HC Deb 19 July 1991 vol 195 cc641-61

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lightbown.]

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

On this matter?

Mr. Skinner

It is on business. Have you received information that there will be a Government statement today on the Bank of Credit and Commerce International debacle and the subsequent Government cover-up and all the fraud that is involved? It is high time that somebody came to the Dispatch Box—probably all three or four Ministers who are involved, to explain precisely what happened to the letters that were bandied about from one Minister to another. It is time that there was a public inquiry to clear up this matter.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the hon. Gentleman, if he does not already know, that the Prime Minister will be at the Dispatch Box to make a statement at 11 o'clock. In addition, on Monday there will be a debate on the Consolidated Fund in which the hon. Gentleman might be able to participate.

9.37 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Michael Fallon)

The full title of our debate is "Wider Choice and Higher Standards in Schools". Those are the first two aims of our education policy and they are closely linked. Wider choice lies at the heart of all our reforms over the past 12 years—that is, the right of parents to choose between different schools and different types of schools. We have begun to end the drab uniformity of council monopoly, under which the only choice was that of the education director.

Future historians will find it extraordinary that parents could be ordered to send their children to schools that they did not choose., not because those schools were the best, but because they were less full and less successful than the schools that the parents wanted. We have widened choice in five ways. First, we have widened it through the assisted places scheme. More than 50,000 pupils have benefited in the 10 years that the scheme has been running and 27,000 will have places for the coming academic year.

On Wednesday, the House debated the assisted places scheme, which costs about £70 million. That is little different from the cost of educating the same number of pupils in the state sector. What is different is that parents have been able to choose and that, under the scheme, less well-off parents have been enabled to choose the very best independent schools.

Secondly, we have widened choice through city technology colleges. The unfulfilled promise of the great Butler Act was its failure to create technical schools of a calibre and reputation to match our great grammar schools. Even the good technical schools that existed were rubbed out by the Crosland comprehensivisation of the mid-1960s. It has taken a Conservative Government to restore great technical colleges in this country and to place them in industrial areas where skills are needed most.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

The House and parents will welcome my hon. Friend's comments about extending parental choice, which shows that the Government are prepared to trust parents with their children's education. At some stage, will the Government look at the catchment areas for city technology colleges, perhaps with a view to bringing them into line with local education authority areas, rather than having them arbitrarily set and stuck on a map by some faceless official? What we have done to local government we have not done to city technology colleges, in the sense that some parents from the poorer areas of my constituency cannot have their children considered for city technology places because they live outside an arbitrarily drawn boundary. I understand that the Government were trying get rid of such boundaries.

Mr. Fallon

I am sorry to hear my hon. Friend's comments, and I shall certainly look at his point about the extent of the catchment area.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Fallon

Perhaps I could say more about city technology colleges before giving way.

In four years, 13 city technology colleges have been set up, leading the way in curriculum and school management, and educating more than 8,000 pupils. Every one of those 13 CTCs is over-subscribed. At Haberdashers' there were 800 applications for 180 places. At Harris CTC, a recent open evening was attended by 2,000 parents of prospective pupils. Police had to close roads because of the congestion.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Why has the Harris school been funded on the basis of 1,100 children on the roll, when fewer than 800 children attend it?

Mr. Fallon

The hon. Gentleman ought to look a little more deeply into what he reads about the costs of CTCs. The unit costs that have been published in The Guardian wholly fail to take account of the fact that these schools, although over-subscribed, are not yet operating at full capacity. As the pupils work their way through, unit costs will fall, but it is inevitable that they are higher at the beginning.

Mr. Fatchett

The Minister explains the costs by saying that the Harris CTC is a new school. The argument from the Department of Education and Science is that other new schools are funded in the same way. Under the local management of schools formula, is any other maintained school funded in exactly the same way as Harris?

Mr. Fallon

I am trying to get into the hon. Gentleman's mind—it is proving difficult—the fact that the CTC, although over-subscribed in its initial entry, is not operating at full capacity. There are bound to be front-loaded unit costs that are different from those pertaining elsewhere.

These schools are popular not only with parents but with teachers. At Bradford, where 12 posts were available, more than 1,000 teachers expressed interest in them. In short, these are the schools of the future. They have a different ethos, which includes a longer working day, often until 5 pm. At Macmillan CTC in Teesside, which I visited recently, parents told me that they could not get their children home in the evening. The House need not take my word for that. Two thirds of the intake at Emmanuel college in Gateshead comes from deprived or very deprived backgrounds. An article in The Times on 8 July said: Truancy, a growing concern in many schools, is rare at Emmanuel, and discipline has posed few problems. There have been no expulsions or suspensions. Attendance at extra-curricular activities is good and 90 pupils are learning to play musical instruments. However, although that college is popular with parents, it is not popular with the local education authority. Gateshead council has denied Emmanuel college the use of neighbouring playing fields. The chairman of the education committee, Councillor Brazendale, said of the college: We don't want it in Gateshead. The sooner we can get rid of it the better. Emmanuel, like other CTCs, has suffered a campaign of intimidation and non-co-operation . This is so much so that, to quote The Times: One father dropping off his daughter sums up the sentiments of many: 'I am delighted with the school. They are returning to the days of discipline without going over the top'. He insisted on anonymity 'You see, I work for the local authority,' he said. That is the kind of fear that Labour local authorities inspire in those who express a preference for CTCs. What a way to treat a school.

I must report to the House no progress in the saddest case of all, that of 11-year-old Paul Campbell, who plays for Middlesbrough Town football club youth team. When he starts as a pupil at Teesside CTC in September, he will be barred from that team because Cleveland sports council, to which every other school on Teesside, including independent schools, is affiliated, will not affiliate the CTC. My hon. Friends the Members for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) and for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) have raised this with the Minister for Sport. The English Schools Football Association is considering the case.

Even if the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) does not agree with our policies on CTCs—I understand that he does not—and even if he does not yet appreciate how popular they are with parents, I hope that he will give an undertaking that this kind of petty and vindictive harassment of children for political reasons will cease forthwith; or must he really take out this kind of mean-minded ideology on an 11-year-old footballer? I await his undertaking.

Mr. Fatchett

As always, the Minister is not up to date with his briefing material. The Cleveland sports council is not controlled by the Cleveland education authority. I was in Cleveland three weeks ago. I made it clear, publicly, on local radio and in newspapers, that we see no point in excluding any youngster, from any school, from playing with the under-11s or any other football team. If the boy has the ability, he should be selected. That view is also held by my colleagues on the Cleveland Labour group. The problem is persuading the Cleveland sports council, which is not controlled by the Labour party or the county council. We are using our influence, and if the Minister had been up to date, he would know that the message that we have given is clear. We choose on ability, not on the school that the youngster attends.

Mr. Fallon

The message that the House is getting from that report is that the hon. Gentleman has been to Teesside and failed to make progress. The Cleveland sports council may not be controlled by the local authority, but the local authority has representatives on it. We shall not be satisfied until that kind of petty intimidation comes to an end.

Mr. Fatchett


Mr. Fallon

I will give way if the hon. Gentleman will give an undertaking that he will go to Teesside and make some progress on this case, with his friends.

Mr. Fatchett

I shall explain this once again to the Minister. It may have come to his attention that he is, for the time being, the Minister, and I am still a Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition. It will not long remain that way: there will be a change soon. The point about the Cleveland sports council, which the Minister has accepted, is that it is not a local government body. It is made up of teachers representing school sports. They cannot be ordered by the county council or the parliamentary Labour party. We shall use what influence we have, just as the Minister for Sport has tried to use influence and, I hope, the junior Minister in the Department of Education and Science has tried to use his influence. That is all that we have available to us.

I have made our position clear. I hope that it will be understood in Cleveland, but, in the end, it is up to the individual teachers. I hope that they will take the point that we have made clearly. It is stupid for the Minister to try to score cheap political points. We should be concerned about giving that youngster, if he has the ability, the opportunity to play for his football team.

Mr. Fallon

I can only say in answer to that that I have here the transcript of some comments by the chairman of the Cleveland education committee on 9 July, speaking on BBC Radio Cleveland. He said: As far as Derek Fatchett's comments go, I have made it clear to Derek that his comments are regarded by people responsible locally as ill-advised. He came to this subject knowing very little of the background and the detail and paying scant regard to the concern and the anger felt in the teaching profession locally. I advise the hon. Gentleman to reflect a little further.

Mr. Martin M. Brando-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

I would hate the House and the public to think that this is a one-off situation affecting Cleveland. My hon. Friend will know, because there is a catalogue of information on this, that we have just the same problems in Nottingham, where the Nottinghamshire Labour-controlled local education authority has had a running battle with the magnificent CTC ever since its conception. It did not even want to provide a schools crossing warden. Children were denied a place in county orchestras. It still does not allow schools in the public sector to hire playing fields. There is a running battle of hatred between the education authority and anything that it does not control.

Mr. Fallon

Yes. That is not an atypical case, and that is perhaps the most alarming feature of all. I should think that every CTC could produce similar examples. As local Labour politicians are directly involved, I would have hoped for a strong commitment by the Labour party to do something about it.

Mr. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

The Minister has suggested that there is hostility between all Labour authorities and their local CTCs. There is a CTC in my constituency, and there would be justification for hostility. There has been co-operation between Lewisham council and Haberdashers' CTC, but we find that, under the Government's direct threat of poll tax capping, the education authority had to take £5 million out of its budget before it began this financial year, that the CTC alone has been promised £5 million by the Government for its first year, and that it is asking for a further £1 million. The Minister must understand why bitterness and resentment arise. I do not endorse any of the things that he has described, but he must understand why some of us feel that resourcing is at the heart of higher standards, and that higher standards are not being offered through the Government to Lewisham's LEA, although, the Government are seeking to offer them to CTCs. That is an elitist policy which angers us.

Mr. Fallon

I welcome the fact that there is not overt hostility in the hon. Lady's area. I must tell her that one reason why Lewisham had to make economies of £5 million in its budget this year was the complete mismanagement of its spending last year. It was not until the introduction of local management of schools that councils such as Lewisham, and many others, had to cut their budgets and find out what they were spending.

Mr. Ruddock

I intervene again only because the Minister's information about Lewisham is incorrect. The £5 million is part of a £13 million cut from the budget before the beginning of the financial year on the direct instructions of the Department of the Environment because of the threat of poll tax capping. The Minister stands corrected.

Mr. Fallon

The plain fact is that Lewisham mismanaged its budget last year.

The third area in which we have extended choice is that of grant-maintained schools.

Mr. David Bellotti (Eastbourne)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Fraser

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Fallon

Not for the moment.

Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to announce the approval of the 100th grant-maintained school, which is to start in September. In September 1989, there were only 18 grant-maintained schools. Already, the grant-maintained sector is growing and successful. More than 70,000 pupils will be walking through the gates of grant-maintained schools this September. More than 2,000 schools have expressed an interest in becoming grant-maintained, and more than 300 have balloted already.

Grant-maintained schools are successful and I shall quote their success with parents. Baverstock school in Birmingham received 350 applications for 210 places last year, an increase of 50 per cent. over the previous year. At Bullerswood school, Bromley, there has been a 79 per cent. increase in applications for places in the coming year.

Grant-maintained schools are also popular with heads. I quote the head teacher of Ecclesbourne school, who said: I am handing more of the administration to my bursar and turning my mind back to education. I would not miss what is happening here for anything. It is the most professionally fulfilling period of my entire experience as a head. The head teacher of Hendon school has said: Grant-maintained status has enabled the more flexible use of funds, ensuring that all the school's resources are targeted on meeting its educational aims. It has been possible to redirect the funds previously required to sustain the LEA bureaucracy towards supporting the school curriculum.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I thank my hon. Friend for quoting the remarks of the head teacher of Hendon school, Mr. Lloyd. Is my hon. Friend aware that, when Hendon school was under the control of the local authority, there were about 100 to 120 applications each year for the places that were available, but that there were 350 applications for the places available for the school year that begins in September 1991? Hendon school, which was under-subscribed when it was under the control of the local authority, is now a heavily over-subscribed school. It was the first grant-maintained school in London. Does its experience not advertise how successful the grant-maintained policy is with parents, pupils and teachers?

Mr. Fallon

It most certainly does. My hon. Friend makes the point most effectively.

I have another quotation that relates to grant-maintained schools. A former Labour councillor, Mr. Graham Gardner, said of the school in his area: We are delighted and thrilled to be the first in Wales to opt out. Mr. Gardner's remarks appeared in an article in the Daily Mail of 16 November. He is reported as saying: Parent power had triumphed where Neil Kinnock had failed. The article stated that not one Labour councillor supported Mr. Gardner.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

It is important to emphasise the popularity of grant-maintained schools with parents despite vindictive campaigns, in many instances, by local education authorities. One example of vindictive-ness is the attitude of Birmingham's local education authority towards Baverstock school. It is important also to emphasise the educational atmosphere that the popularity of grant-maintained schools creates.

Baverstock school provides a classic example. Eight years ago, Baverstock school could attract only 25 first-place choices, although it can take 180 pupils. My hon. Friend appears not to have the latest figures, which reveal that the number of first-place choices for Baverstock school increased to 400 this year rather than the 310 that he mentioned.

In addition, a new teacher, who came from a local education authority school in Birmingham, said that the greatest difference that she could see between teaching at Baverstock and her previous school, which happened to be the George Dixon school in the middle of Birmingham, was that, when she entered a class room at Baverstock, the pupils stood and were eager to learn. They did not insult her and spit at her, as they had done in her previous school in the middle of Birmingham.

Mr. Fallon

Yes. That is exactly right.

As with city technology colleges, we have been seeing the same hostility to grant-maintained schools. On the other hand, some education authorities have been co-operative with grant-maintained schools. Indeed, some enlightened local education authorities have encouraged their schools to become grant maintained. They see it as a sign of maturity that their schools are ready to run their own affairs and control their own budgets. Other LEAs have been openly obstructive.

We find that, quite often, parents that are looking to choose a secondary school for their children have not been told about the grant-maintained school in their area. In Tameside, the grant-maintained school has been expelled from the technical and vocational education consortium working group. In Kirklees, grant-maintained teachers are excluded from national curriculum meetings. In Newham, the director of education wrote three days ago to parents selecting schools—his letter is dated 16 July—in these terms: Newham does not believe that the existence of this independent secondary school"— that is the Stratford grant-maintained school— is in the interests of the children of this borough. Newham has no responsibility at all for the education provided in this school and I am concerned about the ability of the school to provide a good education for your child since the numbers there are now so low. It is also the declared intention of Newham to begin procedures to close Stratford grant-maintained school at the earliest opportunity. This could be soon. You will obviously wish to be aware of this since it could have an effect on your child's education. That is the position at local level. At national level, the Labour party plans to reintegrate grant-maintained schools into the very LEAs from which they sought independence. It plans a sort of systematisation of grant-maintained schools. If the House thinks that that is too strong a word, I refer it to the words of Lord Peston, who is an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman in another place: These schools are a blot on the educational landscape and we shall do our best to remove them."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 1991; Vol. 530, c. 1594.]

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

My hon. Friend's point is important, because it touches on the case of that 11-year-old boy. I accept the assurance given by the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett). Nevertheless, the problem has arisen, and the letter from Newham has been written, because of the climate of intolerance that has been encouraged by Labour party policy, with its ideological, almost totalitarian, view of the education system.

Labour Members are basically saying, "There shall be no education system other than the comprehensive system, to which we are ideologically wedded. We will not rethink our policy; we will not change our minds." It is that climate which has given rise to the cases that have been mentioned. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central may try to put the problem right, but he should also reconsider his policy and his philosophy—and then the case of that 11-year-old boy and the letter from Newham would not have arisen.

Mr. Fallon

My hon. Friend is right. The Labour party's policy is deeply rooted, from the local level upwards through every level of the Labour party.

Most sinister of all has been a series of threats to the future of those who teach in grant-maintained schools. I must tell the hon. Member for Leeds, Central that next term 5,000 teachers will be teaching in grant-maintained schools—and the Labour party has plans for them. I shall quote Councillor Stephen Byers, a senior figure in the Labour movement. He is the Labour education chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. On 2 October last year, he issued a press release stating: Now is also the time to warn heads and teachers of the possible consequences of remaining in a school which opts out. There can be no guarantee that their employment would be continued when that school returns to the local authority.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

My hon. Friend has painted an extraordinarily sombre picture of the policies and attitudes of Labour Members. If nothing else comes out of today's debate, I hope that Labour Members will be encouraged to reconsider their policies, for all the reasons given by my hon. Friends. Is it not amazing that there are only two Labour Back Benchers present today to participate in a debate on such an important subject?

Mr. Fallon

It is amazing. Two Labour Members hardly convey an impression that education is a key policy item. Like my hon. Friends, I attach some importance to the speech that we are about to hear from the hon. Member for Leeds, Central. I hope to hear that the Labour party has made some progress on issues such as city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Fraser

The Minister referred to parental choice. What parental choice was there for parents who had children at Sylvan school before it became a city technology college, and who voted overwhelmingly against that?

Mr. Fallon

There was a choice because, for the first time in that borough, parents could choose between different types of school. They are no longer restricted to the local authority monopoly. The hon. Gentleman should be proud of the fact that he now has different types of school in his constituency.

The final way in which we are securing better choice is not just through new types of schools, but by delegating budgets to schools on the basis of pupil numbers and introducing more open enrolment, so that parents can choose. This year 80 per cent. of secondary schools—a total of 3,000—will have their own budgets, and 6,000 primary schools already have their own budgets. All schools will have their own delegated budgets by April 1994.

Earlier this year, we announced three improvements to budgetary delegation. First, any school that wants a budget earlier than April 1994, and is refused that by the local education authority, can now apply direct to my Department. Secondly, we have insisted that by next April all secondary schools should have their own bank accounts and cheque books, which will make a reality of their control of their budgets. Thirdly, we are for the first time, restricting the amount that can be held back by the centre —the LEA tax—to 15 per cent. of the total school budget as a maximum by April 1993.

Schools are now regaining control of their affairs. Local management of schools, although an interim and preparatory step to the final and fuller freedom of grant-maintained status, gives schools much more freedom and control over their own budgets. I shall cite two examples. The head of Heathland school in Hounslow said in Education on 17 May: We are beginning to realise that the Government was absolutely right to insist that the budgets were pupil driven, absolutely right to stand firm against demands that account should be taken of the actual costs of teachers' salaries. Freed from the concern that our school budgets should reflect the LEA's budget generation, we are beginning to plan expenditure according to our own individual strategic needs.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that education legislation relating to special needs does not include the special needs of exceptionally bright children. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the new schools, as well as looking after the special needs of the mentally disabled and children with other disabilities, also look after the needs of exceptionally bright children? If we forget such children, we may as well forget the future leaders of our country.

My understanding is that the law does not provide for schools to take account of those special needs. With the widening choice that the Government are providing, we now have an opportunity to ensure that parents of bright kids can say to a school. "You are legally obliged to provide facilities for my bright child, in the way that you provide them for backward or disabled children."

Mr. Fallon

The representatives of the National Association for Gifted Children have been to see me on that point, and I shall certainly reflect further on it. The key point is that, through local management of schools, the heads and governors have more resources under their control to allocate as they see fit. Provided that they have sufficient headroom in the budget, they can make that special provision.

In case the House thinks that I am quoting only one of the best examples, I shall also quote from a school that has a more difficult budget, perhaps because historically it has been over-funded and its budget has now been adjusted in line with pupil numbers.

In The Times Educational Supplement, the principal of Chulmleigh community college in north Devon said: It's been a bad month, and not one to repeat next year. But some good will come of it. Faculty heads must be less insular and learn to think more whole-school; some teachers will have to work harder and show more commitment; and every bit of the budget will be more carefully scrutinised. We shall also improve our public relations. Ten more children in the school would have saved all the anguish. We are losing twice that number to the private sector and elsewhere each year. There's a challenge for everyone: be sure about the quality, improve customer relations, watch the budget, and we may see off the redundancy spectre for good. That tells an eloquent story about the success of local management of schools. Combined with more open enrolment, LMS means that all schools must be much more responsive to the local community. They have to keep up their numbers and offer what parents want. For us, wider choice is not an abstract but means practical power for parents—and that power will drive up standards.

Higher standards are at the centre of our education policy. We introduced a new national curriculum for the first time and we are insisting that all pupils are tested at ages seven, 11 and 14, before GCSE. It is extraordinary that, before 1988, nothing was compulsory. Pupils could drift through school without ever being given a spelling test, doing any science, or taking much French. Worse, they could drift through school without ever knowing what was expected of them.

That drifting is at an end. Ours is the first Government to implement a compulsory curriculum, which introduces a new structure for children from age five upwards. It has been widely welcomed by teachers. It is true that many grumbled, with reason, at the pace of change and complained at the weight of the paperwork, but every school that I have visited accepts the principle of a fixed, basic curriculum as a framework for its teaching. It is a framework and not a straitjacket, as the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister emphasised. It should be simple and manageable—and flexible after a pupil has reached 14, so that those who want to pursue an academic route can do so, while others may choose to start earlier on the vocational path.

The national curriculum itself will raise standards. For example, all girls will be required to take science all the way through their school career, and every pupil will take a foreign language and study technology. Crucial to the success of the national curriculum is our insistence that what is taught will be tested—at seven, 11 and 14. The objective is to provide a check on progress, so that schools can compare their performance year on year, and parents can compare school against school.

In working together with the new chairman of the National Curriculum Council and with the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council, we will ensure that the curriculum and assessments will be manageable and sensible in future.

Mr. Pawsey

Can my hon. Friend confirm that, if his Department approves any application from a Muslim group to establish a grant-maintained school, such a school will be required to adhere to the national curriculum—and that it will apply equally to girls as to boys?

Mr. Fallon

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance.

The GCSE is a success story. More pupils are entering every year, and the pass rate is rising. However, we need to ensure that those at the top who want to progress to A-levels will not be disadvantaged by the different treatment of course work as between GCSE and A-level. Course work for the latter will in future account for a maximum of 20 per cent. of the assessment, although for a GCSE it can still account for a maximum of 70 per cent.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made that clear in his speech: If the transition from GCSE to A levels is causing difficulties, we must level GCSE up, not lower A level standards down. That is because the A-level remains our bench mark. Our recent White Paper on education and training clearly sets out our commitment to A-level, alongside our belief in a wider curriculum at sixth form. We want to see earlier and larger take-up of vocational courses. Some vocational policies lie beyond the scope of today's debate, but I assure the House of our unswerving commitment to A-levels and to the standards that they set.

We want more pupils to remain at school on the academic or vocational routes. This year, 60 per cent. of all 16-year-olds are staying on at school—but we are not satisfied yet, for we want more of them to continue into higher education. When we came to office, only one pupil in eight entered higher education. Today, the figure is one in five, and by the year 2000 it will be one in three.

The other key to higher standards is a better-paid and well-motivated teaching force. We hope that next week we shall have, by statute, for the very first time, an independent pay review body for teachers, which will put them on a par with doctors, dentists and other professional groups. None of my right hon. and hon. Friends will forget the helpless ambivalence with which Labour first greeted the announcement of that body. Certainly we will never let any teacher forget that Labour—in kow-towing to the militants in the National Union of Teachers who wanted to preserve the right to strike—voted against a pay review body.

Our third aim is greater accountability. Each of our three Education Acts puts parents first, by giving them rights to choose their children's schools; to attend annual parent meetings; to receive information on the curriculum, exam results, and the school budget; and to have regular reports on their children's progress. We will build on those rights by ensuring more systematic inspection. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: The school inspector should be the parents' friend. Wider choice, higher standards and greater accountability are all threatened by Labour. Independent schools would lose their charitable status; the assisted places scheme would be phased out; city technology colleges would be scrapped; grant-maintained schools would be reintegrated; and local education authorities would be back in business—free to dictate policy to their schools, and to direct their customers around the schools in their system.

Labour always defends bureaucracy. When Labour runs cities such as Newcastle and Coventry, almost half those employed under the education budget are not teaching. Labour would not only restrict choice but fudge standards. Its plans include fudge and more fudge. At 16, a pupil could take any option—to stay at school, leave, or return—and still claim the same rewards. Labour has dreamed up something called the advanced certificate for education and training, which they call "ASSET"—which perhaps proves that Labour cannot spell. It would fuse academic and vocational qualifications in a glorious fudge—the same level for plumbers and philosophers, engineers and business students.

Every one of Labour's targets is empty or meaningless. The party's document, "Aiming High", states that every three or four-year-old should have a nursery place, but it does not give any date. Neither does Labour make any commitment. I understand that the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) does not give any priority to that pledge. Labour suggests also that all 16 to 18-year-olds will achieve five GCSEs within five years of a Labour Government, and that within 10 years, all 16 to 19-year-olds will gain at least the equivalent of one A-level.

Those are meaningless targets, having all the logic of Soviet tractor production. If a target must be met by a certain year, it can be met only if the standard is adjusted —and adjusting the standard, as we have come to learn, means debasing it. That is exactly what Labour is planning.

Let us go into Labour's education policy more deeply, and examine the Labour education organisation, the Socialist Educational Association. My hon. Friends may be interested to know that the association's motto is "Educate, Organise, Agitate". Its membership includes the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). I do not know whether the hon. Member for Leeds, Central is a member; the association may be one of those organisations from which Front-Bench spokesmen have forgotten that they are supposed to resign.

The Socialist Educational Association is not at all happy with the curriculum. It would like a curriculum that was pluralist, internationalist and global in approach. All students should leave school having had the chance to write poetry and to understand how Fascism was defeated in the 1940s. Nor is the association happy with the GCSE. It appears to think—I urge my hon. Friends to contain themselves at this point—that the GCSE is too tough; it wants it to be broadened to take in all the ability range. Certainly, the association is not happy with sixth forms. It wants them to be swept away, along with A-levels, in an orgy of anti-elitism. Curiously, it is also not happy with Labour's ideas. At a recent conference in Luton, a resolution called on the Labour Front Bench to stop being defensive and bland over 16 to 19 proposals. The association would prefer everyone to receive a grant at that stage.

Finally and most revealingly, the Socialist Educational Association is not happy with parental choice: Too little attention, it says, has been given to continuity between primary and secondary schools. This would be improved if all the children transferred to their local secondary school from feeder primary schools. Although some parental choice seems inevitable, many problems would be solved if schools ceased to feel that they were competing for customers. There—with the public relations floss scraped off—is the true mind of the Labour party. That is how the party runs Lambeth and Liverpool; that is why Lambeth voters are voting for grant-maintained schools, and why Labour voters there have been begging the Department to intervene. That is why some Lambeth parents will do anything, even cross the river, to escape educational socialism.

Let us be in no doubt about what a future Labour Government would hold in store, should one be elected next year. Let me paint the picture. We would see the closure of many independent schools, robbed of their charitable status; the end of the assisted places scheme; the destruction of 13 city technology colleges; the reintegration of perhaps 200 grant-maintained schools, against the democratic wishes of their parents; and the end of A-levels —this year's new sixth formers could be the last to sit that well-established examination.

Worse than all that, the bureaucrats would be back in charge in the classrooms, and all the policies that go with that would return: the watch on gender rather than grammar, and the insistence that racial discrimination takes priority over linguistic discrimination.

Far from putting more money into education, Labour, as we already know, would take money out of the system. Under Labour, those earning more than £20,000 a year would pay more tax. When the election comes, we shall ensure that the message gets across in every constituency in the country: Labour would increase tax for the average secondary school teacher at the top of the scale, who now earns more than £20,000 a year. That is taking money out of the education system, not putting it in.

Conservative Members remain committed to our reforms—fundamental but necessary reforms, protracted in their implementation but overdue. Our education policy puts parents first. We believe that the key to higher standards lies in wider choice and greater parental accountability.

10.25 am
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

The Opposition welcome this debate on standards in education, which is the first education debate in Government time that we have had in the current parliamentary year. Every other education debate has been sought in Opposition time. The Government published what they claim to be important White Papers on the reform of education and training for those over 16, but none the less could find no time in which to debate the issues.

We always welcome debates on education. One thing is abundantly clear: whenever education is debated, it is good for the Labour party and for Labour support. [Interruption.] Will Conservative Members keep quiet for a moment?

According to a current opinion poll, the Labour lead in regard to education—

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

Is falling.

Mr. Fatchett

No, it is not falling. According to the most recent Gallup poll, it is over 24 per cent.

When education is debated and the Conservatives' record is put under the mircoscope—when Ministers are seen on television—we observe one simple factor.

Mr. John Marshall

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fatchett

Will the hon. Gentleman be patient for a few moments? I have only just started.

When the Government's record is exposed, Labour's opinion poll lead increases. That is why we always welcome education debates.

The Minister's speech was well trailed and well rehearsed. It was in the Conservative research department brief and I had the pleasure of reading most of it along with the Minister. The delivery was perhaps not as good as the original text, but we expect little better from the Minister.

Interestingly, the Minister's speech concentrated hardly at all on standards for all our children. We need to talk about that. Labour's aspiration and ambition are to increase standards across the education system and, in that regard, we share a concern felt deeply by parents.

Conservative Members will no doubt have seen a poll, published in early spring, which showed that British parents felt the greatest anxiety in western Europe about education standards. That concern extends to the Conservative party. A Carlton club political committee seminar held in March 1991—and, incidentally, attended by the junior Education Minister—also discussed standards. The brief on that occasion was slightly different from the Minister's brief this morning, in which he seemed to be suggesting a very different line in terms of the Government's performance.

The Carlton club seminar referred to anxiety about standards and said that the Government's education reforms were not working. Present on that occasion—at a meeting chaired by a former Cabinet Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)—was the present Minister. Now, only a few months later, the Minister is trying to pretend that standards are improving. That came from the Carlton club, deep in the heart of the Conservative party. Only this week, a report from the disbanded Assessment of Performance Unit showed a slight decline in writing standards, according to the reports in The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere.

Mr. Fallon

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fatchett

I shall give way in a few minutes.

That sets the debate against an interesting backcloth. There is parental concern about falling standards. There is also concern in the Conservative party, and there is some objective evidence of falling standards, but the essential fact to remember in all this is that any 16-year-old leaving school this week, at the end of his or her period of compulsory education, will have been educated under only one Government, the Conservative Government who have been in power for the past 12 years.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Fatchett

The hon. Gentleman says, "Hear, hear". That makes the essential point, does it not? Who is responsible if standards are falling? The Government try to persuade us that others are responsible. Sometimes, it is the fault of teachers and sometimes the fault of parents. The Minister seems to think that it is the fault of television companies and is developing his own blacklist of television programmes that children should not watch. We are given numerous excuses—a long list of those responsible for any decline in standards.

Is not the simple fact that the Government have been in office and have presided over the education system for 12 years? If they have any sense of personal and collective responsibility they will put up their hands and say, "We are the party that has been in charge and we are responsible. If there is a fall in educational standards, do not blame others. Blame the Conservative party, which has presided over the collapse of educational standards". That is the key lesson to be learnt in this debate. The Government alone have been responsible for the education of any youngster leaving school this week. If that youngster suffers from a fall in standards or a reduction in opportunities, he or she should blame the Conservative Government.

Mr. John Marshall

The hon. Gentleman alleged that Labour had a lead in the public opinion polls. Is not a much more important question how individual parents react when they have a choice put before them? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in January 1990, 1,600 pupils came from the people's republic of Brent to be educated in the Conservative-controlled Barnet education authority area? Is not it significant that, where parents have a choice of having their children educated in a Labour or a Conservative borough—this includes the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—they choose to go to a Conservative borough? Does not that show that parents have more faith in Conservative councils and does the hon. Gentleman accept that such councils produce much better results than their Labour-controlled counterparts?

Mr. Fatchett

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman wishes to criticise his colleagues in Brent, where I understand the Conservatives are now in charge.

What have the Government done about standards in the past 12 years? What is their record? They have failed in so many ways. They have either done the right thing incorrectly or they have done the wrong thing or they have done nothing at all. We are virtually the only country in western Europe that does not value nursery education and whose Government do not recognise the need to give youngsters a good start. The Minister knocked Labour's ambitious education targets. It would do him good to talk to his ministerial counterparts—some Conservative, some Socialist—in western Europe who will tell him that they have very ambitious targets for young people starting education in their early years. They regard education in the early years not as a drain on resources but as an investment in the future—an investment which they must make if they are to improve educational standards.

It is always worth quoting the remarks of those within the Conservative party. The Carlton club tells us what has happened to the important nursery education service under the Government: Under the Conservative party nursery education is in danger of becoming the Cinderella of the education system. No other Government and no other country would allow such an important provision to become the Cinderella of the system. The Government try to conceal their record and, as always, their statistics should be accompanied with a health warning.

The Carlton club continues: Worse is yet to come, for the same Government policy document on education then goes on to claim, '48 per cent. of under-fives are now in nursery schools. These figures compare excellently with those of many other European countries'". It is a pleasure to find that some people in the Conservative party recognise the truth, and the Carlton club document then does just that: Regrettably, this claim is both false and misleading, and the true picture was accurately stated at the Carlton club education seminar by Malcolm Thornton MP, the Chairman of the Select Committee, who said, 'Sadly, the United Kingdom has one of the lowest proportions of children under five in education of the advanced industrial nations'". The Carlton club document then provides graphics—presumably, realising that that is the best way of getting information across to Members of the Conservative party—under the heading "bottom of the class". That is not what the Minister and Conservative central office claim and the figures in the Carlton club document may come as a bit of a surprise to hon. Members who rely on central office briefings. The percentage of all three and four-year-olds in education in Belgium is 96 per cent. In France, it is 95 per cent.; in Italy, 88 per cent.; in Spain, 66 per cent.; in West Germany, 51 per cent.; and in Holland, 50 per cent. There, at the bottom of the list, is the United Kingdom with only 44 per cent. of all three and four-year-olds in education. How can we raise educational standards when the important early years are ignored by the Government? They do not invest in our young children and we will not improve standards without that investment. They have failed to do something that is crucial to the improvement of educational standards.

One can improve standards in other ways, of course, but that requires some consistency on the part of the Government and this Government's Ministers show a remarkable lack of consistency. They are learning to swim and, on almost every occasion, we see them going down gently in the process, shouting for help.

Let me give two examples. The first concerns the practice and experience of assessment at the age of seven. No one has ever denied the need for diagnostic assessment. That is a myth which Ministers and Back Benchers like to peddle. On the Committee that considered the Education Reform Act 1988, there was never any difference between us on the need for assessment. We all recognise that good teaching is supported by assessment and testing and both the Labour and the Liberal parties expressed that view in Committee. Four years, two Prime Ministers, three Secretaries of State and seven Education Ministers later, no one yet knows how next year's seven-plus assessment will work. Neither teachers nor parents know and I suspect that Education Ministers simply do not have any idea. That is leaving aside what is going to happen with assessment at 11 and 14.

We all remember the claims of the Home Secretary, then Secretary of State for Education, that it was possible to take from a filing cabinet somewhere in the Department a series of assessment tests that could be implemented almost at the stroke of a ministerial pen. For two years children aged seven have been used as guinea pigs and teachers have had no clear definition of what is expected of them. That is all because we have Ministers who are incapable of making up their mids and who simply do not know what they want to use assessment for and what is its value. That inconsistency make life difficult for teachers and makes it difficult to raise standards. Above all, it gives an impression of a Government and Ministers who are not on top of their job and are unable to perform effectively to raise education standards.

I shall give another example—the GCSE, an examination introduced not by the education establishment, which is much criticised by the Government, but by the former Secretary of State for Education and Science, now Lord Joseph. It was introduced by the Conservatives, made to work by individual teachers, supported by parents and, subsequently, even this morning, praised by Ministers. There is a consensus.

What happened? Much of the fundamental thinking behind the GCSE, Lord Joseph's thinking, which has been praised by Ministers, was changed at a stroke in the Prime Minister's speech two weeks ago. There was no consultation with teachers or parents—just a prime ministerial whim announced at the Cafe Royal. Is that the way to improve standards and our education system? If we expect commitment from teachers and support from parents, the Government need to show consistency to improve standards.

The Government could have built on the consensus, but they have failed to do so. The Minister rightly said that there has been a strong element of agreement about a national curriculum. Again, there was no doubt about that in terms of the Education Reform Act. If the Minister were not such a newcomer to education debates, he would know that during the 1987 general election all three main political parties supported the idea of a national curriculum. There will always be arguments about detail, but not about principle, and that education principle was widely accepted.

There is a consensus about change, improvements and raising standards, but what have the Government done? Over the past two weeks, they have made two appointments—David Pascall to the National Curriculum Council and Lord Griffiths to the School Examinations and Assessment Council. Both people were members of the No. 10 policy unit under the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). Both appointments were clearly party political. According to one profile, Lord Griffiths seems to have little to offer in certain respects. The profile says: A former Dean of the City University Business School, he has reached eminence by compliance … and by constituting no threat to the Prime Minister's own intellectual limitations. That may not have been the most flattering of comments. Many teachers and many people involved in local government and in education have noticed that, yet again, the Government believe that making appointments to Government bodies is the sole right of a particular ideological wing of the Conservative party.

We will never build an education consensus and raise standards if education is used as the plaything of one ideological element in the Conservative party. What can be seen from those two appointments, particularly that of Lord Griffiths, is a Government and Ministers who like to hear comments that support their ideological position. We have seen that in the health service. We saw it from the present Secretary of State for Education and Science when he was Secretary of State for Health—each of the health authorities was stripped of political opposition and people were replaced by Conservative party supporters and placemen. That is happening again this time.

If we are to have a system of independent bodies, Ministers should have advisers who are candid friends and are prepared to say, "You are getting it wrong. You need to change." But we are likely to get the ventriloquist's dummies who will give Ministers the responses that they want. There can be no faith in a system that fails to build on consensus but simply builds on the ideology and commitment of one section of the Conservative party.

Mr. Fallon

The House will deeply resent that personal attack on two important figures in the education world. I wish to correct the hon. Gentleman. Mr. David Pascall has not been appointed to the National Curriculum Council; he is already a member of it. He has now been appointed chairman of the council. In addition, I should have thought that most teachers would welcome the fact that the previous chairman of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, who was a civil servant, has been replaced by a man who has spent almost all his life teaching.

Mr. Fatchett

The Minister does not try to defend what are clearly political appointments. Those appointments will undermine a great deal of faith in the legitimacy of the education system. If the Minister looks at Labour's proposals for an education standards commission, he will see how a party that has respect for a pluralist democracy intends to work when it takes office either later this year or next year. Appointments to that body will be approved by the House of Commons Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts. We will ensure that there is independence and faith in the system and that people have respect for it. Because of the two appointments to which I referred, the legitimacy of the good work that has been developed by the NCC and the SEAC will be questioned.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

The hon. Gentleman makes much of the need to build a concensus in the education system about reforms. How does he square that with the views which were made known publicly by Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, on the education standards commission? Mr. de Gruchy said that he was hostile to it. Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described the proposed commission as a gimmickly idea, meant more for public relations than to produce any substantial improvements in education standards.

Mr. Fatchett

Conservative Members who rely on Conservative party research department briefs should look at the date on those briefs. We launched the education standards commission document in June this year. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the press cuttings, he will see what Mr. de Gruchy and Mr. McAvoy said. June 1991, rather than any earlier date, will be useful to the hon. Gentleman. The Government are undermining the consensus in our education system and therefore taking away the commitment to improve standards.

There is another key point—standards will never be improved if there is no investment in the education system. That is true of the Government's record. Parents say that too many of our children are educated in crumbling schools. The Government's inspectorate talks about a backlog of repairs costing £3 billion to £4 billion. That means that many of our children will be in schools with leaking roofs or in primary classrooms that do not have running water or the facilities that make it possible to teach aspects of the primary national curriculum.

How does one improve education standards when there is such a poor record in terms of crumbling schools? When the Conservative Government leave office in a few months time, they will be remembered as the Government of crumbling schools, because they have brought schools in many parts of the country to a low standard. This is the only Government in western Europe in the 1980s who have been prepared to cut education expenditure as a percentage of national wealth. In 1979, when Labour left office, 5.5 per cent. of the national wealth was devoted to education. Ten years later, in 1989, the figure was 4.6 per cent., which shows the decline in priority.

Mr. Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)


Mr. Fatchett

The hon. Gentleman has only just entered the debate. I know that he is a quick learner, but he is not that quick. I shall give him time to become accustomed to the climate and then I shall give way to him. I must tell him that unlike his previous experience in agriculture, education debates are rarified occasions, so he must take his time before intervening.

In 1979 the figure was 5.5 per cent. and in 1989 it was 4.6 per cent. That shows the lower priority that the Government give to education. That priority has been declining, but the Government have the audacity to lecture other people this morning about education standards. This Government have failed for a decade to improve standards of education.

However, there are standards about which the Government know a little—double standards. They like to experiment with ideology in the maintained sector, but Ministers and members of the Cabinet send their children to schools in the private sector. They were opting out of the maintained sector before the principle of grant-maintained schools was even thought of in the Education Reform Act 1988. No privilege is too expensive for the children of Ministers and members of the Cabinet but for our children who use the maintained sector, the right to a decent education costs too much.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) underlined the idea earlier this year when he wondered how one could have faith in the Government's education reforms if Ministers were not prepared to use the state education system.

Mr. Walden

I am beginning to wish that I had not written the pamphlet to which the hon. Gentleman refers because I have had to correct Opposition spokesmen about it so often. It was called "The Blocked Society". The reason behind the idea of a blockage was that I believe we have a blocked education system because the private sector, which has every right to exist, has far higher standards than the state sector. The state sector is blighted by a false ideology and a false philosophy to which the Opposition subscribe. That is why people continue to send their children to private schools, and I regard that as extremely unhealthy and socially damaging. That is what I said in the pamphlet.

Mr. Fatchett

I am grateful for that clarification, but it might be helpful if I quote the crucial sentence from the pamphlet. The hon. Gentleman wrote: When the Government claim that the state sector has changed out of all recognition as a result of their policies, why do government Ministers still steer clear of it? That is the crucial question to which the Minister has no answer. Why should parents have faith in a Government who are not prepared to trust with the education of their own children the system over which they have presided for 12 years? That is the Government's double standard and that is the crucial question which must be answered.

There are also double standards in other respects, for example, in funding. It always amuses me that in these debates it is the Labour party that is supposed to have an ideology and the Conservative party that is supposed to have none. The Conservative party is supposed to be the party of the pragmatist, of the common-sense person. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, it is the party which has views. To judge from what the Minister said this morning, I think, that he might be rather annoyed and irritated by the comment that he has views—I suspect that he has a clear ideology about grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges and independent schools. The Government's policy is invested with a high level of ideology. Of course, when elements of that ideology clash, the Minister has no answer other than to push forward with the bad element of ideology which he considers to be the most important.

That was most noticeable when my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) intervened about the Harris CTC, the previous Sylvan school. The Minister had made a number of comments about parental choice. The parents at Sylvan school had held a ballot on whether the school should become a CTC and they voted against the idea. The Government took no account of the parents' views and went ahead to form a CTC. That shows the Government's regard for parental views and that they will listen to them only if they agree with the ballot result. They are interested not in the principle of a ballot but in an outcome that ensures that they can move in their chosen ideological direction.

Mr. Fallon

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will answer the direct anecdotal evidence that I laid before the House. A recent open evening at Harris CTC was attended by more than 2,000 parents of prospective pupils and the police had to close local roads because of congestion. Is not that that the clearest possible evidence that parents in the locality welcome the wider choice provided by such colleges?

Mr. Fatchett

The Minister has again failed to respond to the main point which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood. If the Government believe in ballots, why did not they take notice of the views expressed by the parents at Sylvan school? Those parents clearly rejected the idea of the school becoming a CTC. It is no good the Minister nodding his head. The parents rejected the notion of a CTC. Why did the Government take no account of the outcome of the ballot if they believe in such ballots? I am happy to give way again to the Minister.

Mr. Fallon

If I cannot persuade the hon. Gentleman that 2,000 parents clogging the streets of Lambeth to attend an open evening at a new college is not evidence of parental interest, I do not know what will convince him.

Mr. Fatchett

The Minister is not doing very well.

Mr. Fraser


Mr. Fatchett

I shall give way after I have given the Minister another opportunity to answer. It seems that this debate is becoming an educational re-sit. We have twice asked the Minister a question about the ballot but he has refused to answer. I put the question to him again. We do not want to hear anecdotal evidence about a parents' evening—we want a simple answer. If the Minister believes in ballots, why did not he take account of the views expressed by parents at Sylvan school? Was it because the Minster will take account of ballots only when the outcome agrees with his ideology? He is a member of a party which yesterday lectured the Soviet leader about democracy but which takes no account of parents' views. I shall give the Minister a third opportunity to answer if he wishes to do so.

Mr. Fallon

I shall willingly take it. I have already described to the House how all the 13 new CTCs have been oversubscribed from the day they opened their doors. I have also described the memorable evening in Lambeth when police had to close local roads because of congestion when more than 2,000 parents attended an open evening to hear more about the college.

Mr. Fatchett

That is the Minister's third failure. Those of us who know a little about show jumping know that at the third failure the horse is disqualified. After three failures I think that the Minister should be withdrawn.

Mr. Fraser

I remind my hon. Friend that in a ballot about the break-up of the Inner London education authority 94 per cent. voted against it, but there was no recognition of that fact.

Mr. Fatchett

We seem to be tapping a rich vein of interest here. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood points out yet another ballot—the ballot that was held by parents on the future of the Inner London education authority. More than nine out of 10 parents voted for the continuation of the Inner London education authority, but their views were totally disregarded. Earlier, we had a lecture from the Minister about choice for parents. From the Minister's comments, we can see how far that choice goes. It does not extend to the parents of Sylvan school who did not want their school to become a city technology college; they voted against it. That choice does not extend to the parents of children at Inner London education authority schools, because they also voted overwhelmingly against the abolition of the authority. This Government listen to parents when parents agree with them; they totally disregard parents when parents offer an alternative view.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

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