HC Deb 25 April 1994 vol 242 cc32-68 4.12 pm
Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

I beg to move,

That this House, recognising one generation's responsibility for the next and the critical importance of young people's development to a stable, healthy and well-ordered society, calls on the Government to continue to encourage a wide diversity of choice in schooling, greater priority for the needs of children within the family and resistance to harmful influences to which they are exposed in the media and elsewhere. When it comes to private Members' motions and the chance to initiate a Commons debate, fortune has smiled on me, not once, not twice, but no fewer than five times during my time in the House, and has half-smiled on me on two further occasions, when I came third. In all that time, however, not once has my name come out in the top 20 in the ballot for private Members' Bills, so lady luck has so far denied me the opportunity of making a permanent mark on Parliament by seeing some minor measure on to the statute book and generations of lawyers to come will be spared the need to remember my name. Although, in that sense, second best, private Members' debates are a valuable means of mentioning issues of importance that are too often crowded out by the legislative programme.

My motion sets out to provide a fretwork for discussion to which others can contribute and fill in the gaps.

My contribution will take several themes. Some are hobby horses, but I hope that I shall not appear to gallop off in all directions. The disparate issues have a common thread—a concern for the moral and social integrity of our people and the welfare of our children. That concern is touched by three aspects of education, two of which arise in my constituency of Romford: a deeper, long-standing apprehension about the future of the family and the subversion of our traditional way of life; and the menace of violent videos and other vicious influences in the media and elsewhere.

First, on education, the Government deserve credit for the courage of their reforms of the state education system —and not before time. Too many children have left the system with not a university degree but a degree of illiteracy and innumeracy that has handicapped them for life. The vested interests have fought like tigers for their cubs but, by responding to genuine grievance while pursuing the principle, the Government are achieving continuing progress and improvement. Especially welcome is the widening variety of provision. Education needs to conform not to some universal nostrum but to the abilities and aptitudes of individual children.

Choice has rightly become the watchword for parents. All the evidence shows growing interest in the exercise of choice. The increasing amount of published information is a necessary corollary to parental choice at all stages. One option for parents which I strongly support is single-sex education. There are two single-sex schools in the London borough of Havering: the Royal Liberty school for boys and the Frances Bardsley school for Girls. Both are in my constituency and regularly oversubscribed. Some of their popularity is undoubtedly due to their reputation for plain and simple schooling, but single-sex education is an important—if not all-important—consideration in some parents' choice. In recent years, a number have been disappointed and, because the schools are both in Romford, those who are my constituents have felt particularly aggrieved.

Moreover, in some cases parents who have given a single-sex school as their first preference have seen, through the system of selection, their children denied places and the places taken by children whose parents' first choice was a mixed school. The council has agreed to extend the allocation for single-sex preference by a small degree, but that element remains under-provided.

That represents a powerful argument in favour of the outstanding application for Frances Bardsley to retain its sixth form. When post-16 education in the borough was reorganised some years ago and plans were agreed for a sixth-form college, Frances Bardsley, along with other schools under full local authority control, was required to relinquish its sixth-form, but managed to negotiate a temporary reprieve. Now that the sixth-form college is full to overflowing, as a result—again, credit is due to the Government—of the surge of children staying on after 16, which is long overdue in our part of London, Frances Bardsley is, very reasonably, asking for its sixth form to be made permanent. That will be to the great benefit of the girls in the school. The juniors will have more mature girls at the head of the school and the sixth-formers will be free and undistracted by male adolescents to work towards the outstanding and exceptional results obtained by many single-sex schools last summer.

The Establishment is opposed to that, clinging to its grand plan, despite the change of circumstances, and fully prepared to spend more public money by providing extra accommodation when the existing facilities are already available and in use at Frances Bardsley. The parents, however, fully support the governors and staff in their bid, and backed them by voting for grant-maintained status, which they achieved a year ago. It would be a serious rebuff to them if they were denied their sixth form now, and a blow to the principle of single-sex education at sixth form level—an experience from which I benefited but not, I hasten to add, at a girls' school. At an earlier age in the course of my chequered education, however, I attended two girls' schools—[Interruption.]—as a pupil.

Given the Secretary of State's acknowledgement of the merits of traditional school sixth forms earlier this year, I have high hopes of a favourable decision in that case.

One of the three subjects that I took at A-level was English literature, which is indisputably one of the greatest literatures in the world and a priceless heritage for us all. No wonder parents complained about a text used for English studies at GCSE level at another school in my constituency, St. Edward's—a so-called poem entitled "Stobhill". Not only was the sole resemblance to poetry in the varying lengths of the printed lines; the subject matter was gang rape and the incineration of an aborted foetus. This, apparently, is our young teenagers' inheritance today.

When taxed with the matter, the headmaster was unrepentant in his defence. The chairman of governors, deputy headmaster in a neighbouring London borough, supported him to the hilt. The parents who complained proved to be a small minority. The Archbishop of Canterbury—and this, believe it or not, is a Church of England school—having referred to a mother's "very understandable worries", did not wish to interfere, believing that how something is taught makes a crucial difference over and above its objective content. Only the Minister of State, my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Blatch, was prepared to describe the choice of text as "most regrettable". Amen to that.

That experience brought me up with a jolt: it made me realise just how far things had gone. Another text used is a poem about a boy's killing of his cat by shutting it in the door. It includes the words: The black fur squealed and he felt his skin Prickle with sparks of dry delight. The boy killers of James Bulger probably felt the same sensation.

What chance do today's young people have when even school allows them no refuge from such squalor? What kind of society can it be in which parents, teachers, school governors and an archbishop can persuade themselves that gang rape is a suitable and entirely appropriate subject for school children to study—and in the name of English literature?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

At a Church of England school.

Sir Michael Neubert

Yes, at a Church of England school.

That is why I welcomed the news, in March, that the reading list of mainly classic authors would be retained in the revised national curriculum, despite the opposition of leading English teachers. The council of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority agreed unanimously to overturn the recommendation of its own advisers that teachers should be free to choose the writers and works that pupils study.

I admire the council's pluck—one up for political incorrectness. It must have had its work cut out. Unfortunately, teachers can no longer be trusted to exercise discretion, because too many of them have been tutored in the progressive thinking that has prevailed since the permissive 1960s. The headmaster's defence was that, according to the latest figures, there were 69 teenage pregnancies per 1,000, and the abortion rate for girls aged 11 to 16 in 1991 was 2.2 per 1,000 2.8 in our area. What does he expect? If young people are saturated with sex, they will think of little else. An English lesson is a chance to show them that there are other things in life.

Nor should we overlook the element of political motivation in what has been happening in our schools. Nowadays, it is out in the open. Terry Eagleton, Warton professor of English literature at Oxford university—who has described himself as a "shamelessly unreconstructed Marxist", and who persuaded more than 500 academics, including 20 other university professors, to support a letter that he wrote to The Times Higher Education Supplement —believes that language is fascist, grammar an instrument of oppression wielded by the bourgeoisie against the working class and the horror film "Nightmare on Elm Street" every bit as worthy of study as "A Midsummer Night's Dream". He also believes that correcting children's speech is seriously harmful to their self-esteem.

Consciously or unconsciously, many teachers are helping to bring about the triumph of the left in education by absorbing such ideas and putting them into practice in the classroom. Part of "Stobhill" is in raw Scots dialect. There may be a case for advanced students to study such texts, but when the general level of literacy is causing so much concern, secondary school children studying modern authors would be better served by works written in standard English.

Children are the casualties of this ideological warfare. It is they who are being sent out into an increasingly competitive world—into a hostile environment where more than 20 million people are unemployed in Europe, 35 per cent. of whom have never had a job.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that children whose spelling, grammar and knowledge are not corrected at school are strongly disadvantaged as adults? Is he aware of a document on the subject of crime that is being circulated in my constituency this week? I have a copy with me. The spelling of the word "neighbourhood", as in "neighbourhood watch", begins "neib" in one instance and "neirb" in another; the word "scheme" is spelt "sceme", and the spelling of "prevention", as in "crime prevention", begins "pro". Does my hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrat councillors who circulated the document would have benefited from testing in schools?

Sir Michael Neubert

My hon. Friend's comments will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who is representing the Liberals today and who is familiar with the document. I was not aware how closely illiteracy and Liberalism in the south-west were connected. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) would do better to elect better trained and Conservative candidates in the council elections next week.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

While we are on the subject of spelling mistakes and grammar, may I point out that on one infamous occasion the Secretary of State for Wales issued a statement containing four spelling mistakes and at least three grammatical errors? When it was marked by an English teacher, the right hon. Gentleman was given the thumbs down in terms of GCSE grading.

Sir Michael Neubert

That does not surprise me either. I have had the good fortune of serving as a Minister in Her Majesty's Government. During that time I, too, was disappointed and disillusioned by the standard of spelling among the civil servants who prepared briefs and press statements for me. I will not blame my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales without further inquiry: it may be that he has delegated too far and unwisely.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) that the spelling was incorrect and that it was a great pity. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to investigate the spelling of the word "grammar" as in grammar school. I could tell him an interesting story involving the use of that word. He will recall that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has used the following three phrases in recent months: Myself and Emily Blatch have been all around the country", me and my inspectors have been to hundreds of schools", and just the kind of thing that me as a parent".

Sir Michael Neubert

I would do better to await the more lengthy speech of the hon. Gentleman than to listen to examples of misspellings. I am sure that we could all produce our favourite examples and argue them for rather longer than we have available this afternoon, although I should be the last person to diminish the importance of spelling: I have always believed it to be an important grounding for life, and I still do so.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

With regard to presentation and communication, if people do not care how they spell or how they present their ideas, are they likely to care about the policies that they wish to present? All hon. Members know that Liberal Democrats say one thing here and another in their constituencies, one thing in the council chamber and another at the council ward, one thing in one village and another thing in another village, and one thing in one street and a different thing in the next street.

Sir Michael Neubert

All Conservative Members have experience of that.

To return to the subject of children, who are so often casualties of ideological warfare, if they are not to join the 20 million unemployed in Europe they must not leave school unable to express themselves competently in their own language, unable to make simple calculations in their heads and with their sensibilities brutalised by squalor. I call on the Secretary of State, when he makes his decision on the curriculum later this year to range himself with the traditionalists and me—I think I use the word "me" correctly there—and my noble Friend Lady Blatch in agreeing that the sort of material that I have described is wholly inappropriate and that the study of English, to quote Lady Blatch,

is best advanced through an emphasis on the tried and tested works of real distinction". On the wider question of the level of attainment achieved by our school leavers, I again commend the Government for their dogged pursuit of the principle of testing. It has long been clear to me that teachers object to testing often because tests are a test of them as well as of their pupils. However, it is imperative that there is a system of interim tests to check on progress, because leaving it to the final year examinations is too late—by then, any damage done can rarely be remedied in later life.

There are few second chances in education, which is why I regret the continuing opposition of the National Union of Teachers to testing. To judge from its much televised conference over the Easter weekend, it seems to have been hijacked by the hard left. Its position is neither honourable nor responsible. The Government have gone to considerable lengths to meet genuine grievances in introducing the system. The time has now come for all those involved to unite in making the system a success for the sake of children. Lest it be thought that my comments are unduly critical of teachers, I should mention that at the start of my career I did some teaching and am a certificated teacher. That experience left me with the highest regard for the dedication and vocation of the vast majority of teachers, but the welfare of the next generation is too important for me not to say what I think now.

The greatest threat to the welfare of children is the breakdown of the traditional family on which the structure of our society is founded. Let us consider some facts taken from an information sheet prepared by the Maranatha community as evidence of what it calls the "gathering storm clouds". The number of divorces has doubled since 1971; the United Kingdom has the second highest divorce rate in Europe, Denmark having the highest which, similarly, has the highest number of women in work, the United Kingdom coming second; marriage breakdown is now six times higher than in 1961; there was a 400 per cent. increase in births outside marriage between 1971 and 1991; eight in 10 births to women under the age of 20 are outside marriage, or are what used to be called illegitimate; 2 million children are being raised in single-parent families; one in five children conceived in the United Kingdom is aborted and 3.5 million abortions were carried out in England and Wales between 1968 and 1991. If children had a choice, how many would choose to be born into a world such as this?

The consequences of those figures are too numerous to detail, but we are all well aware of them. Every day, the newspapers bring news of some new enormity: increasing violence, spiralling social security expenditure, rising crime and drug addiction and widespread alcoholism which all mean a greater burden on the health service. Children are frequently the victims of such problems.

We have allowed our traditional way of life to be subverted and we are paying a terrible price for it. We must reassert our support for the family and devise and direct our policies to that end. We cannot afford to do otherwise—the creaking platform of public expenditure is on the point of collapse. Parts of our cities are not only nuclear-free zones but are rapidly becoming nuclear family-free zones.

Support for lone parents had risen to £5 billion a year before the Government took the decisive step to set up the Child Support Agency. Parents must be made to accept responsibility for their children and for their own future. Those who separate or who refuse to commit themselves to marriage should not look to the rest of us for support in their later years. Independence and irresponsibility now may be at the expense of loneliness and deprivation in years to come. Partnerships and relationships may prove to be the ultimate 20th century tragedy.

Among some of the worst influences to which young people are exposed are the violent images on video and television and in the cinema. The growth of violence is unquestionably one of the most alarming developments of recent years because it is so often pointless, unpredictable and inexplicable. There can be no ultimate protection for any of us against it but, for years, trendy opinion held that there was no connection between violent images and violent action. Now, at last, the academics have finally realised what common sense led the rest of us to conclude from the start—there is a connection.

The House did itself some credit two weeks ago by insisting on tougher curbs on video nasties. A few days later, a survey by the Professional Association of Teachers confirmed the widespread circulation of violent and pornographic videos among children of even primary school age. The horrific film "Silence of the Lambs" was one eight-year-old girl's favourite Christmas holiday film. One wonders who and where her parents are; one would be interested to meet them.

The potency of visual images on the television screen threatens to mar the life of every young child. A photograph published in The Sunday Telegraph after our debate illustrated that point with stark clarity. It depicted a baby in its high chair which had been placed within two feet of a 24-inch television set, head-on to the screen. He was looking at the screen in bemusement while the mother sat smoking a cigarette and watching him. In that way, we create a nation of zombies. The phenomenal power of television is barely constrained and rarely accountable. If parents use television and video as previous generations used the dummy, selfishly shrugging off their own responsibilities for looking after their children, we are lost.

"Only connect", said the communications guru Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. "Only corrupt" might be the motto now. It is no surprise, given its all-pervasive, all-powerful influence, that television is the favoured medium for those who seek to undermine our traditional way of life. Channel 4 is currently doing its best. Its gay Christmas has been followed by a lesbian spring. To give the flavour of what was on offer at Christmas, apart from a queen's speech by Quentin Crisp, there was an episode, caught by one of my constituents switching channels, which showed a man drinking his mistress's urine. Whether it was out of a tumbler or straight from the woman's orifice, I have not yet summoned up the strength to ask. Either way, it does not seem likely to have been a high point in western civilisation. Other programmes promised visits to strip joints and public urinals. In "The Greatest F Show on Earth", a comic argued for more bad language on television.

When challenged, Channel 4's defence is that it is required by its remit to offer programmes that are an alternative to those on the other channels. To that, I say that necrophilia may have its adherents, but that does not seem a reason for it to be shown on the screen in a living room. A second defence, echoed by the Independent Television Commission, is that such programmes represent only a small proportion of the hours transmitted. The question is whether such material should be transmitted at all. The argument is on a par with the Punch cartoon in which the unmarried housemaid confesses to an illegitimate baby, but says that it is only a very small one.

Let us be clear that programming of that character, which flouts all standards of decency, taste and discretion, does not come about by chance. Programme-makers are constantly seeking to extend the limits of what they can get away with. The examples that I have given are a deliberate and direct assault on three of our major institutions: the monarchy, the Christian Church and the family. We cannot allow the subversives to win. That means, among other things, that we cannot be all things to all men and all women, and all things in between.

There is no doubt that political motivation is one mainspring. Conservatives should wake up. After being rejected at the ballot box by the British people in four successive general elections, the left has been left to penetrate our defences from underground. Anything that undermines our traditional way of life is likely to sap our political strength at the same time. We should, therefore, especially beware egalitarianism masquerading as equality and the fallacy—perhaps spelt with a "ph"—that women are the same as men.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way as I missed the first few minutes of his speech. He and I taught at the same institution, although at different times. He will know that in that institution, a great deal was done through school assembly and religious instruction to inculcate values by which children could live in later life. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the report late last week that the National Association of Head Teachers seemed to question what could be achieved through school assemblies?

Sir Michael Neubert

Yes, I share that concern. One of the reassurances today is that, if he is successful in catching your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) may touch on this subject in his own speech.

I was talking about the role that women have to play in the world; I defy the fallacy that women are the same as men. In the uniquely precious responsibility of creating and nurturing children, men and women have different but indispensable roles. Children need two responsible parents, preferably their own.

The motion calls for a stable, healthy and well-ordered society". To achieve that, we shall need to give greater emphasis to discipline, respect for authority, consideration of others and, above all, the integrity of family life. There is a phrase for it: "Forward to fundamentals".

4.39 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) on managing, at last, to obtain such a high-profile position for a private Member's motion and on the serious and important subject that he has chosen to introduce. Probably, I would heartily concur with more than three quarters of what he said, and I hope that I shall be able to explain where I felt that he was not hitting the target.

There can be no doubt that in Britain we need to improve the quality of the education given to our children and to consider seriously the society in which we live and the way in which it is developing. However, a part of what the hon. Gentleman said placed a great deal of the onus in achieving all those aims on schools and on teachers. He began to admit, in commenting on the influence of television and mass media, that there were other issues to consider. We need to make it clear that there have been developments in society in the past 10 or 20 years for which teachers and schools cannot bear responsibility, and which are of far more fundamental importance.

Of course, what we did not hear in the hon. Gentleman's speech was the fact that, for more than half the period in question and certainly over the past 15 years, his own Government have been in power. Some of the things that they have done, and the atmosphere and the ambience created in our society by them, have contributed significantly to the problems that he described and the fears that he raised.

For example, if we consider the legacy of the past 15 years in education, we find in our schools that the lack of discipline and the instances of the exclusion of pupils for behavioural problems are growing. Probably, those occurrences are vastly under-reported, yet the figures are still growing tremendously. It is only in the past 12 months that the Government have begun to consider seriously ways in which those problems may be tackled.

It is not the first occasion on which the Government have considered those problems. The substantial Elton report, which was published about four years ago, included 138 recommendations on how schools, local authorities, other agencies and central Government could contribute towards making schools places where children could learn in an ordered atmosphere. However, it has taken some four years or more from the publication of that report for the Government to take the problem seriously. The motion addresses a problem which has been experienced especially in the past decade.

We have seen the drive towards the local management of schools; I entirely agree with the Government on the need to give schools greater independence and control over finances. Labour local authorities were pioneering the idea long before the great education reform Bill was introduced. [Interruption.] I heard a sedentary intervention of "Rubbish", but I assure the hon. Member who made it that he plainly does not know what happened in many local authorities around the country. There were Labour authorities that pioneered the local management of schools. There may have been other schools, as the hon. Member for Louth—

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Brigg and Cleethorpes.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I am sorry. It was the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown). I cannot keep pace with the rate of change in England. There were those who opposed the local management of schools, but, let us be clear, it was pioneered by Labour authorities.

Due to the way in which the entire financing of education has changed in the past few years, there have been tremendous pressures in schools—arising principally out of the way in which the average salary has been used in the formula rather than the real salary—on the number of teachers employed. For the first time, pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools, especially, are beginning to rise. However, classes are getting bigger and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate that that is a legacy of some of the ill-considered changes that have been made by the Government, which, so often, were right in principle, but wrong in application.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that expenditure per pupil since 1979 has been increased by 47 per cent. in real terms? That has surely added to the ability of schools to educate children and to give them the three essentials of skills, discipline and enthusiasm for education. As he says that the Opposition take the matter so seriously, will he explain why the Government Benches are well populated at the moment, yet the Opposition Benches are completely bare, as they have been throughout the debate so far?

Mr. Griffiths

May I take the more serious point made by the hon. Gentleman about the issue of funding? The funding of education in the post-war period has increased tremendously, but a large part of that increase has been to meet the greater demands of the education system, such as the use of computers in schools, laboratory equipment and the machinery needed for new technology.

When I was in school, they were only beginning to bring in equipment such as lathes. Yes, it was very much cheaper to educate children when one relied on pen, paper, pencils, chalk and blackboards, when overhead projectors were unknown and one was lucky if one had a slide show once a year in a school during the 1940s or 1950s.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

The hon. Gentleman referred to class sizes. Would he think back to when he was at school, when, I expect, he was educated in the traditional method by which the teachers stood in front of the class with a blackboard and the pupils sat facing the teacher in ranks at their desks? Surely, it is much easier to keep control of the class and to impart knowledge to a class so structured than it is with the modern methods under which children sit at little tables each doing their own thing, and the teacher has to try to keep up with what each little group is doing. If we returned to the methods that were so effective when the hon. Gentleman was at school, would not we be able to manage with larger classes and produce a much better result?

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman was assuming that I was satisfied with the quality of education that I received. Indeed, at lunchtime today, I made a speech at Dulwich college on Labour's proposals for the future of education, which was well received, in which I explained where I felt that my own education could have been improved.

Whether the children are taught in serried rows or in groups in a class room is irrelevant. Instead, we must focus on the outcome of their education. In my case, in many subjects, the outcome was very good; in other subjects, it was not good. I was sitting in a row when I was being taught subjects A and B, but the outcome was far better in one subject than the other. It would seem that the rows within the class room were irrelevant. Far more important was the relationship between myself and the teacher and whatever else it was that motivated me. That is why it is so wrong to try to provide blanket solutions or to mount a blanket attack on what teachers are doing in schools.

Unfortunately, pupil-teacher ratios are rising in primary schools, despite the headline improvement in funding. Hiding behind that fact and not recognising that there are problems are perhaps reasons why all the difficulties to which the hon. Member for Romford referred have been placed on our doorstep. We have been far too prepared to defend our own positions, wherever we may find ourselves in the political and education spectrums, without looking too closely at the complications that arise in trying to ensure that children are taught effectively.

The headline figures tell us that there are better performances at GCSE examinations and at A-level. More children are going on to higher education of various sorts. Against that background, one would have to say that the hon. Member for Romford was entirely misplaced when he expressed fears about the education system. I was in sympathy, however, with much that he had to say about standards. Despite the good headline figures that reflect progress in the post-war period, we must deal with complaints that basic literacy and numeracy standards are not high enough to enable employers to have confidence in youngsters when they come to them for work. We know, too, that some of our comparisons with international competitors show that we are not as good as we should be.

We can spread the blame where we like, but it should be acknowledged that some good ideas, in principle, were being thrown up in the 1970s—for example, a national curriculum and schools having greater control of their budgets. Unfortunately, those ideas were implemented in a way that has proved to be counterproductive.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Unfortunately, even the best motivated teachers in a school frequently find themselves without any serious basis of comparison with what is being achieved by better schools elsewhere when educating pupils of a similar calibre. Is it not disappointing that the National Union of Teachers should set its face against one of the simplest methods of informing teachers what can be achieved, in the form of tests?

Mr. Griffiths

That is where one of the great confusions arises. The NUT is not opposed either to the assessment or testing of pupils. Its membership, by means of a ballot conducted throughout the union, decided that it would continue with the assessment of children to provide information about the progress of children for the children themselves and for the parents. At the same time, it did not believe that this year's national curriculum tests should be compulsory, because the tests this year will be drastically changed next year.

The union's membership is happy to ensure that the testing system is the right one, but it does not see why it is necessary to force all schools to take a test this year that is not likely to be a similar one next year. Let us be clear that NUT teachers have no problem with ideas about assessment and testing, although they have specific opposition to this year's testing alone. There is no problem about the future or about the outcome of the Dearing review, when—let us hope—there will be a system of both assessment and testing.

We should not forget that the Dearing review places greater emphasis on the assessment of pupils than on specific testing. I hope that, following the review, we shall have a system of assessment and testing with which teachers can be comfortable in the context of their work load. I hope also that they will feel that they are providing information to parents that will be genuinely helpful to them in assessing the progress of their children and the way in which the school is performing.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the position of the NUT as he has described it from his perception was not that which most of us understood from listening to the union's representatives at its national conferences as shown on television—or will he sensibly disown the speakers from the London borough of Islington, who made such a lot of noise?

Mr. Griffiths

As a consultant for the NUT, I was at the conference. I was amazed and extremely concerned when I heard some of the things that were said there. I am entirely confident, however, from my knowledge of teachers who are in their class rooms and who do not work through the structures of the union to attend its conference, that many of the speeches did not reflect the views of most members of the union.

I was trying to explain that the NUT's policy on assessment and testing is not one of blanket opposition. It has specific complaints about this year's tests and it is involved in the consultation process within the Dearing review. It is looking forward to the final proposals. I hope that the proposals will be of a nature that will enable teachers and pupils to have information on progress to pass on to parents as well as information about the way in which the school itself is performing.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Am I to understand that, after all, the NUT will be supporting the full programme of testing? Does the hon. Gentleman understand that parents are seeking not only an assessment from the child's teacher but a comparison with other children throughout the country? In the absence of that information, the parent will never know whether the child is performing well. We should not rely on the individual teacher.

Mr. Griffiths

It is a matter of assessment and testing. That is what the Dearing review is about, as the hon. Lady will recognise. As I have said, the review placed greater emphasis on assessment than testing, but the two processes go together. Parents have a right to information about their child's progress. The school needs to produce information about the way in which it is educating children who attend it.

The hon. Lady and I may part company over the fact that I do not believe that it is the job of the Department for Education to spend millions of pounds publishing national lists of results. Schools can publish those results and if that information is used by the newspapers or whatever, that is entirely up to them. However, the Department for Education should not have to spend millions of pounds to disseminate information which schools should make available to the parents of their pupils.

Mr. Don Foster

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Secretary of State for Education may wish to consider seriously the decision taken by the Secretary of State for Scotland to introduce a system of testing and assessment with which, I suspect, Conservative Members would be entirely happy, as would parents and teachers throughout the country?

Mr. Griffiths

There is a great deal of merit in the Scottish system. The Labour party is following closely how that system works in Scotland to discover whether the benefits can be translated into an English situation—and perhaps even into a Welsh situation, who knows?

Testing and assessment are required. The hon. Member for Romford referred to English literature. I also studied English literature. While the hon. Gentleman's examples were lurid, I entirely agree that they are not suitable material to be found in most classrooms for children in their early and mid teens.

The hon. Member said that Professor Eagleton had the support of 20 professors. That may be 20 professors too many, but we are still talking about only a small minority of those involved in education. We should really consider what is happening in classrooms.

I taught for 13 years and when I marked my pupils' work, without fail I marked spelling errors. I always put the correct spelling in the margin and I always drew that to the attention of my pupils. On some occasions, I even made students write out those words to reinforce the correct spelling.

Lady Olga Maitland

Not only is it appropriate to point out spelling mistakes, it is important to mark down work when a child fails to produce correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, because if that is not done, the child will never learn the disciplines that are involved.

Mr. Griffiths

I always corrected grammar if it was wrong in a sentence. Yes, I told pupils that they would lose marks. If an essay was worth eight out of 10 or an A in terms of its content, it could lose marks and even a grade if the spelling and grammar were atrocious. However, those judgments must be made against the principle that teachers should teach children how to spell and write properly. There should be no mistake about that. One should not then try to tar the whole of the teaching profession, and all English teachers, because of a few lurid examples of what happens in a tiny minority of schools. We should get it right in those schools, but we should not give the impression that the whole of the system is contaminated by bad practice.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so patient. With regard to spelling, does he agree that teachers must conduct regular weekly spelling tests? Why do what I call the rather soft left members of the teaching profession resist those tests?

Mr. Griffiths

As I did not teach English at the stage when I would expect children to be doing spelling tests, I cannot rely on my personal experience. However, as a pupil, I learnt lists of words. I did not find that that inhibited my ability to enjoy English. I certainly believe that such tests should be part of the way in which teachers can teach English. If spelling tests have died out, I believe that they should be revived.

The point about Sir Ron Dearing's review is that it saved the Government from the worst breakdown in our education system in living memory. Sir Ron Dearing saved the Government from a breakdown in our schools. We should recognise the Government's courage in accepting the recommendations of the Dearing review because that amounted to a complete U-turn on everything that was said and done before that point.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am equally grateful for his kind words. However, he will acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recognised that there was a problem in the development of the curriculum and testing last year. He asked Sir Ron Dearing to come in, to consider the problem impartially and speedily and to suggest solutions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State then accepted those suggestions. I am sure that that puts the hon. Gentleman's kind words in context.

Mr. Griffiths

I entirely agree that Sir Ron Dearing was appointed on the Secretary of State's initiative. However, he was appointed because there was total deadlock between virtually the whole of the teaching profession, the Secretary of State and parents who made it quite clear that they were concerned about what was happening. The Secretary of State had to find a way out and Sir Ron Dearing proved to be that way out.

I pay credit to the Secretary of State for recognising the need to appoint Sir Ron Dearing and for accepting all the principles behind the Dearing review. In the meantime, nearly £500 million had been spent on introducing the curriculum which was just about to go through a massive transformation because of the appointment of Sir Ron Dearing. To return to my earlier point, this represents a missed opportunity in the history of education in this country.

Back in 1976, the Prime Minister of the day, now Lord Callaghan, effectively started the debate about the national curriculum and general standards in our schools. The Conservative Government picked up the baton when they came to power. Unfortunately, instead of engaging in proper consultation, they had a view of the national curriculum, assessment and testing and they pushed it through despite the protests and objections of virtually everyone in education. If the Government had only listened at that point, hundreds of millions of pounds could have been saved and we might have reached the point that we will be reaching in the next year or two, three or four years earlier and without the travail, confrontation, damage and breakdown that have occurred in our education system in the meantime.

The national curriculum may be the most serious example of ill-considered spending of money. However, we must also consider the Government's grant-maintained schools initiative which is slowly but surely grinding to a halt. There has been a massive waste of money in the introduction of grant-maintained schools not only in respect of the Government's ploys to encourage more schools to go grant maintained, but in respect of the way in which those schools, at the earliest stage, were given additional and extra funding which resulted in state schools—local authority schools—losing out. Millions of pounds were lost there. It can be argued that the assisted places scheme, at a cost of something like £3,500 a place in 1993, is not the most effective use of resources in improving our education system.

Dr. Spink

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again; I thank him for his patience. Can he tell us the Labour party's policy with regard to grant-maintained schools? Would Labour continue to support them or close them down? While he is talking about the Labour party's education policy, could he tell us its policy in all other areas of education, because the House and the rest of the nation are waiting to hear what it is?

Mr. Griffiths

Our policy on grant-maintained schools is clear. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman finds it difficult to keep up with the news. Our policy is that the appointed Funding Agency for Schools would be abolished, and grant-maintained schools would continue, but they would not have that status. They would be run like any other locally maintained schools. The whole of the funding of schools would be reviewed. That is currently being examined by the Select Committee on Education, and the Government have their own common funding formula process going on.

Dr. Spink

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Griffiths

If you wait for a moment, you also asked me to develop the whole of Labour's education policy in your wide intervention.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman means me, whom he should be addressing.

Mr. Griffiths

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Grant-maintained schools would continue to exist. They would continue to have an independent role like any locally managed school. Indeed, the Labour party is looking at a number of options for types of local management because we found that many heads are not happy with the type of local management that they have at present. Some of them feel that they have too much; some feel that they have too little.

Dr. Spink

I am still confused about the Labour party's policy on grant-maintained schools. Would the schools exist with total management control of the governing bodies consisting essentially of parents of children at those schools, or would the status of the schools change?

Mr. Griffiths

I am astonished by what the hon. Gentleman said, because the majority of governors of grant-maintained schools are not parents. As he said, parents are not the majority. In developing its policies, the Labour party is looking at proposals to enable more members of a governing body to be elected rather than appointed, as happens at present. The governing body of a grant-maintained school would probably still be substantially what it is at present, but any changes introduced for greater democracy would apply to grant-maintained schools as locally maintained and managed schools, so the status would be gone. Let us make it clear: the status would be gone, but the schools would continue to exist and would be managed in much the same way as they are at present.

There has been a whole series of Government initiatives which I shall not dwell on now. The assisted places scheme and the city technology colleges have all cost a lot of extra money which has been ploughed into the system. Much more of the Government's money has been given to those schools than to other schools, and the rest of the state sector has been badly let down. It is that unfairness which has caused so many of the problems that we have today.

I shall set out some of the positive things that need to be done in education to combat some of the problems raised by the hon. Member for Romford. First, we would give priority to nursery education. The research evidence in this country and abroad is strong and shows that good-quality education gives children the best start in life. Over a period, the investment in nursery education would be paid back time and again in savings for the state.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I totally agree that nursery education in one form or another is essential for young children. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that 90 per cent. of children in this country already have nursery provision and, more important, there must be a diversity of provision for them? We do not want to be so prescriptive on the development of toddlers that we are forcing them down a road which is unsuitable. Surely, we need to be flexible with toddlers, and 90 per cent. of them are already provided for.

Mr. Griffiths

That is a myth. Ninety per cent. of three and four-year-olds in England and, indeed, in Wales do not receive nursery education. It is true that 90 per cent. of three and four-year-olds have some experience in a social grouping for some part of the week. That may be in a nursery school, a nursery class or a playgroup, and the provision is often only part time.

The way in which Labour would tackle the problem is to meet parental demand. If parents want nursery provision, it will be provided over a period. If they want playgroups, we will ensure through the standards we set and the support we give to playgroups that that will be a good-quality experience. We would not want to have a total blanket and say that everyone must do this or that. We are saying that nursery education gives children an excellent start to their learning lives. We would set in motion a programme to provide nursery education for those parents who want it for their children. If parents want playgroups, we will ensure that there is good financial support and a good standard set to ensure that the experience is good for children. Let us have no doubt about that. We would not force anyone to take up a nursery place. What I am saying is that we would develop a programme to meet demand.

I shall examine some of the issues on expenditure. First, the Government already provide money for under-five services through the standard spending assessment. Some local education authorities use all that money and more on providing a large number of nursery places. Other local education authorities do not use any of the money for that sort of provision. By a system of meeting parental demand, those authorities where the money is not spent on such a provision, but where there is a demand, would have to begin to reorder their spending priorities. The money is already provided by the Government, so no extra cash whatever would be involved.

Mr. Forth

That is startling news which we should like the hon. Gentleman to develop—my colleagues would agree that he should be given time to do so. He seems to be introducing a new element of central Government compulsion on local education authorities. It is an interesting thought which I should like him to develop. The hon. Gentleman might also suggest which other elements of education would be sacrificed to this new priority which he would compel LEAs to adopt.

Mr. Griffiths

For a start, there will be no element of compulsion in the sense of making it a statutory duty for places to be provided. There is, however, a duty for the education authority to look at ways of providing nursery education where there is demand for it.

The hon. Gentleman's Department, the Department of the Environment or the Treasury—place the responsibility where you will—already provides money which is theoretically available for this purpose, but many LEAs do not use it. That is all I am saying.

In some authorities where the Conservatives lost control at the election, there has been a re-ordering of priorities. Money has been provided for nursery education without any increase in the tax being levied by those authorities, other than for inflation. We do not need to raise any scare stories about how it will be done. In the Government's own immortal words, it will be—to a certain extent—as resources allow.

In addition, we will divert spending from areas such as city technology colleges—although that aspect has more or less died a death—and the assisted places scheme. Those who are in the system would continue to be served, but money earmarked for the future of those areas could be brought in to nursery education. There are a number of options to be looked at before we begin to think about the additional spending.

It is an important area and, as I was saying before that series of interventions, the best-researched account of what happens where good-quality nursery education is provided is an American study which covered 27 years. Children from the same area were studied, and those who had the nursery education experience were compared with those who did not.

At the age of 27, those who had had nursery education had higher earnings. More of them were home owners, and had attained a higher level of education in school. The cost of meeting their special educational needs was not as high as for those who did not have nursery education, and fewer were receiving social security benefits. Far fewer of them had been involved in crime and there were far fewer teenage pregnancies.

All in all, through extra taxation, fewer benefits and less money paid in relation to crime and imprisonment, there was a saving of $7 for every dollar invested in the system for those children who had gone through the nursery system. It is difficult for the Government to look at the long-term situation, but that is an investment in children which not only did well for them but, over a period, was good for the country.

Far fewer of them were involved in crime. Is not that something which we all want to achieve? The American experience suggests that that is one way of doing it.

A part of the Highscope system is the close and cultivated relationship between the schools, teachers and parents. We would want to encourage such a partnership throughout the schooling system. One way of catching the parents, and catching them young, is by having nursery education. Parents are far happier being involved initially at that stage than when they are involved in secondary schools. We believe that that is one way of improving those relationships, and it will help to make schools more effective.

We do not believe that there is one blueprint which the Government can impose on every school. We know that there is a series of ways in which successful schools are organised and led. It should be the Government's job to make sure that the examples of good practice are widely disseminated, and that schools have the opportunity to look at them and to take them up.

I know that the so-called assertive discipline method is being taken on by many schools. After using the system for a year, a school in the Wirral that I visited doubled the numbers of children who were getting the top three grades at GCSE. The school is expecting a further improvement in its results this year. The Government should be actively encouraging those things, and should not be trying—as they did with the national curriculum and its method of assessment and testing—to ram it down the throats of teachers and telling them that this is the way to improve results. With the Dearing review, we now have had a complete change.

We want to move forward sensitively with the best practice. We should not beat teachers over the head and lambast them. We should encourage them to do their best, and to make sure that the pupils do their best.

We will be taking a backward step if the Bill dealing with the education of teachers, which will be coming here shortly from the other place, goes through in the form originally envisaged by the Government. The Government have the concept of the school itself being solely responsible for the education and training of those who wish to enter the teaching profession.

An amendment has been passed in the Lords that will tie in the schools with the institutes of higher education. I hope that we will retain that amendment, because we need an improvement in our initial teacher education. I would have thought—and I hope that many other hon. Members agree—that, after 15 years of Conservative rule, there would be higher standards in our institutes of higher education. We must improve them.

Mr. Stephen

I have listened with genuine interest to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Is he aware that he has already spoken for nearly twice as long as did the proposer of the motion?

Mr. Griffiths

I am aware of that. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will find that more than half of that time has been taken dealing with interventions. I will say one or two more critical things about teacher education, and then I will give the hon. Gentleman the chance to make the speech that he is obviously bursting to make.

We need better teacher education, and far better professional development and in-service training in our schools. We also need to introduce a one-year, or possibly two-year, induction for new teachers. New teachers far too often operate under the fear of failure. There is a culture where if a new teacher goes into a class and does not successfully teach or control it, he is dubbed a failure straight away. The teacher will feel a failure, and other teachers will regard him as such.

A proper method of induction could get rid of that approach, which has often stopped teachers from developing properly, and we could have good-quality teachers. I know that it is happening in some schools. The school in which my daughter started to teach two years ago had a superb induction scheme from which she benefited, and she has made great strides in settling down in that school. So it is being done.

If there is good-quality initial teacher education and good-quality professional development and training, one also must be able to say that those teachers who cannot teach must go. Let us make no bones about it. There must be proper and clear provision for teachers who, with all that help, turn out not to be able to communicate with children to end their connection with the school. That needs to be done clearly.

In our consultations, those involved in education have said that they are happy, given quality initial teacher education, quality professional development, quality induction and support, that when people cannot teach, they should not be in the classroom. Let us make no bones about that.

The issue of religious education and the role of assembly in schools has been mentioned. Let us make it clear that a school cannot be a substitute for either the home or the Church when it comes to religious education and assemblies. Yes, schools should provide religious education and should provide assemblies in which moral values can be inculcated or demonstrated to children. But we should not expect schools to make up for the deficiencies of parents or for the Church. Let us be clear about that. What the National Association of Head Teachers said about the difficulties for schools in the context of religious education was absolutely true. There are not people with the skills in our schools to take on such roles.

Dr. Spink

Train them.

Mr. Griffiths

Yes, they need to be trained, but one cannot go rushing in if one does not have the people to do it.

Lady Olga Maitland

It was done in the past.

Mr. Griffiths

If the hon. Lady thinks that the religious education and assemblies that we had in the past are the key to the future, I should point out that while there were good examples in many places, there were just as many, if not more, in which that approach failed. One might argue that that is one of the reasons why we are where we are today. It is obviously a fruitful area of discussion. I now give the Floor to other hon. Members.

5.32 pm
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who admitted to us that he spent much of his life before coming into the House as a teacher, sitting in a raised position gazing at benches full of recalcitrant and obtuse pupils to whom he tried to impart the arts of spelling and learning, must rub his eyes this afternoon because he is in exactly the reverse position. He is in the learning seat this afternoon and he is confronted here by a line of persistent and patient teachers. He is the pupil. We are doing our best to penetrate his rather obtuse and impervious intellect with the lessons that he has to learn.

The hon. Gentleman is being forced to take extra classes as a result of the arrangements of the House. It is to the credit of the great corps of able teachers, instructors and expositors on these Benches that they have turned out in such quantity and displayed such considerable wit and knowledge in trying to teach this pupil something. I believe that he is not entirely impervious and that by the time we get to 7 o'clock he may have learnt his lesson. We shall have to wait and see.

I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) on his good luck in winning the ballot, his good judgment in selecting this worthwhile topic and, above all, on the very good speech that he made. It was one of the few speeches that we shall be tempted to look up and refer to again after Hansard has been printed to learn pearls of wisdom. My hon. Friend's motion specifies education in the context of the need to safeguard the younger generation. I should like to say a few words in that context about religious education. I believe that most people consider that religious education has a vital part to play in the safeguarding objective which my hon. Friend's motion specifies.

Any mention of the topic of religious education immediately puts the spotlight on the Department for Education's famous circular 1/94—that is to say the first circular for 1994—entitled "Religious education and collective worship". The circular issued official guidance to local education authorities on the two vital topics of religious education and collective worship. It is a working guide or maker's handbook, so to speak, to the provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988 and the Education Act 1993. I believe that the circular, with which my hon. Friend the Minister will be familiar, is an historic document. It reflects a period of debate and decision making about religious education and collective worship in maintained schools of which future historians will not only take careful note but note with astonishment.

In our tolerant, secular and multi-faith age, is it really true that our House of Commons—indeed, our Parliament because the House of Lords was greatly involved—has legislated that

All maintained schools must provide religious education and daily collective worship for all registered pupils and promote their spiritual, moral and cultural development. Local agreed RE syllabuses for county schools … must in future reflect the fact that religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions. Collective worship in county schools and equivalent grant-maintained schools must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, though not distinctive of any particular Christian denomination. Is it really true that the House of Commons and the House of Lords have put into the statute book those clear-cut and specific requirements for the teaching of moral and ethical truths on a Christian basis? Yes, it is true. It is an astonishing fact and one which future generations will scratch their heads about.

The fact that the circular has been issued with the clarity and unequivocal commitment to the teaching predominantly of Christianity and Christian worship in our schools reflects enormous credit on the integrity and clear-headedness, not to say the political and personal courage, of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and his predecessors, ably assisted and supported by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Schools, who will reply to the debate, and perhaps especially the Minister of State in another place, Baroness Blatch.

Lest my right hon. and hon. Friends or anyone else should fear that they have performed a legislative confidence trick in the circular, and that the guidance, and the 1988 and 1993 Acts which it reflects, represent the work of unrepresentative zealots foisting unwanted provisions on a secular and irreligious, although correspondingly passive and apathetic, population—lest that myth should ever gain currency—I remind the House of some significant background facts and figures. Some people are trying to promulgate the idea that we have slipped through an unrepresentative measure.

First, support for the religious education and worship provisions set out in the then Education Reform Act 1988 was massive and cross-party when it was considered, debated and voted on in the House. In a free vote on the relevant clauses in the Education Reform Bill—I emphasise that it was a free vote—the voting was 372 to 108, which was a majority of 264 in favour of writing into the face of the Act that religious education should be compulsory and predominantly Christian. It is not easy to score a large majority on a free vote.

Secondly, the voting reflected faithfully, as free votes so often do, the British population's feelings on the issue. That national consciousness and preference is well reflected in the latest 1992–93 report on religion, "British Social Attitudes", which found that 69 per cent. of respondents believed in God, 64 per cent. were associated with a religious denomination and 70 per cent. favoured school prayers. That is the real world and the real national pulse that that massive majority vote reflected.

Lady Olga Maitland


Mr. Win Griffiths


Mr. Alison

I will give way first to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) out of courtesy to the Front-Bench spokesman and then to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I am becoming a little worried because the hon. Member said that his purpose in this debate was to put me on a learning curve and educate me. I voted in favour of the amendment to which he referred and I am well aware of the survey. When people write to me about religious education I mention that to them.

Mr. Alison

I am happy to accept that rebuke from the hon. Gentleman and hope that it will be temporary. The art of teaching is reinforcing a pupil's knowledge and exposing the lacuna associated with it, which is what I shall do.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is symptomatic of the need for a properly structured Christian education in schools that a poll at Easter discovered that one in four children are unable to recite the Lord's prayer? Does he also agree that it is disappointing that a vast number of local standing advisory councils on religious education have failed to provide a model Christian syllabus? There is a strong tendency to undermine our efforts to bring Christian teaching into our schools in favour of what I would describe as a multicultural mish-mash.

Mr. Alison

I take my hon. Friend's point and share her shock and dismay at the evidence of lack of knowledge and understanding that she exposes. Let us take comfort from the fact that the Education Reform Act dates back to 1988 and the subsequent Education Act back to 1993 and that sometimes it takes a little time for a rocket to lift off into orbit, but into orbit it will go. There is land to be possessed and we will possess it.

I was trying to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues are not out on a limb in any sense in the lead that they have given on religious education. I shall remind the House of one or two other people who are out on a limb. I have some information to impart to the hon. Member for Bridgend —Mr. Nigel de Gruchy is one such person. He is the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers and it is clear from his article in The Daily Telegraph on 20 April that when he calls for the scrapping of the legal requirement for religious education and worship—one can hardly credit it —he really wants secular schools. That is not what most people want, as I tried to suggest, and certainly not what most mums and dads want. However, that is what Nigel de Gruchy wants. Was the hon. Member for Bridgend fully apprised of the fact that that was what a major union leader was calling for? Perhaps this is the time for him to enter a new learning curve.

Similarly, the recent statement by the National Association of Head teachers argues for all religions to be taught for the same amount of time. Think what it would mean—a supermarket shelf full of the religions of the world, all of which are to be given equal exposure and treatment. The NAHT argues that if that is not possible our schools should be secular.

Nigel de Gruchy and David Hart, the general secretary of the NAHT, appear to want cultural relativism or barren secularism in education—anything other than our Christian heritage.

Dr. Spink

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Nigel de Gruchy said that schools can provide a better and more relevant moral code of ethics than that provided in the Bible?

Mr. Alison

That is the ultimate in presumption and arrogance. Union leaders are out of touch with their own members, let alone with parents. The NAHT argues that a daily act of Christian worship is an impossibility. I believe that David Hart has written in those terms to the Secretary of State. It is ironic that David Hart and the NAHT—a union which predominantly represents primary heads—should make that statement. A few weeks ago the Office for Standards in Education reported on religious education and showed that there is widespread compliance with the law in primary schools. Ofsted inspectors stated: all the schools complied with the requirement to provide daily collective worship". Yet David Hart, who primarily represents primary school heads, told the Secretary of State that it was impossible to provide a daily act of worship. Who is kidding whom?

The real world is the world discovered by the Ofsted inspection. To elaborate on its report, it not only said that all the schools"— that it had visited— complied with the requirement to provide daily collective worship"— but that— Judged in terms of the quality of the opportunity they provided for social and moral development, standards in these acts of worship were satisfactory or better in 75 per cent of the schools". Yet the general secretary of the relevant teachers union still said that it is an "impossibility" to conduct an act of worship in primary schools. I am not pretending, of course, that all is well with religious education and collective worship—my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) made that vividly clear in her intervention.

The position in secondary schools is certainly not as good as that reported by Ofsted in its visit to primary schools. There is still much land to be possessed in the relaunch of religious education following the 1988 and 1993 Acts. The Ofsted report contained some daunting facts and figures on the inadequate provision for religious education in primary and secondary schools. For example, it reported A high proportion of teachers lacked the confidence, expertise, enthusiasm and interest to teach the subject effectively; many had volunteered because they valued the contribution of RE to the pupils' moral and social education It is therefore still very necessary that greater confidence should be imparted to teachers, that more teachers specialise in religious education and that the status of that subject in the school curriculum and in subject provision should rise increasingly and be better regarded.

Let me quote a little vignette from paragraph 68 of the Ofsted report, which shows what could be done. It states:

Primary heads generally took responsibility for planning and conducting the acts of worship and often used the occasion as a major vehicle for setting standards of behaviour and relationships in the school. Visiting speakers, including local clergy, were invited to most schools during the course of the year and often made an important contribution. Increasingly the teaching staff do not attend school acts of worship. Schools need to consider what such non-attendance signals to pupils and the limits which this may place upon following up themes from worship in the classroom. Surely the way forward is for a good lead to be given by head teachers and for the maximum use and support to be derived from local clergy and laity. The local laity, who are committed and active in their own churches and denominations, live in the rough and tumble of the real secular world and they therefore have an immense contribution to make in the sphere of religious education. They could be of particular value in acts of worship, because they could help children to identify and integrate their view of life with work and religion.

A more positive lead should be forthcoming from the leaders in my own Church of England—not least some of its bishops and our Church of England Board of Education —in helping to raise the status of religious education and boosting it rather than criticising and denigrating it and collective worship.

I should like to refer in particular to the Board of Education and to an article which appeared on page 506 of this week's edition of The Tablet. The board seems to be obsessed with the issue of religious pluralism and religious minorities and the lot and the role of other religions in state religious education rather than with the teaching opportunities offered for the faith of which it is the trustee and custodian. Surely its approach is out of perspective. Just 3 per cent. of children on our own maintained school rolls come from a non-Christian cultural or religious background.

I accept that there are a handful of areas, obviously Bradford is one, where there is a concentration of such religious minorities, but they are offered opt-out provisions under the religious education statutes. Surely the Church of England, through all its hierarchy and bureaucracy, should be seizing the opportunity to develop predominantly Christian religious education in our schools.

Mr. Rowe

Is not it also the case that in many instances those minorities have a far clearer grasp of the importance of religious education to the children of their communities than we appear to evince? When the Archbishop of Canterbury preached to us at the start of this Parliament he said that in his estimation Muslims and other minority religions in this country respected Christians to the extent that they were bold and stood up for their faith and despised them to the extent that they were difficult to define.

Mr. Alison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that important and significant reference on the record.

Anyone who has had any dealings with religious education in the maintained sector knows, for example, that the Islamic community, relatively small though it may be, would much prefer its children to be taught in a Church of England school or a maintained school where religious education is an important and constructive part of the curriculum. After all, for members of that community Jesus is a prophet as much as Mohammed. Those people would much prefer to have their children taught in a Christian context than in a wholly secular one.

I beg my revered superiors in my own Church—the bishops and the Church of England Board of Social Responsibility—to recall that no other European country has such liberal and multifaith religious education as we do in Britain. In virtually all European countries, religious education is almost totally Christian and Christianity is taught as true—the confessional approach. In many states, only practising Christians are permitted to teach the subject. Non-Christian faiths are taught, if they are taught at all, in the upper secondary schools. On this matter, we should take a lesson from Europe.

In the whole of Europe, only France has secular education; even the former communist countries are now putting Christianity back into the timetable. In 1963, in the United States a humanist mother successfully got the Supreme Court to ban school prayer on the ground that it infringed the first amendment requiring the separation of Church and state. I am glad to say that that lady's son is now fighting to have that ruling reversed, because he suffered from a lack of religious education in school. That 1963 ruling is being widely challenged in practically every state of America and the dissatisfaction with the secular education is revealed by the growth in Christian private schools. According to Andrew Greeley, professor of social science at the university of Chicago, 73 per cent. of Americans want daily prayers in state schools. It is surely only a matter of time before the 1963 Supreme Court ruling is overturned. Our own Church of England bureaucrats should savour and increasingly represent that spirit and movement.

It is worth reminding my colleagues how inextricably our language, culture and history are bound up with Christianity. You, Madam Deputy Speaker and your successor in the Chair, will need to exercise the wisdom of Solomon in deciding who to call next. You will have to have faith, hope and charity in believing that Madam Speaker's plea for short speeches will be observed. You will need the patience of Job as you sit in the Chair and you probably often wish that you could nip off and watch "Love Thy Neighbour" in the television room. Looking at our colleagues in the round, not many of us are inclined to turn the other cheek. We are more inclined to pursue the policy of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If one is my hon. Friend the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition, one finds many of one's colleagues a thorn in the flesh. One is probably inclined to call some female colleagues Jezebels, some male colleagues Judases. One may even think that The Times, or even The Daily Telegraph, utters too many Jeremiahs. If one is my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), one is well known as a good Samaritan, as all those who followed his course to that housing estate where he confronted the yobbo the other day will only too readily know. We hope that the hon. Member for Bridgend in his learning capacity, will have a Damascus road experience before long.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I have already had it.

Mr. Alison

We very much hope that the hon. Gentleman who will follow me to speak will not be all things to all men. It will be difficult for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), who does not suffer fools gladly, to be sympathetic towards what the hon. Gentleman has to say in that case.

We have here the opportunity of listening to words which represent pearls of great price from my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), since he went into the Whips Office, must have discovered the meaning of the phrase, "Wheels within wheels". My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is a David confronting the Goliath of British Rail and the French consortium in the massive intrusions on his lovely constituency landscape. The Whip on duty, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood), will be made a scapegoat if we finish the debate with the wrong vote at the wrong time.

One could go on with many such illustrations. I hope that my speech will not be weighed in the balance and found wanting. The point is that Christianity is deeply written into the texture of our national cultural, religious and social life and we must get RE on to a rising trajectory in the role and the significance that it occupies in the life and teaching of our country.

I am pleased to be able to support the great initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford in launching us into this important debate.

6.2 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I join all the other hon. Members who have spoken in congratulating the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) on initiating this important, interesting and wide-ranging debate. I enjoyed his contribution and learnt a great deal from it. I shall not touch on many of his arguments, but I agreed with most of what he said. I especially agreed with his remarks about some of the things that we have seen on our television screens. I share his view that the decision made by the House recently in respect of video nasties was a victory for common sense and an example of the House operating at its best.

I agreed with more of what the hon. Member for Romford had to say than what was said in interventions by some of his hon. Friends. For example, the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) advocated that we return to the days when pupils sat before their teachers in serried rows. It was reminiscent of the ditty: Ram it in, ram it in, Children's heads are hollow; Ram it in, ram it in, Still there's more to follow. The world of education has learnt a great deal from those days, and some of the approaches to education that have been adopted in our classrooms are much more constructive than was suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Romford will agree with me in that respect because, in his interesting contribution, he made it clear that he believed—I agree with him—that our education system must be designed to cater for the aptitudes and abilities of individual pupils. That means considering, in part at least, a more individualised approach to what happens in the classroom.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) will not think me discourteous if I do not spend much time in responding to his interesting contribution. He suggested that it was primarily intended as a lesson for the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). However, I was skulking at the back of the classroom and I picked up a few of the pearls of wisdom. I hope that there will be an opportunity for a full-scale debate in the House both on religious education and on the issue of collective worship in our schools.

It may save time and avoid some of the interventions that may have been planned if I remind the House that, like the hon. Member for Bridgend, I am an adviser to the National Union of Teachers and, like the hon. Member for Bridgend, I attended briefly the NUT conference. However, unlike the hon. Member for Bridgend, I have said publicly in advance of the debate that although I agree with the anxieties of the NUT about testing, I believe that the tactics that it has adopted are incorrect.

The hon. Member for Romford said that he wished to speak about two subjects—education and upbringing. That links, appropriately, what happens in our schools with the role that parents can play in the crucial task of educating people.

Everyone in the House would agree that education is vital, not only for individual pupils, but for the future of our country. There can be no more crucial investment than investment in the education service. I hope that Members will agree that the cost of providing poor education is ultimately greater than the cost of providing a first-class education service for all.

The hon. Member for Bridgend referred to one of those sectors of our education service in which we need to do much more—nursery education. I was disappointed that it was not referred to by the proposer of the motion. I think that it is now accepted by all the major political parties that nursery education and the development of nursery education are crucial. Nothing could be more important than making the right start, and nothing is more damaging than getting it wrong.

The hon. Member for Bridgend made an eloquent case for nursery education. In view of the time, I shall not refer to some of the important issues that he mentioned. The hon. Gentleman was remiss in not being able to present to the House a convincing explanation of the way in which the Labour party would pay for the massive expansion of nursery education for which it calls.

The Liberal Democrat party has made it clear that we would like a massive expansion of nursery education. We believe that that expansion cannot wait, and that it must be instituted as rapidly as possible. We have made it clear that we believe that it will cost a great deal of money—about £806 million annually, although there will be some savings from the 40,000 jobs that will be created by that expansion. A massive building programme will be needed, possibly of the order of £1.5 billion, and a significant training programme will be needed to ensure that all the nursery teachers who will be required have the necessary skills.

We recognise that our programme is ambitious and costly, and that we need to say where the money will come from, which is why we have said honestly that we believe that the money must come from general taxation and, if there is a need and we cannot find it from any other source, general taxation will have to increase to pay for it.

The hon. Member for Bridgend, if he is honest, is saying nothing different from the Government, and that is that nursery education must wait until resources become available.

Mr. Stephen

The hon. Gentleman has said frankly that his party would increase general taxation to improve education. Can he tell us by how much taxation would have to be increased to pay for all the other improvements that his party stands for in health, environment, social services and so on?

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Shoreham for giving me an opportunity, but I fear that if I go into the question of health and other matters you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will rule me out of order. I shall perhaps simply remind you that at the time of the last Budget my party put forward a fully costed alternative budget. It included significant improvements in the education service. Although we suggested that taxation should increase, the level that we had in mind was nowhere near that proposed and implemented by the Conservative party. We said at the last election that we would raise taxes if necessary, in marked contrast with the Conservative party, which said nothing of the sort. Indeed, the Conservatives implied to the electorate that they hoped to reduce taxation. Our estimate of the cost of a massive expansion of nursery education is less than half a penny on income tax, at both income tax rates.

The hon. Member for Bridgend has failed to make it clear where the Labour party stands on that matter. That is a pity, because the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has been going round the country telling people how bad the Conservative party and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats have been in their nursery education provision. Will the hon. Member for Bridgend remind the hon. Member for Blackburn that his local education authority provides nursery education for less than 19 per cent. of the relevant population, whereas the average for the country as a whole stands at some 24 per cent?

A report published today, entitled "Major's children 94", discusses the feelings and attitudes about which the hon. Member for Romford is so concerned. He would be as disappointed as me to read in that report that the vast majority of young people say that the only reason that they go to school is to meet their friends. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should develop our education service in such a way that schools become places which children want to attend because they see the benefits of schooling and a good, rounded education.

One step that we could take would be to deal with the state of our school buildings. Estimates show that the backlog of repair and maintenance amounts to some £4.3 billion. Although the Government have made some interesting and helpful suggestions to tackle truancy, I hope that they will consider tackling the state of school buildings because, if we could make schools attractive, it would go some way towards reducing truancy.

The main thrust of the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Romford, however, linked education with the family. It is crucial that parents are involved in their children's education. Early last week, the National Consumer Council produced a report called "Home and School: Building a Better Partnership". It contained some interesting ideas to develop the concept of the school-parent partnership. I suspect that the Minister will say a few words about that important matter in his winding-up speech.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that the relationship between schools and parents is not just about parents charters. Only today, we learnt that few people understand the content of the patients charter. I suspect that the new parents charter will not go far in developing the link between schools and parents. One way to develop that partnership is by ensuring that parents are given adequate, meaningful and useful information about what is happening in schools, particularly as it affects their children.

The Minister and Conservative Members may say that the Government's current testing and assessment procedures linked to league tables are providing that information, but I entirely disagree. The information is collected through educationally unsound tests. The information from the testing system is partial and does not help parents. The Secretary of State appears to be back-tracking from what he accepted only a few months ago.

The Dearing report, to which reference has already been made, recommended collaboration with the Office for Standards in Education and the School Curriculum Assessment Authority in mounting a research project into the potential of value added as a measure of achievement. In accepting the Dearing report in its entirety, the Secretary of State was presumed by people outside to have accepted the principle of the urgent need to consider the concept of value added as a vital component of league tables and tests.

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Mr. Foster

I note the Minister's acceptance. If that is so, it contrasts strangely with the remarks in a document produced by the Conservative party, in which the Secretary of State, in his capacity as a Member of Parliament representing Oxford, West and Abingdon, referred to my comments and said: Mr. Foster proposes to make the tables 'value-added' … distorting the facts and making them unintelligible. That is strange, given that the Secretary of State accepted the principle of value added. I hope that the Minister will now intervene and put the record straight.

Mr. Forth

I am happy to do so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accepts the need for the SCAA and Ofsted to look into ways of establishing meaningful "value-added" concepts in the publication of school results. But neither he nor I, nor any other sensible person, accepts massaging the figures to give the outcome which many people would prefer rather than a true portrayal of the performance of schools that value-added measures would give. We are asking the SCAA to establish a validity of approach, and we eagerly await that.

Mr. Foster

In that case, I agree with the Minister. If he says that he wants a new vehicle that will enable us to make judgments about schools based on issues that include value added, I am more than happy to agree with him, and I hope that that will be introduced as rapidly as possible.

The issue of parent-school relationships means that parents should have more opportunity to know what is going on and have a voice in it. I hope that the parents' advice shops that have been established in one or two parts of the country, and the conciliation centres to which parents can go in cases of dispute, will be expanded. Although I do not advocate it, I see some merit in looking into the possibility of establishing an educational ombudsman.

The hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned the proposed legislation on teacher training. Although I share his anxieties about the proposed legislation, which we shall have much opportunity to debate in the House and in Committee, I hope that during the Bill's passage we shall discuss the importance of ensuring that teacher-training courses instruct student teachers on how best to work with parents and the local community. That should be part of teacher-training programmes, but currently it rarely is.

Once in post, teachers need to be given time to develop their relationships with parents and with the wider community. That is very difficult for many of them, because of the overloading that they have experienced through the national curriculum, testing and assessment procedures and the massive increase in bureaucracy that has resulted from much of the Government's recent legislation.

Above all, it is crucial for parents to have a better chance of a say in the education process. Education, after all, should be everyone's business. Many parents currently find it difficult to know how they are expected to have a say, however—partly owing to recent legislation that has centralised power, transferring it from local communities and local government to the Secretary of State and often passing it on to quangos. Such bodies are undoubtedly remote and undemocratic, operating at some distance from parental groups and holding many meetings in secret.

Lady Olga Maitland

I was delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman say that parents should have more input. Does he agree that it was parents who opted for grant-maintained schools? Given that parental choice brought the schools into that sector, does the Liberal party intend not to sweep them away?

Mr. Foster

This is, I think, the third time this year that the hon. Lady has asked me that question. I shall give her the same reply again. I do not agree with grant-maintained schools. I do not think it right for a particular group of parents, at a particular time, to vote on the future for all time of an individual school which, after all, should be the property of the wider community.

Given that the hon. Lady is so concerned about parental choice, and believes that balloting for grant-maintained schools is a good example of the exercise of that choice, I do not understand why she has never agreed with the following proposition: if she is right about that form of voting, why is it not equally right for parents to be allowed to vote, if they so wish, for schools to opt back into local education authority control? But the hon. Lady will never agree with that. She is prepared to vote for parental choice only on the rare occasions when it supports the party-political dogma of the Conservatives.

Unfortunately, evidence from around the country suggests that very few parents support that political dogma. Only recently, the Secretary of State spoke at the most ill-named conference of all time: "Grant-Maintained Schools—Maintaining the Momentum". There is no momentum towards grant-maintained schools: the number of ballots is declining, as is the number of schools voting yes—to a marked extent. I hope that I have explained to the hon. Lady where I stand and why I disagree with her; but I also hope that I have made clear the crucial importance of parental involvement.

The motion refers specifically to the need to encourage a wide diversity of choice in schooling". The hon. Member for Romford and I agree with that wording, but I suspect that our interpretation of it differs widely. For instance, I would expect the hon. Gentleman to support the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) in her view that the introduction of grant-maintained schools is an example of an increase in diversity and choice; no doubt he supports the principle of city technology colleges for the same reason.

I disagree with that interpretation. I disagree with the concept that is implicit in the hon. Gentleman's reference to choice, which suggests that he assumes that all parents can choose where to send their children. In fact, the vast majority of parents have no choice at all—which is why it is crucial for the choice and diversity that he mentions to apply in each school. Each school should be able to meet pupils' specific aptitudes and abilities—words used by the hon. Gentleman.

The Government are offering a false prospectus in regard to choice. If parents had the choice, they would choose smaller classes, more books and equipment and teachers with much higher morale. I was disturbed to learn today from a report that the number of teachers retiring on grounds of ill health has almost doubled since the introduction of the national curriculum.

If the hon. Member for Romford is truly concerned about improving education and upbringing, perhaps he will ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education—the Lynda Snell of British politics—to end the constant stream of quick-fix gimmicks and concentrate instead on investing in education, returning to the co-operation and partnership that should be the basis for it and ensuring excellence for all.

6.25 pm
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

I am pleased to be able to speak, and privileged to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert)—a valued colleague in London politics—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). Both are very sound on the topics that they have discussed at some length. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford on his success in the ballot and his tabling of this important motion.

I want to concentrate on a specific part of the motion which caught my eye—the following words: That this House, recognising one generation's responsibility for the next". The implication is that the House must seek to educate the next generation.

I have a particular interest in London politics. Inner London has now experienced four years of education without the unlamented Inner London education authority. Education in inner London has been conducted by the 12 new education authorities, three of which are excellent Conservative authorities; eight are Labour and one, in Tower Hamlets, is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. What we sought to do in the Education Reform Act 1988 in dispensing with ILEA, which had failed a generation of London children—if not two—is now coming to light.

For many years, ILEA had been at the bottom of the list of education authorities. That is why, following the 1987 general election, the Conservative Government sought to abolish it in that historic 1988 Act. Now, after four years of the new education authorities which came into being in 1990, we are seeing results. The three Conservative authorities—Wandsworth, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea—gained higher than average GCSE results, according to the 1993 tables, than their Labour and Liberal neighbours in the other nine inner London boroughs. The same Conservative authorities gained more A-level points per student than the Labour authorities, and many more than the Liberal Democrat authority in Tower Hamlets.

Mr. Win Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman has given us some interesting statistics. Will he tell us what the equivalent performances were four years ago for those schools in Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington and Chelsea?

Mr. Tracey

The performance of those schools in the last years of ILEA was far worse than it is now. Their performances are far better now. As I shall explain later, there is a desire among parents in Labour authorities in inner London to move to neighbouring Conservative authorities across borough boundaries. That is causing problems. One is now far less likely to gain successful GCSE passes in the Labour and Liberal boroughs than in Conservative boroughs. If one lives in a Labour borough, one is 39 per cent. more likely to leave school with no GCSE passes. If one lives in a Liberal borough, the figure is 50 per cent. That proves why there was a real need for this generation of politicians to correct the iniquitous position that existed before.

Mr. Don Foster

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the debate in the Chamber only a few minutes ago when the Minister agreed with me about the vital importance of considering the issue of value added? In that respect, is the hon. Gentleman aware that Article 26 produced a value-added-based league table of local education authorities and that the position of Tower Hamlets rose dramatically to eighth in the entire country?

Mr. Tracey

The hon. Gentleman is new to this House and he was not here at the time of the debates on the Education Reform Act 1988. We have heard all about the Liberals' value-added results and the word is that they have been massaged by the Liberal Democratic party to try to deceive the people of this country.

The claim that Labour authorities and Liberal Democrat authorities have a desire to spend more money on education than Conservative authorities, which seek to make cuts, is fallacious. The education spending of the Conservative authorities in inner London—Wandsworth, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea—has totalled on average £14.01 million more than the Government have recommended. The Labour authorities, by contrast, have spent on average £5.82 million less than was recommended by the Government. The Liberals in Tower Hamlets—here is another figure that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) may wish to massage—have underfunded education by £18.46 million. That completely blows asunder the claim by the Labour and Liberal parties that they are committed to the education of our children. There is no evidence of that in inner London.

I am sorry to have to build on the pain of the Opposition parties, but the band D council tax charge in inner-London Conservative authorities is £171.67 less than in Liberal-controlled Tower Hamlets, and £249 less than in Labour authorities in inner London.

The evidence of the quality of Conservative education in inner London has led to parents in surrounding boroughs wishing to move across the boundary line, as is their right, to seek a good Conservative education for their children. That has meant that 4,000 pupils from surrounding boroughs have come into Conservative boroughs in inner London. In Wandsworth, 2,255 pupils travel from Lambeth each day. That is an example of parents voting with their feet to seek a better education for their children.

My final argument relates again to people moving across borough boundaries. My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised to hear that I am about to raise with him one of the most serious issues of concern to parents in my constituency of Surbiton and in the education authority of the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames. It relates to the Greenwich judgment in the High Court, which considered the situation that arose as a result of the break-up of the Inner London education authority. Parents in Lewisham wanted their children to have a better education and began to move them into Greenwich. Greenwich tried to stop them, and was challenged by parents in Lewisham. The High Court ruled that parents in Lewisham had the right to move their children to Greenwich.

My education authority is top of the GCSE league table. Parents in the education authorities that surround Kingston upon Thames—Richmond, Surrey, Epsom and Ewell and Merton—seek to send their children into Kingston upon Thames. We have two excellent maintained grammar schools—the Tiffin boys' school and Tiffin girls' school. Every year, about 1,000 parents from the surrounding boroughs seek to gain entry for their children to those schools, but there are only 120 places available in each school.

There is a knock-on effect in that the other, non-selective schools in Kingston upon Thames find themselves under pressure from other parents in Kingston who are seeking places. The result is that some parents in my constituency feel that they are being denied a proper choice of school because, as a result of the Greenwich judgment, people are crossing the borough boundary to seek places for their children in our schools.

Parents, especially of girls, seek single-sex schools for their children. That is very true in relation to two schools in the royal borough of Kingston: Tolworth school in my constituency and Coombe girls' school in the Kingston upon Thames constituency, for which at any given time between 20 and 100 people are on the waiting list.

There is enormous frustration among those parents who believe that choice is being denied to them. My hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Education will say that those parents can seek other schools, possibly in other boroughs, but the parents do not wish to do so. They say that if they live in the education authority with the best standards in the country, they should be able to send their children to those schools. They say that schools in surrounding boroughs are not so good.

That is the dilemma that they face. They live in a borough with a high standard of education. It is about time that there was true justice for those parents. The Government should consider this problem and ensure that my constituents are able to look after the generations to come by ensuring that their children have the best possible education.

6.39 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

One hundred and twenty years ago it was said: Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends. They were the words of Benjamin Disraeli and they were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), another Essex man. I was especially taken by the part of my hon. Friend's motion which states that there must be resistance to harmful influences to which children are exposed". The motion is in two parts: it refers to the education provided in our schools and to the education that we, as parents, give children at home.

I listened to the utterances of the two Opposition socialist parties, but heard no new ideas, and all their proposals would cost money. I do not believe that one necessarily has to spend more money in order to provide a better education. My children go to excellent state schools in my constituency of Basildon and I also went to an excellent state school.

Mr. Stephen

My hon. Friend will be aware that more money is spent per pupil under this Government than at any time in our history. Is he satisfied that the taxpayer is getting value for money?

Mr. Amess

No, I am not. I hope that, when the two Opposition socialist parties are campaigning during the local elections and when Mrs. Smith comes to the door and says that the tax changes are shocking and that she is worried about the changes in value added tax, the canvassers will be honest and admit that if they were in government, they would increase her taxes even further. However, I take my hon. Friend's point.

I was also worried by what I heard about nursery education. There are excellent pre-school playgroups in my constituency. They do a magnificent job, but they are worried about what is being said about nursery education. They do not wish their role in the education of our children to be usurped by new plans.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Schools has visited my constituency and will agree that standards are improving in all the schools there. Two years ago, the head of one of the seven secondary schools in my constituency criticised the league tables because he was worried that his school would be towards the bottom. He wrote a leading article earlier this year, praising the same league tables because he was delighted that his school now seemed to be climbing to the top. Of course, Chalvedon school in my constituency was the first grant-maintained school in Essex. I am delighted that, just a short while ago, it was announced that it is to be one of the 12 schools that are to have city technology college status. That is an excellent commendation of the wonderful education that children receive there. Standards in all schools in my constituency are improving; I have cited two examples in particular.

Langdon Hills special school is embarking on a project for children with special learning difficulties. The children are taught in small groups and, in the past 18 months, the schools has managed to achieve remarkable results. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues will reflect on those results. In Basildon, we are especially concerned about dyslexia. Many parents worry when their children have special learning difficulties. Thanks to a wonderful lady called Christine Haggerty, groups of children with special learning difficulties are encouraged to participate in special programmes.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) kindly referred to my clash with yobboes a few weeks ago. There is not time for the House to hear the details of the incident, but the vicar involved, whose wife is a schoolteacher, released my private letter to the press and it subsequently hit the headlines. I had written to him privately to say how shocked I was that a child of theirs could support the yobbo element that I and others had confronted. In this week's local paper, another local vicar has written in support.

Schools certainly have a very important job to do between 9 am and 3 pm, but the education of our children cannot be left to the schools alone. That is why I especially applaud the present Secretary of State for Education who, when he was first appointed, made a marvellous speech about partnership between schools and parents. What happens at home is also important. It is no good some parents leaving their children in front of the television or giving them computer games and expecting them to educate themselves. Unfortunately, not all children go to bed at 7 pm, even when they are told to do so. The general idea is that material that one does not want one's children to see is shown after the 9 pm cut-off point, but that is not always what happens. It behoves us all to ensure that children receive careful supervision.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a Prime Minister said: The Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity"— we must not fail them.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) and thank him for enabling us to have this debate, which has been important and valuable for a number of reasons. It has reflected accurately the widespread concern about what is happening in society and what we can do about it—an important function of debates such as these. It has also set those concerns mainly in the context of education which, I believe, is correct.

It was instructive that my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said the supportive things that he did. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for highlighting the great efforts that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have made to introduce new standards, especially in the vital spheres of religious education and collective worship. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby made no apology—one would not expect him to do so and, in acknowledgement of the nature of our society, nor should any hon. Member—for highlighting the importance of the established Church and of our established religion in providing a framework and point of reference for building what we want to build in our schools in terms of ethical and moral values. That is a point often repeated by the Secretary of State. His favourite phrase in this regard is that schools cannot and should not be value-free zones. In the past two years, that has very much been the message of my right hon. Friends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford raised another important point, which was reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and which is one that we must face directly. Whatever we do in terms of legislation and statute; whatever accountability we establish at school level to parents via governors; whatever independent inspection regimes we establish through the excellent work of the Office for Standards in Education; and whatever we ask of our teachers, headteachers and governors, all of whom are vital, in the end we always come back to the role that parents play.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my hon. Friend agree that parents' role is to provide their children with a stable home and that they should therefore think twice before they divorce, bearing in mind the fact that divorce has a detrimental effect on children's development?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is correct. I hope that all parents think about the effect on their children of anything that happens in the home or in the family. I am sure that in many cases—although not all and not enough—such considerations are paramount in parents' minds when they think about such matters.

The problem is this. The Government have been right to give parents a prime role in education, whether in terms of expressing a preference in school, playing a role as governors or whatever. We have encouraged their participation. However, with that goes an element of risk. The risk is that the children of parents who cannot or will not rise to the challenge and co-operate may be vulnerable; in some cases, that vulnerability will go beyond the children of those parents. That is very much our challenge as a society. It is a responsibility which the Government must share, but which they cannot accept in totality. My hon. Friends' concerns so often come back to that point.

Let us consider, for example, the concerns rightly reflected by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford about video nasties. I claim that we have gone a great distance, as a Government, to try to deal with the matter. An important role is played by the British board of control in establishing what videos are appropriate and suitable, and in which circumstances. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has recently introduced new and tough measures, which were widely welcomed in the House. However, when we come down to it, it must surely be the case that what is shown on video recording machines in people's homes can only be the responsibility of parents. Exercise whatever control we may, in the end we come back to that point again and again. With the best will in the world and providing the best framework in schools and in homes, we must face the fact that parents will ultimately determine the standards and responsibilities that are exercised in these important areas.

The same point probably applies in areas such as sex education, from which we have given parents the right to withdraw their children if they believe that that is appropriate. I believe that that was the correct thing for us to do, although I acknowledge that concerns have been caused in some quarters. One of the reasons for such concerns is that, although some parents may have views and beliefs, and may be willing to give their children what they regard as an appropriate sex education, most parents still look to schools to provide sex education in a proper way and within a proper framework of values.

In law, and through circulars and guidance, we have tried to encourage schools to provide sex education within the framework of values, ethics, standards and morality. I hope that the House will forgive me for so frequently quoting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As he said, schools must teach not just the plumbing, but the values, which must be built into all the guidance that we give our young people in our schools. That is essential and is part of what we are trying to do.

I believe that the very positive remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby reflect the real efforts that we have made in recent years to provide schools with the opportunity to give young people a framework, a sense of values and points of reference throughout the teaching that they receive, whether in the matter of daily collective worship and religious education, in the provision of sex education or in other elements of the curriculum. In the science curriculum, for example, schools impart knowledge to young people about drugs and other factors that can be damaging to their health. There are lessons that young people must learn about avoiding peer-group pressure and about avoiding substances that can be harmful to them. In all those ways, schools have a vital role to play. I hope that we are giving them the guidance, material and mechanisms with which to play those roles. However, yet again, if parents are not co-operative, not prepared to allow their children to receive that guidance in schools and not prepared to give teachers the backing that they need when they are trying their best to give young people that guidance, it is difficult to see what else can be done.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) made some revealing remarks, at which I shall look carefully. They gave us some interesting hints about his party's attitude to certain elements of education, although there was some confusion in what he said. He gave credit to Sir Ron Dearing—I am grateful for that—for squaring up to the real problems that had emerged in the curriculum and in the testing regime a year ago, for coming forward with imaginative solutions and for providing something that could be widely welcomed and accepted, both by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and throughout education.

Having said all that, the hon. Member for Bridgend drew back somewhat, as a representative of, or adviser to, the National Union of Teachers, from condemning the NUT roundly in its desire, alone among the teachers' unions, to continue to threaten the disruption of education and of testing this year, even against the background of the progress that has been made thanks to the work of Sir Ron Dearing. I found that confusing.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I make it clear that the NUT whole-heartedly takes up the changes proposed in the Dearing review and wants them to be a success. I pointed out that the NUT had balloted its members who said that overall, they were not prepared to undertake this year's tests, but that they were prepared to take on the tests that were the outcome of the Dearing review. For my own part, I believe that all schools should look at the tests for this year and, if it is the wish of the staff, they should take them.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgend. That is a helpful comment which, again, we shall wish to look at and consider; it may move us forward. I hope that the NUT will look carefully at the hon. Gentleman's words given his shadow responsibility for education; that may well be helpful.

It was regrettable that the hon. Member for Bridgend went on to imply that one of the ways in which he would fund his as yet unspecified commitment to nursery education would be by abolishing the assisted places scheme, which plays an important role in education and which allows access to excellent education for young people and parents who would not otherwise receive it. It is regrettable that the Labour party is prepared to be so destructive of something that has proved to be of such value and so popular among parents to fund an unspecified commitment to nursery education. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) reckoned that the commitment fell far below anything to which he and his party aspired. However, I leave that matter for the hon. Gentlemen to sort out between themselves.

In a superb speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby brought to light a worrying discrepancy. Ofsted, the independent inspectorate, pointed out the excellent steps taken by so many schools to provide quality collective worship and religious education. On the other hand, there were the bizarre comments made recently by the National Association of Head Teachers. The general secretary of the NAHT said that it was somehow impossible to provide a daily act of worship in primary schools. That simply will not do and it illustrates a worrying trend among some teachers' unions and their general secretaries. They are prepared to come out with negative, unhelpful and destructive comments when so many of their members—in this case, head teachers—are working so hard to meet the demanding challenges set by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to do what the law now requires. I hope that the House agrees that that is a matter of some regret.

Overall, the debate has been positive. It has highlighted a number of concerns, but it has also given us the opportunity to see the way forward in so many ways in the vital area of providing the correct value and moral framework within which our education must proceed. I am grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends who have participated in and sat through the debate in such large numbers. I share the regret expressed by some of my hon. Friends that so few Opposition Members took the trouble even to attend the debate and that so few participated in it.

6.58 pm
Sir Michael Neubert

This has been a lively and spirited debate. Having listened to every word of it, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part. In particular, I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends who have contributed either by their speeches, by their interventions or just by their attendance and vocal support. It has been an interesting occasion. It has brought forward one or two developments and has revealed, especially in relation to the post-Easter conference position of the National Union of Teachers on testing, some new prospects of progress, which I hope may be achieved. I hope that, overall, we have served the interests of the next generation by debating these important issues today.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, recognising one generation's responsibility for the next and the critical importance of young people's development to a stable, healthy and well-ordered society, calls on the Government to continue to encourage a wide diversity of choice in schooling, greater priority for the needs of children within the family and resistance to harmful influences to which they are exposed in the media and elsewhere.

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