HC Deb 01 June 1981 vol 5 cc733-50 10.12 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (School Information) Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 630), dated 15th April 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st May, be annulled. The Opposition approach this statutory instrument with a mixture of agreement, suspicion and the strongest enmity. We accept and agree with the laudable purpose of fully informing parents, pupils and the wider community about the character, personnel, administration and government of schools. We accept and agree with the public specification of curriculum arrangements, class organisation, the regime of study and homework, disciplinary custom in schools and extra-mural activities, societies and other opportunities afforded in schools. We endorse the necessity of a statement of policy on public examinations to be made by schools, but we cannot accept, agree with or endorse the purpose behind the section of this statutory instrument which relates to the publication of examination results.

The purpose that lies behind this instrument, in our view and in the view of countless teachers and educationists of all political persuasions and of none, has little to do with the benign desire fully to inform the general public, pupils and parents, and has everything to do with the stale selectivist and malign Tory education philosophy. This instrument is part of the effort that runs like a vein through all the Government's current education policy to restore the ancient regime of selection and academic success as the sole means of judging the virtue of a school.

The instrument has to be read and understood against the background of sections 6,7, 8, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, the infamous section 18—the assisted places scheme—and section 31 of the Education Act 1980. All of them, collectively and separately, provide the means of undermining, weakening and diluting comprehensive secondary education.

When challenged on Second Reading of the measure on Report and in all subsequent arguments, the Government have denied that the purpose behind this statutory instrument and other legislation, primary or secondary, is to undermine comprehensive education by the use of these legislative means. They say that the aim is to promote the pious purpose of information for the public and the liberal cause of expanding and improving consumer choice.

Even if we were to accept those laudable purposes, we can tell them now that they will fail in both of those hopes. We think that they know that they will fail, so much so that there was never anything approaching a strong intention fully to inform or effectively to expand consumer choice.

If we examine the statutory instrument we discover that the information that it requires schools to provide is partial. It is so partial as to have an extremely limited value in terms of the promotion of the interests of schooling and education, let alone public information. Under the statutory instrument there will be no obligation on a school to list the capitation allowance for each pupil, the average class sizes in the school, the specialist facilities available and the parental contributions received and required—increasingly so in this era of cuts, as Her Majesty's inspectors had occasion to remark at some length and with some alarm in February this year. Indeed, the statutory instrument requires none of the details that would comprise an honest picture of the physical, financial and teaching resources of a school.

The omission of those details portrays a failure on the part of the Under-Secretary. In a heated early-morning debate, which was quite devoid of Yuletide spirit, the hon. Gentleman responded to requests from my hon. Friends and myself for an undertaking that the statutory instrument embodying the requirement to publish examination results would include details about capitation allowances. The emphatic fact was that without details of what was available to, and spent on, each child, it would not be possible for anyone to obtain a clear picture of the standards of provision—and, therefore, the standards of opportunity—available within a school.

The Under-Secretary said: I do believe in the publication of information. I have no objection to the amendment,"— which proposed details of the capitation— apart from the fact that we are not writing the provision about examination results into the Bill; it is going into regulations". We now have those regulations, but there is no mention whatever of the Under-Secretary's acceptance in principle of the amendment or, more important, of what was required from that amendment. The Minister continued: However, we shall take into account what has been said. Capitation allowance is an important factor, as is the amount spent on books. Some information about expenditure in counties comes out in the MTA annual returns. When the regulations are drawn up, we shall seriously consider whether to include the obligation to make information available to parents on capitation allowances and the amount spent on books, whether over an area or for individual schools".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 11 December 1979; c. 831–2.] The Government's failure to include such a requirement in any part of the statutory instrument represents not just the dishonesty of their approach to the publication of information, but also the betrayal of a partial undertaking and, even more, of the Minister's own common sense. The Minister knew then, as he knows now, on the basis of his teaching experience and his commitment to full information, that without such information there can be no effective deployment of consumer choice because there is no effective education through information of public attitudes and understanding of what is available in schools.

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I wish to be quite clear about the hon. Gentleman's argument. Do I understand correctly that he is critical of the regulations because they do not go far enough? Is he saying that if he were in the driving seat there would be more information, and not less?

Mr. Kinnock

My criticism of the regulations is that because of the nature of the information that they require—specifically under paragraph 15 of schedule 2 referring to the examination results that a school must produce—without other considerations, inclusions and obligations being imposed upon schools and local education authorities to give full information, they become an exercise in disinformation and the distortion of information rather than in the clarity of information, for the purposes either of the education of consumer choice or for parents.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is not only that we believe that the requirement of information could go further—it is not simply a requirement of quantity—but that it should be of a different and more incisive nature. It is also a question of quality. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who must share our reservations, will voice his reservations to obtain not only more information but information that will paint a realistic picture of a school and enable the ostensible purpose of public information and education information to be fulfilled.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if he were in the driving seat the regulations would require to give a great deal more detail about the specific issue to be put forward to schools, and that we would find a great deal more information coming forward on a specific subject? Can he answer "Yes" to that question?

Mr. Kinnock

If the question were not a repetition of that posed by the more original mind of the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) I might take the time to have give a detailed answer. The simplistic "Yes" and "No" that both hon. Gentlemen disingenuously require would be misleading. I am sufficiently concerned about the misleading nature of the statutory instrument not to want to engage in such misleading of public opinion. I hope that the hon. Gentlemen will listen and learn as I continue with further points.

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

Surely we do not need to speculate. When the Labour Party was in the driving seat it produced a list of 19 categories of information to be provided by schools, but neither captitation allowances nor money for books was among them.

Mr. Kinnock

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recalls that that happened under a less imaginative regime than the one that we can anticipate in future. It was a regime under a person who has not so much deviated as defected. I hope that our policies for the improvement of schooling in general will be both more generous in their expenditure and more effective in their administration and purpose than they were under the stewardship of Mrs. Shirley Williams. Our efforts in that direction have not been assisted by the deliberate evasion—indeed, perversion—of purpose by Her Majesty's Government, and I sadly regret that fact.

The statutory instrument that we are debating—we are not debating the record of the previous Labour Government; that is a pleasure to await other forums on other days—is devoid of any effort to provide a requirement that the school should publish details of its intake with reference to the socio-economic background or the academic ability of its pupils. That is another gross shortcoming, especially by a party that has made such political capital and frequently spouted so much about its commitment to parental choice and the frankness of information.

The Secretary of State must know that without that kind of profile of the school being made available any examination results or record of academic achievements must be an exercise in misinformation and disinformation, because the quality being demonstrated is not related to the quality of the intake of the school in terms of the proof that the school is supposed to give, under the regulations, of its efforts, excellence and achievements. That is the saddest omission. It means that the information provided can easily be distorted and misrepresented without any reference to essential determinants such as the aspirations, expectations, traditions and achievements of a school.

A further criticism of the statutory instrument is that the regulations will result in the development of the league table mentality among schools, with all the consequences of odious comparisons, bringing demoralisation to some schools and complacency to others, resulting in many cases in a misdirection of public opinion by the misapplication of information.

Without that other qualifying information—such as the socio-economic background and academic standing and capabilities of the children, the expenditure per capita on books, the dependence of the school on external finances from parental contributions, the number of teachers, and the average size of classes—the stark and distorting fact of mere examination successes will not fulfil the aims that the Government are supposed to have set themselves of extending choice and informing parents or of encouraging the raising of standards in schools.

The Secretary of State has made a minor adjustment to his original intentions. Schools will not have to publish the number of candidates for examinations, as he originally intended. They will merely have to publish numbers in a year group and the examination results achieved by that year group. That was a concession, but it will not begin to remove or to ease the elementary dangers of the publication of examination results in the form chosen by the Secretary of State.

The league tables can still be drawn up by parents, by the local press or even—though God forbid—by schools, especially if a head teacher, a group in the staff or a group of governors has a particular market susceptibility, to put it in commercial terms, and shows all the briskness that the Prime Minister expects from salesmen in other functions to promote their schools. It is not impossible for that to occur, although in educational, social and moral terms it would be regrettable and damnable if it did occur. But even without the schools undertaking that kind of activity the local press and parents will still be in a position to draw up league tables and seek to make their choice or, In the words of section 6 of the 1980 Act, to express their preferences on the basis of that wholly inadequate and misleading information.

The league tables that are drawn up can still exaggerate success, as they can exaggerate failure, doing less than justice to the school in the deprived area that is striving to overcome the misfortunes of that deprivation and by its own light achieving great success. They can do more than justice to the school in the advantaged area that barely has to raise itself to achieve good results in bald examination terms merely because of the social fortune of the children who enter that school conventionally.

The system will emphasise and harden the obsession with examinations and the curriculum and teaching methods that that examination system dictates in direct contradiction to the advice and analysis contained in Her Majesty's inspectors' secondary survey, which was published in 1979.

If the Government are prepared to turn their back on advice of that nature, as well as good pedagogic advice from practising teachers; if they are prepared to pay no regard to the fact that our examination system is, if not inadequate, not achieving what should be achieved by an examination system, especially for the service of pupils in the 1980s; and if they are not prepared to set their hands to the radical revision of the system they should not by their legislation be worsening and deepening the deficiencies of the system by giving it greater prominence and greater importance, and causing it to have an even more diverting effect upon scholastic achievements and teaching efforts in schools.

We have always considered that the academic obsession of the Conservative Party is misplaced. It is a channelling of regard for education into only one area of activity in education and elevating that area into a dominating importance. However, in the midst of the cuts, when Her Majesty's Inspectorate, in its report published in February, spoke of its alarm at the deficiencies in the supply of materials, of books and in the numbers of teachers, of the effect of those cuts upon the curriculum and the menace that they posed to the provision of essentials in the curriculum, when the HMIs have registered yet again their great disturbance at the growing disparities and divisions between schools in socially fortunate areas and schools in socially deprived areas, a requirement brought forth by the Government for the publication of examination results in the form that they require is much more than a misplaced enthusiasm for academic success. It is a taunt to those who are not able by means of drawing additional resources, whether physical, material or manpower, to their aid to raise the standards of achievement in their school measured by academic results. It is an insult to the efforts that they are making.

The examination system does not to any great degree test comprehension or application of knowledge. Those should be the essential requirements of an examination system. The preoccupation of academic success, the test of reportive ability almost to the exclusion of other testable abilities, means that our system is in many ways deficient. It is being counteracted by the efforts of examining boards and teachers and the demands of parents and employers. We are seeing the development of alternative methods of assessment. I hope that the Government will take notice of that development. It is a demonstration continually of dissatisfaction with the present system.

The Government are obviously not taking note of those efforts. They seek to harshen and harden the present system to lead us further away from what should be the requirements of an education system in these modern times and to elevate to even greater importance an outdated system that fails to address itself to the general requirements and challenges that children in our society have to face.

The Government still want an examination system that tests recall and regurgitation. They give that the greatest importance. They seek to make it the main if not the sole means of assessing the excellence or success of a school.

Nothing that the Government propose in the measure results in the diagnosis of the problems. Even where it becomes obvious from the publication of examination results that there are deficiencies in a school, that schools are not achieving on behalf of their pupils and of the parents who look to those schools what they should be achieving, there will be no response in the form of a cure, of additional assistance or of aid. There is no purpose of diagnosis in this exposure of the schools. Therefore, there is no purpose of curing any deficiencies that are made obvious by that process of exposure.

No good purpose of information is fulfilled by the statutory instrument because so many necessary and essential factors are excluded. All that we are left with is the feeling that the Government now retain their original enthusiam for emphasising exclusively their obsession with academic standards. They pay no attention and care not at all for that vast majority of children who will not make their mark or make their success obvious through that means. That is all that is important to the Government. They divide our society. They demoralise our education system both with legislation of this nature and with their cuts.

The education system is already rising in its wrath against the Government. I hope that it will continue to rise, so that we can replace those obsessions and that outdatedness entirely with a novel, realistic, modern system of education that will sweep away the prejudices upon which the statutory instrument is founded.

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

On the long day in Committee referred to by the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), at about 7.50 am the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who has just arrived, said that possibly there would be a debate on the regulations late one evening between 10 pm and 11.30 pm, which would not be a bad thing. I welcome the hon. Member's presence, as he obviously laid the foundations 18 months ago for the debate tonight. As a schoolmaster himself, for whom I have great respect, he has arrived in good time for the beginning of the class.

There are three factors involved in the regulations. First, the right for parents to state a preference is taken for granted. The second is the right of parents, if they do not get the school of their choice, to go to appeal and to ask for the school of their choice. Third—this is the importance of the regulations—they ensure that the parents have the information on which they can make an informed choice. That is the basis of the regulations. Instead of sticking a pin in and living on rumour, there is information. The idea that parents now live in the dark about examination results in schools is not true. They live on vague rumours which are probably more dangerous in the long run than the facts themselves.

We have said for a long time that we would carry out such a measure. As the Labour Party believes in the carrying out of manifestos, I believe that we should be commended for carrying out what we said we would do.

I signed the Education (Parents' Charter) Bill with pride. It is nice to be here tonight defending something which has happened through it. It sought to provide: It shall be the duty of every local education authority to publish a prospectus in respect of each secondary school maintained by them, containing such information about the school as the Secretary of State may by order prescribe and such further information as they may think appropriate". We said that clearly also in the 1979 manifesto: Extending parents' rights and responsibilities, including their right of choice, will also help raise standards by giving them greater influence over education. Our Parents Charter will place a clear duty on government and local authorities to take account of parents wishes when allocating children to schools, with a local appeals system for those dissatisfied. Schools will also be required to publish prospectuses giving details of their examination and other results. We are not enacting something that has been a secret. We are carrying out our manifesto commitment, on which we fought the Labour Party. The public at the time preferred our manifesto. We shall see what they prefer next time, but if the Labour Party carries on as it has done tonight I have no doubt what the public will prefer.

Going back to the comments of the hon. Member for Newham, South, I am delighted to have the opportunity to put on record the fact that we believe that parents can be trusted with, and have the ability to interpret, information. The Labour Party does not. It is the party of the Mandarins and we are the party that believes in people.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

The oranges.

Dr. Boyson

What is wrong with oranges? At least one can suck them and they are useful. I do not know whether any grow in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

At one point we thought that we may be leading the Labour Party along the paths of righteousness. Circular 15/77 did not go as far as we wanted, but it began to put belief in people. It followed the Ruskin College speech. The Labour Party was unpopular at that time and had to consider what might make it popular.

Section 8(5) of the Education Act 1980, on which the regulations are based, is exactly the same as clause 10(5) of the Labour Education Bill of 1978, with only two words different. Indeed, all the regulations, including the proposal concerning examination results, could have been laid under that Bill and no one would have argued. My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) was with me on the Committee and can confirm that.

There are 15 paragraphs in schedule 2 concerning the information that schools have to give. The local education authority will have to give information not only on examination results but on transport and clothing arrangements and types of school. [Interruption] Hon. Members on the Opposition Benches are cheering to keep up their spirits. They have my full sympathy.

Although from the speech of the hon. Member for Bedwellty it was not apparent, the regulations contain 15 paragraphs, some with subparagraphs about the information to be provided. It includes matters such as whether a school is streamed or non-streamed, how to opt for courses, whether corporal punishment is used—I am sure we shall have the backing of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) on that—uniform and extra-curricular activities. Almost every aspect of a school is mentioned. I shall come to the other points mentioned by the hon. Member for Bedwellty.

It would be an odd list if examination results were left out. Most parents are interested in them, even though they may be backward and reactionary. If a parent wants his child to go to university, it is useful for him to see whether children from a school have gone on to university to study a specific subject. It is interesting to see who has and who does not have the information at present. I should be astonished—and that is quite a good emotion from time to time—if any hon. Member had not inquired about secondary school examination results when considering where to send his child. If any has not, I shall report him to the NSPCC. Every hon. Member wants that information. I wanted that and other information as part of a total package.

The articulate middle class represented here—including the polytechnic middle class—all obtain that information. Why should we prevent those less articulate from having it? By all means, let us have more information—and we can discuss that in a minute—but let us have this information as a beginning. I can tell the House, for instance, that fewer than half of London's comprehensive schools in 1975 had an A-level pure maths course. Should the parents know about that? We never get a straight answer.

Mr. Dobson

Of course they should.

Dr. Boyson

I seem to be getting support from the Opposition Back Benches. We are progressing. Obviously they should know about it.

There are only two objections which can be made to letting parents have this information. The first is that people cannot be trusted with it, and I find that very odd coming from members of a party who talk so much about freedom of information. We have had 110 years of State education, and apparently the result is such that the products of the system cannot be trusted with information about examination results. That is a very sorry commentary on the views held by the Labour Party It is now 37 years since the 1944 Act, but that appears to be the view of the party which gave the people a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EEC, which must be one of the most difficult subjects to understand. Certainly I did not understand it at the time, and I still do not understand it. But apparently the people can understand that, yet they cannot understand simple information about the schools in their localities. That is a very odd view.

The people have to understand complicated manifestos at a general election, and they will have to understand at the next general election which part of the Labour Party they propose to support; and that must be about the most difficult thing of all to understand.

The second objection stems from what can only be described as the Labour Party's arrogance in believing that people cannot interpret information for themselves and have to rely upon rumour. It may be that there should be more information, and I see here the hand of the Socialist Education Association. I have no doubt that it is that body which is bringing its influence to bear here. I shall not say on whom I would put my money. Mrs. Caroline Benn is highly influential. Indeed, she has had as much influence on education as her husband has had on the Labour Party, and it will be interesting to see which way its policy goes.

I have a letter from the Socialist Education Association which states: The Socialist Education Association believe strongly that examination results should be published, but the method of publication is important. That is fair enough. If it wants to know input as well as output, there is nothing to stop any authority in the country from providing information to show the average standard of intake at the age of 11. I have attacked the Inner London Education Authority in the past, as have my ministerial colleagues, but when it faces reality it must be acknowledged. I believe that that authority is giving a detailed examination results analysis covering all schools, and also details of the socio-economic intake. All credit is due to it for doing so.

Following a tale told in The Times Educational Supplement, I was interested to see a letter signed by Caroline Benn and the hon. Member for Bedwellty—obviously in alphabetical order—saying that they were in total agreement. Whenever a couple announce publicly that the are not seeking a divorce, it is wise to consider carefully whether to invite them to a forthcoming wedding breakfast. But if it means that the hon. Member for Bedwellty will be brought to the full truth, provided that details of input and output are made public, the debate goes on, and we shall be able to decide in the House whether more information should be provided than is available now.

Secrecy has to be justified. We should not have to justify the involvement in the package, of which this is only one item, of what is going on in a school. The people who want it secret are those who should have to justify it. I look for the support of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) here, and I shall be very disappointed if it is not forthcoming.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Then the hon. Gentleman must not take too long.

Dr. Boyson

I promise that I shall not. I realise that a great deal of the available time had been taken up before I rose to speak. The hon. Member for Stockport, North guides me again, as he did so often in Standing Committee.

There are two factors involved in this proposition. First, it gives parents an informed choice, as opposed to having to stick a pin into a list. Secondly, it encourages an informed and mutually supportive relationship between parents and schools.

I can look elsewhere for support, and I do not mean the newspapers to which people would expect a Conservative Minister to go for support. The Guardian is not known as a Conservative paper. On 9 December 1980, it stated: Now that parents are to be given more choice, they must have the information which is necessary to make a meaningful choice. That means many more things than just examination results—but it must include these as well. The Times Educational Supplement stated: In the ultimate analysis this is an argument about freedom of information, where, for once, the politicians are in favour of openness. There is obviously some danger in league tables; there is even more danger in keeping unnecessary secrets and creating artificial news values and falsely exciting revelations in the local press". As time is short, I shall take another example from The Guardian. It states: The reductio ad absurdum of such an argument"— the argument made tonight by the Opposition— would be to abolish the universal franchise on the grounds that voters may be misled by the newspapers. My last quotation comes from Eric Midwinter, a longterm friend of mine, who is by no means a member of the Conservative Party. When he was with the Advisory Committee for Education he said: Publishing exam results boldly can be misleading, but not publishing them is not leading at all". The hon. Member for Bedwellty referred to someone who has joined the SDP. However, if the Labour Party supports the prayer, I should call it the BDPP party—the Blindfold and Distrust Persons Party.

10.50 pm
Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

We always get a splendid Victorian approach from the Minister. The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) used to have a reputation for being progressive in education. It is sad to see that all the evidence is that he has capitulated to the right wing on education. I am sad about that.

The examination section of the document is anti educational in essence. It is Victorian. It represents an attempt to get something in by the back-door, because it could not be achieved in the usual way. It could be described as private enterprise in education, as opposed to educational enterprise. Most teachers and teachers' organisations realise that once examination results are published in the way suggested by paragraph 15, a selective educational system will be created without having to go through the educational process of selection experienced in the 11-plus.

The situation is worse than that. Although the 11-plus was bad, it was a form of educational selection. We deplored it. Those of us who had to invigilate 11-plus saw it for what it was. We were happy when that black cloud was lifted and when the approach to education could be broadened beyond the three R's and the narrow sectarian attitude that prevailed. I am sure that many ex-teachers in the Chamber—if one could call the number of hon. Members present "many"—will remember that even then schools had reputations for getting children through the 11-plus. A miserable competition would be indulged in by parents who wished to find out to which schools to send their children. Almost invariably, more children from middle-class areas passed the 11-plus.

Children with good home backgrounds, whose educated parents listened to them read, did not have as many needs as children from deprived areas, yet they were given an extra advantage in addition to those that they had. All ex-teachers know that that is true. Such a system fostered an attempt by some teachers to go to the more salubrious areas and to the schools that sent more children to local grammar schools.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am sure that his arguments will be linked to the regulations. Does he agree that in the past, working-class children from certain inner city areas have been able to get a grammar school education and, through those schools, to reach for the stars and take on any career that they may have wished? There are now no grammar schools. There are neighbourhood comprehensives, some of which, sadly, are not of a grand style and ability, and the working-class children who in the past would have been able to go on to university and choose a career are deprived of that opportunity.

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Gentleman is starry-eyed about reaching for the stars. A few of the children who were lucky enough to get to grammar school reached for the stars, but the mass of children, who did not have the chance to reach for any stars, were those on whom the whole system was bearing down. The hon. Gentleman has not grasped that essential point. Because of the wretched backgrounds of many of the children in the extremely good school that I attended, only two passed the 11-plus examination.

The hon. Gentleman need not worry. I am coming to the regulations, the matters with which they fail to deal and to what they will provide for a lot of credulous people. They will inevitably militate against the children in downtown schools in inner urban areas who have already been massively deprived.

Parents will inevitably look carefully at examination results. Schools in the posher areas will inevitably do better and there will be an all-out struggle by parents to get their children into those schools. It saddens me to hear the hon. Member for Wokingham supporting such a reactionary attitude in education. It goes against the whole mainstream of the progressive development of education and militates against the wider approach to education that we are trying to inculcate in order to get the best education for the most children.

Linked with other attitudes of the Government, it means that children in the schools that will receive the millions of pounds from the assisted places scheme and those where parents have enough money to buy books and equipment will emerge best, and there will be a creaming off from the downtown schools of children whose parents wish them, for all sorts of good motives, to go to such schools.

I know that some of my hon. Friends still wish to speak and perhaps some Conservative Members may wish to rebel against such anti-educational nonsense. I am glad that we are opposing the Government's proposal, because it is against the good education of our children.

11.5 pm

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) says that he is opposing the regulations. I take his remark to mean that he will be going into the Division Lobby.

Mr. Flannery

Not on this occasion.

Mr. van Straubenzee

We shall not, therefore, have a great braying of trumpets as the bullfight starts and everyone waits for the bull to arrive in the middle of the arena only to find that it is a bullock. There are many words I could use to describe the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), but I would never call him a bullock. I trust, however, that the hon. Gentleman will follow his words with his vote and will prove that we are not engaged in merely a paper exercise. I shall wait to see the result when the time comes. I shall be eager to see how many members of the Labour Party are present to support their views with their votes.

This will be a vote against the publication of information. I wish to meet head-on the comment of the hon. Member for Hillsborough. Hon. Members could, I know, say critical things about me. They cannot claim, however, that I have ever disguised my belief that the rigid selection of children at the age of 11 into one sector or another, whatever the good intentions of the authors of the Education Act 1944, broke down. I have always believed in the broader opportunity available in a broadly comprehensive system. I believe, however, that the proponents of that system have done it the gravest harm by giving the appearance of believing that a comprehensive education equals mediocrity.

The early believers in the system were those who thought that it was possible to achieve a higher intellectual, academic and practical standard of education for a wider group of young people by broadening the base and the spectrum of the education system that was available. In the early days of some comprehensive schools, an undue weight was given, for understandable reasons, to the less able child, who, of course, merits enormous care, at the expense of the able and those children of medium range ability, in a manner that caused great harm to the system.

This explains why I am a firm believer in the publication of examination results. The essence of the system, if one believes in it, is that a wider group and a larger number of young people attain achievements by hand and by brain. One method of measuring that achievement is through the publication of results. It is nonsense to suggest that people are not able to appreciate, or are not influenced by, these matters. One example of what I mean can be seen in the immigrant population of the Muslim community. No one can doubt the deep concern that exists in that community about the academic and other achievements of the children. In many ways, it is a splendid example of parental support and backing.

I do not accept that publication of results is the only factor that concerns parents. I can give an example. Hon. Members were able to see in the Upper Waiting Hall before the recess a remarkable exhibition of work of art by pupils of a school, which I shall not identify, in a deprived area of the North-East. Those hon. Members who attended the exhibition will know where I mean. The school has no sixth form. Some of the work was of a most gifted nature. I know some details of the school. It has a brilliant headmaster and a talented staff—a determined group of people working in an area of high youth unemployment. A tremendous spirit exists in the school, which I have visited. Will anyone say to me that the only matter about which parents are concerned is the publication of examination results? Of course, that will be one of the concerns, but they will also be concerned with the great mass of information which they want to have and which the regulations will permit.

The Opposition have a narrow-minded approach to the one small point of examination results. Parents are wiser than that. They are well able to take all matters into account and to form a balanced judgment of a school. They need the information. The regulations give them the information. That is why I rejoice in them.

I detect a swing back to a wish by parents for school uniforms. They are the means by which everyone can be sure that they are right. The less well off are isolated and identified more effectively if there is not a sensible school uniform. I am talking not about expensive blazers with expensive impedimenta but about simple, practical working clothing which is sensible for young people. I also detect a feeling among the teaching profession that that is one way—but only one—of asserting that disciplined coherence which is part of coherent school life. My hon. Friends are to be congratulated warmly on bringing forth the regulations. If there is a vote against them, the overwhelming majority of parents will be with the Government.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker: (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

Order. I remind the House that I am required to put the question at 11.30.

11.7 pm

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

The parliamentary history of the attempt to provide regulations for information from schools goes back at least as far as 1976 when the then Labour Government gave an assurance, in response to an amendment moved in another place, that they would consult about such regulations. In 1977 a draft was made, not by a defector but by Miss Margaret Jackson, the then Under-Secretary of State for Education. I moved an amendment to the 1979 Bill calling for information for each school about the curriculum, teaching methods, pastoral care, dicipline and arrangements made for the continuing involvement of parents."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E; 8 March 1979, c. 767.] Most of them feature in the regulations.

The 1980 measure picked up where the 1979 measure left off. It made the further step of making specific provision for school examination results. The Government have become excited about it. There have been innumerable press releases. I have three in my hand. They say that the Government plan to make provision, that they are about to make it, and that they are now making it. Tomorrow another press release will probably say that the Government have made provision. Perhaps the press releases are a diversionary tactic. The Government might be saying that it is better to talk about information than about cuts and capitation grants and the impact of the Government's financial policy on schools.

The Government cannot get away with that. I support the provision of information. That will highlight some of the problems. It will draw attention to the impact of cuts on some schools.

Mr. Marlow

What cuts?

Mr. Beith

If the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the impact of cuts on schools, he should talk to some of the people who have to run and teach in the schools.

I think that the publication of such information will be an opportunity that many schools will take to point out not only the precise matters that they are required to point out but some of the difficulties under which they now operate, in the same objective way as the inspectors of education did in their report, drawing attention to the impossibility of achieving, for example, a broader spread of curriculum when they are not in a position to employ the staff to teach the range of subjects that they are being asked to teach.

It is right that parents should have the maximum information about schools, and it is wrong to attempt to conceal from them one part of that information—examination results and examination records. I also believe that it is impossible to conceal them. As the Under-Secretary said, rumour will travel quickly where information is concealed.

It has been the practice over many years for information about examination results to be widely published. From my earliest childhood I can recall at certain times of year several pages of the local newspapers being given over to the detailed examination results of the schools in the area. The parents eagerly scanned them, particularly for details of their own children, children along the street, and children from the same village. The success rate in the schools was common knowledge and common talk. If that information is to be obtained by rumour, and if it can be produced by newspapers anyway, it is far better that it be placed in context in a report by the individual school in which all the other information referred to is given and the school can make available further information that it thinks that parents should have.

Nor do I think, as the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) seemed to think, that one should prevent the publication of information about examinations because there needs to be reform of the examination system. He went a long way tonight in criticism of the examination system. Although I share the view that the dominance of the examination system in our schools has some important disadvantages, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the entire GCE an CSE system remains dominated by the demand for regurgitated information and excludes requirements for comprehension and for the use of information more widely. Indeed, his attack on the examination system failed to take account of the way in which both the GCE and, even more, the CSE have developed in recent years. I am surprised that he should put the matter so strongly.

Even if I agreed with the hon. Gentleman's criticism of the system, it is no answer to conceal the results that the system produces and to say that this is the one item of information that schools must not make available, must not provide to parents. I think that the information must be provided, and provided in the context of the other kinds of information referred to and the other matters that the schools will need to point out. If parents are not provided with the information, and if they want it, they will seek it out.

I agreed very much with one remark of the Under-Secretary—that it is all very well for those of us who know our way round the examination system, for people like us who know the headmasters and teachers in the area and can find out what the position in a school is. I have a good idea of the examination records of all the schools in my constituency. If I were choosing between them all, I should be in a strong position to do so. It is all right for me to have that information, but we are told that ordinary parents must not be allowed to open their newspapers and see a report of the documents that the schools have produced giving that information.

That will not do for me. I believe that the information about examination results is part of the range of information that all parents are entitled to have. It is the school's job to set that information in its proper context, and the school has that opportunity. I do not see how the regulations can be opposed, and I shall be very surprised if the Opposition carry their prayer to a Division at the end of the debate.

11.13 pm
Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

This statutory instrument requires local education authorities to publish various details about schools. And probably the most controversial are those relating to sex education and examination success.

I shall deal first with examination results. It has been argued that examination success provides a poor basis for comparison between schools because there are too many differences and distinctions that may be made between the schools, and therefore a reasoned judgment may not always be possible.

It is also argued that the quality of education cannot be measured by the bits of paper that one receives at the end of a course. That is the homespun "Don't gauge the quality; just guess the ability" philosophy. It maintains an educational roulette, in which parents guess and hope for the best, with their choice of school being entirely governed by hearsay.

Perhaps the real meaning of the prayer is that parents should be praying for guidance. I do not seek to undermine the power of prayer. I welcome the Opposition's conversion to the idea that the Almighty may become personally involved in school selection. However, I am sure that the majority of parents share my view and want a little more factual information on which to base their judgment—a judgment based on results produced by individual schools year by year.

In assessing a school's success, the Opposition seek to deny parents the opportunity to use examination results as a benchmark. Whether or not the Opposition like it, examination results are one way to judge not only a pupil's ability but the ability and quality of a particular school. In today's educational jungle signposts are often written in a jargon that is incomprehensible to many parents. The more information that is available on a certain school, and the more information that can be reached by parents, the better. I do not suggest that examination results are the only yardstick, but they are important and must be taken into consideration by any interested parent.

This measure will be welcomed by parents. It enables them to exercise choice on the basis of real and true information being freely available. As was said earlier in the debate, in most places unofficial league tables of excellence already exist. Surely Opposition Members must understand that parents talk among themselves and produce their own lists of schools. Those lists may come about through the flimsiest and scantiest evidence. The results that will be produced and circulated will take some of the guessing out of the guidance that parents need.

A further reason why I support the measure is my belief that some of the worst educational excesses would not have remained hidden had it been possible to expose them by using this form of table and if parents had been able to exercise a judgment based on examination success. Even the most casual of parents is likely to question why school A has more success than school B when both schools are broadly similar. The object of the regulations is to enable ordinary parents to exercise a more reasoned choice for their children, for I maintain that parents know best what is right for their own children.

The 1980 Act was designed to allow more parents more choice. That choice can be intelligently exercised only if parents have real and helpful information available to them. The regulations provide that additional source of information. It means that parents can make an informed choice of school. That must contribute to the development of a better relationship between school and parent.

I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies he will comment on the difficulties likely to be experienced by ethnic minorities. I hope that he will provide the necessary assurances that in those areas information will be multilingual and produced in a form that enables all parents, irrespective of language, to have the same opportunity to make a reasoned and deliberate choice of school for their child.

One other piece of information that should be readily available is the names and addresses of all school governors. For a long time I have been convinced that there is inadequate contact between school governors and individual parents. A school governor should provide the sort of service that an ordinary local councillor provides within his community. School governors have an important role to play and have a responsibility to school, staff and parents. They should not be anonymous; they should be readily accessible. I look forward to my hon. Friend's comments on that point.

I turn to the second controversial point—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come on".] Opposition Members must be patient. I listened to them and gave them a fair run for their money. Let them now do the same for me.

There is a requirement that information should be given about the manner and context in which sex education is given. I have here some of the most pornographic material that I have ever seen. It is produced by the Brook Advisory Centre—[Interruption.]Labour Members may laugh.

Mr. Dobson

I do.

Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Gentleman might laugh on the other side of his face if he could see the contents of this file. Would he continue to laugh if he knew that his children were exposed to this sort of rubbish?

Mr. Dobson

That admirable organisation, which the hon. Gentleman is about to malign, is located in my constituency. I am glad that its headquarters are there. It does valuable work. I should be happy for my children of both sexes to see all the documents that it produces.

Mr. Pawsey

Before the hon. Gentleman gives that blanket assurance he should have the advantage of seeing that which is printed. Knowing him as I do, I feel confident that if he saw the contents of this file he would rapidly change his mind. The literature—I use that word for want of a better term—shows full frontal pictures and goes into considerable detail about sexual intercourse. Little is left to imagination and still less to prayer. If any of my children were exposed to this sort of material I should take the most strenuous exception to it. Certainly, the majority of right thinking parents would share my view on the material contained in what is called a contraception teaching pack.

Parents should have the clear right to see what is printed here and decide for themselves whether such material should be disseminated by the Department of Education and Science.

I turn next to a point made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. Labour Members are committed to the general principle of greater freedom of information. They have sought to ensure that across a wide spectrum people have access to information that is currently regarded as confidential. Their argument is based on the belief that the individual should decide for himself and on the principle that he should have the clear right of inspection. Yet such is the hypocrisy of Labour Members that they seek to deny that basic right to the parents of children in schools.

Of course, parents should be given information enabling them to judge the merits of a school. The printing of examination results will add to the sum of their knowledge. It will allow them to exercise a greater degree of freedom and choice. That is all that this regulation is about.

11.23 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I am pleased that the Conservative Party is so enthusiastic about these regulations. I hope that that enthusiasm will be matched by the money to ensure that the schools can afford to publish these prospectuses. In particular, will the Minister give us a guarantee that schools will be able to afford to conduct this operation? I greatly fear that a lot of schools will find that by producing the brochures they will be unable to afford also books for fifth year physics or some other subject. That is likely to be the case in many schools.

The Government should also give some guidance on how elaborate the brochures should be. My experience of schools prospectuses is that many schools waste a lot of resources in trying to turn out advertising brochures.

My main concern tonight is the Conservative Party's whole philosophy that the parent must make a choice, that parents are inadequate if they do not insist on doing so. The Tories want to produce the "Which?" guide to schools, but they do not say to what extent that will produce dissatisfaction among parents and pupils. Making a choice is extremely difficult. It is hard for parents to know what is right for their children. It is also difficult to work out what sort of school exists behind the statistics. If we solved all of those problems, the truth is that a lot of people would still not get their first choice. I would go along with the regulations if the Minister could guarantee that every parent would get his first choice for his child. However, the truth is that the more we encourage choice the more likely we are to disappoint many people.

There are many other snags. The main one is that choosing a school is not like making a decision about buying a vacuum cleaner or a new car. The situation in schools is continually changing. What would a person think if he bought a new car and the salesman said "After you have had it for six months we shall put a quite different engine in"? We all know that head teachers and individual teachers change and, as a result, the status of a school may change in seven or eight years. That is a major problem in trying to predict what will happen.

There are similar difficulties with examination results. Often a school has marvellous results for one year. Then the teacher responsible moves, or suffers ill-health, and the basis upon which parents made their choice is altered.

Mr. Dobson

Does my hon. Friend agree that basing decisions upon plain examination results, as proposed, would make things difficult for those schools where parents and teachers are struggling to improve the situation? The school would be judged on results which stemmed from an intake five or seven years earlier.

Mr. Bennett

I accept that point.

I welcome the regulations dealing with school uniforms. All costs that a school imposes on parents ought to be met in this way—visits, trips, and so on. I welcome, too, the fact that a school will have to state its punishment record. What will the Minister say about a school that changes that system when a child is in the school? There are many other points that need to be raised, but I shall end my speech now because of the shortage of time.

11.27 pm
Dr. Boyson

I shall not have time to deal with all the points that have been raised, but I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) that it is specifically provided for that where there are large ethnic groups the necessary information shall be published in the languages of those groups. As to the point about the publication of the name of the chairman of the governors, it is up to the local authority to decide whether he or she shall be named, in the same way that it decides about naming public officers.

The regulations also cover the subject of sex education. A school must say how it is approaching the subject and parents are able to discuss the issue with the head.

The speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) and for Rugby and of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) were welcome. They certainly hit the nail on the head with regard to the point about parental choice. I do not understand the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett). Because he believes that no one can have choice for all of the time, he believes that everyone should hang around while he and I reorganise the whole country. Because we cannot give all the information he believes we should not give any. He says "If you cannot have. the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, you cannot have the Oxford English Dictionary". I do not understand that kind of despair from the hon. Member, for whom I have considerable respect, and who must have been a good teacher in the classroom. We are providing some information, as a beginning. We believe that people have the right to choose. They grow in maturity when they have choice. They will back schools if they have the right to choose for their children.

I said in an earlier debate that I believed in miracles, but I cannot guarantee, as the hon. Member for Stockport, North asked, that every parent will get the school of his choice for his child. Our schools are not rubber-sided. But we can say this: we can actually organise it so that at least parents know what is going on in the school and so that the vast majority can get the schools they want.

My last illustration comes from Richmond. There, the examination results have been published and the take-up of the schools which were less popular is now greater. Those schools are more popular than they were before. Why? Because the parents know the whole story. Before then, they relied upon rumour, the state of affairs which hon. Members opposite desire.

Since we have been talking about rumour and non-rumour tonight I hope that hon. Members opposite, believing that their view is held also in the country, will vote so that we can see the clear difference between the two sides of the House, because there is no doubt—

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question pursuant to Standing Order No. 4 (Prayers against statutory instruments, &c. (negative procedure))

Question negatived.