HC Deb 25 June 1996 vol 280 cc153-66 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

rose— [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Let us have a little order on the Front Benches. Hon. Members should either come into the Chamber and sit down or go elsewhere. The Minister is on her feet.

Mrs. Shephard

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the White Paper that the Government are publishing today on extending self-government for schools. Copies are available in the Vote Office and in the Libraries of both Houses.

The Government's education reforms have one central aim: to raise standards in schools. To achieve that, we have put in place a framework based on four elements. The first is the national curriculum, which is linked to regular testing at ages seven, 11 and 14 and regular inspection of schools, so that there is a common understanding of what children should be learning and what standards they can be expected to achieve.

The second is greater accountability and transparency through the publication of secondary school performance tables and school inspection reports, information for parents, and, from next spring, the publication of primary school tables, so that parents, governors and the wider community know how the system is performing.

The third element is more choice for parents and more diversity among schools. Church schools, grammar schools and others have long provided choice for some parents, but we wanted more parents to be able to choose the education that will best suit their children from a range of good schools. Thus, we introduced the assisted places scheme, set up the 15 city technology colleges, helped 180 schools develop their strengths in particular subjects, and have given all schools the chance to become grant maintained.

The fourth element is more freedom and independence for schools to run their own affairs within the framework of accountability and parental choice. So, local authority schools control a high proportion of their budgets, all schools have governing bodies representing parents and the local community, and grant-maintained schools have greater freedom to manage their budgets, staffing, premises and future development. Standards, accountability, choice for parents, freedom for schools— a great deal has been achieved. We have a clear and comprehensive framework for raising performance across the board. Now we need to take the next step.

Schools have gained experience and skill in handling their own affairs. They have shown that they can use that freedom well. Today's White Paper sets out a range of new measures to build on the framework that we have put in place, particularly to give schools more freedom and parents more choice.

We propose action in four areas: first, to give local authority schools more control of their budgets; secondly, to give grant-maintained schools more freedom in developing the education that they provide; thirdly, to define more clearly the role of LEAs in supporting schools; fourthly, to encourage more choice and diversity, including through more selection of pupils.

First, local authority schools will be given more freedom to decide how to spend their budgets. Delegation of school budgets and local management of schools have been great successes, and LMS helps schools to get better value for money and to match resources to their own priorities. We propose to bring more spending items within the global budget that LEAs use to set individual budgets for schools, and we intend to increase from 85 per cent. to 95 per cent. the proportion of that global budget that LEAs must delegate to schools.

Those steps will increase by some £1.3 billion the resources that LEAs are required to pass on to schools. As many LEAs already delegate more than the 85 per cent. minimum requirement, some £600 million—or some £90 per pupil—will be provided in addition to what schools currently receive in their budgets.

Secondly, the White Paper proposes more freedoms for grant-maintained schools. Despite the Opposition's continuing hostility to giving schools the right to govern themselves, there are now more than 1,100 GM schools, and they include many of the best in the country. The Government intend that GM status should continue to offer the fullest independence possible, and we want to give GM schools more power to change what they do in response to local needs without seeking central approval. They would be free to increase their numbers by up to 50 per cent. and to open new nursery classes and sixth forms. We also want to give GM schools the choice of taking on new functions currently undertaken by LEAs, such as running their own pupil transport.

Thirdly, the White Paper sets out a clearer, tighter definition of the functions of local education authorities. LEAs would continue to have a role in providing services that schools cannot carry out for themselves—including, for example, drawing up statements for children with special educational needs. But it is not for LEAs to control what schools do, and each school should decide for itself how to operate. That includes deciding what support services it wants to buy, from the LEA or elsewhere. Hand in hand with that freedom goes an obligation on each school to account for its own performance. Responsibility for its standards rests with the school, not with the LEA.

LEAs do have a role in supporting schools in their efforts to raise standards, including working with schools in setting targets for improvement and intervening where Ofsted has found that schools are failing to provide an adequate education. LEAs in their turn must carry out these functions effectively. The record of LEAs has, to say the least, been mixed, and the Government will be looking to develop better mechanisms for assessing the effectiveness of LEAs to ensure that what they do, they do well.

Fourthly, the White Paper proposes more choice for parents through a range of new measures to extend diversity. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have frequently made it clear that the Government want to see a spectrum of schools to match the varied talents, needs and interests of our children, and that includes grammar schools. Grammar schools have a proud tradition of academic excellence. We want more parents and pupils to have those opportunities where there is a demand for them in the local community—opportunities enjoyed by some Opposition Members.

We will welcome proposals for new grammar schools. Where an existing LEA school wants to become a grammar school, we intend to give the governing body a right of appeal if the LEA tries to block reasonable proposals. We intend to give the Funding Agency for Schools powers to propose setting up GM schools— including GM grammar schools—in all areas of the country where there is a need for a new school.

Encouraging grammar schools gives parents greater choice, but our plans for increasing diversity go further. We do not want only two types of schools: grammars and secondary moderns. That agenda is out of date— [Interruption.] The debate has moved on. Selection, too, is not just about the 11-plus. One can select in a range of ways, including by aptitude for a subject.

Selection is about getting a better match between what schools offer and what parents want for their children. We want to encourage all schools to develop distinctive strengths and identities. There are many excellent comprehensives that serve their communities well, but we need diversity and choice. The White Paper would encourage those by a variety of measures.

First, we want to give grant-maintained schools the right to select up to 50 per cent. of their pupils by ability or aptitude without needing central approval. Secondly, we want to give technology and language colleges the right to select up to 30 per cent. of their pupils by ability or aptitude in their specialist subjects. [Interruption.]

Thirdly, we want to give those responsible for admissions at all other LEA schools the right to select up to 20 per cent. of their pupils. Fourthly, we plan to reinforce the specialist schools programme by giving more support for technology and language colleges and by extending the approach to include schools specialising in sports and the arts. Fifthly, we want all schools to consider each year, in consultation with parents, whether by using their new powers to select some of their pupils they could contribute more to the diversity of schooling available to local parents. [Interruption.]

Much progress has been made over the past few years. The Government have now put in place, despite resistance—which we are hearing repeated today—every step of the way from Opposition Members, an effective framework for raising standards. It is a framework that provides a clear specification of what schools and pupils should be achieving, holds schools accountable for what they do, gives schools freedom to decide how to run their affairs, and gives parents more choice.

Much more remains to be done. Our social and economic future depends on making sure that all our children are helped to achieve to the limits of their ability. Today's White Paper sets out important new measures for making further progress in giving freedom to schools and choice to parents. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Mrs. Shephard

It will help to get the best possible match between what schools offer and what parents want, which is a good education suited to the individual abilities, interests and needs of their children. I commend it to the House.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

I thank the Secretary of State for her courtesy in letting me have the White Paper in time to be able to Braille it.

The White Paper is the last gasp of a Government who have run out of ideas. Britain needs a Government committed to raising standards for all our people, not promoting selection for a few at the expense of the many. What relevance do these proposals have for Britain in the 21st century? Does the Secretary of State accept that selection was designed for an era in which only a few had the opportunity of moving into higher education, when, with a different economy and labour market, only the elite had the opportunity to succeed? As the future holds a high-tech information age, is it not time to put dogma behind us and give every child in every school the opportunity to succeed?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that a grammar school in every town would exclude 19 out of every 20 children from the opportunity for high-standard education and excellence, and that, using her criteria, there is no demand, no need and no money for the policy of bringing back selection?

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that, last night, she intervened to stop the Funding Agency for Schools confirming to the world that there is no demand and no need, and that there are no resources available for the new policy announced this afternoon; that only 41 schools have taken up the option of selection of 10 per cent. of their pupils; and that 35 of those 41 have selected on drama and music? Does she accept that there is no demand for a change of this sort, and she knows it?

Is the proposal now for a grammar school in every town, or for a grammar stream in every school? If the latter, is this a conversion to banding for admissions, which was pioneered by the former Inner London education authority and is still practised by some London Labour boroughs? What has changed the right hon. Lady's mind since she campaigned vigorously in the early 1980s—not the 1970s—as a Norfolk county councillor against grammar schools and in favour of comprehensive education? What has changed her mind since last year, when she said that structure was "an irrelevance" in the campaign for standards?

Did the Secretary of State believe—as we do—in the early 1980s and as late as last September that diversity and specialisation can and do exist within each comprehensive school, and that the best schools stretch those who can achieve and support those who need help? Will she confirm to the House that Baroness Thatcher was the Secretary of State for Education who closed most grammar schools; and that, in the past 25 years, the Conservatives have removed selection from more schools than the Labour party?

Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that the time scale laid out in the White Paper presumes that she will not be able to legislate before the general election, and that therefore the proposals will not be introduced before 1999 at the earliest; that the White Paper is a sham designed to satisfy the No. 10 policy unit and the Prime Minister, whom I welcome here this afternoon, rather than to meet the needs of the British people?

Will the Secretary of State further confirm that the White Paper ends the choice of parents rather than enhances it; that, when schools choose pupils rather than parents exercising preference for schools, choice is denied and diversity undermined? Will she confirm that talk of increased choice is frankly a sham? Will she reject the notion of denying people entry to the school of their choice purely on the basis of their attainment level at the age of 11, triggered and enhanced by the quality of their primary school?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the White Paper will necessitate a change in the operation of the national curriculum, as primary schools that have to cram children to pass an 11-plus examination or to go through some other form of selection would inevitably have to be separated from those who teach the normal curriculum? Surely the Secretary of State will accept that the policy has nothing to do with increasing excellence and standards for all, and everything to do with a short-term political agenda.

If the Secretary of State is concerned about the role of education authorities and the cost of administration, will she accept this afternoon our proposals to set benchmark targets for the administrative costs of local education authorities, and cap them at £50 per pupil, so that we can expose boroughs such as Wandsworth, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and the county of Buckinghamshire? The first three spend well over twice as much as £50 per pupil on administration, and Buckinghamshire is the highest spending county council in Britain in terms of administrative costs.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, in her proposals today, she is simply moving after the Labour party on the issue of delegation? Will she confirm—the Prime Minister will remember it well, because it was an historic date—that, exactly one year ago today, we proposed to extend delegation to schools under local management of schools, and that a year before that, the Secretary of State rejected it?

Finally, does the right hon. Lady accept that these attempts to develop and create clear blue water for party political purposes are irrelevant to the needs of children and to the aspirations of parents in this country? The tide has gone out for the Conservative Government. This is not clear blue water but sand, on which these proposals would be built if they were ever to come to fruition. We will be elected, and we are committed against them. We will ensure that the country is not returned to a failed past, but that it goes forward in relation to achievement and standards for all in the future.

Mrs. Shephard

With those irrelevant gasps, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) has again demonstrated his party's hostility to choice for parents, to independence for schools and to more diversity in what schools provide. The hon. Gentleman should understand, as parents do, that structure is not irrelevant if we are concerned about raising standards in our schools. In addition, diversity and choice contribute to the raising of standards.

The hon. Gentleman should also understand—from the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), if from no one else—that selective schools are popular. He should ask any parent who is trying to get his or her child into an over-subscribed grammar school or into an over-subscribed specialist college whether selection is possible. He does not have to go far to ask that question— the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who is sitting on the hon. Gentleman's right, could tell him a thing or two about that.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we propose to have a grammar school in every town or to have a grammar stream in every school. The answer—as he will find from the White Paper, when he has had time to absorb it—is that we do not seek to impose a uniform pattern of education on the school system in this country. It has taken 16 years for the country to recover from that, in the wake of the heritage left by the Labour party.

As Norfolk county council's plans have been mentioned, I shall clarify the situation. The council's plans to go comprehensive were formed under Labour legislation and adopted in 1975—before I was a member of the council. The council, when it was Conservative-controlled, subsequently confirmed those plans four years down the track, in 1979, and I supported that.

The hon. Gentleman, in harping back 20 years, helpfully reminds the House and the nation that that is where the Labour party's policies are stuck. He would seek to return the education system of this country to the 1970s. He talked about benchmark targets and reducing bureaucracy in schools. I ask him to start in his own backyard. In Sheffield, the council is being slammed by heads for diverting £17 million, which should more properly have been used in schools.

The hon. Gentleman has no contribution to make: his views are stuck in the 1970s, the decade to which he and his party would wish to return the education system of this country. He has made a pathetic contribution this afternoon. We will not allow the Labour party to reduce the diversity and choice that we have introduced to one monolithic system.

Mr. Kenneth Baker (Mole Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend disregard any criticism from the Labour Front Bench? Over the past 10 years, every education reform that has been introduced by the Government has been rubbished by the Labour party, but has been eventually accepted, and in some cases embraced with enthusiasm, from the top of the Labour party down.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that parents up and down the country will welcome the choice and diversity that she is extending, particularly in technology colleges, where pupils will be sensibly tested by ability and aptitude? The range of those colleges will be extended to sports colleges and to performing arts and media colleges. My right hon. Friend's package clearly shows that the Conservative party still has the best policies for education.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Before the Secretary of State responds, I must say that, if all questions are as long as that one, I shall be able to call only six hon. Members from either side. Therefore, I ask for brisk questions and answers.

Mrs. Shephard

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the effects of our education reforms are being embraced enthusiastically by some Labour Front-Bench Members. He is also correct to refer to the popularity of our initiative for specialist schools and colleges. That is why we propose to increase the number of those colleges and their scope to introduce sports and arts.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Given the Secretary of State's frequent references to parental choice and her failure to answer the question put by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), will she confirm that, under increased selection, it is the schools that select the pupils and not the parents who choose the schools for their children? Will she confirm also that, according to all opinion polls, parents choose not selection but increased books and equipment for schools, better maintained school buildings, more nursery education and increased discipline? Does she accept that policies designed simply to embarrass political opponents are policies of real desperation?

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman has been reading too many newspapers. I made it clear this afternoon and on a number of other occasions that we want to see a spectrum of schools. Schools must have the chance to develop their strengths in a variety of ways. We do not want to return to a two-tier system, and the proposals I have announced will not produce that result.

As for there being no demand for selection, the hon. Gentleman should tell that to the many parents who want their children to attend grammar schools and specialist colleges, but cannot find places.

Sir Malcolm Thornton (Crosby)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that standards will neither rise nor fall overnight? Does she also agree that an underpinning principle of selection is gearing education to the needs of individual pupils? In looking at the increased delegation of a scheme that has found widespread favour with schools, I ask her to take the time to examine also the vagaries of some of the local formulae which seriously disadvantage schools and act unfairly within local education authorities.

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: standards are all-important, and increased choice and diversity undoubtedly contribute to higher standards. When he has had an opportunity to consider the White Paper, he will see that we have proposals for changing the framework for calculating formulae, so that it is fair to all schools.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that her announcement this afternoon about a return to selective grammar schools in every town and the reintroduction of the discredited 11-plus will be rejected by the vast majority of parents, teachers and everyone else who is interested in raising standards in our schools? Does she agree also that it is nonsense to try to determine at the age of 11 the employment prospects of any pupils? This afternoon we have witnessed an inept political move that is divisive for education and morally wrong.

Mrs. Shephard

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. He has not been listening, and I advise him to read the White Paper.

Sir Timothy Sainsbury (Hove)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that expanded choice and diversity, which the Government have consistently encouraged and which the Opposition have consistently opposed, play a vital role in equipping the pupils of today for working in the 21st century? Will she confirm that she hopes to see a rapid increase in the number of places available in technology and language specialist schools and in other specialist schools—not least those concerned with the arts—in the future?

Mrs. Shephard

One of the strengths of the specialist schools and colleges programme is that it allows different establishments to develop the particular abilities of pupils. That is the essence of diversity, and as such, it plays a valuable part in preparing young people for employment.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that high schools in rural counties such as Norfolk and the surrounding rural areas do not belong to the parents of the day, but to the whole community? Is she aware of a statement by a distinguished former chief education officer of Norfolk, Sir Lincoln Ralphs, that parents as a whole are not interested in education as such, but in negotiable erudition? Does not the Secretary of State think that the implications of her White Paper would be to create a market in education and to set pupil against pupil, parent against parent, staff against staff and school against school, just to have an educational market fuelled by the taxpayer?

Mrs. Shephard

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to know better about the thoughts and views of the late Sir Lincoln Ralphs, who was indeed a distinguished chief education officer. He was in favour of diversity: he set up, for example, accelerated streams for those who failed the 11-plus. He also introduced special grammar streams in comprehensive schools. I believe that Sir Lincoln Ralphs would have been much in favour of precisely the diversity described in the White Paper.

Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my warmest congratulations on the introduction of the White Paper, not only for the necessary proposals on delegated budgets for schools, which are excellent, but more especially because, for the first time, she has suggested that the Government will reverse the tragic act of vandalism that the Labour party committed in 1975 to get rid of grammar schools, which denied the children of those people who live in the poorest areas an opportunity to get out of those areas and get a first-class education?

Mrs. Shephard

I thank my right hon. Friend for her congratulations, and I am glad that she welcomes the new proposals for delegated budgets, which will give schools more freedom to manage their affairs. The proposals will increase the numbers of grammar schools and grammar streams, and the opportunities for streaming by both ability and aptitude, through the specialist college and school programme, which I am sure my right hon. Friend, since she had something to do with their inception, will also welcome.

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham)

I wonder whether the Secretary of State will accept my congratulations on resisting the more extreme urgings of her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who was so failed by the grammar school system. Will she, however, accept that there is a problem with the message that she is trying to give today? If the message is that the only way to get excellent academic prospects is from a grammar school, that will fail all those children who need to be challenged and motivated in our secondary school system. What is more, that message will let down the nation, because the nation needs every single child to be so challenged and motivated that they achieve far more than the majority achieve today.

Mrs. Shephard

It is the hon. Lady's party that is in favour of a monolithic education system: the Conservative party is in favour of diverse routes.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will my right hon. Friend make more money available for popular schools, so that more parents can send their child to their first choice of school?

Mrs. Shephard

As my right hon. Friend will have noticed, the proposals in the White Paper include one for grant-maintained schools to increase their size by 50 per cent. That will be very useful for those that are popular and over-subscribed.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Now that the Secretary of State has announced her policy of a secondary modern school in every town, can she tell me whether the schools in my constituency, in Keswick, Cockermouth, Workington, Maryport, and throughout the county will now be transformed into secondary modern schools? Will she confirm—what we all know to be the truth—that not one of the 300 Conservative Members of Parliament in this Parliament would ever send their child to a secondary modern school anywhere in the United Kingdom? Why? Because they know that secondary modern schools are not good enough.

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman has not been listening either, or perhaps he is not too clued up on education. I seem to recall him thinking that people had to pay for their child to go to a grant-maintained school.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, unlike Opposition Members, she does not believe that only one type of school is right for all the nation's children? Will she further confirm that the White Paper will allow more grammar schools and grammar streams to emerge, give greater powers to parents, and divert funds from local education authorities to the classroom? Will she accept the congratulations of Conservative Members on a splendid White Paper, which will do much to enhance the quality and standard of state education?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend encapsulates the whole point of the White Paper. It will give more power to schools and more choice to parents, and will thereby drive up standards.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the Secretary of State assist parents in rural towns, such as Tavistock and Okehampton in my area, which are currently served by one comprehensive school? Can she confirm that, if those schools become grammar schools, most of the local children will no longer be able to go to the local school and may have to travel many miles to find one that will accept them?

Mrs. Shephard

As the White Paper makes clear, that will be a choice for the local school, for local governors and for parents. No doubt they will take into account the particular circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. However, there are schools in such circumstances in Norfolk where the choice has been made to become, for example, a specialist college. That has been entirely successful, and I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Will my right hon. Friend understand that, while her welcome statement contains proposals for grammar schools, those proposals should not be the norm everywhere? Will she, for instance, consider the situation in Kendal in my constituency where we have two excellent grant-maintained comprehensive schools, one the old grammar school and the other the former secondary modern school, whose A-level examination results last year showed them to be the 14th best state school in the country and the best comprehensive school in the country? Will she remember the old adage: "If it works, don't start trying to fix it"?

Mrs. Shephard

I confirm that the Government do not seek to impose one uniform pattern of education across the board. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellence of local education provision in his constituency, and I am delighted that part of it is delivered by grant-maintained schools.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

On 19 June 1979, Norfolk education committee considered a letter from the newly elected Conservative Government asking it to halt its policy of closing grammar schools—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Ms Corston

The right hon. Lady was a member of that committee which opposed what the Tory Government were asking it to do. She also spoke at a meeting on 15 June in King's Lynn, together with an NUT organiser, arguing for the retention of comprehensive education. What has happened in the interim to cause her to commit such an amazing U-turn?

Mrs. Shephard

For one thing, although I hope that the House would not know it, I have gone rather grey. I have already made it clear exactly what I did when I was a member of the Norfolk county council. There was indeed a meeting at King's Lynn in June 1979. It is quite difficult to remember 20 years ago, but I have checked with a number of people, including officials of the county council, and I took no part in the meeting. I attended it, but I did not speak at it.

Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement, but does she have any proposals to amend the statutory composition of school governing bodies? As education authorities have a diminishing role in education, allowing up to five local authority representatives on those bodies seems somewhat excessive.

Mrs. Shephard

There are no proposals for local education authority governing bodies in the White Paper, but there are proposals, in line with recommendations of the Nolan committee, for governing bodies of grant-maintained schools which may well interest my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Talking of diversity, is the Secretary of State aware—she must be, because she has received letters from my constituents and from me— that a new scheme was tried in north Derbyshire, through the tertiary college in Clowne, to provide sixth-form courses for Bolsover school and Clowne Heritage secondary school? As a result, the Secretary of State and the Further Education Funding Council have stopped the money. Why has it been stopped, and when will it be started again?

Mrs. Shephard

I think that I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman. The proposals are not in the White Paper, but I will seek them out and reply to him.

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that hundreds of parents in my constituency, and in the borough of Hillingdon as a whole, will be delighted at the plan to allow grant-maintained schools to expand by up to 50 per cent. without publishing proposals? Can she assure me, however, that those schools will be able to receive funds for the extra running costs through the recoupment of moneys from local education authorities, using existing procedures? Can she also assure me that there is no way in which hostile Labour local authorities will be able to prevent that from happening?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend will note from the White Paper that we propose closer auditing of local authorities to ensure that grant-maintained schools receive all the funds that are due to them. I can confirm that, if grant-maintained schools propose to expand by 50 per cent., the revenue costs will come from local education authorities.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Would not the best policy be to put more teachers into existing secondary schools? Does the Secretary of State accept that the grammar schools policy could be very divisive socially, and that there is no call for grammar schools in Wales?

Mrs. Shephard

I must re-emphasise that the whole point of the White Paper is to enhance parental choice and choice on the part of schools. If schools, parents and governors are satisfied with a good comprehensive that is running well, so be it; if there is pressure from schools, governors and parents for the school to take on a selective stream or to become fully selective, the White Paper will make that possible.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—he has left; he obviously does not want my congratulations—and the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker)? They should all be congratulated on what they have done to promote choice and diversity, but some of that could be spoilt if we rushed into an anarchic form of selection. What is needed is a serious, modern-minded debate that does not hark back to old class conflicts, but looks forward to selection by means of new, sophisticated assessments not just of ability but of aptitude.

How can we possibly discuss new grammar schools without considering vastly expanding and increasing finances for technology colleges? I suggest that, to begin with, the money should come from taxation of child benefit.

Mrs. Shephard

That is a nice little package from my hon. Friend. Let me reassure him: our right hon. Friend probably had a meeting to go to. I do not think that he was deliberately trying to avoid hearing what my hon. Friend had to say.

We leave it to the Labour party to hark back to the 1970s. As my hon. Friend says, the White Paper is forward-looking, especially over specialist schools and colleges. I thank him for his congratulations. The matter is clearly complex, and there is much to be sorted out, but I think—and am quite hopeful—that some of the proposals may well be included in legislation in the coming Session.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

Will the Government at least spare Wales this madness? Will they understand that we in Wales want none of this divisiveness and deliberate sabotaging of the comprehensive ideal that was pioneered in our country?

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that it will be regarded as both irrelevant and repugnant, and that teachers will view with dismay the prospect of further disruption as a result of the process offered in the White Paper? To the people of Wales, it will be proof of the need for us to pursue our priorities—and to do that we need a parliament with legislative powers. In the meantime, will the Secretary of State please exempt Wales from the proposals?

Mrs. Shephard

The short answer is no. I hope that parents and schools in Wales will note that, on their behalf, the hon. Gentleman is rejecting all notions of choice. I do not call that very democratic. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, his colleagues and the Welsh Office will review with LEAs and schools current arrangements and those proposed in the White Paper—which, I remind the hon. Gentleman, fall somewhat short of a separate Parliament for Wales.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's proposal that Ofsted should start to inspect local education authorities, not least to ascertain whether they are responding positively to parents' wishes. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, with 95 per cent. of the money in due course going into schools and therefore into the classrooms, the way is clear for popular schools that become over-subscribed to expand?

Mrs. Shephard

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the proposal that Ofsted should have the power to inspect LEAs. If parliamentary time permits, we hope to legislate for that in the new Session. I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises the flexibility that greater amounts of money delegated to schools gives them. With that extra money comes additional responsibility, and we must make sure that governors and others are well prepared to cope with it.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The policies outlined by the Secretary of State this afternoon are totally irrelevant to the children of Halifax, which has two grammar schools, because extra funding is needed for the rest of the schools. I invite the Secretary of State to visit Sowerby Bridge comprehensive school—which has 13 mobile classrooms in a disgraceful state—or the Ridings, another secondary comprehensive in desperate need of investment. What have the children of Halifax done to the Secretary of State to deserve her dreadful policies?

Mrs. Shephard

I might ask the hon. Lady what on earth Halifax local education authority is doing to schools in her borough.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Many assertions have been made about divisiveness. I invite my right hon. Friend to visit the Wirral peninsula, which has had good grammar and high schools for the past 20 years, since I resisted attempts by Shirley Williams to enforce comprehensives on us. The evidence of the Wirral peninsula is that grammar and high schools work in terms of academic achievement, are perfectly sensible socially, and have a good discipline record. That is there for all to see—and can be provided even for the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon).

Mrs. Shephard

I know that the picture painted of the Wirral by my hon. Friend is the case. Choice and diversity are alive and flourishing there, as in other parts of the country. It might be helpful if Opposition Front Benchers took the opportunity to visit the Wirral. I am going there in November, so they might like to come, too.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has not the Secretary of State today exhumed from its dishonoured grave that cruellest, most wretched and wasteful feature of British education this century—a selection system that brands 90 per cent. of children as failures at the age of 11?

Mrs. Shephard

Oh, dear: another Opposition Member does not seem to have been listening. I have made it clear several times that we do not intend to return to the two-tier system of grammar and secondary modern schools. We propose the sort of pattern described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter), of comprehensives, perhaps a grammar school with a selective stream, a technology college and a language college. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be more open-minded, and to visit the Wirral or Kent.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. We will now move on.