HC Deb 19 May 1992 vol 208 cc130-2
1. Mr. Ashton

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what changes he intends to make in regard to the opting-out procedures for schools.

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

The current arrangement by which schools apply to the Secretary of State for grant-maintained status following a favourable ballot of parents is proving very successful. We have no plans to change it. The latest approval of Chatham grammar school for girls brings the total of grant-maintained schools to 250. The rate of GM applications has doubled since the general election.

Mr. Ashton

If the arrangement has been so successful, why have only 1 per cent. of schools in Britain applied? Four years ago, Mrs. Thatcher said that by now 50 per cent. of schools in Britain would have opted out. Why have only 1 per cent. done so? Have there not been serious problems at opted-out schools in Stratford, with allegations of racism? Is it not a fact that the Catholic bishops are not happy about the random selections? Is it not also a fact that governors in some of those schools have far too many powers which they have abused? The whole system has become a flop.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman must contain his impatience. Although 10 per cent. of secondary schools have applied for grant-maintained status, we are in the early stages of an exciting departure in our education policy and in the history of education in this country. If there are any difficulties in GM applications, they have probably arisen because sour and negative Labour-controlled local authorities have placed every possible obstacle in the way of schools trying to get out from under them and deliver a proper quality of education to their pupils. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is, "Watch this space."

Sir Rhodes Boyson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the difference between Conservatives and the Opposition is that we believe in parents and families being allowed to choose schools while they believe in bureaucrats?

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The key difference is that we truly believe that we must correctly look to parents and governors for care and concern for children's education. The recent history of education has shown that many local education authorities have neither the will nor the capability to give our children a proper education. That is what grant-maintained status brings. That is the promise for the future.

Mr. Enright

Why have the Catholic bishops in their Low week meeting continued their opposition to opting out? Will the Minister give special consideration to Catholic schools in that respect?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman is not quite correct in a very important sense. As they are entitled to, the Catholic bishops are asking searching questions about the nature of our policies and the direction in which we wish to go. However, there is no one better placed than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to commune with the Catholic bishops to satisfy them about the direction in which we are going and to ensure that we all move forward in the way that we want and on the basis of our election manifesto. I promise the hon. Gentleman that.

Mr. Dunn

Does my hon. Friend accept that we on the Conservative Benches fully support the procedures for achieving grant-maintained status? Indeed, we go further and support the grammar schools, the city technology colleges, the assisted places scheme, the Church schools and anything that maximises parental choice. That is in direct contrast to the socialist Opposition parties.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I fought the recent election campaign on the basis of very clear and explicit undertakings about the future of education. Our election victory endorses that view. It is sad but predictable that Opposition Members still cannot accept that and that they even now seem to want to resist the inevitability and the desirability of the movement towards grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Straw

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment. He referred to searching questions asked by the Catholic bishops. When will he give some straight answers to those searching questions, in particular the question about when the current level of bribes—what the Government call preferential funding—of opted-out schools will end?

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will write to the Catholic bishops within the next few days. The bishops asked the questions of my right hon. Friend and it is to them that he will give the reply. As to the rest of the questions that no doubt are burning in the hon. Gentleman's mind, our White Paper, which will be published in July, will answer them all and will, I am sure, satisfy him completely.

2. Mr. Ian Bruce

To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many Dorset schools have now opted for direct funding by his Department.

Mr. Forth

I am pleased to report that there are six grant-maintained schools in Dorset.

Mr. Bruce

Does my hon. Friend realise that, although we talk about only 10 per cent. of schools having applied for grant-maintained status, the other 90 per cent.—and in fact all the schools in my constituency—that have not applied for grant-maintained status now have a tool that they can use to go to the education committee and say, "Please give me what I need for my school through the education authority, or I will opt for grant-maintained status"? Therefore, 100 per cent. of schools now have far more control over their finances than was the case before that excellent policy was in place.

Mr. Forth

I thank my hon. Friend for the spirit of his question. He has emphasised a key point. It is now for parents and governors in each school to look at how they want their school to develop. If they are persuaded that grant-maintained status is the future, it is for them to demonstrate that through the balloting procedure and then to present their proposals to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He will obviously want to consider each case on its merits, but he will look positively at the applications.