HC Deb 23 April 1991 vol 189 cc893-5
10. Mr. David Nicholson

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on progress made in establishing grant-maintained schools.

12. Mr. Michael Brown

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many schools have opted for grant-maintained status; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

A total of 147 schools have balloted in favour of seeking grant-maintained status. Of those, 127 schools have submitted applications and a further 20 applications are awaited. Of the 127 applications, 71 have been approved, 12 have been rejected and 44 have yet to reach me for decision.

Mr. Nicholson

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that where applications for grant-maintained status have local merit they will be supported locally, even by Labour councillors in the constituency of the Leader of the Opposition?

However, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that a recent decision by his Department has caused great difficulty for secondary schools in Taunton, in view of the imbalance between schools in the north and the south of the town? Will he or one of his ministerial colleagues meet me and representatives of the local education authority to discuss how we may sensibly proceed?

Mr. Clarke

On the first point, I agree that supporters of grant-maintained status are to be found among governors and head teachers of all political persuasions. With regard to the second point, I know of my hon. Friend's discontent at the recent decision affecting schools in Taunton. The reasons for that decision were given to him. Officials of my Department have met officials of Somerset county council and I had my first meeting with the chairman of the council's education committee yesterday. When I hear the results of the contacts about how we should go forward I shall certainly consider whether I or one of my ministerial colleagues should have the meeting for which my hon. Friend asks.

Mr. Michael Brown

Will my right hon. and learned Friend note that, this very day, the parents of children at Waltham Toll Bar comprehensive school, in my constituency, are completing their ballot papers on the question whether they should seek grant-maintained status? As most grant-maintained schools are 30 per cent. over-subscribed, what advice does my right hon. and learned Friend give to those parents?

Mr. Clarke

Giving myself rapid legal advice, I must conclude that it would be most inadvisable to suggest how people should vote in the ballot, as an application would come to me for decision. However, I can confirm in general terms what my hon. Friend has said. The existing grant-maintained schools have been a huge success. The best advertisement for grant-maintained status comes from the teachers and parents. Anyone who visits any of these schools will find that it benefits enormously from the ability to control its own affairs.

Mr. Flannery

Why does not the Secretary of State occasionally talk about reality to the House of Commons? We expect it, but we do not get it. Only about 50 schools—he says 70, but people disagree—have applied for grant-maintained status. There are scores of thousands of schools in the country and virtually none—expressed as a percentage—have asked for grant-maintained status. Why does not the Secretary of State tell us the truth—that this policy is a complete failure?

Mr. Clarke

The number of schools balloted that are in favour of grant-maintained status has almost doubled during the five months that I have been in the Department. It is obvious that we are about to have a flood of applications. As for reality, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that there are not scores of thousands of schools in the country; there are just a little over one score of thousands. I expect that, before very long, most of them will have grant-maintained status.

Mr. Straw

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in addition to The Times newspaper's description of the opting-out policy as "an evil", the Roman Catholic archbishop. and bishops have described it as "un-Christian"? The Conservative education chairwoman of Bromley education committee, Mrs. Joan Bryant, has resigned in protest at precisely the kind of disruption to local education that has been identified by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). Given that the Conservatives' prediction at the previous election was that 50 per cent. of schools would have opted out by now, whereas less than half of 1 per cent. have done so, why does not the Secretary of State accept that this policy is both educationally and morally bankrupt?

Mr. Clarke

Pretty silly things are said in local campaigns when ballots are held on grant-maintained status. However, to describe that as evil, un-Christian and morally bankrupt is going a little over the top about a policy that is a huge success in schools that have attained grant-maintained status. The hon. Gentleman frequently advises me to visit more schools. I trust that my diary allows me to d o so without cancellation. I advise him to visit a grant-maintained school and a city technology college, where he will see that his opinions are based on prejudice. He will encounter people who are achieving all the benefits of our very enlightened reforms.

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