HC Deb 28 January 1997 vol 289 cc254-61

Amendments made: No. 37, in page 75, line 22, after '(a)' insert '(i)'.

No. 38, in page 75, line 23, leave out '(a)' and insert '(i)'.

No. 39, in page 78, line 35, at end insert— '(4) After that subsection insert— (9) Where the arrangements for the admission of pupils to a school provide for all pupils admitted to the school to be selected by reference to ability or aptitude, those arrangements shall be taken for the purposes of this Chapter to be wholly based on selection by reference to ability or aptitude, whether or not they also provide for the use of additional criteria in circumstances where the number of children in a relevant age group who are assessed to be of the requisite ability or aptitude is greater than the number of pupils which it is intended to admit to the school in that age group.".'.

No. 40, in page 79, line 7, at end insert— '. For the cross-heading "CORPORAL PUNISHMENT" preceding section 548 of that Act substitute—


Corporal punishment.'.

No. 41, in page 79, line 43, at end insert— '"wholly based on selection by section 411(9)".'. reference to ability or aptitude (in Chapter I of Part VI)

No. 42, in page 80, line 8, after 'pupil),' insert—

  1. '(a) in paragraph 14, after "relevant person." insert "the head teacher.": and
  2. (b)'.'.—[Mr. Forth.]

Order for Third Reading read.

9.33 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

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

This Bill is about extending diversity, improving discipline and raising standards. On Conservative Benches, we know that all three are essential to an effective education system, and I pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends for their valuable and thoughtful contribution to the debate today and yesterday.

We are told that Opposition Members have heard of the word diversity. I believe that it appeared in the title of their policy statement on schools. Clearly, they have not grasped its meaning, however, as in that same policy statement they declared their intention to diminish diversity by abolishing grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools. Equally clearly, some of them can understand it, because they apply it to the choices that they make for their own children. Therefore, there is a split in Labour ranks—a split between words and actions Most people would call that hypocrisy and if Labour Members' manoeuvrings last night illustrated anything, it was the hypocrisy at the heart of Labour's education policy.

Last night, Labour Members voted against the expansion of popular schools—the schools parents want to choose—and in particular against the very grant-maintained schools chosen by, among others in their ranks, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). If their objections were so principled, it is curious that we heard no protest from them when the London Oratory school expanded to set up a junior house, nor murmurings of discontent about the current application to expand St. Olave's grant-maintained grammar school in Bromley. To the outside world, their principles on that matter might well be put this way: "My children are okay, so let's pull up the ladder in case anyone else's want to climb up."

Of course, some Labour Members are less hypocritical than others. Let us turn to grammar schools. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) may promise parents a vote on the future of grammar schools, if indeed that is what his obfuscation means, but leading Labour councillors are saying that they would move to abolish them immediately after a Labour election victory. So will grammar schools be allowed a future under Labour or not?

A recent MORI poll for the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham was reported in the papers as showing that six out of 10 Labour voters would oppose any move to close the five foundation grammar schools. That is not surprising, because they are excellent schools. No wonder local people want to keep them. No wonder, given the comments of Labour councillors, that they are afraid that Labour would destroy that excellence. Labour politicians do not even seem to understand the views of their own voters—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady must relate her remarks to the Bill before the House.

Mrs. Shephard

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Under the idea of choice promoted by Opposition Members during the debate in the past two days, one can choose any school one wants so long as it is the local education authority comprehensive, as under their plans that is what all schools would be. Real choice, however, means giving parents access to good schools of different kinds. That can be achieved only by extending diversity, which means giving schools more freedom to change what they do. That is what part I of the Bill is about. It will not compel any school to change, but it will give schools more flexibility to respond to what parents want. That will help to raise standards by encouraging schools to develop distinctive strengths, whether in teaching particular specialisms or teaching particular types of pupil. Those are the freedoms that were opposed last night.

Many parents want to send their children to selective schools, but for most people that opportunity exists only in a few parts of the country. We want to give many more parents access to schools that select some or all their pupils by ability or aptitude, either generally or for particular specialisms. Therefore, the Bill gives admission authorities more scope to introduce or extend selection by ability or aptitude without central approval.

Grant-maintained schools have a leading role to play in extending choice and diversity. They are the schools that, with parents' support, have chosen to take full responsibility for their own affairs. They have shown that they can use that responsibility well and they are getting good results. Thus the Bill gives them extra freedoms to open new sixth forms and nursery classes without central approval.

The Government are determined that the Bill should also allow grant-maintained schools more power to expand without central approval. We voted last night on whether to reintroduce the clause that would allow popular and effective schools to offer more parents the education that they want for their children. Checking last night's voting figures has shown that that vote was tied. Following discussions today, we shall reintroduce the clause in another place.

The debate on diversity and choice can be summarised briefly. We believe in it; Opposition Members do not. In contrast, however, and more happily, other parts of the Bill have attracted a high degree of cross-party support. They include the measures to improve school discipline. Obviously, schools must be orderly places, and the Bill will help to secure that. It requires governing bodies to state their policies for promoting good behaviour and LEAs to set out how they support schools in that task. It gives schools clear legal authority to detain badly behaved pupils without their parents' consent and to use the 45-day annual limit for pupil exclusions more flexibly. As a result of an amendment passed yesterday, the Bill will now support the position of teachers in maintaining good discipline, by confirming and clarifying their powers to use physical force where that is needed to prevent injury, damage or disruption.

Good discipline creates an environment in which effective teaching and learning can take place, but the Bill also includes specific measures to raise standards, and there has been general support for those. The Bill requires every primary school to assess pupils on entry. It also requires schools to set targets for improving their pupils' performance. Many schools already set such targets; the time has come for all to do so.

Targets will be based on performance in assessments and qualifications, so it is important to have a framework for those assessments and qualifications that guarantees high standards. Combining the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications will help to achieve that, and the Bill paves the way for the merger. It also includes measures to ensure that every 14 to 16-year-old has a properly planned programme of careers education, access to impartial advice and guidance.

Finally, the Bill enables the Office for Standards in Education to inspect the work of LEAs. LEAs still have important work to do in supporting schools and they must carry out that work effectively. Inspection of schools is helping to raise standards; inspection of LEAs will do the same. It is not fair to children to tolerate the truancy rates of Nottinghamshire, the negligence of Calderdale or the appalling GCSE results of Islington—all, of course, under the control of the Labour party. Yet when we ask Labour Members to condemn those low standards, the silence is deafening.

Parents want a school with good discipline and high standards that provides education suitable to the talents and needs of their child. The Bill will help them to get it. Let us ensure that children are not deprived of their opportunities by the Labour party, practising the politics of envy and privilege, as we saw last night, and reserving for its chosen few the opportunities that the Conservative party would make available for the many. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.41 pm
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

I should like to put on record my considerable thanks, appreciation and congratulations to my colleagues, not only those who have served on the Front Bench, but those who served on Standing Committee D. Over the past two days, they have contributed to a magnificent effort and ensured that, last night, we were able to expose Conservative Members' real commitment.

If there was hypocrisy, the hypocrites were the 45 Conservative Members who were so in favour of the former clause 3 that they could not turn up to vote for it. If there is hypocrisy, it is the hypocrisy of those who proclaim in national newspapers that they are favour of a general teaching council—in fact, they get the journalists to parade it as a Conservative idea and display it as new thinking that will feature in the Conservative manifesto—and then vote it down in the House, as they did today. There is hypocrisy when those who claim that they are not in favour of selection for primary education then refuse to put that on the face of the Bill and vote it down. The real hypocrites are those who pretend that they will give to the many what they are prepared to deliver only to the very few.

Let us take the idea that Labour Members are not in favour of diversity because we do not want a free-for-all that would make the gridlock described by the Audit Commission in its report before Christmas look like a children's tea party. The truth of the matter is that, over the past century, we have devised a system of co-operation and checks and balances precisely to ensure that one person's choice is not another person's disaster. That is why we believe in ensuring that there is genuine diversity within one campus, and collaboration and co-operation within the family of schools so that people have a real opportunity to choose. I make it absolutely clear that the Secretary of State uses words such as "abolition" on her own behalf: we have no plans to abolish or threaten schools—we plan to open the best of our schools to all children who are able to take advantage of them. Access will not be blocked by the 11-plus test—which the Prime Minister has pledged that the Conservatives will not retain, but to which they appear wedded. According to the nature of selection, the 11-plus test excludes children from the school of their choice in their neighbourhood.

In the next three months—up to the general election and after it—we shall continue our programme of raising education standards and quality for all. We shall offer genuine diversity and ensure that quality education, a disciplined environment and a commitment to community genuinely lift standards for everyone.

Let us examine the Conservative party's promise that it will allow a handful of schools to increase their student intake by 50 per cent. There is no promise to provide any extra cash. That pledge will therefore result in some schools expanding at the expense of other neighbouring schools and of parental choice. The latter schools will inevitably wither on the vine: they will not improve—they will close.

Let us examine the Government's pledge that would set school against school—not state local education authority school against state grant-maintained school, but grant-maintained school against grant-maintained school—in places such as Hillingdon or Kent. Clusters of GM schools are competing with each other in those areas. There is no publication of statutory requirements and no consultation or information. The schools cannot object and the Secretary of State cannot intervene. It is a free-for-all—or 24,000 corks bobbing on a murky sea, as the Chairman of the Education and Employment Committee, the hon. Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton), aptly described it. It is an ideological free-for-all that has nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with rather silly dogma.

We learned today that there has been a staggering reduction in the number of surplus places—from 883,166 to 875,000. What kind of fraudulent Government would suggest that they should increase the number of surplus places, further widening the gulf between what could be spent on education and what is being spent keeping unused premises open? What kind of Government would delude the public into believing that the £100 million identified by the Audit Commission would not assist every child in every school to receive the education that he or she deserves?

Tonight is not the time to reveal once again the paucity of Conservative party education policy: we have done that during the passage of the Bill and throughout the past five years. People will soon have a chance to judge whether education standards have improved. Improvement at GCSE level between 1992 and 1997 was only half the rate achieved between 1988 and 1992. The British people will judge whether, in setting school against school, we have ended up with cut-throat competition rather than collaboration between schools; and whether, by choosing to include in the Bill the expansion of the assisted places scheme, the Government have denied schools the opportunity of reducing class sizes at that crucial early stage, key stage 1, to ensure that the basics can be acquired by all children as a foundation, so that they can go on to get a foothold on the ladder of lifelong learning, which opportunity at that early stage can afford.

In simple terms, the choice is whether to subsidise the very few in private education, or to ensure investment in the many in state education, and to ensure that we can repair and maintain our schools with an imaginative programme that will tackle the current £3 billion backlog. The choice is whether we provide places in early years and family education rather than a voucher scheme and whether we set aside the expansion of selection, which no one wants, and ensure instead that children and their parents have direct access to the school in their neighbourhood and the school of their choice, whatever its status and whatever the background of the parents.

We should be able to expand and provide diversity through the coming together of academic and vocational qualifications, to offer new ways of bringing in the disaffected and alienated young people of our country. I say that in the light of Bishop David Sheppard's remarks today that we should be concerned—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order The hon. Gentleman is straying from the Bill.

Mr. Blunkett

I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We should heed the words that are so important to lifting standards, at which at least part of the Bill is aimed, to ensure that there is hope that young people will have a job, training and a future to look forward to.

That is why we have suggested that we reach a consensus on the parts of the Bill on which the majority of hon. Members entirely agree—the provisions aimed at lifting standards, improving discipline and encouraging common sense—and set aside the provisions that divide the education service, return us to the past and are designed to look backwards rather than to a new century.

Let us ensure that the right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Committee have not wasted their time, and that the Bill can be passed by both Houses by consensus, instead of the continuing divisions in the run-up to a general election which represent the fag-end of a Government who have failed to deliver and failed in their ideas, and who are offering no new pledges of any worth to the British people.

The Government have no new ideas. Education authorities will not be abolished. The Secretary of State said that this evening, and spelled out the role of local education authorities at Harrogate on 17 January. There will not be a common funding formula, because it would immediately result in a cut of £600 million in the resources available to schools. That is the sum allocated over and above the Government's standard spending assessment. We know that there will not be the wholesale imposition of grant-maintained status because, to her credit, the Secretary of State has resisted it. We know that there cannot be 100 per cent. delegation, because that would wipe out key elements which ensure that support is available to children with special needs and which provide the services that all schools require, whatever their status.

That is why the issues of the moment are not status and structure, but the standards that we offer all our children. We stand for opportunity and choice for all, not for a few, and an obsession with giving a real life chance to every child, not just to a particular group of children in a particular group of schools. We represent no abolition, no attack and no dogma, but a commitment to improvement and quality. That is what we shall be happy to offer the electorate at the general election.

9.54 pm
Mr. Don Foster

It is a great pity that a lengthy and unnecessary debate on corporal punishment meant that many important amendments were not discussed today.

We are debating a Bill of two halves—the first half good, the second half bad. The first half deals with baseline assessment and inspection of LEAs and contains measures to improve discipline in schools and to improve careers and education guidance. I and my party entirely support and welcome those measures.

The second half, however, is thoroughly bad and will cause considerable damage to the education service. It is based on the fundamental philosophy that has underpinned so much of Conservative education thinking in recent years—that the marketplace will improve the quality of education. I do not agree. I believe that the introduction of the marketplace has damaged education and that we should be seeking to develop co-operation and partnership within the education service.

The Bill makes a sixth attempt to refloat the failed flagship policy of grant-maintained status, which British people simply do not want. That policy is not levering up standards, but creating a two-tier divisive system of education.

The Bill also attempts to introduce further competition through selection, which denies the parental choice that the Government are so proud to promote. Let us never forget that when schools select pupils, parents no longer have the choice. As so many Conservative Members have made absolutely clear, selection provides escape routes for the few, but it provides very little support and help for the many.

We desperately need an education system that is based on partnership and co-operation and provides high-quality education for all young people. That means increased investment in our education service. We need to introduce high-quality early-years education for three and four-year-olds. Those measures should have been included in the Bill, but were missed out.

Above all, if we are to lever up standards, we must recognise the vital importance of teachers and others who work in education. The Bill fails to give them the encouragement that they need to understand how valuable they are to the education service.

It is a Bill of two halves: half is thoroughly bad, but because half is good and we want that half to progress, we shall not oppose its Third Reading tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.