HC Deb 28 February 1989 vol 148 cc144-6
Mr. French

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what information he has as to whether the resources of any local education authority have been used to support campaigns (a) for or (b) against opting-out proposals for secondary schools in the maintained sector.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

Any local authority is free to make its views known about a proposal that a school in its area should become grant-maintained. I expect all authorities to ensure that they act fairly and responsibly and that any costs represent a proper use of public funds.

Mr. French

Will my right hon. Friend make sure that any decision either for or against opting out is based on the result of a free and fair ballot? Will he, in particular, make it clear to parents that they have the right to demand a ballot, irrespective of the views of LEA officials or recalcitrant governors?

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend. There has been a great deal of misrepresentation in some of the ballots that have taken place so far, which I deplore.

Ms. Armstrong

What about your propaganda?

Mr. Baker

The stuff that we put out is absolutely correct and absolutely fair. We put forward the advantages of the opportunity. What the Opposition do not like is the extension of parental choice which grant-maintained status provides. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall make it clear to parents that they have that right as well as governing bodies. The right is being exercised on a growing scale. I noticed yesterday that three schools voted to opt out.

Mr. Harry Barnes

I am not sure what the Minister's photograph has to do with objectivity, but that is one of the things that is sent round. Why has the Department's propaganda expenditure risen by 3,000 per cent. since he became Secretary of State?

Mr. Baker

I have already mentioned one of the large increases. The other large increase in my publicity spending is on informing parents, governors and teachers about the effect of the Education Reform Act 1988. The hon. Gentleman talks about advertising. I have here a minute from Derbyshire county council—his own county—saying that it is agreeing to a contribution of £350 to enable teachers in the Chesterfield school wishing to oppose GMS to produce leaflets and letters to parents. That is money being used by a particular education authority on just one side of the argument.

Mr. Pawsey

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the circular letter that he recently sent to local education authorities stressing the right of parents and governors to opt out will be observed by local education authorities and that it will stop some of the unacceptable practices now going on? Does he also agree that it might reduce the amount of black propaganda circulating recently in some of our schools about the situation?

Mr. Baker

I hope that it will. I am sure that the great bulk of local education authorities will observe the advice that I have given in that letter. One of the most offensive devices was for LEAs to threaten to take governors to court, with the threat of huge legal bills. I have made it clear that if governors act in good faith and are taken to court the LEAs will have to pay the legal fees incurred.

Mr. Straw

What has the Secretary of State to say to those who regard the Grant-Maintained Schools Trust, with a Conservative Member of Parliament as chairman and a Conservative councillor as director, as a Conservative front organisation?

Mr. Baker

The Grant-Maintained Schools Trust and its promotional activities are funded entirely by private money, and that is how it should be. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been attacking grant-maintained schools for a very long time and will continue to do so. What I find extraordinary is that he should write articles in The Times, the very crown of Mr. Murdoch's empire, extolling consumerism and how Socialism must relate to consumerism, but when it comes to listening to parents as consumers he is against it.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Given that 16 out of the 27 schools which have balloted to opt out are schools facing either closure or merger, and that the reason why local education authorities campaign is sometimes that they are afraid that the Secretary of State does not take into account the strategic planning of education in their area, how much weight does he give to the effect of other educational provisions on decisions to opt out when he makes his decision whether to approve a ballot?

Mr. Baker

I have to take many factors into consideration. I have to discuss the viability of the school and consider whether it is strong enough to survive. I take into account the degree of support that is expressed in a ballot. After the events in Yorkshire last week, I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman has gone off balloting. However, his figures are wrong, because 30 schools have voted to opt out, 11 have said no, another decision is pending, and about another 20 schools are going through the process.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Does my right hon. Friend agree that knowledge is power, and that if parents are to have sufficient information about either the virtues or the disadvantages of opting out, increased publicity is necessary? Does my right hon. Friend not find it strange that the Labour party believes in parent power except when parents are able to express it through the ballot box?

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that the ballots and the campaigns surrounding them are conducted on a level playing field, and in a way which ensures that the arguments on both sides are put fairly. Obviously one is concerned when, in particular cases, public money is used.