HC Deb 26 October 1987 vol 121 cc81-118
Mr. Speaker

We now come to the debate on consultation on the Government's education proposals. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. As this debate has started somewhat late, I make a special appeal for brief contributions from both the Back and the Front Benches.

7.40 pm
Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I beg to move, That this House believes that the interests of the nation's children require that any major educational changes should be based upon broad public agreement: notes that the Secretary of State for Education and Science has generally allowed six weeks only for the responses to his consultative documents to be submitted and has made clear that he will ignore most of those responses: condemns Her Majesty's Government for making a mockery of the consultative process: and calls for the suspension of all proposals for legislation so that proper public consultation and debate can take place upon proposals which, if implemented, would fail to improve genuinely parental choice, impose unnecessary additional burdens on schools and teachers and seriously damage the education of the nation's children. The Conservative party's general election manifesto pledged this Government to widespread change in the nation's education system. However, in some parts of that manifesto the Prime Minister has decided to stand on her head — for example, on the national curriculum. Two years ago, in the White Paper "Better Schools", the Prime Minister emphatically ruled out a national curriculum. We are now told that it is to be the centrepiece of these reforms.

In other cases, there have been the gimmicks of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The so-called city technology colleges were incorporated in the manifesto. As for the rest of the education system, the pledges originated with the extreme right-wing Hillgate group and an assemblage of little-known Tory BackBenchers, who called themselves the no-turning back group. In its preposterous pamphlet, "Save Our Schools", this band of 13 set down in detail all the schemes in the manifesto for the creation of central state schools — opted-out schools as they are known — and for so-called open admission, and other hair-brained schemes for the balkanisation of the nation's education service. It was on the basis of these assertions — to call them ideas would be to do an injustice to the English language—that the Government now claim a mandate for embarking in haste on the greatest and least considered upheaval of the education system that this country has ever seen.

Whatever won the election for the Conservative party, it was not its education policy. Labour was further ahead on education by the end of the election campaign than it had been at the beginning. That was thanks, in large part, to the excellent advocacy of my good and hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), but it was thanks, too, to the quite separate efforts of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Science. It will be recalled that the Prime Minister set the hares going as to whether opted-out schools could charge fees, select their own pupils and pay teachers higher salaries. Each of the Prime Minister's statements had to be disowned by the Secretary of State as soon as he heard about them, having turned on his car telephone about six hours too late.

In its summer edition of "Crossbow" the Bow Group commented acidly that the education policy has failed the unpredictability test and confirmed that the policy had indeed been "cobbled together" at the last minute. Since the Bow Group numbers among its patrons the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Employment, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Bow Group is presumably in a position to know.

A poll in The Sunday Times just after the election showed that many more parents were opposed to the plans for schools to opt out than were in favour. Evidence in the same paper yesterday showed that that trend is accelerating, with the Conservatives losing the argument on education.

In the course of this debate, the Secretary of State will no doubt plead the doctrine of the mandate in the face of mounting hostility to his plans, but whatever the arguments about the nature of the mandate for his proposals, the Secretary of State has no mandate whatever for the timetable that he and the Prime Minister are now seeking to impose upon a reluctant House and nation. The manifesto was wholly silent on the timetable. So, too, were the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State throughout the election campaign.

Nor, indeed, was the Secretary of State explicit about the timetable in the debate on the Loyal Address just four months ago. Instead, what we had then from the Secretary of State were honeyed words about consultation: There will be a debate not just in the House but in the country. We want to listen to people in the education system."—[Official Report, 1 July 1987; Vol. 118, c. 586.] The honey turned to treacle when the Secretary of State addressed the Council of Local Education Authorities in July. His words deserve to be repeated. He said: I readily acknowledge … the need to take account of the expertise and experience of local authorities in the delivery of education. We shall listen carefully to the comments of representatives of local government … Let us now work together to consolidate the progress we have made … The Government's policies will not be effective unless they secure the co-operation of the education service and the schools". That was the promise. How different, how cynical, has been the practice. Five major consultation documents were published in July — on collective worship and on admissions, on 7 and 9 July respectively, and one on financial delegation on 20 July. Those three consultation documents set ludicrously short deadlines for the receipt of comments—by the second week of September.

The Secretary of State then showed even more contempt for the House by publishing the two most important documents, on the national curriculum and on opting out, on the very last Friday — 24 July — of the Session, after most hon. Members had left for their constituencies. His deadline was 30 September. The Secretary of State chose this period for listening very well, when most people and most institutions were not available to talk to him. Of the nine weeks that he allowed for response, six were during the school summer holidays when parents, teachers, local education authorities and national bodies had all dispersed.

The Secretary of State bleats on about parental choice. What kind of choice have parents been offered in this consultation exercise when, to formulate their views on matters which will have a profound effect on their children's lives, the Secretary of State gave them and their schools just three weeks to comment on the national curriculum and opting out, and just one week — one week of term—to respond to the document on so-called financial delegation, which may force parents and governors to choose between an adequate supply of books, or the redecoration of classrooms, or an adequate supply of teachers? "By their deeds shall ye know them." For this Secretary of State, for this Prime Minister, parental choice is simply a hollow phrase. Parents and their children are simply pawns in a ruthless exercise to destroy our system of free education, provided by local communities.

What kind of choice has been given to parents in inner London by the Secretary of State, who has allowed just five weeks for responses to a scheme that will disrupt education across inner London when, even to close one tiny school, local authorities have to consult for eight weeks? In a survey that we conducted in September of a representative sample of 30 local education authorities, 97 per cent. had been unable, in the time, to consult parent-teacher associations, and 90 per cent. had been unable to consult school governors. In only 62 per cent. of cases was there time to consult the full education committee, and in only one case the full council.

To all this the Secretary of State may respond by referring to the thousands of responses that he has received—to the aggregate of 10,650 responses from individuals and 3,300 responses from institutions and bodies, as he told me last Thursday in a written answer. But the scale of the response should be of no comfort to him. It shows not compliance or agreement with his timetable but simply anger and concern about what he is proposing to do and how he is proposing to go about it — just as the scale of the response in Scotland shows unremitting hostility to the ideas of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

It takes a rare skill to unite the National Union of Teachers, the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association, all the parent's organisations and local authority associations, as well as every wing of the Church of England, including the Prime Minister's favourite bishop, Dr. Graham Leonard, the Lord Bishop of London. The Secretary of State has achieved that improbable feat.

The Secretary of State is aware of the opposition to his proposals and has had detailed analyses of the responses prepared for him by his Department. But the Secretary of State is so scared of the scale of opposition against him that he has refused my request to publish any of those analyses. I do not need to quote from the Secretary of State's erstwhile enemies; his friends will do. The Conservative Education Association, of which Mr. Phillip Merridale — a former chairman of the Association of County Councils — is a leading member, damned these proposals as "ideological extremism", and said that unless they were significantly modified the Bill could lead to a drop in educational standards". The ILEA opt-out proposal was described as "narrow Toryism." The Association of County Councils, which is dominated by Conservatives, has accused the Secretary of State of paving the way for an educational dictatorship of a type this country has consistently resisted. That is a point that Conservative Members should consider when they take account of the fact that written into the draft Bill are no fewer than 31 separate occasions when the Secretary of State will be taking new powers under this central Administration.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, with regard to new powers and dictatorships, one of the points that has not been to the fore is paragraph 33 of the consultation paper, on the curriculum in which the Secretary of State says that he will not only specify what qualifications and examinations will be offered in schools but that he will put, on a statutory footing, approval of the syllabuses or courses leading to those qualifications and that that will replace the existing free examination secondary school council? Is that not intolerable, because it will lead to educational dictatorship?

Mr. Straw

I share my hon. Friend's anxiety about that further degree of centralisation.

Dr. David Muffett, who is the Conservative chairman of Hereford and Worcestershire education committee, and who is no Tory wet, damned the decision intemporately to accelerate the legislative process. The Bow Group said the idea of state schools opting out convinces no one. The Secretary of State has even been unable to persuade the education committee of his own county, Surrey, in which his constituency of Mole Valley is situated, to back his plans. The Surrey education committee attacked the plans, and the county education officer, Mr. Malcolm Pinchin, made a plea to his Secretary of State. He said: I hope he will sit up and listen. I must tell Mr. Pinchin that that is a vain hope.

In June and July the Secretary of State told the world that he would listen, but he has now blocked his ears. Who can believe that the very same man who 10 weeks ago spoke of partnership, of working with the local authorities, of wanting the co-operation of the education service and its schools and of listening to what he was told should, at the Conservative conference, arrogantly and contemptuously dismiss all those who had taken him at his word but dared to oppose him by saying: I do not intend to delay implementing our policies. I have no intention of changing our manifesto commitments. I will only consider proposals which will enhance and complement them. The Secretary of State was not saying that he will listen, not that he wants partnership, not that he wants cooperation, but that he will listen only when people tell him what he wants to hear.

How does that square with the statement of his Parliamentary Secretary in the Lords, Baroness Hooper, who said: The Secretary of State has said that he intends to move ahead only with broad agreement."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 1987; Vol. 488, c. 1070.] If what the Secretary of State said at the Tory party conference was to be the basis of the consultation — evidently from the cheers from behind him it was — why did the Secretary of State not make that clear when he started this exercise, or at any stage in the debate on the Loyal Address, or in his speech to the Conference of Local Education Authorities? He could have spelt out this critical qualification: not that he wanted the genuine views of parents, teachers, governors, or LEAs about the future of this nation's education service, but that he simply wanted to use those people, to plunder them for ideas to provide the detail about the manifesto commitments that he and the Prime Minister had so lamentably failed to provide in the election.

The House and this country deserve an apology from the Secretary of State for the way in which they have so grievously been misled. The very art of consultation implies that others may have greater wisdom; that it is worth them expressing their view. Consultation is a part of our democratic process. It is no wonder that the Conservative Association of County Councils spoke of fears of dictatorship.

In one speech after another the Secretary of State has preened himself by comparing his new Bill with the 1944 Act that it will, in large part, replace. In his conference speech the Secretary of State said: This will be the most important piece of educational legislation since 1944. Just before referring to that point the Secretary of State referred to Henry IV's Statutes on Education. I am not surprised that Henry IV is the Secretary of State's hero. It was Henry IV who played a dubious part in the downfall of Richard II. It was Henry IV of whom the Bard wrote, if I can find it—

Mr. Terry Hayes (Harlow)

It is in part II.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Is this meant to be helpful?

Mr. Hayes


Mr. Straw

In fact, it was Henry VI part III, and it was Henry VI talking about Henry IV. He said: Henry IV by conquest got his crown, t'was by rebellion against his king.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)


Mr. Straw

The Secretary of State, let it never be forgotten, was once the vicar on earth for the former Conservative Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The Secretary of State ran the right hon. Gentleman's election leadership campaign against the present Prime Minister in 1975. In the debate on the Loyal Address the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup said: To compare this as a great development with what Rab Butler did would make that great man turn in his grave."—[Official Report, 2 July 1987; Vol. 118, c. 670.] And so it would, not only for the content of the legislation, but the manner in which it is being pursued. If the Secretary of State wishes a place in history next to Rab Butler — as Education Minister, if not two times loser for the Tory party leadership — he should begin by following his wise example. Rab Butler did not use the urgency of war to ride roughshod over his critics. He set out painstakingly to listen—and to change his mind. He published the "Green Book" in the summer of 1941; he did not publish a White Paper until July 1943 and did not publish the Bill until 13 December 1943.

We all understand the wish of any Government to get their legislation through within a Parliament, but what is the rush? Butler's Bill went through Parliament, with extensive consultation, within the lifetime of a normal Parliament. What would be lost if the Secretary of State took his time and provided a worthy successor to the 1944 Act? If it would be too much to expect an aspirant for the leadership of today's Tory party to follow in the steps of Rab Butler, why not follow the example of his immediate predecessor, whose Right-wing credentials are far more impeccable than his own? Sir Keith Joseph listened and took time. The contrast between the Secretary of State's railroading of the Bill and Sir Keith Joseph's careful approach to the 1986 Bill bears comparison. Sir Keith Joseph published a Green Paper in 1984, and a White Paper entitled "Better Schools" in 1985, but did not publish the Bill until 1986.

We know that the Secretary of State's concern for state education is skin deep. Like those of every one of his Cabinet colleagues, his children were opted-out of the state system years ago. He has ensured that, whatever upheaval occurs in the state system, the private sector remains untouched by his proposals, even by the national curriculum, which will have no legal force in private schools. These proposals will dramatically and directly affect the 93 per cent. of children who are in local authority schools, and their parents and teachers. These proposals will damage the education of our children. They may blight a generation if they go through unamended. It is time that the Secretary of State listened to teachers, educationists and those on his side, but above all to parents, whose name he often takes in vain, and to the children on whose behalf they speak.

I commend this motion to the House.

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

I beg to move, to leave out from "require" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: that there should be no delay in the introduction of the Government's proposals for education reform, which have been endorsed by the electorate and provide an essential programme of action to deliver wider choice to parents, greater autonomy for schools and colleges to manage their resources in the best interests of the pupils and students, and higher standards of performance throughout the education system; congratulates the Government on the extent of its consultation and its willingness to continue consultation on the details of its proposals; and welcomes the scale of response to the consultation. Obviously the new Opposition spokesman on education wanted a debate at the earliest opportunity in order to expose at full throttle the Labour party's righteous indignation to our proposals. Indeed, Opposition Front Bench spokesmen were so keen to debate the subject that earlier this afternoon they asked for it to be replaced by a debate on the economy. So much for their concern about education. At the first opportunity to discuss education since the recess they are prepared to drop the subject. On the matter of the urgency of getting our proposals on to the statute book, I can say only that it is a pity they were not on the statute book many years ago when the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was at school because, clearly, he would have benefited from the national curriculum proposals on English literature and English history. He managed to misquote Shakespeare and mix up Henry IV with Henry VI. There is about 80 years between the two.

Mr. Straw


Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman slandered Henry IV by saying that he had a direct hand in the murder of Richard II. Even worse, he said that he had a "dubious part"—an innuendo. I must give way so that he can justify his innuendo about Henry IV.

Mr. Straw

The reference to the Secretary of State's hero, Henry IV, appeared in "Henry VI, part III".

Mr. Baker

I understand and follow that. Nevertheless, it was a stumbling, fumbling quotation that did little to enhance the hon. Gentleman's argument. I quoted the statute of Henry IV because it laid on the statute book a right for any man or woman in the realm to send their children to whatever manner of school they chose. It is an interesting example of early parental choice. It is an example of Lancastrian values.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Baker

If hon. Members will forgive me, I believe that several maiden speakers wish to contribute to the debate and I do not want to take too long.

The legislation that we shall bring before the House next month will constitute the most sweeping range of education reforms since the war. The hon. Member for Blackburn acknowledged that. I make no apology for that. It is the measure of the need for change. We are responding to the concern and worry of parents about standards. They know that, in spite of the high standards achieved by some of our schools, too often children are not achieving as well as they could or as well as they should.

In all revolutionary change there is a powerful strand of evolution. The hon. Member for Blackburn gave the impression that there had been no debate about educational standards over the past decade. However, our proposals for the national curriculum, which I first set out to the Select Committee on Education in April, build on the national discussions started by Lord Callaghan, as he now is, at Ruskin over 10 years ago, the work of Her Majesty's inspectorate and others in developing wider agreement on the objectives of the school curriculum, and our White Paper "Better Schools" published in 1985. I hear that the hon. Member for Blackburn claims credit for the national curriculum because he chaired a Labour party working group on the subject in the 1970s. He half saw a good idea and buried it for 15 years. But lapsed virtue is better than no virtue.

If the hon. Gentleman's ideas were so good, why did he spend the rest of the 1970s as a special adviser, not at the Department of Education and Science, but at the Department of Health and Social Security and at the Department of the Environment? Clearly, a prophet is not honoured in his own party. I have not had the benefit of seeing the report. Will the hon. Gentleman lay a copy in the Library, together with the various responses that it drew? We would all find it interesting. I am sure that it should be submitted to the Chesterfield group of the Labour party as well.

Our proposals for financial delegation to schools and colleges build on the best practice of a number of local authorities. Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that. Local financial management is nothing new. It is a widely supported principle already being enthusiastically taken up by local education authorities and schools in many different parts of the country. At least 21 LEAs have developed experimental schemes. This is one of those areas in which the introduction of change is already running ahead of the legislation.

More open enrolment, based on the concept of the standard number introduced in 1980, puts right a basic injustice of parents denied their choice of school where places exist and are unused. In practice, many local authorities already seek to ensure that available places in demand by parents are fully taken up.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)


Mr. Baker

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to press on.

Our proposals for grant maintained schools will restore diversity to our state system—a diversity so shamefully and wantonly destroyed by the Labour party when it got rid of the direct grant schools.

In our manifesto we told the people clearly what we intended and why. There was no hidden agenda. Since then we have issued 10 consultation documents setting out the details of our proposals in advance of legislation. I take it that these consultation documents are the real burden of the hon. Member for Blackburn's complaint. The higher education White Paper proposing changes in the structure and national planning of higher education was published as long ago as last April and since then we have published three supporting documents.

The hon. Member for Blackburn claims that the period of consultation since the election has not allowed those affected by the proposals to express their views. That belies the facts. There has been enormous interest in our consultation papers. Well over 100,000 copies of the various documents have been sent out in response to demand. That is on top of the 10,000 copies that we initially circulated to LEAs, churches, national bodies, parents' organisations and other bodies with an interest in our proposals. We have already received well over 14,000 responses. That is a very considerable response: evidence both of interest which our proposals have aroused and the care with which they have been considered. The timetable has been tight, but the responses show that those consulted have not found it unmanageable. Indeed, the responses precisely demonstrate that the object of this phase of consultation—to enable the Government to consider the views of the education service in drafting their legislation—has been fulfilled.

Mr. Straw

As the Secretary of State has had prepared for himself and his colleagues analyses of the responses, will he say, broadly speaking, what proportion of those 14,000 responses are in favour of his proposals and what proportion are against? If he cannot answer that now, will he place those analyses in the Library?

Mr. Baker

I have already replied to the hon. Gentleman, and the House will know that I have already arranged for the responses that we have had in consultation from all public bodies, institutions, governing bodies and local education authorities to be placed in the Library. We sent over two van loads last week, and more will be sent this week. We have had many responses from individual members of the public, particularly on the national curriculum. I do not intend to make those available, for the simple reason that we do not know whether a particular respondent would wish them to be made available. I think that the hon. Member for Blackburn would agree with that.

I have received analyses on many of the papers, but the analysis is a Civil Service and Government matter. As I have said, we have made all the responses available to the House. Others are free to analyse the papers and I believe that Labour party headquarters is well stocked with surplus staff ready to take on the task.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)


Mr. Baker

I shall give way to the spokesman for the Liberal party, but this should be the last time I give way.

Mr. Ashdown

The Secretary of State said that he was interested in the consultations because they would be helpful in drafting the legislation. If he intends to publish the Bill in mid-November, why does the consultation document on charging ask for returns by 30 November, a full two weeks later?

Mr. Baker

I made it clear in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman — I believe that it was public correspondence — that we do not intend to include proposals on charging in the first draft of the Bill because the consultation process has been extended. Local authorities have asked us to clarify the law on charging, and it is a very complicated matter. The first draft of the Bill will therefore contain no proposals on charging.[Interruption.] The Bill will be introduced in the Commons.

As I have made clear — and I wish to do so again today — the consultation does not end with the expiry of the deadlines on each document. In drafting the Bill we shall take account of comments received up to the point at which the text has to be finalised for introduction to the House. My discussions are continuing with the local authority associations, the churches and other organisations. Last week I was handed the CBI's response to the national curriculum consultation document. My door remains open. Many of the provisions in the Bill will follow the precedent of previous education legislation in setting a framework within which the details of implementation will be established by secondary legislation on which there will naturally be further and extensive consultation.

I shall explain to the House what that means. The national curriculum will be introduced only after the widest possible discussion and with the widest possible measure of agreement. That is why the reports of subject working groups will be published. I have set up two subject working groups and asked them to report by next summer. That is why the Bill will provide for a national curriculum council to consult education interests on my behalf before formulating specific advice on attainment targets, programmes of study and testing arrangements, and why I shall consult those interests again on the basis of draft statutory orders before seeking the approval of Parliament. We intend an open process, and that is what it will be.

That continuing process of consultation will inform all aspects of our proposals. For example, many have expressed concern about assessment and testing, although not, to be fair, the hon. Member for Blackburn, who has made plain his support for testing. In September he said: There's no doubt that the parents want some objective yardstick against which to measure their children's achievement in education. We agree, and we have asked a group of experts to come up with a coherent scheme of national testing and assessment to feed into the work of the subject working parties and the National Curriculum Council. Its report will be published and will form the basis of open discussion.

For example, the consultation has raised worries among some respondents that the national curriculum will be over-prescriptive, squeezing out time for important aspects of the school curriculum. We have asked the subject working groups specifically to develop attainment targets which embrace important cross-curricular themes and to develop programmes of study to support those attainment targets. The aim is to ensure that the national curriculum reinforces the best of existing practice in schools. The consultation process will ensure that these and other issues can be fully addressed.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)


Mr. Baker

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way.

For example, many who welcome our proposals for financial delegation express concern about some detailed aspects, and we recognise that. The legislation will leave with local authorities the responsibility for producing schemes of local financial management for my approval. We have commissioned consultants to develop work on the most effective and cost-effective ways of moving forward, based on the best practice that already exists. Their report will be published, I hope, later this year. It will help us to work with local authorities and others to work through and find solutions to the problems.

The hon. Member for Blackburn then argues that the problem is not that we have not consulted, but that we are not listening. Let me make the position quite clear. I have stressed to the local authority associations and others that I would value their experience and knowledge in achieving our objectives. As I have already said, there are many detailed aspects on which I expect to work with the education service, many of them identified in the consultation exercise. But the solutions will have to be found within the policies and principles to which we as a Government are committed. That is why, for example, in a letter to the local authority associations I have asked them to put forward proposals

in the interests of establishing an agreed course within the bounds of the route marked out by the Government". A consultation process is not the means constitutionally by which we reach final decisions, although it can help to inform the proposals and the public debate. Parliament is the final arbiter. In the full light of what we have learnt from the consultations, we shall submit our proposals to Parliament to decide whether they should be implemented.

No one will be surprised that the Labour party has chosen to debate procedures rather than the substance of our proposals today, as during the election campaign it showed that it was devoid of ideas on how to improve standards for children in this country. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackburn, as he is trying to fashion a new education policy for the Labour party, but very little has changed. Just a few weeks ago, however, I heard one hesitant Labour voice asking some interesting questions. The following were some of them.

What should we be doing about the fact that fewer girls than boys take science and technology? Should local authorities be considering magnet schools? How do we involve parents more in their children's education? What are our proposals for monitoring the progress of each child against the peer group and against national standards? Are we rigorous enough in monitoring our schools to ensure that they are performing to standard? Those questions are on the right lines. They actually recognise the national debate of the past 10 years. But when the leader of the ILEA put them to his comrades in the Labour party he was roundly condemned. Not only do Labour Members not have any answers — they do not even like to have the questions asked.

Mr. Spearing

As the Secretary of State is asking questions, perhaps he will allow me to intervene.

Mr. Baker

I am not asking questions. Those questions were asked by a leading Labour spokesman.

As the New Statesman put it: Neil Fletcher, and people like him, should have asked the hard questions years ago; they have been waiting to be asked for at least a decade since the James Callaghan 'Great Debate' on education ran into the sands. The Left did not face up to failures and to the manifest alarm of the mass of parents. The reason for that silence is not difficult to find, and the hon. Member for Blackburn knows it. His party is the mouthpiece of the producers and not the consumers.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Baker

The hon. Member for Blackburn recognises that. As he timidly put it: people in some of the white-collared public sector unions not affiliated to the Labour Party may have too much influence in setting the agenda and the language used. I do not know whether that was passed by the Chesterfield group, but the sentiment is impeccable. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The reality is that the Labour party, imprisoned by the producers, has not dared to set any agenda at all. There is real mockery. It is we who have identified the questions and it is the Government who have proposed the answers — answers that will give greater choice to parents, freedom from doctrinaire interference, improved quality and better standards for all our children.

8.17 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I have listened with care to the Secretary of State and it seems to me that his argument falls into three basic parts.

First, the right hon. Gentleman said that there had been general discussion for a number of years about matters relating to education and to the core curriculum. That is perfectly true, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot use that as an argument because he knows that many of the participants in that discussion, although they agree that there should be more commonality in the curriculum, disagree profoundly with the Government's proposals. I number among those people not just the professionals and those involved in education, but many members of the Conservative party. The Secretary of State cannot say that, because there has been general discussion, about some aspects of education, the detailed proposals which he is putting forward, which are anathema to many, do not require the fullest public consultation.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman sought to argue that he was somehow merely enshrining best practice. Any rational, objective judgment leads one to the conclusion that that is not so. A large number of authorities, many of them Conservative-run, fall within the right hon. Gentleman's definition of best practice but disagree with his proposals in the most pungent terms. The right hon. Gentleman represents the Bill as the great education reform Bill, but he knows perfectly well that many of his proposals go very much further than best practice. That is the truth. He would be doing the House more of a service if he were to admit to that here, as he claimed it to be the case when the audience was the Conservative party conference rather than the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman's final defence was that, somehow or other, he had a mandate, a consensus, for the proposals. I shall refer to that.

However, first I should like to mention the slight jibing — not wholly unwarranted — for the Labour party's Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). He said that we were talking about procedures. For some who are not directly involved in education, consultation might be a procedural matter. It is pretty extraordinary that the Secretary of State sees it as a procedural matter, some arcane subject that should not concern the House of Commons. The opposite is the truth, and the Secretary of State knows it very well, for this is not a mere procedural matter. It is not an arcane detail—it goes to the heart of the Government's attitude on bringing in the proposals, which many regard as among the most damaging and divisive that the country has seen for many a long year. It goes to the heart of the Government's attitude towards education. It is not about procedures; it is about the honouring of promises. It is about testing the Government's seriousness to maintain education as a partnership, not dictated from the centre. It is about measuring the Government's true intent in dealing with choice and establishing whether this is the truth or a cover for more centralised control. It is about establishing what will be the climate of change that dominates a period of profound change in the education system as a result of the Government's proposals. What will that climate be? That is what it is about.

Many regard those changes as fundamental, damaging and divisive. I number myself among those people, although the stated aims of the Government and the Secretary of State are ones with which I would wholly concur. The right hon. Gentleman says that his aim is choice. We shall see. He says that his aim is improving standards. We shall see. No one in the House or elsewhere would wish to gainsay those aims. I subscribe to them. The question is not whether the aims are right but whether the mechanisms and the means of putting them into practice are right.

As the hon. Member for Blackburn said, one does not have to look to statements by Opposition parties to discover the view on the matter. I have taunted the Secretary of State with this before. Before the House went into recess, I asked him to produce a single reputable body involved in education, either a consumer or a producer, which backed his proposals. The Secretary of State always claims that we are talking about the producers. That does not apply to the National Confederation of Parent Teachers Associations, which agrees that the proposals are damaging, divisive, and dangerous and will be destructive to our education system. He does not even have to look outside his own party for such judgments. I shall mention just one of the many Conservative education authorities that have commented on the proposals.

West Sussex is under massive Conservative control. It will be instructive for the House to note what the education committee felt in its resolution of 8 September. The committee stated: The Committee feel that not only are these proposals unlikely to achieve the Secretary of State's objective of improving educational standards, but the costs of their implementation would be very substantial and the financial provision could be directed more effectively in other ways to the benefit of the education service. That is not the Opposition speaking. It is not the producers speaking, which the Secretary of State has found it easy to dispense with and attack. That is a Conservative education authority's reasoned comment on the Secretary of State's proposals. He cannot simply push such comments to one side as if they do not matter.

The Secretary of State claims that there is a consensus in the country and that the matter was discussed during the general election, so we can take it as read. But there is not even a consensus in his own party. That is the truth. If Conservative Back Benchers were more blunt, honest and frank, many voices would be raised against the proposals—a few courageous voices might even be heard tonight.

Against that background, I quote the words of Oliver Cromwell: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. There are few who know anything about education who agree with the proposals in detail—

Mr. Kenneth Baker

We are having a few history lessons tonight. I always find it extraordinary when Members of Parliament quote the words of Oliver Cromwell. He is the one figure in history who abolished us.

Mr. Ashdown

Yes, but after the monarch of the day had sought to do exactly the same thing. I shall not go into too much detail, but it is instructive for the House to remember that many of its rights and privileges date from that time.

I should like to ask the Secretary of State this question. In view of the comments even from his own party, the professionals, the experts, the head teachers whom he has called in aid in his support in the past, and from the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, will he not admit that he might be wrong? If he will, why has he conducted such a charade of a consultation process?

We are entitled to remind ourselves that in his speech on the Gracious Speech on 1 July he promised that there would be a debate not just in the house but in the country."—[Official Report, 1 July 1987: Vol. 118, c. 586] What sort of debate? Hon. Members, parents, teachers and those involved in education recall that promise and remind themselves that it has not been honoured. We have had a single-handed attempt to rewrite education over the brief months of the summer holidays when most are away.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

With respect, the hon. Gentleman, like the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), has slurred teachers by suggesting that they were not prepared to use any part of their holidays to look at the documents that we are discussing. All teachers have done so. I have talked to many who have done so and who have been involved in discussions all over the country. What is the hon. Gentleman talking about?

Mr. Ashdown

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that most teachers have found it possible to react to the consultation papers, but he knows as well as I do, and the Secretary of State knows better than anyone, the anger and concern about people having to respond to those consultation papers in a rush. For example, many members of boards of governors are changed at the end of August, as the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) will know well. What decent period of consultation can there be under those circumstances? In many cases, consultation papers have not even been available.

The process has been a farce, a charade. At best it has been a meaningless exercise and at worst it has been a deliberate attempt to provide a cover for the Government's intentions, indeed to provide a mechanism by which they can impose their own ideological prejudices irrespective of the views of others.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North might take account of other comments made by West Sussex. which will be instructive to him and others. It said: There is great concern at the very short time allowed for comment which has not permitted any local consultation with governors, teachers, parents and other members of the local community. This is ironic in view of the Secretary of State's claim to value in particular the opinion of governors and parents. That is the view of a Conservative association. The authority said that the lack of time was ironic in view of the Government's pretence of valuing the views of parents and others. Indeed, it is an irony. It is an irony that the Government pretended that they would hand power to parents and then made it clear that they were not prepared to listen to them. It is an irony that they pretended that they were interested in choice, but are not prepared to allow a realistic partnership and realistic consultation. It is an irony that the Government said that they wish to take politics out of education, yet by overturning a decent process of consultation they have imposed their own ideology in a way that those who follow will use as a premise.

I can imagine the roar of anger from Conservative Benches if a Labour or alliance Secretary of State had sought to impose those conditions without consultation and put so much power in the hands of the Secretary of State. The Government's failure to provide realistic opportunities for consultation with parents frankly exposes the lie behind their proposals. They are designed to put more power not in the hands of parents but in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. They are designed not to create reform through partnership, but to impose ideology, dictation and tighter control from the centre. They are designed not to preserve a unified education system, but to create a broken, fractured one. A divided education system for a divided nation — that is the charge to which the Secretary of State is now open. That is not a procedural matter it goes to the heart, and it shows the lie that is at the heart of the Government's proposals about giving importance to the views of parents. By treating parents and the views of others with such arrogance during this period of consultation the Government have shown that they are interested only in imposing their ideology and wrecking our education system.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

This is a brief debate and I hope that hon. Members will seek to make brief speeches.

8.31 pm
Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

Following your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not take up many of the points made by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), except to say that, throughout all these consultations, the parents have been mentioned time and time again. The decision to opt out of schools, the decision to give more power to teachers in the schools, and so on, show that. I believe that the more power one gives to parents and to teachers in the schools, the better it is for the schools and children.

I realise that time is limited, but I want to refer to the matter of consultation, which is the basis of the debate tonight. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) mentioned polls. The poll that mattered was held on 11 June. Since that time, the Labour party has been looking at its bellybutton, trying to change its policy, and hoping to get way with it before it pulls its shirt down again. Sometimes that is done openly, as in Chesterfield — I shall not describe the colour of that shirt, or even where it was made. I suggest that the party is now trying to catch up with consultation. The Times Educational Supplement said in its diary this week — I have never thought of that journal as being pro-Conservative, whatever Mr. Murdoch's other papers may be—that the Labour party is now the party of educational standards, share ownership and the family. That leaves something out. It is not the party of those things but it would like to be, because it believes that unless it becomes so it will remain for ever more on the Opposition Benches. We sympathise with right hon. and hon. Members in the Opposition. It is not very pleasant to be in their position. Now they say that they stand for share ownership and the family and consultation.

Where was the consultation when circular 10/65 went out? I was at the chalk face then. A draft went out to the local authorities, and I should like to know how it was changed in the light of their replies when the final circular went out. Similarly, when, in 1974, the Labour Government came to power again — one of those remiss events of history for which we can think of historical reasons — an Act was passed in 1976 that ended the selective schools in this country, and I do not remember a consultative paper at that time. That Act probably did more harm to working-class children in inner-city areas than anything else that has ever gone through the House.

If the Labour party wants to change its policies, I offer to help rewrite them. I have more time on my hands now, and I can help it make its policies more popular in the country — so much so that it will be cheered on both sides of the House.

Likewise, when the direct grant schools went, there was a three-hour debate in the House, and that was all. I do not remember any other consultation about that. Obviously, the electorate noticed at that time that there was not much consultation. They agreed to punish the Opposition, and remembered what they had done, at the next general election. But there is no doubt that the electorate disagreed with Labour's policy and lack of consultation at that time. I remember how the Labour party claimed to have a mandate for circular 10/65 and for ending the selective and direct grant schools. Speaking of mandates, I have here an interesting document, "The Next Moves Forward". It is not exactly written in Shakespearian terminology, but it is in good 20th century prose. It clearly states: First, we will establish a National Core Curriculum. So people knew what they were doing when they voted on 11 June. The document went on to say that it would give schools more control over their own budgets—that part is even underlined in a different colour. The colour is blue, which is a good colour, and it was well liked on 11 June, when it was a popular colour. It promised, thirdly to "increase parental choice." So, time and time again, we said exactly what we were doing and did it.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that the consultations go on. Tonight's debate is part of the consultation process. My right hon. Friend has said that, until the proposals are set in concrete, consultation will go on all the time. That is what many teachers and many people in the Conservative party would like. I hope that, consultation will bring change to some parts of the proposals. I am concerned by the fact that 80 per cent. of the curriculum is laid down — I think that that is too much, especially when it leaves out a second foreign language, the classics, home economics, business studies, art, music, drama and religious studies. That needs to be examined; some bright children should be studying two or three languages by the age of 15 or 16. What is proposed would be too tight a constraint upon them. On the other hand, there are other pupils who would prefer more vocational studies, such as they are being given in most countries these days, capitalist and Communist alike. I trust that such studies would be included. More time should be given to children who are vocationally orientated so that they know what they are doing and can get the jobs they want.

The hon. Member for Yeovil talked about best practices. This is all about the better part of best. We were looking at best practices, and the better part is put in. I particularly hope that the consultation process—

Mr. Ashdown

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I listened to him for quite a long time, and I disagreed with him entirely. I am approaching my peroration, and I do not want to be slowed down on my run in or I may hit a hurdle.

We have set an example: we have said what we are doing, we are holding consultations so that the amendments that people want can be put forward. When the Bill is laid before the House, it should be one that all of us, whatever drawbacks we may now feel it to have, can support entirely. I trust that the Bill will be cheered throughout the length and breadth of the country and that it will do for education what should have been done a long time ago—the tightening of standards and the raising of teacher morale throughout the country.

8.38 pm
Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) is always a good turn. When he got on to circular 10/65 I dreaded that he was going to quote from William the Conqueror, and probably not do so too well. Listening to the Secretary of State's speech, one never ceases to wonder at his bland effrontery. His amendment congratulates the Government on the extent of its consultation and its willingness to continue consultation on the details of its proposals: and welcomes the scale of response to the consultation. In heaven's name, we had about as much consultation during the summer holiday as we heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer tonight about the state of the country—practically nothing, in spite of the Secretary of State's so-called van loads. He knows as well as we do that, on the Friday before the general election, the Prime Minister panicked. She was talking off the top of her head and she spoke such nonsense about education that every other Tory speaker on that day tried to undo the damage that she had done that morning. One of the people who tried hard was the Secretary of State, but he was defeated.

Not only did the Prime Minister talk off the top of her head but we now have a Bill that embodies that nonsense and that we all know is practically unworkable.

Conservative Members show a pitiful inertia even when the Back Benches are full. When the Prime Minister says something that frightens them they all crawl to her. It is appalling that throughout Britain on this issue of education there is deep feeling and worry and that that concern is not at all reflected by Conservative Members. The Secretary of State and the Ministers around him constantly get confused and try to prove that something which is unworkable is workable. That is because practically none of them ever went through the state system of education, although some Conservative Members may say that somebody once did. The state education system is now in the hands of a group of people who are ignoramuses about it and do not know how it works or what to do with it. Those who are knowledgeable —and some of them were on the Select Committee on Education. Science and Arts with me — are terrified to say anything critical in case they get a kick in the teeth.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

The hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about what he says. Not only did I and my children go through the state system of education, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education also went through it. It is a little dangerous for the hon. Gentleman to make comprehensive and sweeping statements.

Mr. Flannery

My statement was not at all dangerous. I said that some hon. Member would say that a Conservative Member had gone through the state system. There is no evidence in the Bill or in the speeches of Conservative Members that any of them did. If they did go through the state system, they have long since forgotten the experience because they are cutting education, and the Bill shows how much they hate the present education system. The Secretary of State called it the great education reform Bill and quoted Butler. In reality it is a deform Bill and does the opposite of the Butler Bill. It takes us back whereas he was taking us forward, after proper consultation.

This Bill requires immense debate, yet people were allowed only six weeks in which to say something about it, six weeks in which Parliament was in recess and the schools were on holiday almost from the same date. The education committees could not get together to discuss it because many of their members were on holiday, and the consultation process was an absolute farce. Therefore, no real consultation has taken place. What sort of mentality is it that tests children at 7, 11, 14 and 16? It is the mentality that teachers had when we were youngsters and Friday morning was test morning. We are to return to that state of affairs. In heaven's name, what is to be tested at the age of seven if we have a curriculum that is much wider? It is the three Rs that will be tested. We are returning to the 11-plus, and the broad general education that has existed for years for our children will be taken backwards instead of forwards.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said that the Government's aims are good. That is not true because they know that they are taking us back. Their aims are not good and that is why there is no consultation. They aim to deform a good education system by damning it with faint praise at the best and damning it with the mentality of the Hillgate group and the black paper that has spawned all this. The Government talk about grant maintained schools, but most parents do not even know what they are and do not know about the opting out system. The Prime Minister says that nearly all parents will opt out and the Secretary of State says that practically nobody will opt out. I wish that they would get together and make up their minds about it. If, as the Prime Minister says, all parents opt out, we will have a Department of Education and Science that looks like the Pentagon because it will have to try to control the masses whom the Prime Minister says will opt out.

The Government do not know what they are doing and they will create chaos in the education system because they are frightened of maddening the Prime Minister. She has said what is to be in the Bill and that is what is happening. Who have the Government consulted about the admission of pupils to maintained schools? What will happen when one school is full and another is nowhere near full? Will there be a vicious market-type struggle over who will keep a school open or who will close it? When this is put into action, it will hit the ordinary people and the children like a blow between the eyes. No one knows what open enrolment will mean. Have the details ever been talked through? Ninety per cent. of parents already send their children to the first-choice school. What will happen if a popular school is oversubscribed and other schools are undersubscribed?

Will head teachers be sent on some kind of accountancy course? I was a headmaster and I know that many schools now have to account for what they spend. There are experts in the local education authority who can see to that. Why do the Government so hate local democracy about which the Tory party once boasted? They want to destroy the local councils and they are beginning with the local education authorities. It is done with the spurious statement that they will give more power to parents. They are giving more power to central Government and taking it away from everybody, including the parents. They will charge for extras.

The Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts has experience of the capitation allowance. We went to the salubrious areas and found that capitations there were already three times as big as the capitation allowance. Some Conservative Members know about that. The wealthy gave money to the schools and the schools had plenty of books. In the east end of my city of Sheffield there is poverty and everything is run down. We have had cut after cut from the Government. How much money can my constituents give education to pay for singing lessons and music lessons? My constituents do not have the money, but people in the well-to-do areas will be able to pay.

I now turn to the grant maintained schools and the opting out procedure. I beg the Secretary of State to go back and consult properly so that all of us can get into the consultation process and the Government can learn what it is all about. The Government are undertaking a step in education that is so backward that it will cause chaos throughout our good system. I saw the German system when I was a member of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, and I have also seen the French system. They are nowhere near as good as ours.

It is about time that we had a little patriotism from the Conservatives about the education system that they are trying to destroy. There are no computers in all the primary schools in West Germany — we have computers in practically every school — and there are hardly any computers in their secondary schools. If the Secretary of State has his way he will destroy the entire education system with what he calls his great reform Bill. Even at this late stage, the Minister and Conservative Members should face up to the Prime Minister, tell her about the grave dangers for our children's education, and tell her that we need more real consultation because during those six weeks when the schools were closed the House was also closed.

8.50 pm
Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I shall not pursue all the hares that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) started, but, if the education system is as good as he said, why did the then right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, Lord Callaghan, introduce the great debate on education? My children were educated in the state sector, and I was educated in the state sector, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) and her children were. For the hon. Gentleman to imply that the children of Conservative Members are not educated in the state sector is absolutely and totally wrong, and he knows it.

This debate is a pre-emptive strike by the Opposition at the forthcoming Education Bill. Opposition Members recognise that that proposed legislation will do for education what the sale of council houses has done for tenants. It will increase the amount of freedom and choice that is available for the individual. It is an indication of the paucity of the argument of Opposition Members that their attacks have been concentrated on the time for consultation rather than on the substance of that consultation. Of course one would like to have seen even more time made available for consultation. That having been said, however, the Government have a clear responsibility to introduce as quickly as possible measures designed to improve the quality and standard of state education. There can be little doubt that the proposals of the Secretary of State for Education and Science will do exactly that.

In answer to parliamentary questions from me dated 20 and 24 July, the Secretary of State made it clear at that time that he was publishing a consultation document on the Government's plans to delegate to schools more control over budgets and also a consultation document on grant-maintained schools. The consultation document on the national curriculum was published even earlier than those two dates—on 9 July. Copies of those documents were widely distributed throughout the country. They were distributed to chief education officers of local education authorities and all national organisations that were known to be interested in education. I am advised that about 58,000 copies of the consultation document referring to the national curriculum were distributed and that about 7,500 replies were received. The Department of Education and Science received a massive response to those documents and that underlines the fact that, while the timetable may have been tight, it certainly was not impossible. The consultation documents are neither the beginning nor the end of the debate. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Gentlemen must contain themselves. There is too much sedentary noise.

Mr. Pawsey

It is worth while recalling that there has been substantial discussion on all the consultation documents. The Secretary of State spoke to the north of England education conference as long ago as last January, when he signposted the way forward for education in the latter part of the 20th century. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) reminded us, education featured prominently in the Conservative manifesto. Our proposals were then widely debated. Those proposals must have been partly responsible for the massive Conservative victory that we had only four months ago. We won our third consecutive victory on the proposals contained in the manifesto, and those proposals referred in detail to education.

While the formal deadline for the response to consultation documents was 30 September, I have not the slightest doubt that comments will be received and, more to the point, will be evaluated during most of the period during which the Bill will be considered. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) tried to argue that point from a sedentary position during the speech of my right hon. Friend. Clearly Opposition Members and the public will be able to make an input while the Bill is being discussed. Therefore, there will continue to be a substantial opportunity for comments to be made and registered during the next few months. Hon. Members, therefore, may feel that a fair and reasonable amount of time has been made available for interested parties to respond to those consultation documents.

Interestingly, I read in the magazine Report, published by AMMA, that, on the issue of financial delegation to schools and grant maintained schools, the question, "Will it work?" was answered by a qualified yes. In my opinion, that yes will be endorsed by the House and by parents and teachers. The proposals for the national curriculum for financial delegation to schools, for grant-maintained schools and for open enrolment will do much to ensure an improved standard of education for our children. I remind hon. Members that the great debate on education was opened by the then right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth in 1976, some 12 years ago. It was recognised 12 years ago that the education system required major overhaul. The proposals of the Secretary of State will ensure that the education system is overhauled and improved.

During the past 12 years the minds of educationists have been directed to methods of improving state education. It is nonsense to suggest that the consultation documents were the first indication that change was necessary. It has been indicated for years that change was necessary.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Pawsey:

The hon. Member will forgive me if I do not, because time is pressing and there is at least one maiden speaker in the debate.

While the scope of the imaginative measures that have been introduced by my right hon. Friend may have taken Opposition Members by surprise, they will do a great deal to improve the quality and standard of education in our schools. I urge the House to reject the motion and to vote for the amendment.

8.56 pm
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)

It is appropriate that the motion being debated is on the question of consultation. In the debate no doubt issues involved in the consultation documents will be raised. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Science asking for an extension of the consultation period, following discussions I had with my local education committee and others. The Minister replied in a letter dated 15 September, which is a significant date relative to the consultation documents. I raised the interests of my constituents in the education proposals and I was fascinated that the last sentence of the letter stated: We welcome your constituents' keenness to participate in this debate and look forward to receiving their comments in due course. The closing dates for the consultation documents were 11 September, 16 September, 16 September, 30 September, 9 October, 16 October and 30 November, yet more than half of the closing dates were earlier than the date of my reply from the Minister. If the Minister and the Secretary of State thought it appropriate that consultation should continue, they should have made an announcement and said that consultation could continue for another month or two.

The people in my constituency to whom I have talked about the matter were worried about two things. The first was the proposals themselves and the six to eight weeks allowed for consultation. The second was the number of documents that were produced at the same time. My county is the northernmost county of England and is a long way from the Department of Education and Science. It takes some time for documents to reach us. Indeed, sometimes I think that they come by stage coach. But we received the documents and thought that we would have an opportunity to consult about them. I talked to as many people as I could. The matter was of key importance to the people in my area, whose major criticisms related to the limited consultation period and the fact that five documents were published at the same time.

The changes that were suggested in the documents were of great interest to my constituents, especially to parents and school governors. We were especially worried about the fact that our education committee, which was not scheduled to meet until August, had little opportunity to discuss the issues. More especially — this is where local democracy was challenged — the county council did not have the opportunity to discuss the issues because the time scale did not allow it. Indeed, the report from the education committee will go to the full council only this month. The democratically elected members of my county council — from all political parties — will not have had the chance to contribute to this debate.

Another criticism related to the range of changes proposed in the consultative documents. Many people in the education service thought that to introduce them in the time scale proposed, immediately following the implementation of parts of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, and bearing in mind the parts of that Act which have not yet been introduced, was likely to produce chaos and to be a programme for disaster. It says little for the Secretary of State's pious comments about wishing to offer wider involvement in education policies to everyone who is interested in education.

During the recess, I, with many other right hon. and hon. Members, made a point of consulting on the proposals. The first clear message that I received from people in the education service, especially head teachers, was that they wanted a period of stability and calm to allow schools to cope with their existing problems of staffing levels, resources, auxiliary help, accommodation, and morale—especially among teachers — as well as the development of the GCSE. The latter is causing great upheaval because of the shortage of teachers, ancillary staff, equipment and finance. The evidence from my constituency is that there will be even more serious problems in the near future. A report published in May by the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations confirmed that that is a problem in many other education authorities.

As well as being a Member of Parliament, I am chairman of a board of school governors in my constituency. It is extremely important to me because I started my public life as the secretary of a parent-teacher association. I am now chairman of the board of governors of the same school and have been involved with it for more than 20 years. The governors are conscientious, enthusiastic and responsible citizens. They have received no documents and have had no opportunity to consult. They will wish to consider the full implications of what is suggested in the legislation. I suspect that the same applies to boards of governors all over the country. They will all wish to participate in this planning exercise.

No one has yet mentioned the need for consultations with the teachers' unions. I understand—the Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong — that the professionals in the education service have had no direct discussions with the Secretary of State. That is contemptible. The first thing that a wise industrialist or commercial operator who wanted to make fundamental changes in the service that he provided or the business that he ran would do would be to talk to the work force and line management. The Secretary of State believes that that is not necessarily appropriate.

Perhaps a quote from the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, Fred Smithies, might cover everything in connection with the consultation. He said: The haste with which these proposals have been cobbled together and the unacceptably brief period of time that has been allowed for consultation is indicative of the Government's determinaton to push ahead with its education philosophy without properly addressing the educational consequences of such a move. It appears to some, and certainly to me, that the Secretary of State has an eye on bigger things. He needs to show his dynamic leadership by producing ill-considered proposals. I should remind the Secretary of State that leadership means nothing if he does not have a majority of support from those who do not hold his views.

9.5 pm

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education arid Science is right to aim for a Bill in this Session. We have had a rather depressing period in education — during which there has been a great deal of trench warfare. Education is now trying to move forward. Essentially the Bill would help that process. Of course, I must accept that there has been less time for consultation than I might have liked in an ideal world. It will be particularly important when the Bill comes before the House that the Committee stage is treated — as I know it will be — with great seriousness. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be in charge of the Committee — and I mean no disrespect to my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I hope that we shall see the kind of Committee stage which shows that the Government are prepared to be flexible and which will be a worthwhile process of consultation.

I acknowledge that in one respect I have already said that there is one item in the Government package that could, if necessary, be held over. In the debate on the Loyal Address, I said that I thought that proposals for the opt-out provision had not yet had the elucidation or received the acceptance that I would have liked. If that is still the case in a few weeks' time, there is no reason why that provision should not be held over. Otherwise, we should press on. Essentially we should press on because education as a whole is in a mood to get away from the trench warfare and enter a constructive phase.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely right to take a very positive and active role in his present job. It is worth remembering that section 1 of the Education Act 1944 refers to the duty of the Secretary of State to secure the effective execution by the local authorities, under his control and direction, of the national policy for providing a varied and comprehensive educational service in every area. Reference has been made to R. A. Butler, who was one of the greatest Education Ministers. Looking back to the debates about the Education Act 1944, it is interesting to see that Butler said: it is high time the Minister and his office became more keen on taking the educational initiative themselves."—[Official Report, 21 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 810.] He also said that he proposed that the central authority should lead boldly and not follow timidly. That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing.

The curriculum in the new Bill will be the most important aspect of the new Bill. It is essential that we get the curriculum absolutely right. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be particularly sensitive to the points that have been put to him during the consultation process about the curriculum. One of those points relates to testing. That has aroused a good deal of uncertainty and apprehension.

I have been committed to testing for a long time. In 1976, I wrote a booklet called "The Act and the Partnership". I put forward the argument that we should have testing. I said that we should test the numeracy and literacy of all children at certain stages of their schooling, for example, at the ages of eight, 11 and 14. The ages chosen by my right hon. Friend are slightly different but I believe that the principle is the same. It is important to have a clear idea of what we are testing for. What is the testing process about? In my booklet, I stated: The purpose of this"— namely, testing— would not be to provide a selection procedure for allocating children to one school or another. Nor, I hope, would it be used to establish or reinforce a pecking order among schools, or among their children. The aim is emphatically not to provide 'marks' for publication. The object is rather more akin to the traditional school medical inspection. More precisely, it is to provide information about the progress of the individual child, so as to see whether he or she needs greater attention in one way or another; information, for use within the system only, about the school and the class within the school—again, so as to see if extra help is necessary; and, thirdly, national statistics (which might include information on what is happening in different parts of the country). Today, it is no longer possible not to publish figures for schools as a whole. Even if one were to try to keep them secret — I do not think that one should do so — they would surely come out. In keeping with the emphasis on parents' rights to know what is going on in schools, it is right that such figures should be available. Nevertheless, the philosophy that I tried to put forward was right; we should see testing more as a diagnostic tool than as a kind of instrument for competition. I am not against competition — I am all for it in sports and many other areas—but our present task is simply to find out what is going on. After all, if the Secretary of State is to exercise his great responsibilities for education, he certainly needs to know what is happening in our schools.

Another point, which I hope will come out of the consultation process, is the need for greater curricular flexibility. I am sure that all hon. Members have heard pleas from groups of teachers, especially those with particular interests in mind. Home economics teachers have been fairly active in writing to us. I have also had letters from drama teachers and classics teachers. As it happens, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) will open a debate on the matter next Monday, so I shall not press the point.

It would be sad if the state education system is forced to remove classics from the curriculum. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should be prepared to allocate more time to non-core and non-mainstream curricula elements. I devoutly hope that my right hon. Friend will be flexible.

When my right hon. Friend talks about the objectives of the matter, he should clearly say that one of the most crucial objectives in our education system is the transmission of the great things in our culture and civilisation from one generation to the next. That aim was not set out clearly enough in the consultative document, but at the end of the day it is most important. It is absolutely vital that such transmission should be available not only to the elite—those who are lucky enough to go to great public schools — but to every child in the country. I do not know whether the idea is to put some kind of stated objectives into the Bill; it is slightly against the tradition of English parliamentary drafting. Nevertheless, I hope that the Secretary of State will make it clear that, above all, he is concerned about quality. If he avoids falling into the trap of rather dreary utilitarianism and the worship of alleged relevance, he will have the chance to produce the kind of Bill that will deserve to rank with the Butler Act.

There is not much time for discussion, but there is a need to get on with the matter rather than to delay the process for one more year. That is why I support my right hon. Friend's decision to bring the Bill before this Session of Parliament.

9.15 pm
Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

I know of nobody outside the Government who welcomes the short time allowed for consultation. All the letters that have received, and most of the consultation replies that I have seen in the Library today, reveal anger and disagreement with the Government about the length of consultation.

The Government say that the time allowed is acceptable because they sorted out the issue in their manifesto, but I cannot be the only person here or in the country who was deeply confused, to put it mildly, at the statements by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. Their statements were confusing and conflicting and certainly did not clarify the proposals.

The tragedy is that all this symbolises the Government's lack of respect and lack of care for the very groups they claim to champion — the parents, governors, students and children. The Government's attitude to them is, "We know best. Do as we say or you will suffer."

The Secretary of State's attitude this evening was like someone threatening with a shotgun and saying, "The process will be much easier if you help me pull the trigger." Is that the nature of the relationship which the right hon. Gentleman wishes to establish with those who care about education? Is that his attitude to parents, students, teachers and others in the community who are worried about the future? Such an attitude leaves the other side little say and even less influence.

Relationships are at the heart of any good education system. The Secretary of State seems uncomfortable with that relationship. A welcoming and warming relationship with parents and schools is crucial to the pre-school child. It is important to children throughout their school lives. It is crucial to those young people who are considering whether to stay in full-time education after the age of 16. It is also crucial to those who want to return to education, particularly if their earlier experiences were not fulfilling.

Process is as important in education as content. People need to be confident that they will learn how to read, write and think. The way in which they learn how to learn will determine what they are able to learn. Unless the process and the content go together, the content will never be put across. That is the tragedy. The Secretary of State seems to have no understanding of that.

A process that involves those who want the best education service possible for all our children is central to enabling us all to work together to provide opportunities. The Government forgot that in preparing their Bill. They forgot the importance of process — taking people with them and involving them every step of the way.

If the Government had taken everyone with them, they might have addressed the real issues. Instead, their proposals are seething with the dogmatic prejudices and fundamentalism of the new Right of the Tory party. There is a desperate need for changes and improvements.

The consensus is to look for more opportunities in education and in the role of our people, yet the Government present us with something that will cut opportunities and reduce the role of many people. There is a desperate need to encourage many more of our young children to stay in full-time education after 16. There is a desperate need to ensure that all children benefit from a rich and wide curriculum that matches their age, ability and aptitude as well as the needs of our society as we move into the 1990s. There is also a desperate need to improve opportunities for all our children by enabling them to take advantage of free school education if that is appropriate. There is still a need to ensure that we have a well-trained, committed and enthusiastic teaching force that has the opportunity to be retrained to work effectively in all subjects.

The tragedy is that the Education Bill that we are promised addresses none of those issues. Far from being radical, the Secretary of State has been reactionary. In essence, he will reduce parental choice, have a much more centralised system of control, narrow the curriculum and reduce substantially the opportunity for the majority of our children and young people to benefit from a wide, open and free education service.

The Secretary of State has missed a golden opportunity. There is consensus on the need for changes and progress in our education system, but instead of seeking out that consensus and building upon it the right hon. Gentleman is creating conflict and opposition. That may be a legitimate political tactic, but when measured against the opportunities of our children and young people it is nothing short of criminal.

9.22 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

Mention has been made of the writings of Right-wing philosophers, the publication "No Turning Back'. and even Shakespeare. But I wonder why so few Labour Members did not study the New Statesman more carefully, which recently contained an article entitled: Failing the masses. Passing the buck. It said: The Government have seized the initiative of change: while Labour is stuck in defence of its own past. Labour's ideological driving force is the pursuit of equality yet its policies have never really given priority to education despite its being one of the major sources of social immobility and inequality in Britain. Labour has allowed the Tories to steal the political initiative". The fact is that too many of our average and below-average children are betrayed by the education system. We have one of the best education systems for high fliers, and our higher education is among the best in the world, but while 30 per cent. of pupils leave school with little or no qualifications, and 60 per cent. drop science or a foreign language at 14, there is absolutely no way in which the Government can refuse to act.

As for consultation and discussing "the process" in schools, I feel a great sense of unease. Last year we went from month to month with consultation on the replacement to Burnham and teachers' pay and conditions. That consultation led to disagreement and stalemate. The only thing on which there was agreement was that everybody disagreed with what the Government were doing. Consultation tends to reinforce the prejudices of the education establishment and the teaching profession—[Interruption.] It is interesting that Labour Members should pour scorn on the idea of improving the lot of the children who suffer under the present regime and that they should regard it as a laughable matter. I know that many Labour Members are more concerned with the trade union mentality of protecting the rights of those involved in producing education than they are with delivering the goods.

The national curriculum has been under discussion for many years. For the Government now to delay legislation would be an unforgiveable waste of the time of those who most need their education, perhaps now as never before. There is a glorious philosophy that children must never be tested for attainment, because one child might do well and another badly; one child might feel a failure. That is why parents do not know where they are, children are not given the help that they need and standards are not set. I remind Opposition Members that that is what the Swann committee identified as a major reason for so many children from ethnic minorities doing badly in schools. Expectations are not set for them, so they do not rise to them. It is a crucial variable.

The head of the Secondary Examination Council the other day asked why so many people now run in marathons. The answer, he said, was that an expectation was set. We want to raise people's standards and bring out the best in them.

Local financial management is just another way of giving the heads more power. For how many years have many of us talked about the vital role of the head? Professor Michael Rutter, in his book "Fifteen Thousand Hours", compared 12 different schools in Southwark. What did he find was the crucial variable that accounted for some schools being so much more successful than others? It was the ethos of the school, and, particularly, the character and personality of the head — his ability to manage the school, set homework and ensure that lessons started on time. That is the nuts and bolts of education reform, and the way forward for our children.

In my constituency there have been some experiments in local financial control. They have been warmly welcomed, having been tried over several years. One school has enormously improved its word-processing facilities, computers and other equipment by making do with less supply cover and arranging for teachers to cover for themselves. Giving schools opportunities to make such decisions is the way forward.

Parental choice is crucial. Children do better if they have the confidence of their parents — if they are going to the school that their parents wanted them to attend. Opting out offers an alternative system to those who have not the resources to pay themselves.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when he makes his final decisions, to look for a rather higher percentage than a 50 per cent. vote from parents. I should be happier with a two-thirds majority. If we are to ensure that head teachers such as the successor of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) as headmaster of Highbury Grove school can continue to provide the sort of education that parents want, in which teachers want to participate and in which pupils do well, we must find a way to release schools from the education authorities that are undermining the very ethos that is being sought.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to move forward swiftly with the legislation. The negative, hostile, backward-looking debate about consultation on these measures is yet another example of how conservative the education establishment is becoming. We owe it to all our children to ensure that they have the best possible opportunity to acquire the qualifications and skills that they need for the jobs and the citizenship of the future. My right hon. Friend's proposals offer an opportunity that we must follow up urgently. We want action—not words.

9.28 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I sometimes wonder whether some Conservative Members know how the consultation process works in education. A period for consultation has been allowed from the beginning of August to the end of September, but many governing bodies do not meet until the end of September. The same applies to many teachers' trade unions and parent-teacher groups.

When the schools reopen after the holiday, there follows a period of settling down and getting started again. As all those organisations do not generally meet until the end of September, hardly any of them have been given any time to respond in the detail that the proposals need. As there will be major and radical changes to our education system, parents have the right to consider the proposals in depth and to respond in detail.

I have in my hand a letter that was sent to the Secretary of State for Education and Science by the National Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations, the Parent-Teacher Associations of Wales and the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education. It protests about this Government's inadequate consultation on the proposals. Between them, they represent many thousands of parents, and they speak for many thousands of parents — the consumers.

I am also concerned about how the tests will affect children with special education needs. Have hon. Members heard about the self-fulfilling prophesy and its effect on children with special education needs?

There is also the problem that more children may want to go to a school than there are places for them. Who is to decide which children go to that school and which children do not? Will there have to be selection? Will it be for the governing body to decide?

Many important and fundamental questions have not been answered, yet the Government have moved an amendment that congratulates themselves on the consultation period. I do not know how they can congratulate themselves on a consultation period that is no more than a sham and that provides the parents of those who are directly affected with no adequate say on proposals that will affect the future education of their children.

9.31 pm
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Two criticisms have been made in the debate, one of which goes to the heart of our education system. We must remember that this Government have been in charge of the country's education system for the last eight years. It is about time that Conservative Members recognised that what is wrong with the country's education system is this Government's education policy. The second criticism is that we were told that we picked the wrong issue — that we concentrated on procedure rather than on substantive proposals. But surely we picked the right issue. Conservative Member after Conservative Member has told us that the proposals have been introduced in the name of greater parental involvement and freedom, and that if one believes in freedom one consults. However, this Government have to be criticised for their lack of consultation.

During the last few months the Government have been more concerned about stifling debate and proving that debate and comment are irrelevant than about offering genuine opportunities for parents, teachers, local authorities and the churches to comment and to influence the discussion. In no way could this be clearer than in the practicalities of the consultation process — at most two months on important documents. In the case of the majority of the documents, the consultation process was held during the long summer holidays. No wonder that the Government have been criticised by parent-teacher associations and local education authorities, both Conservative and Labour.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fatchett

No, I do not intend to give way.

The Secretary of State referred to his proposals as great educational reforms, but an uncharacteristic modesty in his case prevented him from engaging in meaningful debate and discussion with the public.

Mr. Coombs

Will the hon. Gentleman give way.

Mr. Fatchett

No. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] No, I do not intend to give way.

In addition to restricting the consultation process and making it difficult, the Government have made it clear that they are not prepared to listen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) commented on the Secretary of State's speech at the Conservative party conference. It may be forgiveable and understandable that in the atmosphere of that conference the Secretary of State felt that he had to use those words. Indeed, no Secretary of State, with the Prime Minister sitting at his right hand, would have done otherwise; no Secretary of State in this Government has the courage to do otherwise. Perhaps we can understand and forgive those comments, but, sadly, the Secretary of State was at it again only last week. After meeting local government leaders — Conservative and Labour — the Secretary of State was reported as saying that the Bill would not be altered whatever the critics said. So much for an open door, so much for an open mind and so much for consultation.

With typical dogmatic arrogance the Government have dismissed as unrepresentative organisations that have had the audacity to criticise. That fate befell the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations. That moderate, non-party political organisation, which speaks for parents, was dismissed out of hand because it did not say what the Secretary of State wanted to hear. That is typical of the Government and the consultation process.

The Government may respond to our criticisms by saying that their behaviour on these proposals is no different from that in other respects, but that is scarcely a plea in mitigation. For instance, if a bank robber says that on previous occasions he has got away with it, he cannot say that he was innocent on the occasion when he was caught in the bank carrying out the robbery, but that is this Government's excuse. Maybe the Government should plead that that they are innocent or that they adopt the same practice in other contexts, but continuous bad practice is no excuse for what the Government have done to our children or for what they propose to do to our education system. Nor is it relevant for the Government to say that their proposals are firm or that, as the right hon. Member Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) said, everybody knew what they were about.

The right hon. Gentleman told us that the proposals were so simple that they were underlined and that they had blue edges. But that overlooks the difficult process of conception that occurred during the general election. The Secretary of State was saying one thing, but the Prime Minister was saying something else. We saw the unlikely sight of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), as chairman of the Conservative party, acting as a conciliator and peace-maker between the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, which was a most unlikely role for the gentleman. To say that the proposals were firm is not true and has never been so; some of the detail is open to serious comment and discussion.

When we look at the proposals for ILEA we encounter a different problem. Parents in London are to be allowed a short time to comment—five weeks—so in that respect they have fared no worse than parents in other parts of the country, but there is one substantial difference. Parents in London may have an education authority thrust upon them without any consultation with individual parents. We are told that parents should have a right to vote on opt-out procedures and a right to vote in other circumstances; that is the language of parental freedom. Why does that language not apply with regard to practice in London and the boroughs that make up the Inner London education authority? Why is it right to leave a decision to councillors in certain circumstances but riot others? Why will the Secretary of State not consult parents in London? We know the answer: if he consulted parents by ballot he would lose and the proposals would be torpedoed.

We may have been a little remiss in not asking for a longer consultation on the London proposals. We should have recognised the record of the Secretary of State. When he chaired a committee looking at inner London education a few years ago he said that the only proposal he could not consider was the very proposal that, as Secretary of State, he is now suggesting. Consistency and principle do not run very deep for this Secretary of State. Perhaps we should have asked for more time so that London parents could have had an opportunity to allow their voices to be heard.

We are told that the process of consultation is not necessary because the Government's proposals are firm. How firm are they? For example, how firm are they in relation to testing? Who will win the argument? Will it be the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister? Is it to be diagnostic testing, to which the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) referred, or is it to be competitive testing which is favoured by the Prime Minister and Right-wing Back Benchers? Will it be success or failure for our children at the age of seven? If it is failure, that means, within the system favoured by the Government, failure at the age of 11, 14 and 16. The child is doomed to failure at the age of seven.

The Government are not clear on the matter of grant-maintained opt-out schools. How many are there to be? Are they to be encouraged? At first the Secretary of Stale said that there would be only a few. In an interview in The Independent the Prime Minister said that there would be thousands and that they would be encouraged by an independent trust. The Secretary of State then changed his mind and said that "some" schools would opt out. Is not the word "some" the very sort of word one would associate with this Secretary of State? It is limited enough to ensure that informed educational opinion is not too antagonistic and it is elastic enough to ensure that the Secretary of State remains in office. He is doing the Prime Minister's bidding yet again. Parents have a right to know the Government's intentions.

The same is true of the core curriculum. As has been said, it is an idea that runs deep in the Labour party. If modesty allowed, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) would tell the House that he was probably the author of the deep and meaningful proposals for a core curriculum. Modesty prevents him from doing that. The Secretary of State has had an opportunity to move by consensus to a national curriculum, but what has he done? He has united people not in support of a core curriculum but in opposition to it. At no stage has he recognised the educational difficulties that that presents. That poses problems for teachers, parents and, above all else, for Ministers. I saw the comment in The Times Educational Supplement on 16 October, just two short weeks ago. It said: Poor Mrs. Rumbold. What a bad time she is having. Two weeks ago she sought to convince the Schools Curriculum Development Conference of the failure of the education system by serving up anecdotes about spelling mistakes and typographical errors. Last week it was the primary heads' conference at Coventry … which enjoyed the benefit of her judicious comments. Her gloss on the national curriculum consultation paper certainly helped to raise the temperature of a group of professionals among whom the Government might have expected to number many friends. A disastrous combination of patronising condescension and palpable ignorance antagonised most of her audience. That is not a Socialist publication. I do not blame the Minister; I blame the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for sending the Minister without a clear brief and clear definition of what the proposals are about.

Political freedom in this country has always depended on Governments, regardless of the size of their majority, being prepared to consult and to listen. That is the essential fabric of our democratic virtues and practice. If ever there was an area in which decision-making should be based on consultation and consensus, it is education, because here we are shaping not just the nation's future but the next generation and our children's future. With a Government committed to dogma and the ideology of a competitive market, the hopes for children and the wishes of their parents and teachers have been scandalously ignored.

As I travelled through the west midlands to attend an education meeting the other day, I saw an advertisement describing a particular brand of beer as "untouched by progress". If Saatchi and Saatchi had thought of that slogan, they might still be the Conservative party's public relations agency. It also struck me as being the most apt and correct description of the Secretary of State's education proposals. Untouched by progress, they will at best leave our children in the same state. At worst, they will leave them with dramatically reduced education opportunities. That is why I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the motion.

9.46 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I suppose that we could have expected this debate to prove an interesting if somewhat arid precursor to the wider debate that will take place throughout this parliamentary Session. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), I repeat the points that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made at the beginning of the debate in relation to the enormous interest shown in the consultation documents. A large number of copies have been issued to a great number of interested people, not just individuals but organisations, including local education authorities, churches, parent organisations and many others. The claim that insufficient time was allowed for consultation has been disproved by the weight of the responses received by the Department. I remind the Opposition that if they really intend to read all those responses they will have to set aside several days and nights, if not weeks, to consider the two van loads of responses currently reposing in the Library.

Mr. Fatchett

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Rumbold

No. I have only a short time in which to respond to the debate.

All this has acknowledged that in the present phase we have merely started our consultations. My right hon. Friend confirmed today that he has been very ready to meet organisations wishing to make representations.

Mr. Kenneth Baker


Mrs. Rumbold

Endlessly, as my right hon. Friend rightly says.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) asked whether teachers' organisations would have the opportunity to consult. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be meeting those organisations and discussing matters with them. We believe that such discussions are valuable and they will continue during the passage of the Bill. There are, of course, other channels of representation during any parliamentary process which, even in my gloomiest moments, I believe that the Opposition may yet consider and seek to make some constructive contribution. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central asked why the consultation period for the ILEA proposal was not longer. It is, in a sense, a local and not a national issue, and in any event it has provoked some 5,000 detailed responses, which are currently being studied by our Department.

I remind Opposition Members that the councils that may opt out are democratically elected people, bodies which, no doubt, will take account of the representations and local opinions that are put to them. I understand that that procedure is already being undertaken in the boroughs of Westminster and Wandsworth, which have shown an interest in the possibility of making their boroughs local education authorities.

Mr. Fatchett


Mr. Rumbold

I am not giving way.

I remind Opposition Members that ultimately the decision will rest with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make the order. Parliament will debate that order and decide whether to approve it in a true democratic way. Therefore, Opposition Members should look carefully at what they are saying about our proposals for ILEA and agree with us that there has been adequate consultation.

Mr. Fatchett


Mrs. Rumbold

I am sorry. I shall not give way. I want to continue to address the debate and answer some of the interesting points that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Predictably, there have been positive and negative responses. My hon. Friends have made some extremely good and sensible contributions, with positive points and backed up with good argument.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) rightly affirmed that the people who matter in the debate on our proposals are the parents, the children and the teachers. He made the most valuable point that Opposition Members have derided consultations by their own actions in the past. I shall give one instance of what happened. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North said, the Labour party's intention to abolish direct grant status was announced in its October 1974 manifesto. In March 1975 the Secretary of State for Education and Science announced: The Government have decided that the time has come to implement the pledge in the Labour Party Election Manifesto to stop the present system of direct grant schools."—[Official Report, 11 March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 271.] That was a Labour Secretary of State.

No consultation paper was issued between the election and the announcement. The change was made by order — the Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations 1975. A circular was issued explaining the effect of the regulations on the direct grant schools and the options open to them. The abolition of the direct grant status implemented a recommendation of the Public Schools Commission's second report of 1970. It was asked by the Labour Government in 1967—

Mr. Straw


Mrs. Rumbold

I shall not give way.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Frit. [interrupution.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mrs. Rumbold.

Mrs. Rumbold

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The commission was asked in 1967 to look at the future of direct grant schools. I am certainly not frit. I am simply answering the debate as I am entitled to. I shall continue to answer it in the way that I wish.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (M r. Pawsey) was correct to emphasise that there is a clear mandate—not directed at my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—to carry out the promises made in our manifesto on education reforms. He also said that no meetings could be convened that were not necessary. That is also my experience. If councils want to convene a meeting of the education committee or the council as a whole, most can do so. If any Opposition Members would like to look at the record of some of the councils that are currently hung councils, they would see that many have extraordinary council meetings and additional education meetings as and when they feel like it. So the argument that these meetings could not have been called is a little thin.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) asked a direct question and I want to answer it. He asked whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be a member of the Committee. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree with me when I confirm that he will indeed be leading the Committee considering the Bill, which is his Bill. I must also say that my right hon. Friend's role is to lead boldly rather than to follow timidly. I have noted carefully what my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said about testing, and I hope that I can reassure him that he will be comforted when he sees our own inclinations on that subject. Similarly, we have looked and shall further look carefully at any consultative responses that we receive — as we have clearly said all the way through that we shall do on the national curriculum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) was right to point out that there have been many examples in the past of expectations in our schools that are far too low. She examined each of the proposals that my right hon. Friend has put before the country and rightly pointed out that many people support them wholeheartedly.

A number of negative points have been made by hon. Members on the Opposition Benches. That was to be expected. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) accused us by saying that parents on governing bodies thought it ironical that they did not have enough time; but they were clearly ignoring the assurances that m) right hon. Friend has been giving them. We are saying clearly that there will be a continuation of these consultations, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen to some of the responses—

Mr. Ashdown


Mrs. Rumbold

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman should listen to the responses that I have given rather than argue with me at this stage.

The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) accused the Government of neglecting to take the consultation process to people within the education system. That is not so: we are conversing at length with people in the education service. If there is any question of them thinking otherwise, I suggest that that is because they do not wish to know that we are busy listening to what they have to say. I am glad that the hon. Lady emphasised the point that we should work with the professionals in the education service, because we fully accept it. I hope., therefore, that when she comes to the Committee considering the Education Bill she will join the Government in taking up every improvement that we have offered to the education service and supporting them, as she seems to be so keen on many of the proposals that my right hon. Friend has made.

To the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), I say that many of the governing bodies have responded, and he would find it interesting to note that they are still responding and we are still listening to them. The whole argument from the Opposition seems to have been centred on some slender evidence that the Government have not consulted and are not listening. I should be interested to hold the debate once again if' we had some proof that Opposition Members had looked at the responses and were satisfied at the way in which our consultations had gone. If they wish to discover whether the proposals have come out in favour of or against the responses, they should read them. As I said at the outset, this debate is a precursor of things to come. Sadly, it has focused on procedure rather than on substance and that points to the conclusion that the Opposition know that they must oppose in a pavlovian way the reforms of education.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 219, Noes 325.

Division No. 34] [10 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Fatchett, Derek
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Faulds, Andrew
Allen, Graham Fearn, Ronald
Alton, David Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Anderson, Donald Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Fisher, Mark
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Flannery, Martin
Ashdown, Paddy Flynn, Paul
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Ashton, Joe Foster, Derek
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Foulkes, George
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Fraser, John
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Fyfe, Mrs Maria
Barron, Kevin Galbraith, Samuel
Battle, John Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Beckett, Margaret Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Beith, A. J. Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Bell, Stuart Godman, Dr Norman A.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Golding, Mrs Llin
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Gordon, Ms Mildred
Bermingham, Gerald Graham, Thomas
Bidwell, Sydney Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Blair, Tony Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Blunkett, David Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Boateng, Paul Grocott, Bruce
Boyes, Roland Hardy, Peter
Bradley, Keith Harman, Ms Harriet
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E) Haynes, Frank
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith) Heffer, Eric S.
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Henderson, Douglas
Buchan, Norman Hinchliffe, David
Buckley, George Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Caborn, Richard Holland, Stuart
Callaghan, Jim Home Robertson, John
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley) Hood, James
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Canavan, Dennis Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Howells, Geraint
Cartwright, John Hoyle, Doug
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Clay, Bob Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Clelland, David Illsley, Eric
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Ingram, Adam
Cohen, Harry Janner, Greville
Coleman, Donald John, Brynmor
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Corbett, Robin Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Cousins, Jim Kilfedder, James
Crowther, Stan Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Cryer, Bob Lambie, David
Cummings, J. Lamond, James
Cunliffe, Lawrence Leadbitter, Ted
Dalyell, Tam Leighton, Ron
Darling, Alastair Lestor, Miss Joan (Eccles)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Lewis, Terry
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Litherland, Robert
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l) Livsey, Richard
Dixon, Don Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Dobson, Frank Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Doran, Frank Loyden, Eddie
Duffy, A. E. P. McAllion, John
Dunnachie, James McAvoy, Tom
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth McFall, John
Eadie, Alexander McLeish, Henry
Eastham, Ken McNamara, Kevin
Evans, John (St Helens N) McTaggart, Bob
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E) Madden, Max
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John Rowlands, Ted
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Ruddock, Ms Joan
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Salmond, Alex
Martin, Michael (Springburn) Sedgemore, Brian
Martlew, Eric Sheerman, Barry
Maxton, John Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Meacher, Michael Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Meale, Alan Skinner, Dennis
Michael, Alun Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Snape, Peter
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby) Soley, Clive
Morgan, Rhodri Spearing, Nigel
Morley, Elliott Stott, Roger
Morris, Rt Hon A (W'shawe) Strang, Gavin
Morris, Rt Hon J (Aberavon) Straw, Jack
Mowlam, Mrs Marjorie Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Mullin, Chris Thomas, Dafydd Elis
Murphy, Paul Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Turner, Dennis
O'Brien, William Wall, Pat
O'Neill, Martin Wallace, James
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Walley, Ms Joan
Patchett, Terry Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Pendry, Tom Wareing, Robert N.
Pike, Peter Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Prescott, John Wigley, Dafydd
Primarolo, Ms Dawn Williams, Rt Hon A. J.
Quin, Ms Joyce Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Radice, Giles Wilson, Brian
Randall, Stuart Winnick, David
Redmond, Martin Wise, Mrs Audrey
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn Worthington, Anthony
Reid, John Wray, James
Richardson, Ms Jo Young, David (Bolton SE)
Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Robinson, Geoffrey Tellers for the Ayes:
Rogers, Allan Mr. Allen McKay and Mr. Frank Cook.
Rooker, Jeff
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Alexander, Richard Bright, Graham
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Brittan, Rt Hon Leon
Allason, Rupert Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Amess, David Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Amos, Alan Buck, Sir Antony
Arbuthnot, James Budgen, Nicholas
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Burns, Simon
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Burt, Alistair
Ashby, David Butcher, John
Aspinwall, Jack Butler, Chris
Atkinson, David Butterfill, John
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Baldry, Tony Carrington, Matthew
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Carttiss, Michael
Batiste, Spencer Cash, William
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Chapman, Sydney
Bellingham, Henry Chope, Christopher
Bendall, Vivian Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Benyon, W. Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Bevan, David Gilroy Cormack, Patrick
Biffen, Rt Hon John Couchman, James
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Cran, James
Blackburn, Dr John G. Critchley, Julian
Body, Sir Richard Currie, Mrs Edwina
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Curry, David
Boswell, Tim Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Bottomley, Peter Davis, David (Boothferry)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Day, Stephen
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n) Devlin, Tim
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Dicks, Terry
Bowis, John Dorrell, Stephen
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Dover, Den
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Dunn, Bob
Brazier, Julian Durant, Tony
Dykes, Hugh Jackson, Robert
Eggar, Tim Janman, Timothy
Emery, Sir Peter Jessel, Toby
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Evennett, David Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Fallon, Michael Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Farr, Sir John Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Favell, Tony Key, Robert
Fenner, Dame Peggy King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Kirkhope, Timothy
Fookes, Miss Janet Knapman, Roger
Forman, Nigel Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Forth, Eric Knowles, Michael
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Knox, David
Fox, Sir Marcus Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Franks, Cecil Lang, Ian
Freeman, Roger Latham, Michael
French, Douglas Lawrence, Ivan
Fry, Peter Lee, John (Pendle)
Gale, Roger Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Gardiner, George Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Gill, Christopher Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian Lightbown, David
Glyn, Dr Alan Lilley, Peter
Goodhart, Sir Philip Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Goodlad, Alastair Lord, Michael
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Luce, Rt Hon Richard
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Gorst, John McCrindle, Robert
Gow, Ian Macfarlane, Neil
Gower, Sir Raymond MacGregor, John
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW) MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Maclean, David
Greenway, John (Rydale) McLoughlin, Patrick
Gregory, Conal McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)
Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E') McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Madel, David
Grist, Ian Major, Rt Hon John
Ground, Patrick Malins, Humfrey
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Mans, Keith
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Maples, John
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Marland, Paul
Hampson, Dr Keith Marlow, Tony
Hanley, Jeremy Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Hannam, John Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Mates, Michael
Harris, David Maude, Hon Francis
Haselhurst, Alan Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Hayes, Jerry Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney Mellor, David
Hayward, Robert Meyer, Sir Anthony
Heathcoat-Amory, David Miller, Hal
Heddle, John Mills, Iain
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE) Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Moate, Roger
Hill, James Monro, Sir Hector
Hind, Kenneth Moore, Rt Hon John
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Holt, Richard Morrison, Hon P (Chester)
Hordern, Sir Peter Moss, Malcolm
Howard, Michael Moynihan, Hon C.
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Mudd, David
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Neale, Gerrard
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Needham, Richard
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Nelson, Anthony
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Neubert, Michael
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Newton, Tony
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Nicholls, Patrick
Hunter, Andrew Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Nicholson, Miss E. (Devon W)
Irvine, Michael Onslow, Cranley
Irving, Charles Oppenheim, Phillip
Jack, Michael Paice, James
Patnick, Irvine Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Pawsey, James Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Sumberg, David
Porter, David (Waveney) Summerson, Hugo
Portillo, Michael Tapsell, Sir Peter
Powell, William (Corby) Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Price, Sir David Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Raffan, Keith Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Temple-Morris, Peter
Rathbone, Tim Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Redwood, John Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Renton, Tim Thorne, Neil
Rhodes James, Robert Thornton, Malcolm
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Thurnham, Peter
Riddick, Graham Townend, John (Bridlington)
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Tracey, Richard
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm Tredinnick, David
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Trippier, David
Roe, Mrs Marion Twinn, Dr Ian
Rossi, Sir Hugh Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Rost, Peter Viggers, Peter
Rowe, Andrew Waddington, Rt Hon David
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Ryder, Richard Waldegrave, Hon William
Sackville, Hon Tom Walden, George
Sainsbury, Hon Tim Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Sayeed, Jonathan Walters, Dennis
Scott, Nicholas Ward, John
Shaw, David (Dover) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Warren, Kenneth
Shelton, William (Streatham) Watts, John
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW) Wells, Bowen
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Wheeler, John
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Whitney, Ray
Shersby, Michael Widdecombe, Miss Ann
Sims, Roger Wiggin, Jerry
Skeet, Sir Trevor Wilkinson, John
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Wilshire, David
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Soames, Hon Nicholas Winterton, Nicholas
Speed, Keith Wolfson, Mark
Speller, Tony Wood, Timothy
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Woodcock, Mike
Squire, Robin Yeo, Tim
Stanbrook, Ivor Young, Sir George (Acton)
Stanley, Rt Hon John
Steen, Anthony Tellers for the Noes:
Stern, Michael Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.
Stevens, Lewis

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House believes that the interests of the nation's children require that there should be no delay in the introduction of the Government's proposals for education reform, which have been endorsed by the electorate and provide an essential programme of action to deliver wider choice to parents, greater autonomy for schools and colleges to manage their resources in the best interests of the pupils and students, and higher standards of performance throughout the education system; congratulates the Government on the extent of its consultation and its willingness to continue consultation on the details of its proposals; and welcomes the scale of response to the consultation.