HC Deb 29 January 1992 vol 202 cc959-96 —(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring the appropriate authority for every school in England and Wales to which section 9 applies to make available either generally or to prescribed persons, in such form and manner and at such times as may be prescribed, such information about arrangements for the consideration and disposal of any complaint which is to the effect that a report of an inspection under section 9(1) or (2) is seriously misleading. (2) In this section "appropriate authority" has the meaning given by section 9.'.—[Ms. Armstrong.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.57 pm
Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham North-West)

I beg to move, That the new clause be read a Second time.

The new clause seeks to make the Bill slightly more tolerable. We opposed the measure throughout the Committee stage because it will seriously damage standards in schools and the quality of information available to parents, local communities and members of staff. The progress that each school makes is to be monitored through inspections. The new clause relates particularly to the inspection part of the Bill.

We are still confused and uncertain about why the Government suggest that form of inspection for schools. They make no such suggestion for other parts of the public services and certainly not for the private sector. The House has roundly rejected the suggestion that those parts of both the private and the public sector responsible for services used by the public should be responsible for their own inspections, yet that is what we are considering today for schools.

There is a consensus that we need, above all, to tackle the quality of education available to all children, not just a few. That consensus should have led to improving the current inspection arrangements rather than dismantling them and bringing in private inspectors chosen by individual schools. That has been calculated to ensure that there is no national monitoring of standards in schools. No one is confident that that form of inspection will work.

I confess that I have not had much time to read today's newspapers, but they contained a letter from more than 20 organisations, including all the parent organisations concerned with education, expressing their very deep concern about the inspection arrangement outlined in the Bill. Because those involved in those organisations, who give hours of their time voluntarily, want the highest standards available and the most impartial but expert inspections to ensure that those standards are maintained, they are outraged by the Government's proposals.

New clause 1 is a modest proposal—some of the more exciting plans are put forward in later new clauses. The new clause largely arises from the experiences of those of us who have been involved in public sector organisations when trying to elicit information and ensure that the people on the receiving end have the opportunity to find out when the information does not stand up. The clause deals specifically with the manner in which complaints can be made, and the fact that there must be clarity on complaints procedures.

I know that many parents find it difficult to complain about what is happening in a school, even when they know the procedure for doing so, as they are anxious that they may affect—

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has much more information to give the House. My two youngest children go to Prescot primary school in my constituency.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

It was named after our hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), was it not?

Mr. Howarth

Actually, Prescot is spelt with one "t", which is crossed—I do not know what happened to the "i".

The excellent headmistress of that school, Nora Giubertoni, has found that the other so-called reforms for which she as headmistress is responsible, are difficult to manage. Although the school is still excellent, she spends much time messing about with budgets and tasks that she never envisaged having to undertake when she entered the teaching profession. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) give me an idea of the impact that the extra work will have on Mrs. Giubertoni and the governors who are already hard pressed?

Ms. Armstrong

My hon. Friend has made an important point. There are various sick jokes circulating the teaching profession about the amount of "overload", "innovation fatigue" and other such phrases. The Government have seriously mismanaged change in education, and my hon. Friend has shown yet another example of that.

People are not saying that they are resistant to change, but they want to be part of it, consulted about it and taken along with it. Most of all, teachers want to be able to do the job for which they were trained and for which I had always understood they were paid—teaching children well.

The Government have some ideological problem—to put it politely—with other organisations, particularly what they call the educational establishment. That establishment is a difficult one to name, and sometimes the people involved in it are called "wise men", which somewhat disturbs me, given that most of those involved in primary teaching are women. The educational establishment has been trying to get the Government to think about change in a different way.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) is absolutely right: many teachers feel that the additional jobs that they have to do detract from the quality of teaching that the school is able to provide. I have talked to many governors who are concerned about that. They want to be involved in and consulted about inspection, but they do not feel that it is their role to choose their own inspectors.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

My hon. Friend will not yet be aware that a report has been made by Her Majesty's inspectorate on Ackworth middle school in my constituency. The report was critical in some respects of what was happening but it was found by teachers, governors and, above all, by parents to be extremely helpful in setting guidelines for the future of the school. I always found during my extensive teaching experience in secondary schools that the inspectorate was sensible, wise, forward looking and, above all, seeking to raise the standards of each and every pupil in the school that it was inspecting. I took that view even when I disagreed with it. Would it not be a disaster if the Bill in its entirety were to be enacted?

Ms. Armstrong

My hon. Friend is right. If the Bill is enacted, it will damage standards within schools. More particularly, it will destroy the credibility of inspection. Indeed, it has already done so. I know that the Secretary of State and the rest of us will be cautious when it comes to dealing with vested interests, but organisations representing parents and others that represent governors have expressed serious concern about the basic premise of the Bill, which is that governors should have overall control in determining who will undertake the inspection of a school.

Governors do not want that responsibility. They want the credibility of independent inspection and not because they want to shirk responsibility. They want everyone to know that they are not partisan over inspections. We know that rumours spread quickly within communities, and more quickly in some than in others. That being so, governing bodies feel that it is irresponsible to expect them to select inspectors.

Complaint procedures will overload governing bodies if the terms of the new clause are not included in the Bill, and the new clause is designed to ensure that the procedures are determined by the Secretary of State rather than by governors or complainants. We want to ensure that arrangements for the consideration and disposal of a complaint are clearly set down, understood and available. We had a useful debate in Committee on the importance of establishing a complaints procedure.

Mr. George Howarth

My hon. Friend has not dealt at this stage with the role of head teachers. The governing body of Prescot county primary school will find itself in difficulties. The chairman of the governing body, Councillor Harold Campbell, who is the mayor-elect of Knowsley, will be considerably overburdened on account of his mayoral responsibilities next year and may therefore find that the additional work of chairing the governing body will cause him considerable problems. Can my hon. Friend say how much additional work Mrs. Giubertoni, the headmistress, will have to do? She, too, will be greatly concerned.

Ms. Armstrong

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me about head teachers. We discussed this issue in Standing Committee when we considered the Bill and returned to it again and again. It will lead to additional work, which may detract from the teaching and overall management of the curriculum, for which the head teacher is responsible.

In addition, the relationship between the head teacher and the governing body is very important. They must work well together. We take no pleasure in the enormous problems that are caused when a head teacher and the chair of the govening body hold completely different views about the direction that the school should take. That has led to tragic effects in Stratford school, which is having a detrimental effect on the children.

Mr. Howarth

As far as I know, there are no differences of opinion between Councillor Campbell and Mrs. Giubertoni. They are united in their joint objective: that the excellent education provided by the school should continue. What I am concerned about is the role of the head teacher.

Ms. Armstrong

I hope that my hon. Friend will live with me for a while on this. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] The professional relationship—I always deal with professional relationships, although some of those who sit on the Treasury Bench seem to have some difficulty with that, but never mind—between the chair of the governors and the head teachers has to be a strong working relationship. They must be able to trust each other in performing their different roles. Both those roles are critical—

Mr. Howarth

And complementary.

Ms. Armstrong

Yes, and complementary.

The governors will have to rely heavily on the advice of the head teacher in many primary schools as to who should be chosen to form the inspection team. They will rely on the head teacher for advice about the qualities to be looked for and the role that the inspection team is to fulfil. If the governors receive a good report which makes them say to themselves, "Is this a bit of a whitewash? Are we getting to the heart of how to improve and develop education in this school?", they may begin to wonder whether the head teacher is trying to make things easy for himself or herself. If, however, they receive a highly critical report, they may say to themselves, "How on earth are we to attract pupils to this school after such a critical report? Why did the head teacher not advise us to choose a team who might be a little critical but not too critical?"

There would then be great problems for the head teacher and the governors of the school. It would be very difficult for the head teacher and the governors to work out just what they wanted for the school. That is where the complaints procedures on which we are seeking information from the Government will come into play. How are people to complain if they feel that the report has not been prepared in a proper professional manner, or that it is misleading in any aspect?

In Committee, we talked particularly about the fact that some subjects or some of the more general work such as pastoral care or out-of-school activities might not have been properly addressed. People might find the report or parts of it misleading. What are the procedures for complaining? People must have confidence that if they do a certain thing, they will be pressing the right button to get action.

It is ironical that this week we have had the relaunch of the citizens charter, part of which is supposed to be about how people who feel that they have not got their entitlement from any public service may complain, and what the redress is. Yet in the Bill that is still unclear. We managed to make a little progress in Committee, but there is still a long way to go.

4.15 pm
Mr. Enright

My hon. Friend has not yet mentioned one sector of education. In my constituency, there are not 1 million preparatory schools, but where I taught originally in Surrey there were many preparatory schools and independent secondary schools with truly appalling standards. Some of those schools were conning parents in every way. They were cheating them and giving poor education. I want to know whether parents of children at such schools will be protected by the inspectorate. From my reading of the Bill it seems that that will not happen. Therefore, the measure is a partial Bill. The Government are defending their money-grubbing friends who are making great profits out of exploiting poor pupils.

Ms. Armstrong

My hon. Friend makes the telling point that the Government do not give the same consideration to the rights and opportunities of children in the independent sector as to those of children in the maintained sector. He was not a Member when we had the debates on the national curriculum in the Education Reform Act 1988. My right hon. and hon. Friends contended that, if the curriculum was national, it should apply to the independent sector. The reality is that the Bill will not deal with the independent sector. When my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has the opportunity to move another new clause later, he will deal with how we intend to ensure that inspection and the national curriculum should apply to all children, however their parents choose to have them educated. Children have an entitlement to quality.

Mr. George Howarth

Prescott—[HON. MEMBERS: "Make a speech."] May I say to Conservative Members who are urging me to make a speech that I may do so later. On the last occasion that we had a similar debate, I managed to take up two hours of parliamentary time. If hon. Members would like me to speak, I am sure that I could find time to do so.

Prescot county primary school is a matter of great interest to me and to many of my constituents—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) is talking.

Mr. Howarth

If there were prizes in the Chamber for talking during the speeches of other hon. Members, the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) would be unable to carry them home because she would be entitled to so many.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman


Mr. Howarth

The hon. Lady cannot intervene because I am already intervening. What concerns me is the excellent nursery unit within the school, which is run by Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Jones, and which is attended by my younger son Jack. My daughter Sian attended the unit until last July. Will Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Jones be involved in the process of selecting inspectors? They already find it difficult to keep up with all the young children in the nursery unit and with the demands put on them.

Ms. Armstrong

The answer depends on the status of the nursery unit. If it is part of the school, the responsibility will lie with the governing body of the whole school. It may be a separate unit. In Committee, we managed to get the Government to recognise that children in nursery schools have the right to proper, quality education and that such schools should be inspected. The Government have tabled amendments—and I look forward to Minister moving those amendments—which will deal specifically with that issue.

We are anxious to ensure that there is proper information is available about complaints procedures. I thought that such an issue was at the heart of the citizens charter. We cannot understand why complaints procedures have not been dealt with adequately in the Bill. It is a bit much for us to be expected to do the Government's business for them. I am sure that the Government do not want the Bill to complete its passage in the House before they have dealt with the issues with which the citizens charter also deals.

New clause 1 gives the Government the opportunity to ensure that proper information is available about the procedures for complaints, whether about misleading reports or about an inspection that is seen to be inadequate because it has not taken account of all the relevant areas. I commend new clause 1 to the House.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

I have a complaint to register about the record of the inspectorate, and I will give one concrete example. A few weeks ago, the inspectorate visited a few primary schools in France and made the most extraordinary discovery: that primary schools in France produced better results than ours do. That has been the case for a considerable time, to my personal knowledge, because my children went to primary school in France. It has been the case for at least 10 years, and may have been the case for a couple of decades.

Most primary schools in France—I have visited schools in France other than the one that my children attended—are engaged in doing two things: they allow children's personalities to evolve, which none of us opposes; and they teach the children, which happens all too rarely in this country. By "teach the children", I mean, to give an example, that they were being taught grammar and also poetry by writers such as Victor Hugo and Stephane Mallarmê, while equivalent children in this country were reading, at most, sub-Enid Blyton stuff, specially written down for the children to keep them perpetually childlike.

I am astonished that our inspectorate, which once fathered Matthew Arnold, should have failed for 10 or 20 years to notice that, a few miles away on the other side of the channel, they were doing these things rather better. How is it that our inspectorate for all those years failed to notice that there was something deeply wrong in the entire philosophy governing our primary schools? I see an hon. Member on the Opposition Benches nodding—I will not mention which one.

There has been a problem, and it has affected most deeply people at the bottom of society, who cannot escape into private education. So the people who have suffered all these years tend to be those at the lower end, especially those in inner cities.

It is very worrying that the inspectorate should simply catch up with a mood which has developed in society and which has been, rightly, reflected by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, a mood of concern about our primary schools. Reform should have been initiated by the inspectorate, operating against a background not of concerns, modish or otherwise, but of absolute standards, and standards that are internationally measurable. How are the French or German children doing in maths at seven years old? What sort of thing does the average French child learn at seven years old about its own culture and history? What has been going on in our own schools during that time that we have only now registered? So there is a fundamental problem about the role of the inspectorate during this whole period which convinces me that the Government are right to undertake their radical reform.

Mr. Straw

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument with great care. He will know, because he is fair-minded, that the Labour party concluded that the inspectorate, at national and local level, needed reform a lot sooner than the Government, who wrote these proposals on the back of an envelope some time in the summer.

Since he is waxing eloquent about the French example, can the hon. Gentleman say whether the French have ever considered not strengthening their inspectorate but dismembering it and allowing individual schools to pick and choose their own inspectors, with the consequence, as Ministers have admitted in Committee, that schools will be able to pick inspectors according to their own dogma? Their dogma will not then be brought under public scrutiny but will be confirmed by the inspectors who will share it. How will that raise standards?

Mr. Walden

The hon. Member has raised a valid point but has touched on only half of it. I would not support the Bill if there were no central control over standards in the inspectorate. If any Tom, Dick or Harry could pose as an inspector and thereby ingratiate himself financially with a school, that would be absurd. I would not support it, partly because I have sneaking centralist tendencies in education which I think are needed to balance the decentralisation that the Government have quite rightly gone in for. Grant-maintained schools and all the rest of it are part of that.

What I see in the Bill is a coherent philosophy following that of grant-maintained schools, where there is decentralisation and a less corporate-minded inspectorate. But one cannot let these people run loose, for the very reason that the hon. Member for Blackburn has given. There should be central control, and that exists in the Bill.

4.30 pm
Mr. Straw

I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for not following our proceedings in Standing Committee. If hon. Members are not members of a Standing Committee, they do not spend their time reading Standing Committee Hansards.

The hon. Gentleman said that he supports the Bill because there will be sufficient control over local inspectors to ensure that high standards of inspection are maintained when schools are inspected. I want to draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention an exchange that took place in Standing Committee between the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon), and me. I asked the junior Minister: What about a primary school which thinks its strength is in mixed-ability non-didactic group-work teaching? Will the governing body of that primary school be allowed to choose an inspection team that has a similar approach? The Minister replied: Of course the school will be free to choose a team registered with HMCI which concentrates on that approach, but the governing body will ask itself whether it is wise to do so if it is offered one particularly ideological method of teaching. That governing body would be at even greater pains to assure parents and the wider community that that method was delivering the results for which it had argued."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 10 December 1991; c. 255.] The crucial point about the junior Minister's admission is that, whether or not it was wise to do so, the school governing body would be free, in the Minister's words, to choose inspectors which shared the school's approach for mixed ability, non-didactic group-work teaching. That is an approach which the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) would condemn and want to see rooted out from schools. However, as a result of the Secretary of State's scheme, schools can be inspected by inspectors who share such an approach. I do not understand how that can lead to a consistent standard of inspection.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I remind hon. Members that we are not in Committee. Interventions must be brief.

Mr. Walden

The hon. Gentleman has raised a reasonable point, and I will give him a reasonable answer. Let us imagine that the philosophy on reading methods espoused by the spouse of the Leader of the Opposition was in force. Mrs. Kinnock is known to be in favour of what I consider to be the voodoo technique of leaving a book in a room in the hope that a child will—[Interruption.] This is a central point. The wife of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) is a primary school teacher. If a school which espoused that method of teaching was to invite an inspector known to favour that method, that would be worrying. I would also find it worrying if there was an artificially rigid school, like a Japanese or cramming school, with a Gradgrind kind of inspector.

The point of the Bill is that there should be a safeguard against that kind of thing. If a school is inspected by this or that type of inspector and receives full marks for its work but does not merit those marks, that will become clear over time and as a result of trial and error. We must consider the Bill in the context of the general thrust of Government policy, which is to allow information about school results to be known. Those results would reflect the inadequacies. If those inadequacies were endorsed by an inspector, the central inspectorate would rumble him.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

The governors would be free to choose such an inspectorate. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and I would disapprove if they did that. However, under the proposals, they would be able to select such an inspectorate only if that inspectorate reached the national standards imposed by HMI. Under the alternative proposition which the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) says he came up with some time ago, if the local education authority sought to impose on the school an inspectorate with such ideological views—there are plenty of Labour local authorities which, on recent form, would indeed try to impose on the school an inspectorate with ideological views of which we disapproved—it would have no alternative. Labour proposals say that a local authority will impose its inspectorate and that only the local authority's inspectorate will be able to carry out an inspection.

Mr. Walden

My right hon. and learned Friend casts the argument even wider. In my humble view, there is a fundamental problem with LEAs' representatives. Humberside runs its schools on the basis of 13 per cent. Of the electorate. Whatever one may say about the Tory party, it is not yet down to 13 per cent. I listen with a sceptical ear to anyone prating about local democracy when the figures are of that order. I am sorry to say that there are Tory authorities which are in a similar position.

The idea that people operating on such a slender, scarcely existent democratic basis should have total control over education in their schools and the inspection of that education leaves me dead cold. The record of education, particularly in primary schools, shows how easy it is for alarmingly low standards to go undetected, although the schools have been theoretically inspected for many years.

I do not want to hog too much of the debate, but I should like to leave my right hon. and learned Friend with one little message from a primary school in my constituency. My right hon. and learned Friend has not inspected that school, but I feel bound to pass on, in all neutrality, the message from the newspaper "Meadow Express", which is admirably produced by the Bourton school in Buckingham. It states:

"Kenneth Clark"—

without an "e"— said to two people to go and report on what Primary Schools are like. He thinks that the Primary Schools should be strict. You should sit in rows and let the teachers have all the fun and we just watch. This is called the three Rs. They stand for reading, writing and 'rithmetic. They want us to go back to the old fashioned ways because he thinks we are not learning enogh"— minus the "u". The men who did this report said on the news last night that they had no time to see the schools so how do they know we're not learning? We know we are. I thought that I should pass that on as a piece of—

Mr. George Howarth

Another cheap shot.

Mr. Walden

It is not a cheap shot; it is a piece of grass-roots democracy.

The new inspectorate system—the new information system—will work only if there is considerable rigour at the centre. We must get away from the ambiguous position of the inspectorate in London, whereby it has twin loyalties. One loyalty is to the education establishment and the other is to the Government. The result is that the inspectorate tends to oscillate in the prevailing wind. That has led to the abject failure of the inspectorate over the years to point to the fundamental difficulties in primary education that my right hon. and learned Friend is rightly highlighting.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I rarely speak on education matters, but the House will be aware that I have fairly wide-ranging interests. I was an experienced and highly qualified schoolmaster for quite a long time. I was also an examiner, I was involved in a local education committee, I took a fairly active part in my professional association, and I occasionally wrote articles about education. Although I do not often speak in education debates, I take a marked interest in the subject. During recesses, I visit schools in rotation in my constituency. The comments of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) about the standard of British primary education do not tally with my experience as a schoolmaster or my experience of visiting primary schools in my constituency.

Indeed, not long ago, after a visit to the Wickersley and Northfield lane infant and junior schools, I tabled an early-day motion. I am not usually surprised by what I see in schools, but I was surprised at the very high standards attained by the children in those schools, despite the fact that, although the education authority is a good one, the infants school was able to obtain only £400-worth of books last year, while the cost of providing the papers that the teachers are supposed to read for the purpose of assessment and the national curriculum amounted to well over £800.

I observed the children reading, and discovered that the vast majority of those leaving the infants school were free readers and that the vast majority of those leaving the junior school had achieved reading ages that 20 or 30 years ago were considered to be generally unattainable. I came to the conclusion—I believe that my early-day motion made the point—that it might well be that those children could read better than some of the Ministers who have graced the Department of Education and Science, not excluding, of course, the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

My real reason for speaking on the new clause is that, in the current developments in education, we are seeing history repeating itself. That being so, I want to tell again a story which is entirely relevant and deals with this very serious matter. It is a comment on what is happening historically in education. It is about an inspection of a school in my constituency in the 1860s. I shall not detain the House too long, but the story is entirely relevant. I draw the attention of the Secretary of State's predecessor to it as, the day after I told it previously, his predecessor visited Wentworth Woodhouse to address the north of England education conference. The school that the story is about is the village school at Wentworth, which still exists.

In those days, as a result of the abrasive approach of the Government of that day, there was introduced a scheme of payment by results. Her Majesty's inspectors toured schools to see that the children were learning the three Rs properly. One inspector—not Matthew Arnold, but an acquaintance of his who was also a reverend gentleman—arrived at Wentworth village school, which was not big. He looked at the work and gave the teacher a bad report. Wentworth is the estate village of the former earldom of Fitzwilliam. The earl, who "owned" about 30 parliamentary constituencies, was a Whig, and his eldest son, Lord Milton, was usually in the House of Commons. The earl was deeply distressed that the functionary of the Board of Education should have had the audacity to visit his village school and to question and criticise the schoolmistress. There were stories about the relationship between the schoolmistress and the earl, but I shall not go into that.

The earl took exception to the inspector's very bad report, and in the House of Lords one day he told the President of the Board of Education that he was not happy about it. Shortly afterwards, the reverend inspector was sent to Wentworth school to carry out a further inspection. When he arrived, the earl, the countess, Lord Milton and various friends and relatives from the British aristocracy were sitting at the back of the room. Presumably they were in the area for the shooting season. The purpose of the inspector's second visit was to check the accuracy of his first report. On the second visit, he found that the village schoolmistress had improved dramatically and that the school was now very good indeed. Shortly afterwards that inspector received his reward. As I have indicated, it was the fashion in those days that school inspectors should be reverend gentleman. This reverend gentleman was raised to the Bench of Bishops.

The purpose of that story is to show that, in the 1860s British education was going through a period of reaction which brought about the obscenity called payment by results. That system was shown to be unsuccessful and entirely contrary to British interests, and it was scrapped. I am glad that there has been a reference to past times in the form of a comment on the Gradgrind attitude. During that period, initiative in education was stifled, imagination was destroyed and a corrupt system developed.

I was always regarded—I did not object to this view—as a rather old-fashioned schoolmaster, but I must say that I believe that we are going back headlong into a situation that is not in the interests of British education and, above all, is not in the interests of British children.

4.45 pm
Mr. George Howarth

My hon. Friend is drawing an interesting parallel. I empathise with him, as the constituency that I represent contains the estates of the Earls of Derby. The less said about them the better. One of them was a Conservative Prime Minister. My hon. Friend predicted that his story would show how history repeats itself. I know that these days it is very unfashionable to quote Karl Marx, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend remembers Marx's words about history repeating itself—the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.

Mr. Hardy

That is the case. Unfortunately, what we see as a farce is a tragedy for British education and British children.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman's tales—of Robert Lowe, I imagine—from the 1860s. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that one moral is that the owner of the school should not have been allowed to influence things in that way? No doubt the owner thought that the criticism of the school reflected on Earl Fitzwilliam.

The hon. Gentleman says that Wentworth school still exists. No doubt it is now owned by the borough council responsible for education in his constituency. The Labour party's position is that the borough council should have a monopoly in determining who inspects schools, that there should not be a choice, which might be influenced from outside, to allow an independent inspection by any other body.

Mr. Hardy

I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned Rotherham borough council. He does not seem to hold it in very high regard. When he made a secret visit to Wentworth last summer he suggested that if there were any school building faults they were due entirely to the left-wing Labour council in Rotherham. Of course, Rotherham council does not deserve that reputation, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman completely ignored the fact that his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon), had a very pleasant visit. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying that when I walked into a school classroom that he was visiting I saw him on his knees. He may recall my suggesting that the position was entirely appropriate for people in his Department.

I am sure that the Minister accepts that the standard of education in Rotherham and the commitment of my local authority have been entirely civilised and certainly do not deserve the right hon. and learned Gentleman's criticism.

Mr. Straw

To continue the analogy of the school that used to be owned by Earl Fitzwilliam, if the earl had had the right under public statute to choose and pay his own inspector, there would have been no conceivable possibility of the school's standards being raised. The inspector would have been in the pocket of the people who owned the school. That is precisely the scheme that the Secretary of State has advanced.

Mr. Hardy

My hon. Friend leads me to the point that I wish to make. Although the Secretary of State appreciates the past corruption, it is a great pity for Britain that he does not perceive the inherent corruption and the risk of danger in the system that he has devised. He may well have become excessively influenced by the publicity that he himself engendered. He did not seem to accept a point that I made during questions shortly before Christmas regarding the teaching of reading. I started teaching—

Mr. Howarth

Was that in the days of Earl Fitzwilliam?

Mr. Hardy

No, but it was in the days when there was a teacher shortage, and when some teachers were writing about sparing the rod and the difficulty of secondary modern education. I left the Royal Air Force on a Saturday and started teaching on the Monday. The first morning, I found myself facing 49 boys in a secondary modern school, 23 of whom were completely illiterate.

Mr. Walden

Was that a primary school?

Mr. Hardy

It was, in South Yorkshire—a long time ago. When I visit such a school in South Yorkshire today, I find that the average reading age is three years higher than it was then. There was a dramatic post-war improvement, and the success of British primary schools has been far greater than the Secretary of State may imagine. If he wants to examine weaknesses in British education, the primary sector is not that which should receive his attention.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

One of my right hon. and learned Friend's proposals is that we should get rid of the possibility of the Wentworth situation arising. At present, local education authorities—which Labour wants to remain as advisers—serve as advisers and inspectors. They inspect their own schools, so they are bound to give themselves a good report.

Mr. Hardy

The hon. Lady does not seem to have any grasp of the character of British education as it is or will be. A good education authority takes care to appoint a chief education officer or director of education—[Interruption.] When the hon. Lady asks a serious question, she should at least have the courtesy to listen to the answer. I do not differentiate between Labour and Conservative education authorities in that respect. A good local authority will appoint a good chief education officer or director of education, recognising that the role of education within local government is unique and special, and acknowledging that it is dealing not with dustbins or bridges, but with children. That chief officer will, in co-operation with the local authority, appoint suitable people to serve as inspectors and advisers. However, supplementing and underlying all that is, and must be, a substantial body of independent, experienced, and powerful inspectors employed by the Secretary of State—capable of making a proper assessment of the state of education in the schools that they visit.

Mr. Walden

The hon. Gentleman touches on a fundamental argument, which I contest. He stressed the improvement that has been made since the last war.

Mr. Hardy

I said that there have been dramatic improvements.

Mr. Walden

Yes, dramatic improvements—and that worries me. It is fallacious to assume that, because things have improved over the past 20, 30 or 40 years, we should be satisfied. That is to undermine our whole education policy and to reinforce the great vice of the British education system—a contentment with low standards. Does the hon. Gentleman know that, after there was a revolution in China in 1949, hundreds of millions of Chinese children learned the language—which does not comprise just 26 letters of the alphabet?

One cannot rest on one's laurels and say that, because there are no longer press gangs and slave trading, society has improved. We must keep up with the best of the bunch, and they are in Europe.

Mr. Hardy

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman makes that observation, even if he misunderstood my point.

Mr. Walden

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will develop it.

Mr. Hardy

I will—the hon. Gentleman need have no worry about that. Primary education standards improved significantly in the post-war period.

Mr. Walden

I should hope so.

Mr. Hardy

If the hon. Gentleman hoped so, he would not slavishly support the Government in Lobby. My anxiety is that improvement will not be possible—and has already been put in peril—as a consequence of the destabilising effect of a Government Department that cannot understand that incessant change has eaten away teacher morale to an extent that causes me deep anxiety.

I know dozens of teachers in South Yorkshire—and this is true throughout the country—who are anxious, concerned, unnerved, or furious about the assumption that they are not doing their job, that British education is failing, and that children are not achieving what they should. Those teachers are sick and tired of the destabilisation and distractions imposed by the Secretary of State. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not understand that the amount of teaching time lost and sacrificed in British schools in the past three or four years as a result of his initiatives has done more to damage and lower British education standards than anything else?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman may find that amusing. I do not find it amusing that people who have given dedicated service to children, and parents who are deeply concerned about the quality of their children's education, should find standards put at risk by a Secretary of State who does nothing but tinker, interfere, and seek to make changes that are very often not justified.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I do not find the hon. Gentleman's remarks at all amusing. I have the greatest respect for his views. He refers to an amendment which relates to an issue on which both sides propose change. When we debate other matters, I will describe the changes of the past four years—they include the national curriculum, and local management—which are now supported by teachers and even by the hon. Gentleman's own party.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about a good local education authority with an inspectorate. I agree that it is sometimes a good idea to raise the debate above the question of which party controls such an authority. I cite the example of Lancashire, which both sides agree ought to be addressed. It happens to be the county of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman). It is generally agreed that Lancashire has no inspectorate worthy of the name, and never has had. We all agree that we want an independent inspectorate established which regularly reports back to parents.

The debate makes clear the difference between the two sides. We say that a choice of inspectors approved by HMI ought to be available to the governors—and HMI is an institution that the hon. Gentleman holds in very high regard. The hon. Gentleman's own proposal is that only Lancashire county council should be allowed to undertake inspections—and that although it failed to do so in the past, it should be allowed to provide the sole inspectorate of its own schools. Given the hon. Gentleman's concern about primary education standards, he appears to be on the wrong side.

Mr. Hardy

I do not know very much about the situation in Lancashire, but my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) suggests that the Secretary of State's interpretation is wrong. My own view is based on my considerable experience of the House, of British education before that, and regular, close, and careful observations of education in my own constituency during parliamentary recesses over a long period.

I am deeply disturbed about the state of British education and the amount of time that teachers have to spend preparing for the national curriculum and assessing children rather than teaching them. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Buckingham has left the Chamber. I suggest that he, as a parent, ought to investigate the amount of time that is spent dealing with matters that I regard as relatively ancillary. The Secretary of State did not become involved in education until comparatively recently, and he overlooks the fact that it is easy to start a fashion.

It is one of the great weaknesses of post-war education that, when someone offers an idea, it is seized upon before its validity or worth has been properly assessed. If that fashion starts with someone in a position of influence, unless there is a wise, experienced and balanced inspectorate, that novelty might take off, even though it is not potentially successful or worth while.

With a commercial inspectorate—that is how we have to describe it—if the Under-Secretary of State responsible for schools or the Secretary of State holds forth about a particularly novelty, perhaps even misinterpreting a report from his own Department, which is not entirely unknown, I guarantee that all the commercial inspectors in Britain will decide that they had better jump on that bandwagon. British education will be more likely to be placed in difficulty than before.

5 pm

The smaller HMI will be responsible for invigilating the quality of the commercial inspectorate, but when I consider the proposed size of Her Majesty's inspectorate I wonder how it will fulfil that function properly in such reasonable time as would allow even the commercial inspectorate to operate with any effect. It is an unlikely prospect that HMI will fulfil that function. I fear that wise, balanced and sensible inspection of schools will be placed at real risk and substantially delayed. The practical elements of the Bill seem to have escaped the attention of some people at the Department.

Mr. George Howarth

The House respects the common sense and experience that my hon. Friend brings to the debate. I am following his argument closely. To summarise it—perhaps he will help me if I am wrong—the current fashion in education or the ideological approach, with new reading schemes or whatever, almost does not matter at the bottom of it all. What matters is the ability, commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers. That is the most important element in the equation. My fear about the proposal and, indeed, the Bill is that that enthusiasm and commitment, already badly undermined by the reforms of the recent past, will be undermined still further. The pendulum of fashions in education will not only continue to swing but may swing all the faster with commercialisation of the inspectorate, as my hon. Friend said in his last vital point.

Mr. Hardy

I will illustrate the case from personal experience. In the 1960s, when I was teaching in a large secondary school in South Yorkshire, I did some research work and wrote articles in Education about the teaching of reading. Perhaps irresponsibly, I divided a large part of one year into three groups and tried three different methods of teaching reading. I said that I was a rather old-fashioned schoolmaster. I found that one group did particularly well. It was taught by the methods which, as an old-fashioned schoolmaster, I supported. I wrote an article in Education that cut across one of the fashions that prevailed in educational practice in my county. The director of education telephoned my headmaster and said that he was not happy about the article that I had written. I was not greatly worried because at that point I was a prospective parliamentary candidate and I had decided to enter the House rather than become a headmaster.

I was greatly helped by the inspector who came to see the work and who was most supportive. I heard no more from the director of education, particularly after I told the inspector that I thought it distasteful that anyone should tell people what to write in educational journals. The fact remains, however, that the inspector was supportive and honourable, but what will happen with the commercial inspector who has his eye on the next contract or on getting the contract to inspect the school round the corner?

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

Like my hon. Friend, I am a former teacher, and I visited every school in my constituency during the summer. Perhaps the kernel of the argument is that the Secretary of State is a barrister who is mainly interested in winning cases and less concerned about learning, in schools. If he were concerned about learning he would be on our side. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) said, we want to take issues forward. Privatisation of the inspectorate will not take issues forward one whit. I say that from personal experience, but the press at the weekend supported that view. An article in The Observer said: On a typical inspection day in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, last week, heads and inspectors alike agreed that schools will he tempted to award contracts to private 'experts' willing to give a good report. We are seeing Tammany hall politics in education. Undercutting, collusion and sharp practice could occur.

Immediately before I entered the House, my school was the subject of an inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate in Scotland. The inspectorate did not give us any warning of the visit. They did not send a letter to say that it was coming in two weeks' time. The inspectors spent three weeks combing the school and talking to teachers and senior teachers. They made a report which we had to go over with the local authority. Instead of going forward—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is quite enough for an intervention. I remind the House that we are not in Committee. Interventions must be brief. I call Mr. Hardy.

Mr. McFall


Mr. Deputy Speaker

No, I call Mr. Hardy.

Mr. Hardy

My hon. Friend makes a serious point. A few moments ago I said that the proposed inspectorate would be a commercial inspectorate. It will be in business. Some Conservative Members have more connection with business than ever I had. I thought that people in business sought profit, growth, more orders, more contracts and to maximise their returns. It would look for such a level of business as could be obtained only by making sure that the customers got what they wanted.

The schools will not pay for bad reports; they will pay for good ones. They may be prepared to pay a little more for an inspector who will give a good report than for one who will give them a bad one. That is a serious danger, especially with the weakening and diminution of Her Majesty's inspectorate. The commercial inspectorate may justify the Dickensian conditions referred to by the hon.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), to be so critical of the proposal. As The Observer said, the proposal will secure the fixing of private inspections. But may I take my hon. Friend back to standards? We will leave aside the fact that the Secretary of State had to invent Labour's policy in order in a rather mediocre way to attack it. We shall deal with that later. My hon. Friend is right to say that standards rose, although not fast enough and not factually. As the primary report says, there is incontrovertible evidence of a marked decline in the past three years in reading standards at the age of seven. Woodhead, Rose and Alexander, the authors of the report, attributed that decline in part to "considerable disturbance"—I use the exact phrase—in the primary curriculum. The consequence is that, every month that the Secretary of State has been in office, reading standards among seven-year-olds have fallen. If the Bill is passed, they are likely to fall even further.

Mr. Hardy

That is the main reason for my participation in the debate. I seriously believe—I am not making a party point—that what has happened in the past three or four years has been harmful to children and has not been conducive to promoting and maintaining high standards in education. I firmly believe that what we are about today is harmful to good educational practice. I deeply regret that the teaching profession, some people in higher education who are charged with education, and in particular teachers in large schools are so demoralised and frustrated that the vast proportion of them cannot wait to get out because they are sick and tired of what has been happening.

The weekend before last, I spoke to a friend in my home town who had just retired. He had been a distinguished headmaster in primary education in my constituency. I said that I was sorry that he had retired so soon because he could have continued to work for another four years and he loved his job. He said, "I got out, Peter, because I had had enough. I am sick and tired of what is happening and of what has been done to education." He loved his job and was a fine primary school headmaster. If he makes such a comment it should be taken seriously.

For every man or woman who is saying that in my constituency one can find scores, if not hundreds, in every constituency. It is time that we made an attempt to re-establish some stability in education. The destabilisation of the past three or four years will result in disadvantages for a long time to come.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

The new clause is about information—the information which should be available to parents. I cannot understand why the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) should object to school governors being given a choice of inspectors, whether commercial, independent inspectors or those from local authorities, which carry out inspections at present.

From what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellet-Bowman) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State have said, it is clear that there are marked differences in standards of inspection from one part of the country to another. I was shocked to hear my hon. Friend say that there is virtually no inspection worthy of the name in Lancashire. What protection can be provided for parents—especially those living in Lancashire—if school governors do not even have the right to insist that inspections take place? That case is made: as far as I can tell, there can be no valid objection to the principle that school governors should be able to insist on proper inspections of their schools. I am surprised that the Labour party appears to object to that.

I must move away from Lancashire to another authority, West Sussex, where, far from having no inspections worthy of the name, every school is inspected every year. It is difficult for West Sussex education authority to explain to parents of children in its schools that it is not proposed that there should be inspections only once every four years, because they have been used to a high standard of inspection. They get plenty of information. Reports are available to all schools about pupils' progress and they will shortly be made available to all children.

I wish that the standards that have been set in West Sussex had been more generally applied and were available throughout the country. I dare say that it would be difficult to arrange yearly inspections at once, but it is certainly an objective worth striving for. I hope that, when my right hon. and learned Friend replies, he will tackle that problem. He will know that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends in West Sussex find it difficult to explain to our constituents why we should support the Government's proposal of inspections once every four years, when we have an inspection every year.

I see no reason why school governors should not opt for an independent inspection, as proposed. It is a good safeguard. However, I hope that the education authority will be able to enter schools to respond to any criticisms which may be made, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will also deal with that.

I am especially worried about what might happen if the Audit Commission were to report on the standard of schools in an education authority. The authority is directly responsible to the Audit Commission. The commission cannot criticise anyone else, only the education authority. Therefore, a statutory problem exists because if the Audit Commission is to make a valid criticism of an education authority it must have the right to deal with it, and to enter schools and respond to criticisms as best it may. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will also tackle that statutory issue.

5.15 pm

As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, because I have spoken to him recently about the matter, standards in West Sussex primary schools are the second best in the country. He will also know, because he was good enough to tell me, that standards of inspection are among the top 10. Those standards ought to be repeated throughout the country and should not be confined to West Sussex. Therefore, the Bill is capable of improvement. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will say in his reply that sensible and progressive evolution will bring the Government towards the high standards that are available to us in West Sussex, but which are regrettably not apparent within the limited ambition of the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend will tackle that issue, which so concerns parents in West Sussex that considerable numbers have written to me and to my hon. Friends.

Mr. McFall

My apologies for taking too long in an intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that your patience has run out with me, I shall try to be brief.

The hon. Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) said that the Labour party objects to inspections. That is the last thing that we object to. We are for higher educational standards, but will the inspection regime proposed by the Secretary of State achieve them? Our answer is no, and for many reasons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) mentioned visiting his schools in the summer. I did the same and the information that I got from teachers was that they were overloaded because of what is happening in schools—the national curriculum, reading attainment, testing from five to 14, league tables and truancy rates. The system is overloaded and teachers need more time to implement the curriculum so that children can learn more.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

The hon. Gentleman appears to go to schools only in the summer. I go all the year round. It is now some considerable time since the summer, and I have found that my schools are getting their teeth into those things. They are delighted that the local management of schools is giving them vastly better surroundings and equipment. I agree that some time ago we had legislative indigestion, but that is now past. When summer comes, if the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) are still here and if they visit their schools, they will find that there has been a vast change, as I have found when I go round mine. I shall do so again on Friday.

Mr. McFall

The last time that I was in a school was on Monday, before I came here, and the next time will be next Monday. Like the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman), I go round schools all the time.

I have found that teachers are demoralised. Last week I was in Kent, and was given the same message. Kent is a Tory authority. They questioned the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister about taking the practical aspect away from the GCSE in English. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are wrong. If they go to Tory authorities such as Kent they will get the message, and then perhaps they will do something for our children's learning.

There is too much in the curriculum and teachers need time to plan and to make progress on the proposals which the Secretary of State has put forward.

There is no doubt that reading standards have improved tremendously since the end of the second world war. The number of children leaving school with qualifications has increased. Since 1971, in Scotland, the number of children leaving with three or more highers has increased from 17 to 22 per cent. We have a good inspection team in Scotland. I suggest that the Secretary of State should do a case study on it.

Before I was elected to the House, the school at which I was deputy head was subject to the inspection regime. The inspectors did not contact the school beforehand; nor did we have an opportunity to go over everything with the local education authority. Those inspectors were the school for three weeks and they spoke to senior staff such as myself, the teachers and departmental heads. They then came back for a further week and, after that, consulted the LEA. They then published their report, which was made public. However, we were given an opportunity before publication to iron out any problems with the inspectors. That is what I call public inspection.

Those inspectors were not in hock to the local education authority or to the school. The regime that the Secretary of State intends to put in place will mean that the team leader alone is validated by the Department of Education and Science. That does not happen in Scotland, where everyone is validated. Under the proposals, governors or head teachers will be able to have a cosy relationship with the team leader. The report produced will be to the liking of that team leader and the school, because the team leader will want more contracts from that school, while the school will want a good report.

How does one prevent such corruption? How does one prevent the head teachers of Knottingley and elsewhere in West Yorkshire from colluding with the team leaders and undertaking other sharp practices? The Secretary of State has not paid sufficient attention to the proposals. They represent a step backwards in terms of the education spectrum. The change is proposed not in the name of improving education, but because the Secretary of State wants to cut the budget for education.

Why are the Government cutting the national inspectorate from 500 to 150? That is what the head teachers of West Yorkshire and elsewhere want to know. Above all, how will the Secretary of State prevent the corruption which the Bill will promote? The Bill is a retrograde step in terms of education, as it will not improve children's learning.

Sir Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

The debate, quite rightly, is about quality in education and, in particular, about the quality of inspection under the proposed scheme of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. It is right that our debates should now focus almost entirely on the question of quality, because that is one thing that we have learnt in the past decade.

I listened, as always, with great interest to my rather Cassandra-like hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden). He reminded us, as always, that the gap between current standards and what we should like to achieve is still large. International comparisons are sometimes tiresome, but they are necessary.

By temperament I am slightly less gloomy than my hon. Friend about what goes on in our schools. Our constituencies lie side by side in the county of Buckinghamshire, which has produced the highest level of GCE passes of any of the shire counties in England, and the second highest of any of the English local authorities. I am sure that my hon. Friend will tell me that that is nothing like good enough, and I will not necessarily dissent.

Does it make sense to have a system under which the governors of schools commission inspection reports? I must tell my right hon. and learned Friend that I still need a bit of persuading on that score. There are qualms about the system because it seems a little odd that an obsessive left-wing body of governors, or perhaps a right-wing one—it is more likely to be left-wing—should be able to commission from a left-wing inspection team a report on what is going on in their school. My right hon. and learned Friend has said that the Bill contains the necessary safeguards against that and, to an extent, the debate hinges on their quality.

I accept that one important safeguard is the insistence on far more information. Even the Labour party has come to accept the need for that. The way in which league tables have become a required part of the scene is all to the good. I do not necessarily want to see different schools rated in order of precedence, but it is important that the right facts are available upon which to make a judgment.

The other validation for a loony inspection team—if I may put it like that—is Her Majesty's chief inspector of education, who is a central figure in the Bill. I had hoped to have a debate of my own on this subject, because some important questions have not been properly discussed. I am interested to know whether the chief inspector will be able to provide the kind of validation that seems to be such a keynote of the scheme that the Government have introduced.

I am struck by the fact that clause 2(5) states: In exercising his functions the Chief Inspector for England shall have regard to such aspects of government policy as the Secretary of State may direct. That gives the Secretary of State a great deal of power to tell the chief inspector what to do and what not to do in the realm of policy, which is a sensitive area. If we postulate the undesirable and probably improbable spectre of a Labour Government with left-wing tendencies, one can imagine the Secretary of State saying to the chief inspector, "What you must do is to pay close regard to the Government's commitment to absolutely no screening being undertaken in schools and ensure that comprehensive education is the norm." I do not believe that that will happen, because I do not believe that the Labour party will win the election, but we must recognise that the Acts of Parliament are designed for all Governments. It would be helpful to learn how Ministers believe the provision will work.

Why is it necessary to have clause 2(5)? Why can we not accept that someone who is appointed as the chief inspector is an independent person? Time and again, my right hon. and learned Friend has said that it is his intention that the inspectorate should be more independent than it has ever been. If so, why is it necessary to have such a swingeing provision in the Bill under which the Government can tell the chief inspector what policy he must follow?

Mr. Walden

I shall not try to answer for the Government; that is their job. However, perhaps some of the answer lies in the following question. How far does my right hon. Friend believe that independent bodies, such as the Plowden committee, created a climate of acceptance of low expectations in British education? Given that the inspectorate is part of the educational establishment, or has become so, that climate has helped to create the problem in primary schools, which the Government are trying to attack today. The problem is that one has an inspectorate that is infected—that is not too strong a word —with the same fallacious philosophy that the Plowden report helped to disseminate. I am conscious of my right hon. Friend's special knowledge of that report. I am not being a Cassandra; I am being realistic about this. The Plowden report is why we are where we are today with all our problems.

Sir Timothy Raison

My hon. Friend has raised an interesting question. I spent about three and a half years on the Plowden committee; to try to encapsulate a reply to my hon. Friend's question in a time tolerable to the House would not be particularly easy.

Mr. Walden

I am patient; why not try?

Sir Timothy Raison

That may be so, but I am not sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although a patient man, would be so on this occasion.

In certain respects, the Plowden committee was swept along by the zeitgeist and I do not believe that that report was right in all regards. I do not believe for one minute that the deviationist aspects of the Plowden report, which my hon. Friend and others have analysed with such gusto, would have been cured by an injunction from the Secretary of State of the day to the chief inspector to say that he should not allow that sort of thing to happen. I am sure that, whoever was the Secretary of State, from whatever side of the House, we would have given a fair wind to what was going on then. In that respect, my hon. Friend's arguments do not hold water. I had better not say any more about the Plowden committee.

The question that I am asking my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is serious. He said that one of the safeguards for the quality of inspections under the scheme is the role of the chief inspector. I understand that, but why is it necessary to diminish the chief inspector's independence by giving Ministers a power which would be used benignly and sensibly by my right hon. Friends, but which might be used harmfully by a Minister of a different persuasion?

5.30 pm
Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir T. Raison) will forgive me if I do not follow his particular line of argument. Instead, I first refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), who spoke about the pace of change. I understand why he did so, but he should understand that the reason why the pace of change is so great is that we want to improve the quality and standards of state education as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and, to some extent, the hon. Member for Dumbarton, commented on the need for stability, which was also touched on by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) in a recent radio interview. Opposition Members call for stability, but that call is difficult to reconcile with their proposals were they to be elected to government. They are pledged to abolish grammar schools, grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, the assisted places scheme, and even the tax concessions that enable the independent sector to remain. Those pledges will not result in much stability for the thousands of children who are involved in those schools, or for the schools themselves. Indeed, they will result in total instability.

Under the Bill, schools will have more full inspections and 25 per cent. of all schools will be inspected each year. That is a substantial improvement on the present system, in which only about 150 schools benefit from a full inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate. It has been argued that some—only some—local education authorities, also have an inspection system. As my right hon. and learned Friend said in an earlier intervention, following the publication of the Bill local education authorities have suddenly come up with inspection programmes. It may be pure coincidence, but I think that it is rather more than that.

The fact remains that not all LEAs undertake thorough inspections, which means that some schools in some areas have had nothing that remotely resembles a full inspection. The Bill changes that and ensures that all schools will be fully inspected. Indeed, it takes the wraps off schools.

Local education authorities, advisers will still visit schools and be able to provide help and advice. Interestingly, if an inspection report or a complaint from a parent reveals serious weaknesses in a school, the local authority can draw those shortcomings to the attention of the school governing body, which now bears the main responsibility for what takes place in its school. If the governors accept that they need help to resolve the problem, the LEA is free to provide it. That help can include the analysis of weaknesses that have been identified and the provision of training to tackle those weaknesses. I appreciate that that is not an inspection, but the effect could be broadly the same. If governors want help from their LEA, the absence of a specific power to inspect does not prevent it from being offered.

It should be remembered that, thanks to the Education Reform Act 1988, which was strenuously opposed by the Opposition, school governing bodies are now increasingly composed of parents. Those parents, like any others, want the best for their children. If they believe that there are serious shortcomings in the school where their children are being educated, they will want those shortcomings exposed and put right as soon as possible. That is enlightened self-interest.

When a school governing body selects an inspection team for its school and its children, it will go not for the soft option or the cheap option but for the best, in order that problems at the school, which directly affect their children, will be identified and put right. Parents have no interest in sweeping school problems or shortcomings under the carpet—the contrary is true.

That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) when she introduced the new clause. She forgets the power that is now in the hands of parents. The HMI team leader will be registered and will be directly responsible for his team members. The inspector's team will have to meet the Bill's requirements and the conditions set down by Her Majesty's chief inspector. The team need not include only those with specific experience in teaching but can include people who are not qualified teachers.

If we were to exclude all those who are not qualified teachers, we would exclude those with knowledge of administration is education and those with knowledge in research. It is important that additional expertise should be brought into the inspection teams, although I fully agree that, in the main, the inspection teams will be composed of people with teaching experience.

Ms. Armstrong

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that not every member of the inspection team will be approved by Her Majesty's chief inspector—that only the registered inspection team leader will be approved? I do not want the House to be under any misapprehension about that. The Secretary of State said earlier that every inspector would be registered.

Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Lady laboured that point at substantial length in Committee. I am not sure why she chooses to do so again now.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Is not that point covered by clause 10'? It states: No person shall conduct an inspection of any school in England under section 9(1) unless he is registered as an inspector in a register kept by the Chief Inspector for England for the purposes of this Act.

Mr. Pawsey

I am sure that the hon. Member for Durham, North-West has heard clearly what my hon. Friend has just said.

Mr. Straw


Mr. Pawsey

I am delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Straw

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has such delight when I stand up. He must be aware that, in an interview last year, the Secretary of State referred to inspectors, all of whom will have to be registered with HMI and all of whom will have to have a little lion stamp of quality given to them by a central Her Majesty's Inspectorate". That simply was not true and the hon. Gentleman who, unlike the Secretary of State, served on the Standing Committee, knows that it is not true. There will be at least 3,000 to 4,000 inspectors and only some 600 of those can conceivably be registered by HMI.

Mr. Pawsey

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He apparently did not listen to the debate that took place in Committee, where the point was thoroughly aired by his hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West. The hon. Gentleman has already had the answer.

Opposition Members have said that we are privatising the education service. My understanding is that privatisation occurs when something is transferred from national or quasi-Government control to the private sector and private enterprise. Clearly, that has not happened in this instance. Opposition Members' claims about privatisation are pure scare mongering. They are similar to the claims made by Opposition Members about the privatisation of the health service. In both cases, I deeply resent those unfounded allegations.

It seems that Labour Members are failing to win the argument and are simply trying to scare patients and parents into voting Labour. There is no reason for the electorate to vote Labour other than being scared into doing so by the scaremongering tactics of Labour Members.

Ms. Armstrong

This is an important moment. The hon. Member is declaring his opposition to privatisation. We welcome that.

Mr. Pawsey

I wish that just occasionally the hon. Lady would listen. She fails to do so because she is only interested in what she has to say. I can understand that, but it would be helpful were she sometimes to listen to what is said by others.

I should like to hark back to the so-called golden age of LEA inspection. Let us remember who the inspectors are. They are frequently the colleagues of the very teachers they are now called upon to inspect. That answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Dumbarton on corruption. The teams of inspections proposed in the Bill will result in less corruption.

Mr. McFall

I should correct the hon. Gentleman. I mentioned a case study in Scotland involving Her Majesty's inspectors who were not members of the local education authority and not colleagues of the teachers. The very point that I was trying to make was that they were independent.

Mr. Pawsey

I take the hon. Gentleman's point.

I close by quoting a leading article in The Daily Telegraph of Friday 24 January: The report on primary schools by Mr. Kenneth Clarke's Three Wise Men draws a thick black line under the post-Plowden experiment in progressive education whose chief legacy has been an almost unprecedented decline in children's literacy and numeracy. Why was it allowed to go on for 25 years? The leader continued: Furthermore, so pervasive was the ideology being peddled by the training colleges, so Stalinist the influence of local education authorities and advisors, so approving the reports of Her Majesty's Inspectors—the dogs that did not bark as night closed in—that anyone who dissented from the approbation of happy children being kept noisily busy in decorative classrooms risked dismissal as a crank. That extract from The Daily Telegraph leader contains the reason for the Bill's introduction. It sums up the reasons why we need to change HMI and why we have selected the system that we have.

Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

I support the general interpretation of the Bill and the fact that the inspection of schools—which is to be in depth—will be a statutory requirement. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State put my mind at rest on what may be a slight gap in the changes? Local education authorities such as mine in Warwickshire at present use a system of a basic minimum of three visits per annum by the general schools inspector with a rolling programme to follow up with visits on specific subjects. It seems that that policy will go under the proposed changes.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that, following the changes set out in the Bill, schools that may have to wait for three years for full inspections will still be able to have some inspections?

5.45 pm
Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The new clause has prompted a lengthy debate. I was pleased by one aspect of the speech of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong)—the frequency with which she seemed to invoke the citizens charter and the principles that lie behind it. She was concerned about parents' right to complain and their right to have more information about the quality of the schools that their children attend. We are in the early days of what my right hon. and hon. Friends often describe as a 10-year programme of installing the principles of the citizens charter into the administration of public services in this country. If we have made such rapid progress in persuading an Opposition spokeswoman, who are moving in the right direction.

The new clause relates to complaints and the quality of inspection. I do not think that we require the formal procedures that it sets out. The most obvious way in which people will complain is by approaching Her Majesty's chief inspector, who will, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir T. Raison) said, play a crucial part in the process. The chief inspector will have the overwhelming duty to ensure that the integrity and quality of inspections is maintained.

I did not understand the point made by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West, which ran throughout the rest of the debate, about the form of the inspections. She seemed to make the curious assertion that our proposals might damage the information received by parents in order that they might be better informed about schools and their choice of schools—our intention under the parents charter.

Under the parents charter, to which the Bill gives effect, we set out to give parents in this country far more information than they have been vouchsafed before on the performance of their children's school. In order to add to parents' understanding and ensure that the information is of good quality, we are introducing a system of quality assurance with a new regular inspection by independent people whose quality has been validated by HMI. That is a considerable step forward.

Having listened to the debates, I detect a sense that there is more agreement between the two sides on some of the principles than would be readily conceded. I suspect that it is difficult for Opposition Members in the run-up to an election. They keep saying that they thought of various aspects of Government policy first, which is not the strongest form of criticism to make.

There seems to be universal recognition that, hitherto, the standards of local inspection of schools have been patchy and variable. Standards achieved by the different local authorities have ranged from the excellent standards of West Sussex referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) to the almost non-existent inspection system of Lancashire, where I do not think there are any designated inspectors.

Lancashire is by no means the only county to have fallen to such a low. From time to time, trade union general secretaries have drawn attention to the patchiness of inspections. We are all agreed that, hitherto, local inspections have been inadequate.

Mr. Straw

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Clarke

I shall give way in a moment, but I wish to make progress as I think that we may have agreement on this.

We are also agreed that there has to be a national standard to ensure universal quality of inspection. I am not sure whether the Labour party agrees—I think that it might—that we need a regular cycle of inspection. I sense that the Labour party has been converted by the parents charter to the idea that, for the first time, parents should as of right receive unsolicited and directly the results of inspections of their children's schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) referred to Warwickshire. Inspection results in Warwickshire go not to parents or governing bodies but to heads. The West Sussex authority may be contemplating sending them to parents, but I do not think that it did until we suggested it.

It is a short time since we published the parents charter and announced a system of a national standard for regular inspection of schools with regular reporting back to the parents and a straightforward summary of what the inspection states. I think that all hon. Members who have participated in the debate agree with everything that I have said so far. The only difference between us involves who carries out the inspection. We say that it could be the local education authority if it is up to Her Majesty's inspectorate standards, or an independent organisation. The governors should have the choice. If it is an independent organisation, it must be up to the national standard, which Her Majesty's inspectorate should regulate.

The Labour party says that local authorities, and only they, should inspect their own schools. It says that outsiders should not be able to carry out inspections. In effect, it says that only the local authority that manages a school should provide inspectors. It says that there must be national standards, but we are to have a commission and a committee. It will not be Her Majesty's inspectorate that imposes national standards. After cutting through all the guff that we all know arises from hon. Members on both sides of the House during a political debate, there is only one issue that comes between us. As usual, the Labour party has no education policy worth the name. It has folded in and tried to get on the back of the best bits of our policy.

Mr. Straw

The Secretary of State is profoundly isolated on this issue. There is virtually no support for it within the Conservative party. He is rather like a drowning man who is clutching at straws when he seeks support for a policy that is entirely inconsistent with Conservative policy generally.

I am astonished that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should so wilfully wish to mislead the House about Labour party policy and the chronology of events. We said that there should be reform of the inspectorate at a time when the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his predecessors were trying to defend the current system of inspection. That was why—this was way in advance of the so-called parents charter and all that nonsense—we published "Raising the Standard", which set out Labour's plans for an education standards commission. That had been presaged two years before in Labour party documents that called for reform of the inspectorate.

The Secretary of State has talked about Lancashire. Let me quote from a letter written by the chief education officer of Lancashire: It is quite untrue to state that Lancashire does not inspect schools. We have inspected schools for as long as anyone here can remember. When I make my speech, I shall deal with that issue.

There is need for a much tougher regime of inspection by local authorities. The issue that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has talked about has no relationship to the Bill. How does he believe that allowing schools to pick and choose their own inspectors—to allow the provider to be the regulator—can conceivably lead to anything but inconsistent standards and an overall lowering of standards?

Mr. Clarke

In the midst of a great deal of waffle, the hon. Gentleman almost defended Lancashire. I do not think that he often does that, although he represents a parliamentary seat in that historic county. I think that he conceded almost every point that I have made before arriving at the only difference between us. He did not rush out a Labour party document until after I had announced a review of the inspectorate. When he knew that I would produce proposals concerning the inspectorate, he reached for the back of an envelope, to use his own phrase, and rushed out his own proposals.

The parents charter—I detect this in what the hon. Gentleman said—has established universal consent that we should have regular inspection by inspectors who are subject to national standards, and that the results of the inspections should be reported to parents. That is a substantial advance. The argument is whether a choice should be available to governors of inspectors who have achieved a standard approved by HMI or whether there should be inspection only by local authorities, with schools having no choice about the source of inspections.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Will there continue to be regular inspections of schools that deal with children with special learning difficulties? I refer to schools that specialise in that area of education and to children who are being taught specially within schools because of their learning difficulties.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend has asked a valid question. The answer is that there will be regular inspections of those schools. The inspectorate's work in validating the standard of inspection will not be changed. There will be the same number of inspectors within HMI.

The argument is whether inspection should he the monopoly of a local education authority, albeit supervised by a commission, which I describe as a committee or quango with the usual appointees—we shall debate that issue when we come to consider new clause 10—or whether there should be a choice. Responsibility may rest with the local education authority if it is up to HMI standards or inspection may be carried out by others. The issue is whether governors should be able to choose and thereby to ensure quality.

The hon. Member for Durham, North-West was less than candid, as the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has been in every one of his frequent interventions. Their principal aim is to ensure that no one outside local government, which manages education, should be allowed to inspect schools. I cannot understand how that is compatible with the constant reiteration by the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman of the claim that they share our views about standards. They are insisting on a monopoly organisation—local authorities—to inspect its own schools.

Under the Labour party's proposals, it seems that those from the local authorities who advise schools would take part in inspections. They would examine their own work and then comment on what they think are the results of it. The inspectors would all be employed by local education authorities. They would produce reports that would be sent to parents. They would undoubtedly be inhibited because, if reports become too critical of certain aspects of a school, they will be seen to be criticising their own employers.

The Labour party is obsessed by those who continue to see education as essentially the monopoly of local authorities and the teachers' trade unions. That is the difference between us. The quality controls of independent people and local authority people answer the hon. Gentleman's wild criticism.

The letter that has been cited by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West is signed by many people who have asked us to achieve a consensus. I think that we are rather nearer to a consensus than most people would acknowledge. This near-consensus has been created by the parents charter. The Labour party dare not refuse to provide parents with the sort of information that we shall make available to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and I have been pressed for a definition of the education establishment. With one or two honourable exceptions, the signatories to the letter cited by the hon. Lady and all the acronyms that follow them are a pretty good collection of representatives of the education establishment. Many of them, including the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of London Boroughs, could have done something about inspection over the past 10 years. They did not but they have responded now to our proposals. They are seeking to defend the monopoly of inspection rights by their members and by those who currently are solely responsible for schools.

Mr. Straw

Do the right hon. and learned Gentleman's insults extend also to the National Association of Governors and Managers and the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations?

Mr. Clarke

I shall not refer to every organisation in turn. I said that there were some exceptions. I shall not refer to the exceptions that I would excuse and I am not too particular about the ones that I would attack. Anyone who goes through the forest of acronyms will have a pretty good cross-section of the various parts of the education establishment, which has been resisting most of our reforms. It is now resisting the idea that anyone who is outside the closed world of local government and the teachers' trade unions should be allowed to inspect schools and then to report to the general public, including parents, on what has been found.

The important feature of our new system is the integrity and the quality of the inspection that is carried out. Those of us who advocate the parents charter want to provide parents with straightforward descriptions of the strenghts of schools, which will be praised, and their weaknesses, to which attention will be drawn. These descriptions will come from inspectors whom parents can trust. That is the objective of the parents charter. We put at least as much emphasis on that as do the Opposition. The Opposition, however, put more emphasis on the closed world of local government and teachers' trade unions being allowed to continue to dominate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham talked of what could be a danger. There were exchanges between him and the hon. Member for Blackburn that replicated the exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon), the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, and the hon. Member for Blackburn that took place in Committee. An example that we have focused on from time to time is a school whose governors are dominated by a dogma of education that is now discredited. We now have what has been described as post-Plowdenism. There are some left-wing ideologues who dominate education in far too many Labour boroughs who are dominating governing bodies, and the example is that they decide that they want to choose an inspectorate that matches their approach to education.

There has to be a safeguard against that, which is Her Majesty's inspectorate. Only the leader of each team will be registered, but the registration will be lost if a report is submitted that plainly is not of the quality that it ought to be. All the members of the team will have to be trained to the satisfaction of Her Majesty's inspectorate. All of them will have to be approved by Her Majesty's inspectorate. For them to be chosen, the quality of inspection will have to be up to standard.

6 pm

If an independent group of inspectors were dominated by dogma of any kind—I refute the defence that the left wing now put up, of accusing all their critics of somehow being right-wing ideologues, since I believe that in the opinion of most people we represent common sense—I would expect HMI not to approve that group. If the results of a particular school were below par, its inspectors would no longer be available to left-wing governors because they would not be approved by HMI.

If the hon. Member for Durham, North-West fears that a team of inspectors might peddle a particular philosophy, she need look no further than a few local authorities whose monopoly of inspection rights she defends. Reference has already been made to the Alexander report on Leeds schools, which shows how Leeds council spent a great deal of money and time on trying to dominate the teachers in Leeds and get them to adopt a philosophy of education that was plainly a failure and that led to lower standards in primary schools.

Mr. Fatchett

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke

In a minute.

The position of the hon. Gentleman's party is that only Leeds authority people should be allowed to inspect Leeds schools. Only local authority staff, under the control of the same political party as that to which the hon. Gentleman belongs, should be allowed to do that. Nobody from outside should be allowed to challenge the basis upon which they inspect their primary schools.

Mr. Fatchett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman grossly distorts the picture in Leeds. I suspect that he is one of the great many who has not read the Alexander report. If he had read it and understood its genesis, he would also understand that it was commissioned by Leeds local education authority. The authority did not try to conceal the report. It published it.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Tim Eggar)

How long did it take to implement it?

Mr. Fatchett

Who are we going to have—the monkey or the organ grinder on this occasion? It is clear that the Secretary of State does not—[HON. MEMBERS: "Get on with it."] I will get on with it if hon. Members will keep quiet and not shout out from a sedentary position. The Secretary of State continually makes comments about Leeds, although with little knowledge. He relies upon his Minister of State to provide the information. The fact is that Leeds commissioned the report, published it and acted upon it. It would be good if the Government recognised that fact, applauded Leeds local education authority for doing so—

Mr. Eggar

It did not publish all the reports.

Mr. Fatchett

No, that is not so. All the reports were published and therefore are available. The Secretary of State has to recognise that fact and put it on record that this authority behaved in a way that other authorities ought to behave and that Leeds provides an example to other authorities.

Sir Giles Shaw

Before my right hon. and learned Friend replies, he will recall that Leeds community charge payers had to foot the bill for this travesty of a report, which cost £14 million, and that from their point of view it was useless.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is correct, although he made one slight slip of the tongue. In fact, between £14 million and £15 million was spent by the community charge payers of Leeds on experiments in schools that were then condemned by the report. Extra expenditure was embarked upon in Leeds, with results that I should be quite happy to describe. I have read the report. Rather than indulge in exchanges across the Floor, I commend hon. Members to read the report and its clear description of the catastrophe that the experiments caused in Leeds schools.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) leapt to his feet to defend what happened by saying that Leeds local education authority commissioned the report and eventually published it. He then had an argument with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) about how long it took Leeds to take any action in the light of the report. I stand by my description of the report. It criticises the council and shows that the experiment was a failure. Despite that experience, the Labour party remains committed to saying that only employees of Leeds city council shall be allowed to inspect schools which only Leeds city council shall be allowed to run. I do not regard that as a defence of quality.

I have already said that I have great respect for the views of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). He described himself as an old-fashioned teacher. I suspect that he used the word "old-fashioned" in a way that I would regard as a compliment. I have no doubt whatsoever about his commitment to higher standards in schools. We had a long exchange about whether things had got a lot better in the last few years and also about what things were like in Rotherham.

Yesterday, at this Dispatch Box, I praised the standards achieved in Rotherham and contrasted them with the achievements in nearby Labour-controlled Sheffield, which spends more but achieves lower standards. I hope that, at the conclusion of the debate, the hon. Gentleman will accept that he is on the wrong side of the argument. I do not intend to enter into an argument with him about the noble Earl who owned Wentworth school in the 19th century.

The last example that the hon. Gentleman gave related to his expression of views about teaching that got him into trouble with his director of education 20 years ago. On that occasion he escaped only because an inspector helped him. In any case, he decided to make a distinguished career in this House and not to carry on teaching.

The position has changed in the last 20 years—and not just in Leeds. There are boroughs where expression of views that are inconsistent with the ideology of the council gets teachers into serious difficulties. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman groans. If he wants protection against that—I agree with him that good teachers should be protected against it—one form of protection is not to say that only the local authority shall be allowed to provide inspectors, even if the governors want somebody else.

Mr. Hardy

The right hon. and learned Gentleman paid tribute to Rotherham, but he did not do so when he addressed the Conservative party in Wentworth last summer.

Mr. Pawsey

Was the hon. Gentleman there?

Mr. Hardy


Mr. Pawsey

The press were.

Mr. Hardy

The hon. Gentleman is not a competent Member of this House if he does not know what is said by Ministers. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may not have known that certain members of the press were present, but I found out very quickly.

The Secretary of State may have misinterpreted the fundamental point that I made. I accept that standards improved dramatically in primary schools throughout most of the post-war period, but the point that I made was that during the last few years that progress has not been maintained, as a result of the disturbances—that is an appropriate word in this context—that have been inflicted on schools by his Department.

Mr. Clarke

I stand by the criticisms that I made of the garden in Wentworth and the capital and maintenance programmes of Rotherham borough council, but I pay tribute to the standards achieved by its schools—and even to the school buildings, as maintained by the borough council. It is not true, as the hon. Member for Blackburn keeps saying, that the three wise men's report says that the introduction of the national curriculum has resulted in a decline in standards during the last three or four years. That is a gross misquotation. His argument that the changes of the last three or four years are undesirable does not stand up to examination.

When one is asked about the national curriculum and about local management of schools, one finds that there is a overwhelming support for the principle. I agree that it has been hard work introducing it: I always pay a compliment to that. I do not think that the process of change is causing damage; it is paving the way for a further advance in standards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham raised a point which was also referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton. Where local authorities are inspecting more regularly than once every four years, they wanted to know whether that would be damaged by the statutory requirement to have four-year cycles of inspection. Again, I pay tribute to what is being achieved by West Sussex in its comparatively new system of annual inspection. My one reservation is that we are not comparing like with like. What West Sussex calls an annual inspection, as I understand it, is a brief visit and not the full inspection once every four years. The inspectors have regular calls to go into the schools, as has been happening in recent years in Warwickshire as well. My answer to the queries of my hon. Friends is that we could not have annual inspections nationally on the full parents charter without enormous expense. A four-year cycle is a more reasonable timetable.

The local education authority will retain its right to enter schools in pursuit of any of its statutory duties. It will also have the right to enter a school for the purpose of inspection and looking into a problem if the governors have invited it or if it is acting on a complaint. The reason why my hon. Friends resisted in Committee amendments designed to give the local education authority a general duty to inspect is that, where somebody else is brought in to inspect, we do not want local authorities duplicating the statutory inspection under the parents charter so that schools are over-inspected.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Clarke

I must move on. I am not sure whether we have had a filibuster in the debate, but I do not propose to delay my own Bill excessively. I will give way on the West Sussex point.

Sir Peter Hordern

The point is of importance to all parents in West Sussex. Supposing a parent complains to the local authority in West Sussex about standards in schools, what is the position? Will the authority have the right to enter the school to examine the complaint, or will the obligation remain with the governors of the school to invite the local education authority to come in to examine the problem?

Mr. Clarke

Whether the authority has a right or a duty will depend on the nature of the complaint and whether it bears on the statutory duty of the local authority. If it was a complaint about inspection or about some aspect of teaching in the school, West Sussex county council would almost certainly approach the governors for their consent to go in and investigate the complaint. That position would be established under the Bill.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

My right hon. and learned Friend himself posed the correct question on the point a moment ago when he wondered whether the proposed change would damage the existing system which West Sussex is very keen on, as indeed are parents in West Sussex. What is the answer to the question which he posed? Will we be able to continue with the existing system?

Mr. Clarke

We shall certainly do nothing to stop it. I have no reason to disbelieve my right hon. Friend when he says that the system is popular with governors and parents in West Sussex. No doubt it is good quality inspection. I cannot imagine that any governors will start defying parents by preventing West Sussex from carrying on with the system. So long as parents and governors are content with the system, there is no reason why it should not continue in parallel with the system under the parents charter.

I shall not reply at length to the comments of the hon. Member for Dunbarton (Mr. McFall). I am delighted to see him taking part in the debate. When I came into the Chamber earlier to await the start of the Bill, I walked into what I can only describe as a Scottish riot at the end of Question Time and a series of points of order. The hon. Gentleman was one of those who leapt to his feet, protesting vigorously about English Members having the temerity to intervene in Scottish Question Time. The hon. Member made an interesting speech on the Bill. I welcome his participation in a debate on a new clause which would have no application to Scotland or his constituency. At least he has sufficient regard for a United Kingdom Parliament to take part in English debates. No doubt, if there is a vote, he will exercise his right as a Scottish Member to vote on an education matter which has not the slightest application in Dumbarton. I trust that he will respect the continued right of English Members to take part in Scottish debates and to cast their votes on Scottish affairs as well.

Mr. McFall

I have spoken on the Bill simply because clause 17 refers to Scotland. The last thing that I would do would be to prevent English Members from talking about education issues in their constituencies, as they disgracefully tried to prevent Scottish Members doing earlier. While I shall contribute, I want English Members to give their points of view. In that way we will respect the sensibilities of the House.

6.15 pm
Mr. Clarke

That is probably enough of constitutional debate. At least we will accept that the new clause does not apply to Scotland.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth took us back to the key point of the proposition—the quality of education provided in schools and how far it can bear on raising standards. As to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, the critical figure is Her Majesty's chief inspector. My right hon. Friend is right to remind me that I have always stressed the increased independence which the changes will give to that key figure—independence of Government and independence of the Department of Education.

Her Majesty's chief inspector, the work of his or her staff and the criteria drawn up for inspection will be crucial to quality control. In due course, when the Bill has received Royal Assent, we will see Her Majesty's chief inspector in post and we will see Her Majesty's inspectorate working for him or her. The numbers of HMI—one point which has most exercised the Opposition—have been determined by the best judgment that the present senior chief inspector and I can make of what will be required for the national monitoring role.

My right hon. Friend also draw attention to the clause which allows the Secretary of State to cause Her Majesty's chief inspector to have regard to aspects of Government policy. It may be a cautious thing to put in. It is a limited power. My right hon. Friend may say that at the last moment I drew back from cutting this great and powerful figure loose of all advice and control, but it is not a fettering or silencing control. That clause would not enable the Secretary of State in any Government to stop Her Majesty's chief inspector saying whatever he or she wanted, either on the process of inspection or on any aspect of education standards which HMCI would be free to issue reports on and comment on.

HMCI would only be enjoined by the Secretary of State to have regard to aspects of policy, but if the Secretary of State is to be answerable for education policy at all, at least he should have the ability formally to point out to HMCI that he or she ought to have regard to policy for which the Secretary of State has been accountable to the House. I do not think that goes back seriously on all the other steps that we have taken in the direction of independence. HMCI will be a much more independent postholder, because he or she will have his or her own statutory functions under the Bill, giving independence of a kind that such a person has not had for many years. I am not sure whether there was so much independence in the 19th century; I doubt it. Certainly there will be greater independence than in modern times.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth also stressed the quality of education and went back to the main point between us. He talked about all the swings of fashion in recent years and how there have been times when everybody has gone with the fashion. He echoed the words of the hon. Member for Wentworth on that.

In addition to stressing how important it is to keep national standards, my hon. Friend made the case against a monopoly at any given time of inspection in the hands of a commission, local government and so on. The fact that governors will have some choice and the ability in any county to go outside the inspectors who usually inspect there, if they are beginning to lose confidence in inspections, is a guarantee that never again will the whole education world be swept one way or the other without governors and parents having more ability to restrain matters.

We have had a wide-ranging debate. I shall conclude as I began. Odd tinges of the citizens charter imbued quite a lot of Labour Members' contributions. Much of the huffing and puffing by the Opposition disguised the fact that we have converted them almost overnight to about four fifths of our policy and that they will never again deny the need for regular inspection and reports.

When Opposition Members go on about governors picking their own inspectors, they disguise the fact that they are defending a closed world of monopoly which would be harmful. The one reference to privatising the inspectorate is the Opposition's daftest argument to try to disguise their lack of any policy. There is no existing inspectorate to be privatised. I have never heard the word more misused.

The parents charter is a great breakthrough in the direction of quality control, openness in education, better guarantees of standards, more information for parents, and more ability on the part of governors and of parents to keep an eye on what is happening in schools so that standards can be driven up. For that reason, I trust that the House will reject the new clause if it is pressed to a Division by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

Our debate has been wide-ranging and has had the tone more of a Second Reading debate than of a debate on amendments. I do not intend to make a wide-ranging speech because I did so on Second Reading and in Committee. One point which has been pressed by Conservative Members has not been answered properly by the Secretary of State.

When the Secretary of State was asked by West Sussex Members what would happen about more frequent or ad hoc inspections outside the regular cycle, he avoided answering any questions from Opposition Members or giving a clear answer to his colleagues. The clear answer is that it will be impossible for inspections to take place outside the four-year cycle. In Committee, Ministers made it clear that although local authorities, following their statutory duties, may go into schools and may offer advice, they cannot undertake a formal inspection either of part of what is going on in the school or of the school as a whole, no matter what problems may have arisen.

It has been suggested that it would be possible for inspectors to go into a school following the wider powers which the local authorities have, but there is a catch which guarantees that no such inspections will take place outside the four-year cycle. The catch is that if any LEA inspector goes into one of the schools in the LEA area to perform an inspection outside the four-year cycle, he will be regarded as giving advice to the school and therefore barred from undertaking an inspection of that school in the future.

No local authority can afford to have its inspectors undertaking inspections outside the four-year cycle because the team that it maintains to offer that service to local schools will gradually bar itself from undertaking an inspection in any school in the LEA area. So there could not be ad hoc inspections by the LEA. Indeed, there could not be an inspection service at all by the LEA. That is why the Secretary of State did not want to answer points made by the Opposition, and that is why he did not give a straight answer to Conservative Members who were rightly concerned about the issue.

I hope that Conservative Members who are concerned about that aspect, which does not impinge on the rest of what is intended in the Bill, and about the principle of a need to have ad hoc inspections from time to time when problems arise will continue to pursue the matter. Amendments which would have met the concern of the Secretary of State that LEAs would simply undertake a parallel four-year cycle and which would have ruled out that possibility were tabled in Committee, but Ministers would not accept them. If that point is not pursued successfully here, I hope that those Members who are concerned will use their contacts in the other place to ensure that it is successfully pursued there.

There should be nothing between the parties on this. The issue is straightforward and I fail to understand why the Secretary of State cannot understand the point. Instead, he resorts to sending letters to hon. Members in which he argues that the matter is being pursued on purely partisan grounds. Today's debate has made it clear that that is not so. I hope that the Secretary of State will give a straight answer on that important point.

Mr. Straw

It is plain from the debate that the Secretary of State, who did not serve in Committee, does not understand the impact of the Bill or its major defects. He tried to pretend a moment ago that the Bill says only that the chief inspector "may have regard" to such aspects of government policy as the Secretary of State may direct. In fact the Bill says clearly that the chief inspector "shall have regard" to such aspects of government policy as the Secretary of State may direct. The Secretary of State gave no answer to the important point raised by the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) and by the hon. Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern). I appreciate that the Minister of State is trying to make a point to the right hon. Member for Worthing, but I will make it too. The point was examined at great length in Committee, as the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has just said.

The power of local government to inspect and to intervene if it discovers that something is wrong is based on section 77(3) of the Education Act 1944. Under schedule 5, that power is to be removed and will not be replaced by any other power for the local authority. As a result of that removal, almost every local authority apart from Wandsworth—certainly every member of the Association of County Councils, Tory and Labour, and also Conservative boroughs such as Croydon—has thoroughly objected to the removal of the power because it believes that if a school faces difficulties the authority will not have the power to intervene. The Secretary of State is legislating for a local authority to be powerless in the face of a school where standards are sliding.

There is another major flaw in the Secretary of State's scheme. Not only will local authorities not have the power to intervene; they will not have the money to employ inspectors who could intervene if they had that power. Under clauses 9 and 15, a local authority can employ inspectors only as a separate, semi-privatised operation—

Mr. Eggar

indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw

The Minister of State shakes his head, but he must know that under the Bill the inspectors have to be a self-financing operation. They will have to get back their salaries and other costs from the fees that the schools pay for the inspection. Almost by definition, a school which faces serious problems will probably have the governors on one side of the issue and the local authority on the other. It is almost certain that the governors will have exhausted their pot of money to pay for an inspection because an inspection can be carried out only on a four-year cycle. The funds to pay for such an inspection will not exist. The consequence is that there is no power for a local authority to intervene and there would be no funds for the local authority to employ inspectors even if that power existed. The Secretary of State needs to answer that point directly.

This has been a wide-ranging debate and we are grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State sought to apologise for the Bill by suggesting that it was not a privatisation measure. Privatisation used to be a badge of honour which was worn with pride by every Tory. Now it seems to be a mark of shame that Ministers wish to hide at the first opportunity.

The reason is simple. When the Secretary of State first published the proposals at the beginning of July 1991, virtually every newspaper said that the Government were privatising the system with private inspectors going into schools. The Secretary of State discovered that he had made a profound political and educational error in dismembering Her Majesty's inspectorate, in cutting its numbers from 480 to 175 and in trying to pretend to an incredulous electorate that the result would be that HMI would be strengthened. It was not until he proposed to hand over inspection not to co-ordinated teams, but to one team of privatised inspectors and it was not until he proposed allowing governors to pick and choose inspectors that he suddenly realised that privatising the inspectorate was going down like a lead balloon both with those running schools and with the electorate.

That is why, in all the great publicity that the Government have come out with recently about strengthening the inspectorate, scarcely a word has been heard about the notion of privatised inspectorates. Perhaps the Secretary of State will now tell me what precedent exists, in the entire administration of public services under this Government, for a provider of a public service to choose the regulator to inspect it. He knows that even with the semi-privatised trust hospitals he insisted not that they should appoint their auditors but that the Audit Commission should do so.

6.30 pm
Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for inviting me to intervene by asking questions. He mentioned my objection to the word "privatised". I am not against privatising commercial activities, but it is a word that we should use correctly. It means transferring something which goes on in the public sector into private hands.

The hon. Gentleman has always acknowledged—this time he did not, he tried to go back on it, but I repeat my own belief—that there is no inspectorate in Lancashire. There is nothing being transferred from the public to the private sector. A new inspectorate is being put in place, and the hon. Member is misleading the public to keep on about our privatising it.

It is really no good the hon. Member for Blackburn lecturing me or any other member of the Government on the need to separate inspectors from providers of service. The people who inspect will be independent of the governors. They will be taken from the list of those registered by Her Majesty's inspectorate, nationally approved, independent inspectors. The provider will have a choice between two inspectors, both of whom are quite separate from the providers.

The hon. Member's proposition is that the providers, Lancashire county council, should be the only people entitled to inspect their own, the provider's, schools. He is misusing the argument, and it can easily be turned against him. He is resisting the independence of inspection that the Bill introduces.

Mr. Straw

I asked the Secretary of State a straight question and he has sought to waffle for about three minutes in reply. He said nothing about what I had asked him, but at least he has confirmed that he cannot draw a single precedent to our attention of a provider of a public service, under this Government, being able to pick and choose its own regulator.

Mr. Clarke

Will the hon. Member for Blackburn agree that his position is that Lancashire county council should be the only people allowed to inspect Lancashire schools? What sort of independent regulator or guarantee of independent quality is that?

Hon. Members


Mr. Straw

We will deal with Labour's proposals under new clauses 10 and 20. Our proposals will ensure that there are far more rigorous standards of inspection and also that the inspectorate stands at arm's length from the people it inspects. If the Secretary of State is going down the ludicrous road of asking whether the inspectors are to be employed by the local authority, I remind him that the police are employed by the local authority but are able to exercise independence. Twice I have put a straight question to the Secretary of State and twice he has refused to answer it. What he proposes to set up is a system without parallel. even under this Adminstration.

To their credit, the present Administration have at least ensured, when privatising a public service, that the regulator is separate from the provider; but here we have a situation where the provider is to be the regulator. It is because of that, because the governing body of the school, including the head teacher, is to pick and choose its own inspector, that nobody with any experience either of the regulation of public services or of the educational services supports the proposals.

HMI does not. For the first time in 150 years, HMI came here last Thursday to lobby hon. Members on both sides and to tell them that the scheme proposed by the Secretary of State was profoundly defective, would undermine and weaken the inspectorate and would lead to inconsistent standards of inspection. HMI, which is supposed to run this ramshackle system, has itself said that it cannot work.

The National Association of Governors and Managers, in whose interests, apparently, this has been set up, has said the same. The National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations has said it. So, too, have scores and scores of head teachers who, as reported in The Observer on Sunday, said that it could not lead to consistent standards of inspection and some of whom said that they would "fix" these private inspections.

There has never been a crazier, more ludicrous scheme for trying to raise standards. It will lead to a lowering of standards and it must be opposed.

Question put and negatived.

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