HC Deb 19 June 1992 vol 209 cc1208-15

2 pm

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)

I beg to move, That this House believes that parents know what is in the best interests of their children: believes that parental choice and accountability to parents must therefore be imperative to the country's education system; and welcomes the far-reaching measures that this Government has taken, and is taking, to help realise these essential goals.

I confess that I was not sure at one stage whether I would have the opportunity to move the motion. I am grateful to hon. Members for enabling me to do so. Like the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), I am making my maiden speech this afternoon as I drew No. 2 in the private Members' ballot a few weeks ago. Naturally, given some of my experiences in education on Croydon local authority in recent years, education was the obvious subject to choose.

I take this opportunity to say a few words about the previous Member for Croydon, North-East. I am unique among the newcomers to the House in succeeding the previous Speaker. I am well aware of the respect shown to him in the House. Despite interventions by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), he was privileged to be recommended to the Queen for a suitable honour to be conferred on him. I am delighted to see that my predecessor is now to be a peer.

Lord Weatherill served the constituency excellently from 1964 until this year and he was well respected by all in the local community. He was not only respected in the House but liked by everyone in the constituency, regardless of political persuasion, and he was an ideal constituency Member. When he became Speaker in 1983, the London borough of Croydon unanimously made him a freeman of the borough. When he retired from the House recently, a civic dinner was held in his honour which was much appreciated by him and by all who attended.

Lord Weatherill had a real love of India and I suspect that that was a result of the fact that during the war, between 1941 and 1945, he served in the Indian army. That experience was especially valuable in Croydon, North-East where there are many Asian people who have enhanced the culture of the area. Lord Weatherill is well respected by them. I recognise that he will be a hard act to follow in the constituency, but I am determined to try to do so.

Croydon, North-East is a typical outer London constituency in many ways, but it has some unique features. It is part of the borough of Croydon, which is the largest London borough. I feel especially privileged to have the opportunity to represent Croydon, North-East, having served on Croydon local authority for 16 years, and as deputy leader of the council for the past six years.

Croydon is a very large town with a large shopping centre and large office complex. Many people are delighted to live there and have the opportunity to live in a pleasant area and, perhaps more importantly, to work in the area, so avoiding the need to commute to London. Croydon is also an example of a well-run unitary authority. Like other London boroughs, it is responsible for services ranging from education, to social services and housing. It also has one of the outstanding leaders in local government in the form of Councillor Sir Peter Bowness. I am particularly pleased to pay a tribute to his work in building up Croydon. I had the privilege of serving as his deputy for six years.

A council must have a vision and Croydon has a vision in respect of its attempt to ensure that it has a thriving office and business centre, its proposals to introduce a Bill for a light railway system, and the development of a large, new central library, which has been achieved with a low community charge.

I chose education as my subject for this debate because education is a vital service. The challenge is to ensure that all children can reach their full potential. Moving on from education in schools, the challenge is to ensure that when they enter further education or whatever other avenue they follow, they receive the training that they need. This country depends on a well-trained work force if we are to compete properly with the Japanese and Germans.

I also wanted an opportunity to say a few words about my experiences on what I believe is a well-run local education authority. That was one reason why I chose the topic of accountability and choice for the debate. Accountability in education is not new. Primary school reading screening was introduced in Croydon way back in 1975. That was the forerunner of the current standard assessment tasks and much useful experience was gained in Croydon from them.

In the early 1980s, a framework for the curriculum was introduced which, in many ways, was less prescriptive than the national curriculum. In some ways, it is a pity that Croydon's policy was not pursued into legislation. Croydon led on accountability by introducing tests at seven, nine, 11 and 14. Again, those tests were forerunners of standard assessment tests and were in English and mathematics.

I pay tribute to the leadership of the director of education for Croydon at that time, Mr. Donald Naismith. Not so long ago, he was exported to the local authority previously represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford}. The work in Croydon has provided the foundation for some of the principles that have now been implemented at a national level.

I do not have time today to go into all aspects of education. Of course criticisms will be made and are made about local education authorities. However, I found Croydon to he a well-run local education authority. Prior to the Government's education reforms in the 1980s, the whole issue of accountability generally in education was a forbidden garden. It was regarded as taboo for parents to question what happened in schools. They did not dare raise the subject. It was not right for people to question teaching methods. Sometimes it was not even right for parents to ask how their children were doing. If they did ask, they were sometimes fobbed off with meaningless statements that they were doing as well as anyone else, without any hard evidence for that.

Gradually, during the 1980s, education was opened up. I welcome that. We published examination results in Croydon early in the 1980s. However, there was much resistance. I regret to say that I still believe that there is an underlying resistance to accountability by many in the education establishment. Certainly, the National Union of Teachers goes hot and cold on that issue.

When one talks about the publication of examination results, it is argued that it is wrong to publish crude examination tables. That is particularly frustrating. I remember back in 1976 challenging teachers in the education establishment to come up with the means of assessing the ability of children at 11 or older so that performance and progression could be properly managed. They have still failed to come up with those proper measures, because the truth is that too many in the education establishment pay lip service to accountability and the monitoring of standards.

I welcome the reforms that were introduced by the Government during the 1980s. There is inevitably a need continually to refine them in the light of experience. We are now starting to obtain experience of SATs, and they are important tests at seven, 11 and 14. They provide information for governors, parents, teachers and, perhaps as important, the education authority and inspectors. Over the past few years, attempts to undermine SATs have concerned me: first, they were over-elaborate and, secondly, they lacked rigour. I was delighted that the former Secretary of State for Education and Science did much to try to put SATs on the right course. There is no doubt that they are the proper way forward; we just have to ensure that they are rigorous enough and do not take up too much time in the classroom.

One matter that is equally interesting in education is that, no matter what results are published, one always finds some people saying, "You can't believe what you see because some schools have a worse intake than others." In other words, they make apologies for the results of schools rather than trying to see why the results are not good enough and then taking steps to improve them.

For a long time, it was argued that the only factors that affected education and performance were socio-economic factors. Sometimes, free school meals and other factors were taken into account. I think that it was in the 1970s when M. Rutter published his famous report, entitled "Fifteen Thousand Hours". It exposed the myth once and for all. However, there was a deliberate attempt by the education establishment to rubbish that report. I am pleased to say that, subsequently, there has been more research by people such as Smith and Tomlinson, who have shown that the effect of the individual school matters. In other words, children from similar backgrounds can achieve vastly different results depending on the school that they are in. There is a school effect. The quality of teaching matters. Even Her Majesty's inspectorate conceded that point this year in a report on primary education.

The truth is that good standards depend on having a good head teacher and good teachers who are committed to striving for excellence in education and are not prepared to accept shabby second best or always look for excuses. It is about creating the right ethos in a school and striving for excellence and never accepting less than the best for youngsters in a school.

If we fail to enable youngsters to achieve their full potential, they will not get a second chance. Some people argue that the only thing that we need to do to improve the quality of education is to increase resources. That is a cop-out. Other countries—Japan is quite a good example—have 55 pupils to the class and achieve better standards than we do. I am not advocating that we should have 55 pupils in a class.

Under this Government, from 1979 to 1992, research carried out by the London School of Economics, not an institution that is biased toward the Government in any shape or form, has shown that spending in real terms on education has gone up by 20 per cent. That is a significant record.

Some people ask, "Why have accountability?" The reason for accountability is to bring pressure to bear on the education service to improve standards. If we do not know what is going on, we cannot challenge those standards and then bring improvements to bear. For anyone who does not believe that, I quote what occurred in respect of reading.

The local authority in Croydon came in for a fair degree of criticism about reading standards. Why did it receive that criticism? It was because it was one of the few authorities in Britain that carried out testing and had the courage to publish the results. Too many local authorities that carried out testing before standard assessment tasks were introduced were not prepared to publish the results for their education committees, let alone the public.

While accountability is a necessary condition for improvements in standards, it is not sufficient. We have to seek a system that is responsive to parental demands and pressure. That means ensuring that schools that are popular have the opportunity to expand and that those that are unsuccessful are closed. We do the children in unsuccessful schools a grave disservice if we allow the school to continue when it provides a poor-quality education. I am aware that the Department of Education has carried out a consultation exercise on allowing popular schools to expand. I hope that the White Paper will include proposals to enable them so to expand.

I was pleased to read the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the Adam Smith Institute earlier this week, in which he made it absolutely clear that we intend to introduce proposals to deal with schools that do not achieve and do a bad job. That is particularly important. I am sure that hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, look forward to those proposals.

It will be interesting to see how local management of schools works out in the next few years. It is a step in the right direction which enables money to flow with the pupil. That also brings pressure to bear on schools that do not allow youngsters to achieve their full potential.

I turn briefly, because time is short, to the other issue to which my motion refers—choice. We cannot possibly provide real choice for parents if all schools are the same. If all schools are comprehensive, what choice is that? Children must either go to the local neighbourhood comprehensive or they cannot go to school at all. It is a little like Henry Ford with cars—one can have any car as long as it is black. The reforms introduced in the 1980s to provide a variety of schools are much to be welcomed. One such reform was the creation of city technology colleges. We now have two CTCs in Croydon. We managed to set them up in spite of massive opposition from the Labour party in the town hall. The CTCs do a good job for the youngsters who go to them.

We also need to retain a variety of single-sex and mixed schools. In the north of the borough of Croydon in my constituency, the single-sex schools are much appreciated, especially by families from an Asian background, but also by others. We should make sure that such schools are retained. We should also be prepared to encourage authorities that wish to retain their grammar schools or perhaps reintroduce grammar schools. But perhaps a better way of doing that is via the grant-maintained route. I also note with interest the measures taken in Wandsworth which enable schools to become magnet schools so that a variety of schools is available from which parents can choose.

Assisted places are yet another means of providing variety and choice, but perhaps the most important measure that we have taken is the introduction of grant-maintained schools. Grant-maintained status is a logical extension of local management of schools. Once the funding of schools is put on a formula basis, why not free them from the dead hand of the local authority and enable them to thrive and go in whatever direction they wish? I look forward to proposals in the White Paper to encourage a dramatic growth in the number of grant-maintained schools and enable schools to achieve whatever they want in order to meet the needs of youngsters in their area. It is all about removing power from the centre and moving it down to the locality. That is a way of providing real choice.

In conclusion, I am convinced that the reforms of the 1980s have laid the foundation for a better education system and I am pleased to know that there will be a White Paper. I hope that it will build on those reforms and will create an education system which is responsive to parents' needs and will ensure that we have a well-trained work force to meet the needs of the coming decades.

2.19 pm
Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak for the first time in the House.

In the short time available, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) on his excellent maiden speech in which he mentioned many issues with which Conservative Members are in agreement, and on successfully introducing the motion today, in spite of what seemed to be the best efforts of the Opposition. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on his excellent maiden speech.

I hope that hon. Members will understand if I find myself losing interest in the rest of the debate. I came to the House to make my maiden speech this morning with considerable misgivings and trouble of mind. Like many other new Members, I had planned my speech for some time. As is often the custom, I was looking forward to making it in the presence of my family. Sadly, my father suffered a fairly severe stroke last night and most of my family are at his bedside, a few hundreds yards away at the Westminster hospital. I confess that, had I known that I would have to wait five hours to make my maiden speech, my time might have been better spent at his bedside than listening to some of the matters raised by Opposition Members. However, it is a salutary lesson for me, at such an early time, to understand the proceedings and the way in which the House works.

I come here as successor to Sir Dennis Walters, who represented Westbury for about 28 years. Hon. Members who knew him well will not be surprised to hear that he made his maiden speech in 1964 during a debate on foreign affairs, which was a subject that he pursued successfully throughout his time in this place. He spoke about the middle east, as he did throughout his career, with a knowledge and understanding that I believe were universally admired. Hon. Members may not always have agreed with his arguments—the House was frequently divided in its support for the party line that he sometimes took—but he was an acknowledged expert.

I know, too, that Sir Dennis was particularly proud of the Children and Young Persons Bill, which he saw through the House as a private Member in 1985. It has since been superseded by the Children Act 1989, which contains many of the measures that he introduced. He was always a popular constituency Member, he was hard-working, and he kept in touch with his constituents. We wish him and Bridget well in what I hope will be a long and happy retirement.

I am fortunate to have been sent here by the electors of the Westbury constituency, which takes its name from the town that lies geographically at the heart of the constituency, which also comprises west Wiltshire and a small part of the Salisbury district. Hon. Members from the west country will doubtless be familiar with seeing the town's railway station as they speed further west. Westbury originally made its name as a railway town. Now it is home to thriving businesses and light industries, as well as to the Blue Circle cement company, an internationally famous company which finds that the concept of the European single market has a somewhat hollow ring as the Government continue to subsidise the dumping of Greek cement on the European market.

To the north lies the principal centre of population, the town of Trowbridge, which is the county town of Wiltshire. You will be pleased to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is the home not just of Wiltshire county cricket club but of the combined minor counties team when they play together.

Trowbridge has a long and proud history, especially as a successful and wealthy woollen town. Now it is a bustling and successful industrial centre and home to some famous names which have not only survived the recession but are thriving and expanding. Hon. Members who are planning barbecues for the summer will be interested to know that the largest employer in the constituency is Bowyers, who have been manufacturing the British sausage in Trowbridge for more than 180 years. Just down the road can be found the Ushers brewery—one of the country's most famous and successful independent brewers. If I feel just a tinge of regret, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that your colleague Madam Deputy Speaker is not in the Chair today, I hope that you will forgive me, but with her Devon roots I have no doubt that she would be familiar with one of Ushers' more potent brews known locally as Widecombe Wallop and widely sold in the pubs of the famous Dartmoor village of that name.

To the north of Trowbridge are the towns of Melksham and Bradford on Avon. Melksham, long before it was a town, was no more than a small village in a large Wiltshire forest. Now it is known as the home of the Avon Tyre and Rubber company, the largest company in the constituency and a constant success story abroad, which follows a tradition of manufacturing tyres and rubber-related products that goes back over 100 years.

To the south of the constituency lies the fifth town, Warminster, an important military centre throughout the ages. Although the town dates from Saxon times, the surrounding downs were occupied by iron and stone-age settlers who left behind them at Battlesbury Camp one of the major iron-age forts in the United Kingdom. Now it is home to the School of Infantry, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers workshops and visiting battalions at Battlesbury barracks. It is a crucial point for the Army, situated as it is on the edge of Salisbury plain.

I am especially glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East chose the subject of education for debate today, however little time we may have to debate it. It is noticeable that this is the first opportunity that we have had to debate the subject since the Labour party's astonishing about-turn on education policy, especially with regard to its attitude to grant-maintained schools.

In Wiltshire, we are fortunate to have a Conservative county council and a forward-looking local education authority. Until recently the council was balanced on a knife edge, but it has now moved to a Conservative majority thanks to the much-welcomed and much-publicised defection of the Labour group leader to the Conservative benches. The remarks in his resignation statement are apposite to today's debate. He said: The Labour Party is today, at national and local level, in a state of total confusion, quite unable to put forward ideas to meet the problems of the modern world. Many of the rank and file still cling to ideas that are twenty to thirty years out of date and show little imagination in their simple, doctrinaire slogans of political frustration. One is left to wonder whether a major reason why Labour Members still find themselves on the Opposition Benches after the general election could be partly because of their misguided education policies and their refusal to accept, at least until last week, that parents want more choice and diversity in schools.

In west Wiltshire we have many excellent schools, both secondary and primary. The LEA has been at the forefront of implementing the Government's reforms. Local management of schools has been widely welcomed and successfully introduced. Wiltshire is near the top of the national league table for national curriculum assessment. Exam achievements at GCSE and A-level are constantly improving.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East, I believe that if true diversity is to be achieved in our schools, it will be done only through grant-maintained status. Recently I was concerned to see in a written reply from my hon. Friend the Minister that Wiltshire languished near the foot of the table for LEAs in terms of the amount in the budget held back from schools for administrative costs.

St. Augustine's school in Trowbridge was the first school in Wiltshire, and one of the first in the country, to go grant maintained. It has proved a role model for others to follow. I was pleased that the Secretary of State recently also approved the application of Aloeric primary school in Melksham. Ask the headmaster of St. Augustine's what GMS has meant for his school and he will tell us unequivocally: more money, yes, and the freedom to spend it on new books and equipment as he chooses. The school is well maintained, the children well turned out, and the school roll over-subscribed. Above all, it has given the headmaster the ability to respond better to the true needs and wishes of his local parents. The real benefit lies in the increased independence that his school now enjoys.

I have no doubt that we are seeing the beginning of a process that will lead to a flood of applications for grant-maintained status. I look forward to the White Paper that the Government plan to introduce later in the summer, which will be a logical further step in continuing the Government's successful education reforms.

2.29 pm
Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

In the brief time that is available, I congratulate the hon. Members for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) and for Westbury (Mr. Faber) on their maiden speeches. It is a custom of the House for those making maiden speeches to say a few kind words about their predecessors. Both hon. Gentlemen did that, and I am sure that that will be well received. It is also customary for maiden speeches to be non-contentious. Had we had a little more time, perhaps, the hon. Gentlemen would appreciate that they did not achieve that objective.

I hope that the father of the hon. Member for Westbury recovers—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.