§ 10. Mr. Janman
To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many schools in Essex have applied for grant-maintained status; and if he will make a statement.
§ Mr. Eggar
Parents in nine schools in Essex have voted in favour of grant-maintained status. One school is already up and running and another is approved for grant-maintained status in September. I am considering proposals from two schools, and the remaining five schools will publish their proposals in due course.
§ Mr. Janman
Does my hon. Friend agree that all head teachers, boards of governors and parents of pupils at schools in Essex should be looking seriously at the option of their school becoming grant maintained? Does he also agree that the benefits of becoming a grant-maintained school should be being pushed vigorously by all Conservative county councillors in the county?
§ Mr. Leighton
Does the Minister agree that the few schools in Essex that want to take on grant-maintained status should study the experience of Stratford school in Newham? Does he accept that despite the fact that every local head teacher and the chairman of the training and enterprise council warned against that school becoming grant maintained, the Minister allowed that for ideological reasons and the school now has only one third of the pupils that it could take, with the result that education there costs more than £6,000 per pupil, which is twice as much as anywhere else? How can the Minister justify so bizarre a situation?
§ Mr. Eggar
The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) and his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) should have words with the director of education for Newham council. They have just written the most disgraceful letter to parents, deliberately trying to frighten and intimidate them into withdrawing their children from Stratford school or attempting to dissuade them from taking up their option to attend Stratford. That is old-fashioned party thuggery of the kind that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen claim to have given up.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has already had one outburst.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke
I have approved five primary schools for grant-maintained status and I am minded to approve one more. Fifty-four primary schools in all have 1026 so far applied for grant-maintained status and a further 11 are currently balloting parents on whether to apply for such status.
§ Mr. Gill
In determining applications, what weighting does my right hon. and learned Friend give to parental choice, academic achievement and the strength of lay and professional support? In answering that question, will he bear in mind the circumstances at the Down school where 85 per cent. of parents voted in favour of grant-maintained status, where the above-average academic achievement is well documented and where dedicated staff and governors are unanimously in favour of running their own affairs? What assurances can my right hon. and learned Friend give me that the decision that the Government have denied my constituents on this important policy is not a case of "Whitehall knows best"?
§ Mr. Clarke
We give high regard to the expressed wishes of parents, which is why, having done just that in the case of Stratford school, my hon. Friend the Minister of State and myself are being so vigorously threatened by hon. Members representing Newham. However, we also consider the merits of each application and the likely success of the school as a grant-maintained school. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) has told me how strongly he regrets our decision on the Down school, which is housed in an old Victorian building and has only two teachers, including the head teacher. I am afraid that we were driven to the conclusion that it was unlikely to succeed as a grant-maintained school. At least my hon. Friend's indignation answers the allegation that is frequently made against us that we always allow grant-maintained status in the case of closures.
§ Mr. Flannery
Is it not a fact that the Government's attempt to dragoon schools into becoming grant maintained is a total failure? Is it not a fact that if all schools wanted to become grant maintained, the Government would have to increase the number of bureaucrats in Whitehall tenfold to centralise the education system? Is it not also the case that because the Government have not succeeded in encouraging schools to become grant maintained through a proper vote, they are now offering financial rewards and giving schools that accept grant-maintained status more money than is given to other schools and are not such schools usually about to be closed anyway?
§ Mr. Clarke
The number of schools that have balloted has doubled in the past six months. The number of schools where that status has been approved has now risen past 100. I believe that today's count is 104. The effect of the change is to reduce bureaucracy, because more of the school's budget is placed in the hands of the governors and parents and is spent directly for the benefit of that school.
The hon. Gentleman's allegation that we allow applications in all cases where the school is proposed for closure is belied by the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). Parents in his constituency wanted a school marked for closure to become grant maintained, but we judged that case, as we judge all cases, on its merits and reluctantly decided that the application could not be allowed to proceed.