HC Deb 29 January 1981 vol 997 cc1158-64 9.53 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I count myself fortunate to follow the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). I wish to raise certain points that are linked to what he was saying.

There is an urgent need to implement certain sections of the Education Act 1980. The father of Benjamin Disraeli, Isaac Disraeli, said: The self-educated are marked by stubborn peculiarities. John Shedd said: Self-education is fine when the pupil is a born educator. Those two remarks make out a substantial case for education. Generally speaking, children and adults are unable to educate themselves.

I have received concerned letters voicing anxiety over the urgent need for implementation of key sections of the Act, on which we worked so hard in Committee. There is some confusion and misunderstanding about what is happening. I seek to help everyone to identify those concerns and also perhaps to encourage the Minister to make the position clear.

The Act contains widely welcomed sections, referred to in the last debate, which provide for schools to have their own governing bodies and for parents and teachers to be elected to those governing bodies. These are important elements in the Government's commitment to the greater involvement of parents in the education of their children. It must be remembered that parents are continuing and constant consumers in education. It is most important that implementation of those provisions should not be delayed. I hope that the Government will confirm that their commitment to them is no less now than it was when the Bill was introduced, and that my hon. Friend will explain the Government's proposals for implementation of those sections.

I note that the Churches are moving forward in a most interesting way. I understand that the Roman Catholic authorities and the Free Church authorities are proceeding in a manner similar to that of the Church of England Board of Education, which is working in co-operation with the Department of Education and Science and has developed a most interesting arrangement whereby existing Church schools, both aided and controlled, shall have instruments of government based upon a block diocesan instrument.

This is a rather technical point, but it is worth making. The task of making instruments for 5,500 schools may be reduced to the making of only 50 instruments. Teachers' unions welcome this, and procedures are now in hand at regional diocesan level to consider the matter. The composition of the new governing bodies of the Church schools will be achieved after consultation with local education authorities, parents and teachers. I note that the Act lays down only minimum requirements about representation and there is plenty of local freedom for people to develop their own style of representation, membership and so on. That is exactly the type of theme that I so welcome as part of the Act and that I wish to see implemented.

I wish to say a word, too, about school admissions and appeals. There are sections in the Act which, for the first time, give parents a clear statutory right to express their wishes about the education of their children and the schools that their children shall attend. Those are significant and welcome developments in the law of education in this country, because they help to clarify parental rights and to bestow stronger parental rights.

An important aspect of those provisions is the right of parents to appeal to a specially constituted appeal committee if they are not satisfied with the school that their child is offered after their own choices have been considered. Another important provision requires local authorities to publish information about schools, including examination results. A great deal has been said about that. Those two proposals will do an enormous amount to open up local administration and to increase the availability of information to the public.

Those who object to those provisions will make the usual claims that what is proposed is too expensive or too complicated and that they must have more time. Because of the great concern that parents and childen should have the benefit of those provisions as soon as possible, I ask the Minister to confirm that the Government have no intention of postponing the timetable that they have already set for implementation of those measures. It is very important that when parents choose a school for their children they should do so on the basis of the fullest possible information about all the schools available in their area, that they should have a statutory guarantee that their wishes will be taken fully into account and can only be overridden for very good reasons and that, if they are dissatisfied with the reasons, they should be able to state their case to an appeal committee.

How can a parent make a valid choice of school without the maximum information about what other kinds of school is available—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thompson.]

Mr. Greenway

What valid choice can a parent possibly make without the maximum information? The publication of examination results will be crucial but the information must include the headmasters comments on the background of his school and be part of a general school prospectus. A way must be found acceptable to the schools if possible but certainly available to the whole community, for getting this information and all sortsof other information into the prospectus and into the hands of parents when they choose a school. I ask the Minister to assure me that he will push ahead and that something will be done as soon as possible.

Another important element of the 1980 Education Act is the assisted places scheme. It will contribute greatly to the widening of parental choice, especially for the less well-off families, and to the breaking down of class barriers and prejudices about the use of independent schools. The Government have been courageous in pressing ahead with a measure which was promised in our manifesto, despite pressures on public expenditure. But those pressures continue. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the scheme will start as planned this autumn and that there will be no reduction in the planned level of provision.

It is very important for the future health of our society that parents should be able to choose from different kinds of school. They should be able to choose single sex schools, denominational schools—they are threatened by the Labour Party in certain areas but parents should be able to continue to choose them—small schools, sometimes large schools, and certainly independent schools.

There must never be a State monopoly of education. The ability to exercise choice in relation to a school should not depend solely on the length of the parent's purse. That his why the assisted place scheme is to be welcomed—because it seeks to make good schools more widely available rather than to destroy them.

My practical experience in schools extends well over 20 years—my interest will continue as long as I live—primarily in the maintained secondary schools. I have a deep dedication to them. But the freedom of parents to choose the kind of school they want, in both the maintained and independent sectors, is crucial in a free society. I do not want to see polarisation between the maintained and independent school populations. That damages the very fabric of society.

Iain Macleod said that the purpose of the State in education was to provide all people with an equal opportunity of proving themselves unequal. He spoke well and wisely, as he did so often on other matters.

I hope to see a wide variety in the age of those who serve on school governing bodies. Like the hon. Member for Isle of Ely, I hope that people will not take on more than they can thoroughly manage. I hope that we shall see not only aged people on school governing bodies. There has been a tendency to have only rather senior people on some bodies in some areas. That is because they have the time available to do the job. I want to see a spread of age.

I do not want to push out the elderly. They have the wisdom and experience of life behind them and have much to contribute. I want to see young parents and young teachers on the boards. I should not mind seeing pupils serving in some capacity, and the Act makes provision for that. I am not saying that they should always be full members, but they could be present. I want to see parents drawn from a variety of backgrounds, where it is possible to have more than one parent on the board. The Act provides only minimum criteria, so there can be a number of people involved in any area of service.

The interests of governors or of those appointed to governing bodies is central. It is crucial that the school means everything to political appointees, parental appointees, teachers or any other category, and that they are prepared to go all out for it.

Highbury Grove School has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely, who initiated the previous Adjournment debate. It is a school that I walked around with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State when it was being built. We walked over the foundations together. We walked through the building before it was opened. We walked round it many times once it was functioning. I met the governing body. I have, of course, served on school governing bodies. At Highbury Grove and on other school bodies with which I have been associated, the concern of the governors for the welfare of the school and their devotion to it were crucial to the school's success. It was tremendous to see those on the governing body at Highbury Grove fighting for the very existence of the school last year and before. That is the sort of commitment that we want everywhere.

I have spoken of Highbury Grove, and the schools with which I have been involved and the governing bodies on which I have served both as a practising teacher and as a representative of my party. On the school governing bodies in Ealing we have, especially in the past two or three years, succeeded in encouraging on to the boards of every school—be they middle schools, first schools or high schools—people totally dedicated to the individual school. They have a pride in the borough of Ealing generally and a pride in the particular school concerned. That has enriched the life of the school and the life of the community. It is that sort of pressure that is behind my thinking. I urge my hon. Friend to do all that he can to implement the sections of the valuable Education Act 1980.

10.9 pm

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) for raising the issue of the implementation of the Education Act 1980. My hon. Friend was a member of the distinguished Standing Committee that spent about 130 hours in close examination of the then Bill's clauses. Before that he was a distinguished member of the teaching profession, especially' in the London area. It is not the easiest of areas in which to teach in comprehensive schools. He speaks with a commitment on behalf of his constituency and with deep knowledge of teaching standards and of the concern of parents that their children should get a fair start in life.

The 1980 Bill was introduced by the Conservative Government because we believe that in education there are two principles that we must follow. First, we must always aim at high standards. Secondly, it is part of our philosophy to maximise, wherever possible, parents' choice of school. We believe that the ability of a parent to choose a school is part of our free society. A free society does not only involve voting every five years. It means living as free men and women day by day.

If schools are responsive to parents, they will become accountable to the surrounding area. Like Her Majesty's inspectorate, that is one way of checking the results. Certain parts of the 1980 Act are already in operation. That is good news and in time further changes may result.

I remember fighting the recoupment clauses in the previous education measure. The recoupment provisions of section 31 gives an authority an automatic right to reclaim from another authority the cost of educating children from that authority. Ealing and Brent are close to each other. My hon. Friend and I are near neighbours. One does not need a telescope to see from Ealing to Brent. In the past, if parents in Brent wanted to send their children to Ealing, they had to get permission from the authority. If they did not the authority would not be able to reclaim the cost of that education. If the children travelled from Brent to Ealing, Ealing could not reclaim the cost unless Brent had initially agreed to the proposal.

The situation has changed. We have widened the market. Boundaries cross throughout London. Those who built schools did not know that in 1964 there would be a local government Act that would change London's boundaries. From this year, any parent whose child is accepted in a school in another borough will find that his borough will automatically have to pay the cost. The choice has been widened considerably. That is a major factor. Shortly, when section 6 has come into operation, parents from borough A will be able to send their children to schools that have vacancies in borough B without the agreement of either of the authorities. If there are vacancies, they will be available to any child in the area. Again, parental choice has been extended.

I agree with my hon. Friend on the philosophy of assisted places. It widens parental choice. All the 220 schools involved have excellent sixth forms, which will give pupils a chance to be accepted for university training and so on. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that the scheme will start this year,—I was about to say 220 schemes, although I had in mind 220 schools. It could not be 220 schemes, because even my belief in the free society does not stretch that far. There must he a little order as well as anarchy in our society. Therefore, 220 schools are signing agreements. This year 5,500 pupils will take up assisted places. Of those, 950 will he sixth formers.

The House may not be packed, but it is intensely interested. I am sorry that Labour Members are not here to hear my offer. If any Labour Members would like assisted places for their children—they might need to keep it secret from their party—they can be given a list by the Department of Education and Science and can apply to the school that they are interested in. Already 140,000 leaflets have been distributed. There is every sign that plenty of applications are coming in for the schools in the scheme. The scheme will give an opportunity to those who could not otherwise afford those places. Those independent schools exist and long may they do so. May they also be open for their academic excellence to be available to children from all parts of our society. What was done by the previous Government in saying that the schools would continue, but only provided that one's purse was long enough, was divisive.

On the question of school government, my hon. Friend referred to the Churches. I am delighted to know that the Churches are discussing the question of block instruments of government. All this cannot be introduced immediately. My hon. Friend knows that we stated clearly that the 1980 Act would give power to the Secretary of State to enforce the minimum qualifications that we wanted for governing bodies when he wished to do so. To demand this instantly would mean 25,000 schools requiring new instruments of government. This is not simply a matter for local authorities. There would have to be approval right the way through. A pile-up would result. Easter is the time when it comes into operation, if my memory serves me correctly. Any school opening and any school changing its article of government must do so within the terms of the Act.

Mr. Greenway

My first concern is for the scheme to get started. I am pleased to hear that it will start from Easter. My second concern is that there shall be completion and that all schools will have new instruments of government within a forseeable time and that it will not be too long.

Dr. Boyson

I take that point. If it is found that the spirit as well as the letter of the Act on governing bodies is not being followed, the Secretary of State has the power—and he will exercise it—to enforce the minimum standards of the Act. We want to bring the worst practice up to the best. If it is found, over a period and when finance is easier, that this is not being done in certain authorities, the power will be exercised. The Secretary of State will act to ensure the make-up of the governing body, with one elected parent and one elected teacher and the rest, as provided for in the Act. We shall keep the situation under review and the powers will be used if necessary.

My hon. Friend referred to schools admissions. Again, this is a matter of parental choice, like recoupment across boundaries. We believe, as a Government and as a party, that parents should have maximum ability to state a preference for a school and that if they do not get the school of their choice they should be able to appeal and state why they want their children to go to that school. The fact that this can be done has an effect. Every driver is not arrested for going above the speed limit. The fact that there is a speed limit and that some people are arrested affects the behaviour of other drivers. The fact that parents can appeal if they do not get the school of their choice and the fact that schools must provide information on what they are doing and local authorities must see that this is done automatically means that schools will be more responsive and accountable to parents. This is something in which I have always believed as a schoolmaster, a parent and an educationist.

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that I know will bring delight. This part of the Act will operate from admissions next year. This means that preparations will have to be made by the autumn for information to be given out to parents. It will be for local authorities to decide in their areas how this is done. Information will go to parents. Parents will indicate their preference. If they do not get the school of their preference, they will go to the appeal tribunal. This will operate from the intake of 1982.

I know that some people do not like the idea of its starting then. I recognise that there are financial constraints on local authorities. We feel, however, that this is one of the best ways of raising standards in schools and involving parents in the education process. After all, parents will not support schools that they do not wish their children to attend. They will support schools which they have seen and to which they want to send their children.

We have been having consultations about the minimum information that local authorities should have to provide. We are preparing a document and we hope that it will be published by Easter or the early summer, so that local authorities will know what the minimum information has to be—the name of the headmaster, the name of the chairman of governors, the type of discipline, and so on. Local authorities will then have plenty of time in which to prepare for the way in which they must operate in the following year.

Mr. Greenway

I know that the Minister will be dealing with examination results, but I should like to add one other point to those that I have made. I hope that we shall see a variety of patterns of discipline in schools and not a single system of discipline, as is the case in some areas. Parents should be able to choose a particular pattern of discipline for their child. In some areas a local authority says that all schools shall observe a particular kind of discipline—either that all should use the cane or that none should use it. That is totally wrong. There has to be an element of discretion left to schools about what system of discipline there should be.

Dr. Boyson

I agree with my hon. Friend's excellent intervention. Long may there be variety, as long as parents have choice within it. I once said that I do not mind Trotskyist teachers being in schools as long as they teach only the children of Trotskyist parents who have chosen to send their children there. In the defence of variety one cannot go much further than that.

In the previous Adjournment debate, in reply to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) I said that I did not want all schools to be mixed schools. There should be variety, with single-sex schools, mixed schools, denominational schools, and so on.

My hon. Friend referred to discipline. It is a problem in many schools. It is tip to each school to define what it considers to be the right method of discipline and then to stand by it.

The question of examination results is a contentious one. I always find it amazing that some people who are prepared to march on the question of freedom of information, with banners in front of them, are prepared, on the following day, to prevent parents from receiving information on the one subject on which they want to have it, that is, on whether their child is likely to get good O-levels or A-levels in a particular school. What is the use of sending a child who is mathematically able to a school in which no one has passed A-level mathematics in the previous year? Parents should be able to know what are the O-level and A-level results in any school.

That is not, of course, the whole of education. There is also the matter of sport and the atmosphere in the classroom. There are voluntary activities, and the civilising influence of a school. All those items make up the pattern of the school. But children's chances are made or broken according to the academic standards of a school. At a time of intense pressure for university entry, obviously the parents of an academically bright child will want him to go to the school at which he will be most likely to succeed. As I said, minimum information on examination results should be published, and we stand by that.

Mr. Greenway

Having been deputy headmaster at a school for 2,000 for seven years before coming here, every year I went through the process of answering all the questions that should be answered in the sort of brochure that is now envisaged. We sat in our schools all over London. Parents came to us—or we went to parents—and we answered all their questions. The objections that one hears and reads about are nonsensical, because we already have to give this information, and should give it.

Dr. Boyson

I think that my hon. Friend drew the point out excellently. I am sure that his views will have a considerable influence not only on the Government but on the whole country, and we are glad to know that we have his full support.

My hon. Friend has done a service to the House by initiating the debate and enabling me to put on record the fact that we are fulfilling the commitments that we made in the Education Act 1980. There has been no change from what we said in the Standing Committee and afterwards. The provisions are all coming into operation. My hon. Friend, like myself and many other people throughout the country, is convinced that by bringing the various sections into operation the educational standards of the country will be improved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o' clock.