§ 5. Dr. Goodson-Wickes
To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment has been made of the advice given to head teachers by local education authorities in relation to ballots on grant-maintained status for schools.
§ The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten)
I am not aware of any general advice given to head teachers by local education authorities in relation to ballots on self-governing status.
I am aware, however, that Merton LEA has written to heads, telling them that they owe what is referred to as "a duty of loyalty" to their employer and suggesting that to be seen actively to be in conflict with the policies of their employer would put an employee at risk of breaching that obligation. That is nonsense.
I deplore action from any quarter that might be construed as intimidating heads, deputy heads or teachers or as muzzling their freedom of expression.
§ Dr. Goodson-Wickes
Will my right hon. Friend recognise that there is all the difference in the world between impartial advice issued by local authorities to head teachers and the flagrant political pressure, to which he referred, from Labour councils such as Merton, implying that loyalty to the authority takes precedence over choice for parents and pupils?
§ Mr. Patten
The decision whether to go for grant-maintained status is one for governors and parents. It is undoubtedly their choice, not one for the local education authority. I hope that the London borough of Merton will soon join London boroughs such as Wandsworth, Sutton and Hillingdon, half of whose secondary pupils are already being educated in grant-maintained schools. That is the future for Merton and boroughs like it.
§ Ms Short
Will the Secretary of State also deplore the actions of teachers organising opt-out ballots who intimidate and pressurise children to get their parents to vote as those teachers require? What view does he take of schools organising opt-out ballots when they have a massive over-provision of places, as in the case of George Dixon school in my constituency which is chosen by very few parents, in order to prevent Birmingham rationalising its over-provision of places?
§ Mr. Patten
The way in which Birmingham local education authority treated the head of the school during the ballot to which the hon. Lady referred was absolutely disgraceful. That is why in the Education Bill presently in another place we have moved swiftly to ensure that there is a level playing field so that both sides can put their arguments fairly about whether a school should become grant maintained. More than 900 schools have now voted yes to grant-maintained status, and about 350,000 pupils are already being educated in grant-maintained schools in England as a whole.
§ Mr. Dunn
Given that local education authorities controlled by Opposition socialist parties are declaring their hostility to the concept of grant-maintained status, is not it time that we introduced legislation to require schools to opt in to local education authority control instead of opting out?
§ Mr. Patten
We have done so in an amendment to the Education Bill. My hon. Friend is a stalwart supporter of grant-maintained schools and he will know that the Bill will ensure that every school in the land shall once a year consider whether to go for grant-maintained status. It is very important that every year governors give parents the opportunity to vote in favour of grant-maintained status.
§ Dr. Wright
Would the Minister like to congratulate the parents at the Church of England primary school attended by my children who yesterday discovered that they had succeeded overwhelmingly in rejecting grant-maintained status? Will he further admit that the exercise of balloting in such primary schools is a monstrous waste of time for head teachers, teachers and parents and that it is causing discord and division throughout the school community? Will he now get on with the education tasks in hand?
§ Mr. Patten
As I said, some 900 schools have voted yes to grant-maintained status. It is a right of parents to vote in favour. Since the process began, eight out of 10 schools in which ballots are held vote firmly in favour of grant-maintained status.