HC Deb 02 December 1992 vol 215 cc369-76

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

10.12 pm
Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and, through you, I thank Madam Speaker for having selected for the Adjournment debate tonight the subject of Testbourne school and its application for grant-maintained status.

I shall explain the background, take the Minister through events, ask him three questions, and seek certain assurances. It may be helpful if I start by saying that grant-maintained status is no discredit to a county education committee. Rather, it is a sign of success. Many county councils are proud of the fact that they have brought schools along to the point at which they can paddle their own canoes and manage their own affairs, with grant-maintained status. Indeed, almost all the schools that have moved in that direction have proved a great success.

Testbourne is a successful school: 97 per cent. of the pupils gained five or more GCSEs, more than half of those with five or more A to C grades. That puts the school in the top 20 in Hampshire. The governors and the head are seekers after excellence, and recognise that grant-maintained status can help them, enabling them to take decisions more quickly, free of red tape. It would also give the school control over its total budget, with all the advantages of local decision making. It would give the school scope to shop around for the best value for its needs and, in doing so, to have more to spend on the pupils. The head and the governors become directly accountable to the parents and the local community.

The idea of applying for grant-maintained status was given impetus by disagreement with the local education authority over funding. The disagreement was undoubtedly important, but it was more the trigger than the whole reason for the application.

The sequence of events is interesting and worrying. On 10 August the chairman of the local education authority confirmed that the school was correctly funded within the overall limits of the authority's budget. On 1 September the governors passed the first resolution required for grant-maintained status. Shortly afterwards, the local education authority mysteriously found an additional £10,000 for 1993–94 and a further £10,000 for 1994–95. It is rather odd that that should happen. I should add that a condition of that money being available was that the application for grant-maintained status would not proceed.

In Hampshire,11 secondary schools have successfully balloted for grant-maintained status. Curiously, none of those schools has been in the central educational division of Hampshire with its headquarters in Winchester. Three proposals have been defeated—all of them in the same division. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone) nodding his head. I know that he is also worried about the matter.

There would have been a fourth unsuccessful ballot if it had not been for the courage, dedication and determination of the governors, the headmaster and many of the staff. The ballot for grant-maintained status was won with a poll of 78 per cent.—64 per cent. in favour and 36 per cent. against.

Tonight I want to expose some of the methods used by the council to influence the decision of the parents. I do so not for Testbourne, but to prevent inappropriate campaigning against future applications. Does the Minister consider that what has occurred is in line with the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity—that it should be objective, balanced, informative and accurate? At the end of October parents received a letter—paid for by public funds—that was signed by the county education officer and it made the following points. First, finance is the only reason for seeking grant-maintained status. I have partly dealt with that matter already. Secondly, a section set out a defence of the funding of the school and ended with the words: It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the issue is not about finance but about management. That is a direct slur on the head and the governing body with not a shred of evidence that management was at fault. The school that we are talking about is 20th in the success rate on exam results in Hampshire.

Thirdly, the letter further says that the school will be eligible to receive extra funding of at least £65,000 as part of a new management partnership scheme that the county is to introduce. However, that is simply not true. The scheme provides for the schools to have extra funds with which to buy services from the local education authority which were previously free.

Fourthly, the letter seeks to scare parents by suggesting that Testbourne will be unable to replace the specialist services provided by the county local education authority. I quote the letter: At present, expert local services, many of which are very specialised and difficult to obtain in the local market, are there when they are needed. In the future GM schools will experience increasing problems in obtaining the current range of support, not only from the education department, but also, for example, from the county architect, the treasurer and the secretary (for legal advice). Then there is the chilling inquiry: Where would this leave Testbourne? The fifth complaint in this letter is that there has been little time for detailed consultation with the local community. In fact, there has been more consultation in the case of this school than there has been in the case of almost any other school in Hampshire. The original resolution was on 4 September and the ballot was held on 4 November. Nobody can say that there was a shortage of time.

The letter ends by urging parents to vote against GM status.

In addition, there have been meetings and campaigns focusing on parents of children in primary schools. You might ask, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what on earth a primary school has to do with the issue. Testbourne school is fed by a series of primary schools. It is an interesting fact that 20 per cent. of the parents who voted have children at primary schools. The essence of the campaign with the primary schools was that if the proposal went through the county's funds would be robbed and the primary schools would suffer as a result. That is a pretty low form of campaign.

I have three questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. Is a letter such as I have described compatible with the proper provision of impartial advice from a senior county council official, or is it more in the nature of campaigning appropriate to elected politicians? Secondly, is my hon. Friend aware that, far from losing out because of the alleged non-availability of LEA services in future, the school has already found that it can get most of the services currently provided by the LEA more economically elsewhere? It will get better value for money, so it will have more money to spend on the pupils. Thirdly, is it in order for officials who are not elected politicians to play on parents' fears of the unknown, to question the competence of governors, to question the competence of the senior management team, and to question financial competence?

I make a final plea. The county secretary, in a letter to the deputy chairman of governors, ends by saying: Now that the result of the ballot is known we can look forward to the Secretary of State approving grant maintained status for the school. The County Council will do all it can to assist an easy transition. We may feel like saying "Hear, hear." The House may be a little surprised to know that it has quietly been made known to the governors that the county proposes to use its statutory opportunity to object to the school's application for GMS going forward. That is in contradistinction to the county secretary saying that he looked forward to the Secretary of State approving grant-maintained status. I know what the appropriate word for that is, but I will not use it here.

The school needs time to settle down in a period of calm. I hope that the process can now go forward constructively, sensibly and helpfully with co-operation on all sides—from the county and from the Department. My special plea to the Minister is that, when the application lands on his desk, he will turn it round quickly so that the uncertainty is ended.

I have raised the matter tonight because, although I want to see the school launched calmly and quietly on calm waters, it is imperative that the matter should have been raised so that other schools do not have to go through the wringer as the board of management, the governors and the headmaster of Testbourne school have had to do.

10.23 pm
Mr. Gerald Malone (Winchester)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) and of the Minister to speak?

Sir David Mitchell


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)


Mr. Malone

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for giving me the opportunity to intervene briefly in this Adjournment debate.

I reiterate all that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) said about what has happened at the school. My reason for intervening is that a number of the parents who send their children to Testbourne are my constituents. I have had strong representations from them about the establishment of a level playing field when gaining grant-maintained status, and I will concentrate on that point.

I had always understood that officials at county level would ensure that a level playing field was established when such status was sought. Not only has this not been the case in Testbourne but in the case of a number of other schools a level playing field has not been established and there has been partisan campaigning, and the instructions from the county education authority have not been adhered to by their officials.

I wonder whether we shall ever get to that stage unless my hon. Friend the Minister decides to take further action in the Bill which he has currently before the House. May I simply make the suggestion that the Minister will listen to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire North-West and I have said this evening and understand that we have a difficult time within county authorities where one would normally expect that Government initiatives would be welcome and not thwarted at every turn. This is not the case, and perhaps he will consider putting some mechanism that guarantees that a level playing field is established in all attempts to obtain grant-maintained status in schools throughout the country and not just in Hampshire. It would be very welcome to my hon. Friend and myself if Hampshire could start this and become a precedent.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has seen fit to be here for this important Adjournment debate, because one thing is certain: we are determined to make this policy stick of grant-maintained schools where the parents want them. We are determined, as a party and as a Government, to make it work and to allow it to be implemented in a way that parents want. This is at present being thwarted. I hope that my hon. Friend will assure us this evening that that will no longer be the case.

10.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

In the traditional way, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) on having obtained this important debate on what is both a specific and a general matter. The fact that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw fit, very unusually for an Adjournment debate, to attend this debate illustrates the importance that he attaches to the matter that my hon. Friends the Members for Hampshire, North-West and for Winchester (Mr. Malone) have raised. I can do no more than to say that to reinforce the importance that both my right hon. Friend and I attach to this matter.

My hon. Friend and the schools in Hampshire and elsewhere need look no further than those schools which have already opted for grant-maintained status up and down the country. They are found usually to have been able to employ more teachers, almost inevitably have attracted more pupils, without exception have raised standards, have been found to have bought more books, and generally have been reported on more favourably when the inspectorate has looked at them.

That is proof enough that any assertion that schools lose out in some way with grant-maintained status is completely unproven. Anyone who wants to establish the truth of this matter need do no more than to ask heads and boards of governors of schools which have become grant-maintained. They need not take the word of a local education authority or even of myself. It would be far better for them to ask a grant-maintained school. If there is any difficulty about that, I should be only too delighted to give them a long list of names of such schools which would be only too happy to give their experiences.

My hon. Friend asked whether it was in order for local education authorities to question the competence of governors and head teachers. I should have thought that it would be rather odd for a local education authority suddenly to find fault with governors whom they had had a part in appointing and heads whom they had had a role in appointing at the very time when there was a question of debate and a ballot about that new status. It would be extremely odd, I should have thought, if that same education authority had not seen fit to take action about such governors, heads, and others before and yet suddenly found fault with them and questioned their competence, if that was the case. That strikes me as being somewhat bizarre behaviour, to say the least, and I should certainly have thought that most parents would see through it.

There must be some doubt about the attitude of the county council. I understood that Hampshire local education authority had claimed from time to time that it was not opposed to grant-maintained status in general. However, I have had a local newspaper report drawn to my attention in which Councillor Tim Macnamara said that, once what he called the initial cash bribe to GM schools had been withdrawn, even fewer would choose to go their own way. He was then alleged to have said: I am disappointed when schools opt out and I think in the long term they are making a great mistake. That does not sound like someone who is neutral about the possibility of GM status for schools. If the report is true, it gives the lie to the attitude of that individual, although it is not for me to say whether he is speaking for the whole authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West asked whether we could speed this latest application on its way. I was delighted to hear the news that, with a 64 per cent. positive ballot, Testbourne school has elected to become grant-maintained. There will now be a two-month period during which objections and comments can be sent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. That is the normal procedure. He will then have to consider whether to approve, reject or modify the proposals.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West will understand that I cannot say anything tonight that would in any way prejudge the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that we will give the proposals very careful consideration and my right hon. Friend will reach his decision as soon as possible after the end of the statutory notice period consistent with full and proper consideration of the issues raised to any objections that may be received.

We always aim to reach decisions as soon as possible. Although some are more complex than others, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West that in the 12 months to May 1992 the average time for deciding grant-maintained proposals was four and a half months from the date of publication. Since May, the average time has been about three and three quarter months.

The fact that there are 107 GM applications awaiting decision shows an acceleration of interest in GM status by schools around the country. We are confident that there will be about 600 GM schools operating or approved by next April and our projections suggest 1,500 in April 1994. We are well on our way.

Of the 107 applications now awaiting decision where there is not a linked LEA proposal, only two are more than three months old. When dealing with such applications, we are concerned to deal with them properly but expeditiously. Therefore, I assure my hon. Friend that the application will be dealt with as rapidly as is consistent with proper consideration and there should be no delays in the process.

With regard to any misleading information produced during the very important process of consideration of a ballot by parents at a school, I want to make it clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes a very serious view of the allegations. We will want to look carefully at what my hon. Friend said tonight and at any evidence that he may want to bring before us. As recently as 3 November. a letter was sent at the request of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to all LEAs reminding them and their officers of what, in the Secretary of State's view, are the proper responsibilities and duties of the parties involved when parents seek GM status for their children's school.

Each local authority has a particular duty to ensure that the arguments that they present for schools remaining under their control are presented in a way that does not mislead parents. My right hon. Friend and I regard it as intolerable that local education authorities or anyone else should try to scare parents by claiming falsely that by voting for GM status they will damage their children's education. It would also be totally unacceptable if authorities, as teachers' employers, sought to put pressure on staff to resist GM status by perhaps threatening job security or prospects as regrettably and shockingly has been reported from some parts of the country. We want to follow up all individual cases where we have received these reports to establish the truth of the matter and to see what further action can be taken.

I am aware of the letter of 29 October that my hon. Friend has brought to the attention of the House this evening, and I must confess that I am surprised, to put it mildly, at the tone of the letter from an authority that has apparently professed that it is not in principle against GM schools. Certainly the terms of the letter will have to be looked at very closely indeed.

In reply to what my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester asked, however, let me say that there will be provision in the Education Bill, now in Committee, to seek to ensure that in future we have the fairest and most even-handed possible treatment of GM ballots. In other words, it will seek to ensure that, at the very least, information is produced in an even-handed and impartial way, and that parents are given the maximum opportunity to consider the facts surrounding their school and the possibilities about GM status. That is our determination, and we will hope to find in that Bill the best way possible of ensuring just that.

Until the Bill receives the Royal Assent and becomes effective, however, we in the Department for Education are determined to remain vigilant and to use whatever powers are available to us to ensure that all local education authorities, and particularly their officers, act in a proper way with regard to their responsibilities, and to ensure that all information produced for parents who are making this very important decision about GM status for their school is full, fair and proper and is not misleading in any way. I would expect all professionals involved in education in local authorities to make it their business to ensure that that sort of information is provided, and we would want to be told of any cases where that was not so.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has sought to make it absolutely clear over and over again that he is determined to ensure that GM schools will always receive funding commensurate with the additional responsibilities that they take on when they opt for GM status. Any suggestion that they will in some way suffer as a result of becoming GM is groundless and should be seen as such.

This is an important matter, and I am grateful to both my hon. Friends the Members for Hampshire, North-West and for Winchester for taking the trouble to raise it this evening. I am sure that not only will they have the gratitude of their constituents and of the parents of all their schoolchildren but that that gratitude will extend much more widely throughout Hampshire and the whole country, where the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and I are well aware that widespread concern has surrounded many of the debates and the ballots on GM status for schools. It has often caused unnecessary bitterness and division simply because of misinformation and, regrettably, in some parts of the country, threats. That is deplorable and unacceptable conduct when we are talking about the education of our young people and children.

My earnest hope is that in future we will ensure that all involved with education, as well as my hon. Friends, can be confident that the information available is impartial, even-handed, fair, honest and truthful, and that we trust parents then to make a proper decision on the education of their children. I trust parents to do that, my hon. Friends trust parents to do that, and I hope that all local education authorities, councillors, officers and others will also trust them to do that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.