HC Deb 21 October 1986 vol 102 cc1039-47

`(1) On an application duly made to him by the Governing body of any school, the Secretary of State may by order direct that as from the date specified in the order the school shall be funded directly by him. (2) The basis of such funding shall be a grant for every pupil enrolled of the amount being spent for the time being on average for children in that age range in the maintained sector of education in England and Wales. (3) Such per capita funding paid directly to the school by the Secretary of State shall be deducted from the expenditure permited to be incurred by the Local Education Authority. (4) The Secretary of State shall have power to direct the Local Education Authority to lease the premises of the school in question to the Governing body on terms which he believes to be fair and reasonable. (5) The Governing body shall have power to determine the educational policy of the school, to manage its finances and administration, and to point and dismiss (subject to current employment protection legislation) the Head Teacher and other staff of the school. (6) The Secretary of State shall not make an order under this section unless he is satisfied that the Governing body is both willing and competent to exercise the responsibility of managing the school. (7) Where the Governing body of a school propose to apply for an order under this section they shall, after consulting the Local Education Authority—

  1. (a) publish their proposals in such manner as may be required by regulations made by the Secretary of State;
  2. (b) submit a copy of the published proposals to him;
  3. (c) provide him with such information as he may reasonably require in order to enable him to give proper consideration to their proposals.
(8) The published proposals shall specify the date on which the proposals are intended to be implemented. (9) Before the end of a period of two months beginning with the day on which the proposals arc first published, any of the following may submit objections to the proposals to the Secretary of State:
  1. (a) any ten or more local government electors for the area;
  2. 1040
  3. (b) the Local Education Authority concerned.
(10) The Secretary of State shall have power to require modifications to the proposals put forward to him in an application under this section.'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.30 pm
Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

I beg to move, That the clause be now read a Second time.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his initiative over the summer in launching the idea of city technology colleges. The principles behind the scheme, which are clearly set out in the excellent booklet speedily produced by his Department, are broadly in line with those encompassed in the new clause. The new CTCs are to be funded directly from his Department, on a per capita basis. They are to be independently run, with the head teachers having powers within those colleges to determine conditions, including pay and qualifications of staff. In short, they differ from the proposals in the new clause only in so far as there is a specific requirement that the curriculum should be oriented towards technology.

The Government have done a great deal to extend parental choice in education. Conservative Members have perhaps been too preoccupied with ideas such as educational vouchers, and not seen the possibilities that the type of change in funding that is envisaged with the CTCs could bring about within the state sector, within which is the greatest problem and need. I am unhappy with the situation that exists not only in our inner cities but in other parts of the country, where the only people who can exercise real choice in schooling are those who are wealthy enough to pay twice — once in taxation and once by opting into the private sector. Those who can opt for the private sector can look after themselves, but the most important group of parents consists of those who cannot afford anything other than the state sector, and we must concentrate on making the state sector responsive to their choices, and bringing choice within that sector. We must allow the state sector to blossom and grow to provide the real benefits and talents that it is capable of providing.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should take courage and go further than the CTCs. He should recognise that every state school could be given the right, should the board of governors so decide, to opt for funding centrally, and that every state school could be given the responsibility for hiring its head teacher, and in his turn, the head teacher given the responsibility for the curriculum and the hiring and firing of staff. That would not only bring tremendous support and morale among the teaching profession but would do something far more important.

Mr. Fatchett


Mr. Forsyth

That is not nonsense. I have yet to meet a head teacher who would not welcome the opportunity to have some say in the running of his school. At the moment, head teachers are limited to discretion on the spending of a few thousand pounds, and, as we have seen, where the Socialists have control of education authorities, head teachers are hounded and subjected to unacceptable political pressure about the staff that they hire and what they teach in the classrooms.

Not only would central funding be welcomed by the teaching profession — or at least by the best in the teaching profession—as it would enable them to give of their best, but more importantly, as our schools have for far too long been captured by, and operated in the interests of, educationists, schools would start to respond to the needs and preferences of parents.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett


Mr. Forsyth

If a parent decides to choose school A rather than school B, at present it makes no difference to the school or to the education authority. If there were per capita funding which my right hon. Friend has proposed in the CTCs, school A, in gaining a child, would gain extra resources. That school would be able to do more for its staff and provide more equipment and resources within the school. School B, in losing the opportunity of having that child, would have to consider where changes should be made. School B would have to consider the reasons why parents were not sending children there. A consideration of waiting lists and demands would provide an automatic incentive for schools to respond to parental preferences, and to be innovative and experimental and so bring a freshness to the system.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Can the hon. Gentleman explain whether in his system of per capita funding he would expect his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to fund schools on the basis of the best provision by local authorities at present — many of which are Labour-controlled — on the worst provision or on average provision, which is to be found in Conservative-controlled authorities?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman has made the classic mistake which has dogged education for a generation. He has confused the output of schools and their success in producing pupils of a given standard and quality with the resources that are put into the schools. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that, he should consider the progress of the Inner London education authority. The authority has received far more resources than other authorities but it has achieved only half the national average of passes at A-level and it has twice the national average of pupils who leave without any passes or qualifications.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has missed the point. I am not talking about directing resources, although I am sure that resources directed on a per capita basis will be spent at the chalk face and not in the top-heavy tiers of administration in education authorities. My point is far more fundamental. The dispersal of resources should be made within the schools and schools should be directly accountable to parents, in the sense that if they do not perform they should receive fewer resources.

The argument would not, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish would like, be about the Government making enough money available. Instead, it would be about which schools use their resources most wisely and meet the needs and aspirations of parents.

My right hon. Friend has set in motion a radical experiment which should be welcomed by parents throughout the country. Although he may not be able to accept the new clause tonight, I hope that he will take courage from the fact that many people, not only in the Conservative party, believe that that could be the key to achieving the kind of change which we have looked and longed for in education. That change could help us achieve the standards and performance achieved by other countries, by providing a choice for parents.

Mr. Patrick Thompson

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in support of new clause 27, so ably proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). I welcome the clause for three reasons. First, it provides the opportunity for schools to break free, if they so wish, from the inhibiting embrace of the local education authority. I welcome it because we have all seen the excesses perpetrated by certain Labour-controlled authorities and also because of the bureaucratic procedures which are strangling education in other parts of the country.

There is a specific dispute in my constituency which involves wrangling about the redistribution of hours given to ancillary staff. It will please you, Mr. Speaker, to hear that I do not propose to go into that today, but all the political in-fighting now going on in Norwich is due to the bureaucratic process which inevitably results from local authority control.

Secondly, I welcome the capitation principle. Thirdly, I welcome the fact that decision making would devolve to governors and head teachers under the new clause. Many of us have welcomed the experiment in Cambridgeshire in which financial control has been pushed down to head teachers. I gather that the experiment has been a success. If so, it further strengthens the argument that we have made today.

Finally, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling in his support for the city colleges of technology on exactly the principle proposed in new clause 27. The new colleges must be welcomed because they will attract more talent into engineering and more resources into education as all Members of the House wish. In addition, as my hon. Friend said, a welcome opportunity is provided for schools if they so wish to distance themselves from the local politics and bureaucracy which I believe are harming our education system.

I am pleased to support new clause 27.

Mr. Alan Howarth

This clause would build on the welcome elements in the Bill which strengthen the presence of parents on governing bodies and enhance the power of governing bodies. The new clause would allow schools to be selfgoverning and accountable to parents.

As we all know, there is acute anxiety about the condition of the education service in this country. That anxiety pre-dates the teachers' pay dispute but has been much intensified by it—and the prospect of a further, deeply regrettable flare-up in its dispute must further increase that anxiety. The anger of parents about disruption and their anxiety about the relative inadequacy of standards in this country has been increasingly endorsed by academic findings. I shall not rehearse the now familiar comparisons of average academic attainment in this country and in Germany or Japan, but the figures show a serious discrepancy and relative failure on the part of this country. The undercurrent of anxiety is now becoming a tide. Parents, employers and many teachers are deeply concerned.

In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) pinpointed what has gone wrong, and the new clause would strike at the root of the problem. Education has been in the hands of educationalists who have not been under enough pressure through the system to he sensitive and responsive to the wishes of parents. It is a curious fact, for instance, that in the past 10 to 15 years when technical education should have been growing increasingly important in the range of provision available to children the technical schools were almost entirely destroyed in the name of the social theory of comprehensivisation. I welcome the emphasis given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of to a revival of technical education in this country and especially the city technology college initiative.

The temporary collapse of technical education was one aspect that was unsatisfactory to parents. Another has been the creeping politicization—indeed, it is more than creeping, it is very much on the march—in a number of local education authorities. It must be of concern to us all that the effect of these failures, relative inadequacies and abuses, has been to alienate many parents from the education system. It is significant that in a survey in 1963 only 27 per cent. of those surveyed supported the right of parents to opt out of the state provision of education. By 1979 that figure was 60 per cent.

If we are concerned, as we must he, for the cohesion of our society and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling emphasised, for the educational prospects of the 93 per cent. of the nation's schoolchildren who are in the maintained sector, we must take that trend seriously.

9.45 pm

If implemented, the new clause would enable schools where it was their wish and that of the local community to become responsive to parents in a new way. The new clause does not suggest that any system should be imposed. Where developments are to take place, they would be on the basis of what schools and local people desire. It would be a worthwhile complementary development to the CTC initiative of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

It is a good thing that the pattern of funding and accountability of our schools is now being searchingly questioned. The teachers' unions and the local education authority employers are, understandably, asking for massive additional sums of taxpayers' money to be provided for the education service. Most of us would undoubtedly he happy to see significant extra sums being made available not only for teachers' salaries but for the classroom and going through to education itself. However, it is less sure that the taxpayer needs to be asked for large additional sums. It is, after all, a strange state of affairs and something of a puzzle that while the education budget nationally provides for a record amount of money to be spent per pupil, everywhere one comes across oversize classes, shortages of books and equipment, schools being closed, teachers who feel miserable because they are underpaid and a recruitment crisis in teachers of mathematics, science and craft, design and technology.

I suspect that the most important explanation to that conundrum lies in a written answer given by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) when he was Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) in which he gave figures which showed that in the maintained sector of education there are 525,000 teachers and lecturers and 362,000 other full-time staff. For every five teachers and lecturers there are roughly three other people employed full time. Enormous amounts of money are running into the bureaucratic sand.

The local government Audit Commission was looking in the wrong direction when it recommended recently that more schools must be closed in the interests of economy. It might be more appropriate for the local government Audit Commission to look a good deal more sceptically and searchingly at what local education authorities are doing.

The new clause would release schools, as they wish to be so released, from some of the toils of officialdom. It is a strange principle, upon which we have traditionally proceeded for many years in Britain, that politicians and officials know better than parents and teachers how education should be organised and what is the right kind of provision for children. We live in an age in which people are becoming increasingly conscious of their rights as citizens and consumers and I do not think they will be willing to tolerate this kind of bureaucratic thraldom for much longer.

Let me cite two instances of particular schools which show how popular this new clause would be if it were to be made law.

My hon. Friend may well be familiar with the John Loughborough school in Tottenham. There, West Indian parents became so intensely dissatisfied with the Inner London education authority's provision for them and their children that people who could ill afford to do so decided to set up their own school. Those parents are paying about £600 in fees. That is very hard for them to do but they care so much about the education of their children that they are willing to do so. They receive no support at all from the state as it is, but under the scheme put forward by my hon. Friend they would at least be entitled to the amount of money which the taxpayer and ratepayer reckon to spend on their behalf and that would surely be only right.

The second instance I would like to put to my hon. Friend the Minister comes from a different part of the country, from rural south Warwickshire in my constituency. Warwickshire county council proposed that the village school in Whichford should be closed. It gave no good reasons for the closure, and there are no good reasons on academic grounds for closing good 'village schools. Clare Burstall of the National Foundation for Educational Research has said that such hard evidence as there is on the relative academic performance and prospects of children in small schools suggests that they have an advantage. Certainly the people of Whichford were very clear that it would be a devastating blow to their local community to lose their school. They felt, and I heartily agree with them, that it is for them as local parents to make the judgment between the merits in terms of local community of keeping their school and the alleged educational advantages of having the children bussed some distance away to a larger school. They were quite clear that all the worthwhile arguments lay on the side of keeping their own school. So we asked Warwickshire county council whether it would allow those parents the money that Warwickshire would be spending on their children to set up a trust in the village and keep their school. Warwickshire county council said no. So we asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), when he was Secretary of State, whether he would be willing to intervene and consider whether some such solution could be found. He gave us some encouragement but he said that he would need to be satisfied that they really had the commitment and the administrative capacity to see the scheme through. So we did some more research.

When we surveyed the households in the village, 104 supported the scheme and only three were opposed. We did some more research to discover what voluntary help could be found. Thirty volunteers put their names forward to help on such matters as school transport, playground supervision, sport, natural and environmental studies, music, dance, craft, cooking classes and computer classes as well as secretarial and maintenance help for the school. It became clear that with the willingness that there was in the local community to raise the extra money needed they could have kept the school open.

Under the system that we now have and under the law as it now stands they were not allowed to do so. That expression of opinion in Whichford was representative and I do not believe that my hon. Friends wish to ignore such an emphatic expression of opinion, which speaks for very many people in many different sorts of community in Britain.

Public opinion is bestirring itself on a very important issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has recognised that. I welcome the initiative he has announced on city technology colleges, and I hope that he will use something like the model of this clause to take the process further.

Mr. John Watts (Slough)

I should like briefly to give a warm welcome to the principles of the clause moved so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). There are many good schools in Britain which are hampered and handicapped by local education authorities. It brings to my mind that television advertisement for one of the banks which poses the question, "Does your bank hold your business back or does it back your business?" There are many local education authorities that hold back our best schools rather than giving them the backing that they deserve.

If schools had the opportunity of breaking free from the shackles of educational bureaucracy, they could perform much better to the benefit of the children and in accordance with the desires of parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) referred to a school in his constituency. I can also think of a school in my constituency where that solution might well be welcome. I refer to Langley grammar school. It has long been the desire of the education bureaucracy in Berkshire to put an end to grammar schools in Slough. Slough is one of the educational oases where grammar schools exist. In that dark period dating from 1981, when Berkshire county council was controlled by an alliance of the Labour party with the Liberals—a hung council or balanced, as those on the now empty alliance Benches would like to describe it—there were many attempts to destroy the grammar school system and to replace it with comprehensive schools. Fortunately, those attempts were resisted, and with the return of Conservative control in Berkshire they were buried.

That was not the end of the story. The education bureaucracy then sought to hamper the school by imposing a catchment area that would restrict its intake and reduce the number of staff, thus causing a decline in the standard of education provided. That occurred even though the school is persistently oversubscribed because it performs in accordance with the parents' wishes. Although its future as a grammar school is still secure, the uncertainty that has hung over it for years means that it has been starved of the necessary physical resources. It has too much temporary accommodation and too few purpose-built structures for music, science and so on.

I have not been able to discuss the matter with the governors, but if they had the opportunity provided by the clause to go independent with a direct grant, they would do so. I am sure that the school would flourish and would continue to serve my constituents in Langley and the surrounding area, just as it has done so excellently for many years. Consequently, I warmly welcome at least the principles behind this measure.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

I wish to raise two points briefly. The case for the self-management of finances by schools is almost self-evident. As a chairman of the governors of a comprehensive school for four years I know that nothing is more frustrating than having to go cap in hand to county hall to get a broken window or leaking tap fixed in the knowledge that the same service could have been purchased locally more quickly and cheaply. There are also different priorities. The school might think that one thing is top of the list while the divisional education office or county council education office might think another should be top. In those circumstances, it must be right for the school to decide.

Of course, Cambridgeshire has pointed the way. But there it is only 2 per cent. of the money. In my constituency a school with a budget of £450,000 might well see the governors having discretion over only £3,000. That is absurd. The important thing is to sensitise the system. We all know about the problem of falling school rolls. In an ideal world there would be a broad balance between the capacity of schools and the number of pupils, and all schools would be equally attractive. But in practice that is not so. In Hertfordshire there are 25 per cent. more places than pupils. But the spread is not even: some schools are full, while others are half full.

Eventually, the bureaucrats and politicians in county hall decide which schools should close. A different conclusion might be reached if there was parent power, because parents could choose the school that they wanted. Schools will only have an incentive to perform well, to use resources efficiently and to meet the demands of parents if their finances are in accordance with the number of pupils registered there.

Mr. Dunn


Mr. Fatchett


Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Fatchett first.

Mr. Fatchett

I shall avoid the error of running into the Minister's pleasant comments, and will try to have them removed from Hansard when my reselection comes up. I was most concerned when he said that I could even be one of them. I think that that has a peculiar meaning in the Conservative party.

But the debate has been interesting. It has shown that a substantial section of the Conservative party is anti-local government and local democracy despite its attempts to conceal that fact. Those hon. Members want to centralise education more and more. The debate has also shown that many Conservative Members are anti-teacher and against what they call educationists. In the past two years they have tried time and again to run down how teachers perform and have failed to give them credit for maintaining a high standard of education despite the Government's policies, which have deprived education of many resources.

I would like to comment briefly—

Mr. Michael Forsyth


Mr. Fatchett

No, I will not give way. I would like to comment on the theoretical arguments raised by the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). It seems to me that the Right of the Conservative party has got itself into a state of some confusion and contradiction. It is not my task to try to sort out the intellectual thinking of the Conservative party but, from time to time, it may be appropriate to offer some guidance in the spirit of comradeship which has been pervasive in this debate.

In the previous debate, we heard that hon. Members wanted to decentralise, and basically that was their argument—

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