§ 6. Mr. Don Foster
To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will set out the Government's long-term plans for the expansion of the grant-maintained schools sector.
§ The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten)
Thirteen schools have applied for grant-maintained status since 10 April, about twice the number of applications receive the month before. The number of grant-maintained approvals reached 250 today, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) announced earlier this afternoon, including 24 approvals since 10 April. I expect the number to continue to rise as more and more parents seek the clear advantages of grant-maintained status for their schools. The rate of growth will continue to be decided by parental wishes in school ballots. In time, I expect grant-maintained status to become the natural organisational model, particularly for secondary education throughout England.
§ Mr. Paice
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his long-overdue appointment to the Cabinet and to his 133 responsibility for this important policy area. As grant-maintained status becomes the norm for schools throughout Britain during this Parliament, will he make it absolutely clear that while it is perfectly valid and, indeed, desirable for schools to form consortia after they have become grant maintained, he will not accept applications from great swards of schools trying to become a consortium before the fact and to become some form of self-perpetuating local education authority?
§ Mr. Patten
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Although I understand that there may be distinct advantages in some schools—for example, a secondary school with several feeder primary schools—opting out together to achieve better management, I am simply not prepared to countenance the recreation by the back door of old-style, obstructive local education authorities.
§ Mr. Foster
I am sure that the Secretary of State is well aware of anxiety throughout the country about the large number of educational changes that have taken place in recent years and the lack of consultation about them. Will he give us an assurance that there will be adequate time for consultation on the new legislation that he proposes? Furthermore, will he give an assurance that consultation will not take place mainly during the school holidays?
§ Mr. Patten
In due course I shall publish a White Paper. In the meantime, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give full and whole-hearted support to the two excellent grant-maintained schools in his constituency.
§ Mr. Pawsey
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be particularly beneficial if secondary schools that obtained grant-maintained status were accompanied by their feeder primary schools? Does he further agree that clusters of such schools in rural areas or denominational schools would be even more appropriate?
§ Mr. Patten
Both the examples that my hon. Friend gives are good ones. In the next year or so, we may well see schools adopting different ways of promoting their own movement to grant-maintained status. So much interest has there been in schools that have led the movement, such as the excellent Great Barr school in Birmingham—the biggest secondary school in the country, grant maintained or not—that they have been inundated by people ringing the self-starting helpline for advice on how to achieve grant-maintained status in the way that those schools did.
§ Mr. Corbett
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will refuse grant-maintained status to any school that does not pledge to admit students with special needs?
§ Mr. Patten
The hon. Gentleman shows that he can do joined-up shouting. He certainly cannot do joined-up thinking. I shall consider—[Interruption.] I do not think that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) welcomes the incursions and support from the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). I shall consider, as any Secretary of State from any party would have to do, every proposal put to me on its merits, as I am enjoined to do by law.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Will my right hon. Friend give a more positive response to the supplementary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) about the importance of junior and infant schools applying for grant-maintained status? I thank the Department, my right hon. Friend and his predecessors for granting grant-maintained status to Kettleshulme Church of England junior school, as it was then—Kettleshulme St. James' as it is now—which assumed grant-maintained status on 1 April.
§ Mr. Patten
I apologise to my hon. Friend if he thought that I was not warm enough in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey). What it would be like if I got my hands round his throat, I do not know. I warmly accept the thanks to my Department and my predecessor, my right hon. and learned Friend the present Home Secretary, who did so much to forward the cause of education in Britain during his 15-month tenure. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend's constituency, if I am invited, and paying a state visit to the school which has just opted out there.
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. Gentleman well knows that the main reason that schools have applied to opt out is the level of financial inducements which give them, to quote the Prime Minister's words, an advantage of at least £150,000 in running costs in a year and twice the level of capital grants. In view of that high level of bribe offered to schools to opt out, why do the Secretary of State and his colleagues continue to dodge the question, "Will those bribes continue?"
§ Mr. Patten
As the hon. Gentleman knows, at this time of year anyone concerned with a future expenditure programme will consider the whole programme. I, along with the rest of my Cabinet colleagues, will present plans for future public expenditure at the right time. In the grant-maintained schools that I have visited, the freedom that grant-maintained status has bestowed on them has been foremost in the minds of the governors and head teachers. Nothing could have been clearer when I visited Small Heath grant-maintained school in central Birmingham last week. Those parents, governors and head teachers, who had had to face the bullying of Birmingham local education authority, which tried to prevent them from opting out, presented a good picture of the real benefit, which is freedom in education.