HC Deb 04 March 1994 vol 238 cc1257-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacKay.].

2.44 pm
Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter which is of the greatest concern, not only to my constituents, but to many parents and staff of schools throughout Essex. I am delighted to see my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Mr. Amess), for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), all of whom share my concern, as do all my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Essex. I especially mention my hon. Friends the Members for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who cannot be here, but have asked to be associated with my remarks.

Essex is fortunate to have some of the best schools in the country. The four grammar schools—two at Colchester and two at Chelmsford—regularly appear in the list of the top 10 best schools in the United Kingdom. There are also many other schools in Essex that regularly produce outstanding results. It is no coincidence that Essex also has more grant-maintained schools than any other county in England. In my constituency, at secondary level, the Plume school in Maldon, the Thurstable school in Tiptree and the Philip Morant school in Colchester have GM status. The Alderman Blaxhill school will shortly become grant maintained on 1 April. At primary level, the Great Totham primary school is grant maintained and the application from the West Mersea county primary school is currently before the Secretary of State. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will not be able to comment on that today, but I urge him to look most favourably on that application.

In every one of those grant-maintained schools that I have visited I have found that the unanimous view of staff, parents and pupils is that grant-maintained status has given them the freedom to improve facilities, to recruit more teachers and to obtain better results. The headmaster of the Plume school, Alan Bilby, said recently: What we can now do is act on what parents, teachers and pupils are saying. Before we would listen but know there was little we could do because of how the money was spent. Now we know what is important to the pupils and we can act on that. Before May 1993, the attitude of the Conservative-controlled Essex county council was one of neutrality towards grant-maintained status. I suspect that the authority may have been a little sad to see its chicks leave the nest to become grant-maintained schools, but it did nothing to stand in their way. All that changed in May 1993 when a Labour and Liberal Democrat administration took control. Despite the views of parents in successive ballots, the new Labour and Liberal-run education committee passed a motion after a few days of taking control which stated: We are opposed to the principle of grant-maintained status believing that the system is not appropriate, fair or democratically accountable. The new Liberal chairman said: we regard GMS as educationally divisive, unjust and unfair and the education committee will do everything in its power within the law to persuade schools to remain with the Essex Local Education Authority". Since that time, the county council has waged a relentless campaign of hostility towards those schools that have become grant maintained and towards those that are considering doing so. Under a new policy, passed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, schools that consider becoming grant maintained immediately have all future building work stopped. As soon as a school governing body takes a first vote to consult parents through a ballot on whether it should become grant maintained, any capital programme in the pipeline is put on hold and it is reinstated only if the governors decide not to proceed with the ballot or if the parents reject that ballot. The intention is to intimidate governing bodies from even considering grant-maintained status.

If it is decided to hold a ballot, a leaflet is circulated to parents which puts the county's case against GMS. I am not saying that the arguments should not be put, but the leaflet is biased, misleading and threatening. One of my constituents who is a governor of the West Mersea county primary school wrote to me as follows: In my view, this document is highly selective in its use of the facts. It presents those facts in a manner designed to prevent true comparison and qualifies them with emotive phraseology. The result is a document which fails to inform and has clear political intentions. I know that that is also the view of the Department for Education which I understand has written formally to the county education officer about this.

Not only parents have been subjected to this propoganda from Essex county council. A brochure has been delivered to every house in the county at a cost of £76,000 to council tax payers. That brochure repeats the same misinformation in an attempt to mislead parents about the true nature of grant-maintained schools. I am glad to say that in most cases parents have not been taken in and have voted in large numbers for grant-maintained status. Even then, the county council has done all in its power to punish those schools and to discriminate against them.

At the Hockerill school in Bishops Stortford the county has always given special funding to support boarders, usually because their parents are handicapped or ill or working abroad. That support represents almost a quarter of the school's income. Two months ago, parents at the school voted to apply for grant-maintained status. At almost the same time, the county council issued proposals to change the system so that a grant is paid to parents of existing boarders rather than to the school and to withdraw the grant altogether for new entrants from September. In a letter to parents, the county council stated: the reason for proposing this change is to reflect the changed relationships between the LEA and schools, particularly those that have grant-maintained status. One of the governors of Hockerill school who lives in my constituency wrote to me: The new arrangements have been hastily conceived, are ill thought out, and appear to have been made not from a strict fiscal plan and such heed, but rather as a policy of the new political strategy than the LEA at County seems to be pursuing for their own objectives. This move will not only be financially crippling to Hockerill school but will hit Colchester Royal grammar school which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North and which also has one boarding house. The House will not be surprised to learn that Colchester Royal grammar school is also grant maintained.

The county council has also published proposals to withdraw concessionary transport from pupils attending the Anglo-European school in Ingatestone and the Davenant Foundation school in Loughton. Both those schools draw pupils from all over Essex, both produce excellent results and both are grant maintained. The chairman of the education committee has said that concessionary transport for the Anglo-European school is a "privilege" which should be removed. In a letter to me, the headmaster of the Anglo-European school stated: I am shocked to learn that shortly after our having become grant maintained, the new administration at Essex County Council now intends to reverse a policy that it has supported for more than 20 years. In essence the new policy will mean that only the children of people rich enough to afford the travel costs will continue to enjoy the excellent education available from the school. I welcome the fact that Essex has been chosen as one of the pilot areas for the new common funding formula. As the Minister knows, even now that is being resisted by the county council which has sought counsel's opinion as to whether it can challenge that in the courts.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat administration of Essex county council has demonstrated its total disregard for the wishes of parents in Essex who have overwhelmingly shown their support for grant-maintained status. The separate measures that I have described, each one petty-minded and spiteful, add up to a politically motivated campaign intended to intimidate schools that are contemplating grant-maintained status and to punish those schools that already have it. The result will be restricted parental choice and diminished opportunity for children in Essex. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening.

2.54 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) on his powerful and persuasive speech. I agreed with every word, and other hon. Friends listened with disgust at the details he gave of the vicious campaign waged by socialist-controlled Essex county council.

No one knows better than I the viciousness of socialists against grant-maintained schools. I was proud to have the first grant-maintained school in Essex established in my constituency. I am prouder still that this week it was declared a city technology college, in the first wave of 12 new schools.

My hon. Friend was generous in his remarks about Essex county council. He omitted to mention that its first batch of leaflets were misspelt. Essex education committee authorised misspelt leaflets. They cost money, and: then more rubbish was printed and distributed, further to mislead our constituents.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

That committee's members are educationally sub-normal.

Mr. Amess

They certainly are.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon mentioned Hockerill school. Sometimes, the chattering classes like to take the mickey out of Basildon, but 40 children in my constituency are boarders at Hockerill school and are much affected by the council's vicious proposals. I had a long conversation with the headmaster, who is right in thinking that the county council proposes to phase out the existing boarding subsidy without providing transitional support—for which there is a precedent—if the school's application for grant-maintained status is successful. That is pure viciousness against a grant-maintained school.

Barstable is another grant-maintained school in my constituency. Essex education committee discovered that that excellent school has certain liabilities that are clearly the county council's responsibility. They have been dumped back on the school with the knowledge, presumably, of the Education Assets Board. That is absolutely disgraceful. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment.

My children are educated in Basildon. Three of them attend St. Anne Line, which is a wonderful school. Another, Chowdhary, is known as a small school and is an excellent educational establishment. In the past few months, the rumour started that Essex county council would close that school. The chairman of the board of governors protested. He was the Liberal candidate in last year's county council elections, yet he led a campaign against Liberal-controlled Essex county council's education committee. That is the sort of duplicity with which we are having to cope in Essex, and it is a disgraceful example of double standards.

We are told that both Labour and the alliance want to save that school, but when it comes to vote, they do not. We are reliably informed that the leader of Essex county council is against the school being allowed to remain open. Chowdhary is a wonderful school which, to my personal knowledge, provides quality education with a little bit extra. Its track record and the solid support that it receives from parents deserve better than the finality and shame of closure or threat of closure.

In practice, the threat of closure will lead to closure because people will be worried about continuity of education. No wonder parents with infants at Chowdhary school are losing faith in the parents charter and the policies of Essex county council, under the control of the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

One of my children attends the Rupert Bear playgroup at Lee Chapel South school. Recently, the lollipop lady was removed from outside the school, although she had worked there for some years. It is no good Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors joining protest marches. It is a matter for the police and for Essex county council. The road by the school is dangerous for the young children who have to cross it, but, despite endless correspondence between parents, the school and Essex county council, there is no lollipop lady. I congratulate the school and the parents on their campaign and I intend to join them.

Essex county council is an example of Labour and the alliance having an affair. They share the same bed. They say that they are not socialist parties, but they are. They are only too pleased to seize control, when given the opportunity. Essex county council is awash with money —far more than it had under the Conservatives. Last May, the two parties deceived people and got themselves elected by saying that the lights would shine, the pavements would be clear and we would no longer have dog mess on our streets. What has happened? They have let us down badly on every count, but on none more than education. They have misled the public and I totally endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is also the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), will be able to give Essex Members some good news and say how we can cope with that vicious and vindictive campaign.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

If it is a point of order for the Chair, I shall listen attentively.

Mr. Mackinlay

Can you confirm that, under the rules of the House, it is not possible for me, as the only Opposition Member representing Essex, to participate in the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman clearly knows the rules and did not need to ask me the question, did he?

3.2 pm

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

With such a trial of Essex strength around me, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) on a powerful and excellent speech. He found a good echo in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess)

As my hon. Friends know, I am not quite an Essex man in the context in which they represent the county, but the postal address of my constituency is also Essex, and I am well aware of the issues that have rightly and properly been brought to the House and of the serious concern that they share.

The tremendous gains that grant-maintained status has brought to schools throughout the country and the determination of the Conservative Government and Conservative Members that those gains should be enjoyed by as many schools as possible underpin my hon. Friends' argument. Attempts to downgrade, criticise unfairly and spread false rumours about grant-maintained schools should be condemned and resisted whenever they occur.

I fully share the enthusiasm for grant-maintained schools that my hon. Friends expressed so well. Yesterday, I visited two self-governing schools in Wolverhampton and found precisely the same enthusiasm, drive, improved results and improved teacher morale. As my hon. Friends know, those are a feature of such schools.

The centrepieces of the debate are local education authority leaflets and the spreading of misleading information about grant-maintained schools. It is of the utmost importance for parents to have access to factual and objective information about grant-maintained status, that they can make informed decisions about the future of their childrens' schools and education. That is why we view very seriously the circulation of material that may mislead parents and cause anxiety.

My Department has, therefore, adopted a policy of challenging local education authorities whose literature may do just that. Regrettably, Essex local education authority has produced a leaflet about GM status which my Department considers could mislead parents on a number of issues, especially accountability, GM autonomy and LEA trading powers. There have been various exchanges of correspondence between officials of the department and the chief education officer, Mr. Sharp, since the leaflet was brought to the Department's attention by a number of complainants in October last year.

Our correspondence with Mr. Sharp also reminded him of the code of practice that the Department recently negotiated with the Society of Education Officers to govern the provision of information about GM status. The code states that information produced by LEA officials, civil servants and employees of the Grant Maintained Schools Centre should be objective, factual, explanatory and non-political. Those are most important provisions and, as I have made clear, they are provisions which the Government themselves abide by. We are, I judge, therefore fully entitled to expect local education authorities to behave in a similar manner.

Moreover, I shall take the opportunity to highlight the extended powers that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State now enjoys as a result of the Education Act 1993. Where ballots are initiated under the 1993 Act, the Secretary of State's powers have been widened to bite on interference by third parties. He can now consider voiding ballots whose outcome is likely to have been influenced to a significant extent by false or misleading information. Any complaints will be considered carefully and I assure my hon. Friends who are present this afternoon, and others who may read this in weeks to come, that we take the matter seriously and that those powers will be exercised as and when opportunities arise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon went on to speak about Hockerill school. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon mentioned Hockerill school's application for self-governing status and its natural anxiety to know how it might be funded if its application is approved. Of course, I cannot comment on the proposal at this stage, but future funding, if the application is successful, is very much part of its consideration. One factor that bears on funding is the fact that although Hockerill school is situated in Hertfordshire, it is maintained by Essex.

Against the background of a proposal still under consideration, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon will appreciate that it is hard for me to give any definitive assurances about the level of budget that the school could expect if it were grant maintained. Officials are exploring a range of options and are consulting the local authorities affected. Probably the most that I can say at this stage is that the aim of the GM funding regime is to provide additional resources to GM schools to reflect their additional responsibilities as self-governing schools. We are also concerned to avoid undue turbulence as schools switch from one funding basis to another. With that in mind, I am confident that the Funding Agency for Schools will seek, if Hockerill becomes grant maintained, to ensure that the school is not disadvantaged.

Quite apart from the questions about the future status of Hockerill, there is the issue of boarding subsidy, which is payable under the authority's scheme for the local management of schools. Once again, I regret that I am unable to comment substantively, since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the consideration of such proposals. The subsidy is intended to meet the additional costs that arise in trying to provide boarding places—residential buildings, care staff, and so on—and is receivable by two schools. Those schools are Hockerill, which is maintained by the LEA, and—by replication through the annual maintenance grant paid to GM schools—the Royal grammar school in Colchester, which has a small boarding house.

After carrying out a consultation process, the authority recently submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a proposal to make a variation to that part of its LMS scheme. The proposal is to cease paying subsidy through the delegated school budget shares from the financial year 1994–95, and instead pay the subsidy direct to parents from the pupil support budget, which is a centrally retained discretionary exception in the LMS scheme. The schools will henceforth have to recover the cost directly from parents. Continued payment of the subsidy would be a matter for the authority if the proposed variation is approved.

Proposals are being considered in the light of statutory guidance issued for LMS schemes. I assure my hon. Friend that, as always, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will carefully consider all the relevant factors before reaching decisions on those matters, and we shall seek to take those decisions as soon as we reasonably can.

I should like to say a few words about the Anglo-European school, Ingatestone, and also cover the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon. Should I run out of time, I shall communicate to him on those important issues. The question of the AngloEuropean school was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon. As he said, it concerns the LEA's review of transport arrangements that it now makes for pupils attending that self-governing school.

I recently visited that excellent school and saw its achievements for myself. It is unique in Essex in that it is a comprehensive school with a strong European emphasis and offers the international baccalaureate. Because it serves a wide area of Essex, the LEA has always provided subsidised transport for its pupils over and above legal requirements. Pupils in other Essex comprehensive schools do not get such treatment, which has no doubt led Essex to begin consultations about the possibility of phasing it out from September 1995. My hon. Friend suggests that that move shows a bias against GM schools by the authority. Given some of the other concerns that he so ably expressed, I understand why he could reach that conclusion. It is not, however, necessarily the case in this instance.

It would be wrong for Essex to let any of its actions be governed by bias against GM schools, but, under law, it is entitled to review those arrangements. It might be helpful if I explain a little of the legal context. The law requires free transport for a pupil of compulsory school age who attends his or her nearest suitable school and who, to reach it, must travel beyond the statutory walking distance, which is three miles for a pupil aged eight to 16. The courts have held that LEAs are not normally obliged to provide free transport for pupils whose parents have preferred a school other than the nearest suitable school, even if the preferred school is beyond walking distance.

If an Ingatestone pupil could have attended an ordinary comprehensive school nearer home, Ingatestone would not be considered his or her nearest suitable school and he or she would not be entitled to free transport to it, even if it were more than three miles from home. However, the law also enables local education authorities to assist those for whom they do not consider free transport is necessary. That is the direction that Essex has been using to assist children whose parents have chosen to send them to Ingatestone rather than to the nearest suitable school.

In making that provision available, the authority has gone beyond what is required by law. Provided that the LEA has acted reasonably and treated GM school pupils as favourably as comparable pupils at LEA schools, whether and how it assists pupils who do not qualify for free transport on grounds of necessity is a matter for the authority and my Department would not normally intervene.

Home-to-school transport is expensive, especially for shire authorities. In 1991–92, which is the latest year for which I have figures, Essex spent almost £7.5 million on it. Most of the expenditure will be necessary to ensure that no Essex pupil is denied a suitable education through inability to reach a suitable school. But some of that is at the discretion of Essex.

Finally, on the basis on which schools compete to attract pupils, the Government believe that schools should compete not through the availability of transport inducements but by raising educational standards and widening choice. That is the whole thrust of the Government's reforms. I am happy to acknowledge that Ingatestone Anglo-European school already sets high standards. Last summer, 68 per cent. of its 15-year-olds passed five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with the Essex average of 39 per cent. I am also happy to acknowledge that the school's European emphasis has contributed to choice and diversity in Essex for more than 20 years.

Ultimately, the most powerful arguments for self-governing schools—I return to the theme of this debate —are what they do, their consequences and how the schools are seen. I urge parents, anywhere in the country, who have not taken the opportunity to visit a self-governing school, to do so. They will see the benefits and gains and, I hope, return to their school, if it is still run by an LEA, determined to change it to a self-governing—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Three o'clock.