HC Deb 07 July 1997 vol 297 cc613-27 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Before I begin my statement, on behalf of the whole House, I should like to offer condolences to the parents and family of the 16-year-old girl who was killed and of those who have been injured in the bus crash in the French alps, involving children from St. James's high school in Bolton. We all send them our best wishes.

With permission, I wish to make a statement to the House setting out proposals in the White Paper, "Excellence in schools".

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that education is the Government's No. 1 priority. Our consultation document and the Budget announcement of an increase of almost £2.5 billion in revenue and capital investment in education demonstrate that commitment and our priority. We shall publish a separate consultation paper on special educational needs.

Our proposals focus clearly on the central task of raising standards. We are establishing a new partnership for schools—one with teachers and the profession. Self-improvement is at the core of success. Schools must take responsibility for accepting that challenge. Good schools will flourish. Our proposals offer increased support through the new standards and effectiveness unit to schools in need of improvement. We shall build on best practice from around the world. We have set up the standards task force to spearhead our crusade to raise standards throughout the education service.

The new role for local education authorities will reflect our priorities by focusing on raising standards, not controlling schools. Intervention by LEAs will be in inverse proportion to success. All schools and local education authorities will establish challenging targets as part of the development plans on which they will be judged.

What we propose today will make a difference for everyone involved in the education of our children—parents, teachers and non-teaching staff, governors and the wider community. Our early years plans will lay the ground work, but, to provide a firm foundation, the best teaching methods must be available in every classroom in the land.

Our national literacy and numeracy strategy will ensure that all primary teachers are trained to use the most effective teaching methods. There will be a structured hour devoted each day to both literacy and numeracy in all primary schools.

Parents are a child's first teacher. They deserve better information and advice in order to increase their involvement in their child's learning. Home-school agreements will set out rights and responsibilities for home and school. They will explain clearly what is expected of the school, the parent and the pupil. Such agreements will make clear the need for regular and punctual attendance, good discipline and the vital role that homework can play in supporting learning in and out of school.

Parent participation in the life of the school is also vital. The provision of additional parent governors will be complemented by their direct representation on the education committee of their local authority.

We are offering a new deal for teachers: a new partnership between Government and all those involved in education. This Government value teachers, and will celebrate good practice. We will introduce a general teaching council, develop advanced skills teacher posts and provide comprehensive in-service training. There will be a new curriculum for initial teacher training, focusing on literacy and numeracy. A probationary year for all newly qualified teachers will continue their professional development.

We will introduce scholarships for the most outstanding teachers, encouraging them to spend a term sharing their knowledge and skills with others. A new awards scheme will recognise the success of individual schools.

This Government recognise that strong and committed leadership at every level is crucial. The role of the head teacher is critical to the success of the school. We will therefore strengthen head teacher training by introducing a mandatory qualification for all newly appointed heads. We will introduce a national training scheme for all existing heads, and overhaul the appraisal process for both heads and teachers.

Last week, I told the House how we would give young people hope through a new deal for the under-25s. Today's White Paper outlines a new approach to support areas of greatest disadvantage. Education action zones will draw together a range of initiatives in a partnership approach to raising standards. We will develop the specialist schools programme, so that such schools' innovative approach to teaching and learning can benefit the wider family of schools in their area.

The proposals that I have set out today will make failure less likely, but we know that problems still exist. Where teachers, schools or local education authorities are failing, we shall take decisive action. Children do not get a second chance at school, and the White Paper is a vital step in our crusade to raise standards and offer opportunity to all of them. Expectations and aspirations must be raised if we are to succeed. Fair funding, fair admissions and co-operation will reunite the education service. It is time to set aside the cynicism and the culture of complacency. This is a can-do Government working with a can-do service. Our children are our future and we owe it to them to give them the best possible start in life.

There is no more important task today than putting good intentions into practice. This Government will do just that.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

I join the Secretary of State in offering condolences to the bereaved parents of the child who was killed, and the parents of those who were hurt, in the bus accident earlier today.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that many of the ideas in his White Paper demonstrate why its title should in truth be "Why Kenneth Baker was right"? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Conservative Members always welcome converts to our arguments and are pleased that the Government now accept the case in principle for a parents charter? We are pleased that they now accept the case in principle for teacher appraisal, for a national curriculum, for regular testing and for publication of the results of those tests. We are pleased that they now accept the merits of the structure of the Office for Standards in Education, including the idea of Ofsted examination of local education authorities, which we advanced earlier this year. We are pleased that they accept the need for effective action on failing schools. We are pleased that they accept the need for baseline assessment of children starting out on their school careers and we are pleased that they accept the case for a national qualification for new head teachers. Those are all principles and policies that the Government have picked up from their predecessors and we welcome the fact that they have done so.

Most of all, it is to be welcomed that the Government now accept the principle, as set out clearly in the statement, that the key to successful management of a school is that the school itself must accept responsibility for the quality of the education that it delivers to its children, and that intervention

by LEAs will be in inverse proportion to success. Does the Secretary of State agree that that principle, as set out in his statement, is fundamental for the good management of a school system? If he accepts that that is the fundamental principle, does he accept also that there is considerable cause for concern elsewhere in the White Paper? On page 25, for example, he requires schools to draw up annual plans, which must be approved by the local education authority. There is not a requirement to wait and see whether the scheme is a success. Every school, according to the White Paper, must have its plans approved by the LEA.

What will be the power of the LEA over those plans? Will the LEA have power to change the judgment of the head and teachers of an individual school on how they want to develop their teaching methods? Will the LEA have power to change the judgment within the school if a school wishes to develop a particular specialism? Will the LEA have power to overrule governors and head teachers on resource allocations within an individual school?

How will the power of the LEA, in dealing with annual plans, relate to its obligation, set out elsewhere in the White Paper, to develop an education development plan for the whole of its area? If a particular school wants to develop a particular specialism in response to local need and the wishes of parents, will the LEA, in the Secretary of State's scheme of things, have the power to prevent that happening?

Most important, how can a school develop a specialism—the Secretary of State regularly says that he thinks that schools should be able to do so—when, on page 71 of the White Paper, he states that a school will not be allowed to interview parents or children—in other words, potential applicants—on any grounds other than establishing the religious denomination of potential applicants?

The Secretary of State's rhetoric about local management and the opportunity to develop specialisms is at variance with the detail of the plans that he has set out in the White Paper.

More generally, does the Secretary of State accept that when he says that the White Paper is about standards and not structure, he is introducing a false dichotomy? It is only by making schools responsive to the wishes of parents, but making them accountable to their local communities, that we produce the better standards that the right hon. Gentleman so often says that he wants to deliver. It is by undermining the independence of schools that we undermine the delivery of excellence. It is the independence of a school and its capacity to develop its own ideas that are the best assurances against capture of the school system, as we saw in the 1960s and 1970s, by fashionable education theory.

In that connection, the Secretary of State sets out in the White Paper a proposal for a general teaching council. I think that it is fair to say that the paper is vague about the exact scope that he envisages for the council. Elsewhere, the right hon. Gentleman has drawn a parallel between the general teaching council and the General Medical Council. He will know that the GMC is a regulatory body which is charged with the management of both professional competence and professional education. Is that what the right hon. Gentleman envisages for the general teaching council? If it is, how will he ensure that it is not captured by the latest fashionable theories? How will he ensure that there is not a damaging crossover between the functions of the Teacher Training Agency and those of individual employers within the school system?

On page 18 of the White Paper, the Secretary of State repeats his pledge that his commitment to a maximum class size for five, six and seven-year-olds can be paid for out of savings from the assisted places scheme. Is he aware that, according to The Scotsman last week, the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office has already announced that in Scotland that policy does not work? The Scotsman stated: The Government will not legally enforce its manifesto commitment to reduce primary school class sizes in Scotland because not enough money will be raised by scrapping the assisted places scheme. That is the argument which we have been advancing. Will the Secretary of State print an erratum slip to include in the White Paper when it is published, now that his hon. Friend has blown the gaff on that policy?

At the heart of the White Paper is a central weakness. The White Paper makes it clear that the Government believe that the key to better schools is a stronger local education authority. That theory has been disproved by history and rejected by 1,100 grant-maintained schools, which have chosen the path of greater independence.

The Government say that schools must take greater responsibility for what goes on inside them. The Government's problem is that they do not believe their own rhetoric. The Prime Minister has taught Labour Members new lines. They have memorised and repeated them, but they have not understood them. They stand witness to the limitations of learning by rote.

Mr. Blunkett

The decision—a correct one, in my view—to give the right hon. Gentleman the White Paper sufficiently in advance for him to read it does not seem to have encouraged him to understand it. I am sorry about that.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to Mr. Kenneth Baker and the great Education Reform Bill. If the Bill had worked nine years ago, we would not need to introduce the White Paper today. I give the then Secretary of State credit for introducing the training days which, I think, became known as B days.

The shadow Secretary of State asked whether I was copying Conservative policies. He gave as an example the suggestion that Ofsted should inspect local education authorities. I draw attention to the fact that we put that in our document "Excellence for Everyone" in December 1995.

The right hon. Gentleman cited as a further example qualifications for head teachers. We pressed hard for that to be mandatory, but the previous regime rejected the idea. I made a speech on it on 30 May last year and my predecessors had pressed for it when previous legislation was going through the House of Commons.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the role of local education authorities—indeed, he stressed it. Throughout the White Paper, we stress the role of local management of schools. Of course, we make it clear that no local education authority can interfere with the internal priorities for the use of resources, which the right hon. Gentleman suggested. Plans will be drawn up with the local education authority, because they will form part of the development programme for the local education authority as a whole, on which it will be judged and schools will be judged.

We are speaking of a new era of co-operation, not the conflict between schools and local education authorities that was the hallmark of the previous regime. Of course we shall encourage specialisms within schools. We make that abundantly clear in the White Paper. We say that we want specialisms to build on the strength of schools, but to be shared as part of the family of schools in the neighbourhood—with other schools and the wider community. We shall encourage schools to do that.

Only two weeks ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), announced 21 additional specialist schools. We shall announce more such schools in the days ahead as part of our strategy of developing education action zones in order to overcome divisions that exist in structure and in standards. We shall heal the wounds of the past and establish a general teaching council that incorporates all in the profession who are prepared to work with us. We shall pull together our education system, so that it serves the interests of children and not the dogma of politicians.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

The White Paper will be warmly welcomed in my constituency, where parents and teachers are most concerned about standards. It is often difficult to attract well-qualified head teachers—particularly to schools that have been labelled failing schools. Does my right hon. Friend have any specific proposals to solve that recruitment problem and, if so, will he outline them now?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to recruitment difficulties that affect specific specialisms as well as individual schools. We shall overcome that problem partly by raising the morale, motivation and self-esteem of the teaching profession generally. We shall be assisted in our endeavours by the development of the advanced skills teacher posts, which will enable us to reward those who are prepared to stay in the classroom rather than seek promotion by moving into management and leadership areas. Those posts will be complemented by fast-tracking teachers who show potential and who are interested in becoming managers and leaders.

In the end, the success of schools and the self-belief of teachers will make all the difference. I believe that the consultation paper and the steps that we shall take to implement its proposals will make all the difference to teachers' self-belief and confidence.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I extend condolences to the family of the young person who was killed and to the families of the other young people who were injured in the traffic accident.

Unlike the shadow Secretary of State, the Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper. We welcome also the fact that teaching has been put at the heart of our education system's future. We welcome the Government's attempts to create a partnership that involves the whole education world. That is in marked contrast to the deep divisions that have surrounded the education sector for the past 18 years. I was a teacher for 34 years and a head teacher for 20 years under the previous regime, and I can vouch for the fact that the whole of the teaching profession will welcome many of the ideas in the White Paper.

The Liberal Democrats welcome also the proposal for a general teaching council. That is long overdue and my party has campaigned for its establishment for many years. We hope that the Secretary of State will take very careful advice about the council's composition. He will have only one opportunity to get it right and ensure that the council wins the hearts and minds of the teaching profession and of parents and others who are affected by the schools system.

We are delighted that there will be a head teacher qualification, but we are saddened that there will be no systematic process of in-service education for teachers throughout their teaching lives. It is sad that teachers who entered the profession 30 years ago and have received virtually no training since then—apart from the exciting Baker days, about which we have heard already—believe that they are up to date. Teachers need continuous training.

We are pleased also that the Secretary of State has confirmed that the Government will be accountable. For the past 18 years, schools and teachers have been blamed for everything that went wrong in education. The previous Government never accepted any responsibility. We shall hold the Secretary of State and the new Government to account.

At the heart of the proposals—which we broadly welcome—is a statement that the Secretary of State has made on many occasions. It contains two words: fair funding. Quite frankly, without resources, excellence in schools will be no more than a wish list. In the current financial year, schools will find in their coffers £200 million less than they need. In 1998–99, there will be no additional resources to pay for the 55,000 extra students in our schools. By 1999, we must provide 100 per cent. funding for all four-year-olds, for which there will be no additional resources.

Our question to the Secretary of State—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hooray!"]—is quite simple. Does he believe that he can deliver all the promises and commitments in the White Paper on the resources that he has been allocated?

Mr. Blunkett

I welcome all the preamble to the hon. Gentleman's question. Before coming to the House, he was a distinguished head teacher. The support of the Liberal Democrats is welcome. Yes, we shall consult widely on the general teaching council. The answer to the question whether I believe that we can implement our proposals with the 5.7 per cent. increase in funding for next year and the capital that has been allocated for investment is yes.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Alas, I cannot welcome such a long preamble or a speech, even from a distinguished teacher. I did not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, because that was the first time he has spoken officially for his party. New Members in particular must realise that this is a time for questions. I shall allow only two questions each from hon. Members, and questions must be brief and must not be speeches.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I welcome the Secretary of State's confirmation of the option of having development plans not only for local education authorities, but for schools. As an ex-chairman of an education committee, I know that development plans often require resources. What does the Secretary of State have in mind to ensure that individual schools obtain the resources that they need for their development plans, and to ensure that they deliver those plans in the way that he desires?

Mr. Blunkett

I give an assurance that we shall provide support and help to schools that have difficulties putting together development plans. Specific resources will not be available for developing those plans, because many schools are already doing that within their managerial resources. However, there will be support for the development plans and targets set. That will be part of the overall programme of ensuring that we target resources fairly and openly where they are most needed.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Given that the whole House will welcome the more evolutionary aspects of the Secretary of State's remarks, may I put to him a simple question? Does he or does he not agree with the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, that the equation, abolition of the assisted places scheme equals reduction of primary class sizes to under 30, does not add up?

Mr. Blunkett

Fortunately, I do not have to agree or disagree, because the question in Scotland is how to reduce to 30 the already agreed ceiling of 32, which is part of the conditions of service. Discussions on that are taking place, but I must make it clear so that there is no misunderstanding that resources from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme will be allocated across the whole of Britain and will not be confined to each individual nation within it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, notwithstanding the extra money that was handed out in the Budget statement the other day, he will have to make some significant choices as to where some of the money will go? Will he bear it in mind that, notwithstanding Labour's success in some unusual areas in Britain, one of the problems that he will have to face is that, in the industrial heartland, as it once was, which includes his constituency and many other parts of Britain, they tend not to shout as loud as those in suburbia-land, where the pampas grass is 12 ft high? Does he understand that, in order to make the right choices, he ought to ensure that the infrastructure in schools in areas that have suffered hardest is looked at very closely?

Mr. Blunkett

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall be fair where the panthers roam as well as where the tigers hide—pampas grass or not. I am discussing with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister how we can ensure that, through transparency, the distribution of resources from national to local and local to school level can be made fairer, and need is recognised and rewarded.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Conservative Members greet his White Paper with some incredulity, as the principles that his party have so long resisted are now being endorsed? Will he turn his mind to leopards? Is he suggesting that left-wing Labour authorities have changed their spots? Is he saying that all those who have disliked choice, selection and competition in all its forms over many years will now endorse the principles that he sets out? The difficulty lies not in constituencies such as mine, where the local authority has supported all the principles endorsed by the previous Government, but among his friends. How will they change?

Mr. Blunkett

I am not asking local authorities to embrace selection. I am not asking them to embrace unfettered market competition. I am asking them to work together in the interests of children. I shall ask them to do so in a way that is fair to schools and which involves local authorities not controlling, but supporting schools.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

I was educated entirely in comprehensive schools and I taught in comprehensive schools for 19 years. Does my right hon. Friend agree, first, that only comprehensive schools can provide opportunity for all, secondly, that comprehensive schools serve the many, not the few—and serve them well—and thirdly, that any return to selection at the age of 11 would be against the best interests of this nation because of the waste that it embodies?

Mr. Blunkett

That is the sort of question to which one can never answer no, when somebody is stood behind one. The answer to the question is that I and the Government are in favour of all-in schools that provide diversity on one campus. We are in favour of avoiding the way in which children were segregated and written off at the age of 11. We are in favour of building on their strengths as individuals, so that we can ensure that the many and not the few gain from our education system.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

The Secretary of State seems to imply that he believes that teaching is a profession, yet much of his rhetoric also implies that he will tell the teachers how to teach. Is not an integral part of being in a profession establishing the ways in which it delivers the requirements of the standards that are set for it?

Mr. Blunkett

I have indicated that intervention will be in inverse proportion to success. I agree with the chief inspector of schools, who rightly pressed the previous as well as the present Government to ensure that the best possible methods of teaching are spread to all classrooms. That is why we have set up the standards and effectiveness unit, and that is why our task force on standards will ensure that those best methods of teaching are available to every child in every school in the country.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

Parents, governors and teachers in my constituency will welcome the White Paper, especially those linked with the teaching of those with special educational needs. If the Government are serious in their intention to provide quality education for all children, does not that necessitate a greater emphasis on the requirements of those with special educational needs?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and that is why, as well as the outline of our policies in chapter 4, we shall publish a separate Green Paper so that we can have a thorough discussion of special educational needs; of the preventive and remedial action that can be taken at an early stage, as part of our baseline assessment; and of the need to ensure that resources go to provide help where it is needed, rather than going through the process as currently happens with the tribunal system.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

As we shall probably have separate White Papers for Wales and for Scotland, will the Secretary of State confirm whether the mention of the general teaching council in the White Paper applies to England only or to Wales and Scotland? Will there be separate legislation for Wales and for Scotland, for the developments that the Government propose?

Mr. Blunkett

There is already a General Teaching Council in Scotland. While we shall consult widely to ensure compatibility, I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and his colleagues wish to see a separate general teaching council developed in Wales.

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

The raising of standards requires careful monitoring of performance. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concerns that have been expressed about Ofsted and the role of the chief inspector, Christopher Woodhead? What will Ofsted's role be in the future, and will the performance of schools and teachers be effectively monitored? Will we also inspect the performance of local education authorities in meeting the Government's targets?

Mr. Blunkett

In chapter 3, paragraphs 32 to 35, we set out the way forward following our discussions with Ofsted and the chief inspector. In paragraph 33, we spell it out that we have had discussions on quality, consistency and value for money, and we lay out five key areas in which further progress will be made. Part of that progress will be the inspection, with the Audit Commission, of local education authorities to ensure that the high standards that we expect of schools are reflected in the way in which local education authorities undertake their duties.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The Secretary of State makes great play, understandably, of diversity in education. Both in his statement today and in articles in the national press, he seems to equate diversity only with technology, art and sports colleges. How much money will be allocated to create new technology colleges and other specialist colleges? Are we to assume from his statement and articles today that he sees grant-maintained schools as making no contribution to diversity in education? If so, why not?

Mr. Blunkett

Diversity exists within as well as between schools. The work of Professor Howard Gardner from the United States, on the intelligences that we all have and the way to develop them, is instrumental in our thinking about how to ensure that every child flourishes, whichever school they happen to attend. Of course, diversity can also exist in the different specialisms that schools engage in, whatever status they enjoy. We shall shortly announce a further range of specialist school proposals and the resources that we are prepared to allocate to them.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that local education authorities remain a key strategic and supportive framework, and that the comments by the shadow Secretary of State show that he seems to care more about selection, privilege and the destruction of LEAs than about achieving the standards of excellence outlined in the White Paper? Sadly, like his predecessors, he seems to serve the god of dogma far more than he does the interests of our children.

Mr. Blunkett

One of the reasons why the shadow Secretary of State's predecessor did not vehemently attack local education authorities in the way that she was encouraged to do was that she had some experience of them. I have always said that if local education authorities did not exist, we would have to invent them. They are there to provide a wider education service, to give support and backing and to articulate the needs of parents. We expect them to do that in a new era, with a new view of the way in which delegation will be extended, and in which they will play their part as facilitators and supporters of the lifting of standards. I am delighted to say that local education authorities, through the Local Government Association, have welcomed that role and will work with us to achieve our aims.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The Labour party in government seems to be proposing many policies that the Labour party in opposition was against. That opposition caused friction in schools and damaged the education of young children. Does the Secretary of State feel any shame about what Labour did in opposition?

Mr. Blunkett

I would have to give the hon. Gentleman nul points if I were marking his exam paper. It is important that we concentrate on working together to achieve what is set out in the White Paper, rather than on seeking party political ways to knock each other. We set out our programme in a series of papers before the election, in which we indicated that although the previous regime revealed what was wrong, it failed to set out a programme to rectify it. The White Paper puts that right by providing a coherent programme to examine what is wrong and to do something about it. That is a positive way forward—not a knocking shop.

Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

Parents will welcome my right hon. Friend's recognition of the importance of their role, and they will be keen to have further details. Clearly, he agrees that parents have a vital role, but does he further agree that it is not just a role, but a responsibility? How does he intend to ensure that parents are fully involved in the education of their children, as they are key players, along with teachers and pupils?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree enthusiastically with my hon. Friend. We should offer support and help from the moment a child is born—such as a health visitor providing stimulating and interesting development material—and encourage parents to play their part in integrated early years education and child care facilities, including the 23 early excellence centres that we shall establish. I include also home-school agreements, which should be available in all schools and should set out not only what a parent can expect from a school, but what a school should expect from a parent in terms of getting a child to school, the discipline of the child in school and the ability to support and help the child with his homework after school. Regrettably, there are parents who write off their children's education through disinterest or by dismissing the importance of the education system. We shall have to work with them and with schools to overcome that ignorance and to ensure that everyone knows that education is, in the words of a French philosopher, a "treasure within".

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Does the Secretary of State accept that severe distortions have been created by the standard spending assessment and area cost adjustment system? Does not his foreword to the White Paper state that "an end to cut-backs" is needed for success? Will he ensure that Ministers responsible for local government and Treasury Ministers review the SSA, to ensure that there is a proper distribution of resources?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman may have heard what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—they are reviewing that system. As I said to the hon. Gentleman last Thursday, it is a bit of a cheek for someone whose party, when in government, did what it did in Staffordshire, to come and ask us to put it all right after nine weeks in office.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Will my right hon. Friend clarify how he intends to combine his drive to raise standards with the additional capital that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced for education? In particular, does he intend to offer incentives to local authorities with declining rolls to rationalise provision and to raise standards in their area?

Mr. Blunkett

It is very important that authorities that are taking steps to rationalise provision to eliminate unneeded vacancies in schools are assisted and supported through the additional capital, but we shall also be using the education action zones to target and support areas of particular need. I must make it clear that there is no question of providing capital to schools based on their past examination results; nor would there be. We shall be paying particular attention to the 600 primary schools that have outside toilets—what a scandalous legacy that is from the previous Government.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

May I commend to the Secretary of State schools in my constituency as a beacon of excellence and a model for schools throughout the country? I must point out that Altrincham and Sale has good grammar, high and comprehensive schools, which provide an excellent education to children of all backgrounds and abilities. Parents in my constituency, many of whom moved there for those excellent schools, welcome the statement, as I do, that this is about standards and not structure. May I take that as a guarantee that my grammar schools are safe?

Mr. Blunkett

We repeat in the White Paper that we shall be consulting on the proposal that we put forward during the general election as regards any change in the 11-plus and the admissions policies of the historic grammar schools. This afternoon, we are laying out our objective to ensure that in time no one has to move house to get a school of excellence, because schools with different objectives and diversity will offer the standards of which the hon. Gentleman is rightly proud, for the children of parents in his constituency.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I say how much parents and teachers in Staffordshire will welcome the statement? I make no apology for shouting loudly that we want an education action zone in Stoke-on-Trent, and I remind my right hon. Friend of his visits there on several occasions. It is crucial that we deal with deprivation and the anomalies that the previous Government gave us in terms of the standard spending assessment, about which the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) knows only too well. We want further funding for education, not least so that we can get proper IT facilities in all our schools.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I said in my statement that fair funding as well as fair admissions would be the key to success for the future. I will merely say, with a twinkle, that there will be only 25 education action zones in the beginning, but if I were being mischievous, I might say that we could move to 419 over the life of this Parliament.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

If the Secretary of State agrees with the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office that phasing out assisted places in Scotland will not provide enough money to reduce class sizes to 30, why should it be different in England and Wales? Why should we believe the right hon. Gentleman in that case?

Mr. Blunkett

I think that we have had that question already. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave a few moments ago.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell)

What will my right hon. Friend do about the opposition groups that may develop, perhaps from schools that represent a particular interest, or engendered by the Opposition, who knows? From a different point of view, let us suppose that there was opposition from the general secretaries of teaching unions. How would he ensure that there was a concentration on raising standards in schools? How would he allow fair debate, without allowing his wishes to be thwarted?

Mr. Blunkett

We have made it clear that we are setting behind us the scramble of vested interests, but we are also keen to give people the opportunity to join in a partnership, as part of the family with us. When people have had a chance to read the White Paper and its summary version and to view the video that we have produced, I hope that they will feel able to join us, whatever their political persuasion.

This is not a matter of party politics. It is about whether we care to join in unity on the things on which we agree. Although the shadow Secretary of State raised a few gripes at the end of his contribution, I was under the impression that he welcomed the thrust of the White Paper. I challenge him and his colleagues to say whether they will join us in the interests of the children of this country.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Given the recent birth of a child to a 12-year-old schoolgirl in my constituency, has the Secretary of State any plans to review the quality and implementation of sex education in secondary schools? Will sex education form part of the overhaul of the system at which he is looking? Does he have any views on teaching sex education at pre-secondary school level?

Mr. Blunkett

I could make a whole statement on the subject. I have had discussions with the Minister for Public Health about how we can develop a healthy schools programme, and she has been speaking about that at a conference today. I believe that sex education is crucial to the well-being of the young person concerned and to the life of their family and community.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the debate that took place some years ago in the Health Education Authority—the Health Education Council as it was then—when the previous Government were vehemently opposed to the extension of sex education. It needs handling with enormous sensitivity, particularly at the age we are discussing here. It needs handling by parents and not just by schools. Parents carry an enormous responsibility in ensuring that they bring up young people to understand and respect their bodies.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that despite 18 years of Conservative policies, it still takes up to two years to remove an incompetent teacher from the classroom. That is unfair not only to the teachers in the school who are doing a good job, but to our children who get one chance at a decent education. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to make sure that we have a fair but fast way in which to deal with under-performing teachers?

Mr. Blunkett

We are discussing with the teachers' unions and local education authorities proposals for ensuring that the procedures are fair to teachers, fair to the school and, above all, fair to the pupils in the classroom. We shall offer support wherever and whenever we can, but, at the end of the day, we have to put the child's interests first. We would no more expect children to be taught by teachers who cannot do their job than we would travel in a high-speed train driven by a driver who was incompetent or travel in an aeroplane flown by a pilot who could not do the job.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

If the right hon. Gentleman is looking for consensus on educational issues between the two main parties and if Mr. Chris Woodhead is at the heart of the process, we may well be on the path to consensus, although the Secretary of State may be leaving one or two of his Back Benchers behind. Will he reiterate his manifesto pledge, at least for England and Wales, by telling us that he believes that the resources from the assisted places scheme will reduce class sizes in primary schools on time?

Mr. Blunkett


Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

The White Paper will set out an agenda for educating the final generation of schoolchildren in this millennium. I should like to hear more today about my right hon. Friend's and the Government's plans for the use of new technology, so that everyone has a fair opportunity in the next millennium.

Mr. Blunkett

This is a very important part not merely of integrated learning systems in education, but of the preparation of young people for the new century. We say in the White Paper that many children will be living in the second half of the 21st century and will need those skills. Investing some of the capital that was allocated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and linking that with public-private partnerships for not only wiring up and using the Internet for schools but developing the learning grid will be critical, as will links with the university for industry's post-school education scheme. Together, we can do that and ensure that technology and information are available to all children, wherever they live.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Does the notion of fair funding mean that a proportion of the grant-maintained schools' budgets will be transferred back to local education authorities? Can the Secretary of State further clarify the position of grammar schools? Is it the case, under the chapter 7 proposals, that Kent's existing grammar schools could face sudden death if there were local ballots?

Mr. Blunkett

I make it clear that fair funding means that no school receives additional funding purely on the basis of its status. The allocation of existing funding is under discussion and will be dealt with fairly, on the principle that we do not intend to damage the interests of the children in those schools. On grammar schools, we are not interested in sudden death for any school. We are talking about allowing parents to make decisions about what they believe to be the fairest admissions policy in their area.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

May I warmly welcome both the statement and the White Paper, which I regard as a defining moment in moving forward towards our objective of raising standards for all our children? What steps and powers does my right hon. Friend think that he will need to take to tackle under-achievement among boys?

Mr. Blunkett

Given the enormous disparity whereby 60 per cent. of girls but only 40 per cent. of boys achieve high-grade GCSEs in English, my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the matter. As mentioned in the White Paper, we shall follow through the work of the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley, when she published a document entitled "Boys will be Boys" at the end of last year. We are determined to overcome alienation and disaffection and to engender an interest in vocational education and training among young people to link them with the world of work, and so ensure that they are re-engaged with a belief in themselves and in their ability to earn their own living and create their own families.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I understand that education action zones have to meet a size threshold. My right hon. Friend knows that there are pockets of educational deprivation in rural areas and, if I may say so, in my constituency. Should not we examine size thresholds, to allow small deprived areas into this innovative policy arrangement?

Mr. Blunkett

I am happy to examine the valid point raised by my hon. Friend. We have said that, as a principle, a minimum of two secondary schools seems appropriate. However, I accept that areas only five miles apart can have a ridge between them, which makes it impossible for people to join together in the way that we would wish.