HC Deb 01 December 1987 vol 123 cc745-8
1. Mr. Fearn

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received regarding his proposals for financial delegation to schools and colleges.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

There have been over 700 responses to the consultation paper on financial delegation to schools, and some 350 responses to the paper on further education.

Mr. Fearn

Is the Secretary of State aware that 87 per cent, of our schools—24,000 in all—have fallen into a state of disrepair and need exceptional repairs to put them back in order? As one who is entirely honest, because he went to the same school as I did, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us that his financial delegation will cure the backlog of repairs?

Mr. Baker

I believe that the building that the hon. Gentleman and I shared as schoolboys has fallen down. To be more precise, it sank into the sands of Southport, and has been partly, indeed substantially, rebuilt. That is rather wide of the question, but the hon. Gentleman will know that I have secured for next year, in the financial settlement, a substantial increase in the capital allocations for schools, amounting to an increase of some 22 per cent, in the capital allocations over this year.

Mr. Pawsey

Does my right hon. Friend accept that delegations to schools will allow for the more efficient use of resources? It will allow parents, teachers and governing bodies to decide for themselves the priority of the school, which must be to the considerable advantage of education.

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is probably agreed on both sides of the House that the delegation of budgets to governing bodies and heads should go ahead Indeed, it is going ahead very strongly at present. Practice will anticipate the provisions of the Bill in this respect.

2. Mr. McAllion

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will outline his plans for the future of comprehensive education in England and Wales.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

It is for local education authorities to consider how to organise school provision in their areas. Where proposals for changes in the existing pattern come to me for decision, I shall continue to consider them on their individual merits.

Mr. McAllion

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent Edinburgh university study which was commissioned by the Scottish Office and which welcomed the improvement in the standards of Scottish education, brought about by the introduction of comprehensive schools. In particular, it welcomed the increase in the number of pupils staying on beyond the statutory school leaving age and the substantial increase in the number of pupils obtaining ordinary and higher grade qualifications.

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore undertake to arrange for a similar study to be conducted for England and Wales? Does he accept that if he did so his time would be far better spent than it is now in trying to dismantle the comprehensive system south of the border through his great education reform Bill?

Mr. Baker

The study to which the hon. Gentleman refers by no means shows a causal link between comprehensive reorganisation and examination success. However, as the hon. Gentleman has asked me to consider setting up a study in England and Wales, he should be aware of the Welsh study, published early this year, of a community where education was comprehensive in half the area and selective in the other half. The authors found that the selective schools were superior in a range of outcomes, including reading scores and examination results. Comprehensives failed most with pupils of average and below average ability.

Mr. Baldry

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our proposals for comprehensive schools are entirely in keeping with the findings of the second Vatican council, which concluded that parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children should have true liberty in their choice of schools?

Mr. Baker

I am very glad to have support from the second Vatican council. I am encouraged to believe that it has pointed out in a clear way the importance of parental choice in education, which has appeared in the statute law of this country for several centuries. That is one of the main thrusts of the Bill that we shall be discussing later.

Mr. Flanncry

Is it not a fact that although the Minister is asked about his future plans for comprehensive education, in fact his main plan is to utterly destroy it? Why does he not say so? Why is he waging a vendetta against it? Does he not realise that if he compares selective schools and comprehensive schools within a certain area, the so-called comprehensive schools cannot possibly be comprehensive if they are at the side of a selective system?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman should refer to the Welsh study. It drew considerable comment when it was published earlier this year. It is not our intention to destroy comprehensive schools. There are many fine comprehensive schools which serve their communities and their children very well.

3. Mr. Leigh

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals will be contained in the Education Reform Bill to promote greater choice in education in rural areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Bob Dunn)

The Education Reform Bill will increase the scope for informed choice in education among all parents. It will help to raise standards in all schools, wherever they may be located.

Mr. Leigh

Does my hon. Friend agree that the ability of parents to choose in rural areas is limited, not just by artificial limits set on the size of schools—that situation will be rectified by clause 17 of the Education Reform Bill —but by the cost of travel to a favoured school, which in an area such as Lincolnshire can be as far as 10 miles away? Will my hon Friend consider the creation of rural travel education vouchers to extend freedom of choice to parents?

Mr. Dunn

My hon. Friend will have to accept, as I do, that parental choice inevitably has to operate within the context of the area in which the school is situated. Even where there is only one school, for example, parents will still be able to apply to the Secretary of State for it to be withdrawn from local authority control. The advantages of the national curriculum and financial delegation will still obtain.

Mr. Ashdown

Does the Minister recall that the Audit Commission, in its response to the Government's proposals about open enrolment, said that unless the Government instituted a system to extend home-school transport costs in rural areas poorer families would effectively be inhibited from having a choice because they would not be able to meet transport costs? What does he intend to do about that, or are poorer families not supposed to have a choice?

Mr. Dunn

Whether a school is in a town or the country, positive improvements in achievement will result once the Bill, to be voted upon later today, becomes law. Many provisions will bite on the school to its advantage. The dark days of poor performance against international competition are over. Nothing is going to be the same again.

Mr. Haselhurst

Will my hon. Friend pay close attention to the problems of transport? It is a real difficulty if genuine choice is to be maintained. The choice may be between schools that are four miles or seven miles away. Parents feel strongly about that and I hope that my hon. Friend will give the House an assurance that he will look carefully at the problem.

Mr. Dunn

The provision of school transport is a matter for the local education authority. Current arrangements are not affected by the Bill, except that local education authorities will have to treat pupils equally, whether they attend local education authority or grant-maintained schools.

Ms. Armstrong

Does the Minister recognise that some of the proposals contained in his Bill will mean that some rural schools will be under threat of closure because, to date, they have been supported by additional resources from local education authorities and that LEA planning has kept numbers at a viable level? Will he tell the House whether he will put money into those schools to ensure that they are able to be retained in those areas?

Mr. Dunn

The Government recognise that many small village schools have to be retained because of the geographical isolation of the communities they serve, especially where the alternative schools would necessitate unacceptably long journeys for young children. For some years we have had the sparsity factor in the allocation of grants from Government.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Is my hon. Friend aware that Lancashire county council is wickedly proposing to try to close five rural schools near me? Is he further aware of the volume of opposition, which is growing hourly?

Mr. Dunn

My hon. Friend misses no opportunity to bring to the House the case of her constituents. I can assure her that when the Lancashire education authority proposes to close schools she will be given every opportunity to bring to me and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State her views and those of her constituents on the proposals for closure.