HC Deb 22 December 1997 vol 303 cc657-77 3.45 pm

On resuming

Madam Speaker

I have an agreement from the two Front Benchers that they will complete their introduction of the Second Reading by five o'clock, so that the statement may take place at precisely that time. It will be put on the Annunciator for everyone in the House to see.

Order for Second Reading read.

3.46 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

If anyone is wondering where the beef is, it is in the Bill. [Laughter.] The Bill is the most substantial piece of legislation on education ever brought forward by a Labour Government, and I am very proud indeed to be the Secretary of State who introduces it. Given that it is Christmas week, I wish to take the opportunity to wish you, Madam Speaker, and the House, a happy and contented Christmas, free of leaks and telephone calls from the media, and full of Christmas cheer.

Given the range of goodies in the Bill, it is difficult to know where to start. The Bill is about raising standards; it seeks consensus; it offers a fresh start; it provides a new fervour for lifting horizons in the education system; and it is all about ensuring that teachers have the wherewithal and the power to do their job. Those who carry responsibility—whether as governors, as parents, as teachers, as members of education authorities or as the Secretary of State—need the powers to match rights and duties together.

The Bill is the most comprehensive and widespread measure that has been introduced on standards. It deals not with minutiae, but with the thrust of how we change the relationships in education to emphasise opportunity and equality for all our children. The Bill will match the responsibilities that each and every one of us carries for ourselves with the support necessary and the framework required to make that into a reality. The fulfilment of our promises and pledges commences in the Bill. It builds on the legislation that was given Royal Assent on 31 July to reduce class sizes for all five, six and seven-year-olds to no more than 30.

We will ensure that we begin the process of providing the kind of education for the many that has previously been available only to the few. We will put behind us the divisions and diversions, and the misdirection of time and energy that has been expended on structures rather than standards. The Bill will ensure that we can unite as a House and a nation behind the task of giving every child in our country the chance to succeed, and to contribute for themselves and their families to the prosperity and success of our nation.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

In my constituency, great interest is taken in the Bill. Does my right hon. Friend think that the social exclusion unit will assist him in attaining the objectives outlined in the Bill?

Mr. Blunkett

The work of the social exclusion unit in drawing together a range of Departments, agencies and organisations into a coherent social policy approach will make a substantial contribution to success. It will build on the measures in the Bill which complement and extend the measures in the Education (Schools) Act 1997, passed by the previous Parliament, which ensure that we can tackle head-on the prevention of exclusion and truancy. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) has been working with education authorities, and has announced £22 million of resources to stimulate and support projects to avoid exclusion.

Mr. Cynog Dais (Ceredigion)

Before the Secretary of State says any more about uniting the nation, will he establish that the Bill applies to two nations, England and Wales, but not to Scotland? Is it not terribly important that those two nations, if they so wish, can develop distinctive policies, appropriate to their differing circumstances?

Mr. Blunkett

I can confirm that the Bill applies to England and to Wales, and that the clauses which apply to Wales will enable Wales to develop under the new Assembly its own perspective and ethos for education. This will build on the principles in the Bill, and on the principle of raising standards across the United Kingdom.

Education is our top priority, and our success will depend on it. Social cohesion, economic renewal and personal well-being all come from the opportunity to develop the talents of every child and the ability to build on their potential.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the Conservative-controlled Cambridgeshire county council which decided last week not to allocate the extra money that the Government have provided for education to the education service? Does he agree that that is a dreadful waste of an opportunity of which the county council is simply not taking advantage?

Mr. Blunkett

As my hon. Friend knows, I have written to every education authority and to the leaders of councils to appeal to them to ensure that the resources announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on 2 July reach the education system. My right hon. Friend announced that an extra £1 billion would be available for revenue for next year—an average increase of 5.7 per cent. We are asking every council to ensure that the resources are made available, and we will monitor their actions. We recognise that, after 18 years of retrenchment and cuts, it is difficult for councils to balance competing policy pressures. We are mindful of that when asking them to ensure that education is, and will remain, a top priority for all.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Secretary of State has commented on Cambridgeshire. Will he also comment on the remarks of the leader of Derbyshire county council, who said: We would like nothing more than to pass the cash increase to our schools but it is unrealistic when we are facing a £14 million shortfall in our budget"?

Mr. Blunkett

Of course, that £14 million shortfall arises directly from the way in which Derbyshire was treated under the Conservatives. The Conservatives did not match the standard spending assessment with revenue, as we are doing. The council was treated badly by the Conservatives' refusal to reassess the SSA and the area cost adjustment; that is currently taking place as part of the wider review for 1999. Councils were also treated badly by the Conservatives as they were offered only £200 million nationally for the coming year for education, when we are offering more than £1 billion in extra resources.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

The Secretary of State, frankly, has missed the point of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). The Government have announced their proposals for local government finance for next year—this Government, who have now been in office for eight months. Is the Secretary of State saying that the SSA figures fixed by the Government for next year are wrong? Is the right hon. Gentleman not prepared to stand behind the statement made by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions?

Mr. Blunkett

I said nothing of the sort. I said that the review of the allocation of standard spending assessment and area cost adjustment would take shape for 1999, and that, of course, after eight months, county and metropolitan districts and London borough councils are having to reflect on how they pick up the pieces after 18 years. In that respect, Derbyshire is no different from other authorities, except it was in a difficult position because of its relative position in the county council funding league.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Nothing is as straight as it seems when we hear Tories complaining about cuts in local government finance. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for many years, when the Tory Government were in and we had Labour-controlled local government in Matlock, Derbyshire, the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and his hon. Friends, the former Members for Amber Valley, Erewash and Derbyshire, South, used to come to the Chamber not to ask for more money for Derbyshire—their local authority—but to demand that the Tory Secretary of State reduce the amount of money going to their constituents? I have seen hypocrisy and shades of hypocrisy, but I have never heard anything like what has been uttered here today.

Mr. Blunkett

I could not put it better myself.

Mr. Skinner

You're not supposed to.

Mr. Blunkett

Since it is Christmas, I acknowledge fully that I cannot.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett

I will do so in a moment, but I want to make some progress. Part I of the Bill is a new step forward, which will create a new relationship of professionalism for teachers, building on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which is before the House of Lords and which will create: a general teaching council; new induction arrangements for qualified teachers; new inspection arrangements for teaching and for in-service training; a new job description for education authorities; new rights and responsibilities for parents through home-school agreements; a key role for head teachers with the new head teacher qualification; and a new way forward, building on the relationship of families of schools, which will unite primary and secondary schools, and school with school, instead of the previous pretence that we had a pseudo-market in which competition replaced co-operation, and schools were seen to be deliberately attacking their neighbours.

The lower class sizes I mentioned are part of the process, and they are reinforced and reaffirmed in this Bill. The education action zones laid out in clauses 10 to 13 have received wide acclaim. They will enable us to ensure that we can target resources and innovation where they are most needed, in both rural and urban areas, and that we can use the new-found flexibility to find out what works best and to spread it around the rest of the country as time and resources allow.

Clauses 6 and 7 describe the education development plans that education authorities will have to set out, which are linked to the present new early years development programmes. I pay tribute to those authorities that are doing a excellent job and have enabled us to replace the nursery vouchers scheme so smoothly and quickly.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, who has been generous to colleagues in giving way. Surely, all those improvements—as he sees them—need to be financed. What will he tell Dorset county council, which, for every extra £1 that his Department wants it to spend on education, is having to take £1.40 off the care of old people in my constituency? In fact, there has been a real-terms decrease of 2.5 per cent. in the Dorset county council budget, which is probably the lowest budget in the country, anyway.

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman's concern is commendable, but his facts are incorrect. The resources that have been allocated for education match, pound for pound, with revenue support, the lift in standard spending assessment. He might not be aware of it, but this is the first time since capping was introduced in the mid-1980s that a Government have matched for a specific service the revenue support with the SSA uplift; that is why we have been able to ask education authorities throughout the country to allocate those resources by taking the difficult decisions that are required to balance the needs of social services and other essential services within their overall budgets.

The role of local education authorities will be inspected, and the new measures in the Bill allow us to intervene directly when we believe that an education authority is failing children and the education service. Instead of hand wringing, which was a familiar sight in the past, we will have the power to take directly whatever steps are necessary to ensure that education authorities deliver our pledges. Clause 8 confers the power to take over specific functions within the education authority, and allows them to be undertaken either by another LEA or by a specific organisation or private concern specified by the Department and myself.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that that represents a significant shift in power from local education authorities to the Department, and that the Bill goes further in that respect than any of its predecessors?

Mr. Blunkett

The Conservative Government set up the Funding Agency for Schools, and ran schools directly from the Department; they established what was initially a very rigid national curriculum, which had to be duly watered down and loosened up after the first Dearing inquiry; and they imposed on the education service the most draconian restrictions that we have ever known. The hon. Gentleman has the cheek of the devil to accuse us.

The powers that we are taking are to allow us to match the rhetoric of action with the reality of action. We are able to do what other Governments have pretended that they would like to do, as shown by the previous Secretary of State's intervention in Calderdale and her hand wringing in Nottinghamshire. We have the resources and the power to do something. Those powers balance the correct autonomy at local level with the responsibility to carry out our manifesto pledge to ensure that every child, in whatever local education authority, has the same opportunities.

Intervention in LEAs, as with intervention in schools, will be in inverse proportion to success. If they are working well and doing the job, there will be no interference or direct intervention from the Department; if they are not, we will not simply sit on the sidelines wishing that we could do something about it: we will have the power to act.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

I pay tribute to both the Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards, who has come to York twice to meet me and the staff and management of the Funding Agency for Schools to discuss the implications of the Bill for the Agency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the staff and managers at the Funding Agency for Schools have executive skills—skills in administering education services—that are not available elsewhere in the Department, which is concerned with policy making, not executive functions? Those skills include, for example, capital planning and the administration of the Bill's education action zones and development plans, which ought to be preserved. Will the Department consider how to use those skills in the future, as well as seeking a future use for its offices at Albion wharf in York?

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman and the House know that interventions should be sharp and to the point. More than 40 hon. Members want to speak in the debate. Interventions must be interventions, or hon. Members may not be called when they seek to take part in the debate proper.

Mr. Blunkett

I am delighted that 40 hon. Members wish to speak. I thank them for not going for a drink tonight. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It may have been too long, but it was to the point in the issues that he raised on behalf of his constituents.

I confirm that we are mindful of the insecurity and fear among staff at the Funding Agency for Schools and of the need to use their talents, experience and skills to the full in implementing our policies, helping us develop plans for local education and schools, establishing targets, ensuring that we can implement our new deal for school, and investing capital effectively. All those aims will be aided by the expertise that people have gained over the years. I shall ensure that I keep my hon. Friend regularly in touch with what we do in that direction.

Part II deals with issues that relate to the Funding Agency for Schools and to the new framework, which will replace the friction, division and unfairness of the past by-drawing together schools of all shapes and sizes into the three new categories in the Bill: community, voluntary and foundation. We listened carefully to the representations made in the consultation. There were 8,500 responses, the greatest number of people and organisations in recent history to respond to a consultative White Paper, including 3,500 from individual parents. We are delighted that people were able and willing to make those representations.

We listened to individuals and organisations, and to the Churches, who told us that they wanted voluntary schools to stay voluntary rather than becoming foundation schools, so as to retain their unique ethos. We were happy to agree. We guaranteed the Churches that their specific role and the ethos of denominational Churches will not be affected. We agreed to make it clear in the Bill that the Secretary of State, rather than the new adjudicator, will be responsible for that area.

I know that some organisations wanted only two categories of school. It has been by building consensus that we have been able to gain support for the new framework to stop the dog fighting, the conflict and the division. It is on that basis that we are moving forward with the new categories, all of which are based entirely on fair funding, on accountability, on inclusiveness of decision-making, and on being part of school planning.

That is also how we are moving forward on the admissions policies through which all schools will play their part in creating a new fairness. Let me spell out, as do clauses 43 to 51, that, from now on, no school will receive additional funding because of its status; such funding will be given only to meet the needs of the children that schools educate.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

While I welcome the Secretary of State's decision on denominational schools, and recognise that he listened carefully to the consultation on them, will he explain why he ignored the responses to the consultation on grant-maintained schools? Is this not a case of "if it isn't broke, don't try to fix it"? Why does he insist on bringing back local authority governors—political placemen of his party—to interfere with the great success of grant-maintained schools?

Mr. Blunkett

In building consensus, we tried to get over such language, which reflects the past. I am delighted that Pauline Latham and George Phipson, the joint chairs of the Grant-Maintained Joint Monitoring Group, which represents 1,200 grant-maintained schools, wrote to me saying: We are writing to express our support for the inclusion of a Foundation Category within the School Standards and Framework Bill. It is our belief that the overwhelming majority of current Grant Maintained schools will opt for this category after the Bill has been enacted next year. It continues: GMJMG warmly welcomes the priority which the Government has attached to education. We strongly support the view that education standards should take precedence over school structures. One cannot get a clearer position than that. I commend the grant-maintained sector for it, because it is looking forward to a new century, not backwards to a divisionist past.

That is the difference between this Government and the previous one. We do not seek conflict; we seek to heal the wounds. We seek to put together a consensus for improvement and change, according to which we can ensure that people can work together rather than against each other; where schools and children are not threatened; and where teachers doing their job are not threatened. Through the extension of local management of schools, we will also seek to ensure that all schools have the opportunity to develop their standards and to determine, through their own autonomy, how they develop. They should be able to use innovation and enterprise to deliver to their children the best possible standards of education.

One of the most difficult things that I will have to do in my time as Secretary of State for Education and Employment is to reunite schools over divided admissions policies. It will be my task and that of my Ministers to draw up new circulars. As we said in our manifesto, we will build on circular 6/93, which was published by the previous Government, to ensure that all children have a chance and are treated fairly in terms of admission to schools.

Part III of the Bill allows me to correct the free-for-all that disadvantaged children, and continues to do so in key areas of the country, whether Watford or Bromley. When considering the shambles of the admissions policy in such areas, I am reminded of the words of the former right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, Nick Ridley, when he was Secretary of State for Transport. He famously said that he thought that the answer to traffic jams was to do away with traffic lights, on the grounds that, eventually, people would leave their cars at home because they would not be able to get past the end of their street.

If one followed the logic of previous Government's admissions policy to its rightful conclusion, the result would be exactly the same jams and snarl-ups as parents fought one another, regardless of the consequences for other children.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I am interested in the Secretary of State's comments about including all children in new admission arrangements. Can he therefore explain why he has not sought fit to make it a requirement on all local education authorities to include children with special educational needs? That would make our society, through our maintained schools, a wholly inclusive one.

Mr. Blunkett

The Green Paper we published recently—which the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley dealt with at length in the House a couple of Fridays ago—seeks to include special support where it is necessary and appropriate and will ensure that we design the system to meet the needs of the child rather than the other way round.

I am happy to receive representations about the development of admissions policies that ensure that special needs children are taken into account. Let me go further—I am mindful to hear from people how they believe we can best ensure that over-subscribed schools are able to take children with special needs as well as those who previously had difficulties, and encourage them and help them flourish. That is not always the case, given that the admissions procedures have not always allowed over-subscribed schools to take on that challenge. Instead, those arrangements have tended to divert such children to under-subscribed schools, where places exist in abundance. I look forward to people contributing to that important debate.

Back in June 1995, we spelled out our position on grammar schools. I am able to confirm that the Bill and the criteria I will lay down as part of our admissions policy will remove partial selection where it currently exists. That causes havoc in terms of the admission of local children, and denies fairness to parents because of the lack of choices and opportunities open to them.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, as he has been generous with his time. As he says that people are fighting over places, could he explain why, given that Bromley gives places to nearly 3,500 secondary pupils and nearly 1,500 primary school pupils from outside the borough, he has not reversed the Greenwich ruling?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Lady raised that question with me in a slightly different form during questions on education and employment—it seems a long time ago, but was only about 10 days ago. I shall give her the answer: we are not against the exercise of a parental preference; we are against situations in which, for no other reason than the partial selection system and because parents are exercising their preference from a distance, local parents living in close proximity to a school in, for example, Bromley, find it impossible to get their children into it.

I have made it clear several times that we are not prepared to overturn the Greenwich judgment. It is specifically, although not exclusively, a London problem, and we want London boroughs to co-operate to begin to ensure that we can make sense out of what is currently a shambles.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

The Secretary of State has been more than helpful in trying to resolve the problems that we have in Southend-on-Sea, where four people's grammar schools take 25 per cent. of the children, and where, despite high unemployment and many social problems, we have higher educational achievements overall than any other part of Essex.

However, will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that, as long as local primary school parents are in favour of the continuation of those four grammar schools, they will be permitted to continue? As he considers that, will he bear in mind the appalling situation in Glasgow, where I used to live, where they had the most dreadful education results ever recorded, partly because all the selective schools there were abolished?

Mr. Blunkett

The fact of whether there is selection or non-selection does not affect the standard of education, which depends on the teaching in the classroom, the holistic work of the school, the development of links with the community, the support of parents, and the work which, I accept, needs to be done with parents whose interest in, and commitment to, education is so variable.

I can confirm to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) that, in the case of individual grammar schools, parents of children at the appropriate feeder and primary schools will make the decision. Only where 20 per cent. of the parents in those individual grammar schools wish to trigger a ballot will a ballot take place.

I want to make it clear this afternoon that a disparate admissions policy makes it more, rather than less, difficult for the teachers to do their job in balancing able and less able children with different aptitudes. That is why we are establishing an adjudicator, who will complement the criteria on admissions and help to ensure that a smooth change is achieved, and that, where there is disagreement at local level, there will be a right of appeal on policy matters.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend will know that democratic socialists, almost by definition, are opposed to grammar schools, and that many of us would vote to close them tomorrow because we believe that they completely undermine education in our constituencies, particularly where they exist near our constituencies. Does my right hon. Friend look forward to some time in the future when, under a Labour Government, those infernal institutions will have disappeared for ever, and we will be able to look forward to a secondary system in this country that feeds equality to all?

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful for that very enjoyable question. Perhaps the best way I can answer it is to quote directly from our document "Diversity and Excellence", which I published on the day that the previous Prime Minister resigned to stand against himself in June 1995—two and a half years ago: Our opposition to academic selection at 11 has always been clear, but while we have never supported grammar schools in their exclusion of children by examination, change can only come through local agreement. Such change in the character of a school would only follow a clear demonstration of support from the parents affected by such decisions. That principle is embodied in the Bill and in the criteria that I shall lay down; it is in our manifesto, and I shall carry it out to the letter.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, who has been extremely generous in giving way. In view of the shifting sand that is the Government's policy on selection, will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to explain to the House his understanding of the difference in meaning between the words ability and aptitude?

Mr. Blunkett

It is the same meaning that was built into the previous Government's legislation and the criteria laid out in DfEE circular 6/93. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the previous Secretary of State, who will no doubt enlighten him. The adjudicator that I shall establish will ensure that aptitude is not used as a cover for selection. That is why we are establishing the adjudication system.

The whole thrust of what we are doing is to improve standards, and I am pleased to announce that we are notifying education authorities today of the next tranche of resources relating to our standards fund. The additional £59 million will include £49 million to establish in-service training for teachers and new literacy co-ordinators, and to purchase books. There will be an extra £4 million for the excellent work that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) is doing on family literacy, which, as I said, is so crucial to our success in achieving progress.

We are allocating £3 million to extend the premier league initiative for after-school and homework centres, so that division one clubs in England can also participate. I look forward to the possibility in the near future of rugby league and rugby union clubs participating, although some good rugby league clubs, including Sheffield Eagles, are already doing an excellent job of work in helping children out of school hours. Finally, £3.3 million will be used to help reading recovery for pupils transferring from primary to secondary school; we all remember that the previous Government did away altogether with national funding for the reading recovery scheme.

This afternoon, we have an opportunity to spell out the Government's unequivocal commitment to the task of healing our education system, fostering innovation and ensuring that people have the power to act sensibly in making those aims come alive in their own schools and communities. The Bill will ensure that 14 and 15-year-olds can legally take part in work experience, and so enable them to develop their contact with the world of work while remaining within school and benefiting from GCSE, GNVQ1 and the experiments that are taking place in further education.

The Bill takes an holistic approach. We are reinstating nutritional standards in school meals 17 years after the Tory Government withdrew them. We are overcoming silly anomalies so that schools can provide free school milk, and provide it at any time of the day, rather than being subject to the nonsense that exists under current law. We are ensuring that capability procedures for teachers are tough but fair. We are making it possible to co-ordinate what is happening between schools and colleges and between school and school. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and his colleagues will also be able to do so.

The Bill sets behind us two decades of muddle and dissension, and builds on the progress that we have made in the past eight months in reinvigorating, re-motivating and bringing new morale to the education service. I offer this Christmas as a new beginning for the education service, and I look forward to everyone of good will working with us to implement it on behalf of our children.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Before I call the next speaker, I advise the House that Madam Speaker has decided that the 10-minutes rule will apply to all Back-Bench speeches this evening.

4.24 pm
Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I start by joining the Secretary of State in wishing you, as occupant of the Chair, and the whole House a happy Christmas. That is something which does not divide those on the Front Benches in this debate.

However, my right hon. and hon. Friends will vote against Second Reading, because the Bill does not deliver the things that the Secretary of State claimed for it and because—even worse—in important respects it actively undermines the delivery of higher school standards and better prospects for British schoolchildren.

In the White Paper "Excellence in Schools", published in July 1997, the Secretary of State began to set out his policies for schools. The White Paper set out some policy principles, which we should compare with the detail of the Bill that the House is asked to consider today.

In the White Paper the Secretary of State said that he regarded standards as more important than structure. He repeated that proposition today, but the Bill is not, as he sought to argue, focused on the delivery of standards. The Bill is the centrepiece of another major restructuring of the educational framework. That is why it is called the School Standards and Framework Bill. Fifty-five of the 124 clauses of the Bill marshalled together in part II of the Bill set out, as the title of the part makes clear, a new framework for maintained schools". It is not true to say that the Bill does not deal with school structure.

The fifth principle set out in the White Paper was: There will be zero tolerance of underperformance and the sixth principle was: Government will work in partnership"—

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

The right hon. Gentleman skipped over that one a bit quickly.

Mr. Dorrell

I am coming back to it. I am putting the two together in the interests of brevity: zero tolerance of underperformance" and Government will work in partnership with all those committed to raising standards. Yet the Bill abolishes grant-maintained schools. It establishes a machinery for abolishing grammar schools. How does that square with the principle that the Government will work with those who are committed to raising standards in British schools? This is not "zero tolerance of underperformance"; it is zero tolerance of high performance.

Another principle set out in the White Paper is that Intervention will be in inverse proportion to success"— yet the Bill establishes, by means of the education development planning process and a myriad of other planning processes, a centralised planning structure giving unprecedented powers to the holder of the Secretary of State's office, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) pointed out. This is not a Bill that delivers intervention in inverse proportion to success, but a Bill that provides the Secretary of State with unprecedented powers to intervene across the board in the British school system.

Most important, the White Paper sought to argue that this gave effect to the Government's priority area. When asked what is the Government's priority, the Prime Minister is wont say, "Education, education, education," yet it is now obvious that that claim has no clothes.

During the general election campaign, the Prime Minister repeatedly said that he sought to deliver the increased emphasis on education that he wanted his Government to provide, by reducing expenditure elsewhere on welfare. On the launch of the Labour party manifesto on 3 April, the Prime Minister said: Education will be our number one priority; and we will increase the share of national income spent on education as we decrease it on the bills of economic and social failure". That is what the Prime Minister said on 3 April, and he repeated it time and again during the election campaign.

But now we know the truth. This was a strategy with no detail attached to it—certainly no detail to which the present Secretary of State for Education and Employment was signed up. We have seen how signed up to these principles he feels, in the memorandum that was leaked to yesterday's edition of The Sunday Telegraph. In that memorandum, the Secretary of State's argument is: "Of course I understand the need for reform of the welfare system; it is just that I agree with almost none of the principles that the Treasury and the Department of Social Security are discussing."

I was a Treasury Minister in the last Government at one point, and any Treasury Minister is familiar with the Secretary of State's argument. Since the dawn of time, colleagues throughout Whitehall have written to Treasury Ministers, "We agree wholeheartedly with the general principle that you are trying to pursue, but we disagree with the specific proposition that is being considered." [Interruption.]

The Secretary of State asks what this has to do with the Bill. Every schoolmaster and schoolmistress—every teacher working in the system—would say that, if we are to improve standards in British schools, the Secretary of State's key priority must be to deliver extra resources.

The key to success in the delivery of that objective, according to the Prime Minister, is to release resources elsewhere in the system, because that is the only way in which he sees extra money going into British schools. We know, however, that the Secretary of State is now resisting the very process that the Prime Minister said was the key to delivering extra resources.

The Secretary of State knows very well that the argument set out in yesterday's edition of The Sunday Telegraph is central to the delivery of his responsibilities. He asks, "What has this to do with the Bill?", but he knows the answer very well. He knows that the answer is that, unless the Government can deliver the welfare reform that he opposes in particular, he will not have the resources to deliver on his rhetoric about school standards.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I am sure that my right hon. Friend was somewhat disappointed by the Secretary of State's reply to my intervention. The right hon. Gentleman did not appear to know that, for every pound in the increase in Dorset's standard spending assessment, £1.40 was taken away from disabled people and the social services budget. Surely he realises that the increase is a con trick of smoke and mirrors. There are no extra resources; resources are being taken away from other local government services.

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Virtually all the increase in resources provided in the Government's plans for local authorities as a whole have been claimed as an increase in the education SSA, but that will be a realistic interpretation of the facts only if every other local government service—social services being far the most important—delivers a totally unrealistic budget for next year as compared with this year.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

If the right hon. Gentleman believes that increased resources are the only way to improve education, why did he spend the last 18 years in government cutting education spending in my authority?

Mr. Dorrell

During those 18 years, we saw increases year by year in the resources available to British schools. Furthermore, we never claimed—and I have not claimed today—that it is only about resources. It is also about structure. That is why I shall go on to argue that the changes in structure that form the centrepiece of the Bill are changes in the wrong direction.

It would not, however, be right to claim that every aspect of the Bill is unwelcome. I welcome some aspects—for instance, the priority that the Government give education. That is not new, of course; it is a commonplace of prime ministerial speeches. It has been so since the days of Lord Callaghan, Lady Thatcher and my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), and the present incumbent has continued the tradition. It is a cliché, but none the less a welcome cliché, that education is a high priority to any Government. I agree with the Government about that.

I also welcome the fact that the Government are committed to continuing the testing regime and the publication of those tests, which we introduced in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party. The Secretary of State now recognises that it is an important element of keeping the system open and accountable to parents and the wider community. I very much welcome the fact that the Government are committed to those principles.

I also welcome the elements in the Bill that deal with education action zones. Anyone looking at the publicity which the Secretary of State secured when the Bill was published could be forgiven for thinking that the Bill was almost exclusively about education action zones. The four clauses devoted to that subject are broadly welcome as they represent an important element in improving education in difficult parts of the country.

However, I hope that the Minister will clarify one aspect of those four clauses when he winds up. Clause 13 allows an education action zone to opt out of the national arrangements for school teachers' pay and conditions. This is exactly the same Bill which withdraws those rights from grant-maintained schools that have hitherto had the right.

I should be glad to know why the Government are providing to schools within education action zones exactly the same right that they are removing from today's grant-maintained schools. It was right that grant-maintained schools had such an option, and I certainly do not oppose it in the context of grant-maintained schools. I simply oppose its withdrawal from schools which currently have the right to opt out of those conditions.

Mr. Blunkett

How many?

Mr. Dorrell

The Minister asks how many. That question is not relevant. He proposes to provide that opportunity for schools in education action zones, presumably because he is persuaded by the argument of allowing individual schools greater flexibility around teachers' pay and conditions. I agree with him about that, but do not understand why he wants to focus it on a few schools and not, to use the Government's rhetoric, on "schools for the many".

I wish to dwell on one aspect of the Bill, because I find it rather better than I had expected. I refer to clauses 90 to 94 on selection. The Secretary of State has always had interesting things to say about selection, although not all of them are totally compatible with each other. Lord Hattersley attributed to the right hon. Gentleman the phrase, "Read my lips: no selection by examination or interview." I should be interested to know whether the Secretary of State wishes to deny it—he has never sought to do so. That was alleged to be his policy.

A couple of years ago, at the Labour party conference, the Prime Minister said: No return to selection, academic or social. I presume that that was before he chose the school to which his children now go. At the beginning of this year, the Secretary of State was also pretty clear on the subject. He said: We are not intent on extending further the selective process. During the election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister said: We are not in favour of selection. There are a number of different nuances, but right up to election day, the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) could reasonably have expected those on the Labour Front Bench to be clear in their opposition at least to the extension of selection, and occasionally to the principle.

It would be untrue to say that there has been a flash of blinding light, but there appears to be a flickering dawn of realisation on the part of the Government that that is incompatible with their commitment to high standards and to working in partnership with those who share that commitment. The relevant clauses start unambiguously enough. Clause 90 says: No admission arrangements … may make provision for selection by ability unless"— and then lists a range of exceptions. I suspect that some will have been expected by Labour Back-Benchers, although not with much enthusiasm, as the Government made it clear before election day that they would allow, with considerable—and from my point of view, unwelcome—restrictions, the continued operation of at least some grammar schools.

Clause 91 makes it clear that, where existing selective arrangements are in place in schools that are not grammar schools, there is no statutory bar on that, so we are making a further step forward. Clause 92 allows selection in the context of banding arrangements, but clause 93 is one of the most interesting—certainly one of the most hopeful—clauses in the Bill, because it allows selection of up to 10 per cent. of school population by aptitude in any school where the admission authority is satisfied that that school has a specialism.

I hope that the Minister will make it crystal clear that any foundation school and any voluntary-aided school within the terms of the Bill is its own admission authority. Therefore, if I read the Bill correctly, the governing body of any voluntary aided school or any foundation school has it within its power to determine that it is a school with a specialism, and to select up to 10 per cent. of the school population by aptitude for that specialism, within the terms of clause 93.

Mr. Byers

indicated assent.

Mr. Dorrell

The Minister nods in assent, and I am pleased that he does, because I regard that as a significant further break in the ice of Labour's hitherto blanket hostility to the principle of selection. I welcome the further break-up of that iceberg.

Mr. Byers

For the record, I was nodding my head to indicate that I would reply in detail to those points when I wind up the debate.

Mr. Dorrell

I look forward to listening to what the Minister says in detail. If my interpretation of the clause is right, it allows an opportunity for schools to develop greater specialism and diversity, and to deliver the commitment that the Government claim to improving the quality of education available to British schoolchildren.

If that development of policy is welcome, the same cannot be said of the treatment of grammar schools in the Bill. Clauses 95 to 97 establish the machinery for the abolition of grammar schools. That will please the hon. Member for Workington, but it will not please anyone anywhere in the country who wants to provide the opportunity for children from whatever background to improve themselves, and to offer the best possible ladder to opportunity and improved chances in life.

The Government's attitude to grammar schools has several aspects that stand out. One is that they still see it unambiguously as a one-way ratchet, despite their dawning, flickering realisation on some issues. The partnership that they claim with those who are committed to improving schools is a partnership only with those who currently have grammar schools. Despite all the rhetoric about diversity, they offer no opportunity for a particular area or community to introduce a grammar school structure if it chooses to do so. I do not understand the logic that enables a Government to allow the continued existence of grammar schools in one area, but not to allow their introduction in another.

All the detail of this passage, as the Secretary of State will acknowledge, is to be set out. We shall oppose these clauses when they come up in Committee, because we think that they are wrong-headed. I seek from the Minister when he winds up this evening a commitment that the draft regulations, which will be the teeth of these clauses, will be published in good time, so that we have them before we discuss the clauses in Committee.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether, in a particular set of circumstances, if parents had voted for the closure of a grammar school, he would think it right or wrong for a Secretary of State to adhere to the views of local people?

Mr. Dorrell

What I think is wrong is for the Government to introduce a set of clauses that are so one-sided that they provide only a one-way ratchet.

That is not the only, or even the main, act of vandalism in the Bill. At its heart are the 55 clauses to which I have referred, which deal with the new framework for schools. They have a simple purpose: to abolish grant-maintained schools. The cornerstone—the sine qua non—of the Bill is to abolish the locally managed grant-maintained schools that have been developing in our system over the past few years.

That is why this is a bad Bill, and it is the most important reason why we shall oppose it this evening. It reveals that all the talk of a commitment to work with those who are committed to high standards is simply humbug. Let us look at the record of grant-maintained schools.

For A-levels, half of the top 100 schools in Britain are grant-maintained schools. The top three places are held by grant-maintained schools. For GCSE, the proportion of pupils achieving five or more A to C grades is 53 per cent. in grant-maintained schools, and 40 per cent. in the rest of the maintained sector. According to evidence published by the Secretary of State less than one month ago, 240 schools have improved for four years running in terms of their published results. Of those, one third are grant-maintained schools. Eight out of 20–40 per cent.—of the top 20 schools are grant-maintained schools. That sector accounts for 6 per cent. of the total number of schools in the system.

Mr. Blunkett

Twenty per cent. of secondary schools.

Mr. Dorrell

The Secretary of State says from a sedentary position 20 per cent. of secondary schools.

That is true, and shows that grant-maintained schools are performing roughly twice as well as the rest of the maintained sector.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, with the best will in the world, and being as generous as possible to local education authorities, they have a much wider range of perceived responsibilities than individual schools; that grant-maintained schools have frequently, in my area at least, put the interests of their pupils at the head of their priorities; and that, as a consequence of taking themselves out of the local education authority's straitjacket, grant-maintained schools have been able to perform a great deal better than they would otherwise have done?

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend is precisely right. Why have grant-maintained schools delivered such performance? It is as my hon. Friend says: because their responsibility is focused within the school, they are free from excessive intervention from elsewhere in the system, and they can fulfil their responsibility to deliver standards to the children in those schools.

Mr. Blunkett

If one gives a school more money, extensions of its buildings, and the power to choose whichever pupils it wishes, is it not possible that the school might do better?

Mr. Dorrell

The Secretary of State is hunting for excuses. As he well knows, the funds available to grant-maintained schools were determined by reference to the other schools in the area in which that grant-maintained school was working. The Secretary of State is not prepared to face the facts about the improved performance of the education system that has been delivered by having responsibility focused within the individual school.

The abolition of local management in the grant-maintained sector, and the taking of power back into the hands of the local education authorit—and even worse, into the hands of the Department for Education and Employment—is the change that goes to the heart of the Bill.

We believe that schools are local institutions that should be accountable to the community and responsive to the needs of the children in them. The result of the development of that policy has been a diverse and flexible system. That, among other reasons, is why I support the Secretary of State in his commitment to develop selection by aptitude in order to allow a more diverse, flexible system. I look forward to hearing the Minister explaining that policy from the Dispatch Box later this evening.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

If grant-maintained schools are so wonderful, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why the majority of Conservative Back Benchers send their children to public schools and totally bypass the state education system?

Mr. Dorrell

The hon. Gentleman has scored a spectacular own goal. My right hon. and hon. Friends want to see a diverse system which includes support for those children who wish to enter the independent education system. If the hon. Gentleman seriously wanted to introduce a unified system, he should not have voted against the abolition of the assisted places scheme.

Integral to the Government's vision of centralisation of power are those passages in the Bill that deal with education development plans. The Secretary of State says, quite rightly, that every school should have a plan for the development of the service it delivers. However, the Secretary of State then goes off the rails. He believes that, because each school must have a plan, it must be accountable to the local education authority for all the key details of that plan. The local education authority is then accountable to the Secretary of State for the delivery of the key details of that plan.

The planning structure that the Secretary of State has erected in this Bill resembles nothing so much as the orthodoxy of 1960s economic planning structures. According to the structure established by the Secretary of State, everything throughout the school system is accountable not within the school—as should occur in a local institution—or even to the local education authority, but, through the planning structure, to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Willis


Mr. Dorrell

If the hon. Gentleman, as a Liberal Democrat, is true to the traditions of liberal local democracy, he should be as opposed as anyone to the nationalisation of the school system that the Secretary of State is introducing.

Mr. Willis

I apologise for attempting to make my point so impolitely. Was not the introduction of the national curriculum by the previous Conservative Government a gross act of centralisation the like of which we had not seen before?

Mr. Dorrell

I do not agree. I was talking about the planning structure and, as I have given an undertaking to sit down at five o'clock, I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider the terms of clauses 7 and 8. They give the Secretary of State responsibility for approving every local education authority plan. Local education authorities will be required to change the plans if the Secretary of State does not agree with them. The Secretary of State will have the power to change the plans and, even if he does not change them, he has a duty—not merely the power—to monitor the discharge of those plans by local education authorities.

The power that the Bill affords to the Secretary of State for Education resembles nothing so much as the power that the Health Secretary has to intervene directly in appointed local health authorities. Accountability for the health service in this country has always been through the Secretary of State to the House. However, accountability in the school system is not to an appointed local education authority but to a locally elected education authority.

In this Bill, the Secretary of State removes all the checks from the British school system and makes himself accountable for every detail of what goes on in that system. If the Bill is passed as presently drafted, the Secretary of State will have nowhere to hide: he will be responsible from the Government Dispatch Box for the services delivered in British schools in the same way as his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health—his comrade in arms against the Chancellor of the Exchequer—is accountable for what goes on in an avowedly national health service.

That point is emphasised by the terms of clause 8 which, for the first time, give the Secretary of State the power to issue instructions directly to the staff of a local education authority over the heads of elected councillors. The Bill will grant that new power to nationalise our school system. I can think of no better way of summing up my reservations about the Bill than by quoting the words of the Minister for School Standards. On 2 March 1993, the then hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers), referring to a clause in the Conservative's Education Bill, said: It starkly demonstrates the way in which power is being concentrated in the hands of the Secretary of State. It does not give power to schools, governors or parents; it gives power to the holder of the office of Secretary of State for Education. It represents one of the most dramatic extensions of Whitehall power since 1945."—[Official Report, 2 March 1993; Vol. 220, c. 178–9.] The Minister has summed up this situation accurately: his words have become a boomerang that has hit his right hon. Friend directly between the eyes.

The Bill is about not school standards, but school bureaucracy. How else can the Government explain the provisions in the Bill regarding not just education development plans but school organisation plans? I shall detain the House for a moment on the Bill's proposals in that regard. School organisation plans seem to be constituted according to a formula that has not been used since they drew up the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire.

Clause 25 gives each local education authority responsibility for preparing a school organisation plan. That plan is then considered by a school organisation committee, the membership of which is unclear but the decisions of which must be unanimous. If the committee fails—through some mischance—to reach a unanimous decision, the adjudicator is called in to decide what the plan should be. The local education authority remains responsible for carrying out the plan—unless the Secretary of State intervenes under the terms of schedule 7, in which case he may offer another set of proposals that presumably compete with those of the adjudicator. There must then be a public inquiry, but it must find in a manner consistent with the Secretary of State's ruling. That is an extraordinary way of confusing responsibility and producing a diffuse system of responsibility for school organisation.

As is often the case with the present Government, the aspirations to high quality education are not wrong, but the Secretary of State has failed totally to translate his words into anything resembling action. The Bill does not promise improvements in education—still less does it live by the excellent principles set out in the Secretary of State's White Paper, such as intervention being in inverse proportion to success and working in conjunction, in co-operation and in partnership with those who are committed to higher standards in education. The Bill delivers centralisation of power on the local education authority and on the office of the Secretary of State. It also delivers tier upon tier of new bureaucracy—education development plans, plans to reduce class sizes, early years development plans and school organisation plans.

The piece de resistance at the end of the Bill is the home-school contract for every school. [Interruption.] Labour Members cheer that proposal. Schools are obliged to go through a preparation process, a consultation process and an adjustment process regarding the new home school contracts. What do such contracts amount to at the end of that process? The answer is: not a row of beans. The contracts are unenforceable, and they will influence the actions of neither the school nor the parents.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

The purpose of home-school contracts is to try to ensure that parents take responsibility for their children's education and that they work in partnership with schools to achieve the best for their children. In the past few years, schools have been unable to work as closely as they should with parents. That is the point of home-school contracts.

Mr. Dorrell

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it would be desirable to have home-school contracts which influence parents and make them more supportive regarding what goes on in schools and which bind schools more closely with parents. I agree whole-heartedly with that idea. However, I cannot understand how that objective will be delivered by requiring schools to go through a hugely bureaucratic process and not allowing them any means of securing the changes in parental behaviour that the hon. Gentleman seeks. The Bill makes it crystal clear that those pieces of paper will not be allowed to influence the way in which any individual acts. What is the point of having a contract that has no influence over the actions of individuals?

The one thing that the Bill does not promise, as the Secretary of State made clear in his sedentary interjection earlier in my speech, is more money. That is the one thing that head teachers and staffroom teachers throughout Britain are looking to the Government, including the Secretary of State, to deliver so as to put flesh on the bones of the Government's rhetoric.

I see that the Secretary of State for Health has joined us in the Chamber. The right hon. Gentleman is a comrade in arms in the opposition to delivering the specific changes that the Prime Minister sees as the only means of delivering the improvement that the right hon. Gentleman wants for the health service and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment wants for schools. When the history of the next three months is written, it will not be the Bill and its consideration in Committee that will be remembered. Instead, history will focus on the Secretary of State's failure to deliver his much-trumpeted 5.7 per cent., and that is what we shall be monitoring in the months ahead.

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