HC Deb 27 November 1996 vol 286 cc249-70

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

9.34 am
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education on securing a wonderful settlement yesterday. She has acquired the tools that will enable the local authorities to finish the job—whether they will do so is a moot point.

A tragedy of education is that there is no correlation between the level of expenditure by particular authorities and the results achieved. One of the ironies of education in London is that those authorities that have done most to fail whole generations of pupils—the late and unlamented Inner London education authority and the London boroughs of Islington, Lambeth and Southwark—are among the highest spending authorities in the country.

Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), those hon. Members who serve on the Standing Committee considering the Education Bill have listened to lectures on standards by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge)—I told her yesterday that I intended to mention her in the debate. Islington has been mentioned so often in Committee that yesterday the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) asked where it was—he said that most of his constituents did not know of it.

Islington is where new Labour was born, and where Labour has controlled education for 25 years. It has done such a good job that thousands of parents in Islington have their children educated outside the borough. The hon. Member for Barking was in charge of Islington when there was a proliferation of paedophiles in the social work department.

I raise the subject of education in the House for the second time in six months because there is widespread concern about our education system. Only a few months ago, the Observer said: It is clear that the system is at best inadequate—at worst failing. There is widespread public concern about the absolute level of education standards in this country, the failure of some schools—such as the Ridings school—and the decline of education in this country compared with other countries.

Most of my remarks this morning will be non-partisan—

Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley)

The hon. Gentleman has started well.

Mr. Marshall

I shall move on; the hon. Lady should not worry, as there will be Exocets in several directions.

Education is far too important for a partisan debate. Of course, I shall remind the hon. Lady which party destroyed direct grant schools and which party forced local authorities to demolish grammar schools. If the Conservatives had not won the 1979 general election, there would be no grammar schools left in this country, because the then Labour Government was forcing local authorities, by legislative diktat, to destroy them.

There is always a temptation to view the past through rose-tinted glasses. However, not everything in the past is wonderful. I condemn the educational vandalism of the 1960s and 1970s, which destroyed many good schools, including the direct grant schools, which were academically oriented and catered to a wide social mix. They provided the opportunity for bright children from poor homes to enjoy good education, but they were destroyed in an act of pure educational vandalism.

One of the tragedies of the 1960s and 1970s is that, although area comprehensive schools were introduced in the name of equality, those who introduced them failed to recognise that, under the area comprehensive system, middle-class parents could buy their way into good schools but that no such option existed for parents on lower incomes. I lived in Aberdeen for a time, and I remember a road where house prices on one side were thousands of pounds higher than those on the other side. Children on the affluent side attended the area comprehensive school, while those on the other attended a different school that achieved much poorer results.

The scandal of education in the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s is that we have failed the children from the inner cities. We have failed all too often the children from the council estates, because education is the escape route from deprivation. It is the lifeline for those seeking to leave Brixton to go and succeed elsewhere. It is the escalator of opportunity that enables bright, hard-working children from deprived backgrounds to enjoy a full life.

By failing to educate children properly, we have condemned whole generations of children to the same deprivation from which their parents suffered—all in the name of social engineering. In the name of social engineering, we have decided that we would encourage social deprivation.

Some schools suffer from a crisis of low expectations. How often do we hear teachers say, "We can't be expected to do better, because of the children we have." That is a scandalous statement: if teachers have a low expectation of their children, those children will produce poor results. If teachers expect children to misbehave, by golly, children will misbehave.

From looking at the failing schools and the failing schools that then become successful schools, it is clear that, if teachers raise their expectations of their children, those children will deliver better results. Low expectations lead to low outturns. Expectations of bad behaviour lead to bad behaviour, and teachers must learn, in all schools, to have high expectations of their children.

The difficulty of our education system was summed up by a paper that I do not normally quote in the House. On 27 August, The Guardian said that the problem was that, within the same education authority, pupils at the best school were four years ahead in English and five and a half years ahead in mathematics, compared with the worst. It also said that one in eight 11-year-olds in maintained schools had a reading age of a seven-year-old, and that one in six 11-year-olds had a mathematics age of a seven-year-old. Those are terrible scandals.

In a school that I know very well, 20 per cent. of pupils are two years adrift at the age of 12 in reading, and 40 per cent. are one year adrift. How can a child be taught French if he or she cannot read English? How can the national curriculum in science be carried out if children cannot do mental arithmetic? How are they to learn geometry, algebra and trigonometry if they cannot do basic mathematics at the age of 11? We are presenting some of our schools with a hopeless problem.

Whenever people talk about education, there is always comment about the teachers. It is true that, at the Ridings school, the teachers had given up. When they said that 60 children had to be removed if the school were to succeed, one realised that their expectations were at the bottom. The wide variations in the performance of different schools with similar social characteristics, which I quoted, is in part a function of bad teaching and good teaching. We must condemn bad teachers, but, equally, we should recognise that the good results of schools come from well-motivated, hard-working teachers.

When I talk to teachers, they complain that we always accentuate the negative about their profession, and that we do not accentuate the positive. I pay tribute to the head teachers in many schools in Barnet who do their utmost to ensure that their children will do well. I recently visited a number of schools in the Finchley constituency, because, as the House knows, I am standing as the candidate for Finchley, in Golders Green, at the next election. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth), who is retiring, and who is, of course, Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department.

At the Martin's and Tudor primary schools, the head teachers told me, "Our teachers escort children home at night, because we want to be certain that they will arrive safely." I spoke to another head teacher on Sunday, who said, "For some of our pupils, the only place where they are safe is in school." I said that that might be the only place where they were loved, and she said that that was true, too.

We have many dedicated teachers, and we do a disservice to the profession when we imply that the average teacher or head teacher wears sandals and jeans, perhaps with rather longer hair, and a CND badge. That is not typical of the profession, and it is deeply offensive to the vast majority of teachers.

In the schools that have failed, it is often, as inspectors have pointed out, because the teachers have too low expectations. While I praise the vast majority of teachers, a bad teacher is condemning a pupil for life. We should therefore do our utmost to ensure that they are rooted out of the profession as quickly as possible.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Reference has been made to bad teachers. Once a teacher has been identified by the inspectorate as having difficulty and being less competent than his colleagues, surely special provision should be made within the school to help the teacher to reach an acceptable level and standard of competence. If not, we should seek to provide them with an escape route or alternative training for another profession.

Mr. Marshall

Conservative Members are always happy to agree with Ulster Unionists, and I am happy to agree with everything that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) said. Everyone who goes into teaching does so with dedication and skill. Some who start teaching or lecturing—I speak as a former university lecturer—may find that other professions give them a more fruitful life. One can never say to someone, "You've got to stay a teacher, because that's what you've become," because, if a bad teacher is allowed to stay in teaching, it is the kids who suffer, and it is the kids from deprived areas who suffer most.

There has been a dramatic decline in the relative standing of education in this country. I used to live in Scotland, where the boast was that Scottish education was the best in the world. When my father was a visiting professor at North-Western university in America in 1960, he said that his students in Glasgow were two years ahead of the students in the United States.

When my own professor went to America in 1962, he received the essays of some of us and showed them to his American colleagues, who said that they must be the essays of 24 or 25-year-olds. He told them that they were from 21-year-olds, and the Americans could not believe it. I do not believe that the same is true today. As The Times Educational Supplement has said: British secondary pupils start from a lower level and then make less progress than students abroad. A basic mental arithmetic test was given to a number of students, and I am sorry to say that one of the questions could be solved by only 5 per cent. of 13-year-olds in England; 20 per cent. in Germany; 10 per cent. in Finland; 42 per cent. in Poland; 29 per cent. in Holland; and 63 per cent. in Singapore.

In the United Kingdom, every kid has a calculator. In Germany, calculators are banned until the age of 14. I believe that, if we banned calculators from the classroom, more kids would be able to do mental arithmetic and end up more mathematical. When I go into a shop and buy two products, I mentally add up the bill and tell the assistant the total. The assistant presses the numbers on the calculator and comes up with the same figure, only two minutes later. It is a tragedy that shop assistants feel that they are in thrall to the calculator. I sometimes wonder what they would do if the calculator gave them the wrong answer.

One of the most important things to recognise in education is the need for diversity. Choice is not the enemy of quality, but its best guarantee. The more competitive pressure there is on schools, the more likely they are, as The Daily Telegraph has said, to adopt traditional teaching methods and place an emphasis on the excellence that parents require.

I commend the Government for having a policy of diversity in education. We have grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, an emphasis on technology colleges elsewhere, grammar schools and language academies. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister was able to go to Hendon school recently, in my present constituency, to open its language academy, where a range of languages will be taught which were unknown to schoolchildren a few years ago.

I read the other day that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) would introduce specialist schools to teach Latin and Greek. I do not know whether it would be in order to say, "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes", but I am slightly sceptical about that promise, bearing in mind that the Labour party destroyed so many good schools that concentrated on Latin and Greek.

It is important that the truancy rate in grant-maintained schools is lower and their academic records better than the comparable rates and standards in local authority schools. I do not, however, take a theological view on GM schools and say that all schools should become grant-maintained. That would be wrong. It would be wrong for the Government by legislative fiat to make all schools grant-maintained.

Grant-maintained schools have succeeded because of the enthusiasm of parents, teachers, head teachers and governors. I shall always remember—I have told the House about this before—taking my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), when he was Secretary of State for Education, to a grant-maintained school. During our visit, a teacher said, "I am a member of the Labour party." When that is said to a senior Minister, one wonders what will happen next. The teacher continued, "But the best thing that happened to this school was it becoming grant-maintained."

Let us remember that 20 of the 40 best performing comprehensive schools are grant-maintained and that only 20 per cent. of comprehensives are grant-maintained. We know that, in 1995, 44.7 per cent. of pupils at grant-maintained comprehensives achieved top grades in five subjects at GCSE level, compared with a national figure for comprehensive schools of 38.7 per cent. Sixty per cent. of grant-maintained schools have improved their relative performance in the league tables since they became grant-maintained.

The reason for the improvement is that grant-maintained schools are using their budgets more effectively. A recent survey showed that 87 per cent. stated that building services had improved since they had become grant-maintained, and 69 per cent. said that catering services had improved. Fifty per cent. said that cleaning had improved and 54 per cent. said that curriculum advice had improved. Eighty-five per cent. said that staff development had improved. Those are all remarkable achievements. As the National Audit Office found, and stated in its report, the reason is that schools, when in complete charge of their own budgets, manage to secure savings to which local authority bureaucrats were indifferent.

One school, for example, had renegotiated an onerous long-term photocopier lease, which reduced the cost per copy by 57 per cent. Two new machines had been provided in the process, and the result was a better service. Another school decided to bring cleaning and catering in-house, and produced savings of £11,000 a year. A good many school books can be bought for £11,000 a year.

In another case, a school had secured savings of £9,000 in its spending on ground maintenance and of £11,500 on catering. Those savings could almost pay for an extra teacher. Another school established a management partnership for catering services that produced savings of £19,000 a year. Again, a huge number of extra books could be bought with that amount of money.

Truancy is less of a problem at grant-maintained schools than it is at other schools, but we must ask ourselves why truancy is sometimes a problem. I think that we sometimes seek to give children who do not need or want an academic education an inappropriate education. I always remember visiting a school in Israel where children were being taught how to become motor mechanics or, alternatively, hairdressers. The head of that school said to me, "You may wonder why we do this, but we can guarantee that all our kids will have a job when they leave school." That is important.

If we say to children, "Vocational training—in other words, teaching you how to be a bricklayer or a motor mechanic—is suitable for you," we will find that they will adapt to such courses remarkably well. I know of the curriculum centre at Barnet, where young people are taught bricklaying and how to be a motor mechanic. There is no problem with truancy. The children enjoy what they are doing and recognise that there are career prospects for them thereafter.

Ministers are always tempted to quote figures at us. We are told that, instead of one in eight students going to university, the figure is now one in three. We are told of the record number of children passing GCSE examinations. Since the exam was introduced, the number of children passing it has increased by one third. However, people like myself find it difficult to associate the increased numbers to which I have referred with the general concern about standards elsewhere.

When the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, for example, tells us that we are two years behind Germany in mathematics, one wonders how it is that there are such remarkable GCSE results. We must ask whether, in having increased the number of universities from 18 at the beginning of the century to over 100, we have not debased standards. We were told that more does not equal poorer quality, but I have my doubts.

When we discover that some universities will take students with grade E A-levels and that others will take students with no A-levels at all, that Luton university offers £1,000 scholarships, and that even Oxford and Cambridge struggle to get science and engineering students, we must surely ask ourselves whether there are not real problems.

There are 33,000 applications for media studies at university and only 26,400 for mathematics. With that in mind, we must ask whether we are teaching the right subjects at universities and whether there is not something wrong with our standards in schools. When universities have to introduce remedial classes in maths, simplify science courses and lengthen their engineering courses, is there not something wrong with our education system?

A distinguished representative of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has said that maths-based subjects are now offered with no mathematics, to make them more attractive to students. The Leader of the Opposition says that equality must not become the enemy of quality, but I suspect that it has.

Concern about education is widespread. It is shared by parents, employers and all who are concerned about the future of our country. Education is essential to ensure our future prosperity as a nation. Education is particularly important to those who are living in deprived cities. If we fail them, we condemn them to a life of mediocrity and squalor. If education is good, people can go on to the escalator of opportunity and succeed in life.

Lord Melbourne reputedly said to Queen Victoria: I don't know, Ma'am, why they make all this fuss about education; none of the Pagets can read or write, and they get on well enough. That may have been true in the 19th century, but it is not true as we come to the end of the millennium.

9.59 am
Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) on securing the debate. I agree with his preference for the abandonment of calculators. I am conscious of the fact that mental ability and the ability to calculate figures diminishes without practice. My generation was one of the last to use slide rules. I am sorry that I disposed of my slide rule, because it would probably now be worth a bit of money as a potential museum piece.

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

I happened to find out the other day that slide rules are still in use in A-level mathematics. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by that.

Mr. Davies

I am grateful to the Minister for that information.

I was the beneficiary of an excellent academic education. Twenty years ago, I believed that, in practice, the spirit of learning and the development of well-rounded human beings were more important for schools than examination success. On reflection, I believe these days that we can have both. My strong conviction is that the acquisition of skills is essential if human beings are to develop to their full potential and if their minds are to flourish. They require a basic grounding for their intellect to thrive.

Last year's world competitiveness report made it clear that educational adequacy in Britain had slipped, and that we were now 35th out of 48 nations.

Ms Estelle Morris

We have now gone down further.

Mr. Davies

I note the hon. Lady's remark.

One in seven 21-year-olds in this country are said to have problems with basic literacy. Time and again, reports have shown that Japanese and German children are twice as likely to reach the equivalent of A-level examination success as their counterparts in this country. Why do some children achieve more than others? Could it be that German children are more intelligent than British children? At a local level, are children in one part of my borough more intelligent than those in another part? I am sure that the answer to those questions is firmly no.

I believe that there is no substantial difference across the world in the innate intelligence of human beings. The difference lies in social factors—the attitude of parents, funding of schools, organisation of education methods and the culture in which children develop, which varies from one country to another and even from one school to another within a local education authority area. We may not be able to change everything, but we can change much for the better. As legislators, we can affect the system in a way that benefits our constituents.

The introduction of league tables has helped to focus minds on academic performance and examination success. Some people moan and whinge about the tables. Indeed, I have reservations about the way in which the information is assembled, and I am concerned that head teachers may be tempted not to submit some children for examination, so as to avoid a poor performance being recorded at a later date. On the whole, however, I welcome league tables, because they have concentrated the minds of teachers and encouraged schools to ensure that every possible step is taken to improve their performance and that of individual pupils.

Earlier this year, the head teacher of Saddleworth school told me that its performance was just above average, and that perhaps it could do better. I am pleased to see from the figures for A to C grades at GCSE in five or more subjects that its performance has improved: it is up to 46 per cent. this year. I am sure that more progress will be made. Oldham schools generally, and schools across the country, have improved, and I suspect that league tables have played a part in that improvement.

I urge the Minister to ensure that, in the years to come, the goal posts will not be moved. Schools should be able to trust those results. There should be no weakening of the criteria for marking examinations and judging pupils. People should not have to suffer abuse in the tabloid newspapers, which say that standards have weakened and that teachers are not doing as well, and that improvements are due simply to the fact that examinations are being judged more leniently than before.

It is important that an element of competition is introduced. It was often said that only a certain percentage of pupils could attain an A grade at A-level. The league tables and the judging of GCSEs should be objective, so that schools currently below average can work hard to become above average, without feeling that the higher they climb and the harder they work the more difficult it will be to attain their goal. Consistency is crucial.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House have stressed in the past, it is imperative to introduce a value-added element in league tables. Entry level should perhaps be compared with performance at a later date.

Breeze Hill school serves many of my constituents, although it is just outside my constituency border. English is not the first language of many of its pupils, and it has had many problems in recent years. For some time, it was bottom of the league table. Last year it came well off the bottom: it moved up from a poor, some would say pathetic, 9 per cent. to 21 per cent. of GCSE passes at grades A to C, which is a significant improvement in one year.

I hope that that heralds great things to come. I am sure that it has been a great boost to the morale of teachers and to pupils and parents in the area. Such figures should be reflected in league tables by putting one criterion against the other, so that parents can compare the two.

It is particularly interesting that some schools perform better that others with exactly the same catchment area. The chief inspector's report for 1996 pointed out that some outstanding secondary schools are doing twice as well at GCSE as other schools in similar circumstances, and six times better than schools with less advantageous social and environmental conditions.

The ideal must be to encourage schools to break away from the vicious circle in which teachers have low expectations of their pupils and there is downward peer pressure from pupils who drag down good performing colleagues, which results in poor achievement. We should establish instead a virtuous circle in which improvement is achieved because teachers and pupils work together in an upward movement and aspire to higher things.

On Monday, I visited Wardle high school in my constituency. It now achieves 64 per cent. A to C grade passes at GCSE: the figure for English is 80 per cent. That is a tremendous performance, and it is the highest in the Rochdale borough. We have come to expect such achievements at that school. There has been a tremendous input and it has a fabulous atmosphere. The whole school works together as one entity with a common purpose.

The personality of the head teacher can be crucial to such achievement. It is important to recognise how easy it is to expect too much. We hold up as an example the glorious head teacher who has transformed a school, but we often fail to recognise that the head who arrives at a school that is already performing well has a vastly easier job to maintain that performance than one who take on a school with low standards, where the obstacles seem insuperable. It is an exceptional person who can turn the situation around in such areas. We must find means of helping the head teacher who is no more than average to turn situations around. We need to help head teachers not to reinvent the wheel, but merely to learn from best practice and to employ methods that have been applied successfully in the schools that have achieved the most.

Discipline is also crucial. A well-ordered learning environment and control in the classroom are the essential prerequisites of good teaching. On that score, my borough of Oldham is no better and no worse than other areas throughout the country—which means that the vast majority of lessons are taught well and in ordered conditions. By and large, schools—including those in my borough—are well-disciplined places, but the national picture tells a disturbing story. The number of exclusions is growing nationally, and the number of head teachers taking retirement early, often because of stress-related illness, has grown by 50 per cent. since 1991.

In the past few weeks, I have heard from teachers in areas as diverse as Hackney and North Walsham in Norfolk—I believe that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has some experience of that area—and, indeed, my own borough. Those teachers feel that conditions in their classrooms are deteriorating, and have decided to take early retirement rather than being forced to abandon their traditional desire to teach, and having to substitute crowd control.

We know that there are problems of indiscipline, although they tend to be the exception to the rule. The problem is growing across the country, and is reflected in Oldham as elsewhere. Recently, one teacher wrote to my local newspaper: there are children who's classroom behaviour falls far below any acceptable level … who swing from desks, rip pages from books, swear at teachers with no intention of … paying attention. How can a teacher teach in such circumstances?

I have been criticised by my local chairman of education for pointing out that there are problems in a minority of schools. When I am rebutted, as I have been, I feel that, in pretending that there are no such problems and sweeping them under the carpet, the education chairman only earns contempt from teachers who must face the problems daily, and who do not feel that they are receiving the support they need.

Teachers need to be able to work within closely defined guidelines. They need to be able to rely on good disciplinary procedures, and they need effective back-up from head teachers; who, in turn, need effective back-up from local education authorities; which themselves need good back-up from the Government. We must never allow the education of the majority of children in any one classroom to be sacrificed because we tolerate to any degree the misbehaviour of the one or two who are disruptive. That should be uppermost in our minds.

Exclusions, although growing and although one means of allowing a school to retain discipline and control in the classroom, must be regarded as inherently bad. Apart from anything else, statistics now suggest that the child who is excluded today becomes the prisoner of tomorrow. There is a real danger that, by writing off children in this way, we will force people down and create great problems for the future.

Internal methods of discipline—internal exclusion, if you like—is, by and large, a better approach; but teaching on a one-to-one basis, or the teaching of three or four disruptive pupils by one teacher, is an expensive process, as parents have been pointing out lately. They have found that education resources are being diverted from their own children to the teaching of a single disruptive pupil by a single teacher. Obviously, schools need resources if they are to deal with problems of that kind.

Mr. Beggs

Is there not a real danger that, when pupils are excluded and education authorities are then responsible for allocating them to different schools, we shall start to create "dump schools"? That is the last thing that we need. It would be much better for children who are creating difficulties to be supervised internally.

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. On the one hand, we must have firm discipline and ensure that disruptive children are not allowed to disturb the education of those who seek to gain all the benefits of a school; on the other hand, there is indeed a danger that we shall create sink schools, which will generate and feed a growing underclass. There must be a way of preventing that: we have a responsibility to deal with the problem.

Final responsibility for discipline must rest firmly on the shoulders of parents, but, although the vast majority accept that responsibility automatically, we hear too many stories of teachers who are being abused by the parents to whom they would normally look for support. We need good home-school partnerships—school contracts on a one-to-one basis. Negotiating such arrangements, however—meeting parents individually in the evenings—puts a huge burden on teachers, who are already over-pressed and, usually, working in the schools in which conditions are least favourable.

All those things cost money. Yesterday, the Chancellor announced that education would be looked after in the Budget. I fear, however, that that was a rather cynical and shameful statement, for we know that in practice the total funding for local education authorities is less than the real rate of inflation. We know that exactly the same will happen as happened last year—that, far from seeing a boost in education and an increase in standards, we shall see primary school classes increase.

Mr. Robin Squire

The hon. Gentleman said that the education settlement would be less than the rate of inflation. The strong implication is that he expects settlements throughout the public sector—including Government settlements—necessarily to match movements in prices year by year. The Government, however, believe that authorities, like Government, should be looking for efficiency savings. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with that?

Mr. Davies

I should have been happy if the Chancellor had said yesterday, "Social service budgets will be cut to the bone, so that I can stand up in the House and say that education will benefit." That would have been a more honest approach. If there is to be a real increase in education spending, local authority spending across the board—other than education spending—should be kept at inflation levels. If that happened, the increase would be real. In practice, however, it will be a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and in this instance social service budgets will feel the brunt of the pressure.

I am still a member of Oldham council. I am one of those who will have to hold up their hands and make a decision when proposals to cut social services and close children's homes are made in my council. It is not an experience to which I look forward. There must be substantial investment, as my party has spelt out before. We have made it clear that investment of some £2 billion is needed—which, if necessary, should come from the general taxation system.

There are things that local education authorities can do to stimulate and support the work of schools. They should be challenging parents a little, and asking them whether they are doing as much as they could to support schools. My own local education authority, for example, should be asking parents, "Are you reading to your young children when they go to bed? Are you listening to them read when they are a bit older? Are you making sure that they are at school?" In many authorities, including my own, there is an unacceptable number of unauthorised absences.

The authority should ask, "Are you checking that homework is being done? If not enough homework is being set, are you beating a path to the head teacher to ask why?" The amount of work that is set and done, at school or out of school, is a crucial factor in students' eventual achievements. Given that not all homes can provide a place where homework can be done in peace, is the school offering "homework clubs"? Is it making facilities available to prevent pupils suffering disadvantage as a result of their social circumstances?

Within the past three weeks, I have had the chance to see some excellent schools in my constituency. I am conscious that they are working hard, and I want to see them achieve even more. Across the country, so much can be done. The enemy is complacency, because it holds back the development of our children, and it holds back Britain. It must be overcome.

10.20 am
Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

It is always timely to discuss standards in education, and I agreed with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) said in opening the debate. Everyone wants higher education standards, whether we speak as parents, Members of Parliament or employers. Education and the system of assessing how it is progressing in each and every child must be the cornerstone of the building of our future citizens.

Equally, each of us can argue for education as a spending priority, which is why I welcome the broad outline of extra spending in yesterday's Budget. It must be said, however, that ever higher spending, by itself, does not guarantee parallel improvements in teaching standards.

As has already been said in this debate, we can all mention high-spending but low-achieving local education authorities. Some of us remember the grim days of the old Inner London education authority, which spent the most and produced the least. Spending is not the panacea. It is an important part of it, however, and parents will certainly have no confidence if they feel or are told that their children's education is suffering because of a perceived lack of funding.

We will not know the details of how the extra spending will be distributed until this afternoon's statement. However, parents in Suffolk, for example, have been hit by a concerted scare story—a worst-case scenario—presented to them by the Labour-controlled LEA, as if a 5 per cent. cut across the board in every Suffolk school was a certainty. It has been a disgraceful campaign. Parents would have to be alerted if there were to be a per cent. cut and it were to be translated into bigger class sizes, loss of key teachers, buildings not being repaired, the compromise of health, safety or any of the other myriad parts of the school's world that comprise our children's education.

Our children spend much time in schools. Some would argue that, if a curriculum, particularly at key stages 3 and 4, is to fit in all that it should—with more civic studies, driving lessons, social skills, family education and parenting—our children should spend even longer in school. The longer school day, the four-term year and the two-semester term are part of the continuing debate about the structures of education. In some senses, that debate is peripheral to the core issue of standards. In education, however, we must take account of all strands of the debate, because assessing achievement is such a complex business.

We are now beginning to achieve a consensus on a basic core curriculum and on some testing of it. We are also building a consensus on the publication of results—I hope, in an ever more sophisticated manner, providing ever more meaningful comparative information. There is a general feeling that weaknesses are shown through inspections by the Office for Standards in Education, performance tables and exam results. If so, drastic remedial action is needed—even if, ultimately, that means closing schools.

It has taken a long time for that consensus to be achieved, even if we still disagree on the details. It is a shame that the Labour party, with some of the unions, has spent nearly a generation fighting us at every turn, especially as so many of our children are now taught in Labour-controlled authorities.

We can make progress if we can build on what has been achieved, from curriculum in schools to reforms of teacher training, and if we can assume that parents want the best standards so that their children can achieve their potential, and that they want such standards at every stage of their children's education. Regardless of whether a child is starting school, sitting standard assessment tasks, doing GCSEs, staying on for post-16 education or going to university or into training, higher standards must be available at every stage. That benchmark will continue rising every year. In the same way in which we become healthier as a people, I believe that each generation can attain ever higher educational targets.

It is possible to build naturally on what has been achieved, unless what we have achieved is ruined. But we must go further. OFSTED should focus more on schools' weak points rather than conducting whole-school inspections. OFSTED should focus on particular subject areas or even on individual teachers, to weed out the bad and to learn from the best.

If OFSTED is not the right vehicle for the next stage of standard-raising in education and a general teaching council is, let us have one. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South that we should enhance the teaching profession, boost its professional status and tap that huge fund of good will and—in the case of so many teachers—great talent, dedication and vision to praise teachers when they deserve it and criticise them when they deserve that.

Parents, of course, want choice of schools. They would like the full range of subjects to be available and for their children and teenagers to be safe and confident, harnessing the wonders of technology and learning the traditional values in literacy and numeracy. In reality, however, most parents in rural areas, and even those in urban areas, do not exercise or do not have a choice of school. Regardless of results and standards, the majority of children go to their nearest school, whatever the standards.

In my part of Suffolk, there is a three-tier system, with primary schools taking pupils up to age nine, middle schools to 13 and high schools after that. Even in a compact urban area, it is difficult for parents with children of different ages attending different schools to be in the same place at the same time. So they always, or nearly always, opt for the local school. We must remember that. Although I remain a believer in a wide freedom of choice and personal preference, I know that we must raise standards in all schools. Competition has a limit in education because of the reality of which school most children will attend.

Conservative Members believe that schools should take ever more of their own decisions, handle all their own budgets and be as self-governing as possible. However, there is sometimes a feeling that schools do not want any more deep-seated changes, such as becoming fully self-governing, if they are doing reasonably well on present indicators, children are confidently developing in a manner that is satisfactory to the majority of parents, and they are working in partnership with the LEA, other schools, local industry and the world around them.

Schools would like to get on with the changes and targets that they have already been set. That view finds a sympathetic echo in the hearts of many parents, particularly when the parents' own world of work has been subject to change and upheaval in recent years. I do not forget that, after children, parents are next in our order of priority and accountability. Next come employers and their requirements—now, and in the world of work in the next century. That belief is integral to our plans for higher standards.

If there is still a gap between young people's qualities and skills in basic reading, writing or more adventurous thinking and employers' recruitment needs, that gap must be dealt with. One of the great benefits of the past few years has been the ending of the idea that schools are ivory towers and isolated islands in their communities. They are now seen as part of the fabric of their communities, although, as has already been said, schools are considered a safe place for many children who live in tough home and community environments. The more links that business and the community have with education the better. The more each can respond to the needs of the other, the better for all concerned, especially for our children.

Regardless of whether I am at home with my own children or visiting schools, I never cease to be amazed at what children are capable of, given encouragement and responsibility. Like so many things in this country, however, we take education for granted. Until the Labour party modernised itself, we have taken it as read that education is a battleground. That is no longer so.

One of the keys to raising standards has been demonstrated by a pilot project in my constituency of Waveney. It is called "Caring for Education", and it is now just over a year old. It is about not taking things for granted. It is a partnership of all the schools in Lowestoft, the county council, the district council, police, retailers, the chamber of commerce and parents and seeks to tell the community that we all—children, parents, teachers, taxpayers and everyone else—value education and value the added value provided to children through their learning.

The project has been described, on one level, as a truancy watch, with the added bonus of reducing the dangers of drugs and crime. But it goes beyond that; it is an attitude. It is, for example, persuading doctors and dentists that routine appointments for children can be made outside school hours. If everyone thinks that school comes first and that what children are doing in school matters, is valued and cannot easily be replaced if missed out of the national curriculum—quite small changes in attitude—a real sense of valuing and owning our children's future can be engendered, with some very encouraging results.

At the other end of the scale, the project has resulted in that partnership developing ideas with other parts of the Waveney community and the creation of Futura—a centre for technological excellence that will wipe out the geographical isolation caused by poor roads into Waveney, harness the skill resources of our area, help train, retrain and continue retraining the work force of the future and provide us locally with an edge of advantage.

The project is all about wanting the best and thinking positively about the area, the people in it and the adults of tomorrow. That is what we need. We require from the Department for Education and Employment and those outside it a drive to build on the structures that the Government have put in place, and to keep raising standards and expectations and delivering them.

10.28 am
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

I shall start by lobbying my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). An excellent school in Huddersfield in my constituency, the Salendine Nook high school, has applied for technology college status. Sadly, its application in the previous bidding round was unsuccessful, but I hope that it will be successful this time. It has made one or two changes to the bid and has improved it. I ask my hon. Friend to examine that bid closely, or, if it is not his responsibility, to ensure that his ministerial colleague does so.

Since the Conservatives came to power in 1979, we have had the massive task of driving up educational standards in this country. We started by extending parental choice. We believed that that would be sufficient to drive up standards, but we underestimated the task.

The Labour party has controlled many local education authorities, and it is fair to say that, the worse the educational problems in an LEA, the longer Labour has been in control. Progressive educationists have been in charge of teacher training colleges and the teacher training agenda for very many years; they were also entrenched in local education authorities.

In the 1960s and 1970s, drab uniformity was introduced into the system, with the blanket introduction of comprehensive schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) said, many excellent grammar schools and direct grant schools were destroyed. Those responsible should be ashamed.

Progressive educationists, supported by Labour politicians, have said that streaming and setting in schools are wrong. New, and often dubious, teaching methods have been introduced. In history teaching nowadays, there appears to be less emphasis on the teaching of facts and more emphasis on pupils knowing about the social experiences of people who were living at that time.

Local education authorities have undermined the authority of teachers and head teachers by meddling in the ways in which schools can impose discipline. I draw the attention of the House to a matter that was brought to my attention by a Conservative colleague in the city of Sheffield. I am pleased to see a Sheffield Member, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), in his place.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who speaks for the Labour party on education, says that he wants improved standards and more discipline in schools; yet, in 1981, under his leadership, Sheffield City council prohibited schools from insisting on school uniforms, despite massive parental and pupil opposition.

My hon. Friend the Minister might be interested to know that the hon. Member for Brightside wrote in the Sheffield Star on 6 October 1981 in support of the decision to remove the compulsion of wearing specific items of school uniform on the grounds of the freedom of the individual being a matter for city-wide concern". At the Sheffield City council meeting on 7 October 1981, a Conservative amendment proposing that the decision on school uniforms be left to schools was voted down by the Labour group.

There we have it. It was the Labour party, and the hon. Member for Brightside, who ensured that schools in Sheffield were unable to insist on school uniforms.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 should have been the Education Reform Act of 1980. It is a shame that we waited so long. Of course, the Conservative Government had other priorities at that time. We underestimated the challenges that confronted us, but the 1988 Act was a key piece of legislation, which changed the country's education agenda. We introduced the national curriculum, local management of schools and grant-maintained schools. We gave parents more control.

Since then, we have introduced national tests and league tables. Every initiative that the Conservative Government have introduced to drive up standards was fiercely opposed by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. I was fascinated to hear the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) support the Government's approach to tests. I am encouraged by that; it is a shame that we did not have his support when we introduced those changes.

In the time left, I shall discuss an issue that has been of special interest and concern to many of my constituents—class sizes. Last Friday night in my constituency, I attended a meeting of parents and teachers who were concerned about funding in education generally and class sizes in particular.

Class sizes are important, if only because parents believe they are. If parents believe that they are important, we must try to keep class sizes down as much as we can. I do not want classes to exceed 30 pupils. The Government and local authorities should do everything possible to reduce classes.

We would be deluding ourselves if we were to say that class sizes were the only thing that counted in education; of course they are not. We only have to consider the Ridings school, were class sizes were small yet standards of education, as we all know, were pretty appalling. Schools take the final decisions as to how the funds available to them are to be spent, but it is important that central Government make enough money available to local authorities and schools to ensure that they keep class sizes down.

Since the Conservatives came to power in 1979, educational spending has increased by 50 per cent. in real terms, but I welcome the fact that the Chancellor, in his Budget statement yesterday, announced an additional £830 million for schools. That is extremely important. I have pushed for that in my meetings with the Chancellor and in a recent meeting with the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I have argued that we must make more money available for schools. I am pleased, therefore, that the Chancellor made that announcement yesterday.

As the Chancellor said, it is crucial that local education authorities pass on to schools the money that has been made available. That is the big challenge, and it has not always happened.

I draw the attention of the House to a recent document produced by the Centre for Policy Studies, which examined the method of allocating resources to schools. Of the national schools budget, £12 billion goes to schools, but about £4 billion goes to local education authorities. That means that LEAs deduct 26 per cent. of school spending in England. The method by which money is sent to individual schools is confusing, so LEAs are able to get away with saying that they pass on 90 per cent. of funding. That is not the case.

In my area, Kirklees borough council claims to delegate 89 per cent. of its budget to individual schools. The true figure is 74 per cent. Kirklees LEA holds back 26 per cent. of funding for schools. Those figures appear in the CPS document, but, interestingly, they are also contained, albeit rather hidden away, in Kirklees council's own document, "Education Budget Matters", recently published for the benefit of local educationists, schools and so on.

Page 33 of the document reveals that, of the generous schools budget of £141 million, only £106 million is passed on to individual schools. There remains tremendous scope, therefore, for Kirklees council to pass on more money to individual schools. On page 39 of the document, we read that Kirklees passes on much less per pupil to individual schools than the average of metropolitan district councils throughout the country. Kirklees ranks 21st out of 26 for delegating funds to individual schools.

The final fact from the document that I wish to draw to the attention of the House relates to pupil-teacher ratios. It is fair to say that there has been a slight increase in those ratios across the country. However, the increase in Kirklees has been more than twice that in other local education authorities—a factor of 1.8 pupils in Kirklees against a figure of 0.7 across the country. That suggests that Kirklees, my local Labour-run council, is holding back too much money. It is spending too much on central services and administration. My message for the House and for my local education authority is that more of the money made available by the Government to Kirklees must be passed on to individual schools.

10.40 am
Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) on giving the House another opportunity to discuss standards in education. Some of us have already been through this debate fairly recently, but it is an important matter, and we always welcome the opportunity to discuss it.

Having chosen a good topic for debate, the hon. Gentleman risked ruining it by falling into the trap that too many Conservative Members fall into, wanting to persuade everyone that excellence exists only in grant-maintained schools. I agree with the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) that we must seize the opportunity to get together to raise standards in education and try to move forward.

There are some very good grant-maintained schools that have improved their standards. There are also an awful lot of good comprehensive schools that have improved theirs. There are good selective schools, technology schools and city technology colleges that have improved their standards. We do no one any favours by trying to score points and pretending that excellence exists only in the types of school to which we are ideologically committed. People know that that is not true. I welcome and praise excellence wherever it exists. Thankfully, it exists in a lot of schools up and down the country.

I am pleased to welcome the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) on board with his acknowledgement that class size is important and can make a difference. On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who is the Whip and cannot participate in the debate, I should like to clarify the fact that the 1981 decision in Sheffield was only that schools should not be able to exclude students for not wearing uniform. The hon. Member for Colne Valley may disagree with that decision, but it was legitimate for Sheffield to decide that a child's education should not be interrupted, even temporarily, because of an issue such as uniform.

Mr. Riddick

Surely telling a school that it cannot insist on school uniforms totally undermines discipline in the school.

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman should realise that exclusion is not the only means of enforcing rules. If we reach such a situation, there will be real problems.

The hon. Member for Waveney made a thoughtful speech. I have listened to several thoughtful speeches from him on education in recent months. In particular, he mentioned partnerships, with people from all sectors of the community working together to raise standards. That is welcome and should be encouraged.

We have heard the normal attacks on local authorities. I do not excuse under-performing local authorities, but the notion that some are not achieving at a high standard and are not supporting their schools is far from the truth. Baseline assessment and targets were introduced by Birmingham education authority. Business partnerships were pioneered by Labour local authorities and others up and down the country. Community support has been promoted, bringing parents and communities together to raise standards. Out-of-school learning was also pioneered by Birmingham, Tower Hamlets and other authorities in London and elsewhere.

All those initiatives are important, and have been designed to raise standards. They all require people to work together, and they have had local authorities at their core in bringing those people together and facilitating joint work to raise standards. The Government have now recognised that local authorities have a role to play as one of many partners. A school will be better with the support of a good local authority.

Some Conservative Members will be sadly let down when they study the details of yesterday's Budget. No extra money will be going into schools. No extra money went to schools last year, either, when the Government increased the standard spending assessment. That does not put a penny in anyone's pocket. It is a judgment of what the Government think a local authority should spend on schools.

Even with the increase in the SSA announced by the Chancellor yesterday, local authorities spent £73 million more last year than next year's projected expenditure. The Chancellor's great announcement on education yesterday amounts to telling local authorities that the Government believe that next year they should spend £73 million less on education than they are spending this year. That is what the new SSA will mean.

It is all very well talking about increases in grant, but last year's sleight of hand involved announcing a so-called increase in grant for education, but at the same time adding not one penny to the total amount that could be spent by local authorities. We do not need a mathematician or a master of mental arithmetic—if I may say that to the hon. Member for Hendon, South—to work out that, if the overall size of the cake is the same and the Government think that more should be spent on education, money must be saved elsewhere. As one hon. Member said—I think that it was the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies)—the money this year is likely to come from social service cuts.

Mr. John Marshall

Does the hon. Lady accept that there is scope for local authorities to improve efficiency? My local authority in Barnet chose to award a refuse collection contract in-house despite the fact that it costs significantly more than the cheapest outside tender.

Ms Morris

I am amazed that the Government have not taken action if that is the case, because it is illegal. Of course some efficiency savings can be made, but we were told yesterday that there would be an increase in education spending. No one should believe for a minute that that will happen next year, because the Tories did not tell the truth on education expenditure last year. People will not believe it, because they know what happened in their schools last year.

I should like to raise an important statistic from yesterday's Budget settlement. Together with the Minister, I spent most of last year dealing with a Bill on nursery vouchers. It was the first time in 17 years that the Government had done anything to increase and expand nursery education provision. It was not much, with nothing for three-year-olds or the under-threes and an awful lot of bureaucracy, but some new money was made available for four-year-olds in those—mainly Tory—local authorities that were not providing any nursery education.

Yesterday, we heard that there was to be a £56 million cut in the money available for nursery vouchers. There will be no expansion in nursery education. That is a terrible indictment of the Tories' nursery voucher system and an admission that it will fail. If the Government make less money available for nursery vouchers, they must assume that fewer vouchers will be redeemed. Otherwise, they will not have the money to pay out.

Less than 12 months ago, the Government gave a commitment that £185 million would be spent on nursery education. We were promised new money. The Chancellor did not make specific reference to it yesterday, but that money has diminished, and part of it has vanished. The total will be £56 million lower.

The best way to raise standards—the best thing we can do for children—is to provide good-quality nursery education. That is the best start in life. Children and their parents are being badly let down again by the Government—a Government who had done nothing on nursery education for 17 years, and then spent £20 million on bureaucracy. They have now chosen to make a £56 million cut in a scheme that has not even started. That is a great deal of money. Many four-year-olds will be denied the nursery places that they were promised.

Finally, let me make some general comments about standards. We have good schools, excellence and some awfully bright kids, but the British education system has always had the same problem: the gap between those who achieve and those who do not is wider than elsewhere, and growing. Although the number of children achieving five GCSE grades A to C increased by 1 per cent. last year, the number of children who gained no examination qualifications increased from 8 to 9 per cent. Therefore, the worrying gap between those who do well and those who do not is growing.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon, South about the importance of the early years and the gateway skills of literacy and numeracy. If children go to secondary school without having mastered those skills, become part of the culture of learning and understood the importance of striving, there is not much that secondary schools can do for them.

That is why Labour has pledged to reduce class sizes to 30 for five, six and seven-year-olds, to set literacy targets, and to provide summer schools for those who fall behind. We have also pledged to make sure that children have the opportunity of a top-quality nursery education to give them the best start, so that they can achieve their potential and the nation can reap the benefit of a skilled and educated work force—which the Government have failed to achieve in 17 years of Tory rule.

10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire)

It was rather unfortunate that, in a debate on school standards, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) should do exactly what she condemned us for doing—raising party political points, particularly as hers were misleading.

First, on her specific point about nursery vouchers, if she has not yet understood the system, let me explain that, each year, the estimates are revised to take account of revised estimates of pupil numbers, among other factors. I give her an assurance today that the parents of every four-year-old for whom a voucher is presented will be able to spend the money with the provider of their choice. It is misleading and harmful for the hon. Lady to suggest otherwise from the Opposition Front Bench.

Ms Estelle Morris

Is the Minister saying that his Department had to revise the figure relating to the expected number of four-year-olds entering nursery education within a 12-month period?

Mr. Squire

It may come as a surprise to the hon. Lady, but population estimates constantly change, as do estimates of take-up. Although we are eating into a debate on standards, let me repeat the key point for the benefit of the hon. Lady: all nursery vouchers will be redeemed and met in full where they are presented.

Secondly, although the hon. Lady made three positive references to Birmingham LEA in the first minute of her speech, she did not refer to its record on truancy. Ten of worst 100 schools in the country happen to be in Birmingham LEA—an excellent example of standards to set for the country. Time does not allow me to reply to her comments criticising yesterday's Budget, beyond observing that, as in the past, increases in SSAs will provide extra money to local authorities. How local authorities choose to spend that money is a matter for them. As always, they determine their own priorities.

Let me move away from those unnecessarily contentious matters to join the hon. Lady in welcoming the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall). Not for the first time, he displayed his full and excellent knowledge of educational matters. He will understand that time does not allow me to respond to him as fully as I would have liked.

My hon. Friend was right to mention the importance of education as a ladder of opportunity for those from less fortunate households. As he said in passing, all too often that opportunity has been dashed by the policies proposed, and in some cases implemented, by the Labour party.

My hon. Friend rightly stressed the importance of basic skills, particularly in primary schools. When children move on to secondary school, we expect them to have reached or surpassed certain standards. My hon. Friend will recognise that, both in the revised national curriculum and in the greater emphasis on initial training for primary school teachers, we are stressing the importance of reading and arithmetic, and improving their teaching in primary schools. As my hon. Friend said, it is asking a lot to expect a child who cannot yet read properly to embrace the full curriculum post-seven, never mind post-11.

My hon. Friend praised teachers. He will have heard me do the same many times in virtually every speech from the Dispatch Box. Sadly, The Guardian or The Times Educational Supplement next week will probably suggest that there is a campaign against teachers in general. That is not the case. We unstintingly praise the enormous efforts of teachers up and down the country, year in, year out, to educate our children. When we say that some of them are not performing sufficiently well, that criticism should be taken in context.

My hon. Friend mentioned mathematics. He will know that much has been done to attempt to raise standards in that subject, including the establishment of numeracy centres and the emphasis on numeracy in teacher training reforms, baseline assessment, and various changes to the national curriculum. Not least is the introduction of calculator-free tests and mental arithmetic tests. Hopefully, in a few years, when my hon. Friend goes shopping, he will not calculate his bill significantly ahead of the person working behind the counter.

My hon. Friend rightly gloried in the diversity of schools, including grant-maintained schools. He did not say that the only good schools were grant-maintained schools or technology colleges, but rightly recognised that, for the umpteenth year, GM schools are outperforming comprehensive schools and those run by LEAs. That is a valid and interesting point.

The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) spoke for the first time in an 'education debate, and I welcome much of what he said. However, I am sorry that he began by referring to the so-called world prosperity league. I am sure he knows that that league is produced solely on the opinions of business men in various countries, and that, on reflection, he will agree that the detailed surveys produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on a statistical basis are a more realistic assessment—good or bad—of the standing of any particular country.

Those statistics show that we spend a higher proportion of our gross domestic product on funding primary and secondary schools than any of our European Union partners, that our university graduation rates are second only to Denmark, and that in science we continue to achieve internationally at the highest levels.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to welcome performance tables and to highlight the fact that they enable parents not to compare remarkably different schools with different intakes, but to look at schools with similar intakes and wonder why some schools perform worse than others in similar circumstances.

He was also right to stress the importance of discipline, and I trust that his party will welcome the measures in the Education Bill that give further powers to schools in that respect. Schools must have the right to exclude severely disruptive pupils, but, as I have said many times and am happy to reiterate today, permanent exclusions should be the last resort. We also spend significant sums of money assisting local education authorities in the whole area of dealing with disaffected pupils.

Before time runs out, I should like to welcome very much the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter), who made a thoughtful speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) made his customary robust speech, which was particularly welcome because it reminded us that Opposition Members come to education matters with dirty hands from their past beliefs, policies and voting record. No one better exemplifies that than the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley also put the whole question of class size and its relevant importance to raising standards into a proper context.

The debate has been welcome, if short. The Government have demonstrated that they believe overwhelmingly in the importance of raising standards in our schools for all children, not just a selected few. Our policies that are now in place—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. We must move to the next debate.

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