HC Deb 12 July 1994 vol 246 cc812-3
2. Dr. Wright

To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the extension of parental choice of school.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten)

The Government have given parents the right to express a preference for their choice of school, to a great deal more information and to a wider choice of schools through, for instance, the expansion of the self-governing grant-maintained sector, city technology colleges and technology colleges. Even greater diversity and choice is on the horizon with the possibility of schools specialising in other areas of study, such as languages or the arts, or selecting on grounds of aptitude and ability wholly or in part—including more grammar schools.

Dr. Wright

Does the Minister recall that, in each of the past two years, Five Ways primary school in my constituency, a successful and popular school, has had its application for expansion rejected by the Department on the ground that there are surplus places in schools within a two-mile radius? Parents and governors, having heard about the circular issued by the Department on 22 June—typically, replies were invited by 5 August—now believe that this successful school is to be allowed to expand. Are they right?

Mr. Patten

I cannot limit my discretion in the case of any school before considering it. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's question. I recall his raising it at least twice before during questions, and I believe that, in an Adjournment debate, he discussed the desire of the parents of Five Ways school to have it expanded—even though there are surplus school places and other, less popular, schools within a reasonable distance.

We shall consider any future application purely on its merits, but I applaud the way in which the hon. Gentleman is bringing to the attention of the House the fact that local parents want popular schools to expand.

Mr. Butterfill

When he next visits Bournemouth, will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to see the wide variety of schools there? We have traditional grammar schools and comprehensive schools that are gaining better results than any others in the country, but we also have grant-maintained schools and secondary schools that offer a wide variety of vocational courses. There is also a thriving independent sector. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the sort of choice we need to offer parents? Will he condemn the Liberal Democratic and Labour parties for trying to close down that choice?

Mr. Patten

I have always condemned both those parties and, for good measure, I will include Plaid Cymru for wanting to close down the range of opportunities the other side of Offa's dyke. I am happy to condemn anyone else whom my hon. Friend wants me to condemn.

I am sorry to say that it is at least three weeks since I last visited my hon. Friend's constituency. I know that there is an excellent and wide range of schools in Bournemouth. Ideally, most towns would have the same range of choice. That is a great deal more difficult in rural areas, and we must bend our thoughts more towards how we can expand variety and choice in those areas and look after the small rural primary schools.

Mr. Pike

How does parents' choice square with the fact that a certain school in my constituency has to determine which children get places by drawing lots?

Mr. Patten

Nine out of 10 parents get their children into the school that they want—an extremely good piece of news—and there is an appeals mechanism for those who are dissatisfied. The hon. Gentleman is on to a good thing, however. I hope that he will lead other members of his party, including the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), who represents the NUT, to swing in behind our policy of allowing popular schools to expand and to deliver local excellence.