HC Deb 15 January 1991 vol 183 cc718-20
5. Mr. Andrew Mitchell

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many schools have now decided to seek grant-maintained status.

9. Mr. Amess

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many schools have applied for grant-maintained status.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Eighty six schools have submitted applications to the Secretary of State and I am awaiting a further 12 applications following ballots in favour. Of the 86 applications, 56 have been approved, 12 rejected and 18 have yet to be decided.

Mr. Mitchell

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the popularity of the Government's policy for promoting grant-maintained status is growing significantly with parents, governors, teachers and schools, as demonstrated by the fact that there are five times the number of ballots pending compared with a year ago? How long does he think that it will be before the Opposition decide to disavow their shameful and ill-intended opposition to this excellent policy, as they did with the right to buy?

Mr. Clarke

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's premise. The first grant-maintained schools are experiencing a big improvement in morale, closer parental involvement, more applications for places and a general all-round improvement. I cannot understand why the Labour party remains wedded to the concept of bureaucracy controlling our schools. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that it will rapidly come round to accepting that this is a much more sensible way to run a great public service.

Mr. Amess

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Chalvedon school in Basildon has become the first grant-maintained school in Essex? Does he agree that grant-maintained status has nothing whatever to do with opting out of the state system, but rather signals a change in the method of funding and an increase in educational opportunities?

Mr. Clarke

I entirely agree. Many other applications are being considered in Essex and those promoting them wish to make their schools better state schools. I believe that that experience will lead many others to apply very shortly.

Mr. Leighton

Does the Department of Education and Science still believe in the elimination of surplus places? If so, why, when the London borough of Newham wanted to close a secondary school that was surplus to requirements and open on the site a primary school that was needed, did the Secretary of State's predecessor—for what I can only assume were ideological reasons—give it grant-maintained status to frustrate that sensible management decision? How can the right hon. and learned Gentleman possibly justify such action and will he, as a new Minister, review it?

Mr. Clarke

Certainly we believe that surplus school places should be removed. The Audit Commission demonstrated that a great deal of money would be released for capital investment if we shed the large number of such places that exist. It is not true that applications for grant-maintained status are an automatic way out; as I said, 12 were rejected when the proposals in those instances were plainly not acceptable. The case of the Stratford school was decided on its merits: parents were committed to making the school grant maintained. I deplore the reaction of Newham and connected authorities which have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to close the school because it had the temerity to try to opt out of local authority control.

Mr. Straw

The Secretary of State must know that the policy of opting out is a moral and educational failure. Last Saturday, The Times described it as evil; it is proof of the Government's subscription not to standards but to double standards. Can the Secretary of State explain why, if no bribes are being offered to schools that try to opt out, the capital allocations for schools that do so, at £355 per pupil, are five times the level of those for local authority schools in the surrounding areas? If no bribes are being offered, is the Secretary of State willing to allow the financial arrangements of opted-out schools to be examined by an independent inquiry?

Mr. Clarke

I repeat my assertion that public services are best delivered by those—in this case, the teachers and governors—who are in closest contact with parents. When such people are capable of being given that responsibility, they should be given it. I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman is so much in the pocket of local authorities that wish to maintain their empires that he describes the opting-out policy as "evil".

Mr. Straw

That was in The Times.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman quoted that extraordinary proposition with approval. Let me ask him to visit any of the successful grant-maintained schools to which my hon. Friends have referred and try to explain to governors, teachers and parents that he considers their independence an evil in the state system.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks

Is not it a fact that, by opening the way for choice and the other benefits provided by grant-maintained status and local management of schools, we are making parents, governors and head teachers more aware of the resources available for education? As parents see that some town halls are hanging on to the money at the centre, will not they increasingly want their schools to opt for grant-maintained status? What further steps can we take to protect those parents, guarantee that they are given that choice and ensure that they are not politically engineered into being frightened away from going for what is good for them?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are taking steps to ensure that a fair proportion of the local authority central expenditure that would otherwise be needed for a school is transferred to the school itself. The governors of grant-maintained schools invariably find that they can make better use of the money and, as my hon. Friend so wisely said, they become more aware of what is involved in choices about how to spend money in schools.

We must explain the case properly and ensure that all those who should be interested in the policy are properly canvassed about it, to counter what my hon. Friend describes as the politically motivated distortions being created by some local authorities which simply want to retain their own staffing levels and control over public funds.