground in the education establishments and put the questions that concern them.

The Taylor report provides a good starting point, even though we do not agree with every detail. The report followed many of the proposals that the Liberal Party put to the Taylor committee. We welcome it as a starting point, though we are not over-enthusiastic about some of the committee's proposals on the precise powers of governing bodies. We want to see the professional position of the teacher in charge of a school's curriculum safeguarded. We agree with the Government that the right thing to do is to get the composition changed and let the governing bodies develop naturally a role that does not require drastic changes in the terms of reference of governing bodies. I believe that if parents are on governing bodies in greater numbers they will start to ask the questions without needing drastic changes in powers. They can start to ask what the objectives of mathematics teaching in the school are and how far they are being met.

I am glad that the Government have shown some recognition of the scope for pupil governors. We want to hear more about this, because particularly in the 16-year-old to 18-year-old age group there is considerable scope for giving young people a bigger role in the school of which they are a part. I know from practical experience in my own area that those schools which have sought to involve senior pupils in the government of the schools have profited from the experiment and have found it prone to very few of the difficulties that are so often argued. We welcome development in this direction and we shall want to encourage it.

I should like to put to the Government Front Bench the question which is being asked by my right hon. and hon. Friend's from north of the border: why is the legislation to apply in England and Wales only and why is Scotland not to see some reform of the governing bodies of schools as well? The other main component of the expected legislation will be something about what was once called parental choice but was watered down by the Secretary of State in a later speech to "the expression of parental preference". When those words began to be used, one became suspicious. Here we have legislation that is seen by some people, particularly its proponents, as likely to widen parental choice, while it is seen by others as a dangerous threat to narrow it. We want to see more parental choice, and we shall want to be satisfied that the legislation gives it, that it gives more parental choice than it takes away, before we support that part of it.

Clearly, there are gains even in what the Secretary of State has so far described. A statutory requirement that a child should be admitted to the school of parental choice would be a very good basis in the legislation, but it is the other side of the coin that we have to examine very carefully—the whole string of escape clauses listed in the consultative paper, some of them very puzzling. There was the fear that admission to a particular school would adversely affect the efficient provision of education in the school or in the area or that the school was unsuitable to the age, ability or aptitude of the child It is curious to find the word "ability" in that passage when elsewhere in the list of escape clauses there is a reference to any threat to the "comprehensive principle".

Perhaps the most worrying phrase of all is "planned operating capacity". It is proposed that an education authority should be able to tell parents "Your children cannot go to that school because it has reached its planned operating capacity." Can any of us really pretend that the education system has proved itself capable of determining planned operating capacities of anything and sticking to them? Were we ever able to determine the planned operating capacity of the teacher training system? If we were, how is it that large numbers of teachers produced by our colleges are now unemployed? Experience of the education system over the years, under many Governments and many Ministers, is that, when we try to determine planned operating figures, circumstances—events, costs, the birth rate, a whole variety of things—quickly change the picture. Yet educationists tend to rest their feet firmly on that shaky ground.

I am suspicious of the phrase. I recognise the arguments that led to its being used, but we must have something much better in the legislation if it is not to be a total and always usable escape route for any authority that simply wants to say "We do not want the child to go to that school."

There is another matter that worries me. In the speech in which the Secretary of State rather watered down her terms from "parental choice" to "the expression of parental preference", she referred to systems of "feeder primary schools". She said that feeder primary schools could "have their place." It was a slightly oblique reference. There was some hint of criticism about it, but I do not like what I see of attempts to operate feeder primary schools. They usually mean in practice—I look, for example, at the recent experience in Manchester—that the authority determines that if children go to a particular primary school there will thereafter be no choice as to the secondary school that they go to. The link between the primary and secondary school must be virtually automatic, leaving parents no choice at the secondary stage even as to whether the children go to single sex schools or as to whether they can get a child into the same school as a brother or sister. It leads to a great deal of jostling at the stage of admission to the primary school, when parents try to make sure that they get a child into the primary school that feeds the right secondary school.

I fear that one of the uses of the feeder primary school systems is to protect those very schools that the parents are rejecting, those schools where the parents are voting with their children's feet, saying" We do not want our child to be at that school, and we shall not have him channelled into it."

I think that Manchester will have to take a leaf out of Liverpool's book. Liverpool Liberals have had to take a controversial and contentious decision that some city centre comprehensive schools will never succeed. They are schools where there are only 300 or 400 pupils, not the 2,000 for which they were planned, and where the parents have said "We want nothing to do with the school." No kind of bureaucratic system should be erected to force parents to send children to such schools. Sometimes one must say "Enough of that. That school will have to be closed." If feeder primary schools are to be used as a kind of buffer to prevent effective parental choice, I am sorry to see the Secretary of State giving any hint of approval to them. That is an aspect which we shall want to look at closely when this part of the legislation comes before us.

The other thing which the Bill would take away would be the section 37 right, which is the last bastion of parental choice. I would not want to defend that as the best way of ensuring parental choice. I would be unhappy to do what I think some of those who have written to me want to do and say that this is something to be defended at all costs. It is no real parental choice to be put in a position of having to keep a child away from school for a long time so that ultimately a parent can rely on the present legislation and make the Secretary of State determine that the child goes to the school which the parent wanted, as was done in the Leicestershire cases.

That is not the right way to provide for parental choice. It is a choice which depends upon risking harm to the child's education for a period. That is not the way we want to do it. Obviously, however, we shall not let that right slip away unless we can be satisfied that the alternative provision is very much better. I would not want section 37 and the right to hold out to the last minute to be the basis of parental choice. But we do want to know that we are getting something better.

The one other point which we now expect we shall get in the legislation concerns the reorganisation of polytechnic finance to which the Minister of State has devoted so much of his time and effort in the past couple of years. We want to see moves in this direction because we believe that the financing of polytechnics under the present system is breaking down. I go into polytechnic after polytechnic and hear the same story of constant frustration over the local authority approach to finance in an educational institution. We have to move in a better direction. We want to move in a direction which gives the polytechnics the kind of freedom which universities enjoy through the University Grants Committee system. If the legislative proposals do that, they will get our encouragement and backing. It is in that spirit that we shall be looking at them.

So much for what is in the Gracious Speech. But there are a number of major educational decisions which do not feature in it. One of them concerns the examination system and the O-level-CSE question, to which much reference has been made. Is there anyone left who pretends that the present system is satisfactory? The diversity of syllabus and standards within O-level itself is wide. Anyone who supposes that there is a reliable single O-level pass standard or grading standard operating over the whole of the country is deceiving himself.

The weaknesses of CSE are apparent, although I must say that I deplore and in no way support the campaign of vilification against CSE which the Daily Mail, for example, has undertaken. In my view, it is deliberately denigrating the genuine achievements of the children who have shown that they can achieve something through the CSE system. That campaign has been directly harmful to children, parents and teachers and should be deplored. There are weaknesses in CSE, and we are all aware of them, but that is not the way to deal with them.

Another of the problems posed by the present system revolves around the parental pressure upon teachers and schools to enter children for the other examination, particularly to put children in for GCE rather than CSE, or for both. There is a great waste of resources engendered in the schools in seeking to meet these conflicting demands.

Of course we can create a single system which brings the two examinations together. I am glad to see that over a period of a couple of days the official Conservative spokesman abandoned his apparently total opposition to change in favour of something which is hard to distinguish from the White Paper proposals and which could be implemented within the terms put forward by the Secretary of State.

We must ensure that there is a clear carry-over of what are understood outside as GCE standards. The grading system in the new examination must clearly carry those standards over and must be directly comparable with what has gone before. We must not allow the assumption to grow up that the creation of the new examination in any way means the general introduction of mixed ability teaching. There is no reason why we should come to that conclusion. It may well be necessary in a number of subjects to use streaming methods to train, for example, in mathematics, in which quite different papers will have to be set. If the assumption gets abroad that mixed ability teaching is a necessary component of a single examination structure, we should scotch it.

We must look again at mode three CSE methods. They have a part to play. They have enabled us to relate the examination system much more to what pupils can and should be doing. We have, however, to build up confidence in the moderation and validation of mode three. At the moment, that confidence is lacking in many places. We can make progress on this important reform. Party spokesmen should stop looking for distinctions and differences where very few exist.

There is also the issue of grants for the 16 to 19-year-old group, this much-vaunted commitment which has slipped a long way. Is it sensible and realistic to continue to bribe youngsters to leave school by making work experience schemes and job creation schemes more financially attractive to them than remaining in school? Can we justify continuance of that bribe by one part of the Government to get children to move from one sector of training and education to another? I do not think we can. That is the strongest argument for the change which we were led to expect and are now not getting. The Secretary of State cannot blame the local authority associations, to whom she is looking for support on another issue, for a Cabinet change of mind on this issue.

There is something else which is missing from the Gracious Speech, namely, a commitment to make fullest use of existing resources, some of which are being wasted. The most obvious example is unemployed, trained teachers. I stick to the view that there is no better way of raising standards than having enough teachers in the schools to enable class sizes to he reduced, enough teachers to enable remedial teaching of individuals or small groups, and enough teachers available to make in-service training possible. Getting more teachers into the schools must be an objective.

We also have resources in terms of classroom accommodation which can be used. Precisely because of the birth rate drop it will never be cheaper to expand certain things than it is now. I think particularly of nursery education and adult and community facilities. These can be expanded within existing buildings, making use of existing staff and the existing structure of schools and institutions. It will be far cheaper to do that when we have spare resources than it will be in a few years' time. I see particular scope for that in country schools. We could do a lot more by admitting the 3 to 5-year-olds into the country schools through nursery classes and through early admission into reception classes.

Often that need is particularly great in rural areas where young children meet very few others of the same age. In many of our small villages and farms, a young child will have no other child of the same age for miles around to play with. His need to get into a nursery class is often greater than that of the child in an urban area who can find many others of his own age nearby and build up the ability to communicate and play with other children much more quickly.

I mention village schools and I wish to plead for more recognition—there is none in the Gracious Speech—of the need to maintain village schools. We have the depressing sight of Conservative-controlled councils, which have been given the nod and the wink by a Labour Minister, closing village schools in considerable numbers. I am glad to hear the Conservative spokesman lamenting the closure of village schools, but that makes little sense when it is the Conservative authorities all over the country which are putting in proposals to close their village schools.

The survey done by the CPRE in 1977 showed that it was primarily Conservative authorities which were doing this. Many of them have increased their closure proposals since. It is a depressing picture. These authorities are getting plenty of encouragement from the Department of Education. We fought hard to get the circular on small schools redrafted so that it was very much less of a hint and a spur to those wishing to close village schools. There were a few improvements in it, but it is still being used as the signal to close the small schools and to recognise something that I have never yet discovered, certainly not at primary level, namely, the educational advantages of the larger school.

The effects of closing a village school are not only educational. They go far wider, into the social and community life of an area. Far too little consideration has been given to this. I am glad that the Government have put some money into an investigation of the role of the rural primary school, but it will be a couple of years before we get any results from that research project. In the meantime, closure proposals will be coming thick and fast. I would like to see, in legislation this Session, an obligation upon education authorities to consult parents or the public before arriving at a decision to close a village school. The only procedures in which the parents have any rights in the present system, and they do not extend to a public inquiry, come at far too late a stage. By the time a closure proposal goes to the Secretary of State, a lot of damage has been done to the school. The best staff have left and some of the parents have already taken their children away. They say "If my child cannot go there, I will start him at the other school now rather than have him moved later."

We want a requirement for consultation much earlier in the process in which parents can have a clear voice. After all, if someone wants to close a footpath there is a procedure whereby those involved can get a public inquiry and the local community can make its voice felt. Surely we are entitled to something similar in a matter as essential to village life as the village school. With the legislative opportunity in this Session, we should look at that issue as well.

We have had the repetition in the debate of the old battle cries. There has been the usual optimistic defence of everything that is going on at the moment from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), together with the familiar demand for standards for the few which have come from the Opposition. But what we have lacked, and what we all ought to strive for, is the spirit that would make it possible for education legislation to be long lasting, for education changes to have weight and consensus behind them.

Our present legislation was framed in 1944 in a spirit of wide co-operation between the parties. It was the opportunity, perhaps, of the war and the cooperation between the parties which made it possible, but I would hate to think that education legislation must in future years be something that is put up by one Government and struck down by the next. I hope that we can arrive, by full discussion with those directly involved, at a measure of consensus on major education issues which will mean that education legislation will stand the test of time and give stability to the system. We should be offering more indication of that than some of our debates have done.

1.21 p.m.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on the wide range of his discourse and also on his Second Reading speech on a Bill which has not yet been published. At the same time, I express my surprise that he should have felt that we should not be meeting today but should have had a General Election. Frankly, I do not accept that proposition from him. I fancy that if there had been a General Election during the recess he would not have been taking part in this debate.

I welcome the intention of the forthcoming Bill to give greater choice to parents, but that choice must be real. The question of the freedom of choice is flung about so easily, but no one has yet spelt out in detail what it will mean in practice. The matter will require a great deal of consideration, and certainly the difficulties that will be met by local authorities will have to be taken into consideration as well.

The intention to widen the representation of outside organisations on governing bodies should be greatly welcomed, particularly the greater representation of parents and of both sides of industry. But, again, unless such representation is purposeful and is to mean something, it might just as well not be done at all. It can only really be effective in the type of school that I envisage—the neighbourhood school—because there we can have the feeling of belonging, which means that everyone in the district knows that "this is our school and this is the institution that we have to support."

I turn now to the proposal for a secondary examination at the age of 16-plus, namely, the substitution of a general certificate of secondary education for the present GCE and CSE examinations. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) is not here, because it means that I do not have to read out the full terms of those examinations.

We all know that there are deficiencies in the present system, particularly with regard to the CSE. The system of dual examinations puts a burden on teachers to begin with, because at the age of 13-plus, or 14-plus, an arbitrary decision has to be made about which examination a child should take. That is not a task to which a teacher takes very kindly.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) said that the CSE was highly regarded by industry, but I have seen no evidence of that. It is my opinion that the CSE has always been regarded as second best both by parents and by industry, which is unfortunate, because—and here I agree with the hon. Gentleman —in many instances those who have taken the CSE have achieved considerable success thereafter. Nevertheless, the fact remains that too often employers have refused to recognise the qualifications gained by those taking the CSE. Then there is the question of the differing standards set by CSE boards.

This is a change which has long been understood and looked for by teachers, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has now come round to the position where she says, in effect, " This has to stop, and we are going to have a single examination ".

My right hon. Friend's decision is not exactly a snap one. Between 1973 and 1975, there were feasibility studies on the subject by the Schools Council. These demonstrated the practicability and desirability of a single system of examination at 16-plus, and the Schools Council recommended accordingly in 1976. But my right hon. Friend was not satisfied. She wanted further evidence. Therefore, in March 1977 she set up a steering committee under the chairmanship of Sir James Waddell. It included a fairly wide spectrum of people interested in education —teachers, local authorities, those representing higher and further education, industry, parents, the Department itself and the inspectorate. The committee reported in July 1978.

The committee largely agreed with the findings of the feasibility studies by the Schools Council. It suggested that the first examinations under the new system should start in 1985. That was to give enough time for the preliminary work. I suggest that my right hon. Friend should convey her own sense of urgency to all those responsible for the ground work.

I have pointed out that in view of the time taken one could hardly regard my right hon. Friend's decision as a snap one, but, when the news broke—I do not know whether it broke in the morning—the hon. Member for Chelmsford must have been woken rather roughly that day. He was probably asked for his comments. If at any time there was a snap decision, it was that one. The hon. Gentleman regarded the acceptance by my right hon. Friend of the Waddell report as reckless folly and as something which would lead to a lowering of standards. How he could have come to that decision I do not know. Time and time again we have heard about a lowering of standards, but there is no indication that the substitution of the single examination need lead to a lowering of standards in any way. But the comment to which I have referred was made in the early hours of the morning, and possibly the hon. Gentleman was not quite awake at the time.

A great deal is said by the Opposition about standards, but how evident was this concern before the reorganisation of secondary education before the 11-plus was abolished, when 80 per cent. of the senior children were in secondary modern schools? The Conservative Party showed no concern at all for those children, and not a word was said about the standards in those schools. Today, more than 80 per cent. of our children are in the comprehensive system, and we on the Labour Benches are determined that they shall get the best. In spite of everything that has been said, the standards of education are rising steadily as a result of the efforts made by the Government in that sector. That is shown by the evidence.

From the Conservative Benches we have the cry of stinking fish whenever the question of standards in the comprehensive schools is mentioned. I recognise that many Conservative Members are interested in the education of the children of this country. I do not know why they should want to undermine confidence in the comprehensive schools, unless it is for political purposes and because they have the feeling that, unless they can keep those bastions which protect, the private sector the world which they wish to retain will fall in ruins.

Dr. Hampson

Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that it is very difficult for politicians to condition opinion about comprehensives in the way that he seems to be suggesting? Is it not possible that we are responding to a deeply ingrained anxiety which is the result of what parents, particularly in the inner cities, have found is happening in some comprehensive schools, as in the primary schools in some areas?

Mr. Shaw

I do not accept that in any way. Perhaps the Opposition are so deafened by their own cries that they mistake them for the cries of the parents of children in those schools. Of course, I accept that some schools are not as good as others. That can happen, and there may be expressions of anxiety from parents, but, overall, the facts prove that the standards in the schools are improving and that secondary education has in no way suffered by the reorganisation into the comprehensive system.

I want to express my concern for the place of the children of immigrants in the education system. I am thinking mainly of the children from the West Indian community. Various reports show that, on the whole, West Indian children have a much greater under-achievement than the children of indigenous families and, for that matter, the children of the Asian community.

In this connection I should like to quote certain passages from reports which have been made fairly recently. In 1976 the Community Relations Commission, in its evidence to the Select Committee on race relations, said that the situation of West Indian children in schools is, if anything, getting worse, not only in terms of cognitive skills but also in social adjustment. In February 1977 the Select Committee published a report on the West Indian community. In the report, education was a major theme. It stated: Throughout this inquiry it was clear to the Committee that the West Iindian community is disturbed by the under-achievement of West Indian children at school. The report also stated: The DES agreed that the evidence available seems to indicate that on average West Indian pupils are performing below the level of their indigenous contemporaries and admitted that the phenomenon of low average attainment will not disappear with the virtual ending of immigration from the Caribbean. The Committee considered that the relative under-achievement of West Indian children seriously affects their future employment prospects and is a matter of major importance both in educational terms and in the context of race relations. That is a grim picture.

After years of relative inaction the Department of Education and Science began to take more than a cursory interest in this question, and in July 1977 the Department asked for comments on the Select Committee's report from interested organisations. In my own borough of Redbridge a West Indian pupil working party was established by the Black People's Progressive Association and the Redbridge community relations council. It set up a local inquiry which went into great depth to try to ascertain the reason for the situation which it found in the borough of Redbridge; namely, that the achievement of West Indian children was very much lower than that of other children. It did that also because of the apparent reluctance on the part of Redbridge educational circles to admit that under-achievement occurred in the borough.

The inquiry came to certain findings, and these are set out in a report entitled "Cause for Concern". It was found that in verbal reasoning. English and mathematics the national trend was reproduced in Redbridge. The Asian children achieved well below their white indigenous contemporaries, and the West Indian children were well below the Asian children. It should be remembered that among the Asian children there were many whose ability to speak English was very poor.

The report examines a number of possible causes for this state of affairs but in the end it comes down largely to the problems of self-identity and the effects of a hostile society. The committee felt that as a result of this there was a growing lack of confidence in the children which led to a reduction in their motivation. It put forward a number of possible remedies. The first was the necessity for recognition of the problem. The second was that more resources should be forthcoming to combat the problem. It recommended specialist help by means of supplementary services and that in teacher training, both initial and in-service training, the problem should be adequately understood.

The Department already has moved some way in this direction. There has been a pilot scheme in which HMIs have been involved. That reported only recently. However, the problem exists. It is known. It is necessary that the matter should be dealt with on a nationwide scale in a positive manner. In this, of course, the Department of Education and Science must take a leading part.

The other matter of concern is that of the decay in our urban centres. This, too, has a part to play. Obviously that is within the purview of the Department of the Environment, and I know that already a good deal is being done.

I want to impress upon my right hon. Friend the two matters that I have stressed. The first is the need for urgent action with regard to immigrant children, especially the West Indian section. The second is the need for the urgent establishment of a single examination at 16-plus with a view to its coming into being no later than the date at present planned for it, namely, 1985.

1.43 p.m.

Dr, Keith Hampson (Ripon)

It is a pleasure to see the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) back from lunch, because it is always fairer to be critical of people in their presence.

I wish to begin with one aspect of the remarks of the Secretary of State and to try to nail it for what it is worth. I refer to the carping criticism which she constantly makes of the local authorities because of their underspending. It is a criticism which was reiterated firmly and in quite vicious terms by the hon. Member for Hillsborough, who said that they should be ashamed of themselves and that it was effrontery on their part not to be spending the money which they were allocated.

I endorse strongly the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). As he said, in education we should be aiming for a spirit of wide co-operation and some sort of consensus. How can we have that co-operation when Government supporters make the sort of remarks they have been making today and have done repeatedly? The hon. Member for Hillsborough cited The Times Educational Supplement on a number of occasions. How has he the effrontery not to have read it on 27th October, when it launched a long and detailed attack on the Secretary of State, whom I might call "wingeing Williams"? It reads: To winge on in this way is, to put it mildly, to encourage people to deceive themselves and to blame local authorities (preferably those controlled by her opponents) for the consequences of a national system which Labour Governments have shared responsibility for. Is the right hon. Lady satisfied? No. She has been trying to change the system of finance to local authorities. Then how can she make the accusation that she does? As The Times Educational Supplement pointed out, to get within 2½ per cent. of one's budget is pretty good. The article ended by accusing the right hon. Lady of making electioneering speeches about the behaviour of local education authorities.

The right hon. Lady made one other comment in rather scathing terms about the Opposition case. It concerned the notion which we have been putting forward for many years about returning to what we call minimum national standards. There is an important aspect of this which the right hon. Lady ignores completely and which we have made perfectly clear. It concerns the role of Her Majesty's inspectorate.

Of course, there never was a proper cyclical inspection of schools, but at least there was some attempt to make it until the 1950s, and then it was stopped. What the Opposition are asking is for any Government to consider moving to a system under which there is a regular inspection of schools—possibly not on the huge scale of the traditional type of full inspection that we have had but with a smaller number of inspectors going into a school not for a fortnight but, say, for a week. I believe that that sort of inspection being made regularly, in the sense that a school expects it every 10 years, would do far more than any battery of examinations to improve standards, to keep heads and their staffs on their toes and to ensure that there is the imagination and the commitment to what they are teaching, which is so vital.

Mr. Flannery

Is the hon. Member really implying that if there were an inspection every eight, nine or 10 years, those lazy teachers would do their job that much better? In the face of all the evidence of increasing standards, is the hon. Member accusing the teaching profession of being a lot of dodgers who need someone standing over them to ensure that they do their job? That is the implication of what the hon. Member just said. I think that teachers would welcome inspections, but not in the way that the hon. Member has just implied.

Dr. Hampson

I am not sure that the hon. Member for Hillsborough has quite grasped the implications of what I was saying. I believe that teachers would welcome a regular inspection and that it would do a great deal to keep them conscious of what it is they are doing. It would affect attitudes quite fundamentally, and it would get away from all the distortions which the hon. Member for Hillsborough and others are always laying at the door of the examination systems. In any event, that was a comment on one of the charges made by the Secretary of State.

As I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. JohnStevas) talking about the undoubted charm and intellect of the Secretary of State, I was reminded—my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong—of St. Paul, in Corinthians, saying, if I may paraphrase, "She speaks with the tongues of men and of angels." In fact, what is happening, as St. Paul also said, is that she has "become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal", because we have heard it all before.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I thought he said that women should be silent.

Dr. Hampson

Certainly St. Paul did did not like women in authority. I dare not think what his reflections on the Secretary of State might be.

In the press yesterday we had the heralding of this great parents' charter—possibly a touch of No. 10 Downing Street—twinned with the tenants' charter. There was great billing for the rights, of parents. In fact, it could be argued that the Bill which the right hon. Lady intends to bring forward will have as the major change the proposals on further education and not that with regard to parents. We are very sceptical of what is really contained in the package which the right hon. Lady is offering.

I recall, back in April 1977, the emergence, with the sounding of trumpets and a clashing of bells—or cymbals—of the parents' contract. I wonder what happened to the parents' contract, in which the Seccretary of State said that we ought to have an individual signed document in which the school would promise to teach the child to the best of the school's capacity, to look after his welfare at school, to provide information on school staff and curriculum and to report on the progress of the individual child to his or her parents. It is remarkably reminiscent of what we are hearing now. What happened to the parents' contract?

It is rightly said that parents are a crucial factor in education. We have argued that inside and out, time and again, for all the time that I have been a Member of the House, and on the Education Act 1976 in particular. Who is it, at every stage, who has tried to dampen our enthusiasm for the rights of parents? It has been Members such as the hon. Member for Hillsborough and Ministers of his Government. The Secretary of State rightly said today that if one is to give choice one has to supply information. On the Education Act 1976 we discussed a new clause arguing for information to be given to parents through prospectuses.

Today I have had marvellous timing. Everyone is entering the chamber as I come to mention them. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler) has just arrived. I am about to quote what he said during the proceedings on the Education Bill when speaking as Minister of State. He said: Our position is that this is a totally inapposite subject for legislation. It amounts to taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut."—[Official Report, 30th June 1976; Vol. 914, c. 572.] The Government tried, through the parents' contract and in a circular, to get information to parents. Now it looks as though they are having to legislate to make it a right, to require local education authorities to supply that information. We would welcome that if that is what the Secretary of State is going to do. We welcome the fact that at last information will be supplied. It is crucial that the present Government are responsive, as we as an Opposition are, to the desires and fears of parents.

Whatever the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) believes and whatever the hon. Member for Hillsborough said, today we face a generation of anxious parents. It is not we who are trumping up "phoney" statistics. People are concerned about the standards that their children are facing in schools and what is being taught and the discipline in a whole range of schools. Therefore, we must respond. If we are now legislating to give them a clear right of choice and information to assist that it is to be welcomed.

However, this parents' charter is actually more like a cheating charter. It strikes me as being likely to be so feeble. We are moving in the right direction, but we are doing it by inches. The Opposition have proposed many times all of the things that the Secretary of State has mentioned today. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) is present in the Chamber. Back in 1974 he brought before the House a Bill to establish a parents' charter. In that Bill we had the right of a local appeals system established, and we proposed appeals tribunals. I would recommend the Secretary of State to read that before drafting her own Bill, because there is there a formula spelt out for local appeals tribunals, parent and teacher representation as a matter of right on school governing boards and prospectuses as a matter of right. What has happened since? The Government pooh-poohed it then and they fought against these provisions on the Education Act 1976.

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) was reflecting, I suspect, the feeling of a large number of Labour Members below the Gangway when he argued against prospectuses and the giving of information. When we were proposing this in the Bill, he argued that this was a subtle return by the Conservative Party to competition and social class divisiveness in education, as if only the middle-class families in the land would be able to read and understand literature produced by the schools on what they were meant to be doing, the values to which they subscribed, the tone of discipline, the emphasis in the curriculum, and the type of examinations, and their results. Why should people not have that information? The Conservative Party has argued repeatedly "Trust the parents." If the Secretary of State produced something which effectively trusted parents and gave them a right of choice, all to the good. However, we are very sceptical indeed.

I have a terrible fear that what is happening is that, far from there being a genuine commitment to these things, it is part of a trade-off to closing for the local authorities the loophole of section 37. It must be balanced, to use the right hon. Lady's term. Therefore, we shall have cobbled together some sort of proposals which the Government will try to sell to parents as something that is new, dynamic and attractive.

The Conservative Party has argued repeatedly that the widening of choice is important and just and could improve the quality of schools. Labour Members have always attacked that notion. Indeed, it seems that the two main urban authorities that are under Labour control do not believe in it. The Sheffield authority wrote to me in 1976 saying that it believed in its neighbourhood pattern of schools and did not encourage prospectuses and freedom of choice.

Mr. Dudley Fiske, the chief officer of the Manchester authority, was reported as saying that if one offers a wide degree of choice and an open preference system, one ends up with a system which is "scarcely comprehensive at all."

That is why, when it comes to the heart of the matter, Labour Members have never supported the Opposition on the matter of parental choice and freedom of information.

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Member has mentioned Sheffield. In Sheffield we have always had an appeals tribunal at national level. In my own school, for instance, if there was difficulty about a child getting into another school, to which, for instance, the child had good reason to go because there was a brother or sister there, perhaps, there was a very careful and democratic appeals system. I do not know where the hon. Member has got his information from. Practically all the schools—I thought all of them, unless the hon. Member knows something that I do not know—issue prospectuses and so on.

Dr. Hampson

All I can say—

Mrs. Shirley Williams

I think that the hon. Member—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) must give some sort of answer to the question first, otherwise we shall become disorderly in debate.

Mrs. Williams

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

No doubt the hon. Member for Ripon will let the Minister in.

Dr. Hampson

I shall indeed give way to the right hon. Lady.

Mrs. Williams

I was only about to add directly to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), specifically on Sheffield. Sheffield admittedly has a system under which parents can object to the allocation that they are offered, but Sheffield and inner London both satisfy more than 90 per cent. of parents' choices, which is a very high proportion by national standards.

Dr. Hampson

We have argued all the time that there were good practices. The question I was raising about Sheffield arises because I had a letter from the Sheffield authority in reply to a request of mine about its attitude regarding prospectuses and whether the authority required them from schools, and the letter said, No, because we believe in the neighbourhood system of comprehensive schools that we run. Many of the right hon. Lady's friends believe passionately in the neighbourhood system. Intrinsically, they do not like freedom of choice because they believe, as Mr. Fiske said, that it does not end up with a truly comprehensive system. They believe that somehow Tory electors will exploit it and get into the best schools. That is a slight exaggeration, but they have certainly been hostile to it. Therefore, we must ensure that the Secretary of State carries her party with her, because many of us are suspicious as to how far these notions are held in principle by the Labour Party.

Other consequences flow from this. Far what reason do parents want choice? They want quality. They are after certain things for the benefit of their children and titter opportunities. That means that to ofter choice one must accept diversity. Again, when we went through all of this on the Education Bill in 1976, Ministers of the present Government argued against encouraging and ensuring diversity of schools. They argued for diversity within schools. Again there is this dogmatic hang-up about some abstract notion of what is a comprehensive school. Is the Secretary of State now arguing that there should be a diversity of schools?

If we are to have as part of the programme that she is recommending to the House a so-called operating capacity, with freedom for the local authority to fix the numbers in the school, first will it be for the total school or will it be just for admission? If it is for the, total school, it will inhibit many of the developments that we wish to see, such as giving freedom to parents and to pupils at the age of 13, 14 or 15. At these ages many of the pupils have developed ideas as to what they want to do and what their aptitudes are, and where the facilities for developing these aptitudes lie. They may want then, at those ages, to enter a school. If we have given the local authority a planned operating capacity for the whole school, that will stymie a healthy development. If it is about fixing entry, there must be a right of information to the parents as to what that level is.

It seems fundamentally intrinsic to the notion of parental choice that one gives parents the right to choose certain schools, but obviously there must be cut-off points. One cannot have a school totally oversubscribed to the neglect of the quality of the education in it. Quite rightly, therefore, certain yardsticks have been developed, such as the sibling rule, as the hon. Member for Hillsborough mentioned. It could be related to certain nursery schools—not as an automatic follow-on from that school to a secondary school, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed argued, but as a first option. The parents in those feeder schools would be given the first right to that school.

Then we must consider the local rule. It is right, proper and just that the parents in the locality of a particular school should have the first right of choice of entry to that school rather than that it should be given first to people on the other side of town. Once that demand is satisfied, other choices are open. But they must know the cut-off level and the numbers to be allowed in. If that does not happen, there will be an unfair situation in which those concerned will feel that there are abuses and will struggle to edge over the limit. However, if the situation is clearcut, one will be able to obtain a degree of tolerance and acceptance in respect of that kind of system.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) earlier used the phrase "empty places". How does he define that phrase, unless he has in mind the kind of system outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? As we all know, the "empty place" is in the eye of the beholder.

Dr. Hampson

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that, because of the birth rate, certain places in schools are not being filled and there is under-capacity. I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make. This may be an argument for being able to offer parents—in many areas for the first time—a reasonable degree of choice. This would seem to me to be a sensible step to take. In the past Labour Members have argued that choice could not be given because the places did not exist. They said that such a course was impracticable. It now looks as though we have the capacity to take that course.

There are other consequences to be considered. For example, the Secretary of State said that the appeals process would be both local and central. I believe that the appeals procedure at present under section 68 is a dead letter. What will the new procedure be? It sounds cumbersome to have both levels, and we shall need to examine that aspect with care. We do not want a situation which is similar to the present one. Possibly we should appoint some kind of lay body at the local level rather than an internal local authority appeals process, which is what most authorities, certainly those in Sheffield, are now operating.

Let me turn to the subject of the cost of transport. If we are to grapple with the matter of choice, we must resolve the school transport issue. Many authorities could find themselves in an embarrassing position. Since we started off the parents' charter, we believe that we shall have to look at the matter in the context of section 76, which deals with parental rights. So long as that provision stands, it is possible for most local authorities, if they are so minded, to stymie the whole operation. We have in mind the pungent words, that it has to be compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure. Unless there are some adjustments, I believe that the subject of choice will encounter the same administrative problems as now happens.

The right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Education and Science appears to take two approaches to the subject of parents' rights. On the question of choice, I believe that Conservatives should make clearer to the teachers' unions that by exercising choice we shall ensure the preservation of professional autonomy in a school on the method and content of teaching. The alternative to having a system based on consumer demand and need which allows the teachers to teach in one way or another, to adopt either traditional or progressive methods, will mean that we shall find ourselves more and more in a position in which parents and other lay people interfere directly with what is happening in schools. They may object to certain content in curricula and other matters, as is the case in many school boards in the United States. I am sure that nobody, particularly the teachers' unions, wants to see that situation. Therefore, many of those people should support the Conservative view on parental choice.

The Secretary of State will operate on that side of the coin in seeking to give more influence to parents through governing boards. Parents should have a closer relationship to the school which their children attend. This should be done to safeguard what is happening in the school —as it were, defending interests of the school—with parents acting as a sounding board in respect of the interests and requirements of the school vis-à-vis the local education authority.

So far in all the discussions about the composition of governing boards post-Taylor, it seems to me that we are crossing a number of responsibilities. It still looks as though we shall have the local authorities with the major dominating voice on governing boards in terms of appointments and the position of their officials. They will still be bodies which are politically controlled and which will not act as the voice of the school because of conflicts of interests. I believe that it is better to concentrate on composition in seeking safeguards and support for the school rather than to lay emphasis on the powers to be given to such a body. If there is to be a power in respect of finance, the local authority will insist on retaining a major stake in that body. I suspect that we shall have from the Secretary of State simply an emasculated version of Taylor and that these fundamental questions will be skated over.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford regarded the package on further and higher education as a ragbag. It seems to me that the Government intend to legislate on nothing better than a dog's breakfast.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

A dog's breakfast in a ragbag.

Dr. Hampson

Perhaps "a doggy bag" would be a better term. The present higher education system, based as it now is on the pooling of finance, clearly cannot continue. There is no proper financial accountability, and the financing is quite separate from the management of the institution. It is like living off somebody else's bank account. It is irresponsible. Everybody is agreed that there must be a framework of some kind in which this enormous national investment in part of the national higher education provision is developed and operated.

There is a case for a national body. The problem is that this is likely to be a feeble body which will operate in a complex and complicated way. This will flow from the composition of the body, which is the Oakes Committee writ large —in other words, a body representative of all the interests involved—and hence agreement will be difficult. There are cumbersome procedures in which, if local government members of the committee—supposedly sitting as individuals and not as representatives—find they cannot get their collective way, they have a right of appeal to central Government, on the assumption that central Government will agree with their localist position. It is all very confusing.

The financial structure is even more confusing and complex than the present pooling arrangements. We now have a welter of tiers and levels of operation in the system which, far from tidying up and making more clear, logical and more accountable the management and financing of public sector higher education, will make for even more waste and bureaucracy.

On the one side, the new national body will negotiate with the Secretary of State and, also, the institutions but the local authorities representing those institutions. In other words, the colleges and polytechnics in working out the programmes and courses in their institutions will need first to get them through the local authorities. The local authorities will submit their estimates and intentions to the national body and the national body will judge. A regional body is proposed which in some form or another will involve the universities. The regional inspectorate will still exist. Then there are the new problems relating to rate support grant. We do not know whether the national body's level of expenditure can be guaranteed to pass through the rate support grant so that the local education authority will have to spend the money in the way in which the national body decides.

On top of all that, the maintaining authorities will be expected to contribute first 5 per cent., then 10 per cent. and then 15 per cent. of the overall cost. I cannot imagine local education authorities voluntarily relinquishing control of their maintained institutions. They will fight, tooth and nail sometimes, on that marginal expenditure and on the staffing of the secretariat of the institutions, because the non-teaching staff will still be under the same terms of reference and regulations as the rest of local authority staffs.

None of this is strictly logical. What is it based on? What are these institutions for? They are not there for the benefit of local authorities as administrative structures. They are there for the benefit of the individual students, the people, nationally, who can gain benefit from the opportunities they are presenting. We therefore have to ensure that these institutions are creative, can develop new things—some in conjunction with local industry—and are responsive to local needs and requirements, but why do we imagine that we need to have a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure involving local authority committee structures and so on to ensure that these things are done?

It should be possible to work out a deal in which the local education authorities sacrifice control of the institutions, as they did with the colleges of advanced technology, in return for a major stake on the national body as well as a stake on the governing boards of individual institutions to ensure that the institutions and the money funding them go in appropriate directions.

One of the major drives we need in advanced further and higher education, for example, is more part-time work. By definition, that has to be localised. People living at home and working locally want courses that relate to their jobs. The national body and the governors of an institution should be ensuring that money is targeted on those sorts of goals. It is not necessary to have local control to ensure that part-time work develops. Can we say that as long as these institutions have been locally maintained, we have had a massive expansion of part-time work, growth in the number of mature students or more responsive courses? There is no such record to justify the so-called sanctity of local authority control.

When we consider the alternative systems, such as the central institutions of Scotland or the voluntary colleges in England, we can see these direct grant institutions are still responsive to local needs and do not need all the trappings of the local bureaucracy.

The Government are offering the polytechnics a phoney prospectus which maps out the direction we ought to be going in but in which, once again, the pace is like moving mountains with a teaspoon. There are certain indications that there will be growing central direction of financing and, conceivably, greater independence for the local authorities to get on with the things that matter, but the Government are taking this development no distance at all and I believe that we shall end up with more tensions and difficulties between the institutions and their maintaining authorities than we have under the present system.

Who is creative in education? Having been a lecturer in a university, it seems to me that it is the staff of institutions who actually initiate ideas and evolve courses. In the applied public sector it is to be hoped that this is done in conjunction with local industries and business generally. The maintenance of these things should be guaranteed. The polytechnics have a distinctive role to play. Their national body has to ensure that they maintain that distinctive role, that they are more applied than are universities and that they maintain sub-degree and technician courses, but I do not believe that the Oakes committee's answer is the best way of ensuring these developments.

We are not engaged in an argument about power, which I suspect, is what the Oakes committee was about. The local authority representatives on the committee saw an attempt being made to take away yet more authority and functions from them. It should not be an argument about power, but about the purposes of power. The justification for any new system must be whether it is achieving high standards and whether it is developing opportunities, in the most expeditious way possible, which the individuals looking for courses actually need.

The Secretary of State told a meeting of the committee of vice-chancellors and principals last night that the University Grants Committee was a sensitive and intelligent buffer. I regret that the new national body proposed by the Oakes committee will not be that sort of body and that we are likely to be crushing advanced further education into more of a bureaucratic embrace than we have at present and into a system which will have a frightening and inhibiting force.

I hope that local education authorities will recognise that and that we can create a new spirit that will end up with a system that includes a national body similar in function to the UGC, giving institutions freedom with corporate status under the cash limits and the targeting of funds. I do not believe that such a new body would need develop a great appetite for empire.

The Secretary of State said earlier that choices will have to be made. She was referring to the scool sector and reorganisation, but the same maxim applies in the reorganisation of further education. The proposed choice is not the logical one. The efficient management of polytechnics, which are part of a national system of advanced further education, is different from the running and organisation of non-advanced work. Single institutions cannot and should not be required to do all things for all people.

In the development and improvement of courses and standards in this higher education, particularly at a time of a falling birth rate, when other institutions and colleges are even now sometimes having great difficulty filling their courses and are drifting into more degree courses which will not be justified because of the falling birth rate, we need a more logical and tighter system than is being proposed.

The Secretary of State said in her speech last night that the Robbins report had been a trumpet of light for the universities. I am genuinely sorry that the Oakes report will not be regarded in that way when people look back in 15 years' time at what is being done now for advanced further education.

2.18 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

I have been an hon. Member for quite a long time and I liked some of the old customs and practices which have, unfortunately, died out. I liked the custom of an hon. Member staying after his speech to hear the next two speeches before he left the Chamber. It seems that the custom is now for an hon. Member to walk out as soon as he has finished his speech. Since that is what I have to do today, let me apologise in advance. As you know, Mr. Speaker, I have a very important engagement to fulfil as soon as I have finished my speech.

Another custom that has now almost ceased is that hon. Members could raise any subject in the debate on the Queen's Speech. On the first day of our debate, Mr. Speaker, you pointed out that the usual channels had—here I use my own inverted commas—"fixed it" so that the subjects for debate on the various days should be as you announced them. I make clear at once that nothing I say should ever be taken as a reflection upon the Chair. I recognise that this is nothing to do with the Chair, but I do not like the usual channels "fixing it ". I prefer the House to fix its own business. It is, as you pointed out, Mr. Speaker, in order for hon. Members to speak on any subject, but the usual channels have "fixed it " and today was set aside for the education debate.

I have been listening to all the various education experts. I am not an expert on education. I was one of the chaps referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery). Years ago I had the opportunity of going to university. My parents could not afford to let me have that opportunity. In those days one had to go to work. If need be, one would take a trike boy's job. That was the only way in which the family could get another income. In many instances it was not possible to allow the school leaver to go to university or even to the grammar school. The education grants were not sufficient.

I went to a polytechnic. My father calculated that the grant was £22 for the first year and that I would earn £26 a year working as a trike boy. It is not realistic to talk about education in isolation. Factors such as housing and employment have a bearing on education.

The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), who has now transferred to the Opposition Front Bench, spoke about opportunities. I should like him to visit my constituency. The parents have no choice. Even with the rapid advance that has been made and the improvements that have taken place, there are still schools in use in my constituency that were condemned about 60 years ago because they were then 200 years old. We still have 50 and 60 pupils in a class. We still have classes composed of five and six nationalities where the teachers have to speak and understand five or six languages.

In my constituency there is a shortage of accommodation of a decent standard for teachers. Is it any wonder that teachers do not want to come to the area? There are ex-teachers in the Chamber. I understand that the hon. Member for Ripon was a lecturer. Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to teach in West Ham, where there are deplorable housing conditions? Would he teach in a classroom in that area where there are 50 or 60 pupils of every nationality under the sun, with whom he would not be able to communicate unless he had command of five or six languages, such as Urdu and Hindi?

No Government have faced the problem of helping areas such as West Ham. It is not enough to give help only to education. They must help to improve all aspects of the social life of the community.

Dr. Hampson

I am sure that no one will disagree that there are areas of terrible deprivation and hardship that have schools with poor facilities. However, we have been speaking of parental choice. Why is it that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, where there are many schools, parents should not have a choice of school for their children?

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The parents cannot have a choice. I repeat that there are schools in my area that have 50 or 60 pupils in a class. These schools often do not have the necessary basic facilities. Surely it would not be possible to introduce more pupils to those schools. Additional pupils have to be sent to other schools that have vacancies. Upton Cross school, in my constituency, is overcrowded. There is a shortage of teachers. The teachers are hard-pressed and cannot manage. A parent may decide that he wishes to send his child to that school. He will be told that that is not possible because the necessary facilities to educate his child do not exist. The parent will be told that his child will have to go to another school that will probably be a bus ride away.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) spoke about the difficulties of the African population. It is true that all the children of the various immigrant populations face difficulties. They often have bad housing conditions. In my constituency we still have as many as eight or nine families in one house, How can a child study and undertake its homework when all the children of the other families are running around the house?

Another factor that has to be considered is travel. Difficulties arise when the parents are unemployed. In the past the mother used to have to go out to work to supplement the family income and to assist the budget. In many instances we now find that both mother and father are unemployed.

What action do the Government propose? We find that the Government are proposing to close down the London docks. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South spoke of deep deprivation. We already have deprived areas that lack decent housing, schooling, transport and medical facilities. These areas will now be further attacked by a lack of work. Surely we must bring more work into these areas.

I know that some Opposition Members will thank God for the closure of the London docks because the London dockers will be kicked where it hurts. No doubt they think that it is about time the dockers were kicked. However, it is not only the London dockers who will be hit. The small shopkeepers, the teachers and the postmen, for example, will also be hit. The effect of closing the London docks will be rather like the pebble that is thrown into the pool. I can foresee a great deal of trouble in areas that are already deprived.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred to the difficulties of African workers and African children, but all the children of immigrant families face difficulties. They lack decent housing, and that deprives them of the opportunity to study. Even when they are at school they lack reasonable facilities. I ask Ministers in the Department of Education and Science to bear that in mind. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my right hon. Friends in the Treasury not to be too anxious to close the docks.

It is thought that the closure of the docks will save money. If that closure takes place, there will be a high degree of unemployment. The children will be deprived of decent homes and there will be no money. There will be social problems such as mugging and vandalism. If we "save" £30 million by closing the docks and we have to pay £50 million to deal with mugging and vandalism, we shall have saved nothing. We must consider the side effects that will come from a closure.

When we discuss education, we must put matters in their correct perspective. Education depends on full employment, decent housing, decent social conditions and the looking after of parents as well as children. It is no good sending kids to the best school in the area when it is overcrowded. That is true even if it is a good school.

If the London docks are closed, many fathers will be put out of work. Further, mothers who used to work in cafes or restaurants will become unemployed be-of the consequent lack of business. In many instances both parents will be out of work. When children become 16 years of age they may want to continue at school and the parents may want them to do so, but many children will say that they do not wish to stay on in the knowledge that they may be a drain upon their parents.

I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Education and Science to give further consideration to the deprived areas. In these areas there are large immigrant populations and great housing and unemployment problems. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider giving these areas even greater financial assistance. I appreciate that the Government have done a great deal, but there is much that can and should be done.

I should have mentioned old-age pensioners. We are creating an aged population because younger people are having to move out. The housing and schooling are not available, so they are moving out. Almost 80 per cent. are now aged people who cannot move out. That creates problems.

My last word is on the question, touched upon in the Gracious Speech, regarding the Official Secrets Act. I say "touched upon" because the reference is as thin as tissue paper. The Government must understand that we would not have half the problems confronting the country if we had a freedom of information Act. We would be able to get at the truth. That is not the situation now. We all know that if any Government want to cover anything up, they can and do. Such an Act would be to the advantage of good government and of the Civil Service. Indeed, it would be to the advantage of those top civil servants who advise against it, invariably to cover up their own wishes. I am sure that in the long run it would mean better, cleaner and cheaper government. I understand that top civil servants are going to America and Sweden to find out the cost. It would not cost anywhere near as much as the Crown Agents scandal and the various other scandals that I could enumerate. It would save a lot of the taxpayer's money, and it is the taxpayer who pays. If there is an advantage for the taxpayer, we should ensure that it is done.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

There is just under half an hour before the Front Bench speeches begin. Four hon. Members want to catch my eye. How many of them are successful depends on the consideration shown by those who are called.

2.32 p.m.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I note your words.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that we had one of the Opposition Front Bench speakers winding up. The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, spoke for 35 minutes, which is about the length of time that Opposition Front Bench speakers usually take.

Mr. Shelton

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis). I accept much of what he said about choice, but I think that he will accept two points on this matter. First, because not everyone can have complete choice, it should not mean that where there is choice it should not be given. In other words, because everyone cannot enjoy something, there is no reason why no one should enjoy it.

The other problem is that, if we move to a rigid system of neighbourhood schools, such as there is perhaps inevitably or involuntarily in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the choice for parents is to move house. Unhappily, that depends on the length of the purse. Therefore, one moves away from choice by academic excellence, which was the grammar school system, to choice by the purse. That means that only wealthy parents will be able to buy houses in areas where schooling is better. That cannot be in the interests of good Socialists, nor indeed of good Conservatives. There is a difficulty here. It is on choice that I want to speak briefly this afternoon.

I was interested when the Secretary of State intervened to make the point that in the inner London education area 90 per cent. of all parents get their first choice. However, we all know that is a fictitious figure. The majority of these parents are guided by the headmasters of primary schools. They go along with what the headmasters say. In fact, it is not their first choice but is what is recommended by headmasters. Therefore, I have always regarded the 90 per cent. figure with some cynicism. Even if it were true, we should be left with 10 per cent. of parents who do not get their first choice.

This year more than most I have found an increasing problem regarding children in band 1 in the inner London education area. The House knows that ILEA managed to secure a special dispensation in the recent Education Act which meant that it could still continue banding by educational ability. It has three bands. Band 1 is 25 per cent., band 2 is 50 per cent. and band 3 is 25 per cent. of the school population. ILEA tried to ensure a mixed intake into the schools for reasons which we all know and respect to some degree.

The parents of the band 1 children are going for the academically more successful schools. These academically successful schools are getting filled up in band 1. Parents are coming to me and saying "Because our child is in band 1, he cannot go to the school very close to our home, to which we want him to go, although there are places vacant in band 2 and band 3." There appears to be an almost implicit discrimination against bright children who find themselves being bussed to schools some way off—schools which are less academically successful—against the wishes of their parents. That is a great worry. It is on bright children and the problem of banding in inner London that I should like to concentrate.

There has been growing concern about gifted children in the education system. There is still a long way to go, but at last the "fashionable views" about bright children are giving way to common sense. The fashionable views always were that we should concentrate on the educationally subnormal, the handicapped and the disadvantaged, that the best endowed children really could look after themselves and needed less compassion and help, and that in an egalitarian society—I am sure that Labour Members will not agree—not only do we lift the bottom but we push down the top. The fashionable view—not in the House—appears to be that it serves them right because perhaps they are the children of middle-class parents anyway.

Fortunately, that view has been giving way over the past few years, and there is more recognition of the special needs of many bright children, especially what are called the specially gifted children.

Brilliance has its handicaps. For instance, a specially gifted child whose gifts are not stretched in the school is apt to turn delinquent. A child who appeared to be educationally subnormal was found, after being tested, to have an IQ of 150. He was a specially gifted child, but no attention had been given to him. He had been given what for him was dull and boring work, and he switched off and became delinquent. That was a tragedy for the child and possibly for the country.

The specially gifted child is often slightly immature emotionally. I was told about a child with an IQ of 140 or 150 who, when his father asked him what he wanted for Christmas, said that he wanted an encyclopaedia of a somewhat sophisticated variety about space. He then turned to his mother and said "Mummy, I would like a teddy bear." In other words, these children have their problems and need a great deal of special help.

Another unfashionable view is that it is in the country's interests that such children should be encouraged and stretched to the maximum of their ability. After all, someone will have to create the wealth to pay for the disadvantaged, the educationally subnormal and the handicapped. In future, it will be these children to whom we shall probably have to look. We should do something for them urgently because recent policy changes have plunged them willy-nilly into the State sector, probably in comprehensive schools. The assisted places and grammar schools are being shut to them.

In that context I welcome the work of the National Association for Gifted Children which has drawn attention to the problem. The House will know of the recent report by the Government school inspectorate which, in many respects, was encouraging. But it was not encouraging about the awareness in primary schools of gifted children. In that report one finds many references to the lack of knowledge and understanding of gifted children. There are no special enrichment classes in most primary schools.

One of the conclusions of the inspectorate was that brighter pupils were bored by lessons because they failed to match their abilities. This is particularly so with mathematics and reading. The report criticised the discovery method but said that that method related to only 5 per cent. of primary schools. But that involves about 115,000 children who are being disadvantaged by this method of teaching.

There is more progress in the secondary sector. The House will be aware of the interesting Nottingham experiment. At a cost of about £200,000, a team of teachers has been appointed to travel round the schools conducting enrichment courses for gifted children. We should welcome that experiment. I hope that the Department will monitor carefully that experiment and inform other local education authorities about the degree of its success.

What must be done? We must increase awareness, especially in the primary sector, of the needs of bright children. They must be identified and screened. The Surrey authority conducts an interesting and excellent screening process. Each local education authority should be persuaded to emulate what Surrey and some other local authorities are doing.

The work given to gifted children must be challenging. Mixed ability classes make progress more difficult for the gifted child. Some local education authorities have appointed special advisers on gifted children. I should like to see every local education authority doing the same.

Each school should appoint a teacher who is responsible for identifying and helping to organise a curriculum for gifted children. If the special enrichment courses in Nottinghamshire are successful, the scheme should be extended.

Unless specially gifted children are stretched to their ability, they often fall by the wayside and deprive themselves of a fruitful school career. They also deprive their country of their abilities.

2.43 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I begin with a criticism, not of the Opposition since I shall turn to them later, but of my Government and this side of the House. Hon. Members on both sides who feel strongly about this matter should do the same.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister on the efforts that have been made in the last 12 months to introduce a realistic scheme for student support for 16 to 18-year-olds at school. The only sensible way of introducing such a scheme is to make it statutory and compulsory. Leaving it on a voluntary basis is of no use. To start it on a minimal basis means that it will be left on that basis for years ahead, as we know from experience.

There were proposals to introduce a full, means-tested scheme for the support of 16 to 18-year-olds at school. In her speech today the Secretary of State gave many reasons why, if we are to sustain equity in higher and further education, we must put some money into helping these youngsters stay on at school, otherwise many of them might be unemployed.

In the secret society in which we live we are not allowed to know the details, but I understand that the matter is not yet dead. It is still being argued in those curiously numbered Cabinet committees about which we glean a little. It might be of interest to those who are still trying to block a proper scheme of this kind for me to give notice that many of my hon. Friends will fight and vote for the scheme in all ways. I offer the Minister of State support in his fight for the funds that are necessary to make the scheme work.

I am a veteran of education debates. Every time I attend such a debate I feel that the Opposition are not serious about education. They make eloquent speeches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) on the elegance and wit of his speech today. It was almost as good as the speeches that we heard in 1976 on the Education Bill. He said that we should amend section 76 of that Act to guarantee absolutely a place in any school that parents wished their children to attend.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

If the hon. Member wishes to be taken seriously—and I have been trying for 10 years to do that —he must not misquote me. I said that section 76 should be amended so that the burden of proof of showing that unreasonable expenditure would be incurred by granting the right of a school place should be shifted from the parent to the local authority. I did not say that parents should have an absolute right or that they should have a bigger right than they have at the moment.

Mr. Price

When he spoke earlier I thought that the hon. Member was trying to offer parents a greater right than they have at present. The Secretary of State's proposals will prove to be the most significant advance in that area that we have seen so far.

I found the Opposition's response to the idea of planned operating capacities churlish and surly. Any Government would have to do something about the present situation. I suspect that if the Conservatives were in power they would be even more keen on planned operating capacities.

Local authorities must have the mechanism by which they can plan for the future. We must give local authorities the chance to tell parents roughly what the future situation will be. Each school must have a theoretical operating capacity which fills up the school, rather than a system which has some relationship to the school population in a particular area but under which some schools run down and the situation becomes impossible.

I would have thought that the problem about planned operating capacities was the sort of problem which traditionally in this country ever since 1944 has been dealt with with the co-operation of the Opposition. I can cite instances ever since the 1944 Act where that sort of co-operation has existed; for example, the Education Act 1968 and so on. The Opposition are now breaking with every tradition since 1944. This is an area where both local education authority associations agree that something needs to be done. The Opposition know full well that if they were in Government they would have to make this technical adjustment. However, they plan to represent it to the country as an enormous infringement of some sort simply for cheap short-term party political ends. It is clear to me, therefore, not only that the Conservatives have no idea of how they would run the education system if they had the chance but that they do not believe they have much chance and feel that they might as well put forward this sort of argument.

I believe that the arguments that we have heard in the specialist and general press about a common system of examination at 16-plus have missed the point. For five or six years substantial experiments have been continuing between, for example, the Joint Matriculation Board and the West Yorkshire and Lindsey regional examining board. So to describe a common system for examination as new, revolutionary or even experimental is wrong.

There has been co-operation between the CSE and GCE boards for many years. The GCE boards have realised for some time that they must rationalise. I do not think that whether the date is 1984, 1985 or 1986 is crucial. We must, however, take into consideration the experts' view about the pace of this change. I am certain that the common system has been coming for 10 or 15 years. Everyone in the education service realises that it is inevitable. Secondary school teachers are sick to death with the wretched apartheid that they have to operate on 13-year-old children between CSE and GCE scholars.

The teaching profession as a whole, from the extreme Right wing to the extreme Left wing, is determined not to go on operating the present system. However much the Opposition Front Bench may prate about it, it will find in the end that it will get no co-operation from the teachers if it insists, if it ever gets the chance, on continuing the present system. We know, of course, that if the Opposition did get the chance they would fall in with the advice of ministerial advisers and get on with it.

I wish to raise a technical point. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the voluntary schools and the county schools should as far as possible be on a par in terms of representation of parents. She said that this might involve the voluntary bodies in having to bring parents in as school governors. Will my right hon. Friend tell us bow far she has got in her negotiations on this with the voluntary bodies?

The Churches are most anxious to cooperate. The trouble lies with one or two voluntary bodies which do not represent anyone. There are, for example, city livery companies in London which are lumbered with schools with which they have no connection and which have no connection with communities served by those schools, and which may be against this change. There is the Clothmakers Company, which prefers closing down the Mary Datchelor school near my constituency rather than allowing it to become comprehensive. That school was founded for the benefit of the community. Such voluntary bodies might be opposing this change. I should like an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister of State that he will not be browbeaten by them and that anything the county schools will be asked to accept—quite properly, I believe—in terms of parental representation shall apply to the voluntary schools too.

2.56 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

I shall focus my remarks on the main drift of the debate, which is the whole question of standards and differentiation as between pupils, schools, and so on. It seems from what the hon. Member for Lewisham. West (Mr. Price) said that the Labour Party, having prided itself on getting rid, through the 1976 Act, of what it believes to be differentiation between schools, is now seeking in its examination proposals and through other means to try to get rid of differentiation within schools

I warn Labour Members that that is a flat earth approach which can never work. People are not created equal, they do not become equal, and they certainly do not end up equal. The important thing is to give young people equality of opportunity and not to seek to create this chimera, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) would say in his brilliant pronunciation, of equality of outcome.

I remind Labour Members of the famous remarks in "Animal Farm" when the pigs said that all animals were equal but that some were more equal than others. To use the education system as a means of social engineering has always been ineffective and wrong, and I trust that the Labour Government, as opposed to the Labour Party, will not seek to pursue that line.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has made clear on a number of occasions, we are very keen not so much on decrying good results where they exist but on raising standards wherever possible, particularly for the majority of children. As we all know, that means the 80 per cent. who go to comprehensive schools. We want to ensure at the same time that good schools of proven worth survive and are not needlessly destroyed as is now happening with the threat to good schools in my constituency, in particular to the two excellent Wallington high schools.

Whatever reports one reads, whether they be the HMI reports on primary schools or on mixed ability teaching, one sees enormous parental concern about the current trend in some aspects of educational theory. One has only to look at the recent survey by The Sunday Times to see evidence of that.

The important thing is that in endeavouring to help the mass of pupils we should not needlessly discriminate against individual children who have a chance and who might be given ladders of opportunity to better themselves and advance their education. I am very disturbed when I read some of the current speeches by Labour Members and Ministers about this aspect. I hope that the Secretary of State at least will see that in her Department the needs of education, individual children and the pursuit of excellence are always put first.

2.59 p.m.

Mr. Gerry Fowler (The Wrekin)

This will appear to be a rather short speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

When the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) spoke today, he returned to his Cinderella myth. This time I have become the pumpkin. I can assure the House that the hon. Gentleman's policy statements are the white mice of the fairy story. He pretends that they are prancing stallions, but at midnight they are revealed as the white mice that they are.

Today the hon. Gentleman told us that he was in favour of a common system of examination, provided only that we could keep O-levels. What an absurdity that is. We knew that the hon. Gentleman was erudite in art and that he was a theologian and lawyer. Now we discover that he is a mathematician as well. As with comprehensives, he has discovered the secret of squaring the circle. We all recognise that with a common system it may sometimes be necessary to have additional papers or additional questions for the more able children who wish to take those papers or questions, but it is still a common system. That is quite different from preserving an antiquated and elitist system of O-levels and A-levels which narrows educational opportunity rather than broadening it.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman told us in effect that he wanted to translate section 76 of the Education Act into section 37, minus the need to keep one's children away from school. That was what he said. The hon. Getleman was saying that an authority would be able to argue against parental choice only if there was unreasonable expense to that authority or if the school chosen by the parent was not suitable to the age, ability or aptitude of the child. Those were virtually his words.

We all know the effect of section 37, particularly where there is a falling roll. It means some schools crowded to the limit and others half empty or perhaps three-quarters empty—a totally inefficient use of education resources and, to some children, a denial of educational opportunity because they are not with the right mix of children or because they are not getting the right teaching. To other children it is a denial of educational opportunity because they are in classes that are larger than they need otherwise be.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman told us again today that, as he said at the Conservative Party conference, if the Conservative Party were returned to power it would allow mixed ability teaching only in exceptional cases—and that from the champion of local autonomy. It would destroy not only local autonomy but the autonomy of the head teacher and the teacher in the classroom at the same time. What are those exceptional cases? Can we have a detailed list of them? Of course we cannot.

I do not believe that the Government's proposals are satisfactory in every respect. I shall not follow the arguments of the hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), least of all in the length at which he spoke, in listing the proposals and faults of the Oakes report. I think that there is one fundamental error in it. What exists in my own technical college in the shape of two higher national certificates designed purely to meet local needs has nothing in common with what there is in national institutions of higher education, such as Hatfield polytechnic, Middlesex polytechnic or Manchester polytechnic. I believe that a profound error was made in lumping together 408 institutions rather than concentrating on those 90 to 100 that are essentially concerned with higher education and not with non-advanced education.

I am sorry that my remarks have had to be so brief. One thing I am certain of is that if the Conservative Party ever gained power again and implemented the policies it has described today this country's education service would indeed be wrecked for party purposes.

Mr. Flannery

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not possible for the two Front Bench speakers to have three or four minutes less each, to give my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler) time to develop his theme?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order.

3.3 p.m.

Dr. Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

We have had a wide-ranging debate today, although for those of us in education it is pleasant that most of the debate has been on the educational topics and that only twice have we deviated from them.

The Secretary of State began by talking about the primary schools survey and standards. I am sure that we on the Conservative Benches were pleased to read in the survey of the improvement of reading standards and the likely improvement of mathematical standards, although the tests shown in the survey were not comparable.

At the same time, as the Secretary of State is well aware, there was reference in the report to the non-stretching of able children in many schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) gave attention to this matter. The survey spoke particularly of the under-estimation of the potential of children in the inner city areas. The combination of those problems in many inner cities means that there is still a considerable waste of talent, and we must do something about it.

I have welcomed, as have many of my hon. Friends, the reports by Her Majesty's inspectors over the past year on mathematics, mixed-ability teaching and languages. They have been useful, and I am sure that this inspection can only do good throughout the system.

The point was made by the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw), who is not with us now—I am sorry; I see that he is here but that he has moved to the left and not to the right on the other side of the Chamber. He referred to Labour's concern for all children. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) made the same point. We on the Conservative Benches are similarly concerned for all children. I spent 10 years teaching in secondary modern schools and 12 in comprehensives. I am a member of the same profession as the two hon. Members to whom I have referred. What we are concerned about is a difference of viewpoint over how to achieve the standards we seek. If we can at least realise that both sides are concerned about standards, there is the possibility of a joint approach.

I shall not refer very much to the question of polytechnics, since it was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) and others. Obviously, the Minister of State will talk about these. We are concerned that the interests of the local education authorities should be borne in mind and that there should not be some national bureaucratic organisation established. Since the Gracious Speech referred to the handing back of certain responsibilities to local authorities, it would be ironic if legislation were to take away rights from local authorities which have been heavily involved in the development of polytechnics.

The subject of the 16-plus examination has been referred to. This is one of the most important educational issues of this year. Parents, many teachers and those in higher education, commerce and industry are concerned that many of the changes we have seen in education in the past 20 years have not been as successful as was originally hoped. There has been the decrease of primary school French and of learning readiness. There has been trouble with certain parts of the new mathematics. There is an issue of credibility, of confidence, surrounding the 16-plus and 18-plus examinations. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) emphasised our concern for the preservation of O-levels and A-levels, to act as benchmarks, known throughout the country. By using those bench-marks it is possible to see what is happening to other examinations. We are worried that any combination of examinations will destroy those bench-marks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said in his letter to The Times, it is the independence and objectivity of the GCE boards that must be retained because they have the confidence of the people. We must not, by enlarging the examination, destroy that confidence.

We are also concerned about the spread of ability within the same examination and the difficulty of examining over a wide spread of intellect. We have fears about mode 3. If too many syllabuses are drawn up, taught and examined within a school, there will be a risk to the credibility of parts of mode 3.

We must never forget the 40 per cent. of children who sit no examinations. They must not be ignored. They figure in much of the current unemployment. They must have some certificate when they leave school so that there is some standard which can be recognised by employers. The bottom 40 per cent. comprises the biggest problem in the 14, 15 and 16-year age group in the comprehensive schools. Instead of making alterations at the top, we should see what we can do to increase the credibility of some standard for this 40 per cent., for which we have never catered in comprehensive education, except in some very good schools.

It is a certain social as well as educational slur on our society. We must give these children something that they know has some credibility as a passport or mark when they leave school. No wonder some of them become antisocial at the present time, when they have nothing to take with them to outside employment and adulthood.

I turn now to the question of the government of schools. We are promised action on this question following the Taylor report. Since Lord Taylor was born about six miles away from where I come, it does not surprise me that there is much good sense in his report, knowing the many strands from which he drew. We welcome—indeed, it has been in our parents' charter from the beginning—the proposal to have parent as well as teacher representation on governing bodies. In the last three schools where I was headmaster, I had the good fortune to find that all three had parent governors, who all gave a great deal to the life of the schools. We welcome the proposal under the Bill to come that all schools will have to have parent governors and, I presume, teacher governors.

The Secretary of State did not refer to the question of separated governing bodies. I hope that the legislation will also lay down that each school shall have its own governing body. Surprisingly, I found myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Hillsborough on this issue. As a practising teacher, he knows the difficulty of grouped governing bodies. Each school with its own head and staff should have its own governing body dedicated to the service and to the enhancement of the standards of that school. It is mentioned in the Taylor report—I think that I saw the Secretary of State nodding at this point—and I hope that the legislation will be directed to this end.

I do not know what the position is regarding the question of pupil governors. The situation varies from one part of the country to another. Haringey, Humberside and Wolverhampton have them, as do other areas. I know that many teachers are suspicious of pupil governors. As an ex-teacher, I am suspicious of them. It is something about which we shall have to be very careful and on which the views of the teaching profession must be taken fully into account. Some teachers are worried at the thought that decisions may be made by children they are teaching in the daytime on matters of discipline and possibly concerning the advancement of their teachers' careers inside their school.

But whatever is done must not derogate from the responsibility of someone to run that school from day to day. I have already referred to the reports by Her Majesty's inspectors on schools. There was one on 10 good schools. The inspectors found that one thing that the schools had in common was that they all had good heads, whether they were secondary modern, grammar or comprehensive schools, and whatever is done must not turn those heads into, as it were, glorified clerks as people responsible for the daily running of their schools in collaboration with their staff.

I presume that what the Taylor report said on the suspensions cases is not to be brought within the legislation. Clearly, the question of the power of suspension is something that the teaching profession particularly is concerned about. We must also ensure, with the additional number of governing bodies, that not too much time of the inspectors and the bureaucracy is taken up in passing papers from place to place.

Mention has been made frequently today to Manchester and Sheffield. Dudley Fiske, chief education officer of Manchester, made the point on the Taylor report that since the local education authorities are still to have the responsibility of running schools it is essential that they should have some degree of control inside the governing bodies. To divorce the power of raising money from the running of the schools is a formula for a clash from time to time, and that is a situation that we must avoid.

Sir Ashley Bramall, who has been for so long involved in London education, said in December 1977 that the individual parent is concerned most about the education of his child, which is quite natural, as against the general running of the school. In the article in The Sunday Times, Peter Wilbey said that most parents want to be treated as customers and not as bosses. They want to be able to choose a school and to go to that school if they are not satisfied with what is going on. But many of them are not concerned either with electing a parent governing body or serving upon it. All the evidence throughout the country is that in almost every school the lowest attendance of parents has been, for the election of the parent body. If there is a case for postal ballots in the case of trade unions, one may well wonder whether the argument may also be applied to parent bodies in schools. In many schools one would be lucky to get a 5 per cent. attendance. In my own school, where we had two very good parent governors, out of a potential parent attendance of 2,200—estimating that some children had only one parent—the attendance was 72, which was about one-quarter of what I would expect in even a year's meetings of parents.

I am saying this not to decry parent governors but in order to lead on to a matter which concerns many Conservative Members. It was brought up by my hon. Friends the Members for Ripon and for Streatham, as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) in his short speech. I refer to parental choice of school. We all know that there is no system under which everybody can have a choice of school. It is a matter of emphasis and whether one thinks this is an important factor. There is a great divide on this question between one side of the House and the other. We believe that parents should have the choice of school wherever possible. The hon. Member for Hillsborough said that there was a great divide on this question of education, and there certainly is on parental choice, as also on the question of schools being responsible to the requirements of parents.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham mentioned the London system for entering schools, because the claim was made by the Secretary of State this morning, in all honesty, that 91 per cent. of parents in inner London got the school of their choice.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Over 90 per cent.

Dr. Boyson

The fact is that they do not. There are letters going to the primary schools of which we can obtain copies I have seen them frequently in the case of Highbury Grove. Primary schools were told not to put in for Highbury Grove— if the children lived, say, 10 yards up the Holloway Road. Their only chance of getting in was by going to Archway.

The 91 per cent. figure is an artificial one. Most parents, having been warned, put in for their second choice, knowing that they will not get their first choice. They know that if they put in for their first choice they will probably end up with their fifth choice. With all due respect to the right hon. Lady, the figure is an artificial one. There must be a real choice before one can say that 91 per cent. can exercise parental choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said that 25 per cent. of band 1 children in London this year did not get the school of their choice. Twenty-five per cent. of the band 1 children, the most able, did not get the school of their choice in London. Therefore, we have a long way to go in the question of parental choice.

I am sure that all my colleagues will agree with me when I say that parental choice matters for two reasons. One is that it will improve schools. It is a means of monitoring schools if they have to be responsive to parental demands. The problems of William Tyndale, one of my feed schools into Highbury Grove, and now known to everybody in this country, came to light basically because parents had been taking their children away from the school. It was not Dolly Walker, who nailed the articles to the door—like Luther with the 39 articles—who brought the trouble to light. The school was disappearing because the parents, working class and black immigrants, were removing their children.

Parental choice will increase and improve the standards of schools, but there is a second reason for it in a free society. Surely if we believe in freedom, as against a corporate society in which mandarins move everyone around according to their wishes, people should have a choice of school, just as they should have a choice of job, as against direction of labour, and a choice of where to live. All these things are part and parcel of a free society and basic to a free society. If these freedoms of choice are removed, we shall have a society of moral pigmies who will be making no real choices.

The only other philosophical comment that I wish to make about the parental choice of school is that if we expect people to vote on complicated issues at a General Election, having read the manifestos of the respective parties, and to vote on complicated referendums on devolution or on the Common Market, which still baffles many of us, how can we say that they are not able to choose between two different schools? In our society, we say that people must have democracy. "Democracy" is a word which is almost overused by the hon. Member for Hillsborough. But in a democracy, if it is believed that parents can elect the governors of schools and send their elected representatives to this House, surely they are capable of choosing schools for their children.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

If 800 parents choose a school which has only 300 places, what does the hon. Gentleman suggest that we do?

Dr. Boyson

I am very glad to come to the help of the Secretary of State. Whenever she desires my help in any way, it will always be given very willingly. I said at the beginning of my remarks that there was no 100 per cent. choice. However, taking the right hon. Lady's figure of 800, if it is known in an area that there is real choice and if a school finds that no one wants to go to it, the odds are that that school itself will do something about it and make itself more popular. Generally, it has nothing to do with buildings. When I was a head teacher in Islington, there were schools, built at the same time, one of which would have three applications for every place whereas the other would not have one application for every three places. I believe that if schools knew that their future continuance at a time of a falling birth rate depended on parents being confident about sending their children to them, there would be no cases in the second year of 800 children wanting to go to school A as against school B. School B would make it its business to discover why parents wanted their children to go to school A. If that improved school B, it would be to the advantage of the system throughout.

However, the emphasis of this is not that of 800 children wanting to go to a school with 300 places. Today, we are being promised "planned operating capacity". What a terrible phrase that is. One can almost feel the clothes of the corporate State upon one. It sounds like a war-time expression.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) gave the game away about "planned operating capacity". His concern that the Opposition did not bring the facts to light seemed to indicate the degree of unpopularity which planned operating capacity would have in the eyes of the general public. If this is introduced and there is to be merely an appeals system locally and nationally, everyone will want to know what teeth there are in the appeals system before agreeing to it. The Opposition do not want planned operating capacity. We do not like the words. We do not like what they mean. We prefer parental choice.

Planned operating capacity will mean local education authorities ignoring the wishes of parents who do not want their children to go to school B instead of to school A. The local authorities will insist on those children going to school B and will insist on that school staying open when there are vacancies in school A.

In the borough of Brent, and certainly in my own constituency, there is already a shortage of Catholic and Jewish places. This year, the form which has been sent out, despite the 1963 London Government Act, did not specify the schools outside the borough to which children could be sent. As the birth rate has fallen, more and more children have been going into schools in the Wembley area where the schools are academically and socially extremely good. But now we find that parents in Willesden and Harlesden also want their children to go to those schools. Why should they not go to those schools? Can they go to those schools only if they live in the catchment area because their parents can afford to pay £50,000 for their homes or can influence the local housing authority to house them there?

This planned operating capacity will mean saying to parents who already live in downtown areas—Neasden exists not only in Private Eye but in reality— "No. Your children cannot go to Kingsbury High, which had some 42 university places last year and some seven Oxbridge places. They must go to these other schools and perhap in 20 years they will be good schools. It is hard luck that your children are of this age at present." That is what it will mean. It will not mean the deprivation of articulate middle class parents. It will mean the deprivation of children who live in downtown areas. That is why I feel particularly strongly about this issue.

I know that there will never be, as I have said, the 100 per cent. parental choice, but it is a question of the emphasis that one gives to this matter. Freedom in a society does not arrive in a day, and it does not go away in a day. It is a slow build-up or a slow retraction, as time goes on. Any lessening of parental choice in this way will mean a lessening of freedom in this country and one more nail in the continuance of a free society in Britain. I do not say that there will be an outcry when this is brought to light, but there will be considerable concern. I was surprised by the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West —I say this pleasantly—in which he was backing up this argument, remembering the article that he wrote on 7th September 1971, a copy of which I have in my hand, in which he even backed the educational voucher.

People are very keen to quote my writings in the Black Papers. I am delighted that they do so. I welcome their reading them. But at that time the hon. Member said that in this country the voucher was being supported by the Right and that in America it was being done by the Left. It seems to me that with the sense of anarchic freedom that goes with the hon. Member, which I appreciate and admire, he should be with us on this issue, if on nothing else.

Mr. Christopher Price

I think that that gives me a right to intervene shortly on two points. The hon. Member will be aware that in terms of vouchers I was talking about the extreme unfairness above the compulsory age, where some children get thousands and thousands of pounds of public money spent on them and other children get absolutely noth- ing. Vouchers in those terms, in terms of someone leaving school with the right to some further and higher education in his pocket, even if he does not take it straight away, are something in which I continue to be very interested. But on the other system it is the hon. Member who is being the anarchist for the moment. If he is so much against planned operating capacities, can he explain why so many Conservative chairmen of education committees up and down the country, who now control both the AMA and the ACC, are begging the present Government to introduce them?

Dr. Boyson

I appreciate the hon. Member's remarks. He dealt with the matter. It is a lifetime voucher, on which I would go along with him. But he wrote: In many ways it is the Truck Act all over again. Instead of giving them the money to buy themselves a decent education, we serve them up shoddy inferior goods, without the option of refusal. All that we are doing here is to give them the opportunity of refusal, the opportunity to say "We do not want to go to that school, and there are vacancies in the other school."

However, I appreciate the hon. Member's cheerful embarrassment upon this matter. Obviously, whenever he wants to expand his freedom a little further, we shall welcome it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford and myself respect the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of all men on this point.

I conclude on the question of parental choice because I believe that it is basic principle for the continuance of a free society. I do not like section 37. I do not think that anyone on the Opposition Benches likes section 37. The fact that one can have choice now only by keeping one's child away from school for six months or a year is wrong. It is not a question of the Opposition saying "Preserve and glorify section 37". What we are saying is that at a time of falling birth rate, and the first time since the war that we have been able to give choice in primary and secondary schools, it seems that free choice will be wiped out even before the advent of planned operating capacity. That is why we are saying that we do not like this. Let the parents decide which schools should close down, and not some tidy bureaucracy sitting at some county hall along the way. That is our point on this matter.

At the same time, and on a key which is of a little more unanimity at present, we welcome the Public Lending Right Bill, on which I believe we shall be spending our time next Friday. But overall, on the question of the legislation that is being brought forward, we shall judge all the legislation that we shall have to challenge and check as an Opposition, and everything else done throughout this Session by the Secretary of State and her Ministers, against what we are concerned about—the highest possible standards, the maintenance of a culture open to all, in which some can go further than others, and in this particular case, as part of the free society as well as the maintenance of high standards in schools, maximum parental choice.

Thus, we shall oppose this planned running down with the planned operating capacity. Whilst we are agreeable to the wiping out of section 37 and to something else being brought forward, we do not want the local authorities being able to say how many children should be allowed to go to each school, and we also want the enshrinement in legislation of the right of appeal, both locally and nationally, which parents can exercise.

3.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

It is unfortunately rare in this House that we are able to devote a whole day to the subject of education. Therefore, I congratulate the party managers in the Opposition on their choice— because they choose what is discussed in the debate in reply to the Queen's Speech, however much my hon. Friends may disagree with that view. That is certainly the present custom and tradition.

I congratulate Conservative Members on their bravery in choosing to debate education. We have heard Conservatives on the Front and Back Benches in constant disagreement with one another. They have not necessarily disagreed only with the Government, but among themselves. Perhaps, in passing, I may say that the Government and the Opposition did not always disagree on everything, but apparently that tradition has now gone. It now appears that we must oppose each other on every topic and, whatever proposal the Government bring before the House, there is instant opposition to it. We know that there has been disagreement between Opposition Front Bench Members outside the House, and it has been reflected in this debate. We have certainly witnessed disagreement between some Conservative Back Benchers and their Front Bench colleagues.

Having heard the speeches of the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), I wonder how they manage to survive when they meet Conservative-controlled councils and local government associations. Those people would disagree almost completely with every point put forward by the Opposition Front Bench. Therefore, I congratulate the Conservative Opposition on their bravery in openly opposing many of their supporters.

The debate has embraced a number of topics. I wish first to deal with the subject of GCE examinations, 0-levels and CSE, a subject mentioned by the hon. Member for Chelmsford and a number of others. Judging by the remarks of the hon. Member for Chelmsford, one would have thought that the Government had suddenly woken up one morning and put forward their proposals. But what happened was that a distinguished committee, the Waddell committee, was set up to consider the matter. That committee deliberated for some time. It produced a report which was read and discussed by the Government, the teaching unions and the local authorities. I hope that it was read by the Opposition, although I have some doubt about that. Proposals were made for further consultation which might result in a change in examinations in 1984 and 1985. Is that to be regarded as haste or panic-stricken action by Her Majesty's Government on this truly important issue?

I wish to address some remarks to those Opposition Members who express concern about parental rights, choice and parents' worries about examination prospects and the education of their children. Is it right for a parent to be denied the opportunity for his child to go forward to an A-level if the school insists on CSE or, what is worse, where the school hedges its bets and the child has to take both O-levels in a particular subject and CSE in the same subject needlessly? Has not the parent some right in that respect? Certainly a unified system would bring that situation to an end.

The hon. Member for Brent, North seems obsessed by the fact that standards will fall if we seek to merge the systems and operate a common system. I should like to quote from our recent White Paper on secondary school examinations: The Government believe it to be of first importance that the new system is devised, introduced and managed in such a way that the high standards which are a feature of the present examinations, and which enjoy wide public confidence, should be fully maintained. We could not have spelt out more clearly our concern about standards. The key to all this does not lie, as some Conservative Members suggest, in the retention of the O-level label, but in our proposals for the full involvement in the new system of the expert and experienced staff of the present GCE and CSE boards and a national co-ordinating and monitoring body for the system in which teachers, local authorities, employers, trade unions, universities and other parts of higher and further education would all share responsibility. It is nonsense to link our examination proposals with mixed ability teaching, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford seemed to do. We said in the White Paper: The Government believe that the arrangements proposed for…the provision of alternative examination papers and tests at different levels of difficulty are essential features of the new system. The system now proposed will bring these alternatives within a single grading system and will remove from parents and pupils the worry which now faces very many of them when choices have to be made between entry for GCE and CSE and which arises because they do not have any common grading system.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford, even today, did not seem clear in his own mind. We know that there are differences between him and other members of his party, but he seems to have conflicting doubts about the matter himself. For example, he said that he did not mind an evolutionary process for bringing the examinations together—which, in many respects, with the consultations and so on, is what we are doing—but he opposed what the Government are doing. He said that he did not mind reducing the number of boards, but that he did not like the way in which the Government are doing it. This reform is necessary and essential so that the examination system fits a system of schooling and education that is fundamentally different from that of the old days when the school certificate and A-levels came into existence.

We have to bring our examination system up to date. We are not trying to do it overnight, and we are certainly not trying to destroy standards. We are not doing it in order to try to bring in mixed ability teaching by the back door. We are doing it in a calm and level way and have provided for consultations on the proposals. I expected that the Conservatives would object to various parts of the system, and they have every right to object, but baldly opposing something that has been done so carefully smacks of instant opposition merely because it is a Government proposal.

There is another point that I should clear up for the record. The hon. Member for Chelmsford raised a red herring over A-levels. The Government decision that a single examination system should be introduced relates only to the examinations normally taken at 16-plus—the present O-levels and the CSE. Consideration of any possible changes in A-level examinations, normally taken at 18-plus, is a completely separate matter.

The Schools Council is looking into the possibility of suggesting changes in A-level examining which might help to broaden the sixth-form curriculum, but the council has made no recommendations to us on this matter and is unlikely to be in a position to do so for some time —I should say mid or late 1979 at the earliest. Do not let us confuse the proposals that my right hon. Friend announced last week with the A-level examinations. It seems that this confusion existed in the Opposition right from the start.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Surely it is impossible to consider O-levels apart from A-levels. Both O-levels and A-levels are administered by the same GCE boards. If we are to do away with the GCE boards, what happens to A-levels?

Mr. Oakes

As I have explained, the change will take place over a period. Essentially, A-levels are examinations set by and for universities. Over a period it is possible that the boards will devise a different system of A-level examinations but a system maintaining standards. There will still be A-levels for the purpose for which they are now intended At present, O-levels and CSEs do the same thing but have so many areas of similarity and so many differences of curriculum that it is an absurdity to have a dual system. That may or may not be so with A-levels. The proposal that my right hon. Friend announced last week has nothing to do with A-levels. The report does not deal with A-levels

I turn to another major strand in the debate. From both sides of the House there has been discussion and debate about education standards. I listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), who was a headmaster. I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Brent, North, who likewise was a headmaster. They both referred to the recent report that the Government have produced, the national primary school survey.

When Opposition Members criticise the Government about standards in schools, it is necessary for me to spell out once again the steps that have been taken to maintain high standards. There has been the primary school survey. In addition, there have been proposals for a curriculum review with the local authorities. Later this year we shall have the secondary school survey. No one can accuse the Government of ignoring or neglecting education standards.

Opposition Members did nothing like as much as the Government have done when they were in office. We are concerned with standards. When the primary school survey was produced, did we hear the Opposition, especially their backward supporters in the media, saying "We were wrong"? No one disputes that the survey was properly conducted. The survey makes it clear that the highest regard is paid to literacy and mathematics in primary schools. It makes it clear that standards are not falling but rising. It is true that there are none so deaf as those who do not wish to hear.

The survey spells out something that we all knew. We want to do something about improving the level of science teaching. It is not as good as it might be. There is a problem because of the difficulty of getting science teachers. The Government are doing their best by various schemes—the Opposition did nothing about it when they were in office—to induce more people to teach science—for example, by bringing mature students into science so that we can break down the vicious circle surrounding science teaching that has been with us since the war.

I accept that there are differences between schools, but fundamentally the survey of primary education makes it clear that those who like to denigrate our schools and teachers are wrong. The survey makes it clear that standards have risen and that full attention is paid to numeracy and literacy by primary school teachers.

Mr. Forman

As I have said, we recognise the improvements that have been made. However, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that paragraph 8.33 of the very report to which he refers states: The relative success that teachers have in matching the work in the basic skills for the slower children has already been mentioned. Otherwise, it is basically the case that the more able children within a class were the least likely to be doing work sufficiently challenging. Is not that the next task for our primary schools?

Mr. Oakes

That is the sort of comment that appears in the survey. It is something that the Government and the people should know. We are worried about that. We hope that something will be done about that as a result of that fact having been discovered. Of course we are worried about it. The hon. Gentleman is right to be worried about it. If that fact is correct—I have no reason to believe that it is not—I am certain that head teachers and teachers will consider the results of the report and ask themselves "Are we moving in the wrong direction? Can we make improvements?" I hope that they take that approach.

Another main strand of the debate impinges on the likely legislation that the Government will bring forward later in the Session—namely, the proposed education Bill. It will probably be one of the longest and most comprehensive and wide-ranging Education Bills since 1944 No doubt Opposition Members will call it a rag bag. It is easy to call any miscellaneous provisions Bill a rag bag.

The Bill will contain important provisions covering the whole spectrum of education. It will bring forward many reforms that are vital in bringing our education system up to date. I sincerely hope that we do not have instant opposition from Her Majesty's Opposition because the Government are to introduce it. Many of the matters to be covered by the Bill have been asked for by the Opposition for a considerable time. I am sure that we shall have the support of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for what we are trying to do because he praised a number of the matters in the proposed Bill.

I want to talk particularly about parental rights on admission to schools. I think that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed went much too far. He was talking about a statutory right of parents for children to go to the school of their choice. In an ideal world, I agree that would be wonderful. I think that most hon. Members would agree if it could be done. But this is not an ideal world. Even with falling rolls, there are teaching, building, geographical and other difficulties. Therefore, that ideal is impossible.

We had a variety of views on what we are proposing to do in the Bill from Opposition Members and from some of my hon. Friends. As my right hon. Friend pointed out in opening, we are trying to give rights in many areas which parents do not have now. We shall try to bring all authorities up to the best standards of existing authorities. It is impossible for any Government or local authority to say that they will give unrestricted parental rights. My right hon. Friend put a question to the hon. Member for Brent, North which he could not answer.

Dr. Boyson

I did answer it.

Mr. Oakes

Indeed, I do not think that it was possible to answer it. How do we put 800 applicants into a school which holds only 300? It is impossible to do that unless we destroy the very school which is so popular by overcrowding it.

Mr. Beith

The expression "statutory right of parents" was drawn from the Government's consultative document. The question that I put to the Government was as to the extent to which the statutory requirement that a child be admitted to the school of his parents' choice would be qualified. That is what it all hinges on. The suggestion that I put was that the list of exceptions was so great as to make that phrase meaningless.

Mr. Oakes

We shall have the opportunity to debate that matter in Committee. I think that the clause will become not meaningless, but more realistic. It will not become meaningless because of the necessary qualifications which need to be put upon it.

Opposition Members have bitterly attacked "planned operating capacity". Planned operating capacity" are the words not of my right hon. Friend, myself or the Department, but of the local authorities.

Dr. Hampson

That is what worries us.

Mr. Oakes

The Opposition know from their experience in Government that we have to protect the rights of parents, on the one hand, and of local authorities —albeit they are nearly all Tory-controlled now—on the other hand, regarding economies and the use of existing buildings. That clause has been put in because of the demands of Conservative-controlled local government associations. I ask Opposition Members, in their bitter opposition to this matter, not just to tell us about it but to go to the ACC and the AMA and tell them how bitterly they oppose what they are telling the Government is essential if schools are to be viable.

Again, we have a complete dichotomy or variation between what the Conservative Party in the House is saying and what the people at the coal face, as it were— [An HON. MEMBER: "Chalk face."] Yes, the chalk face—who have to put the scheme into operation are saying.

I come now to representation on governing bodies. I think that from what the hon. Member for Brent, North said we shall be in agreement. We plan to have a separate governing body for each school. We agree that it is impossible to have boards of governors which are responsible for all the schools in an area.

We want a wide spectrum of interest on each of the governing bodies. This can be done by regulation later. Some authorities are already satisfactory in that respect. An example is the Sheffield authority which, I am proud to say, is Labour-controlled. That authority does not need the proposed Bill. It has been carrying out the proposed provisions for many years, to the complete satisfaction of the Conservative Party in Sheffield.

Parents in that authority area have had the right to choose schools for a long time within a fully comprehensive system. Sheffield has gone ahead on the question of education maintenance allowances. The authority has done it alone. Sheffield is a forward-looking authority. Those who question whether the proposed scheme will work should examine what is happening in Sheffield. There they can see the scheme working. They should not ask whether it will work.

We are trying to widen the scope of governing bodies—the aim of all parties in the House. We want the bodies to be more than merely local authority rubber stamps. The hon. Member for Ripon (Dr. Hampson) and I want the governing bodies to have a real power which is separate from the local authorities. We do not want those bodies to be politically dominated. Many local authorities deliberately gerrymander the system in order to dominate those bodies. Damned good care is taken to ensure that members of such bodies are fully paid-up members of the Conservative Party. We want no more of that. Such behaviour is equally wrong when it involves Labour-controlled authorities. Our proposals will help to eliminate gerrymandering by all parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) raised the problems of ethnic minorities. The Government have done much, but I agree that more needs to be done. Mention was made in the Gracious Speech of the specific aid that will be given to ethnic minorities. Much of that will affect the education sector and the aid will be in addition to the money which is to be spent on the inner city programmes.

I turn to higher education and the committee of which I was chairman. This committee produced a report earlier in the year. I regret that we have not before had an opportunity to discuss that report.

I shall explain what we were trying to do. We accepted—as the hon Member for Ripon does not—that the providers of non-university, higher education by tradition have always been the local authorities. We did not wish to disturb that situation. On the whole they have done the job well.

We were worried about the pooling system and the open-ended nature of it. It means that neither the national Government nor the local authorities have a direct responsibility. The hon. Member for Ripon asked whether the present pooling system is worse than the proposal. The Conservatives are always talking about the wastage of public money. Do they really want an open-ended system which has grown like Topsy? I am certain that they do not.

The Conservative Party has not made any firm statements about the proposals of my committee. The hon. Member for Ripon has done so. He is saying that he wants the equivalent of a polytechnics grants committee. I totally disagree with that. It would remove what democratic control there is at the moment over higher education in polytechnics. It is essential to have some local say over what goes on in polytechnics and much of the higher education to which I have been referring.

Far from removing non-advanced further education, our proposals would ensure that non-advanced and advanced further education could coexist within the same institution. It is important that that tradition should continue. We do not want an elitist separation of advanced from non-advanced education. There has been too much of that in higher education recently. Let me remind hon. Members that more advanced education is provided in this country in non-polytechnic institutions of higher education than in the 30 polytechnics.

Dr. Hampson

The polytechnics were set up by the Labour Government in 1966 with the definition that they should become consolidated advanced institutions. In other words, they were asked to drop their non-advanced work. Is the Minister proposing to encourage them to re-establish a high proportion of non-advanced work?

Mr. Oakes

Different institutions could be co-ordinated under the control of one local authority if polytechnics were separated from other institutions offering courses of advanced education. That would create separatism and another University Grants Committee.

Conservatives must say whether they agree with these proposals. I know that the hon. Member for Ripon opposes them because he has made that clear. He makes very good speeches from the Back Bench, but his contributions deteriorate rapidly when he moves down to the Front Bench. When he does so, am I listening to the official view of the Conservative Party or not? If I am listening to the official Tory view, I again ask the Conservative Party to go to the local authority associations and say to them what it has said to the House—that it believes in the separation of advanced education from the control of local authorities. It will be interesting to see what response it gets from the ACC and the AMA, which are now beginning to realise that, whatever they may have thought originally of the composition of the national body and so on, it is certainly après moi le déluge in terms of what the Conservatives would do to them over higher education.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I set the Minister's mind at rest? I am the official voice of the Conservative Party. We shall make our position plain on his report when the Bill is seen.

Mr. Oakes

That makes the position even worse, because I have never heard the hon. Gentleman make any pronouncement on the report. He has confessed that by saying that he will make his position clear when the Bill is seen. He has already had ample opportunity to make his position clear. If there are faults in the scheme, and I have no doubt that there are, I wish that he would express in a fair and democratic way what doubts he has about the scheme. I hope that he will not just sit on the fence until the last moment. I suspect that once again we shall have a bout of instant opposition because it was a Labour Minister of State who chaired the committee, even though it was widely representative of other parties as well.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford has totally confused the role of the regional bodies. They are advisory bodies. They will not be a sort of miniature national body operating in a particular region.

I regret that I have been unable to cover all the points in the debate, particularly those concerning the arts and the heritage. It is certainly the Government's intention that in the main these matters are to be kept in private hands. We have made that very clear. The hon. Gentleman asked about properties that are taken over. Wherever possible, we want them to be in private hands.

It has been a useful debate. It has unfortunately revealed many gaps, a great void, in Opposition thinking on many matters—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.