HC Deb 19 July 1993 vol 229 cc49-65

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 12, leave out from beginning to ("his") and insert ("The Secretary of State shall exercise")

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

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 6.

Mr. Forth

In speaking to these amendments, it would help if I reminded the House briefly of the background to the clause. It seems a long time ago, but, if my memory serves me right, the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) first identified in Standing Committee the fact that the essence of the Bill, which has been before the House and another place for such a long time, was somewhat at odds with the principles and contents of the Education Act 1944. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) took up the matter and reinforced what the hon. Gentleman said. Both asked whether the Government would consider what could be done to resolve any differences or divergences that were beginning to emerge between the principles of the Bill and those of the 1944 Act.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Will the Minister make it clear that I made the comments on the matter in a disapproving manner, unlike the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey)?

Mr. Forth

That may be so. I cannot remember specifically the disapproval of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright), but of course I accept what he says. The great service that he did to the Committee and the House—it is not overstating the case to put it that way —is that he was the first to put his finger on the difference. We came increasingly to the view that it was essential to correct and to deal with the matter. The group of amendments from another place is a direct result of that process.

In particular, there was a recognition—these are my words, and I shall no longer seek to associate the hon. Gentleman with my remarks—that education is no longer primarily the monopoly of the local education authority. Conservative Members are convinced that the best way to secure improved standards in education is to give individual institutions responsibility for deciding how best they can meet the needs of the people they serve—we have already made considerable progress on that. Those institutions are covered by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, in which we were happy to give the former polytechnics, now universities, their independence. They have responded to that in full measure and with vigour, and have used that independence in the most positive way.

The Act also took further education sixth form colleges out of local education authority control. Those institutions are using their independence to benefit the students whom they serve. The local and business communities also benefit from the work of those institutions and from the improved attainment levels of their students. The same process is taking place in our school system. We and, most importantly, parents and pupils are experiencing an increase in the benefits that that process brings.

The Education Reform Act 1988 introduced local management of schools into the maintained school sector. Its introduction was much maligned by backward-looking Members, mainly Opposition Members. The policy of local management of schools has been grasped with enthusiasm by schools up and down the country. They have relished the opportunity that it has given them to take greater responsibility for managing their affairs in the interests of pupils.

More importantly, the Education Reform Act also gave schools the opportunity to opt out completely of local education authority control. It should be no surprise that Opposition Members also opposed that measure, but we now have a flourishing grant-maintained, self-governing school sector, which will continue to grow in response to parental demand. Nearly 500 self-governing schools are already operating and another 140 or so have received approval from the Department of Education and the Secretary of State. In a further 260, parents have voted to approve applications or proposals for grant-maintained status. More than one in five secondary schools has now balloted on grant-maintained status. Those figures clearly demonstrate the continuing popularity of the reform.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

My hon. Friend has made the important point that most of the great educational advances, which have been widely welcomed by teachers, parents, governors and pupils, have been opposed tooth and nail by the Opposition. Those initiatives include the technical and vocational education initiative and the local management of schools policy that my hon. Friend mentioned. Does he agree that the Opposition will oppose the current legislation tooth and nail in the House today, but, in a few years' time, their policy will be stood on its head and they will support the Bill?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. That is a problem for Opposition Members. They have to decide how long they can hold out against the tide of parental opinion and the strongly expressed views of parents. If Opposition Members persist in seeking to deny parents the freedoms that we provide—the elements of choice, the ability to ballot on grant-maintained status and the like —the Opposition will be the losers and we will be the beneficiaries.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

What does the Minister have to say to the ex-mayor of Calderdale, Tory Councillor Carpenter, who recently said that the education department in Calderdale had been placed in a financially perilous position by the opt-out? Councillor Carpenter warns that it will he the end of the local education authority, if not the local authority, because of the double funding and the way in which finances are skewed towards the opted-out sector.

Mr. Forth

In the friendliest possible way, I would tell that councillor to look closely at the way in which his local authority operates and uses its funds. He should seek the advice of some of his colleagues throughout local education authorities, many of whom have responded imaginatively and positively to the challenge of grant-maintained status. Some of them have encouraged schools to become grant-maintained, others have welcomed the competition and others have sought, hopelessly, to resist the trend. It would help him if he discussed the matter with his colleagues in other authorities and found out the secret to responding successfully and positively to the challenge. I am disappointed by his negative attitude, but he will be able to find succour and advice from many who have found the secret which has eluded him until now.

In the grant-maintained schools, self-governing status has helped to release enormous, previously untapped potential. The parents, who have chosen and balloted for the freedom of grant-maintained status because they want the best for their children, recognise that. The Bill maintains the momentum. In particular, it establishes a coherent and stable framework which will allow self-governing schools, and prospective self-governing schools, to plan confidently for the future. While guaranteeing that the route to self-governing status will remain, via the parental ballot, the Bill rightly makes the transition simpler.

Education law needs to be brought up to date to reflect the fundamental changes that have already taken place. Like the 1944 Act, it needs to be able to accommodate the changes still to come. That is precisely what clause 1 achieves. It places a duty on the Secretary of State to promote the education of people in England and Wales. It encompasses all the key organisations which have, and will continue to have, important roles to play in the delivery of the highest-quality education—local education authorities, the Funding Agency for Schools, the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils and, most importantly, the individual schools, colleges and universities—without cluttering the clause with a long, unwieldy list.

The clause establishes the key objectives of the Government: to improve standards, to increase opportunities for choice and to encourage diversity. The Bill will take us well into the next century. I have no doubt that, in the years to come, its praises will be sung throughout the House. Even Opposition Members may, on reflection, recognise the Bill's aims.

I will now turn to the amendments brought from another place. A number of peers were concerned that the clause in some way extended the power of the Secretary of State over institutions in the higher education sector beyond those powers already given to him in existing statute. That was never the intention behind the clause—the genesis of which I have described. We did not believe that that was the effect of the clause. However, we recognised the force of the concerns expressed and were happy to table amendments which sought to allay those concerns.

The amendments brought from another place make it clear that the Secretary of State should have a general duty to promote the education of people in England and Wales, regardless of whether that education is provided in schools, colleges or universities. That aim is set out in new clause 1 which is entirely free standing. In turn, new clause 2, which is concerned with the use of the Secretary of State's powers, clearly applies only to schools and further education institutions and to primary, secondary and further education.

I have set out the intentions of clause 1, which is important, but it goes no further than I have described. I hope that the House will agree to the amendments.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I wish to take up some of the issues raised by the Minister. In the last 30 seconds of his speech—which was obviously truncated by the guillotine motion—the Minister referred to amendments Nos. 1 to 6. He did not refer to them in the rest of his speech, but I shall concentrate on the amendments, as I wish to probe the Government's intentions when the clause was brought before the House and when it came before the other place. We have never had a satisfactory explanation about that.

Just to ensure that the idea does not enter folklore, we must continually remind the Government that the Opposition do not oppose local management of schools and did not oppose it when it was introduced, but we rightly objected to the formula on which it was originally based. It is common ground between us that subsidiarity should apply and that decisions should be taken down to the level at which they can best be made. It is, however, a myth to claim that the Opposition opposed the principle. We merely opposed the formula and we were entitled to—we do not have to accept everything rammed down our throats by the Government.

I remind the House that the 1944 Act was our Act. The Conservative party has no proprietorial rights over it. So let us all use language that we can understand and not perpetrate central office mythology.

On report, on 2 March at column 161, the Secretary of State made it abundantly clear that this part of the Bill was intended to apply to the Higher Education Funding Council and the universities. Indeed, he went out of his way to specify that it was intended to cover higher education. That intention clearly showed through the drafting of both the clause and the right hon. Gentleman's speech.

It was not until the Bill left this House and went to another place that the issue was debated in detail. There was hardly any debate here, because the 6 pm guillotine fell during the second sentence spoken by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), as I know from having read the debate. There was no debate here about the effects on higher education and the Secretary of State's intention that universities be covered.

Following the debates in the House of Lords and today's remarks by the Minister, we have still had no explanation of why Ministers intended to extend these powers into higher education. It would help us to guard against such moves in the future and be able to bring the Government to account if we were given an explanatory statement. Although the Government have backtracked in the meantime, it would still he useful to know their thinking on the matter.

This is our first opportunity to discuss the issue. Although we agree with the Lords amendments, we make it crystal clear that the Opposition do not see threats to university autonomy or academic freedom in the promotion of policies in respect of quality education, wider access to higher education and equity of treatment as between full or part-time students in further or higher education. We will not be dictated to; nor will we accept criticism from the university sector simply because we want to raise these issues, as they were raised in the Lords. They can be properly debated in a mature fashion, surely, without such accusations being tossed around the Chamber.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should point out that it is quite legitimate to raise these issues in debates, here and in another place. No one is levelling charges at anyone about a diminution of academic freedom or autonomy. Higher education itself is about inquiry and change, phenomena which can be uncomfortable bedfellows for those in politics and higher education.

We do not yet have the benefit of seeing a consolidated clause, although I have one with me drawn up by the Library. Nevertheless, the Lords amendments construct a composite clause. I have already declared an interest—not pecuniary—as a serving member of an FE college corporation, a post in which I served for 20 years before coming to the House. Neither I nor my hon. Friends know of any FE corporation that wants to return to the status quo ante—that is not in dispute. I have seen at first hand the changes that have occurred and the problems both before and after incorporation. It has not all been plain sailing.

The borders between these sectors of education are becoming ever more blurred, the more so since further education is still included in the clause. We know that the Higher Education Funding Council for England directly funds no fewer than 77 FE colleges higher education courses. Given that the HE arrangements in further education colleges are either franchise-based or based on 3 plus 1 or 2 plus 2 degrees, we want to know how the Secretary of State will exercise his power in the FE sector without impinging on the commitments given in another place to the effect that he will not do so in the higher education sector. Almost a quarter of FE colleges use this arrangement—higher education takes place, in fact, in far more than 77 of them, although only 77 are directly funded for it. As some of these colleges work in partnership with the universities, we need to know the Secretary of State's intentions.

5.15 pm

As the summer will show, cuts in university places will become apparent when the brown envelopes do not drop through doors, but that is to be compensated for in part by the proposed expansion—of 25 per cent. over the next three years—in the number of further education places. Some of that number will clearly be in higher education—so much has emerged from the colleges and from ministerial statements. The clause will thus have an effect on the HE sector.

I appreciate that the university lobby and its representatives in the House of Lords did not discuss this aspect. I was in the other place, in the Gallery, on 20 April, watching the kebabing of Baroness Blatch as she proposed the original clause. The vice-chancellors and their representatives rightly concentrated on their own institutions, because there had been no consultation or debate in this place, nor had there been any warning that the Government intended, as it appeared, to take further powers over the higher education sector.

I have been to the other place only a few times and I found it illuminating to see the House of Lords chock-a-block, with every speaker from every quarter attacking the Government. Even after the Minister had given way to their demands, they carried on for another hour pressing their case. Anyone waiting to speak on any other aspect of the Bill would have found himself trampled at the end of that debate, because so many people were leaving.

I do not want to fall foul of anyone in the higher education sector, but I suggest that the next batch of working peers should be drawn exclusively from the further education sector, the better to represent its views—especially in view of the blurring of the two sectors. It would be useful to have more practitioners, heads of departments and principals from FE, and more heads of nursery schools, in the second Chamber, while it remains in its present form.

That makes the debates more rounded, and it would allow those of us who tend to concentrate on higher education to understand that the lower tiers of education provide the seedcorn. It is wrong to compartmentalise each sector of education. I make this point for all party leaders as they draw up their lists of working peerages. Our higher education sector deserves a statement in greater detail than the Minister has been able to give so far about why they were included in the original clause.

In principle we do not disagree with the new wider powers, but on behalf of those who will be on the receiving end of them we are entitled to ask how the Minister will exercise them. Will representatives of parents, teachers, students and pupils be consulted before these wide general powers are exercised? In the spirit in which the Government should conduct education policy, they should be prepared to say that there will be meaningful consultation because sometimes consultation is merely symbolic. More thought by the Government before presenting the new clause would have been helpful for all concerned.

We do not oppose the amendments. We would have raised the same issues if we had had the opportunity when the Bill was going through this place. However, we did not have the opportunity to do that because the Government were not willing to allow time to debate the Bill in the detail that it deserves.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

One of the Bill's principal objects is to make it easier for schools to apply for grant-maintained status. That was said in an earlier debate by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South Mr. O'Hara). I welcome grant-maintained status, although the hon. Gentleman did not. Opposition Members have made no secret of their hostility to grant-maintained status. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who is in her customary place on the Opposition Front Bench, has said that, if Labour ever wins a general election, it will abolish grant-maintained status and put schools hack under local education authorities.

Parental opinion expressed through a free and secret ballot apparently means nothing to the hon. Member for Dewsbury. It is odd that she is so far out of step with her right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and with her hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), who are steadily moving away from the old clause 4 mentality that only state ownership and the LEA are right. The hon. Lady is in something of a time warp. Most believe that she will have to change her mind on this issue in precisely the way that she changed it on the sale of council houses.

Does the hon. Member for Dewsbury seriously tell the House and the nation that, at a time when hundreds of schools have become grant-maintained and hundreds of thousands of the nation's children are being educated in them, she will abolish their status and return them to the control of local education authorities? Does she think that parents will stand for that? Does not she understand the magnitude of the upheaval and the damage that the change will do to innumerable children in the state sector? The hon. Lady is unwise, and it may be significant that already there are rumours that some of her hon. Friends think that she is wrong and will seek to change her mind before it becomes set in its customary concrete.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)


Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Gentleman asks, "Who?" It is up to him to take soundings in his party. If he does not know who they are, it is not for me to tell him

Mr. Steinberg

The hon. Gentleman is misleading the House, as he usually does. When my party forms the Government in three years' time, it will return opted-out schools to the state sector.

Mr. Pawsey

I wonder whether the House noted the silence with which the hon. Gentleman's intervention was received by his hon. Friends. Does he realise how isolated he is becoming in his party?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Pawsey

Now they are queuing up

Mr. Enright

We are getting close to the end of the hon. Gentleman's second speech and I have not yet heard one iota about his philosophy on education or anything about his aims or dreams or what he intends to do and what education is about. All that he can do is grub in the dirt.

Mr. Pawsey

The hon. Gentleman obviously did not listen to the debates in Standing Committee E. If he can remember that far back, he will recall that I spelled out in substantial detail my philosophy on education. The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to take up more time by repeating purely for the hon. Gentleman's benefit what I said at length some time ago.

Grant-maintained schools are successful because they are popular with parents and more parents want them; their wishes are expressed through a free and secret ballot. For such schools to be sacrificed to a political vision that is becoming increasingly abandoned by the more progressive thinkers in the Labour party would be a mistake on a par with Labour's expectations during the last general election.

Mr. Rooker

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pawsey

I should like to make progress, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Gentleman is obviously wound up on this issue. Will he give a commitment that the promises given to parents during the ballots on grant-maintained schools will be kept and that the funding of future grant-maintained schools will be on the same basis as the funding of those schools to which that status has already been granted?

Mr. Pawsey

I acknowledge that funding will become increasingly tight. Conservative Members certainly accept that, because we understand the substantial deficit between Government revenue and expenditure. We appreciate what has to be done to rectify that deficit, but that does not damage the fundamental principle of grant-maintained schools. People vote for those schools, and they come into existence not because of the extra funding that they receive but because parents believe in them and appreciate the greater freedom and the greater choice that go with them. The hon. Gentleman should understand that.

When the hon. Member for Dewsbury was shadow spokesman on the environment, she took a long time to accept the sale of council houses and accepted it only after several thousand had been sold. Given time and several thousand grant-maintained schools, I am certain that she will again see the light—perhaps not in a brilliant flash as on the road to Dewsbury, but rather sullenly and reluctantly—and she will be motivated by the knowledge that the abolition of grant-maintained status would be unpopular and a real vote loser.

There is nothing like four lost general elections to concentrate even the most recalcitrant mind. Parents want grant-maintained schools and they will get them, but only from a Conservative Government. The hon. Lady and her hon. Friends listen only to the trade unions and to the views and needs of their friends and comrades in local authorities. They must understand that grant-maintained schools offer genuine choice and genuine diversity to the nation's parents.

One of our more interesting debates took place on 21 January; it was on specialisation. I make no secret of the fact that I support specialisation and believe that where governing bodies, parents and teachers want to specialise in technology, science or music, they should be allowed to do so. Specialisation adds additional choice, concentrates resources and challenges pupils, and it should be welcomed.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, about 640 schools have been approved for grant-maintained status, and a further 260 applications are in the pipeline. The vast majority of those are secondary schools. Currently, about 20 per cent. of secondary schools have applied for grant-maintained status and more than 350,000 of the nation's children are now taught in grant-maintained schools. That is a clear sign of the magnitude of the revolution taking place. For the first time in almost 100 years, the apron strings that secured schools to LEAs are being cut.

I have long held the view that those who believe that the only acceptable form of state education is local authority education are mistaken. There is a place for the local education authority, but it is unwise to assume that only one form of education is right. It is also unwise to accept that all the nation's children should be educated in a single type of school, run by a single form of authority.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Hear, hear.

5.30 pm
Mr. Pawsey

I am delighted to have my hon. Friend's assent.

No one person and no single system has a monopoly on virtue. The old monolithic structure of the LEAs, which has survived for the best part of 100 years, is now under challenge—and rightly so. Parents are becoming more knowledgeable as a result of the Government's reforms and they are becoming more interested in their children's education. They have the right to exercise their opinions and their choice. We have made it possible for the educational establishment to be challenged and most parents are taking advantage of that.

The Bill makes it easier for primary schools to emerge through the introduction of clustering. That will be of particular benefit to schools in rural areas. The concept of clustering will also assist denominational schools—for example, a Catholic secondary school will be able to apply for grant-maintained status with its feeder primary schools.

I think it appropriate to quote from a letter that I received from the Catholic Education Service, dated 22 January. In that letter, the deputy director told me: In Sheffield, where I learn this morning that three of our primary schools are about to embark upon the GM route, there is no doubt that the authority has consistently sold Catholic schools short when comparisons are made with the LEA funding with county schools of similar size. I am told that examples of the same can also be found in Derbyshire. Similar observation has been made in Staffordshire and Liverpool and, I regret, could be demonstrated elsewhere. Such disparities in provision, long suspected, became apparent with delegated budget provision. I am not especially surprised that some LEAs have consistently sold Catholic schools short. That may or may not have been deliberate policy, but, whatever the reason, it will be put right when such schools receive grant-maintained status. They will then receive their fair share of resources, with greater freedom added for good measure.

Mr. Enright

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pawsey

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman for a second time.

Mr. Enright

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, especially as he has spoken for a second time. Could he explain why the Archbishop's spokesman, Bishop David Konstant, is opposed to grant-maintained schools and advises Catholic schools not to go down that route? For the hon. Gentleman's information, I have taught in Catholic schools under both Conservative and Labour authorities, both of which have always given excellent back-up to Catholic schools. I pay tribute to them for that.

Mr. Pawsey

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because he did not challenge the extracts that I quoted from the letter from the Catholic Education Service; clearly, he rightly accepts them as correct. On the question of Bishop Konstant, it may be that his opinion has more to do with his political beliefs than with anything else. I merely put that point to the hon. Gentleman for good measure. I certainly hope that more Catholic schools take the plunge and are reborn or rebaptised as grant-maintained schools.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, Labour Members have ridiculed grant-maintained status and have tried to reduce the significance of the numbers. I ask them again today, as I asked them in Committee: if grant-maintained status is as unsuccessful as they claim, why do they make such a fuss about it? The fact is that grant-maintained status is a substantial benefit.

I want to discuss my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's admirable initiative in tackling failing schools. Education associations will take over where LEAs leave off. It is not always easy for an LEA to get to grips with a failing inner-city school, where the headmaster may be old or tired or nearing retirement. My right hon. Friend's solution will be of substantial benefit, so I hope that the amendment will receive the support of Labour Members.

Education associations will be a longstop, rarely called into existence and then only when an LEA has failed, despite being given the appropriate time and opportunity to take remedial action. Membership of the education associations will be small and committed, and I believe that their attitude will be positive and substantial. They will be of great importance to a considerable number of children who otherwise might be let down by a particular school.

The Bill continues the thrust of the Government's reforms. It picks up where the Education Reform Act 1988 left off. It builds on the independent schools inspectorate, and it confirms the national curriculum and testing. The aim of the Government's reforms is ambitious: it is no less than a genuine attempt to improve the quality and standard of state education where the majority of the nation's children are educated. I believe that to be a truly laudable objective.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) spoke about the damage that the plans and policies of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) might do to children. If only he would, to use his own words, take soundings throughout the country, he would find that many people, including governors, parents and teachers, would tell him that the Government's current policies are already causing a great deal of damage to the education service.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about sacrificing the education service for political ideology. The ideology that he and his party support has already led to strife rather than consensus in the education service. The ideology that the hon. Gentleman, his party and his Government support has led to competition throughout the service, rather than the partnership that was such an important element of the 1944 Education Act, about which Conservative Members boasted so proudly only a few moments ago. They have had 14 years in office and have brought in 17 major education Bills, yet they still fail to get it right.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to tell us whether he truly believes that, if all schools opted out, 23,000 quasi-independent schools would add up to what he and I both understand to be an education service.

Mr. Pawsey

I am delighted to respond to the hon. Gentleman's question. The difference between us is not that I would drive 23,000 schools into one form of education or another—very simply, I want to give them the choice. Freedom to choose is what it is all about. It is what parents want and it is what they will get from the Government. It would be helpful to know what the hon. Gentleman's party would do with grant-maintained schools. Are you going to go down the same route—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has forgotten the rule that all remarks must be addressed to the Chair. I do not think that he intended to put that question to me.

Mr. Pawsey

Certainly not. I am obliged to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I intended to direct my remarks entirely to the hon. Gentleman who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Incidentally, it is significant that he is alone, enjoying no support from other members of his party. Perhaps that is a clue to what they think about their party's policies. Nevertheless, let me hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say about grant-maintained schools and whether his party would keep them or abolish them.

Mr. Foster

My Liberal Democrat colleagues have full confidence in all the remarks that I am likely to make. Hon. Members will, of course, note that there is a greater proportion of Liberal Democrats present than of Conservatives.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth did not answer the question. Will 23,000 quasi-independent schools provide an adequate education service? The crucial issue is surely whether we believe that schools can take all the decisions affecting the education service or whether some issues should be decided by a body at a higher level than individual schools. The Liberal Democrats believe that we should continue to move towards giving more power and autonomy to individual schools but that schools should still be contained within a local and democratically accountable strategic planning framework. The proposals by the hon. Gentleman and his party would lose that framework to the detriment of education as a whole.

I do not dissent from the amendments, but it is nevertheless important to reflect on the fact that the Under-Secretary of State said that it was the hon. Member for Hemsworth Mr. Enright) who had put his finger on a particular problem which it was "essential to correct". The Government's failure to recognise the problems identified by the hon. Gentleman shows all too clearly the haste with which the legislation was cobbled together. The need for amendment after amendment to be tabled in the House and in another place shows that the Government have introduced legislation that has not been thought through properly.

It is important to remember how many amendments the Government have had to table. From the figures that I have been given, I understand that the Government had to table 278 amendments in Committee, 78 on Report, a further 258 in another place, 296 on Report in another place and a further 71 on Third Reading in another place. Today, the Government have tabled still more amendments. That works out at an average of three amendments per clause on a Bill that is already one of the longest ever to come before the House. It is clearly proof of the incompetence with which the legislation was put together.

On our debate on the timetable motion, we heard about not only the incompetence with which the Bill was put together but the incompetent way in which it has proceeded through both Houses. It is therefore no wonder that a report in The Guardian last week stated: What is—or certainly should be—quite indisputable is that the process which has carried this bill thus far has been a disgrace to Parliament. I entirely concur with that sentiment.

The clause and the amendments draw the attention of the House to the Secretary of State's increasing powers. Many members of the Opposition parties are extemely worried about those powers. The Secretary of State received 500 additional powers under the Education Reform Act 1988. The Secretary of State now has powers to open and close schools; powers over what should be taught in those schools and over the information that should be published about them; powers in respect of their funding and admission arrangements; and, indeed, powers over whether specialisation—often a euphemism for selection—can be introduced into those schools.

Those powers are greater than those given to a comparable Minister in any other European country and mean that the Secretary of State for Education has more powers than any Minister with the exception of the Prime Minister. The Secretary of State's powers are being used to diminish the co-operation and partnership between local education authorities, governors, individual schools and teachers, which were developed as part of the Education Act 1944. The Secretary of State's increasing powers prove that the Government care more for their dogma than for the well-being of children.

5.45 pm

The amendments draw to our attention the way in which education is increasingly being run by quangos. Recent figures have revealed that about one fifth of all public expenditure is now controlled by quangos. In recent years, the Further Education Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council have been created, and the Bill will create new funding authorities for grant-maintained schools. It must be a matter of great concern to many hon. Members that the quangos have as members people who are not democratically elected but appointed by the Secretary of State. They can hold meetings in private at which they can take decisions for which there is no democratic accountability. More important, the quangos have no base in the local communities. The clause and the amendments signal the break-up of the co-operation and partnership created under the 1944 Act.

The Under-Secretary said that he believed that many of us would come to welcome the Bill in retrospect. I must tell him that he is sadly mistaken, because, as I have said many times—this will cause a look of great pain to appear on the Under-Secretary's face—I truly believe that the Bill will bring chaos and division to our education service. I knew that he was wondering when that phrase would occur. Equally important, the Bill fails to deal with many of the important issues facing our education service, not least the underfunding of our schools and the crucial need to increase the availability of nursery education.

The Bill, as reflected in the increased powers given to the Secretary of State, not only will be a short-term disappointment to us all but will certainly be a long-term disaster for the education service. H. G. Wells said: Human activity becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe". But, if the Bill is passed, education and catastrophe will be running neck and neck.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) referred to the extension of the Government's powers. That extension is undeniable, but it has become necessary because the co-operation and partnership of which he spoke so warmly sadly turned out to be a co-operation for mediocrity and a partnership in low expectations. That was the record of education during all the decades when the localities were in charge and when the centre—Governments of both parties—had very few powers. I believe that it has therefore become a regrettable necessity for the Government to take greater powers. That is obviously reflected—

Mr. Don Foster

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walden

No. I may give way later, but we are approaching the time limit on this debate.

Clause 1 refers to the Secretary of State exercising his powers with a view, among other things, to improving standards, encouraging diversity and increasing opportunities for choice. In the short time left to me, I want to address my remarks specifically to the problem of girls and women in education and how clause 1 affects them.

I happen to be a feminist—of the most high-minded sort. One of the things that has seriously disturbed me in this country, in contrast to the achievements of other countries, is the appalling under-achievement and under-expectation of girls and women at every level of the education system. That is why I share the view of Opposition Members, and of some Conservative Members, that nursery education, which does not feature in the Bill and which is not mentioned specifically in clause 1, is a primary necessity, not just because of its general and social advantages, but specifically to make an early start to improve the expectations of girls from the age of two and a half upwards. I have seen that happen in other countries, most notably in France in the maternelles, which a daughter of mine attended.

From the age of two and half, girls are treated intellectually—if one can use such a big word—and practically on the same level as boys. We all know that old-fashioned traditionalist practices pertain when girls are left in the home. In those early years, perhaps less is required of a little girl who is sent away with her dolls and such like and perhaps more is required of a boy. Removing a girl from that kind of background, particularly in traditionalist British society, is a positive good, quite apart from the other general arguments for nursery education. That is the first stage where we go wrong in this country and where girls begin to lose.

I am in favour of the provisions for grant-maintained schools because they will enhance quality and expectations for all, and particularly for girls. Those who de facto have been in control of our education system for decades—not the Government, but the education establishment and local authorities—have failed to raise expectations for all and specifically for girls.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

I am indebted to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he acknowledge that the majority of chief education officers in this country are men? In so far as the Bill promotes GM schools, those schools will be controlled by parents and governors. Many parents and governors will be women. Indeed, at least half the parents will be women. Therefore, women will be able to take an active role in promoting the cause of education and equality for women in schools.

Mr. Walden

My hon. Friend has made a good point, which supports the flow of my argument and which is yet another reason for being in favour of such schools.

The national curriculum will help because girls, who traditionally tended to drop science or mathematics and were not encouraged to develop their talents in that area, will no longer he able to drop those subjects. I believe that we will gain benefits economically and as a society from that.

However, if, despite our efforts, the intrinsic drive towards mediocrity which is so culturally deep seated in the education establishment of this country persists, we will have a system in which schools will fail girls relatively. That failure will continue. Indeed, I believe that we are seeing that already in higher education.

With regard to higher education, there is still a huge disproportion in the number of girls studying what are broadly categorised as arts subjects—or "soft" subjects as they are sometimes called—as opposed to the harder subjects like physics. If the education system does not succeed in increasing diversity, to which clause 1 refers, particularly for women, an horrific prospect will loom before us.

In respect of the historically vast and sudden expansion of higher education and the enormous and overdue expansion of the proportion of women in higher education—I believe that women now comprise about 50 per cent. of those in higher education—there is a general danger of standards being lowered if schools do not prepare pupils to maintain those standards. We run the risk of producing from our higher education establishments an enormous number of women graduates who will have been sold a pup.

The standards required in those establishments, particularly in the arts subjects, are falling. Indeed, the slippage can already be noted with regard to A-levels. Some English papers are very slipshod. One can get by with just a few 20th-century authors and possibly one Shakespeare work. One need know nothing more about the history of English literature.

Mr. Enright

Where is the evidence for that?

Mr. Walden

In such circumstances, women will be very bitter, because they will emerge from higher education with a rather mediocre degree—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) has made a most pathetic and unthinking intervention which, in a way, I rather expected from him. He said that what I am saying is sexist. What I am saying is pro-feminist. I am glad to see Members on the Opposition Front Bench nodding.

Mr. Enright

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walden

No. I will not give way until I have finished.

I do not want to see the women of this country sold a pup in terms of higher education. I want them to have the highest possible standards and the highest possible expectations based on what is expected in schools so that they do not go through higher education, posssibly from a poor background and possibly the first generation in the family to do that, emerge with a crummy degree and end up behind a typewriter or word processor. That would be a bitter disappointment for them and an extremely expensive way of producing people to work on word processors.

Right from the word go, from the age of two and a half, we must change the culture of expectations, and of girls in particular, so that we do not sell them a pup progressively through the education system to the higher levels.

Mr. Forth

With the leave of the House, I would like to reply to this brief debate as quickly as I can. I am tempted to take up the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) although perhaps I will have a word with him afterwards.

With regard to the key point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), it was never the Government's or the Secretary of State's intention to take the opportunity provided by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) somehow to extend the Secretary of State's powers in some mystical way over higher education. Like the hon. Member for Perry Barr, I well recall the strength and violence of the debate in another place on this issue where those most directly concerned with higher education took the opportunity to re-emphasise their independence.

I hope that the hon. Member for Perry Barr will accept that, while clause 1 states, as it should, the general responsibility on the Secretary of State for Education to promote education in its widest sense, clause 2 makes it explicit that that general responsibility will be expressed in the use of the powers of the Secretary of State solely in schools and in further education. That was our response to the concerns that were expressed in another place, in an effort to make that distinction as clear as possible.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr made a good point about how the distinction would be carried through on the ground to the higher and further education sectors. The further and higher education funding councils are developing an understanding of the different roles of their sectors. They are beginning to identify, in that overlapping partnership, ways in which different institutions can make their best contribution. The developing role of the Secretary of State, which is outlined in clause 2, will sit well with that, led and guided by the role of the funding councils in order to make sure that we make the best possible use of that partnership which hon. Members welcome in the developing role of further education, working ever more closely with higher education.

Clauses 1 and 2 are not threatening; they are a positive development. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend for the role that he played in this—

It being Six o'clock, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order this day, put the Question already proposed from the Chair, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment agreed to.

MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour.

Lords amendments Nos 2 to 6 agreed to.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek clarification on the issue of sub judice. It arises from current litigation in the High Court this morning—the Queen v. the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, ex parte the right hon. Lord Rees-Mogg. One is concerned with the view that the Government are taking of the issue of sub judice. It is reported that a Government spokesman has said: The Government did not oppose the application. We will of course oppose the substance. Now that leave has been granted, the matter is sub judice. If that view were to prevail, and were it to be interpreted in the broad sense, it could inhibit the whole discussion in this honourable House on a matter of great public controversy. If it were a narrow interpretation of the minutiae of the litigation, our concern would be less. But if any litigant can go along to the High Court and seek for judicial review, which of course is a comparatively recent innovation, on a matter which is a current major political controversy, it would mean that this High Court of Parliament would be muzzled.

Therefore, I ask that the Government immediately, in the person of the Attorney-General, clarify the matter and say whether it is the correct view that the Government regard the matter as sub judice.

The whole House will be interested, whatever view is taken by No. 10 Downing street and its spokesmen of sub judice, to know what view would be taken by the Chair on the general position which might inhibit the whole discussion on Thursday and indeed possibly—I hope not—call it in question?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

The House will be aware that the House has its own clear rules on the question of matters sub judice. This matter must be considered by Madam Speaker. It is not for me to prejudge the issue. I will of course ensure, if she does not know already, that Madam Speaker is made aware of this exchange. I do not think that the matter can be taken further at this moment.

Mr. Morris

I am most grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is not my intention, I can assure you, to continue with the matter at this very moment. It has only recently been brought to our attention, and I am grateful for the indication that you have given. But two matters arise. I would hope to clear the air, lest some unfortunate and wrong conception be given to the world at large that a view is given in the course of the evening before we adjourn tonight. The Government should seek an opportunity to make a statement. I hope that Madam Speaker will also clarify what the Chair's view would be in the somewhat strange, novel and uncharted ground tonight.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I have no doubt that the Treasury Front Bench will have heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman's words. No doubt Madam Speaker will shortly be aware of them, too. I cannot take the matter further now. I am also very conscious that we are working to a guillotine and that other important business is before us.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I am not prepared to take a further point of order on this matter.

Mr. Marlow

It is a different point or order.

Madam Deputy Speaker

If it is different.

Mr. Marlow

It is a different point of order. Briefly, we are scheduled to have a debate on Thursday. That debate arises from clause 7 of what will be an Act of Parliament only if it receives Royal Assent. At the moment, that Bill is subject to legal doubts. Is it proper for a Bill which is subject to legal doubts to be put before Her Majesty for Royal Assent?

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for me in the Chair at this moment. We must now consider the next group of amendments.

Back to
Forward to