HC Deb 19 July 1993 vol 229 cc79-94

Lords amendment: No. 25, in page 9, line 11, leave out ("new").

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, we may consider also Lords amendments Nos. 39, plus the Opposition motion to disagree, and Nos. 40 to 42, 45, 166, 371, 409, 422 to 425, 541 and 547.

Mr. Squire

I noted that in an earlier debate my fellow Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), felt that he must apologise for joining the proceedings of the Education Bill halfway through. If he felt that he needed to apologise for turning up at the eleven-and-a-halfth-hour, I must make more apologies— but I do so with enthusiasm.

I shall be brief, because I suspect that several hon. Members may wish to speak. The Government believe that the other place was right to remove the threshold of the 10 per cent. trigger point so that promoters could present their own proposals to set up a new grant-maintained school anywhere in the country. That will promote choice and diversity for parents and pupils—one of the key elements of our educational reform.

The other place decided, and we agree, that the Bill as originally drafted was unfair on those who wish to propose the establishment of new grant-maintained schools in areas where there is currently few or indeed no grant-maintained schools. I hope that hon. Members will not support the Opposition's motion to disagree, to which we obviously look forward. We cannot agree with the view that some promoters should be prevented from putting forward their own proposals simply because they happen to be in areas where it is unlikely that there would be any GM schools in the foreseeable future.

My right hon. Friend will look closely at all applications for new GM schools, and in doing so will continue to apply broadly similar criteria to those that apply when promoters wish to establish a new voluntary school. In line with our policy of tackling the problem of surplus places, my right hon. Friend will look carefully at the need for additional school places in the area, as well as denominational need where appropriate. Promoters will have to demonstrate that there will be a projected shortage of places in the LEA and GM sectors in the near future.

We shall consider whether a school is able to provide the national curriculum and offer equal opportunities to girls and boys. We will need to see that the premises are suitable, and will note whether the funding authority supports the proposals.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the Minister confirm that amendment 397, on which we have just agreed, in effect gives power to the funding agency to obtain compulsory purchase orders to provide land for private promoters of schools? Has he thought of all the ramifications that that could have?

Mr. Squire

With the leave of the House, I will willingly come back to the specific question of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that there is a significant difference between the role of the promoters and that of the funding agency. The amendment refers to the promoters and not to the funding agency.

I was about to say that amendments Nos. 25, 42, 166, 371, 422, 423, 425, 541 and 547 are all technical, to ensure that promoters are able to propose the establishment of new GM schools, including establishing a new GM school in place of existing independent schools. I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

I wish to carry on where the Minister left off in his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson). I hope that he will take my hon. Friend's remarks seriously, because he raised an important point in this context. My hon. Friend referred to schedule 1, which says: The Secretary of State may authorise a funding authority to compulsorily purchase any land required for the purpose of implementing any proposals under section 45 or 92 of the Act which are required to be implemented. Of course, there is a further amendment which extends that power of compulsory purchase to the promoter, to which my hon. Friend referred.

I hope that the Minister understands that one of the promoters, who proposed the group of amendments that we are discussing, expressed the view that failing independent schools—those that cannot make a living in the independent sector—should be allowed to opt into opting out. Those independent schools would be able to ask the Secretary of State for power, in effect, compulsorily to purchase land owned by the local authority. That has serious consequences.

Without casting any aspersions on the Minister's knowledge of the Bill, let me say that he clearly did not know that that was the case. A major power is being given to independent schools. The Minister should seek some guidance from his officials at this stage, because it is ridiculous to propose something with such far-reaching consequences.

For example, an independent school could propose, through the Secretary of State, that it take over a cricket field from the local authority. It could decide that that cricket field was surplus to requirements and then begin to develop part of it for housing developments or whatever, and gain the advantage of those capital receipts. That would be an abuse of the system, but one entirely consistent with the reading that we are able to make of the Bill, as it stands amended at that late stage in the Lords. The Minister ought to respond to the House.

We were told when the Bill was introduced that it was about giving schools back to parents to ensure that parents had control of schools. When the Bill completed Second Reading, Committee and Report, we were assured that the funding agency would begin to have any role only once the 10 per cent. threshold had been reached by those schools that had chosen to opt out of local authority control. The Minister justified that by saying that it was right and proper that parents vote for that change and, in the end, that should bring into being the funding agency.

The Minister has told us tonight, however, that any ideas that the funding agency should come into being because of parental demand have gone out of the window. The Minister said that it would be unfair on promoters, if they were not allowed to develop schools in areas where "it is unlikely there will be grant-maintained schools in the foreseeable future." In those areas where parents do not want those schools and where parents may vote consistently against such schools, the Minister is saying that he will defer to any little clique in that area with no involvement and no direct interest—it may not even be in that area—who may say that they do not care what the parents think, that they do not care about the local views of the merits or demerits of opt-out schools.

An amendment tabled by Lord Skidelsky led to the tabling of the group that we are now considering. He made his position clear on a number of issues: for instance, in discussing the type of school that should be allowed to come under the aegis of the Bill, he made it clear that what he was considering bore no relation to Ministers' earlier assurances in the House of Commons. He said: First, we have in mind existing independent schools which wish to obtain state funding. It is plain that, in its present form, the Bill allows independent schools to do just that. Many independent schools are dependent on the assisted places scheme, but their financial margins are diminishing. Such schools— which may now be feeling the cold winds of recession as fee-paying pupils become harder to attract—will be thrown a lifeline by the Bill, and by the ideological persuasions of Lord Skidelsky and Conservative Members of the House of Commons. It is outrageous that we should bail out such schools.

Lord Skidelsky went on: The second type of school that I have in mind is one that does not exist at the moment but one which could be started and would be started to take advantage of a market opportunity if funding were available. That is clear language. The noble Lord referred not to the educational needs of young people, or to the need for skills, training and all the other things that most of us used to think schools were for, but to "a market opportunity".

He continued: What kind of promoters are likely to be attracted to setting up new schools? Some will be religious bodies, some … will he groups of parents, while others will be entrepreneurs either as individuals or organised into companies". That does not even leave us the concept associated with the city technology colleges—the concept of sponsorship by great commercial names such as Dixons, which saw this as simply a marketing opportunity. It is now envisaged that entrepreneurs will move into education. Does that mean that the Government now intend grant-maintained schools to become part of the profit-making enterprise and business system? That, after all, was Lord Skidelsky's instruction to them.

Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley)

Did not Lord Skidelsky also contradict the Government's policy on surplus places? He said that, in the spirit of entrepreneurism, he would provide the places that parents wanted. That would run contrary to any notion of rationalising surplus places throughout local education authority areas. In accepting Lord Skidelsky's amendment and advancing a proposal along similar lines, have not the Government adopted a policy that conflicts with their established policy on ridding the system of surplus places?

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend is right; moreover, she has anticipated what I was about to say. I hope that the Minister is paying attention, because this is an important point.

Lord Skidelsky's vision of a brave new world of education featured more than entrepreneurs and failed independent schools drifting into the opted-out sector. He said that, as things stood, There will not be any new grant-maintained schools established, or at best just a token few. There are two main reasons for this. The first was given by the Secretary of State in another place when he said that he would consider applications for new schools to enter the state sector only if there were no surplus places in the area concerned. This is an old departmental orthodoxy. Applications to supply new places will he entertained only if there is a so-called basic need. Lord Skidelsky said: an overall surplus of places is quite consistent with the existence in parts of the country of shortages of schools which parents want their children to attend. He added, however, that the Government must place emphasis on "demand, not supply". The amendments that he tabled—proposals replicated in the Bill as it now stands —were designed to achieve that end.

We know that the 10 per cent. rule has now been abolished. We know that Lord Skidelsky and others who —like the Minister of State, Baroness Blatch—were sympathetic to the market-oriented view were happy to accept the argument that promoters should be allowed to come in at any stage. The House of Lords was happy—as are the Government tonight—to accept that independent schools should be able to come in. Will the Minister now tell us where in the Bill is a guarantee that, in areas where grant-maintained schools are unlikely to be established otherwise, such schools can be created only if there are no surplus places? As far as I know, no such guarantee exists in writing.

7.15 pm

The Minister may say that the Secretary of State has given such a commitment. The Secretary of State gave a commitment that no promoter would be allowed to introduce a new grant-maintained school below the 10 per cent. threshold; that promise has gone out of the window, as have so many of the promises incorporated in the Bill in Committee and on Report. The Secretary of State's word is worth almost nothing.

Ms Estelle Morris

Less than 10 per cent.

Mr. Lloyd

Indeed—especially in the light of the pressure imposed on the Secretary of State by the House of Lords and the DFE, whose voices, ultimately, are louder than that of the Secretary of State. Normally, he gives way to such pressure.

The Minister must convince us that we have any reason to believe that the Secretary of State is big enough to stand up to those who favour market forces. In the speech that I quoted earlier, Lord Skidelsky said: there are the awesome requirements relating to school premises. At present there are independent schools occupying premises which would be called unsatisfactory but which nevertheless achieve very good education for their children. Others may comply fully with fire, safety and health regulations but fail to meet the required square meterage per pupil, or some other provision of the 1991 school premises regulations."—[Official Report, House of Lords: 22 April 1993, Vol 544, c. 1812–14.] I assume that Lord Skidelsky meant that schools now occupying premises that would he deemed unsatisfactory were precisely the schools that did not comply fully with the fire, safety and health regulations. The Government's new approach to accommodation standards suggests that people such as Lord Skidelsky are right. That is why the Secretary of State is now consulting on a number of aspects of accommodation. Those are what Lord Skidelsky has described as the "hassle costs" of entering education and those are the ideas of a Government who talk of an entrepreneurial view of education and the marketing need of those who wish to enter the system.

The amendments are simply an extension of the confusion already written into the Bill. We know that they are designed to bail out the failing independent schools; we know that they are designed to allow unrepresentative people—perhaps even commercial bodies—to become involved in education. The Minister shakes his head, but he has a long way to go if he is to identify provisions in the Bill that will prevent that.

We know that, basically, the Government are in the business of bowing to those who want market forces to dictate the position and we know that the Minister can give us no guarantees that surplus places will ultimately prevent the existence of grant-maintained schools: he and his colleagues are intent upon producing a grant-maintained revolution. There will be planning confusion between local authorities and the funding agency at a much earlier stage, because the funding agency need not consult a local authority when a promoter puts forward a school below the 10 per cent. barrier.

Nothing in the Bill forces either promoter or funding agency to consult local authorities properly. The confusion in the planning mechanisms on which we insisted in the Bill's early stages—a confusion that Ministers said could not happen—is not being removed, but actively extended. Amendment No. 371 concerns the position where an independent school can no longer make its living in that sector, and comes running for aid from an ideologically sympathetic Government, who will prop up failure in the independent sector at the taxpayer's expense.

The Government have made it clear that, uniquely, when people who are employed by independent schools transfer to schools in the grant-maintained sector—the opted-out schools—the transfer of undertaking provisions will come into force and offer protection to those teachers and other staff. I asked in Committee on a number of occasions why that protection could not be given to teachers in local authority schools who found themselves transferred to grant-maintained schools. We were told at that time that that could not be done and that it was not necessary. Why do we have such an odd contrasting approach? Why will those in the independent sector be given protection and those in the local authority sector denied it?

The Minister will understand why we believe that, in many respects, this is an ideological Bill. Fundamentally, the Bill is not about extending choice to parents. The Under-Secretary of State for Schools has already said that, where parents reject the option of grant-maintained schools, he will allow promoters to put forward plans for those schools. The Under-Secretary of State for Education looks puzzled about that. Perhaps he was not here when his colleague said that it would be unfair to deny promoters an opportunity to establish grant-maintained schools in areas where their establishment was otherwise unlikely.

Parents do not want grant-maintained schools, but the Government say that we have to have them. This is an ideological Bill, and the amendments are ideologically inspired. The Minister and his colleagues have caved in to the lunatic Tory right in the House of Lords; they have given in to those who think that education is like a tin of baked beans, a commodity to be bought and sold. That is not the case.

Many Conservative Members must be squirming in their seats. They know that the Government, following pressure from the right wing in the House of Lords, have now ratted on the promises they made when the Bill was going through its initial stages. The Minister should be ashamed of himself.

Ms Estelle Morris

I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd).

There was a lot of argument in Committee about whether the funding agency should be responsible for providing schools in an area. We spent many sittings deciding whether the entry point at which the agency should share provision of providing places should be 10 per cent., or more or less. There was general agreement that 10 per cent. was an arbitrary figure.

A study of the Hansard report of the Committee stage, however, reveals that the Government always said that 10 per cent. did at least reflect parental wishes within an area. When the point was reached at which 10 per cent. of parents in an area had children in grant-maintained schools, it was stated that the funding authority had the right to provide education in that area. The amendment lessens that democratic accountability, little as it was.

The funding agency will now operate within an area where less than 10 per cent. of parents have expressed a wish for a school to opt for grant-maintained status. We may see a situation where zero per cent. of parents in an area have expressed a wish for their children to be educated in a grant-maintained school, yet they will find that the funding agency still intervenes.

How can the Government equate that scenario with their expressed desire to make parental wishes count in their plans for education in the next decade? That exposes the Government's claim that they are there to reflect parental wishes as the myth that we have always supposed it to be.

It is worrying that the schools set up by promoters in an area will then contribute to an educational provision locally—they will be responsible for 10 per cent. or up to 75 per cent. of pupils—and contribute to the funding agency. They may share the responsibility for securing places in schools or take over that responsibility altogether.

The democratic deficit inherent in the Bill will be worsened, because it now seeks to get the funding agency operating in an area by the back door. One of the most disappointing things for those of us involved in education, in observing the way that the Government have acted over the past few years, is that they have moved from their stated aim of trying to reflect parental wishes and letting people exercise choice about who should run their schools. After a series of decisions, the Government now openly say, "We have every intention, through any means in our power, of making sure that the LEAs have less power, and that the funding agency and central Government become the organisations with responsibility for securing educational provision in an area."

First the Government weighted funding towards grant-maintained schools—to encourage schools to become grant-maintained—and then the full force of Government propaganda was exercised at parents to encourage them to vote that their school should be grant maintained. Those two actions failed to secure the desired numbers of grant-maintained schools in given areas, so the Government now intend to start grant-maintained schools within an area whether or not parents have expressed a wish for such schools or for the funding agency to operate.

Gone are the heady days when the Bill was about parental choice and reflecting local wishes. The amendment represents the end of a long line of Government changes, because—as we always suspected —the Government have every intention, by whatever means, of removing an LEA's ability to provide schools in an area. The intention is to transfer that task to the hands of an undemocratic, unelected, funding agency and central Government.

New schools can now be established in an area where the responsibility for dealing with surplus places and making sure that education is provided for children, still rests with the LEA, yet the provider of that new school will not have a responsibility to consult with the LEA before deciding to set it up. The LEA will have the legal responsibility for getting rid of surplus places and the statutory responsibility for providing places for children in an area. An individual may come along, however, and set up a grant-maintained school without having any statutory responsibility to consult the LEA about whether that is desirable or whether surplus places need to be taken into account. That represents another means of removing from the LEAs a job that they have done successfully for many years.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford said, Lord Skidelsky made it clear in his comments in the House of Lords that his amendment was concerned with making it possible for existing independent schools to obtain state funding should they wish to do so. He argued against surplus places. He brought into the open the right-wing argument that education is about the marketplace; it is all about schools filling places; if they cannot fill those places, they go to the wall.

It will be seen from the debacle this summer about the marketplace, testing and league tables, that that is not the way forward for our schools, and will not drive standards up. That is not what parents, teachers and communities want. The Government should learn a lesson from that. They should accept our amendment tonight, and not the arguments of their right-wing friends in the other place. They should say that what they want is a rationalisation of surplus places; that they want the LEAs to fulfil properly their role in providing sufficient places in their given areas. They should make it clear that they do not want to pursue marketplace economics and marketplace education, but that they will provide the suitable education for our children in the future.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

In Committee, I suggested that the threshold should be done away with, so I welcome the fact that the House of Lords has seen fit to do that. The Government were wrong originally in saying that the variety that can be provided by people who want to set up grant-maintained schools can be achieved only if there is a general expression of interest in grant-maintained schools in an area, thereby denying it to others. That may have been administratively convenient, but it is not a logical way to extend choice and diversity, which is what the Bill is all about. Baroness Blatch and her fellow peers have done a service for choice and diversity in education. I hope that that will be the outcome.

7.30 pm

I was under the impression that, whether we call the process right-wing market forces or not, good education mainly comes about if children are taught in the schools that parents think appropriate for their children. I should like to see, as a result of the Bill, specialisation in individual schools and different types of schools, whether they are in the grant-maintained sector or local authority. I happen to know that quite a few schools, which I regard as extremely rigorous in terms of the kind of education that they provide, would like to move into the grant-maintained sector but would have been barred by that previous 10 per cent. rule.

That is true of some Church schools. It seems illogical that in some parts of the country there are empty spaces in church schools yet there is a huge demand outside the area for such schools. If schools, whether denominational or specialist, are unable, throught the lifting of the threshold, to set up as grant-maintained schools, the parents should have the opportunity to find a place for their children at the school of their choice and, as a result, get the standards of education that they desire.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

It is worrying that the hon. Gentleman does not understand the Bill. Nothing about the lifting of the 10 per cent. rule will allow a school to apply for opted-out status which the unamended Bill would have prevented. For individual schools, the mechanism is the ballot. The 10 per cent. refers to something different. The hon. Gentleman should look at what the Bill says, because he is not supporting the Government on this. Any school can apply to opt out as long as the parents vote on that. the 10 per cent. rule is not involved.

Mr. Coombs

I appreciate that, but it is precisely those parts of the country where 10 per cent. of schools under the previous provision had not opted for grant-maintained status that would be debarred from setting up a grant-maintained school. That was an artificial restriction that has now been removed by the House of Lords.

I would not like to see the amendment as a means of moving into the public sector those independent schools that are not able to attract sufficient parents in order to be successful. That would be wrong, and I am sure that the Government do not intend it to be such. I see the amendment as a means of allowing schools that are successful, but are not able, for financial or other reasons, to move into an area where there would be a demand for their places, and I can think of examples in my constituency. That would extend choice and diversity, and would therefore be good for standards of education.

I caution my hon. Friend on one of the points made earlier by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) about the powers provided for compulsory purchase by the funding agency. Like him, I would not like to see that as a licence for property development for new grant-maintained schools. I should like to hear the Minister say that he will insist that if compulsory purchase were allowed—to which I have an ideological aversion —by the funding agency for the new grant-maintained schools, it would be accompanied by conditions that would not allow that abuse to take place in future.

Mr. Jamieson

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) tell the House that he is not in favour of the 10 per cent. threshold. He will correct me if I am wrong, but I recall him voting for it in Committee and again in the House later on. I am glad that, although we may disagree on that, we agree on the compulsory purchase of land, particularly in the case on which I will dwell in a moment.

The amendments are about the failed policy for going grant-maintained. The Government have realised that their policy has failed and have brought in measures during the passage of the Bill to try to prop it up and encourage more schools to become grant-maintained. I recall that Baroness Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, promised that, by April 1992, half the schools in this country would be grant-maintained. We have somewhere near 1,000 schools, which is a long way short of the promised 12,000. That was one of the many broken Government promises about which I am rather pleased.

The policy has failed despite all the bribes that have been given to grant-maintained schools and all the cajoling that has gone on in Tory local authorities—in the days when we had Tory local education authorities. Pressure has been applied in various ways to grant-maintained schools. For example, we have heard the Minister tell us this evening that he is in favour of extra funding going to those schools. In answer to a question, he said that he thought that that was wise.

Amendment No. 39 would bring into the Bill more incremental change to allow grant-maintained schools to come about more easily—in this instance, of course, without any recourse even to parental ballots. We had already abandoned the idea of LEAs or people through their local councillors having a say. Now we are moving down the road of not even having recourse to a ballot of parents with children in those local schools. That will be a recipe for total education anarchy in certain areas. If I may resurrect an expression that both Ministers may have forgotten—one was not with us for part of the Committee proceedings and the other was not there at all—it will create chaos and confusion.

Lady Olga Maitland

I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments about schools entering a state of chaos and anarchy. Can the hon. Gentleman name a single school that has gone grant-maintained and that has any regrets whatever? As far as I can see it, schools are leaping on board and parents cannot be held back.

Mr. Jamieson

The hon. Lady will remember that in Committee I gave one good example of a school in Dorset that wished that it had not gone grant-maintained. It was one of the first schools to opt out. A parent rang me and asked whether there was any way of going back. There are certainly such schools. If she will allow me to develop the point, she will see that the clause gives promoters of schools the power, through the funding agency and even, through compulsory purchase, to set up their own schools.

I hope that the Minister will take note of that point and in summing up perhaps even mention it. When schools are set up by promoters and have their land compulsorily purchased for them, will he be asking whether they are over-subscribed already in that area and whether there are empty school places? Will it be another recipe for the waste of taxpayers' money?

Mr. Robin Squire

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in full flow, as I know that it is an impressive sight, but I made that point clear in my opening remarks.

Mr. Jamieson

I am glad that the Minister is impressed by what I am saying. I hope that I shall be equally impressed by what he says when he winds up.

Entrepreneurs—they may be, as my hon. Friends have said, people who have already failed in independent or private schools—will be able to go to the funding agency before even the 10 per cent. point is reached and have land purchased on their behalf so they can set up their own grant-maintained schools.

Will the funding agency necessarily have any local knowledge of what is needed in the area? We know that it is already difficult for some of the larger education authorities, such as county authorities, to keep track of every single need in every area. What will the funding agency do for my part of the country, Cornwall, where there are no opted-out schools, or for Devon, where only I per cent. of schools have opted out? What will the funding gency—tucked away in York—know about people's needs and how it can respond sensitively?

The proposal's worst flaw is that it puts into the hands of private entrepreneurs—groups with no local accountability—the power to spend taxpayers' money without having to account to local people. All funding for such grant-maintained schools will come from the aggregate school budget and will not be available for other schools. The taxpayer will have to foot the bill for the right-wing prejudice of the people who put those clauses in the Bill.

Mr. Robin Squire

Let me begin by reiterating as strongly as I can that this is not an ideological Bill—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh?"] Unless matters of standards and choice are ideology, and if they are, Opposition Members stand condemned by their own words. The debate on this part of the Bill is about a considerable and growing success story —that of the grant-maintained schools. That is the background, and I fear that the debate is underpinned by Opposition Members' inability to accept GM schools. In some areas they are even working against parents' applications to seek GM status. I think the House knows that.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Is the Minister aware that in my area—the Cambridgeshire local education authority—increasingly large numbers of schools are choosing not to opt out of local authority control? Recently, parents of pupils at Netherhall secondary school in Cambridge voted overwhelmingly to stay within the local education authority. Now that schools have seen through the Government's bribes, especially on funding, it is becoming increasingly transparent that they wish to stay with local authorities.

Mr. Squire

One of the differences between the hon. Lady and myself is that I am relatively relaxed if parents of pupils at a school ultimately vote no when all the facts have been put to them. I think that they are mistaken, but that is their choice. The hon. Lady and her colleagues on the Opposition Benches would deny parents that choice.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Squire

Let me finish the point first.

I have no difficulty in defending a position where that choice should be extended. Even in the short time that I have been a Minister in this Department, I have spoken to between 100 and 200 head teachers of GM schools. If the hon. Lady believes that the primary reason for schools adopting or proposing grant-maintained status is financial, she is severely mistaken. The people behind such applications are motivated by the greater freedom to determine their priorities.

Mr. Lloyd

The Minister has made a clear statement that he believes that the system should be motivated by parental choice. That debate obviously runs through the Bill, but his position is consistent with the line of rhetoric followed by the Secretary of State on Second Reading. The Minister has to accept that the amendment that he wishes the House to agree to does nothing to encourage parental choice. It will mean that, in an area where parents have chosen consistently in every ballot not to have opted-out schools, the Minister and his colleagues will be able to allow a proposer to open a new school which will be opted out, counter to the wishes of any parent whose views have been assessed. How can he justify that?

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Mr. Squire

Rather easily. Indeed, to echo my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), that is the distinction between individual ballots at individual schools, which I willingly concede will sometimes lead to no ballots, and the general position within an education authority area, which the hon. Member seems to overlook.

If the hon. Member and the Labour party had their way, they would deny anyone in any education authority that had not opted for their existing school to be grant-maintained in each of those separate ballots, the right to have a new GM school. That is the difference between us. Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is denying parents the choice that the Government are prepared to extend to them.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Squire

There seems to be a competition. I shall give way to the hon. Lady first.

Ms Estelle Morris

May I take the Minister back to some comments that he made when I tried to intervene a minute ago? He said that he was fairly relaxed about parents who chose not to opt out after a ballot on grant-maintained status and then stressed that the important thing was that they were given access to information about the choice that they were to make in the ballot. Will he therefore tell the House what the Government have done to tell parents about the benefits of staying with the local education authority before grant-maintained ballots?

Mr. Squire

It is my experience that local education authorities are generally not backward in explaining why they wish to retain schools. Even in provisions that we are not discussing in this block of amendments, there is nothing to prevent the LEA from making a reasonable case, as I am sure the authorities would anyway. The hon. Lady may have been referring to the fact that elsewhere the Bill seeks to prevent an unreasonable abuse of public spending by the LEA.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that something of a red herring is coming from Opposition Members, who suggest that parents are applying for schools to opt out purely on financial grounds? Does he agree that parents are really looking for the freedom to manage schools as effectively as possible, to direct the most resources to where they should be targeted, so that there are more teachers per pupil, more books and better standards—in other words, less interference from the town hall tyrants?

Mr. Squire

My hon. Friend has spoken to a number of head teachers and governors of GM schools and her wise words will have been heard by the House—at least by Conservative Members—with total support.

Several hon. Members



Mr. Squire

I see that a queue is still forming. I shall allow interventions subject to time. If Opposition Members doubt that that is the view of schools that have gone grant-maintained, they cannot be visiting those schools.

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn)

Under the terms of the Bill, governing bodies will be forced to discuss holding a ballot on opting out every year until parents decide to vote yes to opt out, when they will not be allowed to hold a ballot ever again to discuss opting back in. Where is the parental choice in that?

Mr. Squire

The hon. Member himself said that the Bill will provide for a choice by governors once every year and that they may exercise that choice in favour or against. I do not think I can improve on the answer that I gave.

Mr. Don Foster

Will the Minister help to clarify what is beginning to be a confusion, in my mind at least? He agreed, as I understood it, with the comments of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who said that a grant-maintained school could have more books, more equipment, and more teachers. Yet, earlier in our debate, the Minister told us that a grant-maintained school gets additional money only for its additional responsibilities. Will the Minister explain that contradiction?

Mr. Squire

For one moment I thought that that question might be asked in innocence, but if the hon. Gentleman was twirling his cloak in front of me, expecting me to charge, he will be disappointed.

There were two separate elements in the hon. Gentleman's question. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) was rightly talking about what I would describe as better husbandry, which is often, although not exclusively, evident in grant-maintained schools. Our policy allows those schools a greater say over their priorities than schools that are still reliant on the LEAs.

Mr. Don Foster

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Squire

Hold on—if the hon. Gentleman asks a question he should give me the chance to finish answering it.

The second point, which referred to earlier comments, was referring specifically to the fact that, as comparing GM to LEA schools, there are of course continuing functions, even under considerably devolved LMS budgets of LEAs, which are carried out by those LEAs and for which, in GM schools, they must be responsible. For those functions, it is right and proper that they should have extra funding; that is the difference between the two.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)

I am provoked by two factors. One is the Minister's reference to better husbandry. Every time he uses words like that—sometimes Conservative Members talk about higher standards in grant-maintained schools—does he not realise how profoundly insulting that is to the vast majority of schools?

Only 1 per cent. of the primary sector has opted out. Some 99 per cent. of primary schools in this country are in the maintained sector. Every time the Government and Conservative Members speak in the way they do, they insult by implication all the parents, head teachers, governors and teachers who are involved in those schools. That attitude will not do. It is time that we heard the Government and Conservative Members celebrate excellent schools, wherever they find them. They should end their silly ideological belief that only one type of structure produces results and another type does not.

When the Minister talks about saving money and greater costings, is he aware that vast quantities of public money have been transferred as a result of opting out? Just this week. I found out that £1 million has been transferred to the Electoral Reform Society. The Government pay money to run ballots which nobody wants, but which the Government insist must take place. When the results do not satisfy the Government, they fix the process to try to hold the ballot again. The Government must understand that that is not acceptable.

Mr. Squire

I am not sure that it would assist debate on the group of amendments if l were to go too far into the subject of the hon. Gentleman's questions. As someone who served for many years in a local authority and who was proud to lead that authority, I take no lessons from anybody about praise for local authority actions and the excellence of many local authority schools.

I should not even need to say that and the hon. Member does not assist his argument by raising the matter. He made his comments in the context of a debate which takes place primarily because Opposition Members refuse to accept any variation from LEA schools. I think that the hon. Gentleman said that nobody wants ballots. If my memory is correct, as of this morning, 954 separate schools have voted yes, so we presume that, in those instances, those ballots were welcome.

I shall repeat the assurances that I gave in my opening comments and which have been repeated in the other place about the guidelines that the Secretary of State will follow in considering applications. It has been made clear that surplus places have a prominent role in the guidelines. Even in the time that I have been a Minister, some applications for grant-maintained status have been declined on the grounds of the existing position on surplus places. We do not need to prove our position.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

The Minister is making an important point about a change of tack by the Department of Education on the issue of creating grant-maintained schools where there are surplus places. We had a serious problem in Gwent when two out of three applications for grant-maintained schools were allowed in direct opposition to the county's plan to reduce surplus places. Will he give an assurance that, where a sponsor brings forward a plan for a grant-maintained school in an area where a local authority is looking at its surplus place problem, such an application will be dismissed out of hand?

Mr. Squire

I have looked at what I said at the beginning of the debate, which was that, specifically in line with our policy of tackling the problem of surplus places, my right hon. Friend would look carefully at the need for additional school places in the district as well as, where appropriate, denominational need. I said that promoters would have to demonstrate that there would be a projected shortage of places in the local education authority and grant-maintained sectors in the foreseeable future. If the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) is a reasonable man, he will accept that as a reasonable position.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

This is a fundamental issue—it is not trivial. The Minister accepts that the issue of surplus places must be addressed. The words that he used are open to two interpretations: first, that the proposer must demonstrate that there is a shortage of places in the local authority and the grant-maintained sector taken together; or secondly, that the proposer has to demonstrate that there is a shortage in either the local authority sector or the grant-maintained sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) asked a straightforward question. If surplus places are available in an area, will the Secretary of State rule out any proposal out of hand? The question demands a yes or no and if the Minister is consistent he should say yes.

Mr. Squire

Most of the issues cannot be dealt with simply by saying yes or no. Without subjecting the House to a third attempt to read what I said, may I say that I specifically stated from the Dispatch Box that the subject of surplus places was important. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, in a prominent speech in recent weeks my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary stressed the importance of tackling the problem of surplus places. He stressed the attention that the Secretary of State would give to that issue when applications were made—that is on record. We can add little to the exchange by pursuing the subject now.

The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) criticised the impact of the abolition of the 10 per cent. trigger and Implied that it would undercut the local education authority's planning role. That will not happen. The removal of that trigger will not mean that the Funding Agency for Schools immediately shares responsibility for providing new school places in every local authority district. That can happen only at the second stage. Most importantly, if it so chooses, the LEA will be a statutory objector to any or all such proposals. My right hon. Friend will consider carefully all statutory objections when considering any proposal from promoters for a new grant-maintained school.

The hon. Member for Stretford also commented on teachers' pay. He specifically asked why amendment No. 371 did not include a counterpart for teachers transferred from LEA schools when a school became grant-maintained. The answer is that clause 36 of the Bill provides for those increasingly common circumstances.

The answer to the question about compulsory purchase is a straightforward yes. The compulsory purchase powers that we have provided responded specifically to the concerns expressed by the Churches, which wanted to ensure that land could be made available for new Church schools to parallel the position in the LEA sector, where the LEA can compulsorily purchase land. The relevant amendments simply ensure that the Funding Agency for Schools can discharge its statutory functions by having the power compulsorily to purchase, subject to the usual planning procedures and consent from the Secretary of State.

Sadly, our debate has revealed a refusal by the Labour party to recognise the great success of grant-maintained schools. That success is based not on Ministers' words, but on the achievement of those schools.

It is based on an increase in confidence and on the way in which the heads and parents at these schools are responding to the new challenges which the GM regime offers the schools.

What we said today may or may not affect the numbers of schools becoming grant maintained. I hope very much that it will increase the numbers that apply for GM status, because everything that I have seen so far convinces me that that status is the way, in the later part of the 20th century, in which we should arrange state education. The Bill improves our ability to deal with these matters and the ability of parents who want to take this step to do so. That can only help these schools and develop choice and maintain standards in the state system.

The Government are quite clear about this: we stand four square—

It being Eight o'clock, MR. 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 amendments Nos. 26 to 38 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 39 agreed to. [Special Entry]

Lords amendments Nos. 40 to 176 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 177 disagreed to.

Government amendment (a), in lieu of Lords amendment No. 177, before clause 145, insert a new clause —Value-for-money studies of grant-maintained schools

'.—(1) Each funding authority shall make arrangements for carrying out such value-for-money studies of grant-maintained schools in England or, as the case may be, Wales as in their opinion are required or as the Secretary of State may direct. (2) The authority shall, in particular—

  1. (a) in forming an opinion as to whether any value-for-money study is required to be carried out in pursuance of this section, have regard to the desirability of value-for-money studies being carried out at regular intervals, and
  2. (b) in determining the scope of any value-for-money study to be carried out in pursuance of this section otherwise than on the direction of the Secretary of State, have regard to the scope of any value-for-money study which is being or has recently been carried out.
(3) In this section "value-for-money study", in relation to any grant-maintained school, means—
  1. (a) any examination into the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which the governing body of the school have, in discharging their functions, used grant made by the authority, and
  2. (b) any study designed to improve economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the management or operations of the school.'—[Mr. Forth.]

Read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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